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After 31 years, fugitive arrested at Florida senior community

By the CNN Wire Staff
Mark Steven Phillips was arrested Thursday at a Florida senior living community, U.S. Marshals said.
Mark Steven Phillips was arrested Thursday at a Florida senior living community, U.S. Marshals said.
  • Mark Phillips fled his trial in 1979
  • He was convicted in absentia
  • Authorities tracked him to Chile and Germany
  • Upon arrest, Phillips said, "The judge wants to see me from 30 years ago?"

Miami (CNN) -- A man who fled his trial on drug and racketeering charges in 1979 and eluded police in several different countries while on the run was arrested Thursday at a Florida senior living community, U.S. Marshals said.

Mark Steven Phillips was arrested at the West Palm Beach, Florida, apartments by a U.S. Marshals "Cold Case Fugitive Squad," authorities said. Authorities woke him while he was sleeping, the statement said, and the lead deputy marshal told him, "The judge wants to see you, Mark."

"The judge wants to see me from 30 years ago?" Phillips replied, according to the statement.

Phillips was set to appear Thursday before a federal magistrate and will appear "in the near future" before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King -- "the same judge he walked out on during his criminal trial," the Marshals said.

Phillips was arrested on May 2, 1979, and charged with participating in racketeering activity; possession with intent to distribute marijuana; unlawful use of a communication facility; and engaging in a criminal enterprise, authorities said. Along with 13 other defendants, he was indicted and charged with violating the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statutes, which charged that the organization imported "multi-ton quantities of marijuana and cocaine" into the United States between October 1974 and April 1978.

Phillips was the corporate director for Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Striker Aluminum Yachts and functioned as a broker to buy vessels "so the interior of the boats could be restructured to afford maximum cargo area for the transportation of the loads of marijuana to be received from mother ships on the high seas," the Marshals said.

The 1979 indictment alleges that Phillips in March 1977 showed a co-conspirator two vessels that had recently been used to import 20 tons of marijuana into the United States, authorities said. In July 1977, he allegedly went to an address in Miami and picked up "a suitcase filled with money," the U.S. Marshals statement said. "Later that same night, he used the suitcase full of cash to purchase another yacht for $223,000" for use on future marijuana smuggling trips, according to the indictment.

Once the marijuana was distributed to "the enterprise's wholesale customers," it was to be sold for $250 a pound, authorities alleged.

Phillips was released from jail on July 5, 1979, after posting $25,000 bond, authorities said. His trial, along with that of his co-defendants, began on September 17 of that year.

"For approximately a month and a half, Phillips took part in his trial, but on November 5, 1979, Phillips got cold feet and failed to show up that day at the federal courthouse in Miami," the Marshals said. King issued a bench warrant for his arrest. His trial continued, however, and Phillips was convicted in absentia of seven counts of participating in a racketeering activity and possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

Authorities investigating Phillips' disappearance received leads indicating he had fled the country, the Marshals said. In 1993, police gathered intelligence that Phillips had fled to Santiago, Chile, and assumed a new identity. He married a local woman using the name Marcus Steffan and created a commercial fishing company with her called "Fishing Research Inc." The company paid him $125,000 annually, authorities said. By the time U.S. Marshals received documentation of his new identity, however, Phillips had already left Chile.

Eight years later, the Marshals received information that Phillips was traveling between Chile and Germany, authorities said, and found a passport had been issued for a Marcus Steffan in 1991 and renewed in 1999.

Checking on the use of the Steffan name, investigators found Phillips had flown into New York from abroad several times. He had rented two penthouse apartments for $10,000 a month using the fake name, but was evicted in August 2000, they said. He had traveled to Chile in February 2001, authorities learned.

He is thought to have remained in Chile until 2010, when deputy marshals assigned to the cold case squad learned he had returned to the United States and obtained a Florida driver's license using his real name, authorities said. They eventually developed new information about him renting an apartment at the West Palm Beach address, in a 55-and-older apartment complex.

At the time of his arrest, it appeared Phillips was "still living out of a suitcase," the U.S. Marshals statement said, citing deputy marshals who arrested him. "There were no clothes in the drawers in the apartment. All his belongings were contained in one travel bag."

U.S. Marshals Senior Inspector Barry Golden said it was unclear how much prison time Phillips might face.

CNN's Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.