We spoke to a guy currently on the run, one who was caught and is currently in prison, and another who's now free, about hiding out from the law.
Illustration af Jack Hamilton
Disappearing isn't easy. Your ex is probably still friends with you on Facebook; there's a good chance you've accidentally geotagged all your tweets; and bank statements, GPS entries, browser history, and phone records can leave digital traces of you everywhere. With access to your cyber footprint, someone could basically track your movements by the minute.
However, despite all this, there are still people who manage to slip through the cracks, even while the police are hunting them.
There are 31 people on the the UK's National Crime Agency's most-wanted list, some of whom have been on the run for over a decade and have a £10,000 [$12,513] reward for information leading to their arrest. The Crimestoppers website, which allows civilians to leave anonymous tips for police, lists 355 wanted individuals, but the exact number of people on the run from the police in the UK is unclear.
Who are these people who have dedicated their lives to running from the police? People who have made themselves so anonymous that even the people paid to find them can't.
"You don't realize how much of your life is spent looking at shit on your phone until you have to throw it in a river."
Shaun* was released on bail after being charged with assault last year, but when he failed to turn up to his court hearings, he broke the conditions of his temporary release. Now, he'll be taken into a remand prison if he's caught.
"You know what? I'm so fucking bored," he says over the phone, adding that he hasn't been able to go on Facebook in almost two months. "You don't realize how much of your life is spent looking at shit on your phone until you have to throw it in a river."
After ditching his phone and his iPad, Shaun left his parents' house wearing his dad's clothes ("they'd have recognized me in a tracksuit") and never looked back. Living in an undisclosed location with a friend, he knows his days of relative freedom are numbered but is terrified of going to prison.
"I know I can't run forever," he says, "but I can't face going inside. Not now, after all this. I haven't spoken to my parents or anything. I've made it worse for myself."
Unlike Shaun, 34-year-old Steve* decided to take his loved ones along for the ride when he fled the police. He's currently serving a two-year sentence for fraud but spent just as long on the outside trying to avoid it. Steve handed himself in after being given an ultimatum by his wife, who was tired of living like a fugitive.
"She said to me, 'Steve, I haven't done anything wrong. I can't live like this any longer,' and I knew it was either hand myself in and face up to it, or lose her and the kids," he says over the phone from prison. "It wasn't fair for me to put them through all that shit, but you're not really thinking straight when you know you're going to get locked up."
Josh*, 45, was on the run for two years before he was eventually captured and sentenced to seven years in prison. Freed in 2012 after serving the full sentence, Josh says he had no idea that he was wanted in three countries when he decided to run. He explains that in most cases, like Shaun's, people on the run are waiting for their cases to be heard or for their co-accused to be charged. "In my case, I didn't know how serious I was wanted," he says. "I had a fucking idiot lawyer who told me it wasn't that serious, when in reality it was very, very serious."
I asked him, "If you'd known how serious it was, would you still have run?"
"I would have run further," he replies. "I always had a false passport ready for an emergency. In my line of work, it would be irresponsible not to. I got a phone call one night saying that they'd arrested someone who was on his way to meet me. I had warning, so I ran—they fucked up, and they missed me. By the time they got to my house, I was already gone."
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Josh, originally from central England, made his way from his adopted home city of Madrid to Valencia, where he lived undercover. He did the most cliché thing someone on the run can do—he grew a beard. However, he also adopted the identity in his new passport and cut ties with everyone from his former life.
"The most important thing is to not have direct contact with family," he says. "They'll monitor them, knowing that sooner or later you'll get in touch. That's how they catch most people. You have to be disciplined."
Being disciplined for Josh meant never delving into a bank account, even when his cash was running low. When he left Madrid, he took all the physical money he could, but "there's only so much you can carry."
Josh says that keeping his head above water is one of the hardest parts of being on the run. "It's expensive running all the time—people rip you off constantly. When you're paying for an apartment or buying a car in cash, it doesn't take a mind reader to work out something's going on. People up-charge you for stuff in exchange for staying quiet."
"Eventually you need to replenish your funds," he says. "The loss of earnings hits you, and that's when things get even more risky, as you have to contact people from your old life, or work with new people. Neither are ideal when you're trying to keep a low profile—frying pan or fire."
Josh was eventually caught when he tried to collect money he was owed. The debtor panicked and called the police, and when Josh left his apartment the next morning to get breakfast, there were eight armed officers waiting for him.
Now a free man, Josh's habits from his days on the run stay with him. Sitting in the passenger seat of his car, he drives me through busy London streets, pointing out exactly where security cameras are, which traffic cameras aren't in use, and which of the hundreds of vehicles passing by are undercover police cars. He gestures toward a plainclothes police officer in a rush-hour crowd at the underground metro station.
It's like he's developed a sixth sense—adapting to his undercover environment after living the majority of his life on the wrong side of the law.
When I ask Josh what the hardest part about life on the run was, he says it was getting caught. "I'd do it all again," he says. "You never surrender; never, ever give up. You could be diagnosed with cancer and die within two months. I'd rather spend my time on the run than in jail."
*All names have been changed.