How To Disappear Completely (By A Fugitive Still On The Run)
If you had to disappear, could you do it? Like, what if you were falsely accused of a crime (or, you know, rightfully accused) and wanted to escape trial? Think of how many government and private databases hold your information, how many ways you're being tracked -- shit, the puzzle game on your phone probably knows which restaurants you've visited this week. Think of the sheer number of cameras that exist in the world.
Well, we talked to a guy who did it. "Jack Baker" was charged with a crime last year, then vanished. How? Well, let's put it this way: It wasn't easy.
My Office Accused Me Of Stealing A Pile Of Money
The crime I was accused of isn't the kind of thing they make movies about -- it's not like I'd robbed a bank or anything (that would come later). We had a lot of fun in my office. We drank beer, played music trivia, spent time flying and summarily crashing quadcopters, even knocked off early to go to the casino and the shooting range. I was well liked, and I liked the others there. Maybe that's why it took a while for anyone to notice that $54,000 was missing
I was the office manager at a Maryland company, and I had a large budget at my disposal for purchases. So when it was finally discovered that the company had issued tens of thousands of dollars in purchase orders for equipment we didn't have and never wanted, one person was the most obvious suspect. The police arrived at my door with one warrant to search my house for unexplained computer equipment and another to take me into custody
After posting bail, I got to talk it over with a lawyer: "If you're found guilty, you're looking at 25 years," he said. "I didn't do it," I said. "I noticed the discrepancy. I actually mentioned it to the accountants, but they assumed it was all ordered previous to my tenure ..."
"This was ordered on your account," he said. "You're very much their number-one suspect. You could beat it, but you should still prepare yourself to be behind bars for six months or more while we await proper trial and discovery. Your choice right now is whether to go to trial and get a big sentence or let me cut a deal that gives you a small sentence."
I ended up choosing a third option.
If I Wasn't A Criminal Before, Running Definitely Turned Me Into One
A month later, I got a call saying I would be taken into custody later that week to ensure I went to trial. This was when I decided I wouldn't do it. I would flee. I thought, what if I just went away for a while? Let the heat die down, and then when I came back, I could live a somewhat new life -- one where I lived away from my wife and son, but maybe spend evenings with them. Maybe, with time, all of us could move out of state, and eventually fall off the authorities' radar.
I told my wife I was going to leave. I wrote out a note -- a "suicide" note which included some specific details about money I'd hide somewhere for her -- and left it at home, along with my wallet and phone. Then I took off. I spent the next few weeks assuming another person's identity.
I found out what information is needed to get a "replacement" Social Security card, and went about getting one for a stranger in Florida who was of the same age and race (I'm not going to walk you through the process -- I'm not conducting a class on how to be a successful fugitive here). Then I went to Georgia. Getting a state ID there was a matter of Photoshop-ping the right additional documents (bills, etc). I didn't get a passport -- not because security was too rigorous, but because it would have taken too long.
Still, I had everything I needed to function as a completely different person. It would have been more than enough to let me lie low ...
Then I Robbed A Damned Bank
I figured out how to rob a bank the same way you'd find out how to fold a fitted sheet: by looking up tips on the internet. (Did you know it's better to do it when there are lots of customers present?)
I was now in North Carolina, and checked out several different banks. The first, I must have circled 20 times and parked in five different places before taking off. I couldn't do it. It was a standalone bank with a plaza behind it, a 200-yard sprint to the car. No good, those people on those websites would have said. But I next found a bank in a strip mall that seemed perfect. While in my car, I wrote out the following note: "Smile. This is what you were trained for. No alarms, no dye packs, and everyone gets to see their children tonight. Smile. Count out all 50s and 100s in front of me. Smile. It's insured. Calm yet quick. You don't want me here for long, I promise."
Inside, I got in a line, passed the note to a teller. She smiled. And she began counting 50s out. Then I requested she run it through the counting machine; her willingness told me nothing was hidden in the money. She handed it to me, offered an envelope. I declined. I pocketed the money and then walked out to my car.
They got me on camera, of course, and my face would appear in news reports. But in three minutes, I had crossed the state line. How often do you hear of reports about robberies in places other than your home state? Especially nonviolent, non-serial robberies? Essentially never, and that's what I was counting on. I later ditched the rental car and left the haul -- about $6,000 -- in it. Exactly as my suicide note said I would. So far, so good.
No One Cares If You Cross The Border Into Mexico
I bought Visa gift cards and several burner phones. I created a dark-net email address. I bought a Greyhound ticket to Atlanta and stayed in a hotel under a fake name. I had to laugh -- my hotel room that night was 404.
