From The St. Louis Post Dispatch
ST. LOUIS MO. March 3 2008 One breezy spring day in 2002, Eloy Williams thought the law had finally caught up to him. Wanted for a rape in Florida, Williams was stopped while prowling around an apartment complex in Georgia. He tried to lie his way out of capture but eventually gave his real name, which the officer checked in a national fugitive database. Williams’ name wasn’t listed. He spent a night in jail – for lying about his name. Then he was freed.
Over the next 14 months, Williams raped four women and a 14-year-old girl – victims of breakdowns in America’s patchwork system of fugitive hunting.
A Post-Dispatch investigation has found that in state after state, year after year, fugitives have been let go by police, only to victimize more people.Between crimes, fugitives have used their real identities to get new drivers licenses in new states. Some have registered with police as sex offenders and still avoided arrest..
The Post-Dispatch reviewed thousands of pages of government records, analyzed dozens of computer databases and interviewed hundreds of people, including police officers, prosecutors, ex-fugitives and crime victims. The newspaper found:- More than a third of all felony warrants are not entered into a national database routinely checked by police across the nation.- Few fugitives are hunted, and most states don’t even screen for criminal warrants before handing out licenses.- When fugitives are found in other states, authorities routinely refuse to pick them up states. Some have registered with police as sex offenders and still avoided arrest.
In St. Louis and a handful of other metro areas, authorities don’t even issue warrants for thousands of fugitives.The lapses mean hundreds of thousands of felony fugitives can run – and they don’t need to hide.”What a message, huh?” said Lt. Jeff Silva of New Bedford, Mass. “Commit a crime and just leave the state, and good luck. Unless it’s salacious enough to get on (America’s Most Wanted), you’re good.”Police still catch most fugitives. They usually stay close to home. Their names remain in local police databases. And they act in ways that draw attention, from running a red light to being caught committing a new crime.
But law enforcement officials from across the nation say an increasing number of fugitives are fleeing. And agencies, citing stretched budgets and staffs, routinely fail to take basic steps to increase the odds that those fugitives will be caught.It’s impossible to determine the extent of the problem because laws and policies keep secret much of the information on those sought on arrest warrants.Career law enforcement officials said the problems had existed for years with little attention and little consensus on solutions.Nearly all the victims interviewed by the Post-Dispatch said they had not known that the person who harmed them or their families was a fugitive who had been detained and released.”They’re basically getting back out on the streets without anything on their record,” said Latoya Turner, one of Williams’ victims. “That’s just giving them permission to keep raping and robbing.”
COMPUTERS ALLOWED NATIONWIDE CHECKS The FBI introduced the technology to help catch fleeing fugitives more than 40 years ago.Called the National Crime Information Center, the FBI computer system is a data bank that police agencies across the nation use to track fugitives: crime suspects whom police can’t find, and defendants who skip court, or violate probation or parole.Any police agency can enter fugitives’ names, birth dates and other identifying information into the system. Police query the system to see whether someone they’ve stopped is wanted. After the FBI database made its debut in 1967, states and some metro areas, including St. Louis, began their own fugitive databases. By the 1990s, with equipment upgrades in the FBI and local police departments, police commonly checked local, state and FBI databases anytime they stopped someone.
Success stories emerged of violent fugitives caught halfway across the country when stopped for something as minor as a broken taillight.But despite the successes, the vast majority of felony warrants hadn’t been entered into the FBI database, and the odds remained with fugitives who fled.So in 1998, to try to boost entries, the FBI eliminated a rule that barred police from listing names of fugitives they wouldn’t travel out of state to retrieve.At the time, the FBI database contained about 400,000 felony warrants.
The agency expected to be deluged with 2.3 million more.But the agency was off target – way off.What’s missing?
NO ONE KNOWS A decade later, about 1.1 million felony warrants are in the bureau’s database.It’s a mystery how many are left out. Most states refuse to say.Only 13 states responded to a Post-Dispatch survey with data on felony warrants. Their combined figures showed 34 percent were missing from the system.
An FBI advisory panel is so concerned about the missing warrants that it convened a task force last year to study the problem.When the FBI last looked at the issue in 1997, the agency estimated there were 2.7 million felony warrants nationwide. Based on that estimate, the current rate of missing warrants could be as high as 60 percent.”We know there’s a gap. But we don’t know how big it is,” said task force chairman Michael McDonald, of the Delaware State Police.
