Ethan Couch, affluenza teen found guilty on four counts of vehicular manslaughter, was busted at the tail end of 2015 with a bad haircut and worse dye job. Could a better makeover kept him out of reach of the long arm of the law? The short answer is, “Obviously.” The longer answer gets a bit complicated.
There’s not much information on what makes the very best fugitive disguises — because, by definition, a successful fugitive never gets found. That being said, a few fugitives have gone for surprising lengths of time before being caught. We can learn from their examples.
Distort Your Features
Psychological tests suggest prioritize altering features over complexion. A 1984 study in the journal Human Learning determined that nylon stockings are effective masks at obfuscating the wearer’s identity because they distort anatomy, rather than blur skin tone. A formerly clean-cut war criminal in Serbia grew out a giant beard and long greying ponytail — cultivating something of a hippie Saint Nick vibe — and avoided secret police for almost 13 years.
If you do opt for elective surgery, don’t continue to employ yourself via illegal means, like the Columbian gang member who received breast implants, a nose job, began dressing as a woman, and working as a prostitute.
Be a Clotheshorse
You’ll want to dress to fit in. FBI surveillance teams travel with multiple outfits — suits to blend in near the financial district, gym clothes for running on the road. The red sneaker effect aside — the idea that thought leaders can get away with being schlubs, and therefore sartorial iconoclasts exude authority — there’s a tremendous body of research supporting the human inclination toward conformity-as-safe. Clothing quirks and oddball appearances are great if you want stand out on Tinder, but not for avoiding prying eyes. Which brings us to:
Don’t Look Crazy
A pre-Jinx Robert Durst sported a brown mustache and implausibly white wig — a conspicuous combo that led to his capture. Hew toward the middle. Again, spray-painted blackface doesn’t work. The trick for a prolonged time hidden is normalcy. If a Symbionese Liberation Army revolutionary’s 26-year-long stint on the lam as a midwestern housewife is any indication, normcore is the ticket.
Go Someplace Else
One way to blend in is by going someplace where people aren’t particularly good at telling the difference between you and others. That old, unfunny joke about it being hard to tell the difference between Asian people is a prime example of the phenomenon known as the “Other-Race Effect,” which is universal. That means Asian people sometimes struggle to discern differences between white people and that minority status can be helpful. That said, being part of a very small minority will make you noticeable, so it’s best to seek out a mid-sized community that seems neither exotic nor particularly compelling.