For money, I turned to Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace for coders. There was a delay before payouts, though, so my money ran out pretty quickly. I wound up having to spend a few nights sleeping on the sofas of generous strangers I met in the city. Already, you can see how this could have gone disastrously wrong -- the more people you involve in your escape, the more risks there are of somebody getting curious and looking you up.
Then, browsing Facebook using a TOR browser (scrolling past a flurry of "i love yous" and "please come home" and "the FBI came looking for you" messages from my wife), I tracked down an old girlfriend who happily bought me a bus ticket to the Midwest and put me up in her condo. I told her it was wife trouble; she didn't ask questions. I spent Thanksgiving there, and while slopping sauce on my Turkey Day spaghetti, I finally broke down and called my family using an online service. We cried; I assured them I was okay.
As winter came, I thought of going to Mexico. You've seen criminals talk about this in movies, acting like Mexico is some kind of lawless land into which anyone can disappear. The reality is that their extradition is as strong as any U.S. state. I'd be just as likely to get apprehended there. The decision was purely about money -- cost of living is much lower, and my Mechanical Turk paychecks would stretch further. I jumped on a Greyhound and headed south, then walked across the international bridge and over the Rio Grande. They didn't even check my ID. Maybe people don't get as worked up about immigration heading that direction.
Even for a temporary visit, you're supposed to get a "tourist card," but those rules relax within a few miles of the border, such as in Juarez, where I stayed. And in Mexico, money talks. When an officer found some cocaine on me, 200 pesos (about $10) was enough to settle that problem. The following day, I saw a man working transit, a sign on his motorcycle reading no se acceptan morditas -- "we don't accept bribes." If a country has to mandate a sign that says they don't accept bribes, they fucking accept bribes.
Hopping Back Across The Border Was Much Harder
More months passed, with me continuing online work, and I fell into a slump -- what they call "expat depression." And back in the United States, Donald Trump began to do well in the polls. If my plan was to sneak back across the border, I was thinking a President Trump probably wasn't going to make that easier. It was time to execute the second, much less realistic part of my plan.
With my fake ID, it's entirely possible I could have walked right up to the official border crossing. I was, after all, a citizen, and what's suspicious about a citizen trying to get back home? But what if they sensed something was wrong and ran the ID? I couldn't risk it. It had to be a "non-official" crossing.
Through a mutual friend, I met a guide who assisted people with this sort of thing. We met up in a bar. I had a heavy backpack filled with my laptops, clothes, my entire life. His was filled with rope. For reference, here's what the border crossing looks like -- this is from the American (El Paso) side, but you get the idea:
"I'm going to tie this around your underarms," he said. "You shimmy up that light pole onto the top of the pedestrian bridge. Then, once you're up, you jump down on the fence blocking the pedestrian sidewalk. On the count of three, you jump over the wire sensors for jumpers, and then you're good."
"Holy shit," I said. "No. No no no no no." There had to be another way. There was, for a price, but for now, this was what he had for me.course, judging by the first option, "another way" may well have been "We get a catapult and fling your ass into Texas."
Border patrol agents were parked overlooking the bridge, so we waited five hours for a train to roll by and block their view. In broad daylight, as hundreds of people walked by me every minute, I put a rope around my chest and stood on my guy's shoulders, climbing a light pole. I could hear border patrol shouting from the checkpoint, "WE HAVE A JUMPER." They'd seen me. Of course they had. I jumped off the other side.
"Why are you running?" shouted the agent to the white, American-looking man before him. I babbled something about dropping my girlfriend at the bus stop, and that I was running because I was already late for a meeting. "Do you have ID?" he said. I offered him my real ID, because I wasn't about to get hemmed up on counterfeit ID and, who knows, possible terrorism charges.
It was bad enough that I was going to lose my deposit on the rope.
My heart sinking, I gave one last-ditch effort. I said, "For Pete's sake, I was born in [name of specific city and county], which is where I graduated high school! Do you believe I'm not a citizen?" I figured only a true American would be a total asshole to a border cop. "Every fucking time I'm running somewhere in this goddamned town, you guys swing up behind me like I'm some kind of criminal. I fought in the Army, for God's sake!" (This was true -- I produced the credentials).
A supervisor rolled up. I tapped on my phone and claimed to be recording what was going on. After a bit, the supervisor looked me up and down and said the words I longed to hear: "You're free to go." I received my ID, pocketed my things, and then feigned a phone call: "I know I'm late, I know. I'm sorry. Did you not hear the sirens? That was for me. Apparently, I look Mexican." Then I disappeared around the corner and broke into another run.
