Life had become very unhappy for Randall Silsby in 1997. He was angry and depressed over arguments with his two ex-wives, custody battles over his three children and a $10,000 judgment hanging over his head.
So Silsby, a lieutenant in a Niagara Falls medical unit of the Army Reserves, ended his life.
Then he started a new one.
He got a lawyer in the Dominican Republic to draw up a bogus death certificate, stating he had been killed in a motorcycle crash. He then paid $7 for a burial plot, took on a new name and entered a Dominican medical school, where he planned to become a doctor.
But Silsby's scheme to fake his death was uncovered by FBI agents.
On Thursday, he wound up -- alive, but once again, unhappy -- in U.S. District Court, pleading guilty to a felony.
A native of Gasport in Niagara County, the 41-year-old Silsby admitted he was responsible for the filing of a false document -- his own death certificate -- with the Army.
His ex-wives, three children, other relatives, co-workers and friends all thought Silsby was dead, according to a source close to the case.
"My intention was not to cheat or hurt anyone," Silsby said after his court appearance. "My intention was to start a new life. I guess you could say I was going through a midlife crisis."
A prosecutor showed Federal Judge Richard J. Arcara a snapshot of the fake burial plot, complete with a cement headstone indicating that Silsby died in October 1997.
"This is a grave," Arcara said, holding up the photo in court.
"And I can assure you, sir, Randall Silsby is not in it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc S. Gromis said.
"I know it's unusual," Silsby told the judge. "Your honor, I had to be dead in order to start a new life."
One person who said she wasn't fooled by the fake, though, was Silsby's mother.
"I knew immediately the death was fake," said Rosemarie Behe of Gasport. "I read the obituary in the newspaper, and there was no mention of me or his sisters.
"As soon as I left the memorial service at St. Stephen's Church in Middleport, one of his girlfriends showed me a death certificate, and I knew it was false. . . . It was a mother's instinct."
Anne E. Adams, Silsby's attorney, said her client is a nurse and a first lieutenant in the 865th Combat Support Hospital in Niagara Falls, an Army Reserves unit that trains for medical duty in wars and other military action.
"He's a man who has had all kinds of bad experiences in his life in the past few years, and he decided to try to get away from it all by creating a new identity for himself," Adams said. "He was depressed and frustrated over not seeing his children. He was at his wit's end."
Silsby's second wife, Michele Silsby-Grabek of Niagara Falls, said she was suspicious of the death reports.
"The stories didn't match," she said.
Silsby-Grabek said Silsby never has paid child support for their two children or the child from his first marriage -- all now living with her -- and that social service agencies have been ineffective in tracking him down and getting him to pay, even though he has been working.
"It seems he just keeps walking away and doesn't do anything for the kids," she said.
"It's caused the kids a lot of hurt and a lot of resentment," she added, "especially when you go to a church, and there's this fake memorial service."
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Silsby is expected to spend no more than six months in prison once Arcara sentences him in January.
Authorities said the news that Silsby is alive surprised members of the unit who, until recently, had been under the impression their comrade died in the Dominican Republic almost two years ago. But officials of the hospital unit were tight-lipped about the case.
"Right now, there is an ongoing Army investigation, and until that is concluded, we can't comment," said Paul Donner, spokesman for the combat hospital.
A former girlfriend, who is a member of the same hospital unit, is believed to have assisted Silsby's scheme by flying down to the Dominican Republic in October 1997, falsely verifying that Silsby had been killed and giving his death certificate to the Army.
But Gromis said she will not be criminally prosecuted because she cooperated with the FBI. The ex-girlfriend was to be the beneficiary of Silsby's death benefits, but none has been paid.
The former girlfriend, whose name was not released, went to the Dominican Republic after receiving a letter from a Dominican lawyer who helped Silsby stage his death. The letter told the woman that Silsby had been seriously injured in an accident and had "no guarantee of survival," suggesting she come to help Silsby out.
When the woman flew to the Dominican Republic, she was shocked to see a healthy Silsby greet her at the airport.
"How did she react to that?" Arcara asked.
"First, it was shock. And then, pleasure . . . relief," Silsby said.
Silsby told the judge his girlfriend did not recognize him at first, because he disguised himself with dark glasses and a short haircut.
Silsby said he paid the attorney "around $100" to help fake the death. He said the attorney helped him get fake medical documents, a bogus grave at a local cemetery and a new identity. Authorities said Silsby called himself "Julio DiMuerte." Muerte is Spanish for death.
With a stunned Arcara asking numerous questions during Thursday's court appearance, Silsby told a long and bizarre story, largely centered on his unfortunate experiences with women.
He said he was raised in Gasport and has spent most of his life in Western New York, living in Youngstown, Amherst and on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. He has worked as a nurse at a number of institutions, including the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and has been a member of the Army Reserves for six years.
Silsby said his first marriage, which produced a son, ended in divorce in 1985, and the second ended in divorce in 1994 after producing two daughters.
Silsby told Arcara he has had numerous, bitter legal disputes with both of his ex-wives, and on at least two occasions, he said his ex-wives sent police to his home because they claimed he had abducted his own children.
He said he decided to take drastic action because he was behind on child-support payments, owed one ex-wife a $10,000 judgment and was depressed about the difficulty he was having visiting his children.
"I had not seen my children for several years. I couldn't take it anymore," Silsby said.
Buffalo attorney David R. Addelman said he represented Silsby for many years in legal disputes with his ex-wives.
"Randy has always felt that the system treated him very unfairly," Addelman said.
Why didn't Silsby stay in the Dominican Republic after faking his death?
"He tried making a go of it in medical school, but he got bored and wanted to come back," said a source tied to the case. "He moved to Binghamton, and that's where the (FBI) caught up to him."
News Staff Reporter Dale Anderson also contributed to this article.