After six years on the loose, James Scott Jr. was arrested during a random traffic stop – the way many of those wanted on felony warrants are picked up, if they are apprehended at all.
“There’s just too many,” said Pat Sedoti, U.S. Marshal in charge of three Southern Ohio Fugitive Apprehension Strike Teams. “You have to pick the ones you want to go after.”
No one knows exactly how many wanted felons are on the loose, and no one is actively pursuing many of them.
Last week, authorities said more than 1 million warrants were listed in the National Crime Information Center database. There are 35,181 in Ohio’s counterpart, the Law Enforcement Automated Data System. The most serious of Ohio’s warrants are to be included in the federal database but it’s unclear exactly how many are in both systems.
During the past two months, the newspaper gathered data and talked with experts and authorities at the local, state and national level about the issues and problems that keep them from bringing more fugitives to justice.
The numbers outstanding in area sheriff’s offices ranged from 10,309 in Montgomery County to 51 in Champaign County. This doesn’t reflect those maintained by local police departments stemming from cases within their jurisdiction, authorities said.
High-profile cases, such as murders, lead to intensive law enforcement searches. So can a good tip.
But there are hundreds of thousands of people wanted on warrants who couldn’t be found after charges were filed, who skipped bond while awaiting trial or who have violated the conditions of probation or parole. Many are accused or convicted of serious crimes like sexual assault, drug trafficking or felonious assault — even murder.
Scott, 46, of Dayton, was wanted for trafficking in crack cocaine for six years. He was featured on the America’s Most Wanted TV show and identified as a SOFAST target. Still he remained at large until March 24, when he was pulled over by a Dayton police officer. He struggled with the officer, then gave in after the officer used a Taser on him.
“That hurts. I’m done,” Scott reportedly said.
While considered the best approach being used today, even SOFAST fails to bring in every case.
Five years ago, two investigators with the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office joined SOFAST to catch Scott and Enrique Torres, a Mexican man on the loose for six years after being named in warrants accusing him of stabbing Kevin Barnhill, 27, of Maineville, to death in Mason.
Scott walked out of the courthouse in Lebanon as the jury in his drug trafficking trial went to lunch before beginning deliberations. He hid for six months in the basement of a Middletown church before disappearing again until the Dayton traffic stop.
Torres vanished after being released from jail while the investigation continued.
Barnhill’s parents continue to urge authorities to pursue Torres, who was in the country illegally according to the Warren County prosecutor’s office, is believed to have returned to Mexico. The Barnhills have established a charity in their son’s name, while urging lawmakers to consider immigration reforms.
“We feel our government has let us down. We’re taxpaying citizens. We deserve to be protected,” Bill Barnhill said.
Law enforcement officials looking for felons on the loose say they are hindered by inconsistencies in how felony warrants are tracked, budgetary limitations, competing priorities and sometimes a lack of jail space. Suspects may be continuing to engage in illegal behavior and can pose dangers to the officers who happen upon them.
Last month, Sedoti said his SOFAST task forces were working 381 cases.
Felony warrants are issued when a person is charged with a crime, when a person who is awaiting trial doesn’t show for a hearing, or when a convicted felon violates terms of probation or parole.
In Ohio, operators of the LEADS system were unable to say how many wanted individuals were reflected by about 35,181 warrants currently listed in their system, according to Lt. Anne Ralston of the Ohio Highway Patrol.
Other than SOFAST, some Ohio sheriff’s offices and police departments assign officers to special details to bring in wanted felons and pursue suspects in key cases.
“Otherwise you just hope they get pulled over, really,” Sedoti said.
HIDDEN WHILE IN PRISON
Martez E. Smith, 30, was wanted for nearly eight years on a warrant issued in Allen County. Charged with drug trafficking, he skipped bond while awaiting trial.
Tom Short, who owns a bail bonds company on Dayton’s West Second Street, traced Smith to Michigan, where he was captured. Smith has been serving a 4-year sentence in an Ohio prison since June 2011.
During his time on the lam, Smith served a short prison sentence in Kentucky, but his warrant was only issued statewide, so Kentucky authorities didn’t know about it. Had they known, a detainer could have been placed on Smith — meaning that he would have been released to the custody of Ohio officials. Instead, Short said, Smith went to Michigan, where he was on probation for another offense when Short found him.
“They would have had him seven years ago,” Short said. “We went up and got him. You shouldn’t have to do that.”
