It’s nice to be wanted

The story of how I spent two years on the U.S. Marshals’ Top 15 Most Wanted list as a fugitive from justice.

It’s nice to be wanted

The story of how I spent two years on the U.S. Marshals’ Top 15 Most Wanted list as a fugitive from justice.

I sat on the edge of a cliff at Great Falls National Park, smoking a joint and drinking a bottle of vodka, preparing to fake my own demise. Death, or at least “death,” was the most preferable option, considering the alternative was spending my youth in prison.

I’d spent my late teenage years dealing weed and psychedelics while following the Grateful Dead, only to get busted by cops in Northern Virginia for selling LSD and marijuana at East Coast colleges back in 1991. In my youthful, defiant brain, I’d just been selectively disregarding the law, just like everyone else does — albeit on a scale that involved thousands of hits of acid. I’d get LSD sent to me by an associate on the West Coast, and then distribute it, wholesale, to a network of suppliers and dealers. Unfortunately, one of the people on that supply chain turned out to be an undercover cop.

Though as a dealer I never shot anyone or beat anybody down, some LSD that had passed through my hands found its way into those of a teenager, who in June 1991 was found by the Fairfax County cops, tripping on six tabs of acid, naked except for a blanket. As the officers attempted to restore some calm to the situation, things got heated and the kid somehow managed to steal one of the cops’ guns and ended up shooting one of them in the chest (thankfully, the officer lived).

Facing a 20-to-life sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty in court, my options were to take a big sentence while being forced to cooperate against my friends or take the fuck off. As soon as I plead guilty, I started planning my escape. It was the height of the War on Drugs and in the eyes of the law, nothing was worse than being a drug dealer. Thanks in part to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, dealers were getting hit with decades-long prison stints for committing non-violent crimes, and five- or 10-year mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses were helping to pack the country’s prisons to the gills.

The author’s wanted poster.

The author’s wanted poster.

My plan was to disappear, wait for Seth Ferranti to be declared legally dead after seven years — the amount of time it takes for a missing person to be declared dead in absentia — and live my life quietly under an assumed name somewhere far away. Faking my suicide seemed the best route available. So the night before the feds wanted me to testify against my associates in court, I wrote a suicide note and left some clothes on the edge of the cliff, along with my wallet, the bottle of liquor, and a pack of cigarettes. I even threw a pair of shoes and some clothes in the raging river below.

It turned out that killing my old self was not so simple. Rather than fading away quietly, however, I wound up on the agency’s Top 15 Most Wanted List. It’s kind of like the FBI’s Top 10, but different — the FBI is more investigative and focused on both national and international issues, while the U.S. Marshals are in charge of apprehending fugitives who failed to appear in court or escaped. While it provided me with a great story, it led to two years of constantly looking over my shoulder as I committed even more crimes in an attempt to get out of being punished for the crimes I’d already been convicted of. And when the hammer came down, it came down hard.

The number of fugitives on the lam at any time in the U.S. is significant. In fiscal 2018, the Marshals alone apprehended 86,703 fugitives on federal, state, and local warrants. That amounts to an average of 347 fugitive arrests per operational day.

“Most fugitives are typically caught within weeks or months, though fugitives can be at large for years and some are never found.” Ed Palattella, author of the forthcoming book, On the Lam: A History of Hunting Fugitives in America, told me. “In terms of criminals who’ve appeared on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, the shortest time a fugitive spent on the list was two hours, the longest a fugitive was on the list before getting caught was nearly 32 years.”

I was on the run for two years, from 1991 until 1993. After staging my suicide, I bought a one-way plane ticket to L.A. with cash. On the plane, I felt relieved, and even defiant. But that bravado was undercut by an undercurrent of panic, a feeling of What the fuck have I just done? I was walking on pins and needles into the unknown — after all, if you give the entire government the slip, then that means the entire government is going to come after you.

The author in Los Angeles.

The author in Los Angeles.

I arrived in L.A. with no ID and about $2,000. There, I hooked up with an old girlfriend, whom I’ll call Penelope. She lived with her parents on Point Mugu, a Navy base north of the city on Highway 101. Obviously, her family didn't know I was a fugitive. I told them that I was enrolling at UCLA and would be finding a place in Brentwood, and they were nice enough to put me up for a couple weeks. Penelope would drive me into L.A. every day and we’d check out the UCLA area, looking for a cheap room for me.

I found a newsstand in Hollywood that carried the D.C. papers and followed the stories about my disappearance and the trial of my co-defendants that followed. After dragging the river for two weeks, the feds declared my suicide a hoax due to no body being found. Apparently I’d staged my death on the wrong side of the dam, and my body wouldn’t have been physically able to float out to sea as I’d intended.

In retrospect, of course the cops were going to figure out that I’d flown the coop, no matter where I’d left my shit — I was a freaked-out kid facing down two decades in prison who the government wanted to use to make their case, and I was not down with that. If there were ever a candidate for running, it was me. I hate to say it, but despite the danger that I knew I was now in, on some level, I felt proud to see my name in the paper, to know that everyone else now knew I’d pulled one over on the feds. As an older man looking back, I’d say that was a stupid way of looking at it, but back then, it felt like I was Billy the Kid.

In order to start from scratch, I had to turn back to crime. I stole several identities by following the instructions in “how to disappear” manuals like Reborn in the U.S.A. and The Paper Trip. Per their advice, I would scour old newspaper obituaries and try to find someone that was born in one state but died in another at a young age, then pose as a family member trying to get ahold of their death certificate. Then, I’d use the information on that document to write the state that person was born in, requesting their birth certificate. Once I got the birth certificate, I was home free to build a new identity. (It goes without saying that mining obituaries to create a false identity is wrong and can cause great distress to the families of the deceased person in question. It also earned me a whole host of extra charges when I finally did get caught.)

