Update: You can read, watch and listen to a summary of all post-contest media here. The following post is a detailed technical description of how we found the clues to Evan’s whereabouts and notified Naked Pizza who captured Evan in New Orleans:

3c4 After twenty-five days on the run, the New Orleans’ Naked Pizza team caught Evan Ratliff, the Wired magazine writer who voluntarily disappeared as part of its Vanish contest! This is how we tracked Evan to New Orleans in time to alert the great Naked Pizza folks who responded aggressively and won the day for Vanish trackers.

On August 15th, Ratliff disappeared. According to the contest rules, the first person who photographed Ratliff and said the word “Fluke” to him received a password to claim the $5,000 prize. The winner was Jeff Leach of Naked Pizza in New Orleans.

Since vanishing, Evan had been publishing regular travel updates to a secret protected Twitter account unknown until now which I infiltrated by gaining the support of his Twitter followers across the globe. Initially, Evan published his tweets in the open before protecting his account sometime after leaving the Santa Monica, California area.

Surprisingly, Evan had actually been sharing his protected tweets with the publisher of TrackEvan.com (see http://www.mysocialmediaguy.com), one of the more aggressive “trackers”. Unbeknownst to TrackEvan, he’s had access to Evan’s travel updates through a Twitter account he publishes news for Phoenix, Arizona. He just never realized it.

It’s important to clarify that, for the most part, any “mistakes” Evan makes are clues he purposely left behind to make the contest fair and to showcase points he made in his recent Wired story: (Gone Forever: What does it take to really disappear?) The story details how the disappeared often give themselves away by seeking information on their pursuers’ progress or returning to common habits. Evan purposely repeated these mistakes and each led to us catching him.

What does this have to do with NewsCloud?

After the Iranian election uprising, I worked to ensure that we could launch NewsCloud’s Facebook community application technology to respond more quickly to important current events. Wired’s Vanish contest presented an excellent soft test case, so I launched VanishTeam to cover Evan’s disappearance and support the tracker community in one day. Evan’s subsequent visits to the VanishTeam application ultimately led to me the discovery of his secret twitter travel journal.

Cracking TOR Requires More than IP Addresses

While many people, including Evan, thought that Wired’s publishing the IP addresses from his gmail account login history would be essential to locating him, this has turned out not to be the case. His use of TOR made locating him quite difficult. Other clues were difficult or obscured by misinformation posted by people trying to help Evan avoid detection. As a result, many contest participants started to lose interest in the hunt. Cracking TOR anonymity is beyond the reach of most #vanish trackers. However, without going into much detail here, VanishTeam found a way to begin tracking Evan’s IP addresses after we identified the “fraudulent” Facebook account he had created.

Evan Exposes Himself to Vanish Team Community

Jdg Soon after this video of Evan being interviewed by Amanda Congdon on Venice Beach emerged, I recognized the resemblance to this Facebook member, gatzjd, of Vanish Team’s community. Within a day, I’d guessed and discovered a similar account at Twitter, jdgatz, an alias from the Great Gatsby (a book on Evan’s list of books). The fact that his tweets were protected made me curious.

Google Cache Exposes Evan’s Early Travels

First_tweets Googling for jdgatz showed google cache entries of adventures in Venice and Santa Monica which matched previous clues released by Wired and the beach video. Evan left his posts open for the first week of his disappearance. I knew I had Evan in my sights but then had to find out to get access to Evan’s future Tweets.

Evan initially chose over 20 followers, later reduced down to fifteen, mostly popular multi-level marketers and auto-responding twitter followers. This may have helped him conceal the “newness” of his Twitter account. Although Evan entrusted his travels to more than a few Twitter porn-bots, once he protected his account – any new follow request would likely tip him off. Gaining access to his current tweets wouldn’t be as simple as creating a fake porn account and asking his permission to follow.

