Good old-fashioned creativity, attention to detail, and shoe leather propels Harris County’s Cold Case Fugitive Apprehension Section to find defendants and criminals who long ago disappeared.
H. Ramsey Cook
Fugitives from justice flee to other parts of the state or country, change their names, alter their appearances, and take on entirely new lives. But a team in Houston works hard each day to track them down and return them to the Harris County Criminal Justice Center to face their charges.
The team that has caught 53 Harris County murder fugitives in the last three years is District Attorney Investigator Chuck Lowery and Extradition Administrator Kim Bryant. They make up the Cold Case Fugitive Apprehension Section of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. This year alone, Lowery and Bryant’s efforts have resulted in 28 arrests—five of them in a six-week period. In the three years the unit has existed, the team has also been able to confirm that 19 defendants are deceased, helping to resolve a backlog of murder cases.
Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos formed the section shortly after taking office in 2009. Under the guidance of then-assistant district attorney Russell Turbeville, the section was charged with the arduous task of assembling all the old case files spread out among many different sections and file drawers in the state’s largest county—637 files in all—and began the tedious work of reviewing them for leads. Lowery gives Turbeville the credit for the formation of the section he now heads. “We could not have initiated this cold-case round up without Russell’s attention to detail,” Lowery ntoes. “He vetted all the original cases and set up the system to allow us to move forward.”
The section’s goal is to capture criminals who have avoided justice by actively searching for them and aiding other law enforcement agencies with support and information. For years, fugitives accused of violent crimes were not actively sought by the office; prosecutors relied solely on law enforcement to locate and arrest fugitive felons. “I investigate the trail and Kim gets them back to Harris County,” Lowery says. “We work side by side.”
Lowery and Bryant sit in an office surrounded by old case files, some dating back to the 1970s. The job is not glamorous. They rely on computer databases and paper trails. In some cases the trail is cold; in others, investigations had hardly begun. They speculate that case files can become “cold cases” for a variety of reasons: All potential leads ran into dead ends, previous investigators were simply too busy for the immense case load and had to prioritize which cases to pursue; and some may have been more suitable “pocket warrant” cases that just got caught up in the system.
Regardless of how the files ended up on his caseload, Lowery reviews each one for something—anything—that could have been missed the first time around. Lowery is a former Houston Police Department sergeant and retired in 2003 after 23 years of service. Two years later he joined the DA’s office as an investigator. He reviews each case file by looking at every piece of evidence, scrap of paper, and photo in the file. He keeps the ones that have enough information to try to identify the suspect and in some cases he sends the file back to the original law enforcement agency for further work. For the files he keeps, he begins by looking in public and law enforcement databases for leads and says one of the most important things any investigator can do is to enter any and all aliases and identifiers into databases. Lowery says, “If you don’t have the right name, the right identifiers, it makes it nearly impossible for law enforcement to find suspects.
“Many times the original people interviewed in a case don’t give correct information. They give incomplete names or incorrect names, or they provide only a rough description. I look for the moment when a piece of information in a file or database jumps out at me—a matching set of prints or a photo, for instance. Even if I can’t catch them this time, I update their information in the databases to increase the chances someone outside Harris County will be able to use it.”
Here are a couple of stories about criminals who fled from Harris County—only to be tracked down by the Cold Case Unit’s dogged investigation.
Anatomy of a case
“How did you get me? I didn’t leave a paper trail!” Lowery remembers Theodore Dominguez saying as law enforcement arrested him in 2010 in New York after 21 years on the run. Dominguez was originally arrested in a Harris County stabbing in 1989, made bond, then absconded to Puerto Rico, Florida, and New York before authorities caught up with him.
How Lowery and Bryant caught up to Dominguez and many of the other fugitives is a combination of old fashioned police work, boots on the ground, technology, and luck. When Lowery opened Dominguez’s file in 2010, he obtained a current copy of the offense report and pulled and reviewed all related files from the DA’s office. The defendant’s Pre-Trial Sentence Investigation information revealed that he was born in Puerto Rico and at the time of his 1989 arrest, he had lived in Katy with his second wife and his sister. He also had three children. His first wife was found to have lived in Brooklyn, New York.
