August 13, 6:40 PM: I’m driving East out of San Francisco on I-80, fleeing my life under the cover of dusk. Having come to the interstate by a circuitous route, full of quick turns and double backs, I’m reasonably sure that no one is following me. I keep checking the rearview mirror anyway. From this point on, there’s no such thing as sure. Being too sure will get me caught.
I had intended to flee in broad daylight, but when you are going on the lam, there are a surprising number of last-minute errands to run. This morning, I picked up a set of professionally designed business cards for my fake company under my fake name, James Donald Gatz. I drove to a Best Buy, where I bought two prepaid cell phones with cash and then put a USB cord on my credit card — an arbitrary dollar amount I hoped would confuse investigators, who would scan my bill and wonder what gadgetry I had purchased. An oil change for my car was another head fake. Who would think that a guy about to sell his car would spend $60 at Oil Can Henry’s?
I already owned a couple of prepaid phones; I left one of the new ones with my girlfriend and mailed the other to my parents — giving them an untraceable way to contact me in emergencies. I bought some Just for Men beard-and-mustache dye at a drugstore. My final stop was the bank, to draw a $477 cashier’s check. It’s payment for rent on an anonymous office in Las Vegas, which is where I need to deliver the check by midday tomorrow.
Crossing the Bay Bridge, I glance back for a last nostalgic glimpse of the skyline. Then I reach over, slide the back cover off my cell phone, and pop out the battery. A cell phone with a battery inside is a cell phone that’s trackable.
About 25 minutes later, as the California Department of Transportation database will record, my green 1999 Honda Civic, California plates 4MUN509, passes through the tollbooth on the far side of the Carquinez Bridge, setting off the FasTrak toll device, and continues east toward Lake Tahoe.
What the digital trail will not reflect is that a few miles past the bridge I pull off the road, detach the FasTrak, and stuff it into the duffle bag in my trunk, where its signal can’t be detected. Nor will it note that I then double back on rural roads to I-5 and drive south through the night, cutting east at Bakersfield. There will be no digital record that at 4 am I hit Primm, Nevada, a sad little gambling town about 40 minutes from Vegas, where $15 cash gets me a room with a view of a gravel pile.
Keep Reading Evan Ratliff’s Adventure at: Wired Magazine
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