The Fugitive Next Door

Tim Brown seemed like a typical Florida retiree—he loved doting on his wife, fishing with friends, and flying his plane. But his life was built on a secret. 

By Greg Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 127

Greg Donahue is a writer and investigative journalist whose work has appeared in New York, The Guardian, Vice, and Marie Claire, among other publications. His last Atavist story, “Porambo,” was published as Issue No. 77. Follow him on Twitter @gregjdonahue.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten

Published in May 2022.

On the morning of December 2, 2020, Tim Brown got up early to start a fire. The night before, an unseasonable cold front had descended on Love’s Landing, Florida, where Brown lived with his wife, Duc Hanh Thi Vu. By 8 a.m., the mercury in the thermometer had yet to reach 40 degrees. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where the couple lived, a thin layer of frost glistened on the long grass runways that extended through the quiet neighborhood: Love’s Landing is a private aviation community, home to pilots, plane engineers, and flying enthusiasts.

As heat from the fireplace warmed the house, Brown headed to the small hangar he’d built right outside. Nearly everyone in Love’s Landing owned a plane, and Brown was no exception. He’d just had the engine of his gleaming Tecnam P2008 replaced, and despite the chill in the air, the morning was shaping up to be calm and clear. Perfect weather to take the plane up.

A carpenter by trade, Brown had spent much of his life enjoying the outdoors. In his younger days, he was an expert scuba diver and deep-sea fisherman. But now, at 66, his age had finally caught up with him. His close-cropped hair had gone gray, and health issues had him in and out of the hospital. During the past year alone, he’d suffered two heart attacks. Flying offered the chance, as Brown put it, “to continue the fun.” He’d fallen in love with aviation years earlier, after taking a charter trip with friends in Alaska. Flying sure beat staring at the trees on either side of the road, he said. This was the kind of enthusiastic attitude that made Brown popular in Love’s Landing. Soon after moving there in 2017, he and Vu became, as a neighbor put it, “one of the best-liked couples in the airpark.”

Brown had just raised the hangar door when an unmarked Dodge Durango roared into the driveway, along with a Marion County police cruiser. As Brown turned toward the commotion, a law enforcement agent in a tactical vest leapt out of the SUV. He was pointing an MK18 short-barreled automatic rifle at Brown’s face. “Step back! Raise your hands!” the agent shouted.

Brown did as he was told. Officers from a half-dozen federal agencies were fanning out across the property. “Are you Tim Brown?” the lead officer demanded as he approached the hangar. Brown nodded. “I’ve got a warrant for your arrest,” the officer said. Agents moved in formation to clear the hangar and headed toward the main house to execute a search warrant.

Brown’s neighbors would later recount their confusion at the fleet of official vehicles facing every which way in the street. No one knew what Brown had done. But whatever they imagined, the truth was almost certainly stranger.

For the previous 35 years, Tim Brown had been living a carefully constructed lie. He wasn’t just an aging retiree with a passion for aviation. In fact, he wasn’t Tim Brown at all. His real name was Howard Farley Jr., and law enforcement alleged that he’d been the leader of one of the largest drug-trafficking rings in Nebraska history.

As he was placed under arrest, a wry grin spread across his face. “I had mentally prepared myself for being caught,” he would later say. “When it happened, with men pointing guns at me, the only thing to do was smile.”

Howard Farley’s 1965 high school yearbook photo.

Part One

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Howard Farley was what you might call a gearhead: a blue-collar kid with a knack for the mechanical. He was born in 1948, the fourth of five children, and spent much of his youth honing his engineering skills. He built award-winning model cars and a playhouse for his hamsters dubbed the Sugar Shack. Later, he crafted an RV out of an old school bus.

Boyishly handsome, with a wide Leave It to Beaver grin and prominent ears, Farley was popular in school and had a roguish quality that endeared him to most everyone he met. He was also restless. Life at home was complicated. When he was in his early teens, his mother abandoned the family, and Farley’s father was stuck with a house full of kids. Farley was devastated. “It left a profound loss of motherly love and guidance during critical teenage and adult years,” his elder sister Beverly later wrote.

In high school, Farley fell in with a rebellious crowd. “Mine were more the fun-loving guys that rode their motorcycles to school, dated the cheerleaders, and had keg parties on the weekends,” he said. When friends came to visit him at the grocery store where he sometimes worked, he would bag up steak after steak without ringing them up. “He always had a bit of a hustle,” said one friend, intending it as a compliment.

In September 1965, Farley experienced his first brush with the law. Like a lot of Midwestern kids his age he liked cars, and in those days the best place for cruising was Dodge Street in Omaha. A generation of Nebraska youth spent their evenings making the loop between Tiner’s Drive-In on 44th and Todd’s on 77th, showing off their rides and gorging themselves on 65-cent burgers. Sometimes they staged drag races. When police arrived on one such occasion, Farley attempted to flee, driving at nearly 100 miles per hour. His date in the passenger seat begged him to stop. In the ensuing chase, police fired on Farley’s car, and a bullet hit the girl in the jaw. Farley was quickly arrested. His license was suspended, and he was sentenced to a year of probation. The girl survived, and later sued Farley for $25,000 dollars. He was 16 years old.

Farley got his act together enough to capitalize on his mechanical abilities—soon after he graduated high school, he was hired full-time at the sprawling Burlington Northern rail yards. In those days, rail work paid well. Engineers earned an annual salary of about $30,000, or $160,000 today. For Farley, the money must have felt like a dream. He quickly moved up the ladder at work. Before long he was driving trains from Lincoln to Sioux City and Creston, Iowa. The hours were long and tedious, but he was a natural. “He was built for it,” said Tyrone Baskin, a friend from high school who also worked the rails.

Farley fathered a child with Christine Schleis, a high school girlfriend, and married her. Their union was rocky from the beginning. “We were not a good match,” Schleis said. “It was just something that happened. You got pregnant, you got married. There was no question.” Schleis came from a cultured, well-traveled family. It was a world apart from Farley’s upbringing.

