Nub City: The Worst Kind of Insurance Fraud

In the late 1950s and early 60s, a rash of dismemberment claims were filed in the panhandle of Florida. Most of the new amputees in the whole country were turning up in the same small city. Vernon, Florida became known as “Nub City” and the story is as ridiculous as it sounds. In this episode, we talk about Nub City and then play the quiz with Comedian Jay Black!

In 2010, a federal jury convicted 4 women in California of wire fraud, mail fraud and other charges for a scheme to claim $1.2 million dollars from two different insurance companies. Here’s what they tried to do. They invented a man – and they were real inventive with his name. They called him Jim Davis. Must have just looked at the Sunday comics and said – “Should we call him Garfield? No that’s too weird. Odie? No, that’s too conspicuous. How about Jim Davis!?” Yeah! That’ll be our fake victim. Somehow, they were able to apply for insurance policies on this fake person and then they killed him. They forged a fake death certificate and purchased a casket and buried it.  This part didn’t make much sense to me. It may have been that they were thinking that the authorities were on to them, so they exhumed the fake casket, and filled it with cow parts and pieces of a mannequin. Then they took it to a mortuary and had the thing cremated. How did they get access to the mortuary? Oh, one of the women in the scheme worked there. They also advertised the death of Jim Davis in the obituaries and people showed up to the funeral. They even paid a crooked doctor $50 grand to forge medical records to support the fake death certificate. The insurance companies weren’t fooled and when they did some digging, of course all 4 women were caught and charged. Just really stupid criminals. 

In January of 2011, Jeffrey Stenroos was working his normal patrol as a police officer in Los Angeles when a man with a pony tail and a bomber jacket shot him in the chest and fled. Stenroos ended up serving a couple years in prison? Why?

The idiot shot himself. He made up the story about the pony tailed man. The motive is pretty unclear, but he had to pay hundreds of thousands in restitution and was charged with insurance fraud. It was pretty expensive restitution, because when he called it in, it triggered a huge manhunt with over 500 police officers canvasing the area. Of course, they never found the pony tailed man, and the cops were skeptical. It didn’t help that Stenroos confided in one of his fellow officers that he staged the whole thing.

But in South Carolina in 2008 – this guy’s a real piece of work – Gerald Hardin needed a new truck and couldn’t afford rent. So his buddy David Player cooked up a scheme to scam the insurance company. They took a pole saw – that’s a saw that’s used for cutting off tree branches – and convinced a person that they knew who had an intellectual disability to let them cut his hand off. Guy’s name was Porkchop. So Gerald – who was addicted to crack at the time – cuts Porkchop’s hand off with the plan that they’ll collect insurance claims. The mentally disabled man received almost $700,000 dollars after he let Gerald remove his hand, then Gerald paid his rent and bought a truck with the money. David Player got 15 years and Gerald got 3. They had to pay restitution in the amount of $671,000 and doctors were unable to reattach Porkchop’s hand. 

And that brings us to Vernon, Florida. This is like deep South. Vernon is a horribly impoverished community, and never had a population more than around 700 people. There are two stop lights, and a few stores, but not much else. It’s in the middle of Florida panhandle swampland between Panama City and Dothan, Alabama. 

This guy John Healy worked for a company called Continental National American Insurance Group. What a title. That sounds like it’s made up, but that’s the real company. He was an investigator for the insurance firm, so his job was examining claims that seemed dubious. Well they start getting a lot of insurance claims from around Vernon, Florida – all in the same small area. And besides the unusually high concentration of claims in one area, there were a few clues that something was up.

John Healy, the insurance investigator, traveled to Vernon, Florida because of suspicion of insurance fraud. Here’s how it all started.

The first case that happened in Vernon Florida actually may have been an accident rather than self-mutilation. Nobody knows for sure, but it happened sometime in the late 50s. A farmer had a hunting accident and lost a limb to a shotgun. He collected a modest amount of money, but enough that the poor citizens of Vernon took note. 

Vernon was a really depressed area. The Holmes Creek which runs through the town used to be an important shipping lane to the Gulf of Mexico, but had been abandoned, probably due to that traffic using the larger Apalachicola River. You’ve never heard of either and that’s how remote this place is. But when the traffic on Holmes Creek went away, so did the chance at any commerce for this small 5 square mile town.

