How do you catch a fugitive who has been on the run for 14 years, has traveled extensively overseas, speaks a dozen languages, and could be anywhere in the world?
The answer to that question, as authorities learned, is a lot of hard work — and a little bit of luck.
Neil Stammer, a talented juggler with an international reputation, was recently arrested in Nepal and returned to New Mexico to face child sex abuse charges. The events that led to his capture are a testament to good investigative work and strong partnerships, and also to the strength of the FBI’s fugitive publicity program.
Here’s how the case unfolded: Stammer, who once owned a New Mexico magic shop, was arrested in 1999 on multiple state charges including child sex abuse and kidnapping. He was released on bond but never showed up for his arraignment. New Mexico issued a state arrest warrant in May 2000; a federal fugitive charge was filed a month later, which brought the FBI into the case.
Stammer, who was 32 years old when he went on the run, told investigators that he began juggling as a teenager to make money, and he was good at it. Before his 1999 arrest, he had lived in Europe as a street performer and had learned a variety of languages. At the time of his disappearance, it was reported that Stammer could read or speak about a dozen of them.
Given his overseas travel experience and his language skills, the juggler could have been hiding anywhere in the world. With few credible leads, the case against Stammer went cold.
Fast forward to January 2014. Special Agent Russ Wilson had just been assigned the job of fugitive coordinator in the Albuquerque Division — the person responsible for helping to catch the region’s bank robbers, murderers, sex offenders, and other criminals who had fled rather than face the charges against them.
“In addition to the current fugitives, I had a stack of old cases,” Wilson said, “and Stammer’s stood out.” Working with the Office of Public Affairs, a new wanted poster for Stammer was created in hopes of generating tips.
At about the same time, a special agent with the Diplomatic Security Service — a branch of the U.S. Department of State whose mission includes protecting U.S. Embassies and maintaining the integrity of U.S. visa and passport travel documents — was testing new facial recognition software designed to uncover passport fraud. On a whim, the agent decided to use the software on FBI wanted posters. When he came upon Stammer’s poster , a curious thing happened: Stammer’s face matched a person whose passport photo carried a different name.
Suspecting fraud, the agent contacted the Bureau. The tip soon led Wilson to Nepal, where Stammer was living under the name Kevin Hodges and regularly visiting the U.S. Embassy there to renew his tourist visa.
“He was very comfortable in Nepal,” Wilson said. “My impression was that he never thought he would be discovered.” Stammer had been living in Nepal for years, teaching English and other languages to students hoping to gain entrance into U.S. universities.
Although Nepal and the U.S. have no formal extradition agreement, the Nepalese government cooperated with efforts to bring Stammer to justice. “We had tremendous assistance from DSS, the State Department, and the government of Nepal,” Wilson said. “It was a huge team effort with a great outcome.”