How Conman Jerry Balisok Pulled the Ultimate Disappearing Act
In early 1979, Marjorie Balisok had her hands full. For several months, she’d been handling the legal aftermath of her adult son Jerry’s sudden disappearance from Alabama. He was facing 13 counts of forgery for writing bad checks in connection with his motorcycle business, and in addition to juggling Jerry’s leftover red tape, Marjorie was also dealing with the police and the FBI as they searched for her 23-year-old son.
But in January of ’79, Marjorie saw a photo in LIFE magazine that shocked her. In the image, which depicted hundreds of the deceased victims of the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana from the previous November, she spotted Jerry and his wife, Debbie, along with Debbie’s 5-year-old son.
Marjorie contacted the U.S. State Department’s Jonestown Task Force and told them she wanted to claim the body of her son. But the State Department informed her that none of the bodies examined were “anywhere close” to being that of Jerry Balisok, nor were any those of his wife and stepson. Dental X-rays had been taken of all the deceased, and there were zero matches with Jerry’s dental records. This was before DNA testing was available, and the government was extremely reluctant to release a body to anyone unless its identity had been 100 percent confirmed. They couldn’t just take a grieving mother’s word, especially when it was based off of a grainy photo in a magazine.
Marjorie tried sending the task force an X-ray of Jerry’s pelvis, showing a steel pin that was inserted after a motorcycle accident, and demanded that they examine all of the unclaimed bodies to find out if anyone had a pin in their hip. Task force officials informed her that with the very rapid damage the corpses had already suffered from lying for days in the hot Guyanese sun, and the months that had elapsed since the incident, the bodies were way too decomposed to allow that kind of manhandling. Again, she was denied.
But Marjorie became obsessed with the photograph in LIFE. She told the press, “[t]here is no doubt in my mind about that figure being the body of my son. He is lying with his dark brownish-auburn curly head pointing toward the bottom of the picture and the page.” However, a member of the Jonestown Task Force, Reid Clark, said that they enlarged the photograph in question 40 times, and told the press: “I defy anyone to say that’s him ... You’d think she’d be thanking us instead of damning us.”
Marjorie also revealed another source of frustration to the Associated Press: “I have tried in every way to have my son’s body returned to me for burial,” she told a reporter. “I have insurance policies of all kinds that I cannot cash in until I have a death certificate or certificate of presumed death.”
Naturally, the FBI was also investigating the Jonestown lead, but they ultimately determined that there was no evidence Jerry Balisok had even left the United States. It was known that Jerry and his wife had been on the lam in the Caribbean about a year before the massacre—which his mother learned when she was sent a bill for about $10,000 her son had charged on her American Express card from the Bahamas—and prior to that there had been a flurry of charges in Miami. Investigators seemed to think that was a better place to look for Balisok than anywhere overseas.
In May 1979, 248 unclaimed bodies from Jonestown were sent to Oakland, California, for burial. According to an acquaintance of hers, Marjorie Balisok was waiting for the plane when the coffins were unloaded, ready to intercept and locate her son’s, but she was evidently unsuccessful. The bodies went into the ground, with Marjorie convinced that Jerry and his wife Debbie were definitely among the 20 adults who were buried in the mass grave.
With no options left other than to get the very last word, Marjorie had a tombstone made for her son and installed above an empty grave in the family plot at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama. The inscription reads, in part, “DAMN THE STATE DEPT.” along the bottom.
Marjorie herself died in 1983, maintaining to the end of her days that her son was a victim of the Peoples Temple cult. Her own tombstone, which she shares with her husband Coleman, can be found next to that of her youngest son. The FBI placed surveillance on Marjorie’s funeral, camping out on the chance that Jerry would turn up, but no dice.
A few years later, with still no sign of Jerry Balisok, the authorities were at last satisfied that he was dead, and dropped all charges against him.
That's where the story stayed until 1989, when a 34-year-old man named Ricky Wetta was arrested and tried in Seattle for attempted murder. After shooting his former business partner in the head following an afternoon of target practice on Tiger Mountain near Issaquah, Washington, Wetta was booked into the King County Jail, but his fingerprints soon revealed that he wasn’t who he said he was. There was, it seemed, a real Ricky Wetta living in Florida (who had fingerprints on record from a misdemeanor 15 years earlier), but the man in custody in Seattle wasn’t him, and he refused to cop to his true identity. Leaning on Fifth Amendment guarantees that protect a suspect against self-incrimination, the man went through the entire trial as John Doe.
A month after the trial, though, a persistent King County Police detective named Randy Mullinax finally sussed out the suspect’s birth name: Jerry Bibb Balisok. Instead of defecting to Guyana and meeting death in Jonestown, Jerry and Debbie had, in fact, hung out in Florida for a while (just as the cops had suspected), then moved to the mundane Seattle suburb of Renton at some point. After obtaining Ricky A. Wetta’s birth certificate, Jerry helped himself to the man’s identity, and the family lived as Wettas for over a decade, having three more kids. Jerry worked various jobs over the years, including a gig as a professional wrestler named Mr. X and a stint at Boeing—until he was fired when HR figured out he didn’t actually go to the University of Cambridge in the UK as he’d purported. Later, it seems, he decided he preferred investment schemes to jobs.