The newspaper survey shows that, for just that fraction of the states, the missing include thousands of cases of violent felonies.Among them: nearly 20 percent of Ohio’s homicide warrants, 40 percent of Michigan’s rape warrants and more than 50 percent of Arizona’s robbery warrants.Police in Massachusetts have left out nearly 80 percent of their violent felony warrants.”The numbers are staggering of the violent people we don’t have in,” said Kevin Horton, who just retired as head of the Massachusetts State Police fugitive unit.Three warrants for Darrin Bates weren’t listed, including one for rape.Bates was jailed in eastern Georgia for driving a stolen car in 2006. Authorities there didn’t find any warrants in the FBI database, so he was labeled a low-risk inmate. He escaped three weeks later and forced his way into an 88-year-old woman’s home.As she prayed aloud, he beat her face so hard he blinded her in one eye.
REASONS VARY Silva’s New Bedford department handled Bates’ rape case. He said Massachusetts lacked the software to electronically transfer all felony warrants into the FBI database.And there aren’t enough workers to sift through stacks of new warrants to find ones to enter individually, he said. Besides, detectives must first convince prosecutors that a fugitive fled the state and is worth the cost to retrieve.”From a public safety point of view, it sounds outrageous,” he said.The state’s former governor, Mitt Romney, called it a “hodgepodge system where too much is left to chance.” He pushed legislation in 2006 to require entry of all felony warrants into the FBI system. The bill died.No federal law mandates entry, and most state legislatures don’t require it either.
The FBI has spent the past decade lobbying departments to voluntarily enter warrants.”If we go through the process of investigating crime and identifying perpetrators, then why wouldn’t we go the extra mile to try to apprehend these individuals?” McDonald said. “What is the value of all that front-end work if we’re not going to make an honest attempt to bring these people before the court?”Some agencies say they don’t enter warrants because of the FBI’s rules requiring every entry to be made within three days and double-checked for accuracy at least once a year.The FBI insists the rules are needed to ensure that innocent people aren’t detained.Others say they haven’t bought or developed the software to easily transmit warrants. That means clerks have to retype everything into the FBI database.
To retired San Diego Judge Larry Stirling, the problems go deeper than tight budgets, outdated software or rigid rules. In his experience, he said, authorities in the criminal justice system complain that most fugitives get little jail time after they’re arrested, so if they flee, why make the effort?If a criminal ends up elsewhere, “it’s sort of like a cheer: ‘Thank God the guy’s not here. Thank goodness we don’t have to worry about that,’” Stirling said.Sometimes, departments want to enter warrants but misspell names or hit the wrong keys.Williams, the Georgia rapist, roamed free because one agency made a mistake and another wouldn’t travel to pick him up.’I
THOUGHT THEY WERE TRYING TO CATCH ME’I n 2001, authorities in South Florida’s Broward County issued an arrest warrant accusing Williams of kidnapping and raping a woman. But a clerk failed to code the warrant to send it to the FBI database.Three months later, authorities in adjoining Miami-Dade County issued a warrant for Williams for skipping a court hearing on drug charges. But they didn’t enter his name into the FBI database because they didn’t want to travel outside Florida to pick him up.In the next year, he was stopped twice by Georgia police, records show. Each time, his name came back clean.Williams said he was stopped other times, too, and realized he didn’t need to hide his name from police.”I thought they were trying to catch me, so of course it surprised me. I was confused,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t care at the time, either.”He committed five more rapes, ending with Turner.He forced her to take him to her home. He didn’t leave that night until he had raped her twice, ransacked her apartment and made her withdraw money from an ATM.He has yet to leave her nightmares.Five years later, she still sees the short man with long sideburns waving the gun.She still smells his rank body odor.She still hears him bragging that he raped others and threatening to kill her if she called police.”It’s just that night replaying, all over,” Turner said.
NO ANSWERSThe Broward County sheriff’s office learned of its mistake when the Post-Dispatch contacted the office last year. It vowed to check, by hand, thousands of warrants to ensure they were properly entered.Miami-Dade authorities defended their decision to not enter their warrant into the database, saying they lack the money, staff and jail space to pursue most non-violent fugitives outside of Florida
.In some cases, authorities won’t explain why they won’t enter warrants into the FBI system.In Philadelphia, authorities did not return messages seeking their reason for not entering a 2003 warrant for a man accused of assaulting police there.In the next two years, the fugitive, Allan Cameron, was twice let go by New York police. Then he gunned down Officer Dillon Stewart, a father of two.In the days after the murder, New York officials, including the governor, blasted Philadelphia authorities for not entering the warrant. But the outrage over the lapse has subsided.Stewart’s family continues to grieve.”It doesn’t make any sense,” the detective’s widow, Leslyn Stewart, said one night before tucking her children into bed. “No matter what day of the week it is, it’s just unsettling, uneasy, all of the time.”