Copyright 2006 Tower Media, Inc.
By JOSH KLEINBAUM
The Daily News
Hector Camacho saw the caravan of American-made cars and sport utility vehicles heading up Normandie Avenue in South Los Angeles and immediately recognized them as cops.
He knew they were coming for him. A few hours earlier, a team of police officers and federal agents knocked on his door two blocks away. He wasn't home, but friends were there, and they'd warned him to watch out.
It didn't matter. A federal marshal spotted Camacho on the sidewalk on the way to his apartment, hit the lights and swung a U-turn.
"We saw him, and he took off his jacket so we wouldn't recognize him when we came back," said Miguel Portalatin, a deputy U.S. marshal. "He was trying to hide. It didn't work."
Camacho, 27, was wanted on an outstanding warrant for narcotics possession. When police arrested him, he had expensive sunglasses covering his eyes and a crack pipe and an empty wallet in his pockets.
Camacho was one of 9,037 fugitives arrested across the country and in Mexico over the past 10 days, including 262 in Southern California, as part of Operation Falcon II, a fugitive sweep headed by the U.S. Marshals Service. The sweep was timed to coincide with National Crime Victims' Rights Week.
"We're going after any outstanding warrants that the police department may have, but the primary focus is on sex offenders," said Andres Jimenez, an inspector for the U.S. Marshals Service.
The sex offenders are a group Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has made a priority in his 15 months at the Justice Department. The operation "targeted the worst of the worst," Gonzales said at a news conference.
The numbers were impressive: 462 fugitives were arrested on violent sex crime charges and 311 on other sex-crime charges, and 783 convicted sex offenders were arrested for failure to register with local police. Fugitives were also arrested on gun, drug and murder charges.
While some arrests were made in the San Fernando Valley, investigators couldn't provide specific figures for the area.
The sex-offender arrests marked the largest number ever captured in a single law enforcement operation, the Justice Department said. The arrests occurred mainly in states west of the Mississippi River, and also in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The sweeps were a break from the Marshals Service's usual work, in which investigators focus on a small number of violent criminals and track them, like Tommy Lee Jones tracking Harrison Ford in the movie "The Fugitive."
The Marshals Service spent $531,000 on the weeklong exercise, most of it to pay overtime to local and state police, said David Dimmitt, chief deputy U.S. marshal. More than 2,100 officers from 786 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies took part.
A second phase, targeting the eastern United States, will occur in coming months, Gonzales said.
During the weeks leading up to the operation, investigators from multiple agencies pieced together new information on possible suspects' locations. During the weeklong sweep, multiagency teams spread across Los Angeles, from North Hills to South Los Angeles, hoping to find fugitives.
Each team knocked on anywhere from six to 10 doors per day, hoping to find the suspect they were after at home. Often, they'd only catch one or two of them.
"This is more of a numbers game," Jimenez said. "We're trying to clear as many backlogged warrants as we can."
The sweeps netted some big fish.
Elias Martinez-Flores, 37, an unregistered sex offender wanted for kidnapping a 14-year-old girl from Ontario High School in September, was arrested April 18 by Mexican authorities in Ticuman, Mexico. Officials believe he raped the girl twice before releasing her. He is awaiting extradition.
William Wisham, 60, an unregistered sex offender, was arrested in a Victorville motel April 21. In his motel room, investigators found child pornography, methamphetamine, candy, letters to children and notes explaining why he enjoys sex with children, authorities said. Police are searching for potential new victims.
"If his apprehension short-circuited even one additional offense, then the whole week was worth it," said John Clark, commander of the Pacific Southwest Regional Fugitive Task Force.
Primo Montes, wanted in the 1996 rape and molestation of a 14-year-old girl, was arrested April 18 in Escondido in San Diego County. Montes had fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution, but was arrested when he returned to Escondido to visit his pregnant wife.
"It's extremely important to get people like that off the streets," Clark said. "By locking these people up, they're not allowed to continue to run around and deny the victims and their families closure. They are going to get their day in court now."
There are a "few million fugitives"in the U.S., most of them wanted on state and local charges, Clark said. Marshals arrested 35,500 federal fugitives during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. They worked with state and local authorities to nab an additional 44,000 people, according to the Marshals Service Web site.
LA arrests part of sweep to jail fugitives in sex crimes