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“A Skip Tracer’s Story” – Michelle Gomez

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Article Courtesy of:  WIRED

No Matter How Hard You Try to Hide, This Professional Skip Tracer Will Find You

BY RANDALL SULLIVAN

Article Courtesy of:  Wired

Michelle Gomez - Skip Trace Investigations

Michelle Gomez – Skip Trace Investigations

Name: Michelle Gomez
Location: Lockhart, Texas
Occupation: skip tracer
Specialty: hard-to-locate recoveries

 Brian Finke

At 4’11” and just over 100 pounds, Michelle Gomez does not look like the sort of person you’d hire to retrieve earth-moving equipment stolen by a Peruvian crime family.

But in the summer of 2013, that’s exactly what she was doing. Gomez, the proprietor of a one-woman operation in Lockhart, Texas, called Unlimited Recoveries, is one of the best skip tracers in the world. A combination bill collector, bounty hunter, and private investigator, a skip tracer finds people and things that have disappeared on purpose. Gomez specializes in “hard-to-locate recoveries”—she prefers cases others can’t solve. To track down the fleet of Caterpillar wheel loaders taken by the Peruvians, Gomez reached out to the estranged wife of the family’s patriarch, telling the woman that she was pregnant with her husband’s child. The ruse worked: Eventually the wife told Gomez that the heavy equipment was on its way to a construction site in South America.

For Gomez, 43, skip tracing is as much about stalking and capturing elusive prey as it is about getting paid. Today much of that hunting is done digitally, and Gomez has made an art of combing through cyberspace and finding the status updates, financial records, and location blips that virtually everyone leaves behind in the modern age. Gomez’s digital background stretches back to childhood, when her parents, both IBM engineers, insisted that the 10-year-old Michelle build a computer from scratch. “I even had to do my own soldering,” she remembers. The experience laid a foundation for the skills that have made her so good at finding people. “Profiling a subject is a lot like constructing a motherboard,” Gomez says. “You have to see connections that are invisible to other people by filling the spaces between with information.”

On May 22, 2013, she was tracking down the missing wheel loaders when she got a call from an executive at Alternative Collection Solutions, one of the country’s premier collection and debt recovery agencies. ACS needed help recovering a 53-foot Hatteras yacht called Morning Star that had been taken nearly a year earlier by a man named Ryan Eugene Mullen.

Mullen, the ACS executive said, would not be an easy man to find. The executive told Gomez that Mullen was wanted by the FBI for stealing more than $2 million from federal government agencies. So far the authorities had failed to locate him, as had the three private investigators who’d already taken a crack at finding Mullen and the boat. If she could get Morning Star back, the man told Gomez, they’d pay her $10,000, plus she could keep any criminal reward money being offered for the fugitive.

As she heard the details, Gomez felt what she calls “that booting-up buzz.” Staying on the run from the FBI is no easy feat. Neither is evading three professional investigators dispatched by some of the country’s biggest debt recovery agencies. Mullen had clearly figured out something—some technique for covering his tracks or otherwise keeping ahead of his pursuers—that put him well above the average con. Gomez wanted the case.

She began with a Google search and became even more fascinated by Mullen when she read a bulletin posted on a sketchy-looking civic discussion website called City-Data.com: Ryan Eugene Mullen was said to have been born in New York City on November 11, 1977, stood 6´3˝, weighed 200 pounds, and had light brown hair, pale blue eyes, and a deep voice. He wore a size 15 shoe and was an “avid runner and tanner” who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and tested at a near-genius IQ level as a teenager, Gomez read. He also possessed “violent tendencies,” having been incarcerated at a young age for beating his girlfriend and menacing a friend with a knife. And apparently he had stolen the $2 million from the government in multiple cyber-crimes that put him on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 1999. If accurate, Mullen had been a fugitive for 14 years.

How had such a man stayed in the shadows for so long? She had never seen a case quite like it. “My circuits were firing,” Gomez recalls.

Gary Blum hadn’t become one of the richest men in Louisiana’s St. Mary Parish by passing up opportunities to turn a profit.

That was why, in the fall of 2012, a couple of local real estate agents suggested that Blum might like to meet Ryan Mullen, a young investor looking at local properties. Mullen, it seemed, had an annual seven-figure income, much of it from video poker machines he owned in a small casino. The stranger had tied up his impressive boat, Big Ol’ Girl, in New Iberia and promptly began to negotiate the purchase of an apartment complex, offering a $100,000 check for a deposit, which was being held in escrow by his lawyer. Mullen had next sought to buy the Arlington Plantation in St. Mary Parish, but the deal fell apart over terms. So the agents sought out Blum, suggesting that Mullen instead purchase Blum’s plantation in Franklin, Louisiana, the Alice C.