The couple named their daughter Amy—three letters in honor of her three-pound birth weight. While Schleis stayed home with the baby, Farley took up skydiving and partied hard. In 1969, he and another man were arrested for burglarizing a local carpeting business. It’s unclear what role Farley played in the crime; the charges were later reduced to accessory after the fact. Eventually, Farley became disillusioned with life in Lincoln. He took a job with a railroad company in Alaska, leaving behind his wife and daughter. By 1970, he and Schleis were ready to file for divorce.

Over the next 15 years, Farley divided his time between Alaska, Washington, and Florida, where he lived when he wasn’t working the rails up north. He married again, got another divorce. Occasionally, family drama drew him back to Nebraska, but he never stayed long. “He was an adrenaline junkie,” said an old friend. “I don’t think that changed.”

Perhaps he saw drug trafficking as an outlet for his restlessness. According to a source who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Farley was introduced to a man who had experience in the drug trade. The man explained to Farley that someone who traveled as frequently as he did could make a fortune—all he had to do was bring drugs along on his trips. “That’s how Howard found out what to do and how to do it,” the source told me.

By the early 1980s, Farley had quit the railroad business and relocated to Lake Worth, Florida, a beach town about 60 miles north of Miami. He told Baskin, his high school friend, that he’d saved $30,000 dollars and was going to “go for it,” investing the money in a shipment of cocaine and flipping it for big bucks. There was no better place than Florida to put his new plan into action. It was the height of the Miami Vice–era drug boom, and Farley had little trouble finding himself a supplier. “I think an opportunity just presented itself, and he jumped on it and made the most out of it,” Baskin said.

Farley started ferrying drugs to contacts in Nebraska and Alaska. In the beginning it was a largely insular affair; he was mostly supplying former coworkers and friends— “single railroaders making a lot of money,” as one of Farley’s Nebraska customers put it. Sometimes, Farley asked friends to mail packages of coke using FedEx and kept his fingers crossed that they’d reach their destination undetected. Other times he brought the drugs with him on a plane—he booked super-saver flights to keep costs down. At least twice, according to Baskin, Farley drove his Saab from Florida to Alaska and back again, stopping in Lincoln along the way north. “He probably left some [drugs] with people to distribute here,” Baskin said. “Then he’d take what was left and transport it on to Alaska.”

Before long, Farley was laying over in Lincoln with larger and larger amounts of blow. It was the tail end of the disco era, and demand was high. But Farley wasn’t dealing grams to strangers in the bar. He sought out distribution partners among friends and family, people he could trust. His sister Mary, who at one time sold lingerie and sex toys, and her husband, Gerry Machado, got involved. According to prosecutors, Farley used their house in Lincoln for storage and sales. High school friends joined in. Among them were Baskin, Robert Frame, and John Kahler, all Vietnam War veterans who had returned from combat with varying degrees of drug addiction. Farley taught them how to cut the high-grade coke he brought from Florida with inositol, a type of sugar, to increase the volume and make more money selling it. His friends gave Farley his cut of sales whenever he was in town “He didn’t take chances,” said Baskin. “He made sure he knew the people he dealt with or they had been friends a long time.”

Farley wasn’t the only person supplying drugs in Lincoln. Coke dealing had become a cottage industry among hard-partying railroaders. Clyde Meyer, a Burlington Northern engineer, ran an operation out of his house on the city’s west side. Like Farley, Meyer had started small. “I think he slowly got into it and then got too deep,” said Colleen Nuss, whose boyfriend once lived in a spare room at Meyer’s house. Nuss was a teenager at the time. “I remember going there one night just to get a little bit of pot and there were drugs and women,” Nuss recalled. Unlike Farley’s supply, Meyer’s coke came from Colorado, but users didn’t care about a product’s origin once it hit the street.

By 1984, Farley’s efforts had paid off in a big way. An acquaintance who asked not to be named remembered going to Farley’s mother’s house and seeing bricks of cocaine piled high in a closet. “He was definitely worth seven figures by that time, easily,” the person said. Another friend remembered Farley stashing wads of cash in safe-deposit boxes across south Florida. Court records have him receiving payments of $80,000 or $100,000 in a single go.

Still in his early thirties, Farley had found a quick way to fund the adventurous life he’d always dreamed of, and he had done it on his own terms. He wasn’t flashy or aggressive. In fact, he appeared to take a generally relaxed approach to the drug trade. “There was no viciousness there,” Nuss said. Farley and his crew “were just super mellow, like hippies.”

In Florida, Farley took up watersports; he turned out to be a talented diver and fisherman. He partied at Harry’s Banana Farm, a legendary dive in Lake Worth. He talked about going legit. He wanted to buy a boat and start a business chartering passengers around Florida and the Caribbean.

But Farley also began planning for a different kind of future. In 1982, he filed an application for a Social Security number in the name of Timothy Terry Brown, a three-month-old child who had died after a short illness in January 1955. Farley found the name while looking through microfilm of old newspapers at the library. The idea of taking a dead child’s identity was less risky than it sounds. People born in the 1950s often waited until they were in their teens or early twenties before applying for a Social Security number. Farley’s fraudulent application was submitted nearly 30 years after Brown’s birth, but that didn’t seem to bother a likely overworked civil servant. After the Social Security card arrived in the mail, Farley acquired a Florida driver’s license, a birth certificate, and a passport in Brown’s name.

It’s unclear whether Farley sensed trouble ahead or was just being prudent. Either way, he was attuned to the risks that his line of work entailed. In a few years, he had become one of Lincoln’s major drug suppliers. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement took notice.

A photo of Farley circulated by the DEA in the 1980s.

Part Two

On August 31, 1983, officers from the Lincoln-Lancaster County narcotics unit raided the house of a railroader named Juan Varga-Manchego and discovered three-quarters of a pound of cocaine. The arrest set off a chain reaction. Varga-Manchego, whom undercover officers had been working for six months, started naming names. Tips from Crime Stoppers calls were folded into the investigation, as was information from the Nebraska State Patrol, which was looking into other dealers in the Lincoln area. Wiretaps were ordered for the homes of Clyde Meyer and the Machados, Farley’s sister and brother-in-law. Before long, law enforcement had fleshed out the framework of what they believed was a sprawling criminal conspiracy.

