ZEPHYRHILLS — Terry Jude Symansky and his new wife settled in this corner of east Pasco County more than two decades ago. He worked odd jobs. They bought properties and rented them out. He got a pilot's license. His wife, Mary Symansky, gave birth to their son, now a teenager.
It was all a lie.
Terry Jude Symansky is actually Richard Hoagland, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, a man who disappeared from Indiana about 25 years ago and was declared dead in 2003.
Hoagland, 63, was arrested Wednesday on a charge of fraudulent use of personal identification. He is accused of stealing the identity of the real Terry Jude Symansky, who state records show drowned in 1991 at age 33. Hoagland knew the dead man's father, deputies said.
Now Hoagland sits in the Pasco County jail under the name he abandoned in the early 1990s.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said he was offended that Hoagland abandoned four children in Indiana, now grown.
"This is a selfish coward," the sheriff said Thursday at a news conference. "This is a person who has lived his life destroying others."
Hoagland's Zephyrhills family was shocked, Nocco said. Deputies believe they had no idea about his real identity.
After she found out, the sheriff said, the wife found his real identification documents in a briefcase in the attic. She also found the deed to Louisiana property her husband bought in 2015 and a key to a storage unit. The Sheriff's Office intends to search that unit.
Mary Symansky, 54, declined to comment Thursday.
Hoagland's second wife in Indiana told deputies that he told her he had to disappear because he had stolen millions and was wanted by the FBI. But when he was arrested Wednesday, the sheriff said, Hoagland told deputies he left Indiana just to get away from her.
The Sheriff's Office said it was trying to determine whether Hoagland was truly wanted by the FBI. But while living as Symansky, according to state records, he has no arrest record.
That shocked Texas Tech University law professor Gerry Beyer, who studies identity theft. Most identity thieves steal names to commit new crimes, he said.
"It's beyond fascinating," Beyer said, "and so different than your normal identity theft cases."
Hoagland's long ruse was undone by Ancestry.com, the sheriff said.
A nephew of the real Terry Symansky was working on a family project and found his uncle on Ancestry.com. Knowing the uncle died in 1991, the nephew was shocked to find a marriage license associated with his name.
That was three years ago. The family delayed contacting authorities out of fear that the imposter might come after them, Nocco said. But in April they decided to come forward.
Deputies think Hoagland stole Terry Symansky's identity like this: Hoagland once lived with Terry Symansky's father in Palm Beach. Hoagland found a copy of Terry Symansky's 1991 death certificate and used it to obtain a birth certificate from Ohio. With the birth certificate in hand, he then applied by mail for an Alabama driver's license and used that to obtain a Florida driver's license. That's how deputies think Hoagland came to spend more than two decades living in Florida as Terry Symansky.
As Terry Symansky, he married Mary Hossler Hickman in 1995. The couple lived in Zephyrhills. He also fashioned a medical card to obtain a private pilot's license as Terry Symansky from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Hoagland left four children from two different marriages in Indiana. His second Indiana wife told deputies she thought her husband was dead.
The real Terry Jude Symansky was from Cleveland, moved to Florida and became a commercial fisherman. Never married and without children, Beyer said the man was a "perfect" candidate for identity theft.
Hoagland may face additional charges, Nocco said. But deputies had no idea what the legal and financial ramifications of Hoagland's arrest will be for his Zephyrhills family. Mary Symansky asked detectives what would happen to her marriage and her son's legal name, Nocco said.
That concerned Beyer as well, but he had no idea how it could affect the teen. However, the property the wife shares with her husband should be safe. A civil judge may consider "Symansky" as nothing more than a pseudonym, Beyer said, because Hoagland was a living person who signed legal documents.
Beyer was shocked that Hoagland's hoax lasted this long. Taxes, Social Security, credit reports, bank accounts and government benefits usually inhibit identity thieves. But if Hoagland did not have a credit card and used his wife's Social Security number for his taxes, the law professor surmised, that would eliminate any paper trail. Hoagland also stole the other man's identity before the era of digital records, which made it easier for him.
But identity theft is a risky crime, Beyer said: "You just never know. It will all catch up with you."
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Hannah Alani at email@example.com or (813) 909-4617. Follow @hannahalani.