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COVER STORY 12 09 03
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Countless Fugitives

New Orleans' per-capita homicide rate for 2003 is expected to top all major cities for the second consecutive year -- yet nobody knows how many fugitive felons are at large in southeast Louisiana.

By Allen Johnson Jr

More than once earlier this year, escaped rapist Rhine Antonio Reynolds picked up the phone and called the cops.

"He called us several times to say he was going to turn himself in," says Lt. David Benelli, commander of the New Orleans Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit. "But we knew he was jerking our chain. We could tell by his attitude on the phone."

Reynolds, then 32, had been on the run since August 2002. That's when the New Orleans native escaped from an Alabama state prison following his imprisonment for a "strong-arm" rape in 2001. After his escape, Reynolds became wanted by the NOPD for the Feb. 26, 2003 rape and beating of a 21-year-old woman.

Reynolds met the victim at a bus stop on Washington and South Carrollton avenues, police say. It was raining and he offered her a ride. She got in. He then took her out to a lonely stretch of Chef Menteur Highway where he allegedly raped and beat her.

At the time, Reynolds also was wanted on charges ranging from fraud to probation violation in Georgia, East Baton Rouge Parish, and Gretna. His previous criminal history included 20 arrests, including 13 for burglary and a strong-arm rape in Calcasieu Parish in 2001. However, none of those 20 charges resulted in convictions, records show.

Last December, NOPD gave his mug shot to the private Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) for inclusion in its "Wanted by the Law" reward feature, which is published as a community service by The Times-Picayune. Reynolds' picture generated several tips, but he continued to elude arrest -- and to phone police.

On April 23, Reynolds' picture appeared in the T-P again. This time, cops received tips the fugitive might be in Poplarville, Miss., approximately 35 miles from New Orleans. To expand the hunt past state lines, NOPD sent the case to the local office of the United States Marshals Service's Crescent Star fugitive task force.

Within 36 hours of the referral, the marshals' task force learned Reynolds had been spotted in Poplarville. Assisted by town police, the task force -- including two federally deputized NOPD officers -- raided a house and found Reynolds hiding in a bedroom closet under a pile of clothes. They took him to jail. "He was surprised to see us in Poplarville," says U.S. Deputy Marshal Steven M. Hartman, lead agent for the task force and a spokesperson for the New Orleans Marshals Service.

The federal agency, renowned for its state-of-the-art computers and electronic surveillance, spent $5,000 on the Reynolds case. "And it cost the New Orleans Police Department nothing," Hartman says.

Hartman's boss, U.S. Marshal Theophile "Theo" Duroncelet, spread the credit for Reynolds' arrest from New Orleans to Poplarville. "Once again, our relationship with the NOPD and local law enforcement has allowed us to remove a dangerous criminal from the streets of our community."

But how many more fugitive felons remain at-large in southeast Louisiana? The number is as elusive as any fugitive.

With New Orleans' per capita homicide rate for 2003 expected to top all major cities with a population of more than 250,000 for the second consecutive year -- amid NOPD's manpower crisis -- the answer to the fugitive/warrant question may be worth getting, criminal- justice system experts say. "What part of the crime rate is attributable to the failure to pick up people for whom there are warrants outstanding? Given the manpower shortage, are you better off patrolling the streets or developing a more effective warrant squad?" asks criminologist Peter Scharf, director of the University of New Orleans Center for Society, Law & Justice. "You have to get the exact numbers of warrants outstanding from federal and, especially, local authorities."

That may be easier said than done.

Established in 1789, the U.S. Marshals Service is the nation's oldest law enforcement agency and the government's lead agency for federal fugitive investigations.

The local Marshals Service, which covers the 13-parish jurisdiction of the federal Eastern District of Louisiana, has 350 outstanding federal warrants for fugitives on any given week. However, the Marshals could not provide us with even an estimate of the felons at-large on all warrants -- including state and local charges -- in southeast Louisiana. Nor could the UNO Center for Society, Law & Justice or the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, two local think tanks on criminal justice issues.