As far as investigators were concerned, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Money was pouring in to federal prosecutors’ offices as President Ronald Reagan amped up the war on drugs. Arrests helped rationalize the ballooning investment. In the summer of 1984, Nebraska officials tapped into the budgetary flow by working with federal agencies on the new cocaine-trafficking investigation. They dubbed it Operation Southern Line, because a lot of the drugs came from Florida, and because many of the scheme’s main players were current or former railroaders. (Prosecutors would later contend that Farley used trains to transport drugs, which he denied. “The railroad had nothing to do with anything,” he said. “Other than perhaps railroad workers buying grams of coke to party on the weekend.”)

Running the investigation were Duaine Bullock, head of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Narcotics Unit, and Bruce Gillan, a hard-line Lancaster County prosecutor. Gillan and Farley had gone to the same high school but moved in decidedly different social circles. Where Farley rode a motorcycle and dated popular girls, Gillan was president of the chess club and wore a flattop fade, in the style of a new military recruit. He was a by-the-book guy. “The way he saw his duty to the country was to be this aggressive prosecutor,” said Kirk Naylor, a defense attorney who had faced off against Gillan in the courtroom.

Neither Bullock nor Gillan were under the illusion that the alleged network of traffickers amounted to a sophisticated cartel operation. It was a loose-knit, blue-collar affair. But there was still a hierarchy. In meetings with the DEA, Bullock and Gillan created an organizational flowchart with the names of more than two dozen alleged co-conspirators. At the bottom were users and low-level dealers based mostly in Lincoln. The next level up included middlemen in Nebraska, Florida, and Alaska. The Machados were near the top—they had been caught discussing drug deals on the investigators’ wiretaps. Meyer was up there, too.

At the very top of the pyramid was Farley. He was the nexus that connected the web of users, dealers, and suppliers that investigators hoped to untangle. According to prosecutors, he even had a nickname: the Big H.

In 1984, Farley returned to Lincoln from Lake Worth multiple times. With each visit, law enforcement gathered evidence. In July, the DEA noted that Farley had delivered numerous pounds of cocaine to Gerry Machado and others. Investigators requested three more wiretaps on Farley’s associates. In August, they clocked Farley visiting a safe-deposit box at the First National Bank of Lincoln and leaving with what they described as a “bulging vinyl bank bag.” A few months later, he submitted to an intensive inspection at the airport in Miami after returning from a one-day trip to the Cayman Islands without any luggage.

The investigation wasn’t without missteps. On one occasion, Robert Frame’s landline started acting up, so he reached out to the phone company for help. The repairmen beat the police to the utility box and discovered the tap on Frame’s line. When word of the discovery got back to Farley, he switched to pay phones. Another time, Machado caught agents trying to install bugs inside his house, and the operation was aborted. Officials were forced to return and install the devices under the guise of a phony search warrant. At one point, officer ineptitude ground the whole investigation to a halt. Around Thanksgiving Day in 1984, Farley was in Lincoln visiting family when he discovered a tracking device on his car and skipped town.

But eventually investigators got what they needed. By early 1985, Gillan had identified about 80 people he considered indictable. Seven wiretaps had been in use, most of them for months, and bugs were installed in homes across Lincoln. Code words like “chess” had been identified as shorthand for coke, outing many of Farley’s customers. A number of low-level co-conspirators had already been brought in for questioning.

It took another nine months of legal wrangling, grand juries, and undercover work, but in the fall of 1985, authorities unsealed a sprawling series of indictments that named 74 people across five states in a massive drug-trafficking conspiracy. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, Operation Southern Line was the largest drug case in Nebraska history.

At the very top of the pyramid was Farley. He was the nexus that connected the web of users, dealers, and suppliers that investigators hoped to untangle.

The arrests started before dawn. On the morning of October 24, 1985, agents and officers from the Lincoln police, the FBI, the sheriff’s office, the IRS, the DEA, and the Nebraska State Patrol spread out across Lincoln like an occupying force. Tyrone Baskin remembered agents charging through his front door. “It was some obnoxious hour,” he told me grimly. Elsewhere, Colleen Nuss noticed law enforcement assembling outside her back window. “I said to my boyfriend, ‘I think the neighbors are getting arrested,’ ” she said. Instead, the officers pounded on her door.

It was the same story all over town. The Machados. Robert Frame. John Kahler. One by one, Operation Southern Line defendants were rounded up and taken to the federal courthouse, many of them before the sun came up. By the time authorities were finished, more than 50 people had been arrested. As one defense attorney put it, the hammer fell.

News of the bust splashed across the front pages of local papers. Reports claimed that $600,000 worth of drugs and personal property had been confiscated. Bullock told reporters that “many of those arrested were major drug dealers” and that the operation “could have a major impact on drug sources in Lincoln for years to come.” It was the kind of case that made careers. A short time later, Gillan was promoted to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But there was a problem. Among the handful of targets not arrested was the name at the top of the trafficking flowchart: Howard Farley. Somehow authorities in Lincoln had failed to get eyes on him before unsealing his indictment, a major misstep given the document’s content. Farley was the first person in Nebraska history to be charged under what’s known as 848—a federal statute reserved for prosecuting drug traffickers who operate a “continuing criminal enterprise.” It’s sometimes called the kingpin statute, and for good reason: Prosecutors used it to put both Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ross Ulbricht, of Silk Road fame, behind bars for life. “When you bring one of those cases,” a current U.S. attorney told me, “you are essentially establishing by virtue of that indictment that this is one of the most serious drug-dealing traffickers in the country at the time.”

