Fugitive Eric Conn arrives back in Lexington under FBI custody
After making and stealing millions of dollars handling federal disability cases and fleeing to avoid prison, former high-flying Eastern Kentucky lawyer Eric C. Conn had his last meal as a free man at a Pizza Hut before police caught him.
The FBI confirmed Tuesday that police arrested Conn on Saturday, six months to the day since he absconded after a meeting in Lexington on June 2.
Authorities caught Conn, 57, in La Ceiba, Honduras, a city of about 200,000 on the Caribbean coast of the Central American nation.
Conn had been at a Pizza Hut in the tourist city when police caught him, according to Amy Hess, special agent in charge of the FBI in Kentucky.
Federal agencies that investigated Conn held a news conference in Lexington to announce the arrest, but officials read prepared statements and declined to take questions.
That left a lot of details unanswered, such as how long Conn had been in Honduras, why he chose that country instead of one with no agreement to extradite defendants to the U.S., and how the FBI was able to track him down.
Hess said only that the FBI worked with several other agencies and used a variety of techniques, including searches, examinations of Conn’s finances, technical analyses and interviews with dozens of people.
But it’s clear Conn is headed back to court in a case that could end with a life sentence.
Conn, known for a flamboyant personality and a level of promotion uncommon among lawyers, was unusually communicative for a fugitive soon after he fled, sending emails and faxes to the Herald-Leader and others.
Some of those messages poked the government for not being able to catch him. He said in one message to a prosecutor on his case, Dustin Davis, that when he fled he “knew the game was afoot” and that he had learned the FBI’s playbook before he left.
The message from mid-June also said the FBI “could not be more wrong” about his whereabouts.
In a message to the Herald-Leader, Conn said he had noticed authorities were trying to track him through the IP address on emails.
“Do they really think they can find me with such a blunt method? They insult themselves,” Conn said.
The FBI was not amused.
Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg attorney who represents former clients of Conn suing him for fraud, said agents were “very intense” when he met with them recently to pass on a tip he’d gotten about Conn’s potential whereabouts.
Hess said at the news conference Tuesday that the agency had made good on the vow to catch Conn.
“As promised, Mr. Conn will now be held accountable for his actions, the people he deceived, and the lives he shattered, including all the victims of his greed in Eastern Kentucky,” Hess said.
Newspapers in Honduras reported that members of a SWAT team captured Conn.
A magistrate there said the arrest was “the product of arduous intelligence, surveillance and tailing by the agents,” according to the Associated Press.
The FBI flew Conn out of Honduras Tuesday on a government airplane. The twin turboprop plane arrived at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington just after 7 p.m.
Conn, hands cuffed behind his back and wearing blue jeans and a blue jacket, stepped into the chilly air at 7:12 p.m. Agents helped him down the short stairway and escorted him to a black Chevy Tahoe parked nearby on the tarmac.
Reporters shouted questions; it sounded like Conn said something about being home.
Some of Conn’s former clients applauded the capture.
“That’s wonderful,” Donna Dye, whose husband was one of Conn’s clients, told the AP. “I never thought they would catch him. He let people like my husband have trust in him, and he let that down.”
Conn’s escape had gotten nationwide attention.
Conn, who lived in Pikeville and had an office in Floyd County, once had one of the biggest practices in the country specializing in representing people seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.
That unraveled after he came under investigation for fraud. Conn pleaded guilty in March to stealing from the government and to bribing a Social Security judge.
Conn admitted putting false evidence of clients’ disabilities in their claims, paying doctors to sign forms without performing real examinations, and giving more than $600,000 in cash to the judge, David B. Daugherty.
Officials said the fraud was the largest in the history of the Social Security program, obligating the government to pay more than $550 million in benefits if the investigation had not interrupted.
Daugherty pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to four years in prison. A psychologist from Pikeville, Bradley Adkins, was convicted of signing forms for Conn’s clients that included false information and sentenced to 25 years.
Conn was scheduled to be sentenced in July. He was on home detention while awaiting sentencing.
On June 2, after meeting with his attorney and prosecutors in Lexington about testifying against Adkins, Conn cut the electronic monitor from his ankle and fled.
A federal grand jury later charged that a former Conn employee, Curtis Lee Wyatt, helped Conn escape.
Wyatt allegedly opened a bank account — though an unnamed person controlled it — that was used to send money out of the country for Conn.
The indictment said Wyatt also bought a truck for Conn to use in fleeing and crossed the border into Mexico to see what kind of security was in place. He has pleaded not guilty.
Conn is charged in that case with conspiracy and escape.
U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves sentenced Conn in absentia to 12 years in prison.
Conn’s plea deal in his original case called for prosecutors to drop more than a dozen remaining charges when he was sentenced.
Because he broke the deal, however, prosecutors have kept those charges in place. As a result, he faces a potential life sentence if he is convicted after returning to the United States.
The Social Security Administration scheduled hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky for redeterminations of whether they were eligible to keep disability benefits because of the charge that Conn used fraudulent evidence in their cases.
About 700 people have been able to keep benefits, but 800 have lost their livelihood, leaving them struggling, said Pillersdorf, who has taken many of those cases and helped find attorneys for other people.
Dye, the Floyd County woman whose husband Tim, a former coal miner, was one of Conn’s clients, told the Herald-Leader that after Social Security stopped his check, she took odd jobs, sold her jewelry and items from their home, and started getting water from neighbors to make ends meet.
Pillersdorf said some former Conn clients have lost homes, and several have committed suicide.
“It’s been a dark two and a half years, and the cloud never leaves,” he said.