The Longform.org Guide to Fugitives

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
June 25 2011 7:06 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Fugitives

From Whitey Bulger to the Barefoot Bandit, six amazing stories about life on the lam.

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Every weekend, Longform.org shares five great stories from its archive with Slate. For a daily selection of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

James "Whitey" Bulger.

Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

The summer has gotten off to a bad start for big-name fugitives. After more than a decade on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, James "Whitey" Bulger was captured in Santa Monica. And Colton Harris-Moore, the Internet-famous Barefoot Bandit, pleaded guilty in Seattle last week. What's next for both of them—prison, namely—is relatively clear. But what was life like before they were caught? Here are six stories about fugitive living:

Whitey Bulger's Life on the Run Shelley Murphy • Boston Globe • January 1998

Three years after skipping town, Bulger was frustrating investigators and endearing himself to neighbors all over the country. He made a particularly good impression with Gautreaux family in Grand Isle, Louisiana, where he spent the winter in 1995 and 1996 with the girlfriend who led to his capture this week.

The Whitey Bulger who was branded a reputed killer, crime boss, and bank robber by the 1986 President's Commission on Organized Crime often shut off the Gautreaux television, lecturing them on how bad it was to expose children to violent shows, including the local news.

This Whitey Bulger wept when a dying puppy was shot in the head to end its suffering. He went fishing once and tossed back all the small fish.

When two of the Gautreaux children came home from school with a note saying they had vision problems, Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, bought them glasses

"He was a very nice man," said Penny Gautreaux, a slender brunette who doesn't regret welcoming Bulger into her home. "He treated us like family. He was kind. He really had a nice personality. How could you not love him?"

The Ballad of Colton Harris-Moore Bob Friel • Outside • December 200

A view of the Barefoot Bandit from his hometown.

When you look at the facts, it's easy to understand why he's garnered so much attention: His name is Colt, carrying the gunslinging resonance of the Wild West. He's escaped a jail (albeit a baby jail) and evaded several sheriffs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and even the FBI for 20 months. He's underdogging it alone in the Northwest wilderness, yet he's followed by bloggers and Facebookers worldwide, the modern equivalent of yesteryear's sensationalized dime-novel hero. During his many close calls, the cops claim Colt has "vaporized," "vanished," and "ran like lightning." When the posse does close in, he allegedly rustles luxury cars, boats, and even planes. And something no one's mentioned is that one of his hideouts on Orcas Island, Madrona Point, is an honest-to-God, can't-make-this-stuff-up ancient Indian burial ground. Hell yeah, this looks like the birth of an outlaw legend.

Vanish * Evan Ratliff • Wired • November 2009

Can a writer disappear in America for a month with a $5,000 bounty on his head? Ratliff tried to find out, and found himself with an unnerving amount of free time.

At this point, my new life seemed, superficially at least, satisfactory. My days were spent jogging along the Mississippi, haunting the coffee shops and jazz bars of my adopted neighborhood, and exploring the city by bike. I located a soccer bar and even got a one-night job selling beer and nachos for tips during a Saints game at the Superdome.

The gnawing flaw in the idyllic life of J. D. Gatz was that I did all of these activities alone. It wasn't just that I had no friends. It was that the interactions I did have were beyond superficial. They were fake. My online social networks were populated with strangers; my girlfriend was thousands of miles away; my family knew about me only from news reports and online speculation.

Silence of the Lam Melanie Thernstrom • New York Times Magazine • Dec 2000

The story of how Benjamin Holmes, wanted by the FBI for arson, spent two decades hiding in plain sight. (Also the story of how, when Holmes finally came back to see his wife, she shot him.)

Being a fugitive wouldn't appear to be as exciting as its myriad fictional treatments; the main qualities it requires are patience and paranoia. Holmes seems to have had an abundance of both. It was many months, for example, before he even had a friend send word to his wife that he was alive. He lived briefly an hour away in a friend's apartment in Lorain, Ohio, then moved back to Youngstown and lived in a racing-car clubhouse owned by friends. It was back in his hometown that he perfected his guises. His face had been altered by the burns, his skin lightened. Formerly he had been clean-shaven and bespectacled; he grew a beard and long hair, got contacts and developed a limp. He learned never to look people in the eye when talking to them -- "That's when they really see you."

The Quaid Conspiracy Nancy Jo Sales • Vanity Fair • January 2011

On the run in Canada with Randy Quaid and his wife Evi as the try to evade "the Hollywood Star Whackers":

I found the Quaids sitting in their car outside a Chinese tearoom on a block glowing with red and yellow neon lights. Nobody was around. It was night. Their car, a black Prius, was crammed with stuff—clothes, coats, shoes, papers, a pillow, blankets, and an excitable Australian cattle dog named Doji, who was hoarse from barking while he was in the pound when his owners were being detained by Canadian immigration.

The car smelled of fast food and dog pee and Randy's cigars. I asked the Quaids if they were living in their car. "Only on nights when we're too terrified to leave our stuff or don't feel secure," Evi said. "We used to have a Mercedes. This whole ordeal has forced us to become incredibly green."

A Touch of Eden Russ Baker • Esquire • December 1999

A visit to the French hideaway of Ira Einhorn, co-founder of Earth Day, who had avoided arrest on murder charges for nearly 20 years. Einhorn was extradited to the United State. in 2001 and is now serving a life sentence.

It's remarkable to see him in the flesh. Ira has kept the world at bay for most of the eighteen years since he was accused of murder and took off, vanishing and humiliating the American justice system. Now it's finally closing in on him. Six years ago, he was convicted in absentia. Today, an extradition order sits on the desk of the French prime minister, and authorities in Pennsylvania wait impatiently to bring him back in shackles. But Ira, the master at making the best of a bad situation, is again on top, at least for now. The word is that the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, who has had the paper on his desk since May, has been too busy to affix his signature to it. So Ira sits on the precipice of defeat, a life sentence hanging over his head, yet still frustrating the most powerful country in the world, which should have no trouble enforcing a key agreement with an ally--that criminals who flee punishment will be sent home. For the moment, Ira Einhorn, convicted killer, tends his sumptuous garden here in the South of France.

Have a favorite fugitive piece that we missed? Leave the link the comments or tweet it to @longformorg. For more great true crime stories, check out Longform.org's complete archive.

Correction, June 27: This article originally referred to Evan Ratliff's Wired article as "Vanished." (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.

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