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He Thought He'd Die, So He Began a Con. He Didn't Die

Mark Olmsted, who was HIV-positive, assumed identity of his dead brother Luke
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 24, 2019 1:55 PM CDT
Updated May 26, 2019 2:03 PM CDT
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/eric1513)

(Newser) – It seemed like it would be quite a way to go after getting diagnosed with a likely fatal illness: become a con man and live your remaining days out like a king. Except, as Nathaniel Penn notes in a fascinating profile for GQ: "What the hell happens if you survive?" Penn tries to answer that question by examining the life of Mark Olmsted, a California man who reached out to Penn via Twitter, claiming to have a long con under his belt. Olmsted told Penn he'd been told in the early '80s, when he was 30, that he had HIV, and that he didn't think he'd live to see his next decade. "But instead of dying, he had succumbed to a kind of temporary insanity—one that lasted for years," Penn writes. Part of that "insanity" included pulling off years of scheming so he could live a literally high life (he became addicted to crystal meth), including defrauding insurance companies, stealing credit cards, even faking his own death, many times over.

But nestled within that engrossing narrative is another, one that Penn deems a "love story" and "ghost story": that of the relationship between Mark and his older brother, Luke, who was gay like Mark and who'd actually died after his own HIV diagnosis—and whose identity Mark stole as part of his scam. There was also an unexpected twist: As HIV took a toll on Mark, he decided to try one last round of anti-viral meds in 2002. The meds worked. "The good news was that Mark was going to live," Penn writes. "That was also the bad news." His survival meant the walls started closing in on his various cons, and he was finally arrested in February 2004 and pleaded guilty to manufacturing false documents and possession of controlled substance for sale. He got out of prison after a 16-month sentence. "I would go to prison for another 10 years if I could have him back," he says of his brother. Read the full story here. (Read more Longform stories.)

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