Robert Falkner escaped justice in Virginia for a decade by jumping bail, skipping court hearings and even ramming his car into a police cruiser and leading officers on a high-speed chase as his wife and children sat in the passenger seats.
The long flight of the wily con man featured on “America’s Most Wanted” finally appeared over when he was convicted of embezzlement in Fairfax County in 2010. But the man who had to be recaptured three times in the past was allowed to hold a job outside the jail as he served his sentence.
In March, Falkner, 39, simply walked away from work. He was on the lam for more than two months before police tracked him down Monday in New Jersey.
The case has raised questions about why authorities placed a convict who was a flight risk in a work release program and highlighted what officials say are deficiencies in how information about offenders is shared in the criminal justice system.
Fairfax County Sheriff Stan Barry said the very information that would have disqualified Falkner from work release — the fact that he had led police on a chase in California — was not in the limited summary of Falkner’s criminal history used to determine whether someone is an escape risk.
“Now that everyone knows his full history, it’s stunningly obvious he shouldn’t have been on work release,” Barry said.
Work release programs have come under scrutiny in other parts of the state. Portsmouth’s sheriff ended the city’s program last year after five inmates escaped and one allegedly assaulted a man and a woman. Six inmates walked away from the Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton in 2011 and 2012.
During Falkner’s long career in crime, the schemes of the man born in Alexandria included presenting himself as an entrepreneur and a hapless Buddhist tourist. His case shows how a dedicated con man who used a variety of aliases was able to take advantage of the good will of the court system to duck serving serious time for years.
In 2000, Falkner — using the name “Bob” Koichi Tanabe — strode into a $1.2 million home for sale in McLean and told the real estate agent he wanted to purchase it for his father-in-law, according to court records.
After Falkner bounced checks and made excuses about why he couldn’t make mortgage payments, the deal fell through, court records show. But Falkner still managed to strike up a friendship with the real estate agent around their shared love of golf.
Falkner told the agent he was starting a company called Tokyo Net 2000 and showed the man counterfeit checks from $600,000 to more than $3 million that he said were from investors. He made a jaw-dropping offer: The agent could invest in the company and be its president. He would earn a tidy salary of $300,00o a year and get a car allowance.
The agent jumped, investing $12,450 in Tokyo Net, according to court records. Falkner even accompanied the man to a Tysons Corner Mercedes-Benz dealership, where the agent purchased a car thinking Tokyo Net would pay for it.
But after months with no paycheck, the agent realized he had been scammed. He was one of six investors Falkner took for more than $45,000. Falkner was candid about the scheme in a letter later sent to a Fairfax County judge.
“I needed money so I lied to everyone that we were going to be successful,” Falkner wrote. “But we were not going anywhere.”
The same year Falkner launched the con, he was charged with embezzlement in Fairfax County. But before the trial began, he vanished — the first of many flights.
In 2004, Falkner was arrested on misdemeanor charges in San Francisco. He was sent back to Fairfax County to face the embezzlement allegations, but he fled again just before he was set to plead guilty, according to court records.
In 2007, he surfaced in California’s Bay Area. Posing as a Buddhist tourist, Falkner reportedly approached a woman in the small city of Los Altos saying he lost his passport and luggage. The woman grew suspicious and called authorities.
As Los Altos police pulled up, U.S. marshals said Falkner rammed his car into a police cruiser as an officer was getting out. Falkner sped off with his wife and children in the car, and officers followed. But police eventually backed off because they feared for the safety of Falkner’s family. He had escaped again.
Authorities caught up with Falkner at a Reno hotel in 2008 after a viewer saw an “America’s Most Wanted” segment on him and called in a tip.
But he jumped bail and fled again. Later that year he showed up again in Virginia and was recaptured in Arlington.
Falkner was convicted of assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon for striking the cruiser and was sentenced to a year in prison in Santa Clara County in California in 2009. Judy Lee, the county’s deputy district attorney, remembers Falkner making a persuasive argument that he should be granted probation.
“He was very convincing. He was quite the actor,” Lee said. “He was doing a very good job of making a pitch for the court.”
Finally, in 2010, Falkner was returned to Fairfax County to face the decade-old embezzlement case. He was convicted and given a six-month sentence, but he violated probation by following his now ex-wife to Thailand to seek custody of their children.
Before a hearing on the probation violation in January, Falkner wrote an impassioned letter to Fairfax County Judge Michael F. Devine, saying that he had “fallen apart” when he learned of his wife’s plan to move his children to Thailand.
“I am deeply sorry I absconded,” Falkner wrote, “and it will never happen again.”
Judge’s sentences are informed by an offender’s criminal history prepared by parole and probation officials. Falkner’s court file showed he’d been charged with assault of the Los Altos police officer, but it didn’t describe the particulars of the crime or that he fled.
Devine sentenced Falkner to a year in jail and authorized the sheriff to evaluate him for the work release program.
Barry, the sheriff, said offenders are considered for work release based on the judge’s recommendation, the nature of their crime, the danger they pose and the risk they might escape.
He said Falkner’s flight risk did not appear to be greater than others based on the criminal history available to his office, but he said such reports could be improved by including a specific evaluation of the likelihood that an offender will flee.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.