At some point between the indictment being unsealed and the arrests, Farley had vanished. “Officials have no idea where Farley may be,” Gillan told reporters. Bullock conceded that he had probably fled the country. “To my knowledge, no one had ever escaped one of these dragnets,” said Kirk Naylor, the defense attorney. But Farley wasn’t the only one who’d eluded capture: Clyde Meyer had also disappeared, along with his girlfriend, the daughter of a railroad employee. (They were found two years later in Denton, Texas, living under assumed names. Meyer was sentenced to ten years in prison).

Other cracks in the Operation Southern Line case began to widen. DEA agents claimed to have tracked Farley moving multiple pounds of cocaine across state lines, but in the indictment prosecutors had only enough hard evidence to attribute eight ounces to Farley’s alleged network. Moreover, defense attorneys told reporters that the vast majority of defendants weren’t involved in the drug trade at all—they were users buying for themselves or a few close friends. It was all too easy, as Naylor put it, for small-time individuals to be “sucked into the black hole of a conspiracy.” Many of these individuals were charged with multiple felonies and faced years in prison for what amounted to low-level street buys.

Still, the U.S. Attorney’s Office pushed ahead with the case. Naylor remembered receiving calls from desperate clients. “I had to advise them that this was a whole new ball game,” he said. “They were going to go to prison, and they were going to go to prison for a long time unless they informed on their friends. This is really what it came down to.”

For some people the pressure proved too great. One woman needed psychiatric care after she agreed to make statements against her husband. Other defendants were reminded to think of their kids’ futures when they pushed back against prosecutors. “There was so much pressure,” one defendant said later. “I went off the deep end.”

Then there was John Kahler, who had been in prosecutors’ sights for months. In January 1985, his wife, Linda, got a call from an investigator with the Nebraska State Patrol. “We’d like you and John to come down and talk to us,” she remembered him saying. He wouldn’t tell her why over the phone. At the patrol office, the Kahlers were met by a group of men in suits who inquired about the health of John’s father. They had heard on a wiretap that he suffered from Alzheimer’s. The men knew about John’s drug use and that he peddled coke for Farley. They told him he faced 15 years in prison—unless he became an informant. “It’s pretty hard to walk out when you have a two-year-old son,” Linda later said. John agreed to cooperate.

For nearly five months, he met twice a week with a narcotics officer, offering up information about his friends. The duplicity wore him down. He couldn’t sleep and fell into a depression. John was a soft-spoken combat veteran who had built his own house and adopted a son after he and his wife discovered that they couldn’t have children. “I warned the guy from the State Patrol,” Linda said later, “that you better hope he doesn’t get killed.”

A week after the arrests that October, John returned home from his railroad job and took his own life with a shotgun in the backyard of his rural home. “I’m just real sorry, Ms. Kahler,” Linda remembered Gillan saying. Three weeks later, another defendant in the case, 24-year-old Phillip R. Dallas, also died by suicide.

In the end, only eight defendants arrested in 1985 did any time. The rest were sentenced to probation or their cases were dropped altogether. And while Operation Southern Line may have made careers, it did little to disrupt Lincoln’s drug trade. In 1989, authorities estimated that 55 pounds of cocaine had made its way into the city since 1986.

Farley’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Without cell phones or GPS, law enforcement was forced to rely largely on human intelligence to draw him out. Nearly all of Farley’s co-conspirators were willing to cooperate in exchange for reduced sentences, but according to Ryan Thompson, the deputy U.S. marshal who took on the case in 1986, his gut told him they were telling the truth when they said they hadn’t seen their old friend and boss. Farley’s family was equally stymieing. Thompson tried to put pressure on them, in the hopes that they might try to contact Farley, but none of them did. They were, as Thompson put it, “savvy to the whole thing.”

Over time, Farley took on a kind of mythic quality among the people he’d left behind. Some called him the D. B. Cooper of Nebraska, in honor of the hijacker who, in 1971, parachuted from a plane over the Pacific Northwest with $200,000 in extorted cash and was never heard from again. “There was constant chatter about what happened to Howard Farley,” Kirk Naylor said. “He was the guy who got away.”

Farley (left) after he moved back to Florida under an assumed identity.

Part Three

Any fugitive worth their salt will tell you that disappearing is more of a psychological act than a physical one. It takes no special skill to skip town. What’s harder is cutting ties to one’s past: adopting a new identity and remembering to stick to it; excising people, traditions, and routines once held dear; and cauterizing the resulting emotional wounds. It’s a regimen few people are able to endure.

Farley made it seem easy. He later called the decision to flee his “SHTF” moment—when the shit hit the fan. “When the newspaper reports ‘up to life in prison,’ ” he said, referring to coverage of his indictment, “it gets your full attention.” He knew he would have to break off contact with his family but that he had their support. After reading about the indictment, his mother had called him. “She said the family loved me dearly, but please don’t come home,” Farley said. “It was the only way.”

Soon after the Operation Southern Line busts, Farley reemerged as Tim Brown, a 31-year-old Florida native with a pocket full of legitimate government documents. Bullock was right when he said Farley likely had left the country. A year after the arrests, he was spotted by a DEA informant on the island of Saint Martin, a tropical paradise about 160 miles east of Puerto Rico. In addition to the excellent fishing and diving, the Caribbean was a haven for fugitives. People’s papers were rarely checked; ports of call were essentially lawless. “It was wide open,” said Bill Ware, a sailor who met Farley in the summer of 1986. Farley made good on his dream of buying a boat—a 55-foot catamaran called the Déjà Vu—which allowed him to travel freely. The DEA would later trace the boat to marinas on Saint Thomas, Antigua, and Martinique, though Farley was long gone by the time the U.S. Marshals received that information.

Within a few years, Farley returned to the South Florida coast, despite being a wanted man. “It was in the back of his mind,” Baskin said. “But he wasn’t as concerned about it as you may think he was.” In a photo from that time, Farley mugs for the camera in shorts and aviators as he hoists a three-foot-long sportfish by the gills. In another, he crouches next to a cooler full of fresh lobsters.

Unbeknownst to all but a few close contacts, Farley even risked returning to Lincoln a few times. “He wanted to be with his family when he could,” Baskin said. But these furtive visits tapered off and eventually stopped altogether. Farley got serious about staying on the run, perhaps because he had fallen in love.

