Casting a wide net for fugitives

Gene “Buddy” Evans Jr.

Senior Sgt. Investigator in the Criminal District Attorney’s Office in the ­Dallas County (Family Violence Division)

Dallas County has had great success using digital billboards to catch family violence felons. Here’s how.

Covay Davis has a criminal history of 50 offenses in Dallas County, with 10 arrests. The vast majority of his offenses are family violence and drug crimes. He is wanted for one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of aggravated assault family violence with a deadly weapon, and he has been on the run for about seven months.

    The Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, with the support of District Attorney Craig Watkins, is taking a new approach in addressing the many cases where defendants wanted for felony family violence offenses have not been apprehended and brought to trial. The reasons why these felons have not been captured are varied: Some have gone to Mexico, some have changed their names, some are given safe harbor by family members, some are incarcerated elsewhere, and some are so far off the radar that they are never contacted by law enforcement. With today’s social and mass media, the old ways of just knocking on doors and using the telephone to track down felons has been expanded to a whole new sphere: specifically, digital billboards. These signs in high-traffic areas allow the public to get involved in their community’s safety and well-being. Posting a wanted notice with a criminal’s name, face, and crime on a roadside Jumbotron gets noticed.

New way to solve an old problem

I came to work at the DA’s office in August 2012. I brought with me 28 years of prior experience from the University of Texas at Arlington Police Department and the Arlington Police Department. My first assignment with the DA’s office was as an investigator in the family violence unit, more specifically, to find the wanted felony defendants so they could be tried. Well, it’s hard trying to find people who don’t want to be found, especially those who have been off the radar for upwards of 10 years. Covay Davis, for example, had been on the run for seven months. The task seemed insurmountable.

    While driving home on Interstate 30 one day, I noticed a billboard—but not just any billboard: This one was lit up and digital, and its screen changed about every eight seconds. I noticed that on the billboard, the FBI had posted a “wanted” notice with a reward for a fugitive they were looking for. My immediate thought was, “If the FBI can do that, we can do it too!”

    I thought that using the digital billboard might be the answer I was looking for, a way to cast a broader net. In a way, looking for fugitives is like fishing: You bait a hook and cast your line in various spots, hoping you will catch a big fish. It is long and tedious work in most cases, the bites few and far between. But a digital billboard is like having many hooks spread all over the city or county, and a reward from Crime Stoppers is the bait.

    Obviously before moving too far forward, I met with my supervisors, both on the law enforcement side and the prosecutor side. Such an idea will never go anywhere if they are not in the loop. There I was, brand new to the office and pitching an idea like this to people who had either just met me or didn’t even know my name. I figured they’d think it was a crazy idea—but that’s not how they responded at all. Instead I heard, “Smart, great—let’s move forward on that.” It was a compelling concept—but how to pull it off? I did not really have a clue, so I had to do my research.

The process

The digital billboard I’d seen on IH-30 is owned by Clear Channel Communications. As part of its charter, Clear Channel sets aside airtime on its digital billboards for messages and announcements for the public’s welfare or safety—with no fees attached. What an awesome service (that many law enforcement entities are probably not aware of)! I also learned that Clear Channel Outdoors (the billboard branch of the company) has as many as 80 billboards across Dallas County. That’s a lot of hooks! Teresa Moore is the representative I spoke with; she handles the public service concerns in our area from her office in Arlington. We talked at length, and she answered all of my questions. She even came to our office and gave a presentation to Mr. Watkins and his executive staff so they could ask questions and find out how the program might meet our needs.

    The billboard initiative was approved, and we could come up with our own design of what the billboards would look like and say. Different design suggestions were given to Mr. Watkins and his staff, and after a short time a design template was agreed upon. We also got Crime Stoppers involved so that when the billboards went online, people would have a place to contact if they had any information on the fugitive’s location. This turned out to be relatively simple; we just called our local Crime Stoppers and explained what we were doing. We all agreed that Crime Stoppers would be the clearinghouse for the tips that were generated, which would be forwarded by email to me and another investigator, Ric Bruner. He is tasked with tracking down our absconded felons with assistance from the U.S. Marshals’ task force.

    We also had to choose which fugitives would be posted on the billboards. Because the idea was born out of my need to apprehend family violence defendants, we agreed to concentrate on FV cases involving felonies. The cases were reviewed as to their seriousness, complainant/ witness support, the strength of evidence, the defendant’s criminal history, and his likelihood of still being in the area, and the final decision was left to the chief prosecutors in the division. (Since we started this program, the list has expanded to include child abuse defendants too.)

    The first 10 defendants were selected, including Covay Davis, the fugitive I mentioned at the beginning of this article. We designed a template of 10 fugitives to use in-house so our website coordinator, James Tate, can update our website (www.DallasDA.com), Facebook, and Twitter. A copy of the template is also made available to Crime Stoppers and Clear Channel. The list displays each person’s name, photo, and the crime charged.

    Clear Channel, using our template, enters the information for each fugitive on his own billboard template and submits a visual draft to me for approval. Once I give the go-ahead, it is placed in the general rotation to be displayed at random times on various billboards throughout the county. The template is designed so that when a fugitive is caught, it can be noted on the billboard and social media and the listing removed so another fugitive can be posted. The program kicked off on March 15.

    Which brings me back to Covay Davis. Within two weeks, a tipster called Crime Stoppers and stated that she had spotted Davis at a local liquor store. Not wanting the fugitive to get away, Crime Stoppers immediately contacted the Dallas Police Department, and Covay was arrested by patrol. We don’t know where he had been for the previous seven months, but we caught up with him thanks to the billboard. It is great when a plan comes together!

    We have tweaked a few things here and there, but the program is still going strong. As of this writing, pictures of 20 fugitives have been displayed and 11 have been captured. If I were a fisherman with that kind of average, I would be a professional!

    I certainly don’t know if this type of program would work for every county and every situation, but it has here in Dallas. Even with its success, it is still a work in progress. There are things that could be changed and most likely will change as time goes on, technology improves, and our needs evolve. It’s still old-school police work of casting a lot of lines—only now with a technological twist that has vastly increased what we catch.