JUSTICE

What about a boat to Cuba?

Unsolicited advice for Conrad Black on how to flee the country

COLIN CAMPBELL August 27 2007
JUSTICE

What about a boat to Cuba?

Unsolicited advice for Conrad Black on how to flee the country

COLIN CAMPBELL August 27 2007

What about a boat to Cuba?

JUSTICE

Unsolicited advice for Conrad Black on how to flee the country

COLIN CAMPBELL

Since his conviction on obstruction of justice and fraud charges last month, Conrad Black has been free on a US$21-million bail, with the restriction he stay either in Chicago or Palm Beach, Fla., where he has a home. Judge Amy St. Eve, who set his bail conditions, has deemed him not to be a flight risk, and Black himself has never given any indication that he would flee.

In fact, he has been co-operative with authorities. He remains steadfast in his belief that he is innocent and will win his case on appeal. It would be entirely out of character for him to suddenly adopt the lifestyle of a fugitive. But with the U.S. courts handing down white-collar prison sentences to rival those given terrorists and murderers, running is no longer uncommon for those with the money and the means to do it.

Even if Black were inclined to flee, experts say his odds of a successful escape would be low. Even countries without extradition treaties with the United States aren’t necessarily safe harbours. A fugitive’s living conditions would be uncomfortable (think a hut in the jungle, not a five-star beach resort), and he would be a hunted man. But with a little luck and ingenuity, it can be done, say security experts.

Last year, Jacob Alexander, the former CEO of Comverse Technology, ran to Namibia after being charged with backdating stock options. He has reportedly been pouring money into the country to forestall extradition efforts. In 2004, after being charged with tax fraud, Herbert Axelrod, a publisher of pet care books, made for Cuba and then

Switzerland before being arrested. In fact, Douglas McNabb, a criminal defence and extradition lawyer, says he gets “blitzed with emails or calls” from people who are thinking of running. (He can’t and won’t offer them advice, though.)

The poster boy for financial fugitives is Robert Vesco, a shrewd businessman who came under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the 1970s for stealing over US$200 million from a Swiss mutual fund company. Rather than face fraud and racketeering charges, Vesco made a run for Costa Rica, where a well-placed donation bought him protection from extradition. When he fell out of favour there, Vesco skipped to various other countries, including Nicaragua and Antigua, before settling in Cuba in the 1980s. Apparently not content lazing on the beach drinking mojitos with his new Cuban wife, he embarked on a pharmaceutical scam, eventually running afoul of Fidel Castro and earning, at the age of 60, a 13-year sentence in a Cuban prison in 1999.

Even before Vesco, Cuba has been the fugitive’s favourite destination, and some of the efforts used to get there have been spectacular. In 1969, Black Panther William Lee Brent hijacked an airplane to Havana to avoid trial for shooting two San Francisco police officers. But fugitives wouldn’t have to resort to such desperate measures should they elect to bolt for Cuba. Getting there is as simple as procuring a boat and making the short trip from Florida, says Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on Cuba now with the University of Miami. “If you drove to Key West and bought a sailboat and sailed it to Hemingway Marina, not far from Havana, you would have no trouble docking and getting on dry land,” he says. Traffic is closely monitored coming from Cuba to the United States, but not vice versa. The waters can be violent and rough (many Cubans who attempt the journey on homemade rafts drown) but are usually teeming with boat traffic, and navigable so long as the fugitive invests in a seaworthy vessel.

While historically Cuba has had no problem sheltering U.S. fugitives and refusing extradition (in spite of the fact the country

has a 100-year-old extradition treaty with the United States), Latell cautions that there are signs the winds are changing, pointing out an important, but largely unnoticed U.S. State Department document released this year. “The Cuban government continued to permit U.S. fugitives to live legally in Cuba and is unlikely to satisfy U.S. extradition requests,” reads the document. “Cuba has stated, however, that it will no longer provide safe haven to new U.S. fugitives who may enter Cuba.”

A better destination for financial fugitives these days is Venezuela, says Chris Mathers, an intelligence expert and former undercover RCMP officer. Given that country’s fast deteriorating relationship with the U.S., Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez would likely have no qualms harbouring a wealthy, high-profile U.S. criminal, even if only to generate some publicity while annoying the United States, says Mathers.

