You just found out you’re headed back to prison, so you cut off your monitoring bracelet and have some time before a federal probation officer will knock down your door.

Where do you flee? How do you stay gone? And where do federal investigators begin looking for you?

Three private investigators, two of them former high-ranking state-level law enforcement officials, say fugitive James Cameron likely has more knowledge than an average escapee.

Two of the private investigators agreed that Cameron’s knowledge of the legal system makes him an especially formidable fugitive and he likely didn’t flee without a well-thought-out plan.

“I would assume that he is one of the cagiest, most learned fugitives they’re going to be dealing with in current times,” said Thomas Santaguida, a former chief of the Maine Warden Service who now runs a Brunswick-based private investigating firm. “He knows what to do to get around everything, and most people who flee do not know that.”

The private investigators were asked this week to assess the potential story behind the hunt for Cameron, a former top state drug prosecutor who was convicted in 2011 of possessing child pornography.

The U.S. Marshals Service said Cameron, 50, fled his Rome house last week after finding out that appeals of some of his convictions had failed and he would return to prison. Cameron had been out on bail since August 2011 waiting for the appeals to be heard.

On the afternoon of Nov. 14, after a federal appeals court upheld seven of his 13 convictions, he visited his ex-wife’s home on Greenville Street in Hallowell and told his son he was going back to prison. Cameron appeared to be “not doing well,” his wife told law enforcement officials. That meeting and what Cameron did in the hours before he fled were recounted in a document filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor by a federal probation official.

Just after 8 p.m. that night, Cameron arrived at his house in Echo Valley Estates on Watson Pond in Rome. About a half-hour later, he checked the Internet for the last time that night.

By 12:46 a.m. the electronic monitoring bracelet he was required to wear as a bail condition showed he’d left the home without authorization.

At 1:47 a.m., a federal probation officer tried to call Cameron’s home phone and cellphone, but didn’t get an answer.

The officer tried to call again between 7 and 8 a.m. Again he got no answer.

Around 10:30 a.m., probation officials and state police went to the house in Rome. His cellphone was still there, but Cameron, his laptop and his tan Audi were gone.

On Monday, marshals publicly announced they were hunting for Cameron.

Dean Knightly, a deputy U.S. marshal for Maine and spokesman for the service, wouldn’t whether he thought Cameron’s escape was planned or spontaneous. He said Friday there were no developments in the search for Cameron.

Elaborate plan or desperate act?

The private investigators are divided in their opinions of Cameron’s escape plan.

To Joseph Thornton, a private eye in southern Maine since the 1970s, it looked rushed.

“It sounds like an act of a desperate man,” Thornton said. “I don’t think he’s been planning this since August 2011.”

But Santaguida and Stephen Pickering, a retired Maine State Police homicide detective who’s now a private eye in Blue Hill, both doubt Cameron’s exit was spur-of-the-moment.

“Lawyers tend to be pretty logical people both personally and professionally,” Santaguida said. “I think he’s made an elaborate plan with a lot of knowledge and a lot of planning time.”

Pickering said the timing of Cameron’s escape — made hours after learning the appeals failed and during the wee hours of the morning — makes this plan look like a planned last-resort decision.

“I think in his mind, right when he got out on bail, he probably had some kind of plan if things didn’t go well,” Pickering said. “Any intelligent person, whether it’s a lawyer or not, is going to have some kind of idea.”

Staying off the grid

Cameron’s gone. To stay gone, he needs to not just run, but disappear.

“He knows that once a threshold of time has been met, people are going to be looking for him, so his disappearance needs to be quick after that,” Santaguida said. “He now has to stay off the grid.”

That means he needs to use cash to pay for what he needs on the road.

He shouldn’t go where he’s expected to go, like his brother’s home outside Detroit, Mich., where he stayed before his 2009 indictment.

He can’t contact those close to him, either.

“As a fugitive, you need to separate yourself completely and finally from any and all contact with your former life,” Thornton said.

The private investigators said money is a big factor for a fugitive at this point. It’s not known what resources Cameron has. Knightly, the marshal, wouldn’t discuss that, or whether bank accounts have been frozen or other steps have been taken to limit Cameron’s assets.

When his divorce from Barbara Cameron was finalized in 2010, he claimed an annual income of $25,000.