The file also contained information stating the original DA’s investigator was contacted by one of Dominguez’s relatives around 1990 or 1991. Notes were made of the interview and revealed that the defendant was possibly using four or more variations of his brother-in-law’s name. He was possibly using “Carmelo (Carlos) Marrero” or “Carlos Badillo,” along with a similar date of birth while working as a mechanic in New York. The relative described Dominguez’s physical appearance and reported that he was preparing to move from the New York area. As a result, the investigator at the time contacted the FBI, and an Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP) warrant was filed with the alias information and other identifiers in 1991. Then the trail ran cold.
In 2010, Lowery re-researched all the information utilizing several commercial and law enforcement databases. While researching one of the several aliases Dominguez was using, Lowery located three men who could possibly be his defendant: one with Florida and Pennsylvania ties; one with Florida, Ohio, Puerto Rico, and Texas ties; and the other was “Carmelo Marrero,” who still appeared to reside in the Houston area and did not have a criminal history. Lowery further researched the identifiers through commercial databases, looking for any transposed numbers. He got a hit on “Carlos Badillo” with a similar date of birth and Social Security number as the real Carmelo Marrero, Dominguez’s brother-in-law. It showed three addresses in Brooklyn and employment at a local mechanic shop. While cross-checking these addresses, a woman’s name was found during the same time frames. The woman had relocated to Florida, and it appeared she had a daughter with the same last name, Marrero, with a 1994 birth date.
In August 2010, Lowery met with a member of the FBI Task Force to discuss the findings of the previously filed UFAP investigation to see if any information matched his current investigation. The FBI investigation found that in 2001, Dominguez was working as a mechanic in New York, and his wife had the same name that kept turning up in Lowery’s investigation. They had a 6-year-old daughter. There were other aliases associated with Dominguez’s first wife in New York, and the current database research connected to Carlos Badillo as an alias that Dominguez was using.
After compiling this information, Lowery met with Sergeant Clarke of the Houston Police Department and Detective Harry Fikaris of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, who were assigned to the Houston-area FBI Task Force. They were able to obtain the New York driver’s license of “Carlos Badillo” and upon comparison, it was determined “Badillo” was, in fact, Dominguez. Clarke and Fikaris traveled to New York, met with the local FBI Task Force, and arrested Dominguez, who confessed to his involvement in the 1989 crime. As of press time, he is still awaiting trial.
Juan Carlos Tejeda and Jorge Tejeda Magdalena
In 1994 Juan Esparza was beaten and stabbed to death at a Houston-area apartment complex. The investigation revealed that several Crip Cartel gang members attacked Esparza and beat him with their hands, feet, and a bat before stabbing him and stealing his shoes. In the case file, three of the assailants were identified as Juan Carlos Tejeda, Jorge Tejeda Magdaleno, and Edwardo Tejeda Reyes. Tejeda and Magdaleno were thought to have fled to Mexico, while Reyes was arrested, pled guilty, completed a probated sentence and was living in the Houston area.
During Investigator Lowery’s review of the case, he noticed something was missing. Tejeda’s prints had never been forwarded to DPS for entry into TCIC/NCIC. Lowery contacted the Harris County Sheriff’s Department AFIS and requested that the defendant’s prints be forwarded to DPS and the FBI. A match was made with a subject by the name of Francisco Bautista (a.k.a. Francisco Baustista-Cardenas). Bautista had previously been handled by ICE in 1995 and was deported to Mexico.
Offense report supplement entries indicated that both defendants fled to Mexico with the help of Juan Carlos Tejeda’s mother, Amelia Tejeda. Further research indicated that in 1995 Amelia Tejeda returned to the U.S., possibly with the defendants, and obtained DPS identification using false information. With this new information along with Juan Carlos Tejeda using an alias after the murder, Lowery believed that both Tejeda and Magdaleno possibly attempted re-entry into the U.S. with Amelia Tejeda.
Lowery conducted further painstaking research on the defendant’s names and aliases as well as on Amelia Tejeda (who was also listed as Magdaleno’s aunt in arrest records) and Juan Carlos Tejeda’s father, Carlos Tejeda. Amelia Tejeda was found to possess a current Texas ID, and Carlos Tejeda showed to have a current Texas driver’s license. Research through numerous databases produced six addresses for the two since the mid-1990s. Additionally, the offense report listed “Alberto Tejeda” as a possible alias for Magdaleno. Lowery was unable to find any hits using “Alberto Tejeda” but by searching for the name “Albert Tejada,” he got a hit on an address associated with Amelia Tejeda.
