Family hides from fugitive

An Oak Harbor family is in hiding after a Navy electrician escaped from a brig at Navy Base Kitsap Bangor Sunday.

James Tait Praefke, 37, disappeared while he was helping a guard retrieve lunch for fellow inmates. Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels, public affairs officer for Navy Region Northwest, said the guard simply lost sight of him.

Praefke, a former petty officer 1st Class with VAQ-133 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, was in the military jail for smuggling a grenade home from Afghanistan. In a “wanted” notification, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service states that he should be considered dangerous, noting that he has a history of weapon use, bomb making, as well as pro-militia and anti-government sentiment.

Praefke’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Keran Praefke, was home in Navy housing when she got a call from a Navy official Sunday night. The Navy moved the family to an undisclosed location for their safety.

Keran said in a phone interview Monday that she was scared, but she was trying to “keep it together” for the sake of her four children.

“I know he’s dangerous,” she said. “I had a fear this would happen.”

While Praefke was convicted for stealing explosives, Keran pointed out that there’s a lot more to the story. She goes so far as to call him a terrorist, though an NCIS spokesman disagreed. George Roberts said Praefke had some interest in militias, but he’s done “nothing you would use the ‘T’ word to describe.”

“We can’t specifically say how dangerous he may or may not be,” Daniels said.

Kim Martin, public affairs officer at NAS Whidbey, said Praefke was court-martialed this fall and pleaded guilty to unlawfully taking an explosive device onto a government aircraft, unlawful storage of explosives and larceny of government property.

He was acquitted of charges of indecent acts with a child and two counts of assault of a child.

For Praefke’s wife and stepchildren, the ordeal began last August. After Praefke was sent to Afghanistan, NCIS began an investigation into whether he had sexually assaulted a young girl.

Keran said investigators searched her husband’s storage facility and discovered C-4 plastic explosives, a large amount of ammunition and gas masks marked with her children’s names. She said he had elaborate writings and sketches detailing some sort of plans.

Praefke returned to the Navy base last February. While he was going through Customs at a hangar on base, a bomb-sniffing dog alerted on his bag. The hangar was immediately evacuated. Investigators searched his bag and found a live grenade.

He also has a history of domestic violence, according to NCIS.

Both James and Keran Praefke were interviewed by News-Times reporters in the last year and a half, but for very different reasons.

Before he went to Afghanistan last year, Praefke described how he prepared for the deployment. He said he returned from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where he received extra weapons training. He’s proficient with crew-handled weapons including .50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers. Praefke also trained for emergencies, including chemical attack.

“We prepare for the worst case scenario,” Praefke said.

Earlier this month, Keran Praefke contacted the newspaper because she was being kicked out of Navy housing, by the private management company, without any notice. It turned out that the company, American Eagle, allowed her family to stay for another month.

At the time, Praefke said she was looking forward to getting back to a normal life after a year of unpleasant investigations and ugly court hearings. She thought she probably would have to move to her mother’s house because she couldn’t find affordable housing in Oak Harbor.

Now she doesn’t know when life will ever be back to normal.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s thinking or what he’s going to do.”

Keran believes her husband planned the escape and may have had help from people on the outside.

Daniels, however, said investigators don’t know if Praefke planned to become a fugitive and they have no reason to believe that he had helped, though they’re not ruling out the possibility. He did not steal a Navy vehicle since they are all accounted for on the base. As of Tuesday, investigators had few leads.

Daniels said officials at the brig are reviewing their security procedures.

Praefke was wearing desert camouflage when he escaped. He is described as six-foot, three-inches, 220 pounds with green eyes and red hair. He has an alias of James Krueger.

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