Fifteen years ago today, James T. Praefke ditched his escort and escaped from Navy custody after being sentenced to hard time at Naval Brig Puget Sound, Washington.
The 52-year-old former aviation electronics mate 1st class remains on the lam to this day, and he is the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s longest-running active fugitive investigation.
Now, NCIS is asking if you’ve seen him.
Authorities discovered a M33 fragmentation grenade in Praefke’s bag during a customs inspection as he returned to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, from an Afghanistan deployment in February 2005.
“Later searches led to the discovery of military grade C-4 explosive,” NCIS said in their latest appeal for help in locating the fugitive former sailor.
Praefke had been serving as a command logistics petty officer, in charge of packing items for transport to and from Afghanistan.
He went to trial later that year and was convicted at general court-martial in October 2005 and sentenced to more than three years in the brig for unlawful possession of explosives, larceny of ammunition and for making false official statements, according to NCIS.
Then, on this date 15 years ago, “Praefke escaped from the custody of an escort…while inside the Naval Base Kitsap dining facility where he was tasked to obtain meals intended to be returned to the brig,” NCIS spokesman Jeff Houston told Navy Times. “Praefke was wearing a standard Navy issue desert battle dress uniform at the time.”
While NCIS has failed to catch Praefke, the agency believes he “may have acquired an RV or boat and may be traveling around the United States or have sailed to the Caribbean.”
“Praefke is a resourceful survivalist with specialized training and knowledge of firearms,” NCIS said in a statement. “He is likely comfortable living in the woods and may be living in seclusion or with like-minded people. He has family ties in the Beverly Hills, Florida, area and expressed interest in Wyoming, southern Florida and the Caribbean.”
At the time of his escape, officials aid Praefke was “armed and dangerous” and held pro-militia views, according to the Whidbey News-Times.
NCIS is offering a reward of up to $10,000 to anyone who provides information leading up to his arrest and conviction.
Go to NCIS.navy.mil to submit a tip.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.