Leaving the United States via airplane is not that difficult, he adds. A common tactic used to get to Cuba, for instance, is to charter a plane, file a flight plan for Jamaica, and then head from there to Cuba, Mathers explains. The fact that a fugitive’s passport has been seized isn’t a big problem either. Passports are useful for getting into a country, but not needed to flee one, he adds.

There are limited places to run to, however, and few countries left in the world that don’t have extradition treaties with the U.S. “There’s a very limited amount of places and most of them are pretty undesirable,” says Frank Rubino, a Miami-based international criminal defence lawyer who has represented highprofile clients like Manuel Noriega. He says Iran and Libya are possibilities, but they aren’t places many people would want to live, a sentiment echoed by Mathers, who calls today’s fugitive hideouts “backwaters.” Most such places wouldn’t be friendly to outsiders (especially Westerners), and white-collar criminals usually don’t travel in circles that would lend them the kind of connections needed to survive.

White-collar types tend to prefer more luxurious locales. Former Bre-X executive John Felderhof (who wasn’t a fugitive and was found innocent last month of the security charges he faced in the Bre-X scandal) passed time during his seven-year-long Canadian trial at a resort in Bali. Indonesia is a part of the world where it would be possible to disappear, says Mathers. But again, the living conditions for someone as recognizable as Black would be terrible.

Even if a fugitive were to escape the U.S. and get somewhere like Venezuela or Libya, the lack of an extradition treaty wouldn’t stop the U.S. from managing to bring him

back, say lawyers. “You’d be amazed at the number of people sent back to the U.S. who didn’t have an extradition hearing,” says Rubino. In many cases, the courts simply don’t come into play. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s not illegal for fed-

TF YOU DROVE TO KEY WEST AND SAILED TO HEMINGWAY MARINA, YOU WOULD HAVE NO TROUBLE DOCKING1

eral agents to go in and kidnap a fugitive from a foreign country, notes McNabb. Rubino says when it comes down to it, fugitives must remember they have no rights or protections outside those countries where they hold citizenship.

Beyond the risk of being captured by U.S. federal agents, a fugitive would also have to contend with bounty hunters. Duane “Dog” Chapman, star of the TV show Dog the Bounty Hunter, says someone with a $20million bail would be an attractive target, though typically financial fugitives don’t excite him, he adds. “If the crime is against

women and children, I’m on it. If it’s some kind of white-collar scam, I can catch him, but the gratification is nothing,” he says.

Things have been getting more difficult for fugitives in the age of terrorism with the renewed focus on law enforcement, says Chapman, who recently wrote a book titled You Can Run But You Can’t Hide. And those who run inevitably regret it, he says. “I catch a lot of guys and they say, ‘Oh Dog, thank you. It’s terrible, it’s a terrible life.’ ” One thing that helps a fugitive, though, is having money. In 2003, Chapman went to Mexico and captured Max Factor cosmetics heir Andrew Luster, who was wanted on rape charges. “It took us l60 days to catch Andrew because he does have money and he’s very arrogant,” says Chapman.

Mathers agrees that, ultimately, the key to any fugitive’s success is adequate funds. The ability to pay people (from prison guards to Third World despots) for protection or buy them offis all that stands between safety and a quick trip back to the U.S. But even so, accessing money would be difficult, says Mathers. Known accounts would be frozen and financial organizations would be reluctant to help. But there are alternatives to cash. Martin Frankel, who was accused of stealing US$200 million from life insurance companies, bought 814 diamonds to finance a life on the run in 1999 before he disappeared from his Greenwich, Conn., mansion. He was, however, caught four months later in Germany, and in 2004 the diamonds were auctioned off by the Internal Revenue Service.

Still, every so often a fugitive manages to successfully carve out a nice life. Several Britons on the run have reportedly lived comfortably in northern Cyprus. In 1983, billionaire U.S. trader Marc Rich was charged with 51 counts of tax fraud and fled to Switzerland, where he lived until President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2001. After being indicted for tax evasion in 1986, American Jay Picon settled in Belize, where he bought citizenship (a loophole that has since been closed) and opened a resort. Because of the nature of his crime, the U.S. hasn’t pursued him. Picon declined to speak to Maclean’s, but when asked about his fugitive life, he told the Wall Street Journal in 2001, “It ain’t so tough if you know what you’re doing.” M

Kate Lunau