On a hunch, Lowery conducted database search dropping the “o” in “Albert” and changing the “e” into an “a” in “Tejeda,” pulling up different search results of several corresponding male names with similar dates of birth (DOBs) in the 1970s. Upon locating Texas driver’s licenses and/or identification cards corresponding to the new results, Lowery ordered photos for comparison and discovered two men who were very similar to the arrest file photo of Juan Carlos Tejeda provided by HPD and the 1994 HCSO mug shot of Magdaleno (both in his original cold case file). “Albert Tejada” was similar in appearance to Jorge Tejeda Magdaleno, and a “Carlos Antonio Smith” looked a lot like Juan Carlos Tejeda.
Lowery then contacted DPS AFIS and requested to compare the thumbprints from the IDs to the respective arrest prints for his fugitives. DPS responded that both previous arrest histories matched the newly discovered IDs. Lowery then researched the newly confirmed “Albert Tejada” and “Carlos Antonio Smith” aliases. “Tejada”’s Texas driver’s license was current. He had two current Harris County vehicle registrations along with employment at a landscaping service in Houston. He was married and it appeared his current address was in Northeast Houston. A 2008 HPD offense report listed him as the reportee from a tire shop located in Houston.
“Carlos Antonio Smith”’s Texas driver’s license was expired, and the most recent identifier was a 2001 HPD auto theft report where he listed his home address as the same Northeast Houston address where Magdaleno (a.k.a. “Albert Tejada”) currently resided.
Lowery conducted surveillance at addresses associated with Amelia Tejeda and the two defendants. After surveillance at several different locations with the assistance of the Gulf Coast Violent Offender Task Force, Jorge Magdaleno was arrested as he left his house one morning for work. When he was arrested, Lowery asked him his name and he identified himself as “Albert Tejada”—he denied ever having used any other name.
When Lowery further confronted him, he finally admitted that he had used the name Jorge Magdaleno as a kid. When questioned about Juan Carlos Tejeda, Magdaleno said he had fled to Mexico when he got into “some trouble” back in the ’90s. He was questioned about the family tire business and nervously explained that they had sold the business some time back.
Surveillance was then established at the Tejedas’ tire shop. Investigators approached a man who identified himself by producing a Mexican chauffer license bearing the name “Carlos Mendez Menendez.” Lowery remembers, “The photo on the license matched the man we were talking to, but it also matched the defendant we were looking for. We now had yet another alias in the mix.” Lowery approached a female employee and asked her if she could identify the suspect, and she said he was Juan Carlos Tejeda. Tejeda was handcuffed and transported to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office jail, and AFIS verified both men as the cold case murder defendants.
As with Dominguez, both men are now awaiting trial.
The love of the job
Lowery and Bryant say they can’t do their jobs without close coordination with the U.S. Marshal Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI, Department of Justice, and many local and state law enforcement agencies across the country and world that assist in apprehending suspects who have fled to other jurisdictions.
Suspects may have fled to another city, county, state, or country. Sometimes the hard work and investigation can lead to a deceased suspect and a dismissal of the case. It takes detailed investigative work by the Cold Case Fugitive Apprehension Section to find the fugitive and resolve the outstanding case.
Lowery and Bryant love their jobs. They both say at times the hunt can get confusing and head down numerous trails, but they never stop looking. They are very meticulous, organized, and creative in their research and believe if they can’t find a fugitive and extradite them now, they will eventually. “The fugitive is usually found at the intersection of hard work and a little luck. It’s difficult to catch these guys without both,” says Lowery.
Bryant says thoughts of the victims’ families keep her focused and determined to catch up to the fugitives and return them to Harris County. “I’m always putting myself in the victim’s shoes or the family’s shoes,” Bryant said. “I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to bring them to justice because they have been waiting so long.” i
1 A pocket warrant, as described in TDCAA’s Warrants Manual for Arrest, Search & Seizure by Tom Bridges and Ted Wilson, is issued based on an affidavit (or “complaint”) but not formally filed with the magistrate. It acts like a sealed indictment or sealed complaint that does not initially appear on the magistrate’s docket. With a pocket warrant, only the officers seeking the warrant, the magistrate issuing it, and the district attorney’s office know it exists. This way, law enforcement can control details of the arrest and keep the suspect from finding out about it in advance. Note that within 48 hours of arrest, however, the defendant must be formally charged with a crime, brought before a magistrate, or released. For more information on these and other warrants, see our Warrants Manual, available for purchase at www.tdcaa.com.