Alex Varga says that the 2006 death of a friend named Keith Pryor was 'a heated situation... it should never have happened.' CBC
A Canadian man who fled attempted murder charges in the U.S. and was declared legally dead is living in Edmonton and will likely never be tried for the alleged crime, CBC News has learned.
Alex Varga is at the centre of a bizarre tale that spans Canada, the U.S. and his native Hungary.
Varga currently resides in Edmonton, but in 2006, he was living in the Tampa area in Florida with his wife and family, working as a plumber and renovator.
One day, he went to a garage to discuss a bad paint job on his 1969 Ford XL. He took it up with the garage owner, Keith Pryor, an auto body mechanic who did custom work on vintage cars.
Although Varga and Pryor were friends, their meeting ended in violence.
"It was a heated situation, and like I said, it should never have happened," Varga recently told the CBC.
Pryor was shot four times in the mid-section and groin area. His wife, Susan Pryor, said her husband called her, after calling 911, and said, "Honey, I just got shot. Don't panic."
'Honey, I just got shot'
During the investigation, Pryor told Tampa police detectives that Varga turned up at the garage with a gun and shot him four times. Varga told CBC News that Pryor came at him first, and that he simply defended himself.
While an ambulance roared toward the garage, Varga fled the scene, and eventually travelled to Hungary, his birthplace, where he still had family.
Tampa Police filed charges for attempted murder and armed trespassing, got a warrant for Varga’s arrest and issued alerts to neighbouring police and security forces to be on the lookout for him.
Varga told CBC News he ran because he had no faith in U.S. justice and that a lawyer he contacted immediately after the shooting quoted him a $40,000 fee just to take the case – with no guarantees. He says the lawyer also warned him that the Pryor family could sue him in civil court.
"I wanted to protect my family 100 per cent, you know?" Varga said.
"And I didn't want anybody to lose out, not even a dime over… what happened."
Susan Pryor said the enduring pain from the bullets prevented her husband from working. The couple eventually lost their automotive business and their house.
Pryor said her husband was tormented by Varga's escape from the law.
“He made his own flyers, and went out and posted them on newspaper stands, on poles, trying to get word out to help find him,” she said.
In 2011, after Varga, the only suspect in the case, still hadn’t turned up, Keith Pryor took his own life.
Life as an international fugitive
After six years as an international fugitive, Varga claimed he is a victim himself. He alleged his wife, Carmen, a deputy sheriff in Hillsborough County, Fla., tried to defraud him, a Canadian insurance company and the Canadian government by having him declared legally dead.
In the meantime, all charges against Alex Varga have been dropped.
Varga said he never communicated directly with his wife over those six years, not even when one of their sons died. But he alleged they relayed messages to each other through a third party and that Carmen knew he was alive after he fled – though he said he can offer no proof of that correspondence.
In September 2012, Varga made his way to Edmonton, where he had lived in his youth, after his family emigrated from Hungary in the late 1960s. Rather than finding a fresh start, Varga learned that legally he was considered dead.
What had happened was that several weeks after he disappeared in 2006, Carmen Varga filed a missing persons report. Five years after that, she went to a Florida court and had her husband legally declared deceased.
Under Florida law, that is perfectly legal if the court is satisfied that the person in question has been missing for five years and the absence can't be explained "after diligent search and inquiry."
Once she had a death certificate, Carmen Varga received survivor's benefits from her husband's Canada Pension Plan. She also tried to claim a half a million dollar life insurance policy from Manulife Financial, which was never approved.
Most notably, the death certificate allowed the Hillsborough County Sheriff's department to quash the warrant for Alex Varga's arrest.
So when Varga arrived in Canada, he was a free man. But he was furious, telling Alberta authorities, as well as the man in charge of professional standards at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office, that he believed his wife had perpetrated a fraud by taking control of their home and two other properties in Florida.
"I still couldn't believe that she might have been thinking to get her hands on properties and everything I owned down in the states. Because they scare me with this charge and they thought I would never surface," Varga told CBC.
Back from the dead
Carmen Varga was adamant she didn't know her husband was alive. She did not respond to several requests from CBC News for an interview.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office told CBC News they looked into the allegations but found no proof their deputy sheriff had broken the law. A Florida court overturned the death ruling after Alex Varga came forward.
With word that Varga was alive, the warrants for his arrest were briefly reactivated. But in June of this year, the Tampa state attorney's office decided to drop all charges, arguing that with Keith Pryor dead and no weapon or other witnesses available, it was too difficult to make the case.
It is unlikely the case will ever be reopened.
Alex Varga didn't want to talk about the shooting. In an interview with CBC News, he said he understands that the Pryor family has suffered, but he doesn't take responsibility for that.
"I think Keith Pryor, he did his utmost to earn what happened to him," Varga said.
When asked to clarify whether he was saying that Pryor deserved to be shot, Varga said, "I'm not saying he deserved anything.”
Varga explained further: “None of this would have happened… But he just simply took me for my money and he had no intention whatsoever right from the get-go to do a nice job like we shook hands on."
Several days after CBC interviewed him in Edmonton, Varga called to say that he was withdrawing his comments and that he didn't want the interview to air.
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