Ken Lay has taken his place alongside Elvis Presley in the pantheon of people whose deaths have not been fully believed.
In Internet sites and blogs, conspiracy theorists and jokesters have floated the idea that the Enron founder’s powerful friends helped him fake his death to escape sentencing in one of the biggest corporate frauds in U.S. history.
Some disbelievers are serious. Others are clearly having fun, such as the creator of a Web site that shows Lay’s face inserted Where’s Waldo-style into pictures from around the world — at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the running of the bulls in Spain and as E.T. on a bike about to fly away from bad guys.
Others are trying to make a buck, such as the person selling T-shirts emblazoned with Lay’s photo and the words, “Ken Lay lives,” for $14.99 apiece online.
Lay’s lawyer, Michael Ramsey, irritably dismissed all the Web talk after Lay’s memorial service in Houston on Wednesday:
“When I read the garbage that’s on the Internet, I’m reminded of the parable of the jackass kicking the dead lion. I think that’s enough said.”
Lay, 64, died of a heart attack July 5 while vacationing with his wife, Linda, in Aspen, Colo., more than four months before he was to be sentenced for fraud and conspiracy. A jury convicted Lay and former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling on May 25 for lying to investors and employees about the financial health of the energy company before it collapsed in 2001.
At least two Web sites merrily eschew all evidence that Lay indeed died of heart disease — including a statement from the Colorado coroner who performed an autopsy. Helping to fuel the conspiracy theories was the Lay family’s decision to cremate the body.
One conspiracy theory finds it a little too convenient that former Secretary of State Colin Powell was treated for altitude sickness at the same Aspen hospital where Lay was pronounced dead the day before. Powell was in the resort town to participate in a panel discussion, but the theory purports that he was actually there to bring Lay passports, other ID and an escape plan.
Lay joins a line of figures, from Adolf Hitler to Jim Morrison to Tupac Shakur, whose deaths some people had trouble accepting.
Steve Jones, head of the communications department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said larger-than-life celebrities and even notorious felons can become larger still in the afterlife.
“Once they’re gone, they’re no longer in control of the stories we tell about them. Their telling of their own story stops, so we get to make things up. Sometimes it’s downright fun to do that, and other times we’re simply in disbelief,” Jones said.