A methodical, hands-on approach to tracking down fugitives that’s working wonders in one county
Around November 2005, our district attorney, John Bradley, spoke to me about initiating a hands-on, proactive approach to reducing the number of open and active felony warrants pending in our office. As an investigator in the office since 1997, I could see for myself that the number of active and pending warrants had risen through the years, and no one was actively monitoring the status of many of these cases. Every prosecutor’s office has drawers full of open and active warrants. A big number of these cases are just sitting in a file cabinet not receiving much attention, though every once in a while, a wanted defendant will be apprehended on a random traffic stop or for a new offense and BAM! We have our fugitive! But that’s the exceptional case rather than the rule. It’s important to keep up with open and active warrants to get criminals off the streets and prevent them from continuing to commit crimes.
We thought we could do more. We knew that unless we took some action, the number of warrants could get out of control at some point. So we had our first meeting to discuss the issues of open warrants around December 2005. We devised a plan of action that would produce immediate results.
We have three criminal courts in Williamson County: the 277th, where I work as a trial investigator, the 368th with investigator Chris Herndon, and the 26th with investigator Stephen Allison. Our first mission was to get organized by categorizing our warrants to visualize the different types of warrants in our files and to prioritize our efforts by pursuing certain warrants first. New indictment and MTRP warrants need immediate and swift attention while bond forfeitures (in general) require some research, as most of those are already absconders.
We came up with four main categories of warrants. (You can go further with this in your own agency if you want, or you can go with something completely different, but this structure works for us.) Category A includes cases where the defendant had never been arrested by a law enforcement agency on a case they prepared and those never arrested on a new indictment from our office. Category B has MTRPs (probation violation) warrants. Category C includes bail jumpers and bond forfeitures, many of which also have additional felony bail jumping cases filed. And finally, category D, the easy ones. Category Ds are active warrants of defendants who are in custody somewhere with a hold placed on them. Although they are in custody somewhere else, believe me, these are warrants you want to keep up with.
Except for category D warrants (because those defendants are already in custody), category A warrants will generally be the easiest fugitives to locate and may also be your largest group of active warrants. In other counties or courts, the largest group may be the category B warrants (MTRPs). Many of these MTRP fugitives will be easy to locate as well because these defendants are usually still sitting at home or still working at that last job. Many of them won’t even realize a warrant has been issued. Get someone on them quickly.
Bond forfeitures and bail jumpers (category C) will take up most of your time as far as research goes. In most cases the guys have already fled, so research is your only option.
To keep track of the lists of warrants, we put them on spreadsheets so we could easily monitor how many new warrants were added to each category and see how many defendants were arrested.
Involving law enforcement
Our second mission was to solicit help from law enforcement agencies to reduce the number of active warrants. That includes executing new warrants quickly so they don’t become old warrants and reviewing old warrants regularly so they aren’t just sitting in a filing cabinet.
You’ll want to develop and maintain a routine to stay on top of these warrants. You can do so by having monthly meetings and discussions to keep an open and active line of communication with your local warrant officers, as well as with outside law enforcement agencies that have active warrant officers working the streets. We wanted to show law enforcement that we were willing to cooperate in any way we could to help them locate these defendants.
We currently have a warrant meeting in our office. When we first started these meetings, we were going to have one every month, but as you can guess every month rolls around very quickly, so in reality we have one of these meetings as often as possible (time permitting), usually every 45 to 60 days. Not having a definite set date each month works out well for us. The standard attendees at our meetings are each trial investigator; Assistant District Attorney Robert McCabe, who handles extraditions; Linda Draper, an absconder locator for our local probation department; and District Attorney John Bradley.
In addition, we invite different law enforcement agencies with active warrant officers working the streets; sometimes we invite multiple law enforcement agencies at the same time. You’ll get different results from various agencies and some have a broader jurisdiction than others. In the past, we’ve invited the U.S. Marshals Office, the local sheriff’s and constables’ departments, DPS, DPS Criminal Intelligence, and the Attorney General’s Office, and we plan to invite other municipal police departments, constable departments, surrounding county sheriff’s offices, and anyone else we can think of in the near future. Our office wants everyone in law enforcement to know that we are here to help arrest these fugitives.
At these meetings, we explain what we are doing and how we monitor our active warrant cases. It is, quite simply, networking and making good contacts. Something else to consider is that many times these warrant officers change jobs or rotate with other officers. It’s important to remember that these officers will be different from year to year, sometimes even more frequently. That is why it is so important to stay in touch and have frequent meetings with face-to-face contact; they play a vital role in keeping the ball rolling on this program.
To prepare for each meeting, we do some research and prepare a packet of information from each file, which we give to whatever law enforcement agency is attending the meeting and is best able to execute the warrant. Spread the warrants among several agencies, and don’t waste officers’ efforts by assigning more than one agency to a single warrant. (That’s the quickest way to get on the bad side of your supporting law enforcement agencies.) Keep a copy of the information packet in your file. Every one of the agencies that has attended our meetings has arrested one or more fugitives after we provided them with a packet of information.