Infiltrating Evan’s New Secret Twitter Identity

74237605 However, some of these people were real folks and I was able to earn their trust. First, I made a late night Skype call to a Twitter follower in New Zealand (@AraneaNZ). He was intrigued by the contest and sent me Evan’s entire Tweet history. But to catch Evan, I would need real time updates from someone closer to my timezone – so I found other followers and all three continued sharing Evan’s updates with me.

The second was Kelly Mitchell, a realtor in Hawaii with 50,000+ Twitter followers. The third was David Lemco who publishes the Twitter tech feed, ShadowGremlin. Both became quickly engaged in the hunt!

Bespect Mobypicture Tumblr_kokca8QQjY1qzl3dso1_r4_500 From his Twitter feed, I managed to piece together Evan’s travels (see below). In it, he not only talks about his exploits, but also his appearance at the U.S. soccer match at Rio Tinto in Utah. The jdgatz account also offered links to a Tumblr website http://bespect.com (which Evan later removed). Bespect.com is registered by a “James Gatz”. Bespect also linked to a larger version of Evan’s profile picture. Finally, the Bespect site offers a pre-paid cell # Evan has likely been using: 1-970-614-5437. I also found a MobyPicture account with one image of a hotel room. Even by clicking on Bespect.com once, I might have given myself away to Evan via his Tumblr logs.

Most importantly, we learned from Evan’s tweets that he had shaved his head before attending the crowded soccer match where so many trackers might be.

It’s not clear for who or why Evan kept tweeting after protecting the jdgatz account. Perhaps it created a record for him to point to – or might allow him to gloat at having shared his whereabouts all along with the publisher of TrackEvan.com. To encourage him to divulge even more, I tweeted “In the future, Evan will be judged by the clues he left. We will be judged by the trail we have not followed. #vanish

We received several IP trails from Evan’s fake Facebook account at VanishTeam.com in the day after his arrival in Atlanta. Two were from a wireless Virgin Mobile account which did not reveal any geographic information. Late on Monday the 7th, Evan visited again revealing an IP in New Orleans. I had the help of @socillion in verifying the exact location of each IP address.

Coincidentally, around the same time, I noticed that Evan had re-opened his jdgatz tweet feed to the public. I quickly used two fake twitter accounts to follow him and set them up so that they appeared similar to other followers (yes, even a fembot) he had already chosen. Now, I had direct access to his updates. We also had a handful of trusted Vanish Team community members online but didn’t have anyone on the ground there to catch him. An hour or so later, I almost missed that Evan had begun following three new twitter accounts – each a New Orleans business (@neworleansrum – a rum distillery with factory tours, @nakedpizza – a twitter-savvy pizza operation with Evan’s favorite gluten-free crust and @lakefrontnola – a wedding videographer). I took a risk and blasted late night emails about the contest and Evan’s presence to each of the three businesses. I almost felt badly about possibly ruining imagined plans of Evan hiring the videographer to film his wedding in New Orleans.

The next morning, I received a call from Jeff Leach of Naked Pizza. Jeff was super excited and motivated and got his team in gear – not only at Naked Pizza, but even sent people to the Rum distillery and to two book readings we suspected Evan might go to. Without Jeff’s aggressiveness and excitement, Evan would still be missing. The $3,000 Evan has to contribute of the prize money out of his own pocket for being caught probably makes the “comped” gluten-free pizza he received from Naked Pizza the most expensive in history.

 

Evan’s Biggest Clues/”Mistakes”

The biggest clue Evan left was by visiting the Vanish Team Facebook application with a profile photo that so closely resembled the video of himself on Venice Beach. I don’t think I would have noticed him if he had used a fake photo. Even if he had used the Facebook generic avatar, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish him from the other fake Facebook accounts with generic avatars.

Secondly, he kept returning to Vanish Team more than once a day using this same account. Thirdly, he rarely visited Vanish Team using TOR – so he left his IP address in our log. The Vanish Team application became part of the game – essentially a trap for Evan – one he stumbled into each day knowingly and willingly. This is something that we would never do with our Facebook technology if Evan hadn’t asked us to pursue him – but it’s a useful reminder of “relative” anonymity on the Web.

