The Bernie Madoffs of the world — not just the Ponzi schemer himself but the rogue accountants, lawyers and hedge funders — walk meekly into federal courts with their rictus faces and ashen complexions and the expectation of long prison sentences, and a bystander can’t help but wonder:
Why not take the ill-gotten money and run?
A touch of plastic surgery and a discreet payoff might purchase a sun-tanned life on an Indian Ocean archipelago, a number of which have no extradition treaties with the United States. Even a down-market move, manning an outboard motor for a skiff full of Somali pirates, seems preferable to a life term in a maximum-security federal prison.
Yet as more plutocrats face criminal investigations, few seem to view flight as an option. Perhaps it is a failure of nerve. Or perhaps, in this age of Facebook and “America’s Most Wanted,” the globe suffers a shortage of corners where a rogue might comfortably hide.
(A caveat: “comfortably hide” is the key point. North Korea, the lesser ’stans or the tribal lands of western Pakistan sit beyond the law’s reach, but the lifestyle lacks four-star quality.)
Vic O’Boyski, a retired supervisory United States marshal, considers himself a philosopher of flight. He’s seen the world shrink. The F.B.I. places attachés in embassies, law enforcement wizards work up computer mock-ups of aging faces, and forensic accountants track off-shore accounts. He reserves professional respect for those who take fleeing seriously.
“No phone calls, no letters, no Facebook, access to money — look, it’s tough,” he says. “If you don’t have an escape plan, you’ve got a problem.”
Once, the fugitive lifestyle was simpler. In 1972, Robert Vesco, the stock scammer and maker of illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon, landed in Costa Rica, donated $2.1 million to a company that just happened to be founded by the president, and waited until (miracle!) Costa Rica passed a law barring his extradition. Today, Costa Rica is a popular vacation destination for budget travelers and decidedly unwelcome to scalawags seeking to avoid extradition.
Casting farther back, when Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York faced whispers of bribe taking in 1932, he packed up his curiously large mayoral fortune and repaired to the French Riviera, remaining in Europe until the whispers ceased.
Now the world is more circumscribed. The United States has extradition treaties everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, and much of Europe, a 2007 report said.
The most successful fugitives tend to be high-end career criminals rather than financiers; James “Whitey” Bulger Jr., boss of the Winter Hill Gang in Boston, disappeared in 1995 and has not been seen since, although sightings are reported from Taormina, Sicily, (unlikely) to Dublin, Ireland (much more likely). “He puts on a pea cap and picks up his shillelagh and he’s just one of a thousand old Irish guys,” Mr. O’Boyski says.
Political fugitives are slippery. They tend to commit crimes — a bombing, a bank robbery — and recede into everyday life. So Sara Jane Olson, the former Symbionese Liberation Army bank robber paroled last week after seven years in prison, hid in plain sight for 26 years as a middle-class mom in Minnesota.
White-collar fugitives are less impressive; they’re sharks in a boardroom but pedestrian on the lam. Joe Judge, a retired F.B.I. agent, could not hide his disgust at learning that three fugitives had been holed up at the Breakers, the deluxe hotel and spa in Palm Beach, Fla.
“They’re helpless,” Mr. Judge said. “They’re just not good fugitives.”Many white-collar suspects are convinced they’re too smart to be convicted: just let them testify, they think, they’ll persuade jurors.
“It’s funny how many don’t understand their problem,” says Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at Columbia University. “I could never figure out why suspects stuck around.”
Some do run. In 1983, while he was a prosecutor, Rudolph W. Giuliani indicted the commodities trader Marc Rich, who sought refuge in Switzerland. Mr. Rich, perhaps with the help of his wife’s campaign donations, would experience his own miracle in 2001, as President Bill Clinton pardoned him hours before leaving office.
Two more loom as exemplars of the plutocrat on the run.
In 2006, a federal jury indicted Jacob (Kobi) Alexander, an Israeli-American business wunderkind, on charges of wire and securities fraud. Mr. Alexander and his family flew to Namibia, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
The fugitive more or less tried to buy Namibia. He sponsored scholarships and built low-income solar-powered buildings, and he lived in a spectacular home in Windhoek. Last summer, according to The Wall Street Journal, he apparently felt confident enough to throw a four-day bar mitzvah for his son — and charter a jet to fly in 200 friends from New York City.
Then there’s Sholam Weiss, whose run is the stuff of hallucinatory poetry. A plumbing supplier from Brooklyn, he proved brilliant at financial fraud. In 1999, while on trial in Florida on charges he defrauded a large insurance company, he took off for Brazil, where he acquired a girlfriend and once was spotted cavorting with 10 prostitutes, 5 dressed up as parochial-school girls.
Mr. Judge, the F.B.I. agent, became worried that Mr. Weiss was trying to impregnate a Brazilian; the country’s law bars extradition if a fugitive has a child. “We were,” he recalls, “fighting not just extradition but ovulation.”
Alas, this fugitive tale comes wrapped in cautionary cloth. Mr. Weiss was arrested, although not until he fled Brazil for Austria. In his absence, an angry federal judge handed down a tough sentence, as might be discerned by Mr. Weiss’s release date: Nov. 23, 2754.