Farley met Duc Hanh Thi Vu, then just 21, on Saint Martin while she was vacationing there in 1985. Whip smart and ambitious, Vu was one of the few people Farley would have been likely to meet with a background even more dramatic than his own. Her family had fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The harrowing journey included floating at sea for two days before being rescued by the U.S. Navy. After months in refugee camps, Vu’s family was resettled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she learned English, excelled in school, and graduated from college.

Farley’s charm had always made him something of a ladies’ man; as their romance developed Vu made him an honest one. On June 1, 1993, they were married by a deputy clerk at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. At one point, Farley’s mother and sister Beverly risked a visit to the newlyweds—they were told to call Farley by his alias during their stay—but that was the last time either saw him. Farley admitted to Vu that he had changed his name after getting into some trouble in Nebraska, but not that he was a fugitive. “It may seem strange,” he said later, “but I would not allow myself to even think my real name.”

Theirs was by all accounts a quiet, comfortable life. Early on, they shared a room in a rented house while Vu earned her master’s degree in computer science. Farley worked on carpentry projects and fished for lobster. To keep things simple, he often introduced himself by his nickname—“Harley”—and if his past ever came up, he simply lied by omission. “When asked, I gave my real history, without the Nebraska problem,” he said. Though he sometimes got the urge to “tell the whole story,” he never gave in.

Eventually, Vu was making good money working for Citibank. In the late 1990s, Farley built a five-acre orchard to help supplement his in-laws’ retirement income. A few years later, he and Vu moved to a 40-acre parcel in Homosassa. Farley built their two-floor kit home himself. It had a sun-washed yellow facade and a red-tiled roof that gave it an almost Tuscan feel. Off in the distance, long stands of major oaks marked the border between that end of the property and the third tee of a well-known golf course. In 2017, after he started having health issues, he and Vu downsized to the house in Love’s Landing—by then, Farley had discovered his passion for aviation.

When I talked to Farley’s friends and neighbors in Florida, none had had even the vaguest sense that Farley wasn’t who he’d said he was. Many described him as especially genuine and kindhearted. “He was very respectful of other people and what they had to say,” Pat Farnan, a retired newspaper editor who spent many nights around the firepit at Farley’s Homosassa home, told me. “He would never break into a conversation, never butt in.”

Small gestures of friendship became Farley’s hallmark. Year after year, he collected buckets of stray golf balls that landed on his property to give to Farnan, an avid golfer, when he visited. After a fishing buddy’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, Farley appeared on their doorstep with trays of food and helped their young daughter with her homework. He doted on his mother-in-law after the death of her husband, and regularly picked up trash along the main road near his home. In Love’s Landing, he happily did chores for elderly neighbors, despite the pain that racked his back after surgery. Many people remembered Farley’s enthusiasm for sharing his talents as both a sailor and a builder. “Nothing was expected in exchange other than our enjoyment in each other’s company and love of the sea,” a friend said.

Farley hadn’t been reborn as some sort of suburban Mother Teresa. His good deeds were often modest and understated. But they were also free from artifice. “I do not believe he was putting on an act for anybody,” Farnan said. “The Tim Brown that I knew, he wasn’t engaged in some game with me.” After 30 years, the lie had simply become the truth: Howard Farley was Tim Brown.

“It may seem strange,” Farley said later, “but I would not allow myself to even think my real name.”

The authorities didn’t stop looking for Farley. The case was handed off from one U.S. marshal to another over the years before landing on Zak Thompson’s desk in 2007. Thompson was a newbie—Lincoln was his first duty station as a marshal. “It was kind of, I wouldn’t want to say like a hot potato, but it was kind of a joke,” he said of the Farley case. “No spottings, no sightings, nobody’s heard anything.” As far as law enforcement was concerned, the case was stuck back in 1985. Still, Thompson was undeterred. “Sometimes all you need is a fresh set of eyes,” he said.

Thompson requested an age-progression sketch based on Farley’s old driver’s license and began scouring law enforcement files for overlooked connections. Eventually, he found Richard Hanika, a friend of Farley’s family’s whose brother Roger had worked with Farley in Alaska. During a subsequent interview, Richard mentioned that Roger had moved to St. Augustine, Florida, in the early 1990s and started managing a bar there. Maybe, Thompson thought, Farley had decided to visit his old buddy.

Thompson called the U.S. Marshals office in Jacksonville, just north of St. Augustine, and persuaded one of the agents to go down to the Sandbar Pub—Roger’s bar—to poke around and show people the age-progression sketch. It didn’t take long to get a hit. When the agent showed the rendering to the bar’s current manager—Roger by then had moved on—she knew right away who it was. “That’s Harley,” she told the deputy. “He was always talking about scuba diving.” She hadn’t seen him since the early 2000s, but she thought he had set up a charter operation in either Key West or Puerto Rico.

It was the first significant lead in decades. “I might as well have solved the case,” Thompson said of the reaction back at the office in Lincoln. “We actually had something, you know?” The discovery shaved roughly 15 years off Farley’s last known whereabouts, but there were still several years to account for.

In 2009, the authorities hoped to catch another break. When Bruce Gillan read in the Lincoln newspaper that Farley’s younger brother Ronald had died after a yearlong battle with lung cancer, he rang Thompson and told him about the memorial the family was planning on Ronald’s behalf. Thompson knew from the case file how close Farley and his brother were growing up. If Farley was ever going to resurface in Nebraska, the memorial service was probably it.

Thompson drove to the funeral home and explained the situation to the director. “This may be our best chance to catch the guy,” he said. The director was incredulous. “He’s like, ‘Look, I can’t have some big takedown happening here,’ ” Thompson recalled. The funeral home was located on the grounds of a 130-acre memorial park featuring gardens, a pond, and a family of foxes that roamed among the gravestones and mausoleums. Thompson reassured the funeral director that he would be discreet.