We had an open warrant on Bobby Duane Montgomery, who was charged with aggravated sexual assault of an 8-year-old girl; the offense occurred in January 1996. The Williamson County Sheriff’s Department investigated the crime not long after it happened, but before the defendant could be arrested, he fled. The case sat in our office idle for some time with no arrest. I reviewed the file in November 2006, putting it in Category A, and began making phone calls to the victim’s family and the defendant’s relatives. I learned through these contacts that Montgomery maintained a close relationship with his brother-in-law and sister, who were known to work in the field of corrections. I found the brother-in-law through an Accurint check that said he was possibly working in a prison in western Colorado. I made a copy of my file and gave the information to the U.S. Marshals Office, which arrested Bobby Duane Montgomery December 28, 2006—not in Colorado, but in Louisiana, living with his sister. The case just needed a solid review to make the arrest.
On another warrant case filed in July 1999, we’d filed a MTRP warrant for Lambert Sabrsula, who had received 10 years’ deferred probation in 1998 for aggravated robbery. We received assistance beyond the call of duty when the defendant was taken into custody in March 2007 in Queens County, New York. He was caught after flying into New York from Ecuador. Sabrsula was taken into custody at the airport, and we were notified.
After our deputies arrived in New York, they ran into complications because the defendant could not be released into our custody without a judicial hearing. The transportation officers had the Williamson County Sheriff’s office contact ADA Robert McCabe, who called the Queens County DA’s office, and we received overwhelming and immediate attention. Queens County Assistant District Attorney Alix Kucker, having had to deal with similar complications from extraditions in the past, went out of her way to contact other attorneys, investigators, courthouse staff, and other outside agencies to expedite the extradition. Within an hour, Ms. Kucker had arranged VIP service for our deputies, eventually resulting in a swift hearing and a special escort to LaGuardia Airport with our defendant. This could not have taken place without the cooperative efforts of the Queens County District Attorney’s office and other courthouse staff there.
Dismissals of old cases
There are others ways to lower the warrant numbers in your office. We realized while reviewing some old open warrant cases that some simply deserved to be dismissed. You probably have dozens upon dozens of old open warrant cases that date back 15 or even 20 years that are just sitting there in a file cabinet getting absolutely no attention. Perhaps you have an old hot check case, or maybe the witnesses on an old case are no longer available for whatever reason. You have to review these ancient files on occasion, at minimum every two years. Some can be dismissed and on some, well, you could miss out on an opportunity to catch your fugitive if you don’t review the file from time to time. In our office, each investigator pulls five of the oldest open warrant cases for review each month. After we review those and make our recommendations, we move on to the next oldest five for the next meeting, and so forth. Eventually we will have reviewed all our open warrant files, and you can start on the recent ones.
Prior to each warrant meeting, we review five old cases from each court and prepare a review sheet, which is extremely important. The review sheet contains detailed information, including your office’s attempts to locate the defendant and what recommendations you’ve made to your elected DA about the next step (whether you keep the case active in TCIC and continue looking for the defendant, whether you put the warrant in NCIC, or whether you dismiss the case for whatever reason). That review sheet should remain in the file for a future investigator who reviews it again months or years down the road.
I can show you every person who was arrested on a warrant in our court since January 2006 on a single spreadsheet. Within 15 months of starting this warrant program, I saw 246 active warrants go away (219 arrests and 27 dismissals) in my court. Obviously I didn’t have a direct hand in getting all 219 fugitives arrested; most were arrested at random or through the regular efforts of our warrant officers in and outside the county. Quite a large number of these defendants actually turned themselves in after learning about the newly issued warrant, and I had a hand in at least 25 of the arrests. The 27 dismissals stemmed from my reviews and recommendations. We expect the numbers of open warrants to continue to drop over the next couple of years and eventually level off to a manageable level; there will always be an ebb and flow on these warrant numbers. The Williamson County District Attorney’s Office is working to make changes to counter these numbers when they begin to rise and at least review cases on a regular basis.
Once you start a program such as ours and you can show measurable results, it may very likely help you gain support from your commissioners to get more extradition money. It may also help your law enforcement agencies procure more funding for their warrant officers or for additional investigative tools, resources, or equipment for fugitive apprehension.
The hardest part about anything is getting started. The key to success is maintaining these monthly warrant meetings. It’s the networking that makes the difference, where you have the opportunity to encourage and praise your warrant officers for doing their jobs and to help locate these fugitives.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I would be very interested in hearing other comments or suggestions regarding this issue. If you would like an example of the three spreadsheets I use as well as my standard review sheet which stays in each file, you can e-mail me at [email protected]. I would be happy to share what I have, and I feel certain we can all learn from each other on this topic.