Thirdly, by following random Twitter accounts with his protected jdgatz account, Evan left open avenues for trackers to infiltrate his own posts by contacting those people who were strangers to him.

Ps_baldEvan

It will be interesting to learn more about Evan’s clues and puzzles. Vanish Team was the only team that knew Evan was in New Orleans and the only team that had discovered his jdgatz feed. We were the only team that knew he had shaved his head (as imagined at right via Photoshop). I’m not certain how easily other trackers could have found Evan without running their own “media” site.

One suggested path would be searching Twitter for keywords of his known locations. After the Venice Beach video, searching twitter may have quickly turned up the jdgatz account. He had even published to the #venicebeach and #santamonica twitter tags and linked to the hotel he was staying in on two occasions.

Conclusion

Throughout this week, I’ve been amazed at how quickly people’s interest spikes and their eagerness to help increases when they hear about this contest. Perhaps there’s a real hunger for play in our lives or perhaps we just get annoyed when someone tells us they can outwit us. I’ve had to admit to myself that perhaps I am drawn to Evan’s contest because I’ve been working too hard this past year to get a long vacation of my own. Deep down, I think I want to hit the road just as Evan has – but not as mysteriously.

In retrospect, Evan said all along that he intended to duplicate the curiosity for his pursuers that had been the downfall of people who purposely vanished before him. Joining Vanish Team on Facebook with a photo of his latest disguise, tweeting publicly and then privately about his activities – were all foolish, arrogant things Evan promised to do – but left a very detailed trail of his journey.

Closing in on his trail required Internet forensics as well as soft social skills getting random Twitter personalities to trust me and share Evan’s tweets.  It also required taking risks by trusting and cooperating with anonymous people from the Internet. So far, these techniques have proven as effective as any boots on the ground as private investigators told Wired trackers to engage. In my opinion, the limited prize money, difficulty or scarceness of verifiable clues and the abundance of misinformation made getting out into the field seem very premature. However, the contest in the end required boots on the ground. I’m just glad those boots were Jeff Leach’s and the Naked Pizza team.

Thanks to Evan and Wired Editor Nick Thompson for running such a well-conceived, fun, contest. Evan, trust me, your role in this was way more glamorous than the time I’ve spent by the computer these past two weeks following you. Thanks to all the #vanish folks for participating in such a positive spirit. Thanks to Teeuwynn from Lone Shark Games for helping hunters with puzzles and keeping our findings in confidence. Thanks also to the Vanish Team members and contributors who kept our big secret from Evan – just long enough! 

About the Vanish Team Application

The Vanish Team Facebook application is based on open source software funded by a 2008 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and was part of a study to research engagement strategies for younger people in current events. The research results to Hot Dish, a climate change news community on Facebook, was released in early September: Engaging Youth in Social Media – Is Facebook the New Media Frontier?

Summary of Evan’s Travels

Google Map courtesy of @socillion


View Evan Ratliff’s Route in a larger map

Aug 16th Arrives in Santa Monica, Venice Beach without ID or credit cards (accidentally?)

Aug 17th “I really need to get me some real human followers. The spam bots are a bore.” Tweets about Segway wipeout may have led to New Zealand contact following him.

Aug 18th Baby Blues BBQ in Venice

Aug 19th – Venice Beach. Watches District 9. Coffee Bean on Santa Monica Blvd. Pigeon flys inside. Watches soccer from pub. Staying @15Rose. Leaves (loses?) ID and credit cards behind.

Aug 22nd – Hanging with (new?) friends in Santa Monica

Aug 25th – On Greyhound through Tempe, Arizona; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Lubbock, Texas. Using wireless broadband (Verizon?)

