By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
It’s been 15 years since James Tait Praefke walked away from the brig at Navy Base Kitsap-Bangor and, as far as Navy investigators know, he hasn’t been seen since.
Until now. Investigators are looking for him in South Florida.
The 52-year-old former petty officer with Electronic Attack Squadron 133 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island has been on the Naval Criminal Investigative Service “most wanted” list all these years.
Praefke was convicted of stealing and mishandling a grenade and other explosives and had been sentenced to three years of confinement about a month before he escaped.
At the time of his escape, the Navy warned that he was “armed and dangerous” with pro-militia views. The Navy moved his ex-wife, who called him “a terrorist,” and children to an undisclosed location.
The Whidbey News-Times publisher hired an off-duty police officer to guard the newsroom for a couple of weeks because several stories had been published about Praefke, and he was reportedly upset about them.
But Praefke, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, simply vanished.
New details about Praefke’s whereabouts are vague.
Last Thursday, NCIS investigators contacted a sheriff’s department in the Florida Keys, saying that they had reason to believe Praefke “might be coming to the Keys, could be in the Keys or could have been in the Keys and left,” the Miami Herald reported.
Jeff Huston, a spokesman for NCIS, said investigators have been searching for Praefke for the 15 years he’s been on the lam. He said they recently received a couple of leads about Praefke, but “nothing really concrete.”
Huston said agents are distributing a revised wanted poster in hopes of getting new information from the public.
The updated poster no longer says Praefke should be considered armed and dangerous nor that he espoused anti-government and pro-militia views.
Instead, it states that Praefke is a resourceful survivalist who has knowledge of firearms and that he may be living in seclusion or with “like-minded people.”
The poster states that he has family ties to the Sarasota, Florida area. Investigators believe that he may have acquired an RV or a boat. He may be traveling around the country and may have sailed to the Caribbean.
Praefke is likely using a fake name, the poster states, but his tall stature is distinctive.
The investigation into Praefke began in 2005 because of an allegation he had sexually assaulted a child, a charge he was later acquitted of. At the time, he served as a command logistics petty officer for packing and loading operations of command items for transport to and from Afghanistan, according to NCIS.
When he returned from Afghanistan in February 2005, a bomb-sniffing dog alerted on Praefke’s canvas bag during a routine U.S. Customs inspection, and Navy security discovered a M-67 fragmentation grenade inside.
Investigators also found plastic explosives in a storage unit where Praefke kept guns, a large amount of ammunition, gas masks and survival gear.
In the court martial, Praefke pleaded guilty to charges related to improperly handling explosives in exchange to a lesser sentence if convicted in the child sex abuse case, but he was cleared of those charges.
Praefke was sentenced to three years of confinement.
Even before the court martial, an investigative blog, a journalist in Kitsap County and Praefke’s mother had alleged widespread problems, even misconduct, in the charges against Praefke.
Praefke’s wife at the time, however, contacted the News-Times following the court martial because she and her children were being evicted from Navy housing without notice since he no longer lived there. She called Praefke “a terrorist” with anti-government beliefs, and she said she was worried he had malevolent plans for the explosives.
Yet Praefke was not considered dangerous or a flight risk while being held at the brig at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. Wearing a leg brace, he accompanied a guard to retrieve food for other prisoners and slipped away.
A NCIS spokesman at the time said investigators didn’t know if he had planned the getaway or if he had outside help. No cars were missing from the base.
After his escape, his wife told the News-Times that the Navy had moved the family to a safe location. She said she was scared because she considered Praefke dangerous and that she had feared he would escape.
Marcia Van Dyke, who was then publisher of the News-Times, spoke to Steve Almon, the Oak Harbor police chief at the time, about whether the reporter who had written about Praefke might be in danger. He advised her to hire an off-duty police officer to stand guard in the newsroom for a couple of weeks, which she did.
But all was quiet, except for reporter interviews and a lot of bad jokes.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.