Because he is a bail bondsman, Short does not have to have an extradition hearing. But law enforcement officials do, so if someone is picked up in another part of the country for a warrant for a low-level felony or a misdemeanor, officials who issued the warrant might not find it cost effective to extradite the defendant or to transport him back.
Like Smith and Scott, most on the loose are wanted for non-violent crimes. But authorities and experts say officers on patrol sometimes unknowingly confront alleged criminals afraid to be deprived of their freedom.
“There are officer safety risks,” David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. “There are a certain number of extremely dangerous people out there,” he said. “It is a chronic, serious problem.”
Authorities chalk the issue up to a lack of funding and more pressing priorities.
Greene County Prosecutor Stephen K. Haller said in the 1990s that money was less of a factor when balancing justice and budget in chasing felony warrants.
“It used to be we’d just say, ‘Yes, go get them.’ But we have to analyze every one of these now because of the budget,” said Haller, who estimated there were about 160 outstanding felony warrants in Greene County. “I can remember the day that it didn’t make a damn bit of difference, we were going to go get them no matter where it was. But things have changed.”
LOTS OF NUMBERS, IN LOTS OF PLACES
Officials also point to the time consumed with the LEADS system and bringing in wanted felons. But most daunting is the unmanageable numbers of warrants issued by local, state and federal courts. “I have cabinet drawers full of warrants.” said Debbie Garman, warrants clerk in Clark County.
It’s not just law enforcement who is concerned. Ohio Public Defender Tim Young noted that Ohio has more police departments than school districts — and individual departments have different computer systems, different standards and criteria.
“Most of their own systems don’t talk to each other,” Young said. “It causes huge issues for everyone who works in the system.”
Young said that the problems are a byproduct of the Ohio Constitution, which makes home rule the default position for cities.
Improvements have been made locally. Just over a decade ago, a prisoner could be released from the Montgomery County Jail in downtown Dayton while wanted on a warrant from Dayton Municipal Court, largely because Dayton and Montgomery County systems were not connected, Young said. That’s no longer the case, but there are still such issues across the state, he said.
The most serious felony warrants are entered in the federal NCIC database. While contributing to the federal, states, counties and municipalities maintain their own arrest warrants, some in paper form in banks of drawers, others through a system involving computer databases and paper copies.
In Ohio, the Ohio State Highway Patrol manages the LEADS database, the state’s computerized central repository for outstanding felony warrants entered into the system by Ohio law enforcement agencies. “All the other agencies are managing their warrants at their individual agencies,” Ralston said. “It’s up to the agency to enter their warrants.”
Once the warrants are entered in LEADs, Ralston said it’s up to the local agency entering to ensure the warrants remain valid.
By entering into the system, the warrants become available to all agencies with access to LEADs, and NCIC, for those involving the highest felonies.
AN INCOMPLETE LOCAL PICTURE
In Ohio, there is no state agency tracking county felony arrest warrant data. A spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office said it would require a legislative act to require statewide reporting. None of the counties surveyed by the newspaper had them immediately available.
Champaign County was unable to provide a yearly breakdown tracking its arrest warrant service record in recent years.
“Nobody’s ever asked for this kind of information,” said Lt. Rick Copeland, the No. 2 officer with the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.
During the past five years, 574 of 780 felony warrants have been served in Champaign County, Copeland said. Most arrests came from traffic stops or the help of SOFAST.
“The reality is there’s way more warrants than manpower and hours,” Copeland said. “There’s no way we could pursue every warrant.”
In Butler County, five full-time officers serve warrants issued from courts throughout the county. Sheriff’s office Sgt. Rick Bucheit noted that it isn’t always easy to find people who don’t want to be found.
“The successful service of a warrant is based on the deputy’s ability to mine credible information from individuals with knowledge of the suspect’s patterns and whereabouts,” Bucheit said in an email.
In Clark County, the identities of those wanted on felony warrants are posted on the sheriff’s web site. No one is assigned to serve felony warrants, although deputies are rotated through the federal fugitive task force when local cases become a priority.
Garman was unable to separate felony and misdemeanor warrants in the Clark County system to say how many felony warrants were currently unserved.
“It’s a lot and it’s a never-ending process,” said Garman, also supervisor of dispatch and LEADS records check technician for the sheriff’s office. “As soon as we get the warrant served, they bond out, they fail to appear for court and we get the warrants again. I wish there was a better way.”
