How White-Collar Fugitives Survive on the Lam
Can you really disappear with enough money to last for years?
Yes. But it’s crucial to put it in a safe place before you’re faced with criminal charges. Frank Ahearn, a privacy expert and author of How to Disappear, says the best white-collar criminals think like mobsters. “You have to anticipate that the end is always near. If you’re not prepared, you’re going to have to commit other crimes to make money—that’s how you get caught,” he says. Smart criminals have a nest egg in an offshore account or plenty of cash on hand. Homm walked onto a plane with “$500,000 stashed in my underwear, my briefcase, my cigar box,” he wrote in his recent book, Rogue Financier: The Adventures of an Estranged Capitalist.
How did he get past security with $500,000 in his pants?
Ahearn suspects Homm used a diplomatic passport from Liberia. These are typically issued only to diplomats and consuls on official state business. According to Ahearn, these passports are sold on the black market “for huge amounts of money.” With one of these, he says, “you can go through customs and won’t get searched. It’s the ultimate disappearing tool.”
Is there a common destination for wealthy people on the lam?
Homm chose Colombia. “If you’re in Colombia and you give $10,000 to the chief of police, you’re now the mayor,” says J.T. Mullen, a private detective in Manhattan who has tracked down hundreds of corporate criminals. Canada’s popular for Chinese plutocrat fugitives. Lai Changxing, who had a $6 billion smuggling empire, and Gao Shan, a former Bank of China manager accused of embezzling, spent years hiding in Vancouver. James Stanley Eberhart—who allegedly stole $14 million in a telemarketing scam—opted for no country at all. He disappeared in 1999 and spent more than a decade on his yacht, Infinity, before being arrested in Malaysia. He’s currently on trial in Los Angeles, facing nine counts of money laundering.
How do these guys manage to stay off the radar for so long?
People aren’t really looking for them. “There’s a huge difference between Osama bin Laden and some financial fraudster in terms of what effort the government is willing to make,” says Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor.
Have any of them tried faking their own death?
Yes, but it never works. “Unless you leave a leg behind or an arm, [no one will] believe it,” says Ahearn. In 2009, Indiana investment adviser Marcus Schrenker faked his death in a Florida plane crash after parachuting out over Alabama. He was busted a few days later. Sam Israel III, a New York hedge fund manager who defrauded investors of $400 million, abandoned his SUV on Bear Mountain Bridge in 2008, with “Suicide Is Painless” written in the dust on the hood. He turned himself in a month later.
What’s the biggest mistake financial fugitives make?
Trying to communicate with relatives. “If your mother’s birthday is July 1, we’ll get her phone bill,” says private detective Mullen. Rebecca Parrett, a financial exec in Dublin, Ohio, who fled to Mexico in 2008 after being convicted of stealing $2.9 billion, was discovered in 2010 after e-mailing her sister. The other misstep is hubris. That’s what happened to Homm, who’s 6 feet 7 inches tall, yet went to a popular Florence art gallery. Sometimes people get caught because they’re bored.
How can you be bored if you’re living like a Bond villain?
“If you’re used to spending money and being seen, the life of a fugitive will really cramp your style,” says prosecutor Richman. “You won’t be able to travel to the same degree. Huge parties aren’t a great idea.” If you can live quietly, he says, there’s a good chance you’ll remain undetected. “But that almost never happens,” Richman says.