While wandering from scam to scam, Jerry drifted into the acquaintance of Emmett Thompson, 12 years his junior, with whom he “did business” for a time. Although they were friendly for a while, Thompson had begun the process of extracting himself from Balisok/Wetta’s life by the time his business partner invited him to go target practicing on Tiger Mountain, about an hour outside of Seattle. In an ensuing trial, Thompson testified that he was shot four times on the mountain, allegedly over a 1988 arson plot targeting the Columbian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. (Balisok had purchased the hotel for $135,000, then taken out a $4.6 million insurance policy on it a month before it burned down.)
Throughout the trial, Balisok steadfastly declined to answer almost all queries about his identity; he was addressed variously as John Doe and Ricky Wetta. Based on the transcript from the 1989 cross-examination, questioning Ricky/John/Jerry went something like this:
DEPUTY PROSECUTOR MICHAEL HOGAN: You've talked about your health history, Mr. Wetta. You've testified that your weight, as you went through school – where did you go to school, Mr. Wetta?
DEFENSE ATTORNEY ANNE ENGELHARD: Objection. This isn't relevant.
THE COURT: You may answer.
HOGAN: Where did you go to grade school, Mr. Wetta?
JOHN DOE: I refuse to answer your question.
HOGAN: Where did you go to high school where you told us those weights?
DOE: I believe I got a G.E.D. in the State of Washington in 1979.
HOGAN: But when you were a teenager, did you attend high school?
DOE: I refuse to answer that question also.
HOGAN: And you used to be a professional wrestler, didn't you, Mr. Wetta?
DOE: And I also refuse to answer that question.
Balisok claimed to have shot Thompson in self-defense, but the jury didn’t buy it, and in February of 1990 he was found guilty. Two months later, Balisok was sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder in the first degree. He was ultimately acquitted of the arson charges. A few years later, in 1992, Balisok’s wife, Debbie, divorced him, changing her surname and those of their three children from Wetta to Taylor, her maiden name. (One of their sons, John, is now a fitness coach who was featured on the weight-loss series Too Fat for 15.)
Balisok’s long stay at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla was characterized by multiple lawsuits against prison staff, alleging violations of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights for not being allowed to wear his yarmulke in solitary confinement, or arguing that his due process rights were violated when he was expelled from a prison math class as a sanction for withholding information about a classmate who’d cheated on a test. (He lost both of these cases.) One of these lawsuits, against Balisok’s hearing officer, went all the way to the Supreme Court, and although Balisok lost yet again—he’d alleged that his hearing officer had concealed witness statements that could have helped him during a disciplinary proceeding—the case was important because it affirmed the ability of prisoners to challenge such disciplinary proceedings in the first place.
Balisok’s life got no less bizarre after he was released from prison in 2003. He changed his name from Jerry Bibb Balisok to Harrison Rains Hanover the following year, then married two different women in short succession, both of whom filed for protection orders against him, citing domestic abuse. In 2008, before they were divorced, the second of these women registered a nonprofit with the state of Washington called the First Hanoverian Church, listing herself as the director and Balisok/Hanover as chairman. He also occasionally used the variant Harrison Hansover, with an s.
A year after the church was registered, he fled to Costa Rica after getting busted on a failed scheme to embezzle approximately $4.6 million. The idea was to intercept funds to be paid by telecommunications companies Cox and Comcast to a mutual vendor they both used, but the money was instead diverted into a bank account opened by Balisok and an accomplice. The bank quickly froze the funds, however, and Balisok ended up with only about half a million in his pocket before he skipped town.
He then popped up next door in Nicaragua in October of 2012, where he was arrested and charged with a handful of crimes related to the sexual exploitation of minors. Balisok/Hanover was sentenced to 24 years in a Nicaraguan prison; his lawyer, found guilty as his accomplice, received six years herself.
In April 2013, a flurry of articles in Spanish-language newspapers throughout Latin America reported that Balisok had suffered a heart attack while in prison in Granada, Nicaragua, and died after being transferred to the hospital. The newspapers tied the event to his former accomplishments as Jerry Balisok and attributed the cause to extreme heat in his cell, which triggered other inmates’ families to file complaints about the high temperatures the prisoners were suffering, along with other health hazards within the prison.
Normally, a report of a person’s death in multiple newspapers would probably be enough to affirm their death, but an exception might be made in the case of Jerry Balisok. As of this writing, no death certificate for Balisok has been made publicly available, nor is the location of his burial known. Without those pieces of data, and knowing Balisok’s predilection for deceit, it might be wise to stay skeptical about whether he’s actually gone from this earth.
One thing’s for sure: whether or not Jerry Bibb Balisok a.k.a. Ricky Wetta a.k.a. Harrison Rains Hanover a.k.a. Harrison Rains Hansover is, in fact, dead, his body isn’t under that headstone in Alabama with his name on it. At least, not yet.