So in a poor town, when one guy comes into some money, people talk. Everyone knew. And it wasn’t long before someone else accidentally blew a limb off and collected some insurance money. According to a 1982 Saint Petersburg Times article by Peter Gallagher and Claire Martin, a rash of these stories started popping up in the late 50s and early 60s. 

For instance, there was the Vernon farmer that took out policies with at least 30 different insurance companies and lost his foot. This guy wasn’t even one of the town’s poorest. But there were a ton of clues as to why his collection of almost $1million dollars in insurance money smelled rotten. Firstly, he had a tourniquet with him. They asked him why and he said “Snakes.” Secondly, there was the clue that the premiums he was paying for these 30 plus insurance plans were more than his annual income. The most interesting clue, however, was that he lost his left foot. Which was tough for the man because he drove a stick shift and needed that left foot for the clutch. But on the day of the accident, he drove his wife’s car, which was an automatic. 

Or there was the guy that blew his arm off in the backyard and immediately yelled to his wife to call the sheriff but first find the insurance policy. And it was his left arm – the man was right handed.

A lot of these cases involved people’s non-dominant hand, or their non-driving foot. Some of them were double amputees, missing an arm and a leg from opposite sides – which was done on purpose so they could still walk with a crutch.

One man who worked as an oiler for a construction company asked an insurance agent about what he would get paid if he lost a limb. The next day, he stuck his hand in the wench of a crane. 

The rash of bizarre amputations even extended to nearby cities like Panama City Beach, where a man at a Sawmill accidentally lost some fingers pushing wood through a saw. But the insurance company wouldn’t pay up, so when he got back to work, he pushed his whole hand through and collected a measly $1,000 in claims.

In total, as many as 60 to 75 people in the Vernon, Florida area got payments because of freak amputations of limbs. 75 people out of 700. John Healy noticed that of all of the dismemberment claims in America in those years, around 70% of them came from the region around Vernon, Florida. And they were almost all non-dominant limbs. People started calling it “Nub City,” because if you visited the town, it was almost impossible to not see someone who was missing a limb. 

Over a period of 4 or 5 years, people received payments from a few hundred up to a few million. And Insurance companies, thanks to the work of investigators like Healy, showed up to put a stop to it. But no one in the early 1960s could ever believe that someone would do this to themselves. There was really no great proof that they had done it to themselves. So no one in Vernon was ever convicted of fraud. The investigations did however, really put an end to the phenomenon. Also – because the insurance companies started paying so little, that it wasn’t worth it – even to the poor residents of Vernon – to self-mutilate.

The town came back into focus when filmmaker Errol Morris heard about the story and traveled to Vernon in 1980 to create a documentary called “Nub City.” As he interviewed Vernon locals and had them telling their stories, the word got out about his film, the subject and the title and the residents of the town didn’t appreciate it. He started getting death threats and at one point, was beat up by a man who objected to the Film’s title. It had been a couple decades since the rash of incidents and Vernon was still known as “Nub City” – a nickname they were trying hard to shake. In those few days that Morris was in Vernon, he became frustrated and realized he was hitting a brick wall. He quickly changed the title of the film from “Nub City” to “Vernon, Florida” and made it about some of the more interesting people in the town, like a Turkey hunter who, if you watch with closed captioning on, you can almost understand what he’s saying. Also, there’s a scene with a preacher who does one of the weirdest sermons I’ve ever heard about how he set out on a journey to learn the meaning of the word “Therefore.” You can find the whole thing for free online if you want to see it, but there’s not a single mention of the thing for which Vernon was known best.

As someone who works with his hands for a living – and I know most of you do too, I can’t imagine doing that to myself just for a little money. But maybe the story here is a snapshot of the late 1950s in a depressed rural town. And desperate times called for desperate measures. It’s a story about why insurance plans cost so much in the first place, but also on what our economy does to us when the system fails people in these types of places. It’s also a story about stupid contagion, like the people who danced themselves to death in the 16th century, or the wealthy people who walked with a limp to be popular. Human beings do stupid stuff. The Internet Says that’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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