Unsolved Mysteries Wiki
Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

John James Irwin

Real Name: John James Irwin Jr.
Aliases: John Erwin, Jay Irwin
Wanted For: Fraud, Embezzlement, Questioning in Murder
Missing Since: 1986


Details: Thirty-eight-year-old John James Irwin is wanted for fraud, embezzlement, and questioning in the murder of his mother, Dorothea Irwin. Sometime during the evening of September 12, 1983, Dorothea was brutally murdered in her Wyoming, Ohio home. Investigators believed that it had been a contract killing. John Irwin was one of the suspects in the investigation, but he refused to cooperate with police. Police have considered Irwin to be one of the most cunning and dangerous criminals they have ever encountered. During the past twenty-five years, Irwin has been charged with a dozen felonies and has escaped from four different correctional institutions.
In 1972, he was convicted of embezzlement and escape. He received a seven-to-twenty year sentence and was incarcerated at the state prison in Lebanon, Ohio. After a short time there, he became involved in a scheme in which he claimed he was supposed to assist his mother in having his father killed. While at Lebanon, Irwin worked as a file clerk in one of the prison offices. Through his job, he was able to access and steal blank transfer documents. He was also able to forge a day pass, which allowed him full access to the minimum security area of the prison.
On December 17, 1973, armed with a forged pass, Irwin calmly and coolly checked himself out of the Lebanon prison. Over the next twenty-two months, he traveled the world and orchestrated several fraud schemes. While in Costa Rica, he got involved in several land schemes. He also traveled through Mexico, Canada, Africa, and Sweden. As he made his travels, he occasionally called Lebanon prison warden William Dallman. Eventually, in October of 1975, Dallman was able to convince Irwin to surrender in Mexico.
At the time of his surrender, Irwin was carrying passports from four different countries. In 1976, he was transferred to a prison in Texas. In 1979, he received an early release for good behavior. After his release, he moved to Naples, Florida, where his grandmother lived. He began several business ventures in that area, including two cab companies and a chemical company. He later persuaded his wealthy grandmother Margaret Hilberg to invest in his enterprises. He also convinced her to make him cosigner on all of her bank accounts. As cosigner, he had access to over $500,000.
In 1983, he started taking money from her accounts. According to friends of the family, there were personal problems between Irwin, his mother, and his grandmother. Dorothea was suspicious of her son's business dealings and did not trust him with his grandmother's money. Incredibly, despite her misgivings, Dorothea gave into her son's insistence that she sell the family home in Wyoming, Ohio.
In August of 1983, she returned to her home in Wyoming, Ohio and placed it on the market for sale. Just a few days after she arrived in Ohio, she received a phone call from a man who claimed he wanted to buy the house. The mystery caller said that he had seen the swimming pool in the backyard and had noticed a For Sale sign. However, according to investigators, the swimming pool was not visible from the street and there was no sign in the yard. Within forty-five minutes, Dorothea was dead. She had been stabbed and slashed repeatedly in the head, chest, and back.
Prior to her death, she was able to scrawl down crucial information on an envelope that was found next to her body. According to investigators, the information (which cannot be revealed publicly) is key to the possible identity of the killer or killers, who are still at large. During the investigation, Irwin declined the requests for interviews or polygraph examinations. Dorothea's estate was worth over $1 million. Irwin was entitled to one third of the assets. Interestingly, he did not return to Ohio for her funeral.
Instead, he was laying the groundwork for one of his most genius and lucrative schemes. Using his charisma and charm, he convinced bank officers to withstand a $500,000 loan based solely on his signature, which was redeposited into a certificate of deposit. Investigators presume that the bank felt that their interests were protected because the funds never actually left the bank. They were immediately redeposited into an account and a hold was placed on the account so that the funds would not be withdrawn.
Irwin then went to a credit card company and applied for an extension on his current credit card to include a credit line of up to $500,000. The credit company called the bank to verify that sufficient funds were on deposit. When the verification was received, the extension was granted. This allowed him to purchase whatever he wanted. In April of 1984, he bought several expensive gold coins from a coin store using his worthless credit cards. Before the purchase was made, the store verified the card and obtained an authorization code. This allowed the store to protect itself from liability.
Irwin disappeared from the Naples area, but not before withdrawing $250,000 from his grandmother's bank accounts. A month later, his grandmother died of a heart attack. After leaving Naples, Irwin continued to successfully orchestrate fraud and embezzlement schemes throughout the United States. Investigators estimate that between 1984 and 1986, he stole over $1.5 million.
Extra Notes: The case was featured as a part of the January 30, 1991 episode.

Irwin after his arrest

Results: Captured. After the case originally aired, a viewer sent in a video of Irwin "clowning around" for the camera. The viewer had no idea who Irwin was when he invited him into his home for Thanksgiving dinner. As a result of several viewer tips, investigators were able to account for Irwin's whereabouts between 1986 and 1991. For example, in 1988, while using the alias "John M. Heck", he opened three convenience stores in Owensboro, Kentucky and left town without paying his creditors. However, the tips did not lead to his arrest at the time.
In September 1991, shortly after the follow-up progress report aired, Irwin was arrested by FBI agents at a hotel in Dallas, Texas. A viewer had called the FBI, giving them an anonymous tip about Irwin's location. He faced twenty-five felony counts in seven states. He served time in federal prison and was released in August 1992. He then served time in a Florida prison and was released in January 1993. In May 1993, he pleaded guilty to several theft by deception charges in Kentucky and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He also served time in several other states on fraud and embezzlement charges. It is believed that he has since been released from parole. He has never been charged with the murder of his mother, although he remains a suspect.