"You would have to get that information from each individual law enforcement agency" in the 13-parish area, Hartman says. (Scharf also notes that private bail-bond companies hire bounty hunters to bring in suspects who skip court while out on bond.) NOPD spokesman Sgt. Paul Accardo says there are "probably thousands" of outstanding warrants for fugitives for both violent and non-violent offenses issued by NOPD detectives. "There is no one clearinghouse, no real database for simple warrants," Accardo says. "There are probably thousands wanted."

Outstanding or "open" warrants surfaced as a key crime-fighting issue in 1996, when then-Police Superintendent Richard Pennington announced his plan to reorganize the NOPD. "Warrants for wanted perpetrators living in the (eight patrol) districts number about 49,000; investigators are not held accountable to find these wanted perpetrators," according to the 1996 Pennington Plan.

To attack the problem, Pennington said Assistant Superintendent Ronal Serpas would "coordinate with all other law enforcement entities in Orleans Parish ... to make certain the 49,000 outstanding warrants are systematically and quickly cleared by arrest and incarceration."

A statistical outcome of that initiative could not be made available by presstime. Pennington's plan did not provide a breakdown of the 49,000 warrants, but if state Probation and Parole records are any indication, the majority of fugitives are wanted for non-violent offenses ranging from property crimes to failure to appear in court.

In 1997, Pennington formed the Violent Offender Warrant Squad (VOWS) to help police districts track down and arrest violent fugitives. Led by Sgt. Mike Sposito, a 29-year veteran of the NOPD, one dozen officers arrested more than 5,600 fugitives during a three-year period through 2000. By 2001, Pennington was so enthusiastic about the success of VOWS that he recommended quadrupling the number of cops assigned to the squad from 12 to 50 as "force strength allowed," says Heidi Unter, director of research for the UNO Center for Society, Law and Justice, quoting the 2001 Pennington Plan.

On Oct. 29, when Police Superintendent Eddie Compass -- Pennington's successor -- awarded the VOWS squad with a departmental unit citation for "outstanding productivity" last year, the squad was down to 10 cops who were honored for more than 1,500 fugitive arrests.

"Those are amazing numbers," says Unter.

The police arrest figures are encouraging but do not indicate how many fugitive arrests result in convictions, a general longstanding complaint of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Indeed, VOWS cops say they are often re-arresting some of the same people on outstanding warrants. In addition, VOWS has not been immune to the department manpower shortage. By Nov. 21, the VOWS squad was down to 8 officers after losing two officers to promotion and re-assignment, Sposito says.

"Considering the demand for service, it's really frightening the level the (VOWS) officers are operating at," says Unter, who also directed the New Orleans Police Foundation's anticipated study on NOPD recruitment and retention challenges.

Because of the personnel shortage, VOWS officers must transport their own prisoners to jail when the cops could be executing more warrants, police say. Officers on the squad must process their own warrants and other time-consuming paperwork. The VOWS team no longer has a secretary to help type reports or to answer any citizen -- or fugitive -- who may telephone their office. And the squad's office is closed on weekends.

Estimates on outstanding felony warrants requested of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee's office and the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti's office were unavailable by presstime. But one law enforcement source says the number of open fugitive warrants wanted by Lee's office is believed to number in "the thousands."

Statewide, there are more than 59,000 adults who are on state parole or probation, according to the Louisiana Division of Probation & Parole. The state agency reported 6,641 outstanding warrants statewide for adult violators of state parole and probation sentences, as of Sept. 2, 2003. Of that number, 1,500 warrants were for adult violators in the metro area of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.

Drug crimes usually account for more than 40 percent of outstanding metro area warrants issued by the agency, followed by property crimes at more than 30 percent, says David Lindsey, a local district administrator for the state agency. Warrants for violent offenses by parolees hover in the mid-teens, followed by fugitive violent probationers in the single-digits.

"Sex offenders and the mentally ill are a high priority," says Lindsey. And keep in mind, he says, the agency's figures do not include warrants for juvenile parolees and probationers.

