The year was 1992, inside an upstate New York courtroom.
After a jury found a 50-year-old man guilty of possessing 850 pounds of marijuana—worth about $1 million—a judge sentenced him to up to 15 years in prison.
There was, however, one problem. The defendant, free after posting a portion of his $150,000 bail, skipped the trial and the sentencing.
John Franklin Forbis was a fugitive on the run.
For more than 20 years, Forbis eluded law enforcement by living under an alias in the Pacific Northwest. But in October, authorities finally tracked down and located the man, now 72, along the coast, in a town named Deadwood, Oregon.
So how, after all those years, did they do it? With the help of the OIG’s Fugitive Enforcement Program (FEP).
The FEP is a cooperative effort between the OIG and local law enforcement agencies, to locate fleeing felons. The Social Security Act prohibits paying benefits to people who are fleeing to avoid prosecution for a felony, fleeing to avoid confinement after a felony conviction, or violating probation or parole.
Law enforcement agencies give us information about outstanding felony arrest warrants and probation/parole violations. We compare this information to Social Security’s records, and if we find a match, we verify the identity of the individual, make sure the warrant is still active, and work with local law enforcement to locate the person.
In this case, Forbis’ years of fleeing from justice ended soon after he applied for Social Security benefits in Oregon earlier this year under his true identity.
Back in 1992, shortly after Forbis was arrested, Columbia County (NY) District Attorney Paul Czajka requested a $2 million bail. He suspected Forbis was a flight risk because his passport showed he was an extensive international traveler.
When the judge denied the request and only imposed a $150,000 bail—of which Forbis only had to pay a small portion to be released—it turned out that Czajka’s instinct was right. Forbis posted his bail and ran—but it earned him an arrest warrant in New York State
Czajka later left his DA post and had spent most of the last 22 years as a Columbia County judge. But when he returned to his DA seat in 2012, he requested another search for Forbis, calling the convicted drug offender “the only defendant that I could remember essentially losing.”
Meanwhile, Forbis had lived under the radar on Deadwood Creek Road in western Oregon, successfully watching his step for nearly 7,120 days. But it took just one misstep to lead authorities to his front door.
This past summer, Forbis walked into the Albany, Oregon Social Security office to apply for benefits. His misstep, after all those years, was to abandon his alias and apply using his true identity.
We in the OIG already had Forbis’s arrest warrant information, so a file search in September matched that with his application in Oregon. We passed his current address on to authorities in New York, who coordinated with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon to apprehend Forbis in late October.
In fiscal year 2014, as result of our fugitive enforcement efforts, law enforcement agencies around the country located and arrested 371 fugitives like Forbis. Also, SSA suspended benefits for 830 individuals and identified almost $3 million in benefit overpayments. This is one more way we provide a benefit to the American people, by bringing fugitives to justice and making our local communities safer.