Anyone Can Disappear ... If They're Willing To Lose Everything
Right now, I'm in the U.S., with no signs I'm about to be apprehended. I still live hand-to-mouth, picking up odd jobs here and there. I hang out and drink in the immigrant areas of town. I'm affectionately called Gringo Mojado (basically, "white illegal immigrant") by those who know that part of my story. Finding a place to stay was as easy as having 400 bucks in hand and wandering near a kitchen at a local restaurant. A quick Hola and a question of "Who has a room to rent?" yielded immediate residency. No other questions asked.
If any of this tale makes me sound like a criminal genius, I have to admit that part of my success so far was nothing but the system's indifference. I was using my own bank account when I was on the run, after my "suicide." Amazon wouldn't pay me any other way, so I was stuck with it. I even used my own debit card (though with better planning, I would have picked an account that didn't have a six-dollar international ATM charge).
"Six bucks?! I thought I was the criminal."
This spring, I even filed my taxes, under my real name. Months had passed since that bank robbery madness, I'd become less optimistic about being invulnerable, and figured I didn't want one more charge on me for tax evasion. But no one pursued those leads, apparently. Nor did they investigate the last people I was seen with on the night of my disappearance -- both of whom had the number for one of my burner phones.
Maybe they didn't care, or maybe they realized that in most cases, they can simply sit tight and wait for the fugitive to pop up again. How many people can permanently scrap everything they love -- their family, friends, career, hometown -- at a moment's notice? My original plan to reunite with my family and somehow make it work was ridiculous in retrospect.
Oh yeah, about that. I tried calling my wife once I was back in the country. She'd changed her number. She didn't reply to my emails. I see online that she filed for divorce and sold the house. Suddenly, that six months awaiting trial doesn't seem quite as bad.
Sometimes, I think I'll offer to turn myself in, attempt a plea deal. Then try to see my son after he turns 18. Or maybe I'll end up heading back to Mexico or a Central American nation. It's cheaper, and I've got nothing worth staying here for. The man I was died a little more than a year ago. Even if I were to use my own name again, it doesn't feel right. I'm not who I was, or who I ever aspired to be.
So yeah, probably better to go ahead and take your chances at trial, kids.
Identifying details in this story have been altered to protect the source's privacy.
Running to Mexico: Smart Idea If Life In Prison Looks Good
After conversations with some of the city’s top criminal attorneys and having invested a decent amount of time in reading stuff on the Internet, I have rendered myself qualified, in my own opinion, to offer the following non-legal and inexpert advice: Persons accused of capital crimes in Texas who may be thinking of skedaddling south of the border, or north, should weigh the following factors carefully:
Upside: It’s a good way to escape getting executed.
Downside: It’s a good way to guarantee getting convicted.
Two key concepts are at work. The first is extradition: Mexico, Canada and most other countries that do not support the death penalty won’t extradite to a country that does have the death penalty unless the receiving country agrees to take death off the table for the person to be sent back. So if you are that person and you flee, you’ve got a whole country as a free law firm jaw-boning the U.S. to promise not to kill you or they won’t extradite.
The second factor, however, is more ancient and possibly more fundamental. The key concept there is fleeing. Generally speaking, fleeing is taken as a strong indication of guilt. Tom Mills, a top Texas criminal defense lawyer, said, “I think there may even be passages in the Bible about that.”
So the law is fairly clear on nations without death penalties not extraditing to countries with death penalties. The downside would be the thing about the Bible and also that all of that extradition business is international law, which we might think of as semi-foreign law, as opposed to Texas law. As with everything, even the hat you bought in France, let alone a murder case, things can get sticky once you get back to Texas.
If you agree at some point to be extradited, then Mexico or Canada may lose its leverage to make the U.S promise not to execute you. Even if you don’t agree and Mexico or Canada does make the U.S. promise, there have been cases in which defendants got back here and American authorities said all of a sudden they found new capital charges to bring that were not covered by the international agreement.
Sure, you can say that’s cheating. But, remember most murder is a state crime, so you will have to make your no-fair argument in a Texas court. You better make sure you’ve got your international deal in writing. In English. Don’t show up in a Texas court with some document written in Canadian.
David Finn, another top criminal defense lawyer who has worked with extradition, told me that the skedaddle to Mexico begins to look a whole lot less smart when you make two mistakes: 1) Ask your mom and dad for help (Ethan Couch), or 2) Are not a Mexican yourself.
Couch, the affluenza teen who got drunk and killed four people in a traffic accident, had his mom take him to Mexico. Note that the kid stopped fighting extradition and agreed to come back voluntarily, possibly to help out his mother. She, you will recall, ended up in worse criminal trouble than he was, on charges of aiding a fugitive and obstructing justice.
