A fugitive who escaped federal custody 25 years ago has been found and arrested, thanks to an unlikely agency — the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Robert Frederick Nelson escaped after being released from federal prison to a halfway house in 1992. He evaded detection until he went to the Nevada DMV this summer to renew his state ID card.
Nelson left the Federal Medical Center prison in Rochester, Minnesota, and was moved to a federal halfway house. Instead of staying there, he walked away, making him a fugitive. Eventually he moved to Nevada where he assumed the name of Craig Pautler.
“Under his new identity, Pautler began a violent criminal history including multiple robberies with a deadly weapon, possession of stolen property, burglaries and another escape from a Nevada holding facility with the use of a weapon,” according to a DMV statement.
He also got a Nevada commercial driver’s license under the name of Craig Pautler, the DMV said.
By the mid-2000s, Nelson assumed his original identity and got a Nevada ID card under his real name in 2013, according to the DMV.
Then in June, Nelson, 64, went to the DMV to renew his ID card and had to retake his picture.
A technician recognized something was not right, reported CNN affiliate KSNV. The DMV’s facial recognition system showed that the same person had held a driver’s license under the name of Craig Pautler, according to the agency.
The facial recognition technology has been flagging potential identity fraud or theft cases for years. All new ID photos are compared to existing Nevada DMV photos to see if people appear in more than one record. The system became fully operational in the Las Vegas area in 2009, according to a press release that year.
“When you come in to get your driver’s license photograph taken and you stand in front of the camera, it measures your face,” said DMV spokesman Kevin Malone to KSNV. “It measures things like the distance between your ear lobes and your nose and so forth.”
Flagged cases are sent for follow-up investigations.
DMV investigators realized that Nelson had felony convictions under both his name and Craig Pautler’s.
On June 20, Nelson was arrested at a DMV office in Las Vegas on charges of failing to register as a felon and an outstanding traffic warrant. Those state charges were dropped to facilitate his extradition to federal authorities.
Nelson was handed over to the US Marshals on July 3.
What happens next for Nelson is not clear.
According to Inspector Steve Carpenter with the US Marshal Service, the USMS handed Nelson over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and closed the case out of their system. There are no federal charges pending against Nelson, and Carpenter says the US Attorney of Minnesota has declined to press charges. He’s currently in a Nevada detention center, and the Bureau of Prisons will have hearings to determine what to do with him.
Nelson’s original crime? He had been arrested by the Secret Service in the late 1980s on counterfeiting charges.