No matter what I did, though, I was still a fugitive from justice, and every day, I was digging myself even deeper into a hole. Although I was able to make some friends in L.A. — it’s easy to meet people when you’re a young kid who wants to go out and party, after all — I missed home. My mom, who knew I’d gone on the run, had a system with me where we’d talk to each other through payphones, planning our calls months in advance. But it wasn’t a substitute for a real relationship with her. What’s more, no matter how much I’d planned and prepared for my new life, there was only so much I could do to account for the mental stress of being on the run. Every time I got in the car, I had to check and see which fake license I had, quizzing myself on the person’s name, birthday, and social security number. I thought the feds were around every corner, and in some moments, believed that they could read my thoughts. Consumed by paranoia and constantly on edge, I didn’t see how this “new life” thing was going to work out.

My struggles on the run weren’t unique. “Going clean as a fugitive usually is not an option,” Ed Palattella told me. “Even if a fugitive stops committing crimes while on the lam, he or she is most likely never able to adapt to regular life. The idea that you’re wanted makes you suspicious and never able to truly be yourself.”

“In a weird sort of way, [going on the run] is like relocating for a job,” Frank M. Ahearn, a private investigator who specializes in helping victims of scams and extremely private individuals disappear, said (Ahearn calls himself the “Dear Abby of disappearing”). “You need funds to get where you are going, a down payment for an apartment, [money to pay for] utilities, etc.” In his opinion, the hardest part of being a fugitive is not having or being able to earn money, which can tempt those on the lam to fall back into crime to make ends meet. “Most who escape have an ‘over the wall’ mentality — they don't think past the escape,” he explained. “It’s ‘get out’ and then ‘survival mode.’”

I had full intentions of settling down and not returning to hustling cannabis and psychedelics, but the money I’d brought to L.A. quickly ran out. I tried to find jobs, but I didn’t have any skills. And seeing that L.A. is full of aspiring showbiz types who also don’t have any skills, I had a lot of competition. So I took off to Texas, where I linked up with my high school buddy, whom I’ll call Sergio, who around the time everything started jumping off had extended an offer to help me out, no questions asked, if I was ever in a bind.

Chilling in Dallas with Sergio, I got my act together. I got a couple fresh fraudulent IDs and got a job. But I missed the fast times and easy money that came with selling drugs. I tracked down my old weed connect, Mexican Eddie, and started moving bricks of pot.

Within a couple of months, I was running loads of weed from Dallas to St. Louis. I got back into the grind quickly. Once you start selling, you get used to it. You get used to the money, the people always hitting you up. I liked to be the center of attention and being a drug dealer gave me the stature and recognition I craved. In its own way, that lifestyle can be as addictive as any drug out there.

But then a friend and I got caught in a Burger King parking lot with a half-pound of weed in a guitar case in my guy’s truck. I gave the cops one of my phony IDs, which prevented them from immediately realizing they’d stumbled across a highly wanted individual, but the damage was done. The local cops had taken my prints, which meant that after two years of radio silence, I was back on the Marshals’ radar.

On October 1, 1993 at 6:45 a.m., a U.S. Marshal named Luke Adler and the special fugitive task force burst into my motel room in Bridgeton, Missouri. It was kind of a relief to get caught. I could be myself again. No more stolen identities. No more making up inconceivable backstories. No more risking my freedom by placing secret phone calls to my mom from payphones. No more running. I was extradited to Virginia, where I’d initially been arrested, held at Alexandria County Jail. On December 17, 1993, I was given a 292-month federal drug sentence. The judge added 64 months to my original sentence for Obstruction of Justice and Failure to Appear.

I’ve been living in St. Louis since I got out in January of 2015. I write books, articles, and screenplays, produce documentaries, and work a side job a few days a week. My work focuses on helping the incarcerated tell their stories, exposing people to both the reality of the conditions these folks face behind bars, as well as the exploits that got them there in the first place. Through a producer friend, I got in touch with Adler, who’s since retired and written a lightly fictionalized book about his experiences called Chasing Bandits — he devoted an entire chapter to me — to say hello. While wrapping up this story, I thought it would be cool to ask him to review how I did on the run. When I reached out, he told me this:

Seth was a U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) Top 15 Most Wanted Fugitive when I picked up his trail in St. Louis. He was a brilliant young kid who could have taught tradecraft classes at Langley. Seth was a ghost, who used safe houses and changed identities often. Seth was one of the most challenging fugitives I’ve ever chased. We spent 48 hours of nonstop pursuit and captured Seth asleep in a motel room. He was a young guy who made bad choices and compounded them with worse ones. I often look at the wanted poster he signed for me, [It said], “Luke, it’s nice to be wanted. Let’s do this again real soon.”

It turns out that, according to Adler, lots of fugitives end up going on the run again. “The likelihood of someone starting a new life while they’re a fugitive is slim,” he said, adding, “I have arrested the same fugitives multiple times for various crimes during my career.”

If I’d taken off nowadays I probably would have been captured much sooner than I was. Adler used to say that a fugitive can’t outrun a radio, but going on the run today must be a totally different experience. With social media, facial recognition, smartphones, and the digital world it seems everyone is more connected.

“I remember the first time I stood outside a fugitive’s apartment and called him on a cellphone.” Adler said. “I could hear him through the mail slot and the phone simultaneously. I thought things were great then, but now with the internet, cellular technologies, social media, license plate readers, DNA, and facial recognition, fugitives are done.”

Seth Ferranti is a writer and filmmaker who began his journalism career while serving a federal drug sentence. His most recent documentary, White Boy, is on Starz.