The memorial service was held on October 23, 2009, which was 24 years to the day after Farley was indicted. Thompson arrived early. “I basically posed as an intern,” he said. “I probably set up a hundred chairs that day.” Three or four unmarked police cars were positioned at the exits of the grounds. Several marshals as well as officers from the Lincoln police and the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office waited for Thompson to give the signal that Farley had arrived.

Throughout the service, Thompson did his best to blend in to the background while scanning the faces of Farley’s friends and family. At one point, he caught the eye of Richard Hanika, who recognized him immediately. “I just walked up to him,” Thompson said. “I’m like ‘Is he here?’ ” Hanika said no.

Farley never showed. Thompson didn’t feel like he’d totally struck out—he was still the only agent on file to ever dig up a real lead—but afterward there was a sense among the marshals that the search for Farley had come to its natural conclusion. It wasn’t even clear that, if he was caught, he would be convicted. Conspiracy cases are often built around witness testimony, and a number of the sources had died in the decades since Farley’s disappearance. The hard evidence, too, was compromised. “Cocaine can’t last forever, even in bags,” deputy marshal Will Iverson said.

In fact, for years some marshals had questioned why the warrant for Farley was still open at all. Iverson told me there’s usually a ten-year window before prosecutors consider dismissing charges against a fugitive offender. “I’ve had old cases that were dismissed and two years later I get some info,” he told me. Iverson said he’d once left an ex-fugitive a voicemail saying, “Hey, you’re not wanted anymore, but I found you.”

When it came to Farley, there had been no such reprieve. “I’m going to prosecute the son-of-a-bitch if we ever catch him,” Thompson remembered Gillan saying. Agents in the Lincoln office were aware that Gillan and Farley knew each other growing up, and they wondered whether a personal vendetta was driving Gillan’s pursuit. “Like, he must have really hated him in high school or something,” Thompson said. Gillan would later file an affidavit with the court explaining that as a teenager he knew Farley only by reputation. “I am well aware of my ethical duties as an attorney,” he said. “It would be a violation of those duties to handle the prosecution of a person with whom I had a personal dispute, and I emphatically deny that any such violation occurred.”

It took five more years, but in January 2014 Gillan finally relented; the charges against Farley were dismissed. The evidence was simply too old, and Gillan himself was preparing to retire in a few years. After that happened, even if Farley was caught, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would likely decline to prosecute him.

For the dozen or so marshals who had worked the case since 1985, the decision marked the end of an era. After 29 years on the run, Farley was no longer a fugitive. “I remember when it was dismissed,” Iverson told me. “We were like, Well, I guess he won.”

Farley was an avid fisherman.

Part Four 

In February 2020, special agent Kevin Grant was in his office at the Miami division of the Diplomatic Security Service—the arm of the State Department that handles passport fraud—when Tim Brown’s name popped up on his computer. It had been red-flagged by fraud prevention managers, who had found an obituary for Timothy Terry Brown and confirmed with Florida’s vital statistics department that a death certificate existed. They knew that Brown’s identity had been stolen. Grant’s job was to figure out who the person using it really was.

A nine-year veteran of the DSS, Grant had spent part of his career working at a consulate in Pakistan and an embassy in Denmark. But what he really liked was criminal investigation. “I kinda have the knack,” he said. Brown’s case struck him as peculiar right off the bat. The most common passport fraud perpetrator is a foreigner who steals the identity of a U.S. citizen. That didn’t appear to be the case with Tim Brown, however. Grant suspected that the imposter might be on the run from the law.

Grant put in a call to Michael Felicetta, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida assigned to the case, and explained the situation. “We started to brainstorm,” Felicetta said. “Just based on our own experience, why do we think he’s using this name?” Felicetta wondered if Brown, whoever he was, might have escaped from prison. He and Grant also considered the possibility that Brown was AWOL from the military. “He’s about the age of someone who would’ve served in Vietnam, he married a Vietnamese woman. I mean, that’s possible, right?” Felicetta said. Grant checked the picture on Brown’s passport application against those of pilots who’d gone AWOL during the Vietnam War, but that was a dead end.

Grant kept digging throughout the summer of 2020. He tracked the tail number on Brown’s plane and unsuccessfully fingerprinted a rental car after Brown returned it. He got authorization to intercept Brown’s mail, though not to open it. He even located the real Tim Brown’s burial site in Lake Worth. “I just feel like we should try every effort we can to identify someone before we send law enforcement potentially into harm’s way,” Felicetta said. He wondered whether Brown might be “like a Whitey Bulger type of guy.” He didn’t want to risk losing a big target.

Eventually, Grant and Felicetta agreed that the only way to accurately identify Brown was to get their hands on him. “John Doe or not, let’s do it,” was how Grant described the decision. Two days after getting his warrants, Grant was prepping an arrest team at a gas station ten minutes from Love’s Landing. Nerves were high. What if Brown was armed? “There are a lot of people in Florida who like firearms,” Grant said. The county agreed to put its medical helicopter on standby in case things went south.

Just before 8:30 a.m., Grant’s radio crackled to life. “Hey, there’s smoke coming from the chimney,” reported an agent watching Brown’s house from a distance. “Someone’s home.” A few minutes later, a convoy of law enforcement vehicles rolled quietly through the front gate of Love’s Landing and approached Brown’s house. “He knew the jig was up,” Grant said of the moment he confronted Brown in the hangar. “When you turn around and smile to somebody that’s pointing a fully automatic machine gun at you, the run is over.” A fingerprint expert rolled Brown’s fingers, then headed to a lab to process the results.

Grant joined the agents interviewing Vu inside the house. Initially she had frozen in place at the sight of the task force on her front lawn; the agents had to physically move her from the doorframe before they could search the house. But eventually the shock wore off and she opened up. “She was the one that said Nebraska,” Grant told me. “And that was the first time Nebraska had popped up on the radar.” Other clues revealed themselves. In the house, agents found the names “Howard” and “Ronald” scrawled on the back of an old photo of two young kids. They found birth announcements and worn-out family photos. Little by little, the agents pieced together the backstory of the man handcuffed in the driveway.