He had earned more than $100,000 as an assistant attorney general, a job he held for 18 years until 2008, almost a year before he was indicted on the child porn charges.

“It takes a lot of money to be sophisticated enough to plan to elude authorities for any length of time,” Thornton said. “He’s not going to have $850,000 in cash in the wall when they find him.”

If Cameron is fleeing, he needs a place to flee to.

Santaguida said if he were in Cameron’s shoes, he’d have an ambitious plan that included leaving the country.

Cameron shouldn’t have a passport. Pretrial bail conditions forced him to surrender it and not seek another, the Kennebec Journal has reported. If he had one and tried to use it, he’d likely be nabbed.

“I would leave the United States and go to a country that didn’t extradite any crimes,” Santaguida said. “I’d make arrangements to get a (private) flight out of the country (and) get transported to a place where I know I could get a fake passport and re-establish myself with a new identity in a country that is not extradition-friendly with the United States.”

But Thornton doesn’t think Cameron has the resources — or criminal know-how — to stay gone.

“It takes a certain level of cunning and sophistication and street smarts,” Thornton said. “Guys who sit behind a desk in Augusta for 20 years don’t pick that up.”

‘An intelligent criminal’?

Cameron’s knowledge of the legal system could be a complicating factor in the marshals’ hunt for him, the investigators said.

“I think Mr. Cameron is unique in his position as far as being, for lack of a better word, an intelligent criminal,” Pickering said. He added that Cameron is “somebody that can think a few places ahead on the chessboard better than the average criminal.”

Santaguida said Cameron had plenty of time to plan an escape and had a wealth of experience watching “the best practices on how to do it.”

“Generally there’s a layer of ignorance that causes the person to get caught,” he said. “I just don’t see him making a blunder that causes him to be apprehended quickly.”

Marshals have downplayed that issue since they announced Cameron had fled.

Last week, Maine U.S. Marshal Noel March said, “I don’t know if he’s smarter than the average bear. We’re pretty good at this.”

March is right. The marshals’ website says in fiscal year 2011 the service caught more than 36,000 federal fugitives — averaging almost 100 per day. Santaguida called them the best in the world at fugitive hunting.

“This is what they’re trained for, to find people who don’t want to be found,” Pickering said.

Behind the hunt

Pickering didn’t want to talk much about police tactics he might use to find Cameron because he didn’t want to scotch potential pieces of the marshals’ investigation. But he and Thornton agreed to make some general points.

“The only way to do it is start going backwards,” Santaguida said.

He said he’d find any person Cameron has had notable associations with and grill them in interviews, looking for any dropped hint about what he’d do on the run, however benign the detail.

Thornton said because Cameron’s location was monitored since his release from prison, marshals can figure out patterns of where he goes and how he moves. If Cameron’s smart, he’ll stay off his previous tracks.

Thornton also said there may be electronic or paper trails that could tip Cameron’s hand. Although his Internet activity was monitored as part of his bail conditions, his laptop disappeared when he did.

Marshals haven’t dropped many clues about what they’re looking at, but last week they searched his ex-wife’s Hallowell home. March said the search ruled out the possibility that Cameron was hiding there.

Barbara Cameron has said she doesn’t know where her husband is, according to Knightly.

‘No Whitey Bulger’

Veteran private eye Thornton expects Cameron to be a relatively quick capture for marshals.

“He’s no Whitey Bulger,” Thornton said, referring to the infamous Boston gangster who evaded capture for 16 years before his 2011 arrest. “This guy will be caught eventually and it will probably be sooner rather than later.”

Retired detective Pickering doesn’t totally disagree. He thinks Cameron may be a tougher get, but the marshals are well-equipped.

“I have no doubt that they have the resources to find him,” Pickering said. “What he got caught doing, he was acting on an impulse he can’t control or decided not to.

“He has some flaws,” he added.

But former warden service head Santaguida said Cameron appears to have the knowledge and likely the drive to elude authorities.

All three private eyes said that as a middle-aged former prosecutor convicted of a crime that involves child victimization, Cameron would be petrified to go back to prison.

That motivation could make a difference.

Santaguida said, “My personal opinion on this, and I could be completely wrong, is he’s going to be a difficult person to find.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
mshepherd@mainetoday.com