This story is about a 40min read. I would highly recommend reading it here with photos and video. This story is one that I’m always sharing and wondering how impossible it would be to fall off the grid.
August 13, 6:40 PM: I’m driving East out of San Francisco on I-80, fleeing my life under the cover of dusk. Having come to the interstate by a circuitous route, full of quick turns and double backs, I’m reasonably sure that no one is following me. I keep checking the rearview mirror anyway. From this point on, there’s no such thing as sure. Being too sure will get me caught.
I had intended to flee in broad daylight, but when you are going on the lam, there are a surprising number of last-minute errands to run. This morning, I picked up a set of professionally designed business cards for my fake company under my fake name, James Donald Gatz. I drove to a Best Buy, where I bought two prepaid cell phones with cash and then put a USB cord on my credit card — an arbitrary dollar amount I hoped would confuse investigators, who would scan my bill and wonder what gadgetry I had purchased. An oil change for my car was another head fake. Who would think that a guy about to sell his car would spend $60 at Oil Can Henry’s?
I already owned a couple of prepaid phones; I left one of the new ones with my girlfriend and mailed the other to my parents — giving them an untraceable way to contact me in emergencies. I bought some Just for Men beard-and-mustache dye at a drugstore. My final stop was the bank, to draw a $477 cashier’s check. It’s payment for rent on an anonymous office in Las Vegas, which is where I need to deliver the check by midday tomorrow.
Crossing the Bay Bridge, I glance back for a last nostalgic glimpse of the skyline. Then I reach over, slide the back cover off my cell phone, and pop out the battery. A cell phone with a battery inside is a cell phone that’s trackable.
About 25 minutes later, as the California Department of Transportation database will record, my green 1999 Honda Civic, California plates 4MUN509, passes through the tollbooth on the far side of the Carquinez Bridge, setting off the FasTrak toll device, and continues east toward Lake Tahoe.
What the digital trail will not reflect is that a few miles past the bridge I pull off the road, detach the FasTrak, and stuff it into the duffle bag in my trunk, where its signal can’t be detected. Nor will it note that I then double back on rural roads to I-5 and drive south through the night, cutting east at Bakersfield. There will be no digital record that at 4 am I hit Primm, Nevada, a sad little gambling town about 40 minutes from Vegas, where $15 cash gets me a room with a view of a gravel pile.
“Author Evan Ratliff Is on the Lam. Locate Him and Win $5,000.”
— wired.com/vanish, August 14, 2009 5:38 pm
Officially it will be another 24 hours before the manhunt begins. That’s when Wired‘s announcement of my disappearance will be posted online. It coincides with the arrival on newsstands of the September issue of the magazine, which contains a page of mugshot-like photos of me, eyes slightly vacant. The premise is simple: I will try to vanish for a month and start over under a new identity.Wired readers, or whoever else happens upon the chase, will try to find me.
The idea for the contest started with a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age? Long fascinated by stories of faked deaths, sudden disappearances, and cat-and-mouse games between investigators and fugitives, I signed on to write a story forWired about people who’ve tried to end one life and start another. People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?
It’s one thing to report on the phenomenon of people disappearing. But to really understand it, I figured that I had to try it myself. So I decided to vanish. I would leave behind my loved ones, my home, and my name. I wasn’t going off the grid, dropping out to live in a cabin. Rather, I would actually try to drop my life and pick up another.
Wired offered a $5,000 bounty — $3,000 of which would come out of my own pocket — to anyone who could locate me between August 15 and September 15, say the password “fluke,” and take my picture. Nicholas Thompson, my editor, would have complete access to information that a private investigator hired to find me might uncover: my real bank accounts, credit cards, phone records, social networking accounts, and email. I’d give Thompson my friends’ contact information so he could conduct interviews. He would parcel out my personal details online, available to whichever amateur or professional investigators chose to hunt for me. To add a layer of intrigue, Wired hired the puzzle creators at Lone Shark Games to help structure the contest.
Click below to open the full cut and paste 😉
I began my planning months in advance. I let my hair and beard grow out, got a motorcycle license, and siphoned off extra cash whenever I visited an ATM, storing it in a hollowed-out book. One day over lunch, a friend from Google suggested software to hide my Internet address — “but all of these things can be broken,” he warned — and how best to employ prepaid phones. I learned how to use Visa and American Express gift cards, bought with cash, to make untraceable purchases online. I installed software to mask my Web searches and generated a small notebook’s worth of fake email addresses.
I shared my plans with no one, not my girlfriend, not my parents, not my closest friends. Nobody knew the route I was taking out of town, where I was going, or my new name. Not even a hint. If I got caught, it would be by my own mistakes.
Friday afternoon, August 14, I arrive in Vegas wearing a suit and sporting my normal brown hair, a beard, and a pair of rectangular tortoiseshell glasses. Carrying enough electronic equipment to stock a RadioShack, I drive straight to a dreary two-story office complex among the strip malls on South Pecos Road and hand over the cashier’s check, securing a tiny windowless office. There I set up two laptops, flip on a webcam to track any activity in the office, and leave.
