The Case of the Disappearing Executive: Three Seattle-Area Business Leaders Vanished When Trouble Appeared

For Darren Berg, J’Amy Owens and the Mastros, visibility is highly overrated.

This article appears in print in the April 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

On TV and in the movies, the authorities always get their man. Or woman. Between the paper and digital trails we leave and ubiquitous security cameras recording our every move, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and the suspect is safely in custody by the time the closing credits roll.

It’s a different story in real life. The best perspective for understanding why that is can be obtained through the window of an airplane making its descent into a metropolitan airport. Consider the streams of cars, the labyrinth of houses and apartments, both stretching beyond the horizon, and figure out which of those, if any, contains your elusive prey. Given how big this country is, it’s a wonder anyone gets found.

Sometimes they’re not. With sufficient planning, resources, skill, determination and luck, some manage to stay gone for months, even years.

Washington’s business world has had at least three recent cases of disappearing business executives, the latest involving someone who was actually in the confines of the federal prison system, until he — to borrow a phrase from the movie Raising Arizona — released himself on his own recognizance.

Frederick Darren Berg — you know you’re in trouble whenever the cops or your mom use your full name — walked away from a federal prison in California in December, according to a release from the U.S. Marshals Service. As of this writing, he’s still on the lam.

Berg, 55, was “responsible for the largest fraud scheme ever prosecuted in the Western District of Washington,” the release adds. Berg was the founder of the Meridian Group of investment funds, purportedly a real estate financing operation that federal authorities described as a huge Ponzi scheme, with much of the money going to support a lavish lifestyle. Berg pleaded guilty to one count each of wire fraud, money laundering and bankruptcy fraud, and received a sentence of 18 years and an order to pay $140 million in restitution. With time served, he still has 10 years to go. But since the feds take a dim view of inmates attempting to unofficially parole themselves, his scheduled stay is likely to be lengthened — if he’s ever found.

Retailing consultant J’Amy Owens was never criminally charged, but there are still lots of people who would like a word with her — if they can find her. There was a time when she wasn’t at all difficult to contact. All reporters in the region who spent time on the retail beat had Owens’ number in the Rolodex in case they needed a quick quote.

Owens ran into trouble with her own retailing venture, Bill the Butcher, an upscale purveyor of meats that in 2014 abruptly closed its six stores, leaving employees and investors in the lurch.

Then there’s the case of real estate developer Michael Mastro and his wife Linda, who, in the midst of a bankruptcy case, decided to take a permanent vacation to France, where they were eventually found. They fended off efforts to extradite them to the United States, arguing age and ill health.

With that track record, perhaps it’s surprising not that a few high-profile people decide to vanish but that more don’t. The odds would seem to be in their favor, not just from having money and connections. It’s still possible to live off the information grid, and trying to track down those who wish not to be found takes a lot of time, money and concerted effort; over time, those resources can be exhausted. And while Berg, Owens and the Mastros were locally known, they weren’t famous enough to have everyone everywhere looking for them.

Still, as much as they’d like to remain both gone and forgotten, all it takes is one slip up, one chance encounter, one persistent pursuer, for them to hear that dreaded greeting: “Long time no see.”

Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

Related Content

"The industrial internet of things will increase the vulnerability and potential for havoc."

"I remain a strong believer in Seattle and am thankful I had the privilege of covering its many fascinating leaders and businesses during the past decade — a time of extraordinary growth and change."

"We are fortunate to live among so many warm and talented people. There isn’t a more dynamic, caring business community anywhere."

A new study shows that in 2015, the prescription opioid crisis caused almost one million people to be absent from their jobs.