FORT WORTH, Texas -- The first time Michael A. Gilbert "died," he faked drowning while swimming off the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2002.
The Coast Guard searched the waters but soon determined that the "cousin" who had reported the drowning was, in fact, Gilbert, a registered sex offender who had been trying to avoid arrest on a parole violation warrant.
For his second "death," Fort Worth police say, Gilbert tried to make his demise more convincing by providing a body, this time in an attempt to skirt a new sexual molestation case.
Fort Worth police suspect that Gilbert targeted a homeless man who was roughly his same size and build, shot him in the head, placed his body in the trunk of Gilbert's car and set it ablaze, hoping investigators would believe that the body was Gilbert's.
Authorities were still trying to positively identify the victim Thursday.
On Friday morning, about a dozen Fort Worth police officers were down on their knees, searching through the grass of a median alongside westbound Interstate 30 near the Cherry Lane exit. Other officers could be seen scanning the area with metal detectors.
Traffic on westbound Interstate 30 was reduced to two lanes as crime scene vans and police cruisers parked on the shoulder.
Sharron Neal, a police spokeswoman, said they were searching for evidence in the Gilbert case, but she declined to release additional information.
"This is the first time I am aware of ... that we've investigated someone attempting to stage their own death," homicide Sgt. Cheryl Johnson said.
Gilbert, 42, was arrested Tuesday night after a seven-hour standoff at a west Fort Worth apartment complex on warrants alleging sexual assault of a child under age 17 and failure to register a change of address. He cut his neck before being arrested and remained hospitalized Thursday under police guard.
Late Wednesday, Detectives Tom O'Brien and Matt Barron obtained a capital murder warrant against Gilbert in connection with the slaying.
Gilbert's sister, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Evette, said she doesn't believe that her brother is capable of such a crime.
"I can't see my brother killing anybody," Evette said.
"This is a life. You can't get a life back."
Officers had been on routine patrol in the 3000 block of Quail Road near Lake Arlington when they spotted a car engulfed in flames about 2:30 a.m. March 30.
After extinguishing the flames, firefighters found the man's body in the trunk. Arson investigator Sabino Vasquez said an investigation determined that someone had poured a flammable fluid inside the car and had ignited a trail of the fluid leading to the car.
Johnson said a license plate check showed that the car was registered to Gilbert, who they determined was a registered sex offender recently listed as a suspect in another case.
Police obtained his dental records, Johnson said, and the medical examiner's office determined that the body was not Gilbert's.
On the same day that the burning car was found, crimes-against-children investigators obtained an arrest warrant against Gilbert alleging sexual assault of a child under 17, stemming from claims that he had molested a teenage relative over the past several months.
"He was aware that the police were after him," Johnson said.
Johnson said police began looking for a second vehicle registered to Gilbert and found it Tuesday afternoon at the Fort Worth apartment complex.
While conducting surveillance, officers spotted Gilbert loading property into the vehicle.
"He saw the officers, ran back into the apartment and barricaded himself inside," Johnson said.
SWAT officers were called out and after nearly seven hours, they found Gilbert hiding in an attic.
Tarrant County court records show that Gilbert was sentenced to 11 1/2 years in prison in 1987 for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.
From 1992 to 2003, state records show, Gilbert was in and out of prison four times for parole violations.
He was paroled the last time in September 2003, with his parole supervision ending in August 2005, according to Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Evette said her brother had faked his death in Mississippi after becoming desperate and frustrated that he was constantly being put back in prison for what she described as "technical violations" of his parole.
"He was tired of it," Evette said. "I was tired of it. I was like, When are they going to leave him alone? Let him be so he can be something, become something. He never had a chance."
Federal records from Mississippi show that for the drowning hoax, Gilbert was sentenced in 2004 to six months in federal custody, followed by a three-year term of supervised release that was later modified to include sex offender treatment.
Evette said she hadn't talked to her brother since last month and learned about the new allegations only after talking to his wife after his arrest Tuesday.
"I'm always the first one he reaches out to most of the time, but I don't know. He didn't call me," Evette said.
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