Aug 26th – Arrives Las Vegas via Greyhound. Checks into Tropicana

Aug 31 – Sep 4th Returns to San Francisco after “zig-zagging cross country”. Works a day as a concessionaire at 49ers game. Stays in sublet apartment.

Sep 5th – Arrives Salt Lake City (via Amtrak?) to attend soccer match. “(partially) re-shave my head” before a morning flight

Sep 6th Flies Delta to Denver then Atlanta

Sep 7th Arrives in New Orleans

Sep 8th Caught!

Evan’s Complete Twitter History

See also http://twitter.com/jdgatz

Spent a few hours in old hometown today, ATL. Just enough time for Chick-fil-A. West Paces one was closed, damnit, had to hit Collier Rd
about 12 hours ago from TweetDeck

What a game last night. U.S. could’ve put in a couple more goals, but from section 24, row Y at Rio Tinto, it was a solid performance

9:29 AM Sep 6th from TweetDeck

Arrived in the Lake that is great and salty. Game on. They should pull a surprise call-in for Clint Mathis. We need a little Cletus rt now
about 18 hours ago from TweetDeck

T-minus 2 hours to the critical phase of Project Donovan…
7:54 PM Sep 5th from TweetDeck

Someone should chart a 20-year history of the U.S. based on Tony Robbins evolving face & spiel. Seriously. There’s gold in that there face!
7:52 PM Sep 5th from TweetDeck

I’m not sure I’ve ever stayed up all night before in order to (partially) re-shave my head before a morning flight. But desperate times…
7:51 PM Sep 5th from TweetDeck

I’m learning to love Amtrak, but anything over 5 hrs w/out sleeping car = yearning for the development of air travel. Wait, they have that?
7:51 PM Sep 5th from TweetDeck

Hitting the road again tomorrow, last stop….the game! Meeting a friend along the way, not sure of the outcome but it’s gonna be fun…
8:26 PM Sep 4th from TweetDeck

Lessons from working concessions @ sports event 2day: 1. people think ballpark shit is too expensive 2. they take it out on lowly vendors
8:25 PM Sep 4th from TweetDeck

Also a decent day for selling beer at the football stadium which I’ll be doing later on. Line ’em up! I’ve got cold beers right here!
6:08 AM Sep 4th from TwitterGadget

Pleasantly mild out there today, and looks like the rain has cleared out for a while. Maybe I’ll survive my noon run…
6:07 AM Sep 4th from TwitterGadget

The desirability of a neighborhood to me is directly proportional to 5 min walkable coffee shops. Current #: 4. Very high on the scale
6:56 AM Sep 3rd from TwitterGadget

Now all I need is some work here, to afford said NY Times…
1:53 PM Sep 1st from web

Finally found a place around here that sells the NY Times. 10 blocks, but close enough. They will pry my paper Times from my cold dead hands
1:52 PM Sep 1st from web

Forgot what a real August summer is like, living back in San Francisco. Attempted to go running at noon. #excercisefail
9:35 AM Aug 31st from web

Just arranged to sublet cool apt yesterday. Upstairs back of shotgun house, called a “camel back” apartment. Sounds dirty, but it’s not.
9:33 AM Aug 31st from web

Ok, fell off the twitter there for a while, zig-zagging cross country. Finally settled though. It’s good to have a new home!
9:31 AM Aug 31st from web

But it’ll all be worth it when I can settled back in to my temporary home… http://bit.ly/QNDW9
5:38 AM Aug 26th from web

Gonna be a loooonnnnnggggg trip back, http://bit.ly/2JstES
5:29 AM Aug 26th from web

Just got a new project in Vegas, time to hop off the bus and head back West
4:52 AM Aug 26th from web

Tough to stay up on Twitter on the bus…Tempe, Las Cruces, Lubbock. Wireless bband is incredible, tho. Access everywhere but central texas
9:26 AM Aug 25th from web

F’ing Drogba. Watching the Ful-Chel match at a house in Las Cruces, NM. Did look precarious, that 0-0.
3:51 AM Aug 24th from web

