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15 years after escaping WA state Navy brig, ‘dangerous’ sailor still on the run

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (Jelson25/WikiCommons)
November 23, 2020

Fifteen years ago, a sailor convicted of a number of crimes escaped from custody at Naval Brig Puget Sound in Bremerton. Now, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is sounding a new call for tips on his whereabouts.

James Tait Praefke, 52, was a petty officer with Electronic Attack Squadron 133 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

In 2005, he was arrested after U.S. Customs officials found a grenade and military-grade C-4 explosives in his bags when he returned from Afghanistan, according to a recent press release from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

In October 2005, Praefke was sentenced at a general court-martial to three years of confinement for unlawful possession of explosives, larceny of ammunition and making a false official statement. On Nov. 13, 2005, Praefke escaped from the brig at Naval base Kitsap. Praefke was in the dining hall to retrieve food for other prisoners, but the guard accompanying him lost sight of Praefke and he slipped away.

At the time, the Navy said it did not consider Praefke a flight risk and investigators did not know if he’d planned the escape or if he had help.

A 2005 NCIS wanted poster said Praefke had a history of weapons use, domestic violence, drunken driving and should be considered “armed and dangerous”; he espoused pro-militia, anti-government views and is experienced in bomb-making. Praefke’s ex-wife, who told the Whidbey News-Times that he was “a terrorist,” and his children were moved to an undisclosed location by the Navy.

“He never had to explain what he was going to do with the explosives. It’s not just my family that’s in danger. When he gets out, I don’t know what he’ll do,” Keran Praefke said.

Praefke then appeared to vanish until earlier this year when NCIS investigators contacted the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in the Florida Keys to say they had reason to believe Praefke could be headed to, in, or recently left the area, according to a report from The Miami Herald.

In 2006, the Navy conducted a raid on the Florida home of Praefke’s mother, Linda James, to see if he was hiding out there but they found no evidence.

At the time, James said she feared her son might be shot by law enforcement officers who encounter him.

“They’ll pull the trigger and say, ‘Well, he resisted,'” James told The Kitsap Sun. “I think that’s what they want.”

NCIS believes Praefke might have “acquired an RV or boat and may be traveling around the United State or have sailed to the Caribbean.” NCIS said Praefke is a “resourceful survivalist with specialized training and knowledge of firearms.” They suspect he’s likely living with like-minded people or in seclusion.

A spokesperson for NCIS said the agency has received a few tips on Praefke’s whereabouts but no substantial information has been found.

The only time Praefke resurfaced was in a January 2006 letter sent to Navy officials and Praefke’s mother. In the letter, Praefke outlined his reasons for escape, including what he called “conflicting information, serious mistakes and false official statements” allegedly made by Navy investigators, his wife and others.

Navy Region Northwest said Praefke’s court-martial was conducted in a fair and impartial manner.

Praefke has family ties near Sarasota, Florida, and has previously expressed interest in Wyoming, south Florida and the Caribbean, according to a statement from NCIS.

“This is NCIS’ longest-running active fugitive investigation,” said Assistant Director for Criminal Investigations and Operations Dan Simpson. “We are grateful to anyone who may have seen or come into contact with Praefke to step forward and assist us in locating Praefke so he may be brought to justice for the crimes he has committed.”

NCIS said Praefke is likely using an alias, but is described as being about 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds with green eyes and red hair.

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