What does it take to up and disappear these days? Not to head off the grid for a few days, mind you, but to actually vanish from your life? That question is the subject of a two-part feature I’ve been working on for Wired over the past few months, the first piece of which is in the September print issue, and out online now. It tells the story of an Arkansas man named Matthew Alan Sheppard who faked his death last year and took off on the run, and the cops who pieced together his plan and tried to track him down alive. The story is also a broader look at the evolving cat-and-mouse game between investigators and the intentional missing — be they fugitives from the law, insurance scammers, or people under pressure who just walk out the door one morning and never come back. The short answer is: going on the lam is not like it used to be.
The trouble with stories of people caught faking deaths, or just lighting out on the run, however, is that in hindsight they always seem to fall victim to a singular dumb error. (Or, in the case of plane-jumper Marcus Shrenker, probably the recent fake-death attempt people are most familiar with, a tidy collection of dumb errors). “If I had just…” is the refrain of the caught fugitive, while stories of successful lives on the lam — for obvious reasons — never get told. Even the Matthew Alan Sheppards of the world can’t tell us what I think we really want to know: so how hard is it really, to disappear?
So I decided to try it.
For part two of the story, I’m going on the lam for 30 days. The magazine has put a $5000 bounty on my head for anyone who finds me. The contest has a variety of rules, for both me and my presumptive pursuers, to try and make it a reasonable simulation of a real life on the run. The most important of which, for me, is this incentive: if I am found before September 15, most of that $5k comes out of my story fee.
You can find the details, and follow or participate in the speculation, at www.wired.com/vanish. They’ll have any info on my bank account usage, cell phone, email, and the like, along with disturbingly large professional photos of me taken from every angle (which are also in the magazine). The man running that site, my editor Nick Thompson, wants me found, and he doesn’t have a clue where I’m going. So anything that comes from him is trustworthy. Anything that purports to come from me, well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
I’m not dropping out, though, heading for a cabin or living in a cave. So security permitting, I’ll be posting more thoughts and leftovers from the first piece here over the month — or however long I make it. But if you are reading this, it means I’m already gone.