Five years ago a woman walked into a police station in Ozark, Missouri, and claimed her father-in-law was a British fugitive. It was the end of the road for Eddie Maher, who had been on the run – with wife and children in tow – for 19 years. How did one of the UK’s most wanted men evade capture for so long?
In January 1993, Securicor driver Eddie Maher sped away from Lloyds Bank in Felixstowe in a van containing £1.2m ($1.6m).
Then he disappeared. Police pursued leads from Cyprus to the Caribbean, but found no trace of Maher – or the money – despite offering a £100,000 reward.
“You can live off the grid in plain sight if you’re not silly,” says Maher, now 61. “Most people get caught because they are ridiculously extravagant.”
He succeeded for nearly two decades, choosing the US because he thought it would be the easiest place to lie low.
“The United States is a huge country and everyone speaks the same language, so you don’t stand out,” he says.
“Travelling was more comfortable back then. It was pre-9/11 and there weren’t as many checks.”
The fireman-turned-security-van-driver flew business class from Heathrow to Dallas, a few weeks after the heist, carrying a suitcase with banknotes wrapped in towels and a fake passport in the name of Stephen King.
Maher estimates he had around £125,000 ($160,000), the cut he was given by a shadowy gang that he says pressurised him into committing the crime. (Police have always rejected the claim that he was acting under duress.)
He had sent his partner, Debbie Brett, on holiday to Boston a few weeks earlier with their toddler, Lee. He only explained to her they were on the run when they met at a pre-arranged spot in Dallas airport, he says.
“She wasn’t over the moon when I told her but we’re a couple. She’s my best friend,” he says.
“Plus I convinced her she could contact her family after a while.”
In fact, Maher knew they couldn’t risk contacting loved ones in the UK. He only made one phone call home during his 19 years away – a call to his sick mother, one year after he vanished.
“It was difficult not seeing family, especially for Debbie. Every now and then I’d get a twinge of regret but I made the decision that we were better off over there,” Maher says.
After spending a few weeks assessing their options, Maher and Brett settled with their son in Woodland Park, a small town in Colorado. It was far from the tourist trail so the risk of being recognised was low, and as it was growing quickly, new faces were accepted without too many questions being asked.
They paid cash for a four-bedroom house and soon bedded into the community. Proof of address was sufficient to get Lee into nursery and later into elementary school.
They introduced themselves as Stephen and Sarah King. According to their cover story, Stephen was a photocopier salesman from Essex who had sold his business and was deciding what to do next.
They had a well-rehearsed line when people asked about family and friends in the UK.
“We’d say, ‘They’ve already been over and are welcome to visit any time,'” Maher says.
“It never got easier telling those stories. I hated lying every day but we had no choice.”
The couple went on hunting and fishing trips with the neighbours, Brett volunteered at the nursery and Maher joined the mountain search and rescue team. He also made friends with people on the local airfield and was given flying lessons in exchange for driving the fuel truck. He later bought his own plane, a Piper Warrior, which he rented back to the flying school.
“I’ve seen those reality shows like Hunted and I find them quite laughable,” Maher says. “Hiding in plain sight is easier.”
Maher enjoyed life in Colorado but lived in constant fear of capture. Although his moments of paranoia and anxiety became less frequent over time they never completely went away.
In 1994 Maher and Brett got married under their fake names in Las Vegas, acquiring a wedding certificate in the process – another useful document that would help to confirm their fake identities.
Maher had already taken driving lessons, even though he had driven for decades, to get a licence in the name of Stephen King. He had used that to open a bank account.
In addition, he had forged a California birth certificate for Lee, and applied for a social security card for him so that he could work when he was older. However, he couldn’t get Lee a passport. For that he needed a genuine birth certificate, one that could be traced to a birth record in a state ledger.
Another document Maher couldn’t forge was a green card, and without one neither he nor Brett could work.
“I tried to find jobs where you didn’t need ID, like illegal immigrants do. But there isn’t much unless you want to go orange-picking in California,” Maher says.