Recently in Clark County, third-shift dispatchers went through every outstanding warrant, including misdemeanor cases, and sent letters to the last listed address. About 30 percent turned themselves in, officials said.
“The best thing that has ever happened in Clark County is when the marshals came in,” Garman added, also recalling past statewide warrant round-ups. “That just kind of faded away.”
OUT OF STATE, OUT OF MIND
Law enforcement agencies assign a pick-up radius to each case, limiting how far they will go to pick up someone wanted in their county. Some warrants are limited to adjoining counties, others statewide. The worst of the worst are issued nationwide, though some child support warrants are given that treatment, since there is grant money available to cover extradition costs.
Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly recalled one case where the suspect was 100 feet outside the pick-up radius set with a warrant issued in Chillicothe, in Ross County. The suspect was released, as local authorities declined to travel to Clark County for the pick-up, Kelly said.
“It happens every day,” Kelly said. “They’ll say, ‘Next time you’re in Cincinnati, turn yourself in.’”
The problem is even worse for out-of-state felony warrants.
“Leave ‘em in Ohio,” Kelly said. “That’s frustrating for law enforcement. We used to put people in jail for open containers.”
On the other hand, Kelly said the online listings had cleared some cases. “You’d be surprised. I get e-mails. We get phone calls,” he said.
HIT AND MISS
There are successes finding fugitives. For nearly 12 years, Mark Adkins searched for Chi Q. Du, who was accused of trying to kill his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend on the Wright State University campus in 1997.
Du, who slashed his ex-girlfriend’s throat during the ambush attack, had spent years hiding in Canada under a fake name. He was found in Toronto after the case was broadcast on the TV show America’s Most Wanted in 2008.
Returned to Ohio, Du pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated murder of his ex-girlfriend and was convicted by a jury of the same crime against the boyfriend. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Adkins, a deputy with the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office assigned to SOFAST, said he’s apprehended three of the four cases he helped get shown on the America’s Most Wanted and taken hundreds of others into custody. But success varies by case, he said.
“You never know,” said Adkins on finding wanted felons. “Some days you get one, some days they’re falling out of the trees.
“I’ve picked up murderers, rapists, child molesters, burglars, drug dealers, all types of people. I’ve driven everywhere in this country.”
In Miami County, Chief Deputy Dave Duchak said there are twice as many active felony warrants (245) than jail spaces (111) available and the jail downtown always has more than 100 inmates: “We are not actively going out on warrant roundups for non-violent, low-level crimes.”
A 240-bed facility north of Troy was closed in 2009 because of budgetary reasons. Duchak said Sheriff Charles Cox is working with county commissioners to open 120 of those beds, at a cost estimated at more than $1.6 million.
Dayton and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office have full-time officers assigned to SOFAST. In exchange, the task force focuses on local cases, along with suspects sought on felony charges filed in federal courts. The FBI serves its own arrest warrants.
The SOFAST task forces, part of a national network established by Congress in 2000, provide training and a vehicle to the local officers on assignment. The task forces were created — in recognition of the need for units focused on felons on the loose — after ad hoc units formed in large American cities in the late 1980s staged limited operations to bring fugitives to justice, Sedoti said.
But the warrants the task forces focus on represent a small fraction of those issued by municipalities and counties in the Dayton region, according to data obtained by the newspaper.
“We’ve had this conversation our whole careers,” said Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims. “We’ve always known there’s a stockpile of warrants on wanted people.
Most officers want to reduce the chronic backlog, but staff and funding limits cause sheriff’s offices to concentrate on patrol, jail and other operations dealing with spontaneous issues inundating the criminal justice system.
Fines and costs collected go to the court system and county general funds, not the sheriff’s office budget. “That revenue stream doesn’t offset the expense of going to get these people,” Sims said.
The problem remains, across the Dayton area, and across the nation, despite several attempts to address it.
In the 1990s, the Massachusetts legislature studied the problem. California, New York City and Boston have mounted initiatives to bring in more of the worst criminals on their streets. Several studies commissioned by the National Institutes of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, have reviewed aspects of the problem.
Federal officials were unaware of research or initiatives aimed at developing methods or overcoming problems preventing authorities from catching more of those sought on outstanding felony warrants.
“They all say the same thing. It’s chaos. They’re overwhelmed,” Kennedy said. “It undercuts the power and the standing of the criminal justice system.”
Staff writer Doug Page contributed to this report.
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