NOPD's warrant squad cops say they have good working relationships with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's warrant squad, Sheriff Foti's capias squad, and the U.S. Marshals Service. Criminologist Michael Geerken, chief administrative officer of Foti's office, explored the importance of sharing accurate, comprehensive and timely warrants in a larger study last year for the UNO Center for Society, Law & Justice. "An officer may actually come in contact with a wanted individual but not be aware of the wanted individual's status," Geerken wrote in his 33-page study, "Consequences of Inadequately Integrated Justice Information Systems." As a result, he wrote, there is a risk that the fugitive will commit additional crimes.

UNO's Scharf says widespread publicity of serial-killer cases this year has shown that a number of serial suspects -- wanted on lesser charges -- are stopped by police only to be released, because of the lack of an integrated system of law enforcement computers.

NOPD's warrant squad regularly checks with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's warrant division to see if the suspects they apprehend are wanted in Jefferson Parish, Sposito says. "If there are, we book them on the (Jefferson) warrants, too," he says. "If they get out on bond (in Orleans), they will then be sent to Jefferson Parish for processing there."

Sposito says his squad has a "great relationship" with the marshals' task force. "They have numerous resources which we have used in some very high-profile cases," he says. "We utilize the Marshals Service whenever a fugitive is known to go out of state."

The U.S. Marshals Service spearheads 73 "cooperative task forces" around the nation, composed of state and local law enforcement agents. Their mission: catch dangerous fugitives.

Begun locally in 1999, the marshals' Crescent Star fugitive task force has arrested hundreds of dangerous fugitives in Southeast Louisiana, spokesperson Hartman says. Sources say the task force has apprehended all of those suspects without injury to a single officer and without generating a single complaint of police brutality or a lawsuit. (Local civil-rights attorneys suggest any mishandled fugitives might not know whom to sue. The marshals insist they adhere to the nation's civil-rights laws.) But despite apprehensions of high-profile fugitives, the presence of multiple law enforcement agencies in the region, and countless fugitive warrants, the federal task force is still short-handed. Faced with tightening budgets and a nationwide police shortage, many state and local agencies are reluctant to give up a full-time officer for cross-jurisdictional fugitive investigations. And law-enforcement priorities can shift with the turnover of elected sheriffs.

In fact, the marshals' task force fell to just three officers during one month last year before spiking up to the current eight.

Recruitment for the task force is a key goal in 2004 for Duroncelet, a native New Orleanian and career veteran clerk of state and local courthouses who had no law enforcement experience until President George W. Bush appointed him to lead the local federal agency.

Since taking office in March 2002, Duroncelet, who last served as an administrative clerk for the Louisiana Supreme Court, has been zealously promoting the benefits of the task force to public officials, law enforcement and the news media. And he has a key supporter at the federal courthouse.

"Theo is an outstanding U.S. Marshal because he has a sense of mission," says local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, a career federal prosecutor. "The man is serious about the job. He's got some tremendous trained professionals that look up to him and respect him. He is well studied. He knows his cases. He has a sense of what is needed by the U.S. attorneys and the SACS (special agents in charge) of the other federal agencies. He is probably one of the driving forces who actually keep us together. ... He has the full faith and credit of my office and I have some very tough, hardened career prosecutors."

Says Duroncelet: "My goal is to have a person from each of the 13 parishes in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and we're just about there."

Well, yes -- and no. There were eight specially deputized marshals on the task force on Nov. 25. Yet only four of the 13 parish sheriffs' offices in the federal Eastern District were represented on the fugitive task force: Orleans, St. Charles, St. Bernard and Tangipahoa. And Tangipahoa's deputy serves part-time. Of the remaining four deputized marshals, two were from NOPD and one each was from a local office of Louisiana Probation and Parole, and the state Attorney General's office.

Duroncelet says he is currently negotiating with area top cops for one full-time officer each from the Slidell Police Department (St. Tammany) and the sheriffs of Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes.

