The curious case of the fugitive drug 'kingpin' who outran his charges

After three decades on the run, Howard Farley Jr. was arrested in Florida, where he had been hiding in plain sight.

Howard Farley Jr.

By the time mourners arrived at the Lincoln Memorial Funeral Home in eastern Nebraska, federal agents were already staked out outside. Their target was a man named Howard Farley Jr., a fugitive drug trafficking suspect who had been on the run for nearly 25 years.

On that chilly afternoon in October 2009, the investigators were stymied yet again. Farley never showed at his late brother’s memorial service.

The man had been a ghost since 1985 when he was accused of running a transcontinental cocaine network.

“He did a good job of disappearing,” said Duaine Bullock, the former commander of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Narcotics Unit.

But 11 years after the failed funeral home stakeout, a different team of investigators descended on a house in Weirsdale, Florida. The target that day was a man suspected of passport fraud. He had been living under the name Timothy Brown.

The raid was a success. The federal agents arrested the man as he attempted to board an airplane in his private hangar, prosecutors said.

It was only after the arrest that authorities learned the man taken into custody was in fact Howard Farley Jr., the longtime fugitive who prosecutors say had been using the identity of a baby who died in the 1950s.

Howard Farley Jr.U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida

Farley, now 72, is facing several charges including passport fraud. But he managed to do something highly unusual: Despite getting captured, he succeeded in outrunning his original charges.

The 1985 drug indictment was dropped in 2014, adding a curious wrinkle to an already extraordinary case.

“He was the D.B. Cooper of Nebraska,” said Jerry Soucie, a longtime lawyer from Lincoln, equating Farley with the man who disappeared after hijacking a plane in the skies over Seattle in 1971. “A legend.”

Soucie said he’d sometimes bring up Farley’s name to needle prosecutors in the years after the suspect went missing. “One time, they asked my client to come in and said, ‘Where’s he at?’” Soucie recalled. “I said, ‘He’s with Howard Farley.’ It really pissed them off.”

The arrest has triggered strong and starkly different reactions from those connected to the man’s different lives.

Some people who knew him in his hometown of Lincoln feel it’s a travesty that he’s not facing prison time on the drug charges. This group includes his ex-wife, who noted that the old drug case led to the suicides of two co-defendants who had agreed to cooperate against Farley.

“So many sad outcomes have come about due to Howard’s drug sales,” said Christine Schleis, who was briefly married to Farley in the late 1960s.

But many who know him from his second life in Florida hold him in high regard and are still in disbelief over his alleged past. Some think the government should go easy on a man now in his 70s who is not charged with any violent offenses.

“He’s just this gentle soul,” said Michelle Bearden, a journalist who befriended Farley in Florida. “When I heard they called him a drug kingpin, it was crazy. If you met Tim — I know him as Tim — you would never in a million years think of him that way at all.”

The case was front-page news in Lincoln’s main newspaper in 1985. “Alleged leader of drug ring still at large” read the headline in the Lincoln Journal on Oct. 24, 1985.

Farley was swept up in the largest drug indictment in Nebraska history. Some 74 people were charged, and all but one were arrested in what was known as Operation Southern Line.

Farley vanished before the indictment was unsealed. He was described as the alleged “kingpin” of the loosely organized drug network, which prosecutors said utilized a railroad line to distribute cocaine throughout the U.S.

As investigators hunted for Farley, the cases against his 73 co-defendants moved forward.

Soucie, the former Lincoln attorney, said it became clear to him and some of the other defense lawyers that many of the people ensnared in the investigation were not serious dealers but simply people who used drugs and occasionally sold them to feed their habits.

“They were muscling everybody to snitch on everybody else,” Soucie said of the prosecutors. “It just got kind of ugly.”

A month after the indictment was unsealed, the first of two tragedies struck. One defendant who agreed to cooperate took his own life. Then a month later, a second defendant who had agreed to work with prosecutors died by suicide.

The vast majority of the defendants took plea deals that spared them prison sentences, but Farley’s own sister and brother-in-law were among those who served time on drug charges.

Even after all the other cases were closed out, law enforcement continued searching for Farley.

“The last thing we heard is he was down south some place,” said Bullock, the former Lincoln narcotics unit commander who was known as “the brain” because he never forgot anything.

The brain’s information turned out to be correct. Farley is now known to have spent much of his time on the run in Florida, living in plain sight.

He had been residing with his wife in a custom-built home in a gated community called Love’s Landing, where most of the properties are equipped with aircraft hangars. They bought the plot for $95,000 in 2018 and completed construction of the $350,000 home in June 2019, records show. The couple also own a plane worth $150,000, prosecutors said in court.

