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 fucking 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.
"Should we count the money briefcases this week to be sure?"
"Nah. They're probably fine."
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.
Word of advice: When the other inmates ask what you did, think of something more badass than "stealing office supplies."
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.
Because that sounds like how the police operate.
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 Photoshopping 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.
"Fuck this hassle. I'll just sneak across the border."
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?)
Not linked here, because we've already had enough problems with the feds over this sort of thing.
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.
"No envelope, thanks. I've got a big burlap sack with a dollar sign on it in the 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 darknet email address. I bought a Greyhound ticket to Atlanta, was witness to a prostitute who doled out a three-fingered handjob to another passenger on Route 75, 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.
But hey, if you can't trust mysterious, couch-surfing strangers in your home, who can you trust?
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.
Turns out when you're not a political football, cross-border tourism is sort of encouraged.
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.
Assuming you accept "Fugitive living one step ahead the law" as a realistic starting point.
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.
Of 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 , 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.
Ryan Menezes is an editor and interviewer here at Cracked. Follow him on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see. Identifying details in this story have been altered to protect the source's privacy.
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