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Global Manhunts : New Muscle in Long Arm of the Law

January 09, 1988|DOUGLAS JEHL | Times Staff Writer

NEWARK, N.J. — Former state Sen. David J. Friedland might have been just another corrupt New Jersey politician under investigation by federal authorities here, except for one thing: Friedland was on the lam.

To keep out of prison after his conviction for accepting kickbacks, Friedland had faked his death in 1985 while scuba diving in the Bahamas, and then--flush with what officials believe was at least $1.5 million in illegally gotten cash--took off for London to begin an odyssey that was to take him to elegant hotels and remote hideaways around the world.

For more than two years federal investigators tried to track him down, working from dingy headquarters in the center of run-down Newark to follow up on more than 100 tips that placed the ex-senator from Jersey City as sunning on Spain's Costa del Sol, on safari in Africa, skiing in the Alps and scuba diving somewhere in Southeast Asia.

Eluded Pursuers

Twice--in Paris and in Nairobi--Friedland was located but both times he shook his pursuers. The man who was to become the government's most wanted fugitive left a trail increasingly hard for investigators to follow.

Not until late last month did the government catch up with Friedland--after receiving a come-and-get-him phone call from national police in the Republic of the Maldives, a chain of coral atolls scattered in the southern Indian Ocean.

U.S. officials are reluctant to provide specific details of their investigation, wary of compromising foreign sources. But available information about the case helps to illustrate the government's limited capacity to track a criminal around the globe.

In a world with no international police force and virtually effortless international travel, U.S. investigators must rely on luck and the help of other governments to find such fugitives. Constrained by costs and diplomatic sensibilities, they can rarely go abroad to stalk their targets in foreign capitals like the fictional detectives in television adventures.

Search by Proxy

Rather, they must search by proxy, collecting tips by telephone and sending Telex messages to other countries' officers to be on the lookout for those they seek. The method is tangled by red-tape and fraught with bureaucratic lapses that can well allow a resourceful fugitive with abundant funds to remain at large for years.

But eventually, law enforcement officers insist, the network of information often catches up with them. It was a U.S. overseas bulletin, forwarded by the Interpol international law enforcement clearinghouse, that helped Maldivian officials identify Friedland, who was using the name Richard Smith Harley and working as a scuba instructor with a false Costa Rican passport.

Through law enforcement cooperation, "lawbreakers have an increasingly difficult time avoiding the reach of the law," said Stanley E. Morris, director of the U.S. Marshal's Service. "If you can't hide in the Maldives," he said, "you can't hide anywhere."

Friedland, 50, is back in a U.S. jail now in downtown Manhattan, serving a seven-year sentence first imposed in 1980 and facing further charges that carry a maximum penalty of 150 more years in prison.

Informed sources say that U.S. officers' 27-hour flight overseas to retrieve the captured suspect was one of only a few times U.S. agents left the country in pursuit of him.

Though U.S. officials based abroad had done some sleuthing, most of the work was done in the dingy office in Newark and in government agencies there where officials had come to know Friedland well.

The district offices of the Labor Department, the U.S. Attorney and the FBI had been involved in the initial investigation that led to Friedland's 1980 conviction on charges of receiving kickbacks relating to a Teamsters pension fund. The office of the U.S. Marshal began leading the hunt for Friedland soon after he disappeared.

To those investigators--whose chances of finding Friedland from afar depended on a thorough knowledge of his habits--the luxurious setting in which he was finally caught and the testimony of his lawyer at his Camden, N.J., arraignment this week that prison was "breaking" his client, were no surprise.

It was Friedland's fear of the hard life in prison that caused him to flee in the first place, they say; it was his high living that provided clues about his travels; in the end, it was that style of life that helped the hit-and-miss apprehension system ensnare him.

Committed Consumer

Long before his disappearance, Friedland had been a committed consumer--some say a glutton--of the finer things. He ate at the best restaurants and stayed at the best hotels, traveled around the world and went skiing and scuba diving wherever the action was best.

Friedland managed to maintain such a life style even after he was convicted, as a first-term state senator, on the 1980 charge, for which he was sentenced to seven years in jail.

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