At CarMax, a used-auto outlet, I then sell my Civic for $3,000. The next day, the first official one of my disappearance, is spent dyeing my hair and goatee jet-black and locking down the security on my laptops — including a third one that I’ll carry with me.
At 5 am on Sunday morning, the graveyard shift clerk at the Tropicana hotel hands over my $100 cash deposit, barely looking up. If she had, she might have noticed that the man checking out of room 480 — wearing a pair of oversize Harry Potter-style glasses, hazel-colored contact lenses, slicked-back hair, and a belt with $2,000 cash hidden in an underside pocket — bears surprisingly little resemblance to the one who checked in two days before.
When Sarah Manello heard from a friend about the search for Ratliff, she couldn’t resist. A researcher based in Rochester, New York, Manello had long worked with private investigators, digging up information for defense attorneys and tracking down missing people. She quit a few years ago after growing increasingly dissatisfied with the industry’s tactics. But her skills remained intact. The initial question she posted on Twitter, under the handle @menacingpickle, was private investigation 101: What was Ratliff’s middle name?
The first trickle of discussion among Manello and other hunters appeared by the morning of August 16, 36 hours after news of the hunt was posted on Wired .com. The next day it had grown into a deluge. On Twitter, anonymous users dedicated to Ratliff’s pursuit sprouted by the hour: @VanishingAct01, @FindEvanRatliff, @EvanOffGrid, @FinderofEvan, @FindThatMan, among others. They organized around the Twitter tag #vanish, which, when placed in a post, allowed the growing horde of investigators to exchange theories, clues, and questions. They created Web sites and blogs and flyers and even a telephone tip line. A programmer in St. Louis, Michael Toecker, started a Facebook group called “The Search for Evan Ratliff.” A week later it would have nearly a thousand members. (A countergroup designed to help Ratliff, founded by a banker in Cincinnati named Rich Reder, garnered a few dozen.)
What drew all these people? Some of them were lured by the $5,000 bounty. Others were intrigued by the technical challenges of online tracking or the thrill of stakeouts. Some felt that a public dare needed to be answered. For many, Ratliff’s flight evoked their own fleeting thoughts of starting over. “It was an adventure,” says Matty Gilreath, a grant manager at UC San Francisco, referring to the dozens of hours he spent on the pursuit. “I’m grateful for my career. But there are other things I’d like to do, and this brought up a lot of issues about reinventing yourself.”
From the Wired offices, Thompson began doling out information from Ratliff’s accounts onto a blog — starting with the final credit card purchases and the FasTrak data. The would-be hunters dissected it as quickly as Thompson could post it. Using two FedEx tracking numbers from Ratliff’s credit card bill, Manello managed, in a few aboveboard telephone calls, to find out where the packages had gone and who had signed for them. Hunters scoured the pictures on Ratliff’s Flickr page, writing software code to extract information about the camera used and search for other photos it had taken. They combined the FasTrak data with other clues to build maps of possible routes.
Within days, they knew that Ratliff was a borderline-obsessive US national soccer team fan and a follower of the English team Fulham. That he had celiac disease, a condition under which he ate a diet entirely free of gluten, a protein found in wheat. That he and his girlfriend had bought an apartment in Brooklyn (in fact, the hunters posted a scan of Ratliff’s signature from the deed). That he had recently attended a wedding, sporting a beard, in Palo Alto. They knew of his purchases at Best Buy and Oil Can Henry’s and bombarded both businesses with calls.
What had started as an exercise in escape quickly became a cross between a massively multiplayer online game and a reality show. A staggeringly large community arose spontaneously, splintered into organized groups, and set to work turning over every rock in Ratliff’s life. It topped out at 600 Twitter posts a day. The hunters knew the names of his cat sitter and his mechanic, his favorite authors, his childhood nicknames. They found every article he’d ever written; they found recent videos of him. They discovered and published every address he’d ever had in the US, from Atlanta to Hawaii, together with the full name and age of every member of his family.
They discovered almost every available piece of data about Ratliff, in fact, except his current location.
The Search for Evan Ratliff Facebook wall
Michael P. Anderson (Dallas / Fort Worth, TX) wrote at 2:21 pm on August 19th, 2009 Sooooo. If I am trying to disappear wouldn’t it make sense to leave a misdirection? I would arrange in advance to have some packages mailed to someplace where I knew that I would not be. Likewise I would make sure that a tab turned up at a local bar somewhere. What we really need to see is an ATM where he takes cash out.
Michael Toecker wrote at 7:27 pm on August 19th, 2009 1999 Honda Civic – 4MUN509 CA – Don’t ask me how I found out, but it’s solid and legal.
If you are looking to launch a disappearance, I cannot recommend any location more highly than a big-city Greyhound bus station. A mode of transportation Americans have seemingly left to the poor and desperate, it reeks of neglect and disdain. But for anonymity in the post-9/11 world — when the words “I’ll just need to see a photo ID” are as common as a handshake — bus travel remains a sanctuary untouched by security. At the station in Las Vegas, I paid cash for a ticket under the name James Gatz, no ID required. Six cramped hours later I was in Los Angeles.
