By Bob Van Voris
Until his arrest in August in Ecuador, Paul Ceglia was on the lam from law enforcement for more than three years. He was trying to avoid prosecution in New York on charges that he faked a contract with founder Mark Zuckerberg.
He hid in “hippie communes” in Georgia and Missouri, put on an Amish disguise, bribed South American border cops and even set sail to Cuba—or tried to—with his wife, two sons and a Jack Russell terrier.
Or so Ceglia says. He talked to Bloomberg in a long, narrow, urine-smelling outdoor common area at Quito’s Centro de Detencion Provisional, known as “El Inca” jail, after the neighborhood. There was a constant din of other prisoners and a few drops of rain that fell through broken roof tiles. Later, he returned to the 10-by-10-foot cell he shares with eight other prisoners.
Ceglia, now 45, was purposely vague on some details, saying he wanted to protect people who had helped the family evade authorities. U.S. prosecutors say he’s a con man. They are now trying to extradite him to New York to stand trial on six-year-old fraud charges.
If they succeed, Ceglia may face a courtroom confrontation with Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, as the star witness—and as many as 20 years in prison if convicted. Federal prosecutors say Ceglia fabricated a 2003 contract with Zuckerberg when he was a Harvard freshman that gave him half of the business that would become Facebook.
Ceglia is fighting extradition proceedings, which will continue on Monday with another court hearing in Quito. He claimed in the interview that he’s being railroaded in a conspiracy involving Facebook and the U.S. government. And he asserted that he ran after receiving a death threat in an unsigned letter. Many details of Ceglia’s story couldn’t be independently confirmed.
“I needed to go to another country to get justice,” he said, in trying to explain why he jumped a $250,000 bond and fled his home in western New York State in March 2015. That was just weeks before he was to go on trial in Manhattan.
Ceglia continues to maintain that his claim against Facebook is genuine and that he didn’t commit a crime.
His elaborate escape in March 2015 set the tone for his later exploits. He cut off his electronic bracelet and then connected it to a contraption he had rigged from a pump and an electric timer to try to keep it charged and in motion to fool officers who were monitoring remotely, according to U.S. prosecutors.
The trick gave Ceglia, his wife Iasia, their sons Joseffinn, then 11, and Leenan, then 10, and the family dog, Buddy, a head start of at least one day. They headed south with a hired driver, disguised as an Amish family. The ruse, which he took from his acquaintance with Amish people living near his home, provided a ready excuse for traveling without identification.
The family was bound first for Florida, hoping to lose themselves among spring break visitors. The plan was to sail to Cuba and then fly to Ecuador. He said he admired the leftist government of former president Rafael Correa. It was his administration that offered asylum in its London embassy to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
For the first leg, he said he bought an 8.9-meter Morgan sailboat in Florida and tried sailing to Cuba. That ended with the boat stuck on a sandbar. A second try was abandoned when the Ceglias learned that Secretary of State John Kerry was in Havana to improve relations between the two countries.
Cuba was out. In any case, the boys grew too terrified to sail on the open sea, given the experience.
The Ceglias spent the rest of 2015 in the U.S., including time in what he called “hippie communes” in Georgia and in the Missouri Ozarks.
To misdirect U.S. authorities, Ceglia, who has dual U.S.-Irish citizenship, said he had dropped clues to appear that he was headed to Ireland or somewhere else in the E.U. One time, he left partially burned papers with European locations on them for marshals to find.
After a year in the U.S., the family said goodbye to Buddy, leaving him with a man they’d met in Missouri. (The well-traveled dog later met an unhappy end when he was hit by a car.)
The Ceglias travelled to Houston in March 2016 and boarded a cruise ship bound for Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Ceglia, whose U.S. and Irish passports were being held by court authorities, declined to say how they managed to get out of the U.S.
On reaching port in Cartagena, Ceglia said he thought, “At least I’m not going back without a fight.”
From Cartagena, the family made their way by land to Medellin and then south toward Ecuador. When asked for papers, he said, “We would tell people, ‘We don’t have our passports. They’re at the hotel and we’re headed back there,’ That and $20 was usually enough to get by.”
Ceglia said they stayed for a time in Quito, going to “lawyer after lawyer and government person after government person,” in a futile attempt to win asylum.
Eventually, they moved from Quito to the more affordable southern city of Cuenca, an Andean town popular with expatriates. It was there that Iasia gave birth to their third son, Orayan, in February.
He said that, while in Ecuador, he earned money from computer coding online, stowing the cash in European bank accounts. He said he made enough to buy some property. The family’s last move was to Ballenita, a small beach town about a day’s drive from Quito.
Ceglia said he openly disclosed his identity to the Ecuadorian government in seeking asylum. He thinks that may have brought him to the attention of officials back home in the U.S.
The end came on Aug. 23, when Ecuadorian police converged on Ceglia and his wife in Salinas, on the country’s Pacific coast. Wearing a Pink Floyd hoodie and an unhappy expression, he was arrested and transported to Quito.
“If Paul gets extradited, he will fight the case with his teeth and nails,” said his Ecuadorian lawyer, Roberto Calderon.
The ordeal is taking its toll on the family. Leenan, the Ceglias’ 14-year-old son, got tired of life on the run and moved back to the U.S. after his father’s arrest. He is living with relatives in California. Every Saturday, Iasia gets up early and heads over to El Inca jail for a chance to see her husband during visiting hours.
Credit: Bloomberg News, www.bloomberg.com