The Hamiltons seemed to make for an enviable family.
They lived in a sprawling brick house in Great Falls, Va., and drove around in a silver Mercedes. Neighbors knew the father of the family as Norm, a successful real estate investor and antiques dealer who shared stock market tips with his friends. The Washington-area police had a different name for him: a one-man crime wave.
Norm Hamilton was the unobtrusive creation of Bernard C. Welch Jr., a serial burglar who escaped from the grounds of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., decades before Richard W. Matt and David Sweat burrowed their way out last week. In 1974, Mr. Welch and a fellow inmate staged a less elaborate break, scaling a 20-foot cyclone fence and taking off for the anonymity of the Washington suburbs.
That other inmate, Paul Maturano, was caught in 1976 in West Virginia, but Mr. Welch parlayed the guise of Norm Hamilton, wealthy suburbanite, into a dodge that lasted until 1980. When the police searched Mr. Welch’s home, they seized 51 boxes of valuables. The loot, with an estimated value of millions, included candelabras, antique clocks and porcelain Hummel figurines.
The two most recent Clinton escapees are unlikely to be living so lavishly at the moment, but as the clock ticks, experts say, the men are increasingly likely to evade capture for a substantial period.
“A lot of escapes are spontaneous and the guys get tripped up because they don’t know where to go,” said Terry Pelz, a former warden with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “These guys know where to go. Most guys get caught after a few hours because they don’t have a plan. These guys planned their escape and planned it well, so it could take much longer to catch them.”
And escapes are increasingly rare. Discovery News reported that they have dropped even as the states’ prison population has swelled; in 1993, 14,305 of 780,357 prisoners escaped or were reported absent without leave. That figure shrank to 2,538 out of 1.35 million prisoners by 2012.
Given its rarity, and the mystery surrounding fugitive life, there is an understandable dearth of analysis and data on the subject. Still, some cardinal rules have emerged for living off the grid.
“Your first priority is finding a secure place and a source of money,” said Darrin Giglio, chief investigator for the private agency North American Investigations. “You don’t want anything traceable, so you’ll either have to establish a new identity or get paid off the books, maybe as a day laborer.”
Frank Ahearn,believes the key is found in disinformation.
“The idea is to combat the information you’re leaving behind,” Mr. Ahearn said. “I’d start by creating false data on your location, data and banking.”
Cellphone, credit cards, surveillance cameras and other products of modern technology have added new layers of complication and possibility for both fugitives and law enforcement.
“If they’re smart, fugitives can really take advantage of technology,” Mr. Ahearn said. “They can buy prepaid cellphones and credit cards. Their apartments, cars and bank accounts can be set up under anonymous corporations. They can live almost entirely virtually. That wasn’t possible in the past.”
To combat such trickery, police departments have access to increasingly sophisticated and far-reaching forms of search and surveillance.
“It’s easier than ever to comb through enormous amounts of data,” Mr. Giglio said. “And with surveillance cameras all over the place, the only way to avoid detection might be changing appearance. Some people even get plastic surgery.”
He added, “If fugitives ever slip up using technology or social media, they’ll get caught right away.”
And of course the fugitive life takes its toll.
“It’s like being in the witness protection program,” Mr. Giglio said. “To be successful, you have to give up your entire past. Most people can’t do that.”
Under such agonizing circumstances, there is no shortage of ways to blunder. According to Martin Horn, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, escapees often return home or place phone calls to friends and family members, whom the police might be tracking. Other times it is an escapee’s suspicious behavior that tips off bystanders.
“A lot of inmates who are legitimately released encounter a confusing new life,” Mr. Pelz said. “They don’t know how to drive cars, use cellphones, use credit cards. They need to re-educate themselves. That can trip up escapees too. Even if it’s a well-planned escape, people get sloppy.”
Occasionally, fugitives are caught when they return to criminal activity. Mr. Welch was taken back to prison in 1980, after he shot Michael Halberstam, a cardiologist and the brother of the journalist David Halberstam, during an interrupted burglary. A bleeding Dr. Halberstam tried to drive himself to the hospital, but when he spotted his assailant fleeing down the street, he ran him down, wounding Mr. Welch before crashing the car.
Dr. Halberstam died on the operating table, but the police soon found Mr. Welch, with his tools, huddling in the bushes.
Mr. Welch was convicted and sentenced to 143 years in prison. Having succeeded once in escaping, he tried again, and succeeded. In 1985, he absconded out the window of an Illinois prison, lowered himself down a 75-foot electrical cable, and made it all the way to Pittsburgh, where he was arrested again after he illegally parked a stolen car.
“The public will put up with the fact that we don’t successfully rehabilitate people,” Mr. Horn said. “They will not put up with escapes.”