I hopped a city bus to Venice Beach and checked in to 15 Rose, a quaint European-style hostel that I’d found online. The laid-back day manager sympathized with my story of losing my credit cards and driver’s license and showed me to a clean, spare room with free Wi-Fi. So began what I thought might be a few pleasant days on the beach: no phone calls to return, no deadlines to hit. Just my new life, stretching leisurely out before me.
When I flipped open my laptop and saw my private information spilling onto the Web, however, I got my first taste of a soon-to-be-permanent state of fitful anxiety. I’d signed up for it, of course. But actually living the new, paranoid reality felt different. Absurd ideas suddenly seemed plausible. They’d contacted my cat sitter; would they kidnap my cat?
Email was choking the inbox of the account Wired had made public, email@example.com. Most of the messages consisted of efforts to subtly or not-so-subtly trick me into revealing my location by replying or visiting a Web site designed to trap my Internet protocol (IP) address, which maps to a physical location. I also started getting what I came to think of as little plea bargain offers: “Send me a picture and the code word and I’ll split the $5K 50/50.”
Fortunately, while I was shocked by the intensity of the pursuit, I had anticipated the tactics. To keep my Web surfing from being tracked I often used a piece of free software called Tor, designed to protect the Internet activities of dissidents and whistleblowers around the world. Tor masks a computer’s IP address by diverting its requests through designated routers around the world. So when I logged in to Gmail from IP 18.104.22.168 in Los Angeles, the logs showed my request originating from 22.214.171.124 in Germany.
But as my friend from Google had reminded me, no security is unbreakable, so I’d added another layer: Vegas. I used the laptop I carried with me to log in remotely to my computers there, using free software from LogMeIn.com. The Vegas machines, in turn, were running Tor. Anyone clever enough to untangle those foreign routers would get only as far as a laptop sitting in an empty office on South Pecos Road.
Meanwhile, in LA, I meticulously kept up my physical disguise. One afternoon, a few blocks from my hotel, I had a chance to test it. A camera crew, fronted by an Internet news correspondent named Amanda Congdon, was corralling passersby for man-on-the-street interviews about their views on swine flu. I volunteered myself as an interview subject. A few days later, I found my interview on the Sometimesdaily .com site, Venice Beach in the background. It was time to get out of LA.
On August 20, a 16-year-old high school student in Portland, Oregon, named Jonathan Mäkelä saw a link to the story about the Wired contest on Hacker News. Mäkelä was a casual participant in the online community 4chan, whose pranks sometimes involved tracking down documents concerning unsuspecting targets. Mäkelä had grown fascinated by how much intel could be legally dug up online. Here was a guy, Ratliff, who invited people to use that same intel to find him. Now that was interesting.
Mäkelä began using a Twitter account under an anonymous handle, @socillion, and started pulling apart Ratliff’s IP addresses. He quickly marshaled a collection of online tools with which he could peg IPs to a physical location and Internet service provider, often triangulating between several sites. By now, other hunters had determined that Ratliff’s IPs — which Thompson published several times a day after logging in to Ratliff’s email — appeared to be useless nodes from the Tor network. But Mäkelä meticulously verified that each was indeed a Tor node. He shared his information with the crowd and then got feedback in return. Eventually, he figured, the target might make a mistake.
Mäkelä quickly became one of the most active investigators, posting ideas to Twitter at least a dozen times a day. But this public collaboration, he soon realized, was itself a problem. The hunters were benefiting from their collective brainpower, but Ratliff could follow their thoughts just as easily. “Groups need to take this private,” he posted to Twitter on August 20, “otherwise we are guaranteed never to win.” Mäkelä set up a secure chat room and gave the password to only those he could verify weren’t Ratliff.
Date Fri, Aug 21, 2009 1:47 AM
Subject Your Disappearance
I want you to know right now that this is not an attempt to track you down … I want to know firsthand from you, what is it like disappearing? How does it feel? Are you lonely? Do you miss life? Is it liberating to be free from everything? I ask these questions because the idea of leaving and starting a new life entertains me.
My plan involved leaving LA for good by midday Friday, August 21, and heading east. But before I left, I wanted to give my investigators a parting diversion, something to keep them fixated on the West Coast. So at 11:55 pm Thursday night, I inserted my bank card into an ATM in nearby Santa Monica, deposited the $3,000 car check, and took out $300 cash, the maximum single-day withdrawal. Figuring that as long as I was revealing my location to the world, I might as well pad my reserves, I withdrew another $300 at 12:01. Then I treated myself to a credit card purchase: a $13 vodka martini at the nearby Viceroy hotel.
Friday, I woke up at dawn and found the hostel Wi-Fi down. Blind to my pursuers, I decided to risk a last jog; I donned a baseball cap and trotted down along the water’s edge. As I turned around to head back, a helicopter came up the beach from the opposite direction, flying low. It stopped and hovered between me and a group of surfers floating idly on their boards.
I’m not sure when the thought entered my head, but when it did, it lodged there: Was it possible that someone had seen my ATM transactions, called up a friend with a helicopter, and sent them out to scan the beach for me?
The correct answer was no. Deep down I knew this. But there the chopper was, hovering. I jogged a little bit farther, and it seemed to ease toward me, staying not-quite-directly overhead. I stopped to see if it would pass over. It didn’t. The beach was empty. I jogged up to a lifeguard stand, putting it between me and the helicopter, and waited. A few seconds later, the nose crept around the building and back into my line of sight.
