Sean Ludwick, a 43-year old millionaire from Long Island charged with killing his passenger in a drunk-driving incident, allegedly made a rather ill-conceived attempt to skip bail. He laid his plans with Google searches such as “How do fugitives escape?”, “Why do fugitives get caught?”, “Fleeing from justice – what can happen?”, and “Does Venezuela extradite to the U.S.?”
Then, after pondering the wisdom of the Internet on these subjects, prosecutors say he hatched a plan to buy a 50-foot sailboat with cash during a trip to Puerto Rico, and shove off for Venezuela… but the sailing instructor he chose to teach him how to escape to South America turned out to be an FBI agent.
The New York Daily News account of this blunder-palooza doesn’t say exactly when the Google searches came to the attention of prosecutors, but other sources say they were discovered with a review of his browser activity after his computer was taken into custody, rather than Google actively helping the government spy on him.
The key elements in Ludwick’s downfall were the sailing instructor and another whistleblower, a hotel concierge, who reported his suspicious inquiries to authorities. Ludwick wired $385,000 to Puerto Rico to complete the purchase of his sailboat and was planning to return to the island later this week to take possession.
CBS News reports the Suffolk District Attorney’s office requested an intervention from the U.S. Marshals Service after the tip-off, and Ludwick was arrested at his home in Sag Harbor. His million-dollar bail has been revoked, and he’ll await trial behind bars.
Ludwick’s Google activity played a significant role in the prosecution’s argument to revoke bail. Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti read a list of Ludwick’s incriminating searches to the court, and said he “could have read hundreds more,” according to the East Hampton Star.
This made it very difficult for Ludwick’s lawyers to argue he had no intention of actually leaving the United States, although they gave it their best effort. District Attorney Tom Spota asserted that without timely intervention from the U.S. Marshals, Ludwick “would be on the sailboat right now.”
“When I set a $1 million bail and took his passport, quite frankly, I never contemplated some of the possibilities raised today,” said Justice Fernando Camacho. He added that if he were looking at 30 years in jail, “the last thing on my mind would be the purchase of a $500,000 sailboat.”
The Southampton Patch says the allegations against Ludwick stem from his crashing into a utility pole in Sag Harbor with his Porsche last August, killing his passenger, 53-year-old Paul Hansen. According to the D.A., “An investigation by the Vehicular Crimes Bureau established that Ludwick allegedly removed the victim’s body from his sports car and then tried to drive away from the scene.”
He was indicted for “aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter, manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, aggravated driving while intoxicated, leaving the scene, reckless driving, speeding, failure to stay in a single lane and driving on the shoulder or slope of the roadway,” and could be looking at up to 25 years for aggravated vehicular homicide, plus another 7 years for leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
It’s interesting to note how often Google searches and other browser activity are coming up in prosecutions, including terrorism cases. (One of the most well-known examples was Tucscon shooter Jared Loughner, whose online research into assassins, the death penalty, and solitary confinement was noted by the authorities after his computers were seized.)
Prosecutors can only hope suspects keep failing to perform diligent wipes of their computer systems. Privacy advocates continue to worry about the way browser histories can be turned against the accused, becoming a form of retroactive surveillance that could make most of us very bad, under the wrong circumstances.