"We've enjoyed a highly successful year in 2003 and have larger plans in 2004 for our task force," says deputy marshal Hartman. "We'll be adding other agencies and targeting more offenders than ever."

The task force has been buoyed in 2003 by a string of major cases brought by NOPD, whose fugitive warrants constitute the bulk of the task force workload. Here are two examples:

On the morning of June 13, the task force, including a federally deputized NOPD officer, set up a surveillance of a Slidell residence. They were waiting for 35-year-old suspected killer Tarik Smith, aka Malik Smith, of New Orleans, who also was wanted for a federal parole violation in Washington, D.C.

Less than six hours after the task force arrived, Smith emerged from his girlfriend's house. He was immediately arrested without incident. A "pat down" of the fugitive turned up two 9mm pistols in his waistband and small quantity of heroin, police say. A search of the house revealed an assault rifle under his girlfriend's bed; ATF seized the weapon, police say.

Smith was booked with June 4 shooting death of Demetra Norse in an eastern New Orleans barroom. Smith is now under investigation for the murders of an informant for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms and an inner-city playground coach, sources say.

In a separate case in May, the marshals' task force facilitated the capture of 23-year-old Keana M. Barnes, a New Orleans woman who had fled to Mexico after allegedly killing two men (in separate incidents) as they slept.

One of Barnes' alleged victims, Perry Jennings, brought Barnes home to join his family for Christmas dinner in 2001. Barnes is awaiting trial for the murders of Jennings, an employee of the Belle Chasse Naval Air station, who was shot to death March 25, and James Shepherd, who was found stabbed to death in his Irish Bayou trailer in April, 2002.

Federalized marshals from NOPD and the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office teamed with the U.S. Air Force Special Investigators Unit and determined that Barnes had fled the state with Jennings' car, a gun and a debit card. She drove to Houston and stopped at a Wal-Mart. Inside, a store video camera captured her using Shepherd's debit card to buy black and red hair dye and extensions, Duroncelet says. She then drove to Mexico via Brownsville, Texas. Mexican authorities detained her; she was extradited back to New Orleans by way of Los Angeles and Oklahoma.

"Barnes is a classic case of how the marshals can dog you," says NOPD Lt. Bruce Adams.

"Generally, [fugitives] leave town" says Deputy Marshal Doug Farrell, who has spent the last three of his eight-year career with the Marshals Service specializing in fugitive operations. "Some are smarter than others. Some will change their names and get false ID." Many fugitives are already fingerprinted from previous run-ins with the law, which makes life of the run even harder.

The marshals use a gamut of computers and sophisticated equipment when a search is underway. "But interviewing skills are extremely important," Farrell says. "You can have all this high-tech stuff, but the key is talking to people."

Adams agrees. "The art of tracking fugitives is in your contacts," says Adams, an NOPD graduate of the FBI National Academy who pursued fugitives on federal charges of Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution [UFAP].

For example, he says, it's good to have contacts in the corrections systems, to determine who visited the fugitive when he was imprisoned. "People who visited them almost always are closest to them," says Adams, who says his task force relied on paid informants and citizen tips generated by the "Wanted by the Law" feature.

Sometimes, criminals will flee the state as soon as their mug shot hits the media, Adams says. "And sometimes, they have nowhere else to go. 'This is it. Catch me if you can.'" Many are drug addicts who quickly use money from a robbery for their habit, he says.

"It takes a lot of money to run -- especially from the FBI or U.S. Marshals Service," Adams says. "If you don't have enough money to change your identity and keep moving, you get caught."


Other Stories This Week in Features:

Cover Story
The Warrant Squad

Feature
Fun and Games
CD Reviews
Dumas Rediscovered
Turkey Day Race a Success

Blake Pontchartrain™
New Orleans Know-It-All

Shoptalk
Choice Dining Experience


Other Stories by Allen Johnson Jr:

News Feature 11 25 03

Scuttlebutt 11 18 03

Scuttlebutt 11 11 03

Allen Johnson Jr Archives




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