In that moment, reason evaporated. I took off toward the boardwalk, a lone figure sprinting across the sand at dawn. Seen from the air, I must have appeared, at this point, worth following. Whatever the reason, the helicopter kept coming. I reached the pavement and turned down a side street, bolted up one alley and down another, and finally ducked under a tree, lungs burning. I could still hear the thump-thump of the blades. I waited, my thoughts spinning out into ever-wilder fantasies. Were they radioing a ground team to drive by and yell “fluke”? Had they already staked out my hotel? Really? All for $5,000?
A few minutes passed and I heard it drift away. I took off again down the alley and ducked into a convenience store. There was an old pay-by-the-minute Internet terminal, and I slipped in a dollar. The ATM transactions hadn’t even posted to my account yet.
When Thompson posted Ratliff’s ATM transactions online, late the morning of August 21, the pursuit kicked into high gear. For the first time, Ratliff had pegged himself to a specific place, and hunters hit the streets to try to nab him. Mäkelä pinpointed the exact location of the ATM in Santa Monica. One man set about frantically calling restaurants in the area, asking whoever picked up the phone to scan the crowd for someone who met Ratliff’s description. Manello called the car dealer in Vegas, then she found a bookstore owner who claimed to have seen him.
In the private chat room that Mäkelä ran as Socillion, however, the consensus seemed to be that Ratliff had moved on. They discussed and discarded strategies ranging from the clever to the outlandish to the completely illegal. Somehow, they had to figure out how to get ahead of him. “Right now, Evan is controlling us,” a participant named AtavistTracker wrote. “Evan’s had over two months to plan this. We need to alter that plan. I like disinformation.”
“Me too,” Socillion replied. “Fight with his tools.”
By the end of the first week, the deception had already begun to wear me down. Lying about your identity involves more than just transgressing some abstract prohibition against deceit. It means overcoming a lifetime of built-up habits, from a well-rehearsed life story to the sound of your own name. When I convinced people that I really was James Donald Gatz, I occasionally felt a mischievous thrill. Most of the time, however, I felt awful. The people I encountered weren’t credulous; they were just nice.
I left LA with a band called the Hermit Thrushes, trading gas money for a spot onboard a converted retirement-home shuttle van that served as their tour bus. An indie rock group composed of college grads from Philadelphia, they’d responded to an ad I posted on craigslist, under the name Don, needing a ride to Austin or New Orleans. We rattled along from show to show: LA to Tempe to Las Cruces, up to Lubbock and Tulsa, east to Fayetteville, then north toward Chicago. The band played whiskey bars, coffee shops, and rowdy house parties. We crashed on living room floors or crammed into the seats of the bus, and, once, on the grass at a rest stop in Texas.
The band was serious about its music but unperturbed about much else, and I settled into a role somewhere between lazy roadie and moneyed patron, pulling $100 bills from my belt at gas stations. On board, I staked out the bus’s backseat, where I could use my laptop without anyone looking over my shoulder. With a $150 wireless broadband card from Virgin Mobile, the only nationwide service that didn’t require a credit check, I had almost uninterrupted online access.
So I passed the long hours on the road building up an online life for my new identity. I’d opened a Facebook account under “GatzJD” and a Twitter account under @jdgatz(which I kept open to the world for days, cataloging my location for posterity, before panicking and locking it from public view). For the average person, populating an online social network account is as easy as finding your friends, connecting to their friends, and watching the virtual acquaintances pile up. As Gatz, though, I had no actual friends. Instead, I set about finding people who would accept my friendship automatically, and soon my profile was overrun with multilevel marketers and inspirational speakers. Enough, I thought, to convince potential real acquaintances who didn’t look too hard that I wasn’t friendless.
I’d been set to depart the tour in Lubbock, Texas, but the band was cool and I was safe, so I kept going. On the afternoon of August 26, the bus finally pulled into St. Louis, where the band had a college radio gig scheduled and I had a plan to get to the train station. A half hour later, listeners to KWUR heard the Hermit Thrushes dedicate their show to a mysterious single-named traveler, Don, headed for New Orleans.
I looked out my office window (about 6 floors up) about 11AM and spotted Evan walking up 1st avenue from the direction of Qwest Field — he was wearing a backpack and heading into downtown … My heart started to race as I ran out of the office and hit the elevator button. Once I got to the street Evan w/ backpack was nowhere to be found … Walking to the bus that evening I surveyed the faces of every stranger I walked past — looked at the eyes, the hair, finding at least 3 possible Evans on my 15 minute walk to the bus. I think I was going insane!
— Jeremy Thompson aka @evan_ratliff
On August 24, a former Microsoft group program manager in Seattle named Jeff Reifman read about the hunt in Wired. Reifman, self-employed these days, had recently launched a series of grant-funded Facebook applications to study the engagement of young people with the news. From a technical standpoint, the contest seemed intriguing.
On August 27, working on a desktop in his living room, he created Vanish Team, a Facebook app dedicated to information and discussion about Ratliff. He announced it on Twitter, and people began clicking over to check it out. Reifman was late to the party, however; most of the real intel swap stayed on Twitter or in Mäkelä’s secure chat room.
