Eric Conn, eastern Kentucky’s infamous fraudster, has been running from the law for over a month now.
Facing up to 12 years in prison, Conn sliced off his ankle bracelet, dumped it onto I-75 and — depending on who you believe — hightailed it to a country that’s difficult to extradite from, perhaps Cuba or Ecuador or Thailand.
For Conn’s long-time adversary, Floyd County lawyer Ned Pillersdorf, not one part of this saga comes as a surprise.
“The idea that he would flee is a totally predictable event,” said Pillersdorf. “There isn’t anybody in Floyd or Pike Counties who are surprised by any of this. The only thing we’re surprised by is why they gave him the opportunity to stay out.”
Pillersdorf’s question is ringing in the ears of many in eastern Kentucky: How was Conn, a man who pleaded guilty to defrauding the Social Security Administration of $550 million, able to just skip town?
The decision to release Conn was common for the federal system.
“If it’s not a crime of violence, or a particularly threatening crime like child pornography, typically those defendants are released,” said Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who writes the White Collar Watch column for the New York Times.
And it’s rare that the system is abused: Of the nearly 90,000 pretrial supervision cases the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System closed in 2016, only 306 — .003 percent — included a criminal defendant who absconded.
Conn joins a selective group in the Eastern District of Kentucky, where only three people under pretrial supervision have fled in the last five years. The neighboring Western District has an even better record — only one person has gone fugitive in that time.
The bail system is designed to establish minimum conditions that protect the community from harm and get the defendant to show up in court. Faced with those minuscule fugitive numbers — and the non-violent nature of most white-collar crimes — it can be hard for a prosecutor to convince the judge there are circumstances that require the defendant to be detained.
Even Bernie Madoff was trusted to await his 150-year prison sentence from the comfort of his homes.
But Pillersdorf said Conn bragged about his international travel and the large amounts of cash he kept on hand. Conn’s former employees cited a dozen marriages and divorces, often to women who lived overseas, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Former employees told the FBI that Conn had talked of fleeing to a country without an extradition treaty — Ecuador and Cuba were often named — if his scheme was ever discovered.
After Conn’s indictment, prosecutors pushed for detention. An assistant U.S. Attorney presented a single witness, an FBI agent who offered mostly second-hand accounts of evidence underscoring Conn’s flight risk. Conn’s attorneys argued that if he was going to flee, he would have done it long before he was indicted.
Magistrate Judge Robert Wier decided to release Conn into home supervision.
“Whatever Conn may have said to employees in contemplation of a nascent investigation, the passage of years, the evolution of the investigation and Conn’s current posture indicate that he is well-tied to this district and likely planning to defend himself instead of to flee,” Wier wrote in his ruling.
Prosecutors didn’t appeal Wier’s decision at the time. Almost a year later, when Conn pleaded guilty, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to home supervision until his sentencing.
Judges Aim To Mitigate Risk
Even without detention, judges have a variety of tools intended to reduce flight risk. For example, Wier ordered Conn to surrender his passport, secure his house as bond and remain in his home, tracked by a GPS ankle monitor.
While ankle monitors are intended to deter people from escaping, Louisville private investigator Bill Clutter believes they are no match for many criminals. Clutter once had a client who didn’t recharge the ankle monitor’s batteries and it stopped tracking him.
“Eventually, he got a knock on the door. But in the meantime, he went on a crime spree,” Clutter said.
U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services is notified if the monitor isn’t charged, is tampered with or cut off.
The FBI declined to say how quickly probation officers were notified that Conn’s tracker had been removed, except to say it was the same night he fled.
No More “Club Fed”
In bright yellow billboards that dotted the eastern Kentucky landscape, Conn called himself “Mr. Social Security,” touting his success at getting Social Security disability and supplemental security benefits for clients.
That success was a sham. He paid Pikeville psychologist Bradley Adkins to falsify medical exams and Social Security Administrative Law Judge David Daugherty to approve the claims, earning Conn $23 million in fees. Both men also face federal prison time.
As a result of the investigation, nearly 1,500 of Conn’s former clients temporarily lost their benefits while their cases were reheard. Eight hundred clients lost their benefits permanently.
Pillersdorf won $31 million for Conn’s victims in a class-action lawsuit this year. With Conn on the run, they’re unlikely to see much of that money. For many, the only justice they could expect was to see Conn behind bars.
In court, Wier told Conn he trusted him not to abuse the system.
“Your trust is not misplaced,” said the man who lied to the government for over a decade.
Now, there’s an international manhunt to ensure Conn serves the time he’s earned — and then some. Due to his escape, he faces at least 18 additional months in jail.
“He could have gotten a very lenient sentence and served that out in a ‘Club Fed,’ as they call it,” said Clutter, referring to minimum-security federal prisons where many white-collar criminals land. “But now that he’s a fugitive, he’s going to compound the time. They’re going to come down and hammer him hard when they find him.”
If they find him. Pillersdorf isn’t optimistic.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever see him again,” he said. “It took the FBI 16 years to find Whitey Bulger and Conn’s a lot smarter than Whitey Bulger.”
Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (502) 814.6544.