Fugitive Eric Conn arrives back in Lexington under FBI custody
Conn says he used a puppy to cross the border from Mexico into Guatemala, thinking it would help him get past security officers.
“The little guy was not exactly Rin Tin Tin, but I thought almost everyone loves puppies,” Conn said.
In his first communication with the media since being captured, Conn, 57, sent the Herald-Leader a 42-page, two-part handwritten letter with his account of why he decided to flee sentencing in a massive Social Security fraud case, and information on his six months on the run.
Conn, who is in solitary confinement in the Grayson County jail while awaiting trial on escape and other charges, also called the newspaper from jail.
It’s a tale worthy of Conn’s larger-than-life persona, including how he pretended to be engaged to a woman so authorities wouldn’t check his identification while on a bus, and how he says police in Honduras, where he was captured Dec. 2, offered to let him go in return for a bribe he couldn’t cover.
Conn said having to look over his shoulder while a fugitive was miserable.
“Honestly, honestly, it was horrible,” he said. “I never got one true minute of relaxation.”
Conn was scheduled to be sentenced to 12 years in prison last July after admitting that he included fake medical evidence in claims for hundreds of clients seeking Social Security disability benefits.
Conn said in his letter that before he pleaded guilty, he had suffered “painful guilt” over his illegal acts.
“The actions I took to ensure that my clients would receive their disability benefits were unjustifiable,” he wrote.
Conn was on home detention awaiting sentencing, but while in Lexington on June 2 for an approved meeting with his attorney and prosecutors, he cut the electronic monitor from his ankle and fled.
A man who had worked for Conn at his law office in Floyd County, Curtis Lee Wyatt, allegedly supplied Conn with a 2002 Dodge Ram pickup truck to use in escaping.
‘I allowed fear to control my decisions’
In his letter, Conn called his decision to abscond foolhardy, but he said he did it after becoming terrified of the prospect of being raped in prison.
He said he hadn’t given any serious thought to that concern before pleading guilty. It seemed like something Hollywood had hyped, he said.
But after accepting the plea, Wyatt asked whether he was worried about getting raped in prison by gang members and gave him a brochure on how to cope with being abused, Conn said.
Conn said he started reading about sexual abuse in prisons and became so fearful that one night, he “began to shake all over like a man on the verge of frostbite.”
A religious person would have sought comfort in faith to deal with that fear, and others would have sought counseling, but Conn said he did neither.
“What does one do when he is forced to reconcile his respect for what he knows is right and his fear of being sexually assaulted or sexually abused?” Conn wrote. “I was not a believer and I did not have the courage to seek out counseling. I allowed fear to control my decisions.”
The Herald-Leader couldn’t independently verify Conn’s account, and a federal indictment charged that Conn started plotting his escape months before the time he gave in the letter for when Wyatt mentioned prison rape to him.
Conn confirmed in a subsequent phone interview that he had discussed escape earlier, but then he became obsessed with thoughts of being sexually assaulted in prison.
Conn said he was once on medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder but had stopped taking it before his guilty plea, leaving him less able to cope with those thoughts.
Conn gave false details of his flight to the Herald-Leader in emails after his escape last summer.
But the facts bear out his latest account, including his capture in Honduras, he said this week from jail.
Conn said he walked across the border into Mexico at a pedestrian crossing. No one asked him for identification.
According to a federal indictment, Wyatt allegedly had used pedestrian crossings into Mexico in April 2017 to test the security measures in place for Conn.
‘Fate had much different plans’
Conn said he told himself after getting across the border that things would be easier, but “fate had much different plans for me.”
He said he made it to a small town, where he got something to eat.
The closest city in Mexico where he could make transportation connections was Ciudad Juarez. The city, once known as the most violent in the world, is south of El Paso, Texas, near the border with New Mexico.
The FBI has confirmed that Conn was in New Mexico during his flight. Agents found his truck there and released images from security cameras at a convenience store and a Walmart showing that Conn had been in the state a few days after leaving Lexington.
Conn, who speaks Spanish, said a young couple gave him a ride to Ciudad Juarez. He asked a taxi driver about getting a passport, and the driver helped him find someone who made him a fake Mexican passport, although it was not of very good quality, Conn said.
Conn said he booked an airline flight at one point in Mexico to speed up his journey, but when a security screener said the passport wasn’t showing up in the system, he quickly left with it and didn’t try to use it again.
He later lost the document, leaving him to travel by bus through Central America with no identification.
Conn said he moved on from Ciudad Juarez to Guatemala. The letter didn’t say why he went to Guatemala, but he said in a separate court record that he had $40,000 in an account at the Bank of Guatemala.
Wyatt told the FBI that he sent several wire transfers totaling $40,000 to Guatemala for Conn beginning in early 2017, according to an affidavit from FBI special agent Randolph Copley.
Wyatt has pleaded not guilty to charges of helping Conn escape.
Conn said he got to the Mexico-Guatemala border in early afternoon, giving him only a few hours to observe the security procedures.
He said that’s when he saw a young man holding a brown puppy and got the idea to use it as a cover.
He asked the man if he could borrow the puppy for half an hour. The man said yes, but it would cost him $5, Conn wrote.
He said he gave the man the money and started across the border, but the dog spotted a chicken and began to bark, catching the attention of the guards.
One guard told Conn he had a dog that looked like the one Conn was carrying. Conn told the guard he had named the dog Curly.
“The guard apparently had watched ‘The Three Stooges,’ because he started laughing and said, ‘Curly,’” Conn wrote. “I just looked at the guard and smiled and kept walking.”
