Money To Run, But No Skills To Hide "Executive fugitives" are leaders of industry and finance toppled by the economic crisis and, often, their own greed. Facing financial ruin and even worse — prison — they decide to make a run for it. But these days, officials say, life on the run isn't that easy, even with a suitcase full of cash.
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Money To Run, But No Skills To Hide

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Money To Run, But No Skills To Hide

Money To Run, But No Skills To Hide

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene. Some leaders of industry and finance have been trying to become a different kind of leader. After being toppled by the economic crisis they lead law enforcement on a chase. But as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, it's not easy to stay in front.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Marcus Schrenker had a yacht, a plane, a mansion in a place called Cocktail Cove. But officials say it was all a scam, paid for by unwitting investors. And in January, the scam was unraveling. One Monday morning, Schrenker boarded his single-engine plane and took off from Anderson, Indiana. A few hours later, the plane crashed into a Florida swamp, without any sign of its pilot.

Unidentified Woman: Police say Schrenker was alone, flying to Florida in his single-engine prop plane when he radioed for help near Huntsville, Alabama.

SULLIVAN: As the events unfolded on TV, U.S. Marshal Geoff Shank watched from his office overlooking Washington, D.C. He knew right away the money man was on the run.

Mr. GEOFF SHANK (U.S. Marshal): He went through all this elaborate planning, and it really only took us a day or so to catch up to him and lock him up.

SULLIVAN: Authorities say Schrenker tried to fake his own death by parachuting out of his plane, jumping on a stashed motorcycle and hiding out at a local campground.

Mr. SHANK: We've had guys pin notes to trees and leave, like, an article of clothing with their blood on it thinking that we're just going to go, oh, he's dead, okay, left a note, right?

SULLIVAN: Shank oversees the hunt for more than 100,000 fugitives a year. Most are career criminals, the kind used to living dirty. But executive fugitives, he says, are a different breed. Shank says they're self-involved, convinced of their own importance, unable to live without 5-star hotels, private planes and limos, which all require a credit card. Shank says Schrenker gets points for pitching a tent, until he made the classic rich fugitive mistake. He emailed a friend.

Mr. SHANK: The vast majority of high-profile fugitives such as this guy are caught. It's either familiarity or lack of human contact or you miss going to the barista to get a coffee.

SULLIVAN: Take former hedge fund manager Samuel Israel. He tried to fake his own death last summer by parking his SUV on a bridge outside New York and leaving a suicide note. Shank says his team caught him by convincing Israel's mother she should tell her son to turn himself in. Sure enough, a few months later, Israel called his mom. And then he turned himself in.

Mr. SHANK: How long can you run and stay away from all the things that you love?

SULLIVAN: But let's say you've done everything right. You paid cash for that used RV, you're moving from state to state, you cut all ties. You're still going to need a new identity. Unfortunately, that's a bit trickier these days.

Ms. DIANA HARRISON (Unit chief, Questioned Documents Unit): This doesn't look right.

SULLIVAN: Diana Harrison leads the FBI's unit on document fraud at the bureau's lab in Quantico, Virginia.

Ms. HARRISON: You can look by feel, just by the position of where the pictures are. It just doesn't feel right.

SULLIVAN: She's huddled over a collection of fake IDs, passports and checks that fugitives have tried to pass as real.

Ms. HARRISON: Look how clear the top one is.

SULLIVAN: Midwest Bank Note.

Ms. HARRISON: And down below, can you read that at all?

SULLIVAN: No.

Ms. HARRISON: It's blurry and it looks like a line where a pen was skipping. So this is not - this is a counterfeit.

SULLIVAN: Harrison says since 9/11, most states have added security features like holograms, data threads and microprinting. But that's nothing compared to the security on the document you really need, a passport. And with a dozen pages and computer authentication, Harrison says, don't even bother trying to fake it.

Ms. HARRISON: The easiest way is to obtain a valid document fraudulently.

SULLIVAN: And when it comes to that only the rare few have mastered the art.

(Soundbite of music)

Frank Abagnale's life on the run was made famous by the movie "Catch Me If You Can." Abagnale spent four years hiding out from the FBI, impersonating pilots and doctors, claiming to attend Harvard and Berkeley, with real documents.

(Soundbite of movie, "Catch Me If You Can")

Mr. TOM HANKS (As Carl Hanratty): Get him before he leaves the country.

Mr. FRANK JOHN HUGHES (As Tom Fox): He doesn't have a passport.

Mr. HANKS (As Carl Hanratty): For the last six months he's gone to Harvard and Berkley. I'm betting he can get a passport.

SULLIVAN: Abagnale rarely talks to the media, but he agreed to talk to NPR.

Mr. FRANK ABAGNALE: It's amazing to someone like me who has done this in their lifetime. But then 40 years later still see that it's as simple if not easier to do than when I did it.

SULLIVAN: Abagnale says all you need is the death record of a child from a courthouse to get a birth certificate. A birth certificate and some white-out on an apartment lease gets you a driver's license. A driver's license gets you a passport. And the world is yours.

Mr. ABAGNALE: You would be really not very smart to stay anywhere in the states and hide. I mean you might get out to some farm in the middle of nowhere, but sooner or later, people around there are going to start to question who you are and where you came from.

SULLIVAN: The FBI finally arrested Abagnale in 1969 when he was 21. Now he works for them.

In his years on the run, he stole $2.5 million with counterfeit checks. He lived the life most fugitives would dream of: world travel, luxury accommodations, in his case, older women. But here's the problem: He hated it.

Mr. ABAGNALE: It's a very lonely life. There's nobody you can trust, you can't confide in anybody. And, you know, it's something that is not a life I would wish on my worst enemy.

SULLIVAN: Besides, he says, you're going to get caught.

Mr. ABAGNALE: The law sometimes sleeps, but the law never dies.

SULLIVAN: Just down the hall from Geoff Shank's office at the Marshals' headquarters, is a large billboard: the U.S. Marshals' 15 Most Wanted Fugitives.

Mr. SHANK: You can look here, I mean homicide, murder, murder, escape, murder and then wham! $350 million fraud charge.

SULLIVAN: Shank's pointing to the photo of a balding, middle-aged man.

Mr. SHANK: Yeah, John Ruffo. We're still looking for him.

SULLIVAN: Ruffo was sentenced to 17 years for bilking investors out of $350 million. He's been on the run for 11 years.

Mr. SHANK: Does it make me angry? Yeah. Did I think about him at all today? Yeah. I think he's in a cafe on some cobblestone street somewhere, just drinking espresso.

SULLIVAN: Ruffo may have escaped his hometown of Forest Hills, New York. And he may have found a new identity. He may have made it abroad to live a nondescript life. Perhaps he's even made it to one of the few countries without an extradition treaty: think North Korea, Mongolia. The Americas are out now. So is Europe and most of Asia. Even not-so-friendly countries routinely trade fugitives with the Marshals.

But wherever John Ruffo is, Shank says the one thing he knows for sure is that he misses home. And one day, it'll get him caught.

Mr. SHANK: They have to be lucky every day. We only have to be lucky once.

SULLIVAN: Do the Marshals ever stop looking?

Mr. SHANK: Never, nope. We will look and look and look until we find you. And we'll get a step in front of you, and then you'll walk right into us. And then you'll go to jail.

SULLIVAN: Until then, Shank says, enjoy the espresso.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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