In rural S.C., Australian fugitive hid in plain sight

For 16 years, an Australian woman lived and worked in Bamberg without her husband or co-workers knowing she was a fugitive from justice in her home country.

Janette Irene Harris, 60, even became a U.S. citizen.

However, federal authorities discovered her identity after receiving an anonymous tip in 2008. After more than a year of tracking Harris, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents captured her in Bamberg.

And this week, a federal judge stripped Harris of her U.S. citizenship and ordered her to be deported to Australia, where she is wanted on fraud charges.

It's the first case in South Carolina in which a person has been convicted of fraudulently obtaining U.S. citizenship, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Charlotte.

Harris became a U.S. citizen on March 23, 2004, in Atlanta.

Typically, people who are illegally in the United States will use a fake identity or a fake marriage to obtain a green card, said Kevin McDonald, acting U.S. attorney for South Carolina. It's rare for someone to go so far as to obtain citizenship, he said.

Harris, whose real name is Ann Marcia Casey, is being held at the Mecklenberg County Jail in Charlotte. The jail has an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to hold people who are illegally in the United States.

Harris is wanted in Australia on 182 counts of social security fraud, according to U.S. federal court documents. She allegedly used five aliases to receive 41,000 Australian dollars, which is almost $37,000 in U.S. dollars.

Harris was scheduled to appear in 1993 in magistrate court in her hometown of Adelaide, South Australia, when she disappeared, according to U.S. court documents.

Harris used a stolen British passport to travel to the United States. Federal authorities said she arrived in Los Angeles on Feb. 4, 1993.

The passport belonged to a woman named Janette Irene Webster and was reported stolen in June of that year. Upon landing in Los Angeles, Harris assumed that identity to start her new life, court documents indicate.

The Advertiser, a newspaper in Adelaide, South Australia, reported Wednesday that Webster and Harris were best friends.

Webster told the newspaper that her friend arrived in the United States with $800. Harris lived on the streets for three years, sleeping in cars or abandoned houses. Harris picked Bamberg because she thought it would be easier to fit in, Webster told the Australian newspaper.

However, U.S. district court documents said Harris arrived in Bamberg in 1993. Neither McDonald nor Gonzalez knew why she chose the small S.C. town to establish her new life.

The Australian newspaper has written about Harris several times since August, frequently calling her "the fugitive granny."

The paper called Bamberg, with its 3,432 residents, "a tiny hunting town."

While in Bamberg, Harris worked as a home health aide.

She married Michael E. Harris, a Bamberg resident, in October 1993, according to U.S. court documents.

The couple has separated, Gonzalez said.

Attempts to reach Michael Harris, who still lives in Bamberg, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Michael Harris did not know about his wife's past and the warrants for her arrest, according to The Advertiser.

A woman who answered the phone at Janette Harris's Bamberg home on Wednesday identified herself as a daughter of the fugitive but did not want to answer questions.

In 2003, Harris filed for bankruptcy in federal court. She owed $16,766 in credit card debt and $543 in medical bills, according to court documents. She claimed assets of $2,350, including a 1995 Honda Civic and $100 worth of jewelry.

U.S. authorities began pursuing Harris in September 2008 after the Australian Federal Police received an anonymous tip and contacted a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement attache in Singapore.

Investigators traced Harris through her applications for permanent residency and for U.S. citizenship, her marriage certificate and her S.C. driver's license.

Immigration officers arrested her in March while making a routine traffic stop in Bamberg County, the Australian newspaper reported. The paper also reported that Harris left behind three children in Australia but was eventually joined by two daughters in South Carolina.

Harris, now a great-grandmother, according to The Advertiser, pleaded guilty in August to using a false identity to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr. placed her on probation for one year and ordered the deportation.

Gonzalez would not say when Harris will be sent back to Australia and turned over to authorities there.