Hey guys, Noah here. I started doing a number of interviews with some inmates here in prison because over the years, I have just been so fascinated by their stories. And with their permission, I wanted to start sharing a few of my favorites on the blog.
First up is my friend Chris, who was previously featured here on the blog for his written piece “The Gifted Table.” The back story on Chris is that he was sentenced to 175 months for mortgage-related fraud after a flight from justice that encompassed three continents, spanned three oceans, and nine countries.
Chris is set to release in the upcoming year and reflects in this conversation with me about his choices, running, and the consequences.
His story continues to fascinate me and it was really cool to sit down with him and do a real interview. So let’s get started…here’s my interview with Chris and his experience on fleeing the country…
1. You were initially looking at a five-year deal. Did that seem like a lot of time? Is that why you ran?
In the early stages of my case, in 2008, I was notified I was a target of a mortgage-fraud related case. My first counsel was able to get an initial, and tentative, offer of a five year prison sentence for my conduct in operating various mortgage brokerages/correspondent lenders and an escrow company. I was twenty five years old, about to turn twenty six, and five years seemed like an impossible amount of time to do. Relying on Hollywood and my own imagination, I felt – at the time – that running away was just an easier solution than doing a five year prison bid. So that is why I ran – out of fear – and it is still the second worst decision of my life, right after my decision to commit crimes in the first place.
2. When you decided to run, did you tell your wife, were there plans to bring your family with you?
My then wife and children stayed behind by mutual decision in a different state than we had previously lived in. They would return to our home state several years later.
3. Did you plan to eventually come back for them?
Not specifically, but there was a vague understanding or hope that eventually, the family would be re-united.
4. How did you plan to support you and your family financially?
By stealing money from a large firm called Taylor Bean and Whitaker that my mortgage firm did business with, and converting that money to cash and gold, and taking those resources with me abroad. We conducted small to mid-sized transactions with them frequently so it was not going to be an unbelievable or out-of-the-ordinary occurence (to provide context, in my seven year career, I was responsible for just over $1b in mortgage related transactions). In the end, the DOJ determined I had stolen just over $7.2m from TBW, and converted much of it to gold bullion, over 100 kilos worth.
5. Thats a lot of gold, how does someone acquire that much gold?
The simplest way – by buying it. There is buying gold, but then there is buying and taking possession of gold. The favorite denominations of gold are one ounce coins or one kilogram bars. I preferred the latter, but in the end, it would all be for naught because it is extremely difficult to move around with that kind of gold in weight. Most of the gold brokers and dealers that will provide physical delivery I found to be in Arizona at the time.
6. How hard was it to get out of the country? I assume you didn’t fly commercial?
It was a difficult proposition. I did not want to be tracked or pursued, so I had to find a way to get a different identification. I guess I thought I was Jason Bourne or Frank Abignale Jr., and that if they could do, why couldn’t I? I forgot that one was a fictional character and that the other was caught and operated in the seventies, not in the post 9/11 world we live in. I ended up getting passports in different names and using a chartered jet to fly to Beirut, Lebanon.
7. Out of all the places in the world, why the hell did you chose Lebanon?
I was following the outline from the fictional world of Hollywood. In my delusion, I kept “forgetting” that movies are not real. The movies would have us all believe that if you get a bunch of money, just go to a “non-extradition” country, and you are good to go! So, I found a middle-eastern, Muslim-majority nation that is no friend of the United States, and figured, it’s on the Med and the U.S. can’t get me there. Just like Teretto from the Fast and the Furious! But newsflash – Hollywood makes fiction. The US government has friends even where they don’t have friends. If they cannot use an extradition treaty to come and get you themselves, they simply utilize the Red Alert process with INTERPOL and then INTERPOL comes and attempts to apprehend you. And that is exactly what happened – INTERPOL issued a Red Alert for me and was boots-on-the-ground inside of 10 days of my arrival in Lebanon. It did not help that I was a white, non-muslim, American, who was only capable of speaking English, on bad IDs. A little bit less Jason Bourne than I thought.