Down in Portland, Mäkelä was learning that it wasn’t secure enough. One night, as a San Diego-based hunter was making the drive to Las Vegas — where the chat room believed Ratliff was headed — an insider emailed Ratliff to tip him off.
When Thompson posted the anonymous email on the Wiredblog, it was the hunters’ turn to be paranoid. Mäkelä moved to another chat room, and then started another, jettisoning all but a few of his most trustworthy correspondents. One of the people he kicked out, after a set of heated exchanges, was Reifman.
From St. Louis I took a bus to Carbondale, Illinois, and caught a train south to New Orleans. To get around Amtrak’s mandatory government ID requirements, I booked online, using my real name, and picked up the ticket from a machine at the station. I still might need an ID on the train, so to obscure myself to anyone who might get into the Amtrak database, I booked under my middle name and misspelled my last name ever so slightly, leaving out the l.
I’d chosen New Orleans months before, distant enough from the coasts to provide obscurity but familiar to me from trips I’d taken years before. Showing up in a city with no friends, no contacts, no credit cards, and no ID is itself a discomfiting experience, and having a basic grip on the layout eases the alienation. After four days in a vacation condo, rented from an absentee landlord who accepted PayPal, I found a cheap one-bedroom apartment around the corner. The next day I signed my well-practiced J. D. Gatz scrawl on the lease. The landlord, after a friendly chat, was ready to hand over the keys. He would, he said, just need to see my driver’s license.
I’d been working for months to establish James Donald Gatz as a separate identity. The name itself — the one that Jay Gatsby sheds to start over in The Great Gatsby — was easy for me to remember. More important, due to the prolific amount of Gatsby analysis online, it was basically un-Googleable. The middle name was my own, but Mr. Gatz received an entirely new birthday: July 1, 1976, shaving about a year off my age.
He also got a “research firm,” Bespect LLC, registered in the state of New Mexico and complete with a logo — a bespectacled cartoon man with a mustache — and a Web site at Bespect.com. Gatz’s PayPal account was funded using gift cards. I’d even ordered up a gift card with his name on it that looked to the casual eye like a real credit card.
My new landlord glanced at the business card and flimsy home-laminated “visiting scholar” credentials that I slid across the table. “Bespect.com, eh?” he said. “Interesting. These will do.” He turned around, photocopied them, and dropped the copy in a folder along with my lease.
At this point, my new life seemed, superficially at least, satisfactory. My days were spent jogging along the Mississippi, haunting the coffee shops and jazz bars of my adopted neighborhood, and exploring the city by bike. I located a soccer bar and even got a one-night job selling beer and nachos for tips during a Saints game at the Superdome.
The gnawing flaw in the idyllic life of J. D. Gatz was that I did all of these activities alone. It wasn’t just that I had no friends. It was that the interactions I did have were beyond superficial. They were fake. My online social networks were populated with strangers; my girlfriend was thousands of miles away; my family knew about me only from news reports and online speculation.
I’d always prided myself on being comfortable with solitude, but this wasn’t normal solitude. It was everyone-is-out-to-get-me isolation. What to the hunters felt like an intricate puzzle felt real enough to me — and there was no one around to laugh and tell me otherwise. Instead there was just me, staring into my laptop all day, wondering if it was safe to go out and get the paper.
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t sleep. One night I awoke at 4 am drenched in sweat, having dreamed that a childhood friend turned me in.
Out in Seattle, Reifman wasn’t generating solid leads. Through a convoluted set of clues, some of which later turned out to be inaccurate, he developed a theory that the target had headed to San Diego. Reifman posted it to the Vanish Team site, but nothing came of it.
He decided to try a different tack. Instead of using the Vanish Team application to gather news about Ratliff, he’d use it to track him. He installed 38 lines of new code. It was rudimentary and unlikely to work if Ratliff had set up Tor, his anonymity software, correctly. But it gave Reifman a tool to easily pick out the IP addresses of Facebook visitors to Vanish Team. Ratliff might be among them. He’d be the guy without many friends.
jdgatz Just arranged to sublet cool apt yesterday. Upstairs back of shotgun house, called a “camel back” apartment. Sounds dirty, but it’s not. 2:33 PM Aug 30th
jdgatz I’m not sure I’ve ever stayed up all night before in order to (partially) re-shave my head before a morning flight. But desperate times… 12:51 AM Sep 5th
jdgatz I’m learning to love Amtrak, but anything over 5 hrs w/out sleeping car = yearning for the development of air travel. Wait, they have that? 12:51 AM Sep 5th
In constructing a proper disguise, there is no place for vanity or pride. Altering your appearance, after all, is not about convincing people. It’s about misdirection, diverting their attention from the physical features you are unable to change and toward the ones you can. Success often involves making yourself look older, fatter, nerdier, sleazier, or otherwise more unpleasant than you were before. The goal is to be overlooked, ignored, or, sometimes, noticed and then dismissed with a chuckle.