Ah, Tempe, how you fulfill expectations. Flat, hot as hell, with your one-story block houses, hammocks hung out front. Been a fun 8 hrs
5:49 AM Aug 23rd from web

Good fun last night hanging out with friends up in SM. Had plans to ride the pier rides but the crowds get muy crazy on Thursday it seems
6:07 AM Aug 22nd from web

There is a greater proportion of brimmed hat-wearers in Venice Bch than I’ve seen anywhere else. I will now succumb and buy a hat.
7:20 AM Aug 21st from web

Customer saves day, traps pigeon in box! But he scuttles heroism with awkward joke to “you ladies” contrasting leg waxing and pigeon fear
9:19 AM Aug 20th

There is a greater proportion of brimmed hat-wearers in Venice Bch than I’ve seen anywhere else. I will now succumb and buy a hat.
about 20 hours ago from web

Customer saves day, traps pigeon in box! But he scuttles heroism with awkward joke to “you ladies” contrasting leg waxing and pigeon fear
2:19 PM Aug 19th from web

A pigeon just created screaming panic by flying into the Coffee Bean I’m sitting in on SM Blvd. You’d think it was a Pterodactyl
2:16 PM Aug 19th from web

And, the sun’s out. This is the SoCal fits with my work-turns-into-meeting-a-friend-turns-into-random-forced-vacation master plan
2:12 PM Aug 19th from web

Just headed up to a pub in SM to watch Hull City get crushed, 5-1. They need them some JozyAltidore17, stat. And some defense.
2:09 PM Aug 19th from web

Extended my accidental stay @15Rose for 2 more ngts. Should lose my ID and cc’s more often. It’s liberating, and this place is fantastic
2:05 PM Aug 19th from web

Upon encountering a drum circle, one is either powerfully drawn to it or forcefully repelled. Sadly, I am the latter.
10:18 AM Aug 19th from web

It’s not supposed to be foggy at Venice Beach. If I wanted to wrap myself in a blanket of fog, I’d be in San Francisco.
10:12 AM Aug 19th from web

Checked out District 9 last night, up in Santa Monica. Started out more in the horror genre than I expected, but turned into a great flick
10:11 AM Aug 19th from web

Two more days in #venicebeach and #santamonica. Anybody have anything that I’ve gotta see/do? Besides continue to sit on the beach, that is
11:29 AM Aug 18th from web

Stumbled on Baby Blues BBQ in Venice this evening: http://bit.ly/er3GS. Their N. Carolina pulled pork is the real thing. Okra even better.
12:41 AM Aug 18th from web

About to catch the sunset over the Pacific. Man, too bad I’m taking off this week. I could get used to Venice.
6:31 PM Aug 17th from web

Whoa, how many credit cards there are in the US? RT @mashable: 3 Men Indicted for Stealing 130 Million Credit Card #s http://bit.ly/4m3fjx
5:16 PM Aug 17th from web

RT @TheOnionFilm Adaptation Of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ Ends Where Most People Stop Reading Book http://bit.ly/2x5phY
1:37 PM Aug 17th from web

Sun is finally burning through the overcast grimness out in Santa Monica. May be suitable for a swim yet, today.
12:57 PM Aug 17th from web

Just saw a man wipe out on a Segway, GW Bush-style, on the path along the beach. Weren’t they supposed to be wipe-out proof?
12:57 PM Aug 17th from web

I really need to get me some real human followers. The spam bots are a bore.
12:56 PM Aug 17th from web

Sunday night crowds at Venice beach offer an intriguing mix of the sunburnt and the burnt out
10:15 PM Aug 16th from web

In LA and without ID or credit cards. But with the laptop! In inauspicious twitter kickoff, perhaps
9:36 PM Aug 16th from web

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Try scheduling a meeting with his new startup Meeting Planner (https://meetingplanner.io), simpler, faster scheduling for work or play and read his series about building it). Follow @reifman on Twitter.