8. If you could get a do-over, but still had to flee, where would you go?
A major United States metropolitan city where I fit in and blended in. But this still would not have worked long term as other fugitives have discovered. There is no good way to flee, so the best solution is for us to not commit crimes that we need to flee from.
9. Once you got to Lebanon, was it everything you dreamed of?
If my dream included living in absolute fear, being extorted by the very people who helped me get into the country, losing all the “money” that I thought was “mine,” then yes….it was a dream come true. It was a complete and unabated nightmare. Our modern culture makes being a fugitive as some type of action life that is fun, exciting, and larger-than-life. Instead, it is dirty, terrifying, lonely, and beyond stressful.
10. So you are telling me you got robbed for the gold you stole? You have to love the irony of that?
It is even more ironic than that. Technically, I committed fraud to “steal” the funds from Taylor Bean and Whitaker. Well, apparently, TBW and their founder/CEO Lee Farkas, had been “stealing” from their investors (including BofA, Freddie Mac, etc.) to the tune of $2.9 billion in total fraudulent transactions, leaving a $400 million in cash hole. Lee Farkas, most of his board, and others, were all indicted while I sat in county jail litigating my case. So I stole stolen money from another thief only to have it stolen from me by other thiefs. One thing I have come to believe in is karma. I read it in the more Christian terms – we reap what we sow. But, karma by any name and filled with – as you called it – irony.
11. So was your run in with INTERPOL just like the movies?
No, absolutely not. There were no shoot-outs. There was no amazingly beautiful woman who just thought running from international cops was the coolest thing in the world. There were no stays in five stars hotels and quick one-liners at them as I ran. It was a bunch of sleeping on trains and knowing or hearing from others that “hey they were just here,” knowing that “here” means they are only 10-12 hours behind you, at best.
12. When did you decide Lebanon wasn’t for you?
Americans cannot go to Lebanon without a visa and a sponsor for that visa. When the sponsor for my visa went dark, and others had informed me INTERPOL was on the ground, I knew it was time to go. As quickly as I had come, I left Lebanon.
13. How did you get out of Lebanon, and where did you go?
I left by a commercial flight and went into the EU. I traveled through Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, and Munich, before flying to Toronto. In Toronto, I was pulled in for secondary questioning. To this day I have no idea why or how I got through secondary. My current belief is that the Canadians knew who I was, had contacted the Americans, and the Americans asked for them to cut me loose figuring I was making a run for the US border (which I was) and that they could just pick me up there and avoid an extradition fight. However it happened – and we never found out – I got through secondary at Canadian customs. From there, I made a run for the United States, hoping that 1) I could get into the country, and 2) if I got apprehended, at least I would have my American rights, in American custody, and get to see my family again. By this time, I had realized the severity of my mistake in fleeing, had been disenfranchised with the delusion of grandeur associated with being an international fugitive, and didn’t mind if attempting to re-enter the United States was the end.
14. So, is it safe to assume it is harder to get back into the U.S. than out of it?
Yes, it is. I was apprehended under an alias-based passport at the Niagra Falls crossing between Tornoto and Buffalo. On me was about $80k in cash and the certificates of ownership for about 100k of 1kilo Swiss gold bars, and some miscellaneous precious metals – the Buffalo printed press ran the story the next day. While that apprehension was tense, with CBP agents, guns, etc., it was not as terrifying as being a twenty-six year old, overweight, overconfident, idiot in Lebanon running around flirting with death. It is a miracle that I survived.
15. Can you describe for us the scene when you were apprehended?
I was in a taxi van at a border crossing on the “Freedom Bridge” at about 2 am. The van gets boxed in by a CBP vehicle front and rear, and multiple agents egress, armed, with all the “noise” and command of an authority-based action. The driver was extremely disappointed that his night was ruined. I felt a mix between “oh shit” and a huge flood of pure relief.