It was the last to which I aspired as I walked through security at the Memphis airport, on Saturday morning, September 5, barely resembling the face on the real ID I showed at the security line. My hair was shaved clean on top with a razor but left short-cropped on the sides and back, in the manner of advanced male pattern baldness. The bald spot had been enhanced with tanning cream, compensation for the sudden paleness of my newly shorn dome. I wore a borderline-creepy mustache, above which a new set of prescriptionless glasses were backed by brown prescription contacts. I twirled a fake wedding band on my finger. A hands-free cell phone headset dangled from my ear.
Unable to completely abandon the hobbies of my previous life, I was headed to Salt Lake City for the US World Cup qualifying soccer match against El Salvador. The logistics had been complicated: a train to Memphis, followed by a flight to San Francisco (which needed to be under $250, the maximum gift card available) that stopped in Salt Lake.
The greater problem would be avoiding the hunters. They had long speculated that I might attend the game, and I’d seen stakeout rumors on Twitter. So I bought two fully refundable tickets to Salt Lake on my credit card for September 4, originating in LA and Portland — misdirections I knew they’d discover and that I hoped would lead them to the airport on the wrong day. I’d anonymously emailed a prominent hunter a link to the Venice Beach “swine flu video” to fix my previous appearance in their minds. Finally, I’d unmasked my computers’ address in Las Vegas several times, turning off Tor while visiting Web sites that I knew were trapping IPs.
But it was my disguise that gave me confidence as I breezed off the plane in Salt Lake City, dressed in a suit and tie, jabbering loudly to imaginary business contacts on my hands-free. I met an accomplice, an old friend also dressed as a low-rent sales rep; we dodged a suspicious lurker at the baggage claim. Then we checked in to a downtown hotel and changed into our game-day disguises. For him: a red, white, and blue afro wig. For me: waving stars and stripes painted atop my head, augmented with a bulky pair of American flag sunglasses and a red clown nose.
Walking to the stadium, we passed several people who seemed to be doing nothing other than scanning the crowd. “I’ve already seen a few people that I thought could be him,” one man murmured as we passed a few feet away.
For the hunters, it was again time to put boots on the ground. But where? Mäkelä, jumping on the real IP address, called a technician at an ISP in Las Vegas who happily revealed the address on South Pecos Road. The hunters puzzled over the businesses listed there, wondering if Ratliff somehow had a friend among them.
For now, though, the action was headed for Salt Lake City. One woman bought a refundable ticket to get through security and stake out departure gates at the Portland airport. A man did the same for arrivals in Salt Lake City, waiting for seven hours over two days. Mäkelä generated a map of all the known gluten-free eateries in the area, and hunters hit pregame parties. All that turned up were look-alikes.
That Friday afternoon in Seattle, Reifman was sorting through more Facebook profiles. Recalling Thompson’s statement that Ratliff would not just be hiding but trying to make new friends, Reifman had decided to expand his search to include Vanish Team visitors with up to 50 Facebook friends. He pulled up the profile for a James Donald Gatz, who seemed to be visiting Vanish Team regularly. The name didn’t ring a bell, but the photo looked familiar. Then he realized where he’d seen that look before: the swine flu video. He flipped back and forth between the two, and soon he was positive. Gatz was Ratliff.
At first, he was giddy. All he needed to do was friend one of Gatz’s friends or convince one to reveal their new pal’s location. Looking through the profile, though, he realized that Ratliff had populated his account with what amounted to Facebook automatons. Reifman tried sending messages to a few, telling them about the hunt. No luck.
He decided to try Twitter. Eventually, he typed in “jdgatz” and found the account, locked from public view. Friends of @jdgatz could see his posts, but the general public, including Reifman, couldn’t. With a simple Google search for “jdgatz,” Reifman located an archived, unprotected version of jdgatz’s posts from the previous week. Gatz, at least at that point, had been revealing his location as he moved around. Maybe he’d do it again.
Currently, though, gaining access to Gatz’s daily feed would require his permission. Not wanting to spook the target, Reifman tried to enlist the help of one of Gatz’s current connections, who would already have access. Again, most were multilevel marketers or auto-reply bots. But he managed to find three real people among them: a Hawaii real estate agent, a Segway aficionado in New Zealand, and a blogger in Atlanta. Reifman convinced all three to keep him apprised of whatever Gatz wrote.
At 4 am on Sunday morning, Reifman’s girlfriend came downstairs and found him staring into the screen. “What are you doing?”
“I think I’ve found Evan.”
The Search for Evan Ratliff Facebook wall
Landon Anderson (Salt Lake City, UT) wrote at 8:26pm on September 6, 2009 EVERYBODY!!!!! I do not know how to use Twitter, so I am posting this information here so that someone can post it on Twitter. Evan is in ATLANTA. He landed there at about 8:10 pm Atlanta time today. He showed up to SLC airport this morning, canceled the itinerary from SLC to SFO, purchased a new ticket to Atlanta via Denver. I am sure my knowledge will soon be confirmed by Nicholas. I did nothing illegal … just have connections.
The morning after the soccer game, I caught a flight to Atlanta via Denver. After landing at Hartsfield Airport, I rushed off the jetway, a businessman in a hurry. Safely a few gates away, I opened my laptop for a routine check of theWired blog. Headline: “Evan Ratliff will arrive in Atlanta in 5 minutes.” I slammed the laptop shut and took off.