Grant was on his way to the courthouse when Brown’s identity was confirmed; his prints matched a set on file from Farley’s 1969 burglary arrest. Grant sent Farley’s biographical details to Felicetta, who googled Farley’s name along with the word “fugitive.” Farley still maintained that his name was Tim Brown. As the search results filtered in, it was easy to see why: He had become a singular figure in the annals of Nebraska law enforcement. A white whale. The uncatchable man.

As it turned out, Felicetta had worked an unrelated drug case with Bruce Gillan years earlier and recognized his name at the top of the 1985 indictment. Felicetta called him with the news. “He was just kind of stunned and chuckled a little bit,” Felicetta said. Then Gillan explained that the case had been dropped several years earlier.

The news struck a heavy blow. “I’ve had fugitives before,” Felicetta told me. “But never one this significant and with a run this long.” He felt that Farley had robbed the government of its day in court. “He got the best thirty years of his life,” Felicetta said. “Those were years that in all likelihood he would’ve been spending in prison, and instead he was out living a very comfortable lifestyle and doing a lot of things that most Americans only wish they could do.”

Farley’s passport photos.

Part Five

Eight days after his arrest, Farley appeared in federal court for the first time, at a hearing to decide whether he’d be released on bond. He could no longer be tried for any of his alleged offenses in Nebraska, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be charged with fraud and identity theft for his use of the name Tim Brown. As he shuffled to the defense table, Farley waved toward the gallery. Vu sat with a dozen of their neighbors, who’d come to show their support.

At first, many people in Love’s Landing had been confused about what was happening in their community. When Marianne Reynolds saw all the unmarked vehicles in the street around Farley’s property, she thought he and Vu were having a party. But soon everyone in the quiet, conservative area knew the truth: that their neighbor had been living a double life. Farley’s neighbors searched their memories for clues to his past. Had he said or done anything that now, in a different light, seemed suspicious? The answer was a resounding no.

If anything, the soul-searching only hardened his neighbors’ resolve to support the man they knew as Tim Brown. In addition to attending the hearing, many of Farley’s neighbors submitted letters to the court. One described him as a man who “exudes generosity, both in deed and, particularly, in spirit.” Another said they “had never met a finer man.”

The judge wasn’t sympathetic. Despite Farley’s strong ties to the community and the fact that law enforcement was now in possession of his only—albeit fraudulent—passport, he was denied bond. “The government and the court cannot ignore the fact that the last time the defendant faced federal charges, he had the sophistication, the will, and the means necessary to flee and remain in hiding,” the judge explained. “That information overwhelmingly weighs against a community who didn’t otherwise know who was living next to them.” Vu cried when she heard the decision.

While he sat in Marion County Jail, Farley’s emotions ping-ponged between fear and something like relief. Until his arrest, he hadn’t been aware that the Nebraska case was closed. “Every year I would think about contacting an attorney to check what my status was,” he said later. “But having such a good life, I kept putting it off.” Still, he was worried about spending his remaining years behind bars. Operation Southern Line was in the past, but the authorities could nail him on other charges.

On December 30, Felicetta returned with a multiple-count indictment including passport fraud, aggravated identity theft, Social Security fraud, and using a fake airman’s certificate. Farley was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the result of a conviction related to the 1969 burglary. He faced a maximum of 30 years in prison.

Farley’s lawyers approached the case as if they were going to trial. With his health in decline, anything more than ten years was basically a life sentence. Plus, one of his lawyers, Fritz Scheller, had a reputation for winning federal cases. In 2018, he represented Noor Salman, the wife of the shooter in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando; Salman was acquitted of terrorism charges. “He can squeeze blood from a stone,” a fellow attorney said of Scheller to a reporter. But the evidence against Farley was overwhelming. There was no reasonable way to argue that he hadn’t stolen Brown’s identity.

Adding to the pressure to plead out, Felicetta had decided to pursue charges against Vu. On the morning of Farley’s arrest, she had maintained that his name was Tim Brown despite knowing that he’d changed it decades prior. According to Felicetta, that made her criminally liable. “You had every right to sit there and not say a word,” he said. “But you chose to try and help him by continuing to cover up who he is.” Before then, Vu’s only involvement with the courts had been a single traffic ticket. Now she could go to prison for 18 years. “I think it was leverage,” Scheller said.

If so, the ploy worked. On April 20, 2021, Farley pled guilty to three counts: passport fraud, aggravated identity theft, and fraudulently operating an airman’s license. The maximum sentence was 15 years, but only the identity theft charge had a mandatory minimum: two years. Anything beyond that would be up to the judge.

For the prosecution, the plea presented an opportunity. If the case had gone to trial, Operation Southern Line might have been off limits as a matter of discussion in court. Farley had never been arraigned, let alone convicted of the charges against him. He will “remain innocent of them until the day he dies,” Felicetta said. But at a sentencing hearing, hearsay is permitted. Operation Southern Line was fair game. Farley’s past would have its day in court.

As Scheller put it, “I wish he had stolen bread instead of selling cocaine, but in the end he’s more Jean Valjean than Pablo Escobar.”

On July 15, 2021, Farley arrived to a mostly full courtroom. By then he had been in jail for more than seven months. He was using a cane and suffered from a lingering cough after contracting COVID-19. Many of his neighbors were once again in the gallery, this time alongside members of Farley’s family, including a granddaughter he’d never met.

As the hearing got underway, Farley’s daughter from his first marriage, Amy, stepped to the podium to ask Judge John Antoon II for leniency on her father’s behalf. “I haven’t seen my father in close to forty years,” Amy began. “I would love nothing more than to have a relationship with him outside of this.”

Judge Antoon was moved by Amy’s words. “You understand, of course, that you did nothing to interrupt that relationship,” he consoled her. “It’s not your fault.”

She nodded. “I know that,” she said quietly.