As their funds dwindled, Maher made some money playing blackjack in Las Vegas. The family also moved to a smaller home and sold their plane – and it was when the buyer only paid a quarter of what he had promised that Maher realised it was time to leave.
“When I asked for the money, he said, ‘I think there’s something shady about you. Maybe I’ll call the cops,'” Maher says.
The couple moved hastily to Concord, New Hampshire. At the same time, Maher decided to give up being Stephen King, and hatched a risky plan to assume a different identity.
“My brother, Michael, had married an American years before but had since moved to the UK. I knew he had a legitimate green card and I knew all his details,” he says.
So Maher wrote to the authorities as Michael, claiming he had lost his green card. Then he waited anxiously. But no-one raised the alarm and before long he was sent a replacement in the post. Maher then applied for a commercial driver’s licence in his brother’s name and started work as a lorry driver.
With a steady income now, Maher and Brett settled in to life in Concord. Maher started coaching Little League baseball and in 1997 the couple had another son, Mark. They became friendly with a couple who had a weekend home on a nearby lake, and would often visit.
A year later Maher got a job installing Nielsen TV systems, which are used to calculate ratings for TV shows. He only needed one reference from the UK, which he forged.
The family stayed in New Hampshire for five years. Then came the 9/11 attacks, and neighbours seemed to become more curious about them.
“It got to the point where our friends would joke, ‘You must be in the witness protection programme.’ I thought that was a sign we’d probably been there too long,” Maher says.
He successfully applied for a promotion at Nielsen and the family relocated to Dunedin in Florida. Maher was now in tech support and Brett worked cash-in-hand for a house-cleaning business. They rented a home by the beach and Maher took up golf. They would only visit Disney World off-season, to reduce the risk of meeting British tourists.
After a few more years, and a few more house moves, Maher and Brett decided to settle down permanently. In 2008 they moved to the small town of Ozark in Missouri, where Maher found work as a broadband technician, while Brett got another cash-in-hand job, this time with a property-letting agency.
Despite this, they began running up credit card bills, and Maher ended up declaring bankruptcy in 2010. But even this didn’t lead to his exposure. His weak spot turned out to be his own son, Lee.
As a teenager, Lee had begun asking questions about his English relatives and Maher says he began to rebel when he didn’t get a straight answer – embarking on a series of short-term relationships, fathering a number of children and regularly getting into trouble.
“My sons had a good upbringing. I taught them to be law-abiding citizens. But when Lee got to the age of being headstrong and stupid that put pressure on us,” Maher says. “He was a problem and in the end that’s the problem that brought everything to a head.”
Lee Maher met and married Jessica Butler but they soon started quarrelling. According to Eddie, a drunken Lee once told Jessica he thought his father was a fugitive. He believes she then searched for his surname online and found old news reports of the Securicor heist, along with the promise of a reward.
On 6 February 2012 she walked into Ozark police station and said she knew the whereabouts of the British fugitive, “Fast Eddie” Maher.
Maher was then told by a police officer that the authorities knew who he was, and the FBI noted his furious response. “Maher told his son they would have to leave again and threatened to kill the person who tipped off police about his identity,” reported federal agent Jeffrey Atwood.
But Maher decided not to run. Instead he came clean to his sons. “My real name is Eddie,” he said. “And your mum isn’t Sarah. She’s Debbie.”
In July 2012 he was extradited to the UK. Eight months later he was sentenced to five years for theft, but was released in January 2015.
“I don’t grumble, I don’t say I didn’t do the crime. I did my time for it,” Maher says.
He is philosophical about spending 19 years looking over his shoulder.
“I don’t regret my life in America. My second son was born there and if I hadn’t gone through this he may never have been born. It’s been my life and we’ve adapted,” he says.
He would like to return to America, this time as Eddie Maher, but his criminal conviction means that this is impossible.
He doesn’t want to stay in the UK though, and fancies a place in the sun – Spain perhaps, or Cyprus.
“We’ll keep our heads down,” he says, “and enjoy a bit of a retirement.”
Eddie Maher’s autobiography, Fast Eddie, is out now
Family photographs courtesy of Eddie Maher.
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