All of the Hartsfield terminals funnel out to a single exit. But as a former Atlanta resident, I knew one other way out, a solitary revolving door from the T Gates leading to a remote part of baggage claim. It was eerily empty when I got there. I slipped out, hustled to the public transit station at the far end, and caught a train into town. Only later would I learn that a hunter in Atlanta arrived minutes after I’d left, sprinted to the trains, and frantically canvassed the passengers.
I crashed for a few hours at the house of a friend — one of only a few I was willing to reach out to, knowing that Thompson was posting interview transcripts of his talks with them. The next morning I caught the first Amtrak train out, sinking down in my seat for the 12-hour ride back to New Orleans. A few times en route I opened my laptop to check on reports of the hunters scurrying furiously around Atlanta. On Twitter, the guy running the Vanish Team Facebook application kept announcing new scoops, exhorting people to check out his site. Each time, I’d click over to Facebook, using James Gatz’s account. What scoops? Vanish Team seemed like all bluster.
At this point, I’d stopped logging in to my Vegas computers for anything but the riskiest Web surfing. This was partly out of a growing laziness; the whole process took longer than dialup circa 1993. I also figured that I could freely visit Facebook pages like Vanish Team. Anyone who built an application to use on a corporate site, I assumed, would need cooperation from the company to track their users.
Once back safely in New Orleans, I decided to redouble my efforts to socialize, both online and in real life. For starters, I opened up my @jdgatz Twitter feed to the public — maybe I could connect with some local friends. I searched for New Orleans businesses I might follow. One was a local gluten-free pizza place I’d wanted to go to called NakedPizza.
From Jeff Reifman
Date Mon, Sep 7, 2009 9:48 PM
Subject Re: ALERT Evan in Jacksons Gap, Alabama — Got a clear lead just now
By Monday, Jeff Reifman had mentioned the @jdgatz account to a few active hunters, including Sarah Manello and Mäkelä, with whom he’d patched things up. When Ratliff opened his Twitter feed to the public, Reifman created two fake accounts of his own — crafted to look like automated Twitter bots, so as not to raise Ratliff’s suspicion — and started following the account.
Then Monday night, Reifman noticed James Gatz logging in from a new IP address: 126.96.36.199. According to the database Reifman was using, the address pointed to Jacksons’ Gap, Alabama. After he emailed his select group of trusted hunters, Mäkelä ran the address through his own little triangulated system and discovered where it actually originated from. Two minutes later he sent a one-line response to Reifman: “That IP is in New Orleans.”
Reifman flipped over to the @jdgatz Twitter feed and noticed that the number of accounts Gatz was following had gone up by three — all New Orleans businesses. He looked up NakedPizza’s Web site and fired off an email explaining the hunt. “I have accurate information that Evan has arrived in New Orleans and plans to go to NakedPizza Tuesday or Wednesday,” he wrote. A few minutes later, he followed up. “I forgot to mention,” he said, “that we know Evan has shaved his head either partially (male pattern bald) or fully.” Reifman informed his fellow hunters, and Manello spent the evening dialing 50 hotels near the restaurant, asking for a James Gatz.
The next morning when Jeff Leach, cofounder of NakedPizza and a tech-savvy entrepreneur, got the email, he thought at first it was a scam. But he passed it along to his business partner, and after delving into the hunt information online, they concluded it was real. Leach decided to help.
To Jeff Reifman
From Jeff Leach
Date Tue, Sep 8, 2009 8:17 AM
We will catch him.
Tuesday, September 8, 7 am: Just seven days to go. I awake in my apartment in New Orleans, relieved to find no online indication of anyone wise to my location. Aside from a few random new followers to my Twitter feed, all of whom seem like automated bots, nobody seems to be paying attention to my fake accounts either.
I use a gift card to book a flight to New York City on September 15, the final day of my disappearance, and hatch plans to surprise Thompson in his office using a fake security badge. I’ve been communicating sporadically with my editor through a public blog — I’d post something, he’d read it, delete it, and then post his response. Before Salt Lake City, I’d boasted that I could survive the month, “just by keeping my head down and being careful with my phones and IPs.”
Now Wired has decided to up the stakes, offering me $400 for each of a series of challenges I complete. And I could use it. As much as any other factor — personal gall, or endurance, or discipline — staying on the run requires an abundance of cash. I’ve already nearly spent the three grand I brought with me. Besides, I made it through the Salt Lake City gauntlet and survived a near miss in Atlanta. I can do this.
The first two challenges — clues to which are embedded, with the help of Will Shortz and Lone Shark Games, for the hunters to find in the New York Times crossword puzzle — are to go to the 50th story of a building and to attend a book reading. Checking online, I identify only two buildings in downtown New Orleans of 50 stories or taller, and I choose One Shell Square. At the security desk, back in my businessman disguise, I step up and announce that I’m here to visit the law firm occupying the upper floors. “Just sign in here. And we’ll need to see your ID.”
“Well, I’ve lost mine. Will a business card and a credit card do?”
In two minutes, I’m on the 50th floor, video camera rolling. Later, as I wander home through the French Quarter, a street vendor sidles up beside me with some friendly unsolicited advice. “Hey buddy,” he says, gesturing to my haircut. “You gotta shave the rest of that off, man.”