Responsible for multiple deaths in a drunk driving incident, he was never charged with a capital offense. But had he been, Mexico’s ability to bargain away a death penalty for him would have become null the moment he agreed to come home on his own.
His ability to stick it out and fight extradition to the bitter end may well have been eroded by his mother’s legal peril, which is why you don’t really want your mom along when you become an international fugitive. Think of it this way: The one thing Jason Bourne never did in all those movies was ask his mom for help. He must have had his reasons.
In the ongoing case of Brenda Delgado, arrested in Mexico last weekend on charges she masterminded the murder of Dallas dentist Kendra Hatcher, Finn said she may plausibly argue in court that she fled because she was frightened and was going home.
The going home to Mexico case gets harder to make when you’re a rich Anglo-American kid who can’t order a pizza in Spanish. About the best you could say is that you were under stress so you experienced an intense need to visit an expensive beach resort.
Mills pointed out that fleeing, if you really mean to flee and stay fled, generally is just much harder to do than it looks in the movies. “You would have to be extremely sophisticated to know how to get a fake passport and handle money, almost like someone who had been in the CIA or the Mossad. I just don’t know where you would even begin to look.”
If you have money here and can hire someone to do all of those things for you, Mills said, then in doing so you will acquire a new daddy for life: The person who helped you get it all done pretty much owns you until one of you dies.
Mills also said people sophisticated enough to make all of those connections and make all of that work out logistically often are sophisticated enough to get what they want without breaking the law. “Most crime just isn’t very smart,” he said.
People don’t always see themselves as fleeing when they go home. George Milner, who represents Delgado, said sometimes it’s more like getting back to familiar soil in a time of peril. Milner said he doesn’t know exactly when his client went to Mexico, so he doesn’t know if she had been charged with a crime yet when she did.
“But she’s a Mexican citizen. She has family and friends down there. That’s where she’s from. I kind of liken it to if I’m living in France and I was charged with something very severe under French law. If I’m innocent, I might say, ‘You know what, I’m a U.S. citizen. I think I just need to get the hell out of here.’”
So I think it boils down to this. If you did it and you’re facing the death penalty and you know they’ve got you nailed anyway, go to Mexico, or Canada, I guess, but Mexico has the beaches. That way you can get a few weeks on the beach and then life imprisonment. Just hope the Americans want to extradite you, or you’ll do it all in Mexico.
If you flee to Mexico and you have some hope of hiding out, learn how to ask for a pizza in Spanish. Don’t run up any bar tabs equivalent to or in excess of the local average annual income. Do not take your mom.
Where in the world can a criminal be safe from U.S. law?
Financier R. Allen Stanford, who stands accused of defrauding investors of $8 billion, reportedly tried to flee the country last week before the FBI found him in Fredericksburg, Va. What's the best place for an American fugitive to go?
Russia, Libya, Iran, or one of the other 90-odd countries that don't have extradition treaties with the United States. The U.S. has signed bilateral treaties with more than 100 countries, from the Bahamasto Israel to Zimbabwe, pledging that a fugitive will be sent back to the country where he committed a crime, plus numerous multilateral agreements promising to cooperate in fighting terrorism and the drug trade. (See a complete list here.) Unfortunately for fugitives, that means most of the developed world is off-limits. If you want to be totally safe, you'll have to go somewhere no one really wants to be—or that isn't on friendly terms with Uncle Sam.
You could also head to a country whose extradition treaty is weak or has massive loopholes. Cuba, for example, signed an agreement with the United States in 1926 but, under Fidel Castro, has long served as a haven for American fugitives. (The two countries did make an exception for hijackers after a series of high-profile hijackings in the late '60s and early '70s.) Before 9/11, extradition treaties frequently contained "political offense exceptions," which said that a host country did not have to return a criminal who would be punished for political reasons—a provision the United States invoked in refusing to return IRA members to Ireland. And to this day, certain countries refuse to extradite someone if they think the criminal will receive the death penalty or otherwise have his human rights violated
Most extradition treaties have a so-called "dual criminality" rule, which mandates that the crime must be illegal in both states, not just one. That's why financier Marc Rich fled to Switzerland. The crimes for which he was charged—tax evasion, primarily—are not illegal there, so Switzerland wouldn't extradite him. In 2007, the United States refused to extradite a man who had participated in an assisted suicide in Ireland. The reason: Not all 50 states have statutes forbidding assisted suicide.
Even without an extradition treaty, it's possible for the United States to nab a fugitive by kidnapping him—a practice called extraordinary rendition. (The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1992 that you can stand trial after forcible abduction.) The United States can also send out a "red notice" to all member countries of Interpol—that's basically everyone—which warns them to arrest the criminal if he or she is caught crossing a border.