16. We now know you received a 14 year and 7 month sentence. That is a lot more than five years. How was that justified?
I received an indictment with 44 counts and a technical maximum punishment of over 800 years. Applying the guidelines properly, it still was a realistic maximum exposure of around 24 – 28 years, which was a very bleak outlook. Part of my personal deficiencies when I fled the country was a lack of empathy for others. In my selfishness, I only considered all things from my perspective, not others. When I was offered a plea agreement for 14 years and 7 months, I knew the only option was to accept. This was because the alternative, over 20 years, would simply have been devastating to the other people in my life – my family, my children, my parents. The 14 years and 7 months would equate into just over 11 years served, which would give them my presence in a difficult, yet survivable, time frame.
I would say that the Government probably justified their thirst for high sentencing due to external factors, including the 2009 mortgage collapse and corresponding recession, the public call for punishment for those involved, and my flight from justice. Two years of the total sentence is related to the passports I used in the flight, and another 30-month adjustment directly relates to the gross receipts from the theft from TBW. I was a twenty six year old, non-violent, first time offender; and at the same time, there were aggravating circumstances to the case. I have been at peace with the sentence for some time with the knowledge that it could have been much worse, and I am blessed to have survived Lebanon with my life.
17. There has to be a ton of regret. What weighs on you the most?
The decision to flee the country. Without a doubt. My children should have had their father back years ago. The original slippery slope into the world of fraud in relation to mortgage origination happened in small steps, a progression, so it is harder to identify “one moment” in that path. But the flight out of the United States had the highest amount of damage to others. So this is the decision I regret the most. In terms of personal reflection, I regret not being open-minded to spiritual realities and working to be a more honest, humble, and responsible individual.
18. Is it true that you almost ended up on Discovery Channels “I almost Got Away With It”? I bet you could have used that money, why did you not do it?
It is true that the producers of that show – which aired on Discovery – reached out with an offer I was interested in pursuing at the time. However, the media request was denied by the prison authorities.
19. I have heard a lot of tall tales, but this takes the cake. Why should I believe you?
You have no reason to believe me. But my old Red Alert should still be available on the INTERPOL archives online, and for some time, my case was featured on the DOJ website from their response to the 2009 mortgage collapse. There is, however, just as much mis-information online about this case as their is correct information. For example, the Sacramento Bee, couldn’t even get my high school of graduation correct in their reporting. Or in another example, while still a fugitive, the Government attempted to make me feel “comfortable” in Lebanon by stating they thought I was in Mexico, which was reported at the time. But all that said, you have no reason to believe me, nor do I answer these questions attempting to give myself more credibility. I am answering these questions for two reasons. First, in hope that other people in desparate situations don’t do something irrational – such as fleeing the country – that will only make things worse for those who love them; and, secondly, to speak about redemptive purposes coming from really negative situations.
20. If there is someone reading this story who is thinking about running, what advice would you give them?
Don’t do it. Accept responsibility for what has happened, and go find another solution. Even if that solution means painful things for you. If the United States Government wants to find you, they will. They found Whitey Bulger after twenty years and they can find anyone, anywhere. I am just one of many idiots who thought we were too smart. In fact, delusional is a better description. Don’t join this club. Do the right thing, even if its the painful thing. Maybe thats not even turning yourself in, but just sitting and waiting for them to come. I don’t know what it may be for you – but just don’t run. It only makes things worse. And not just for you. For your dad, your mom, your kids, your siblings, your friends, everyone!
21. What are your plans for the future?
My plans are to take each day one at a time. No plans for the future can be controlled, let alone by me.
As for work, I will take what I can get as my release is set for early 2020. But if anyone from Frank Agibnale and Associates is reading this, I’d love to work for your mortgage division if you could find a desk for me in Sacramento 🙂 Ultimately, after these four thousand days of incarceration, I simply want to be present for my family, continue my graduate school studies, and contribute in a positive way to the people around me.