A Canadian “fugitive” charged with crimes against the environment—and featured on a new “Most Wanted” website unveiled by the U.S. government—isn’t running from the law after all. He’s dead.
Dr. William Austin Morgan made headlines today when his photo appeared on the site, which publicizes the names and faces of dozens of elusive suspects wanted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The former chairman of a waste recovery company, Morgan was indicted by Illinois authorities in 2006 for illegally trashing large quantities of toxic materials—and according to the EPA, he’s been on the lam ever since. “Morgan is believed to be living in Canada,” the site says. “Don’t try to apprehend this man yourself!”
If only investigators checked the obituaries. Morgan died of pancreatic cancer on October 10, two months before the much-hyped website went live. “A simple Google search of his name would disclose his obituary and the fact that he’s dead,” says John Hammond, the family’s lawyer. “The scantest attention to due diligence should have crossed him off that list.”
On its own, the oversight is embarrassing enough. But what’s even more puzzling is why the U.S. government considered Morgan a fugitive in the first place. When Illinois prosecutors announced the indictment three years ago, they specifically said that the 76-year-old was living in Hamilton, Ont., and that extradition proceedings were imminent. So how—when Morgan never fled his home, and prosecutors never filed for extradition—did he suddenly become a high-profile outlaw worthy of Internet infamy? “To describe him as a fugitive would have him cowering under a bridge somewhere with fake I.D.,” says Hammond, who could only laugh when Maclean’s told him about the site. “As fugitives go, he couldn’t have been more co-operative. The U.S. government knew exactly where he was.”
Before he lost his fight with cancer, Morgan was facing numerous charges in connection with “a criminal conspiracy” to illegally transport, store and dispose of toxic and hazardous wastes. At the time, he was president and CEO of Hydromet Environmental Recovery Ltd., a now-defunct Ontario-based company that salvaged reusable metals from hazardous waste. Prosecutors allege that between 1995 and 1998, Hydromet’s facility in Newman, Ill., received almost two million kilograms of deadly materials, including cyanide, arsenic, lead and cadmium—but wasn’t equipped to safely process it. So Morgan and four fellow employees allegedly concocted a sinister plan to dump the waste in landfills, hide it in warehouses, and mask the truth in a maze of fraudulent documents. When he announced the grand jury indictment in January 2006, U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton summarized the allegations this way: “These defendants intentionally violated hazardous waste laws, attempted to hide stockpiles of hazardous waste, lied to investigators, and put our environment at risk, all to avoid paying the costs of proper disposal. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to prosecuting anyone who would seek an unfair economic advantage over responsible companies, particularly by ignoring laws designed to protect human health and the environment.”
After the news release, however, nothing happened. Morgan hired another prominent lawyer, Jay Naster of Toronto, to fight the charges, but U.S. prosecutors never got around to asking the Canadian government to hand him over. “He certainly wasn’t trying to evade anybody,” says Naster, who, like Hammond, had not seen the EPA website until today. “This poor man, his reputation is being besmirched. He’s being accused and described as a fugitive down in the United States, but he was never running from anything. He was here at all times and more than prepared to vigorously defend any allegations of so-called wrongdoing.”
Naster insists that his client was wrongfully accused, and had “cogent and legitimate” explanations for every allegation listed in the indictment. He also claims that he repeatedly contacted the U.S. prosecutor on the file, alerting him to Morgan’s whereabouts and providing contact information for the extradition filings that never arrived. “At no point—and I say this without hesitation—did I or Dr. Morgan receive even a shred of paper from either the United States authorities or the Canadian authorities in respect to these allegations,” Naster says. “Unfortunately, that man went to his deathbed with this hanging over his head.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of Illinois did not return a phone call from Maclean’s, so it’s not clear why—more than two years after the indictment—an extradition hearing was not convened. As for the EPA website Morgan is still a wanted man. “When we originally put out this announcement on Dec. 10, we did not know about Morgan’s death,” says Dave Ryan, an EPA spokesman. It was actually an Environment Canada official who tipped them off, Ryan says, and Interpol is now working on obtaining a death certificate. “We have not yet received that,” he says. “Once we get official confirmation we will take him down from the site.”
Not surprisingly, none of Morgan’s legal troubles were mentioned in his death notice. He was fondly eulogized as an accomplished researcher, a rugby fanatic, and a Ph.D in metallurgy who graduated from Cambridge University and immigrated to Canada in 1954. “He will be remembered by those who knew him as a kind, generous and loving man who loved to share stories and tell jokes,” his death notice said. “He believed that no difficulty was insurmountable and he delighted in a great party, spending his time with family, celebrating his grandchildren and recently his great-granddaughter. He will be greatly missed.” His ashes, as requested, were “taken back to the hillsides” in South Wales.
Morgan’s family will be absolutely “shocked and appalled” when they see the website, says Hammond. “There is no question in my mind that they would be outraged.”