It was an emotional introduction to what would prove to be an unusual sentencing hearing. In identity fraud cases, these hearings are generally straightforward affairs that take less than an hour. Farley’s was spread out over three sessions and interwoven with larger questions about the nature of punishment and rehabilitation.

The initial session lasted nearly an hour and a half, and focused largely on Felicetta’s request for an upward departure—a sentence greater than the recommendation. In Felicetta’s view, Farley had committed identity theft every time he signed a banking statement or renewed his driver’s license. Moreover, his past suspected criminality spoke to the kind of man he was. The prosecutor compared Farley to Sal Magluta, a notorious drug trafficker from South Florida who was arrested in the mid-1990s for falsifying documents and jumping bail. In Magluta’s case, probation officers had recommended a sentence of 15 to 21 months. Prosecutors asked the judge for more than 21 years.

Andrew Searle, one of Farley’s lawyers, argued that he was a far cry from one of the most infamous cocaine cowboys. The original Operation Southern Line indictment documented only a few ounces of cocaine being trafficked. Magluta had trafficked 75 tons. What’s more, Farley’s alleged criminality was far in the past. For nearly half his life, he had committed no crimes aside from the identity-related ones, and he’d built long-lasting relationships in his community. As Scheller put it, “I wish he had stolen bread instead of selling cocaine, but in the end he’s more Jean Valjean than Pablo Escobar.”

Two weeks later, the hearing continued with Scheller at the podium. “What we tried to do is walk the narrow line,” he told me. He couldn’t pretend the Nebraska case didn’t exist—that was the motive for Farley stealing Brown’s identity in the first place—but he didn’t want to litigate it either. “So what do you do in that situation?” he asked. “You undermine it.”

Scheller attempted to show that Farley’s cocaine operation was hardly the sprawling, sophisticated drug ring prosecutors in Nebraska had made it out to be. He outlined the pressure campaign waged against the other Operation Southern Line defendants and dug into John Kahler’s suicide. According to Searle’s math, some 80 percent of those defendants had their charges dismissed or served no jail time. “I have never seen that,” Scheller told Judge Antoon. “And I don’t know if the court has seen that in a federal case.”

As he approached the end of his statement, Scheller’s tone softened. The real question, he argued, was one of moral character. In the literary-infused sentencing memo he had submitted to the court, Scheller referenced Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Kurt Vonnegut, among many others. To him, Farley’s case represented something essential about the human condition. “Redemption is a path,” Scheller told the judge. “And what I would say to this court is Mr. Farley’s life has been defined not only by his criminal conduct but by a series of actions he’s done for others. He’s a radically different man.”

In one sense, Felicetta agreed. “I’d probably like him if I met him at a bar,” he said of Farley during his closing remarks a few minutes later. But Felicetta couldn’t square Farley’s likability with how he’d abandoned his family. “You can’t be a good man to your neighbor and reject your own children,” Felicetta said. “You can’t be a welcoming and caring son-in-law to your wife’s parents while not even acknowledging your own and not being there when they died.”

The statement seemed to send Farley reeling. After Felicetta was done, Farley asked to speak directly to the judge. “I cannot express how much remorse I feel for my family,” he said after apologizing to the court and the government. “I abandoned them and I betrayed them.” He struggled to keep his composure. “I would not have held it against anyone if they would not have chosen to come today,” he continued. “But the fact my family traveled so far to support me and my wife, Hanh, gives me hope for the future.”

The following week, on August 6, 2021, Antoon sentenced Farley to four years in prison. “Defendant cites Victor Hugo,” Antoon wrote in his decision. “But Defendant is no Jean Valjean.” In his final analysis, Scheller called the decision “just.” Felicetta, too, was satisfied. “We work this hard on cases where people get 25 or 40 years,” he said. “We did everything we could have done.”

Farley took it in stride. “I look at this as another life experience never to be repeated,” he wrote in a letter from prison. “I have spent the last 35 years trying to be the best person I can be and have no grudges against anyone.” All he cared about was getting back to his “loving wife, good friends, and great neighbors.”

In December, Vu appeared in court for her own sentencing hearing. It lasted all of 21 minutes. She pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and was sentenced to two months’ probation. Andrew Searle called it “the lowest sentence he had ever seen in federal court.”

Afterward, I met Vu on the street outside the courthouse and asked to interview her for this story. She demurred, telling me that everything I needed to know about Farley’s life, about their relationship, and about their future together was in the court documents submitted by friends and family on his behalf. “Everything said in those filings, everything in those letters, is a testament to the kind of man he is now,” Vu told me. She reminded me that two months after Farley’s sentencing, she had petitioned the court to have their marriage license amended with his real name and date of birth. “When he comes home again,” she said with a smile, “my life begins again.”

Farley’s neighbors said they were also looking forward to welcoming him back. No one I spoke to thought he belonged in prison. “I think that what matters most in life is being kind and caring toward other people, and not some sort of details of whatever someone did in their past,” said Kathleen Safford, a Love’s Landing resident. She said that she believed Farley’s health problems were the result of a broken heart from living with the guilt of not being able to see his family. “He’s obviously not a career criminal in any way,” said Chuck Tripp, another neighbor. “I’m sure when he gets back, we’ll have some stories to listen to.”

Pat Farnan agreed. After hearing about Farley’s arrest in the news, he recalled an interaction they’d had years earlier during a get-together at Farley’s Homosassa house. Farnan had noticed a framed photo of a massive warsaw grouper in Vu’s office and asked Farley where he had caught it. To Farnan’s surprise, Farley grew emotional. “As he told me the story,” Farnan said, “he began to tear up.”

Farley explained that years earlier, he’d been spearfishing off the coast of Florida and had discovered the monster fish hiding in the hull of a ship that sank offshore. The first time he tried to shoot it, his spear bounced off its body. So he went to the surface, changed up his gear, and returned to the wreckage, carefully waiting for his moment to strike. Eventually, he brought the speared fish to the surface.

It was very sad, Farley told Farnan quietly as he looked down at the photograph. It was just living out its life, without bothering anybody or hurting anything. And he had ended that.

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