That same morning, Leach, of NakedPizza, calls Reifman, and the two begin comparing notes. Leach searches through his Web site’s logs, finding that IP address 188.8.131.52 — aka James Gatz — visited NakedPizza.biz late the previous evening.
By 11 am, Leach has briefed all of his employees on the hunt. If they see the target, he explains, they need to say “fluke” and take a photo. He creates a folder on the company network with pictures for them to study. One is a Photoshopped mock-up of Ratliff, bald.
Brock Fillinger, also a cofounder, whose own pate is clean-shaven, heads over to stake out the tours at Old New Orleans Rum, another business Ratliff was following on Twitter and that Reifman had contacted. “Hey,” the woman behind the desk says as Fillinger lingers nearby, “are you that Wiredwriter?”
Snide street comments aside, I’ve already decided to shave the rest of my head and mustache. My acquisition of actual friends will require looking less creepy. I change into casual clothes, grab a fedora, and ride my bicycle to the barber.
At 5:20 I’m completely bald, and I’ll have to hustle to make it across town for the book reading I plan to attend.
At 5:48, Leach and Fillinger are watching both entrances to the Garden District BookShop. They’re expecting someone “wigged up,” someone who looks like he doesn’t quite belong. But the reading started promptly at 5:30, and there is no sign of Ratliff.
Leach sends a text message to Fillinger. This looks like a bust. They meet up out front, ready to move on.
It’s surreal, in those moments when I stop to think about it. Scores of people have studied my picture, stared into those empty eyes in the hopes of relieving me of thousands of dollars. They have stood for hours, trying to pick out my face in a crowd. They’ve come to know me like we’ve been friends for years. It’s weirdly thrilling, in a narcissistic kind of way, but also occasionally terrifying.
I almost ride past the bookshop before I see the sign, tucked into a tiny shopping center. I stop at the corner and pull out my bike lock. Two men stand on the stairs outside, facing the street. They glance over at me.
My first impulse is to ride away. But at what point do I separate caution from self-delusion? Not every out-of-place person is looking for me.
Tired from the bike ride, tired of the corrosive suspicion, I decide to walk past them on the sidewalk, making no move toward the bookstore. Just a local, heading down the street to visit a friend.
“Hey,” Leach calls out from the stairs, taking a hesitant step toward me. I freeze and stare back helplessly. “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?”
To Nicholas Thompson
From Laurie Ambrose
Date Wed, Sep 9, 2009 12:54 PM
Subject My #Vanish Story
Why would a middle-aged woman with virtually no technical knowledge be interested in following the Evan’s Vanished story on Twitter? You see, my father walked out one morning in Sumter, South Carolina, kissed the wife and two young children good-bye as if he was going to work as always, and disappeared for 12 years. He was around Evan’s age. He sent the family a telegraph a few days later asking them not to look for him. To this day, no one knows anything about his personal life during those years. I guess I’m hoping to have some clues to some of my questions.
At first I was angry: at myself for getting caught and losing the money, at Wired for tempting me with the challenges. But that was soon replaced by the thrill of being redeposited in my own identity, with a family, a partner, friends, and a past I didn’t have to hide. I packed up my apartment, rented a car, and visited my parents in Florida. Then I bought a plane ticket home.
Leach and Reifman had agreed to split the prize money, but they both ended up giving it all to Unity of Greater New Orleans, a charity helping the city recover from Hurricane Katrina. Socillion started his junior year of high school. The online chatter dissolved as quickly as it had formed.
And what of our original questions? Had I shown that a person, given enough resources and discipline, could vanish from one life and reinvent himself in another? I thought I had, though only up to a point. Obviously the smarts and dedication of the hunters had overwhelmed my planning and endurance. Along the way they’d also proven my privacy to be a modern fiction. It turns out that people — ordinary people — really can gather an incredible dossier of facts about you. But a month later, life was back to normal and no one was taking any interest.
More than all that, I’d discovered how quickly the vision of total reinvention can dissolve into its lonely, mundane reality. Whatever reason you might have for discarding your old self and the people who went with it, you’ll need more than a made-up backstory and a belt full of cash to replace them.
For weeks after the hunt ended, I still paused when introducing myself and felt a twinge of panic when I handed over my credit card. The paranoid outlook of James Donald Gatz was hard to shake. Even now, my stomach lurches when I think back to the night I got caught. “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?”
Right after it happened, I rode my bike back to my apartment and sat in the air-conditioning, unsure what to do. Finally I got online and logged in to the hunters’ private chat room for the first time. Rich Reder, founder of the Facebook countergroup designed to help me stay hidden, had infiltrated the room and sent me the password. Just a little too late.
I found Mäkelä there, still logged in. I asked him why he was hanging around a chat room dedicated to catching a guy who’d already been caught. “Just lurking,” he wrote. “Working out the moles.”
After a while I signed off, closed my laptop, and walked down the street to J. D. Gatz’s local dive bar. I ordered a whiskey and tried to tell the bartender how I abandoned my life and then got it back. For the first time in weeks, someone didn’t seem to believe my story.