How does one perform a vanishing act these days? In an age of smart phones and GPS — not to mention anonymity-piercing paparazzi and celebrity magazines — is it really still possible to disappear?
Absolutely, said Frank M. Ahearn, the author of the concisely titled primer “How to Disappear.” “Technology is a double-edged sword,” said Mr. Ahearn, a “skip tracing” expert who used to track missing people through credit-card and phone records and the like. “It can be used to find or to conceal. The real question is: Who’s better at technology? You or the people trying to hunt you?”
Take the case of Mr. Bulger, he suggested, the Boston gangster who, before his arrest last month in California, eluded the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 16 years.
“Whitey could have easily used a social-network site to confuse the F.B.I.,” Mr. Ahearn said. “He could have written e-mails, saying, ‘Hey, I just saw Whitey in Costa Rica.’ Or he could have made a Facebook page with false, misleading chatter about his case.”
While admitting that technology can often make it easier to track a person down, Bob Burton, the president of U.S. Cobra, one of the country’s largest bounty-hunting companies, said that all you need to disappear is “a good computer and a 14-year-old kid.”
And perhaps a dead person, too.
“You look in the obituaries,” Mr. Burton said, “in Topeka, Kan., say. You want a gas station attendant more or less your age. Once you get the date of birth, you call the county. ‘Hi, I used to live in Kansas, but I’ve been living in American Samoa for the last 20 years as a Christian missionary. Any chance I could get a copy of my birth certificate?’ ”
Should your ruse succeed and the certificate arrive, simply call a motor vehicle office and apply for a driver’s license. “All you need,” Mr. Burton said, “is one good piece of ID. The rest follows after that.”
Is a signature required? “Show up with your writing hand in a sling,” he said. “That way, when you sign with your left hand, your signature’s messed up.”
Are officials troubling you for fingerprints? “There’s a nongreasy glue, like a mucilage,” he said, that is more or less invisible once applied. “You put it on your thumb. You roll your thumb over your heel. Now, you’ve got a heel print on your thumb for no one who exists.”
According to José Chavarria, the chief of domestic investigations for the United States Marshals Service, there are — conservatively speaking — a million local, state and federal fugitives at large in the country at any time. Using as a baseline a national population of 300 million, that suggests that a visit to a Times Square movie theater could put one in proximity of someone who is running from the law.
“The best way to disappear,” Chief Chavarria said, “is to cut all ties with everything and everyone you know. But it’s very, very hard to sever ties.”
J. T. Mullen, a private detective of long standing in Manhattan, recalled just such a case, one in which a New York businessman — with a love of actual running — tried to flee his wife in order to avoid divorce papers. “The first thing I do,” said Mr. Mullen, who was hired to find the man, “is go down to the New York Road Runners club. They give me a printout of the mailing list for their running magazine.” Sure enough, one name on the list could not be found in any public record.
“The guy’s at large, but he needs to read about running in New York,” Mr. Mullen said. “He couldn’t give it up. That’s how he got caught.”
Naturally, money is the other chief ingredient in a successful disappearance — and the more you have, the longer you can last underground.
Mr. Ahearn, the author, suggested creating a corporation in a state where documentation requirements are lax. A pursuer may know your name, he said, but would have a hard time tracking you if your personal expenses were paid by See Ya Later Inc. — especially if you incorporate in Wyoming or Nevada, which a recent book, “Treasure Islands,” described as having slack incorporation rules on par with those in Cyprus and the Cayman Islands.
“Then you can work and live where you want,” Mr. Ahearn said. “In Texas, Buffalo, wherever. You pay the corporation and the corporation pays the bills.”
Joe and Nancy DeFede undertook a classic vanishing act in 2002, when Mr. DeFede, a former acting boss of the Luchese crime family, turned state’s evidence and learned that there was a contract on his head. The couple entered the witness protection program, which Mrs. DeFede described in her unpublished memoir, “Life With Little Joe,” as an oppressive world of censored mail, suspicious neighbors and unmarked federal cars.
“The hardest part for me,” she said, “was becoming this kind of nonperson.” (She and Mr. DeFede now live, under assumed names, in a 55-and-over community in a sunny southern state.) “They took our documents — our Social Security cards and birth certificates. They changed our names like three different times in seven months.”
If given a chance to do it again, she would, she said, live in open sight. (Note to Ms. Anthony: the following could be relevant.)
“It’s hard to start over as a totally different person,” Mrs. DeFede said. “How do you make a résumé? How do you find a job? We lost our family, our money, everything. Disappearing is an empty, miserable life.”