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Pistorius granted bail, but when are the rich a flight risk?

It's easier for a millionaire to disappear than anyone else, but it still isn't a walk in the park.

New Statesman
The hands of South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius are pictured as he appeared at the Magistrate Court in Pretoria on February 22, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was yesterday granted bail until his trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, but some fear he's a flight risk.

If Pistorius decided to jump bail, what would he have to do next, Spear's wondered? The wealthy have a history of trying to flee justice, and so we sent Oliver Thring to investigate how to disappear:

Flight has a long and inglorious history, of course, for men in trouble. Lord Lucan vanished in 1974, his blood-stained car found abandoned at an English ferry port shortly after his children’s nanny had been bludgeoned to death. Asil Nadir spent seventeen years in Northern Cyprus evading prosecution in the British courts for the theft of at least £34 million from Polly Peck.

And just last June the Brazilian-born industrialist Guma Aguiar, who had been embroiled in a billion-dollar business dispute, disappeared from his yacht. His wife claims he may be hiding in the Netherlands, but she and his mother are now scrapping over his $100 million fortune nonetheless.

Reading Thring's piece, it doesn't seem very likely Pistorius would succeed in going underground — he wouldn't be able to use any emails, or use a credit card, and he'd have to throw away all of his electronic devices, for a start.

Oliver Crofton is the director of technology security firm Vigilante Bespoke. ‘It’s nigh-on impossible to have an existence where you aren’t tracked or traced by technology,’ he says. John McAfee’s precise location in Guatemala, for example, was determined by the GPS co-ordinates embedded in a photo taken of him then posted online.

‘If the person really wanted to hide,’ says Crofton, ‘they’d need to change their name and chuck every device they had in the river. They couldn’t even open any emails, and they certainly couldn’t use a credit card — just a suitcase full of dollars.’ Crofton believes that people who flee their country without trying to stay hidden are ‘relying on people losing interest in them because tracing them, and their money, might get a bit complicated. I don’t think that’s a particularly failsafe plan.’

And it would require forward planning: he might want to try and gain citizenship for a country that won't seek to extradite him. Unless he can make a suitcase full of dollars last a lifetime, there would be the problem of trying to set up a complex enough financial structure to hide his money away.

‘I would always ask a prospective client why he wanted to hide his assets,’ says Bharat Pindoria of Pindoria Solicitors, who specialises in asset protection. (Pindoria emphasises that his firm ‘does not do asset protection to help criminals’.) ‘If the client said he’d ballsed up and might be in trouble, we wouldn’t be able to advise him, but if he lied and said it was to move abroad or because he had better opportunities elsewhere, that would be a different matter.’ For an unscrupulous person, then, another lie here is no trouble.

The best way to store stolen money or property is to transfer ownership offshore, adding as many degrees of remove as possible. ‘There would be no bank account in your name,’ says Pindoria. ‘You’re in Panama and you have power of attorney to withdraw money from a company in Mauritius, which might have a bank account in the Dutch Antilles. The Mauritius company is owned by a Belize company, which is owned by a Dutch Antilles trust.’

All of this, of course, would require expert legal advice — at a time when Pistorius might just struggle to find a lawyer.

Even if he did manage to disappear, just as the world's media is focussed on him, the psychological trauma of a lifetime spent hiding might just be too much to bear, and the stress could exacerbate any borderline personality disorder, or underlying psychological problems, he might have.

As Oliver Thring learned, many have tried, but not many have succeeded in disappearing.

An earlier version of this piece was posted on Spear's.