When Mullen came out to visit the plantation in November, Blum met a tall, round-shouldered fellow. Mullen had a broad and pleasant face, along with an air of privileged background, and Blum found him “personable and very interesting.” A few weeks later, the realtors showed up at the Alice C with a contract and a $50,000 check offered as a deposit.

Blum was no easy mark. At age 72, he had amassed a fortune that included the millions he made in 2008 when he sold his controlling interest in the First State Bank of the Florida Keys. Blum maintained nearly a dozen personal residences, including a sumptuous home in Key West. “I had no shortage of other places to live,” he observes, and so he signed a contract agreeing to sell the Alice C for $1 million. All that was needed to close was financing from a bank. Not long after the contract was initiated, Mullen asked Blum if he might tie up his 53-foot Hatteras yacht at the plantation’s private dock on the Bayou Teche, in the heart of Cajun country. Blum agreed and began to introduce Mullen locally as the scion of a wealthy New Orleans family who had grown up in River Ridge, a community on the banks of the Mississippi.

During one of his first visits to the Alice C, Mullen noticed Blum’s Rolls-Royce Silver Spur parked in the garage, right next to the Porsche Carrera and the Mercedes G500 the banker also kept at his Louisiana home. Mullen told Blum he himself was a Rolls-Royce collector. In fact he owned just about every model made since 1950. The claim sounded like a bit much to a wealthy friend of Blum’s, whose own car collection included a Rolls. So Blum’s friend went to the official Rolls-Royce registry, where every car made by the company is accounted for. And damned if this Mullen wasn’t listed as the owner of 14 Rollses. “Hell,” Blum says, “you find out a man really does own 14 Rolls-Royces, it’s not difficult to believe whatever else you hear about him.”

Michelle Gomez - Skip Trace Investigations

Michelle Gomez – Skip Trace Investigations

Place: Alice C Plantation
Location: Franklin, Louisiana
Connection: in November 2012, Ryan Mullen offered to buy the property from Gary Blum for 1 million.

 Brian Finke

After that first call from ACS, Gomez ran Mullen’s name through a pay-per-use database of public records.

Her contract with the service prohibits her from revealing much about what it provides, Gomez says, “but it’s all about SITS—shelter, income, transportation, and social contact. That’s what you need to find someone.” There were lots of hits on the Social Security number she’d been given, Gomez remembers, “but most of them were for aka names, or they were hidden behind all these placeholder companies.” There was nothing that came back to the name Ryan Eugene Mullen. “When a person is able to obscure his identity like this, we call it ‘ghosting,’” Gomez says.

An increasing number of the people she chases understand that staying out of jail in the 21st century requires the ability to minimize their digital trail, using those traces they do leave (often deliberately) to their advantage. They pay cash whenever they can and use social media only to plant false information, boasting of heading off to a surfing vacation in Hawaii, for instance, when they are really going skiing in Colorado. These are the kind of people who take for granted that they can’t have legitimate bank accounts or valid government ID. They can and do collect credit cards linked to business addresses, but those are almost always post office boxes or vacant locations, and the applications usually have at least one digit in the Social Security number or date of birth changed. Even careful criminals, though, eventually reveal their locations, Gomez says. “They get tired and slip,” she says. “Everybody needs human contact, and that’s usually what brings them to ground.”

This Mullen, though, was not slipping. What put him out in front of others, Gomez soon figured, was that his ghosting technique seemed to include creating alternate versions of himself, virtual doppelgängers that had confounded both law enforcement and collection agencies. Many were named Mullen. She found a Ryan Paul Mullen and a Reuben Ryan Mullen, for example, both linked to the provided Social Security number. There was also a Ryan Gino Mullen, who also showed up on City-Data.com, but that person was literally a dead end, having been fatally wounded in a shoot-out with NYPD officers in the aftermath of a Manhattan bank robbery.

THE PEOPLE GOMEZ CHASES UNDERSTAND THAT STAYING OUT OF JAIL IN THE 21ST CENTURY REQUIRES THE ABILITY TO MINIMIZE THEIR DIGITAL TRAIL.

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Article Courtesy of:  WIRED

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