- Some of the world's most wanted fugitives are charged with financial felonies and typically have the money and the smarts to give authorities the slip.
- In one of the most notorious cases, Malaysian businessman Jho Low is accused of using a government-sponsored investment fund, 1MDB, to loot billions of dollars from his country with the help of a U.S. bank. He has disappeared.
- Other white-collar fugitives specialized in mortgage and investment fraud.
When one is accustomed to traveling by private jet, luxuriating aboard a superyacht, living in mansions and partying with rock stars, the prospect of life in a 7-by-10-foot prison cell can be pretty unappealing.
That may help explain why some of the most wanted fugitives in the world are people charged with financial crimes. The sentences for white-collar offenses can be severe, with U.S. federal guidelines calling for increased sentences based on the amount of money lost.
Given the choice between paying millions for a high-priced legal team to fight the charges and using those millions to continue living in the lap of luxury underground, these suspects allegedly chose to take the money and run.
Malaysian national Low Taek Jho, more commonly known as Jho Low, is not accused of just any white-collar fraud.
Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Bill McMurry calls it "one of the largest economic crimes in the history of the world."
Low is accused of masterminding a plot to siphon billions from the Malaysian government through an investment fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.
He allegedly used much of the money to fund a wildly lavish lifestyle including $500,000 parties, a $250 million superyacht, and expensive gifts for celebrity pals including Leonardo DiCaprio, whose hit film "The Wolf of Wall Street" Low helped bankroll.
Low hatched the idea for 1MDB, pitching it to the Malaysian government as a way to fund development and benefit the Malaysian people, modeled after government-owned funds in oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia. But Malaysia didn't have oil wealth to pay for its fund, so 1MDB would function on borrowed money, much of it via Goldman Sachs.
"Jho Low came up with this idea, at some point, that developing a sovereign wealth fund is the way to tap into extreme amounts of money and power," McMurry told CNBC's "American Greed."
He said Low deliberately gave himself no formal role at 1MDB, but he clearly pulled the strings — and reaped the rewards.
"He bought lavish pieces of property in places like New York City and Beverly Hills. He purchased extremely expensive rare pieces of art," McMurry said.
Rather than benefiting the Malaysian people, prosecutors said, 1MDB was a massive, global money laundering operation.
Revelations of the scheme set off a global scandal and a massive criminal investigation.
The debacle forced Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak from power, and he lost his run for reelection in 2018. In 2020, a Malaysian court found he was in on the scheme, convicting him on multiple corruption counts for his role in the scandal. He remains free on bail as he appeals the conviction.
Goldman Sachs agreed to pay $2.9 billion under a deferred prosecution agreement with the United States Department of Justice that will allow the firm to avoid a criminal conviction in the U.S. That was on top of a $3.9 billion settlement with the Malaysian government.
U.S. prosecutors also reached a $60 million settlement with the producers of "The Wolf of Wall Street," Red Granite Pictures, which was not charged with wrongdoing.
DiCaprio, who also was not accused of wrongdoing, agreed to forfeit gifts he received from 1MDB and to cooperate in the investigation.
A federal grand jury indicted Jho Low in 2018, and he did agree in 2019 to hand over some $700 million in assets to the U.S. government, on top of nearly $300 million more seized by authorities.
But Low himself is nowhere to be found. Some reports say he is hiding in Macao, protected by a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party. But the Chinese government denies that.
In 2020, a Washington, D.C., federal judge declared him a fugitive.
"The United States will never stop looking for him," McMurry said.
Husband-and-wife mortgage brokers John and Julieanne Dimitrion vanished in July 2010, just before they were supposed to appear in a federal court in Honolulu to be sentenced for a brazen fraud, having both pleaded guilty.
Also vanished, according to federal prosecutors: more than $1 million stolen from desperate homeowners during the depths of the housing crisis.
The Dimitrions, featured in a 2012 episode of the CNBC limited series "American Greed: The Fugitives," knew just who to strike — and when.
Their company, Mortgage Alliance, targeted homeowners who were in danger of foreclosure, offering to purchase their homes and help repair their credit. But rather than investing the proceeds as they promised, the Dimitrions kept the money for themselves.
According to an FBI database — where the Dimitrions top the list of most-wanted white-collar fugitives — they put the stolen funds to use.
"John Dimitrion has expensive tastes in sports cars, clothing and jewelry. He is an enthusiast for high-end personal electronics and has a large collection of Airsoft replica firearms," the bureau said.
Julieanne's tastes, the bureau said, gravitate toward "high-end lingerie, designer purses, and shoes."
Given that the couple has been on the lam for well over a decade, they could be just about anywhere. Tips have reportedly come in from all around the world.
The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to their arrest.
Setting aside the fact that he has the perfect name for an accused white-collar crook, the crimes that Joe McCool is charged with are dastardly.
McCool and two other men, Cameron Campbell and Donald Manning, operated the Brixon Group, a California-based firm that promised a great deal: an investment that guaranteed a 10% return per month, risk-free because the money was insured by the State Bar of California. Better still, the money would be lent to war-torn countries in Eastern Europe to purchase refrigerators for impoverished citizens.
Of course, it was all a classic Ponzi scheme, according to a 2006 federal grand jury indictment. There were no refrigerators, there was no insurance from the State Bar of California, and ultimately there was no 10% monthly return.
Campbell and Manning pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges and served time in federal prison. But Joe McCool went into the wind.
McCool, who was presented to investors as a banking expert with extensive experience in Europe, may be hiding out in the Philippines, the FBI says.
In the early 2000s, real estate in parts of Florida was dirt cheap. With the housing bubble just starting to grow, investors could make a killing buying and selling property. They could do even better if they didn't have to buy the property in the first place before they sold it.
The couple, both Russian-born but apparently German citizens, targeted Russian immigrants with their get-rich-quick scheme, which prosecutors said was diabolically simple. They would simply draw up fake ownership documents for properties, then use those properties to further their fraud.
In some cases, according to a 2011 federal grand jury indictment, they sold property out from under buyers without their knowledge.
The scam allegedly paid for the couple's very expensive tastes, including fancy watches and luxury cars such as a Bentley and a $325,000 Maybach, as detailed in a 2013 episode of "American Greed: The Fugitives." But when the housing bubble burst, so did the Wolfs' scheme.
By the time the grand jury indicted them in January 2011, the Wolfs were on the run. A Florida judge declared them fugitives a month later.
The couple reportedly have ties to Florida, Arkansas, Texas and New York. The FBI says they may be living in Russia.
See how Jho Low allegedly lived the high life by robbing his native country blind. Where is he now? Watch an ALL-NEW episode of CNBC's "American Greed," Wednesday, Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. ET.