Conn said he later turned the dog loose to return across the border.
Conn said he caught a bus to Guatemala City but moved on to the border with Honduras before long.
Conn said it was raining hard as he tried to figure out how to get across.
He approached an older man “who had a knowledgeable look,” wearing the biggest cowboy hat Conn had ever seen, and told the man he hoped he could suggest how to get across the border without proper papers, Conn said.
It turned out the man worked for the bus company. He walked past the border guards with Conn, then charged him well more than the price of a bus ticket.
‘I want to go home’
Conn said he got on the bus not caring where it went, as long as he could get some rest.
But then he spotted a beautiful woman — a woman with “something restless, eager and potentially explosive about her” — and thoughts of rest vanished.
“I was a moth to the flame,” he wrote.
Conn said he moved to a seat next to the woman, who he said was named Jessica, and struck up a conversation.
She said she didn’t understand what a “gringo” was doing alone on a bus in a dangerous country; Conn replied that he was an American “with some problems” back in the states, and she guessed right away he didn’t have proper identification papers.
They talked about movies and restaurants until the bus stopped to let Honduran soldiers check passengers’ papers.
Conn said he decided to try a pull a “Rhett Butler” tactic, referring to the scene in “Gone With The Wind” in which a roguish Southerner played by Clark Gable pretends to be drunk in one scene to assuage the suspicion of a Union officer about a raid.
When a Honduran soldier asked for his identification, “I said, what I hoped was in classic Clark Gable style, ‘I just got engaged to this awesome woman and I’m a little drunk, but you are welcome to check in my backpack for my papers,’” Conn wrote.
He said the soldier looked at another soldier and said he thought all gringos were crazy, then shook his head and moved on without checking the backpack.
Conn said he got Jessica’s telephone number and a “very loving goodbye” before getting off the bus in a town, only to learn that it was known for having a high murder rate.
“This was not the first time I had wished that my going home was as simple as clicking my heels together and saying to myself three times, ‘I want to go home,’” he wrote.
Conn said he moved from city to city in Honduras, trying to find someplace acceptable to live, and he finally settled on La Ceiba, a city of about 200,000 on the Caribbean coast.
He said in a phone interview that he hadn’t planned on Honduras as a final destination, but he got scared that more border crossings would put him at risk.
He said Jessica came to spend some time with him, but he found that she had some problems of her own, including an “irrationally possessive” former boyfriend, and that she eventually left.
There were other problems to contend with because of protests building over the disputed presidential election in Honduras in late November.
Conn wrote that Jessica was his reason for staying in Honduras, so with her gone, he decided to leave once protesters stopped blocking roads.
He lingered one meal too long.
‘I believe you are here for me’
Conn said he went to a Pizza Hut — which he enjoyed because it was the only place in the city that played American music — and ordered a personal pan pepperoni pizza and some azteca soup, which is on the menu at Pizza Huts in Honduras.
It was Dec. 2, six months to the day since he left Kentucky.
Conn had finished the pizza and was waiting on his soup, listening to the song “Hotel California” by the Eagles, when a female Honduran police officer sat down in the booth with him.
The woman said she was honored to meet Conn because it was the first time she had met someone in Mensa, the society for people with genius-level IQs, Conn wrote.
“I said, ‘I believe you are here for me,’” Conn wrote. “She replied, ‘I am.’”
The woman went with him to the counter so he could pay for his meal, then to a car with a team of Honduran police officers.
Conn wrote that the team leader was nice to him at first, even buying Conn a shirt because he didn’t have any clean clothes, but then started asking him questions about money, Conn wrote.
Conn says he told him that he was broke. According to Conn’s account, the team leader, who he said was named Jesus,
told Conn that he could either transfer money into specified bank accounts and “walk out that door a free man,” or refuse, in which case “you may or may not make it back to the United States alive.”
He said another officer emphasized the threat by slamming his assault rifle on the table in front of him.
Conn said he felt his life was in danger, but during three days in which the police deprived him of sleep, he heard the female officer tell Jesus and the others that the FBI had cautioned very strongly that Honduran police were to turn over Conn without harm.
He wrote that it gave him hope during that time to know that “my former adversary,” the FBI, was pushing for his safety.
Conn said he had only $7 left after his last meal at the Pizza Hut.
Praise for the FBI after return from Honduras
In a separate court record, he said he could no longer draw money from the account he’d had at the Bank of Guatemala, so he thought it had been depleted.
The FBI had Conn flown to the Honduran capitol, then sent a government airplane to pick him up and fly him to Lexington on Dec. 5.
Conn had gigged the FBI after he absconded, saying in an email to the Herald-Leader that the agency was wrong about his whereabouts and that authorities “insult themselves” in trying to track him through the IP address on emails.
His tone is different now.
“I challenged the FBI to find me and the FBI did,” he wrote.
He said he is indebted to the agency for making sure he got out of Honduras without harm.
“It is solely because of the professionalism of the FBI that I was able, albeit with ‘overflowing’ eyes, to once again look upon the face of my daughter,” he wrote.
Conn said he hoped while he was on the run that he could someday slip back into the United States and live quietly, maybe somewhere in the West.
He doesn’t look forward to a lengthy prison term, but he said he wasn’t unhappy about being caught and brought back.
“I’m more content here than I was in Honduras,” he said. “I don’t live in fear.”
U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves sentenced Conn to 12 years in prison while he was out of the country. He is serving that sentence.
In addition, he faces charges related to escaping, plus more than a dozen charges left over from the initial Social Security fraud case against him, which could result in a life sentence.