Farley’s wife, Duc Hanh Thi Vu, told investigators she met him on the Caribbean island of St. Martin in the mid-1980s. The pair got married in Broward County, Florida, in 1993.

Vu, who arrived in the U.S. with her family at age 11 after fleeing political persecution in Vietnam, earned a master's degree in computer science from Florida Atlantic University and built a successful career in computers.

Florida prosecutors have found no evidence that Farley earned any income while on the run, leading them to raise questions about how the couple afforded their globetrotting lifestyle.

“Her income as a data analyst does not reflect the lifestyle they've led over the last 30 years: trips to Australia, deep-sea diving, deep-sea fishing,” prosecutor Michael Felicetta said in court last month.

The couple lived in the cities of Naples and Homosassa before settling in the Love’s Landing community, records show. They hosted dinner parties for friends and talked openly about their love of travel and outdoors activities like diving and fishing.

Farley was private about his past but not in a way that was odd or unusual, friends said.

“There was no reason to be even slightly suspicious,” Bearden, the journalist, said. “They’re a very good couple. He adored her and treated her very well. She’s a really smart woman. We’re all just in shock.”

Bearden is among a half-dozen family friends who expressed support for the man they knew as Tim Brown in reference letters submitted to the court.

"He is a man who truly exudes generosity, both in deed and, particularly, in spirit," Bearden and her husband wrote.

“I can’t think of a nicer or more helpful person than Tim,” wrote another friend, David Shear. “He is an individual of good character and I’m proud to call him a friend and I will continue to do so.”

Farley had been living under the name Timothy Brown since he vanished in the mid-1980s, according to prosecutors. The identity was taken from a baby who died in 1955 at the age of 3 months.

Farley had used the boy’s name and Social Security number to secure a passport and driver's license, prosecutors said. But when he applied for a passport renewal in February 2020, passport agency fraud-prevention staffers discovered something suspicious: Timothy Brown’s death record from 1955.

Investigators matched the man’s passport photos with the image used for his driver's license. When federal agents raided his home on Dec. 4, they knew what the suspect looked like but had no idea who he really was.

A fingerprint comparison confirmed that Timothy Brown was in fact Howard Farley Jr., the longtime fugitive.

The news of his arrest triggered a series of phone calls and celebratory Facebook posts among the former law enforcement officials involved in Farley’s old drug case.

“Hell, a bunch of old narcs, including myself are at least going to sleep with a smile tonight,” one former Lincoln police officer wrote on Facebook. “Two plus years of my life were used up on that guy.”

Farley was charged with passport fraud, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. But a month later, a Florida grand jury returned an indictment charging Farley with a series of additional offenses, including aggravated identity theft, Social Security fraud and operating as a pilot without a legitimate airman’s certificate.

The federal agents who searched his home found a gun and ammunition in his nightstand, leading to an additional charge of illegal gun possession.

His wife was also charged with passport fraud as well as making false statements to a federal agency and employing a pilot without a legitimate airman’s certificate. She and Farley have pleaded not guilty.

Vu’s lawyers argued in court papers that she did not knowingly harbor a fugitive. They pointed to statements made by one of the agents who interviewed her. The agent said in court that she told him she knew Farley “had gotten in trouble with drugs in Nebraska, and that’s why he changed his name,” but “not necessarily that he was a fugitive or wanted.”

Lawyers Andrew Searle and Fritz Scheller, who are representing Vu and Farley, wrote: “Even the government’s own witness at the detention hearing confirmed that Ms. Vu never knew the full details about the defendant’s alleged past.”

In an interview, Scheller said he understands why the old drug case made a big splash in Nebraska in the 1980s, but the allegations did not amount to the man known as Howard Farley Jr. being a major trafficker. “He wasn’t exactly the Pablo Escobar of Omaha,” Scheller said.

Florida prosecutors said in court that Farley’s drug indictment from Nebraska was dismissed in 2014 only because the lead prosecutor on the case was retiring and “they needed to make a decision about the evidence — the age of the evidence.”

Farley is now facing a maximum of 30 years in prison. In arguing for him to receive bail, Farley’s lawyers described him as an elderly man who suffers from “a host of significant medical conditions” including two recent heart attacks, renal failure and spinal surgery.

But U.S. District Judge John Antoon II was unmoved. Antoon last month denied a defense motion to allow Farley to leave jail and await trial on home detention.

In his decision, the judge said the man had already proven he had the rare ability to disappear and elude authorities for decades.

“Farley did not just flee and remain hidden away but instead had the foresight, resources and determination to start a new life and live in the open while evading capture for decades,” Antoon wrote. “Nothing in the records indicates that Farley is incapable of doing so again.”