On-the-run Facebook fugitive ‘alive and well’

2016-08-17 09:30 - Bob Van Voris
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Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

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San Francisco - The story sounded crazy from the start: A guy from upstate New York claimed Mark Zuckerberg owed him half of Facebook, and he had the papers to prove it.

Now, it’s got even crazier.

More than a year after the man, Paul Ceglia, cut off an electronic ankle bracelet and fled federal charges that he faked documents to bolster his lawsuit against Zuckerberg, Ceglia says someone - he didn’t say who - was planning to have him killed.

In e-mails to Bloomberg that reference cult television favourites and hint at government conspiracies, Ceglia has offered new tidbits about his life as an international fugitive, along with his wife, Iasia, his two pre-teenage sons and his dog Buddy.

“I felt I had no one in government I could trust,” Ceglia wrote in one of four e-mails.

“An opportunity presented itself, so I MacGyver’d some things together and started running for my life.” Ceglia’s whereabouts are unknown; the contents of the e-mails, with the subject line "Paul from Wellsville," provide a few clues.

Ceglia wrote that he is "far from US soil to be sure." He also wants his family and friends to know that he’s alive and well and “living on the air in Cincinnati,” apparently a clue about his well-being rather than his whereabouts - it’s a line from the theme song of the television comedy "WKRP in Cincinnati."

"It is truly a relief to know that Paul and his family are alive, safe and in comparably good health," said Robert Ross Fogg, one of Ceglia’s lawyers in the criminal case.

"I am comforted to know that his disappearance was of his own volition" and not the result of foul play, Fogg said.

Probable Cause

Fogg said Ceglia’s case was going well when he ran. And he pointed to a New York state appeals court ruling in December that threw out Facebook’s suit against some of Ceglia’s lawyers, arguing it showed there was probable cause for his contract claim.

Fogg encouraged Ceglia to return to the US.

"To win this case, I need him home," he said.

Charles Salina, the US Marshal for western New York, didn’t return messages seeking comment. Facebook spokesperson Vanessa Chan declined to comment.

If nothing else, the e-mails, received between August 3 and August 8, put yet another twist on a tabloid-ready case that’s been featured everywhere from the Wellsville Daily Reporter to the New York Post and national TV networks.

In his e-mails, Ceglia, 43, said he was forced to flee due to a “very credible” threat that he would be arrested on new charges, jailed and killed before trial. The reason he was marked for death, he said, was fear that the trial would expose the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency’s venture-capital arm, In-Q-Tel, in Facebook.

Ceglia’s path from his small town in western New York to international fugitive started in 2003, when he hired Zuckerberg, then a student at Harvard University, to do coding work on his StreetFax.com website. He claims he paid for half of Zuckerberg’s project, then called “The Face Book,” and that Zuckerberg used StreetFax’s search engine in the early version of the social network.

Facebook and Zuckerberg have said that Ceglia’s claim is bogus, that Zuckerberg’s contract with Ceglia involved only StreetFax, and that Zuckerberg didn’t conceive of the social network until later.

A federal judge in Buffalo threw out Ceglia’s civil case against Facebook and Zuckerberg in March 2013, agreeing with another judge that he had forged a contract, created fake e-mails between himself and Zuckerberg, and destroyed evidence. Ceglia was charged in 2012 with trying to defraud Facebook and Zuckerberg. He denies wrongdoing.

Ceglia says he was deprived of his right to a jury trial when the suit against Facebook and Zuckerberg in Buffalo was tossed out at the pretrial stage. And the government’s criminal case, filed 500km away in Manhattan while the civil suit was still pending, was also illegal because, in his view, he was prosecuted merely for filing a lawsuit.

“Some of your readers may surely think my lawsuit against Facebook was bogus, but if they consider themselves Americans, then they should defend to the death my right under the Constitution of the United States to have a jury” make that decision, Ceglia said.

Ceglia says he has applied for asylum in a country he won’t identify. His claim that he is living outside of the US could not be verified. US marshals say they’re still trying to find him and are offering a $5 000 reward.

Arriving at Ceglia’s Wellsville, New York, house on March 8, 2015, marshals and state police found his court-ordered ankle bracelet hanging from a homemade “motorised contraption” mounted on the ceiling. Prosecutors said the device was intended to keep the bracelet moving to make it appear that Ceglia was still in his house.

Ceglia says he has “a regular job” and hopes to start buying and selling houses soon to make more money.

“Everyone including our dog is happy and in good health,” Ceglia wrote. “It has been a difficult and scary year for Iasia and I but faith in God has seen us through and a determination to get justice has inspired me to keep going.”

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