Tenacity, Trickery Used to Track Suspects
by Allan Lengel, Washington Post
Members of the D.C. fugitive squad forced open the
door of a seventh-floor apartment on Capitol Hill, on
the trail of an armed robber. No one was home, but
they heard an unusual noise. Quickly canvassing the
apartment, they noticed a window ajar. They moved
closer and saw fingertips gripping the ledge, the
suspect dangling, begging for help, authorities
Another capture for the D.C.-FBI fugitive task
Since 1989, the D.C. Joint Fugitive Task Force has
been ferreting out the city's most violent fugitives,
chalking up more than 7,500 arrests of suspects wanted
for murder, attempted murder, rape, assault and armed
robbery, according to FBI figures.
"We can't claim all the credit for driving down the
crime rate, but I think it's definitely had an
impact," said Special Agent James E. Reightler, the
FBI coordinator for the fugitive squad. "If you get
criminals off the street, you lower the crime
The task force was established as use of crack
cocaine skyrocketed in the District and the number of
outstanding felony warrants reached at least 4,000,
At its peak, the squad had about 40 agents and
police officers from various local and federal law
enforcement agencies. The manpower has since declined
as the number of outstanding warrants has fallen.
Today, there are about 1,000 outstanding felony
warrants, and the task force has 10 D.C. police
officers and four FBI agents, authorities say.
Of those 1,000 warrants, the task force is focusing
on the most serious ones, about 60, seven of which
involve homicides, authorities said. Last week, the
task force compiled a list of the 10 most wanted and
asked citizens to call 202-324-0032 with information
that might lead to their arrest.
"We track down the most violent of the violent
fugitives in D.C.," said Lt. Robert Atcheson,
commander of the squad's D.C. police contingent.
"Seventy percent of our time is spent looking for
Investigators use various techniques in their
searches, such as subpoenaing phone records,
interviewing acquaintances, using surveillance
cameras, installing electronic tracking devices and
even offering phony jobs.
Atcheson said investigators sometimes visit a
fugitive's parents or friends, who feign ignorance of
the suspect's whereabouts. After investigators leave,
the parents or friends phone the fugitive and warn of
the police visit. Police learn this by checking phone
records, he said.
Police also interview friends and foes, neighbors
and relatives, pay street informants and check
databases and credit card purchases to track movement.
In some instances, they post surveillance cameras
outside apartments and homes and put electronic
tracking devices on cars. They have shown fugitive
photos on movie theater screens before the show.
About six months ago, Atcheson said, "we showed
seven, and we got three within two weeks."
The best time to capture suspects is in early
morning when they're still asleep, Atcheson said. "The
propensity for violence is less likely. They're less
belligerent, less angry or agitated and less likely to
Most mornings, at least one fugitive is found, but
not always, as was the case last week.
The team of nine set out about 4:30 a.m. to find a
man wanted for pointing a gun at his girlfriend and
threatening to kill her. Officers traveled in
different cars -- mostly pickups and SUVs -- through
empty streets to an apartment building on Good Hope
Road in Southeast Washington.
Front-desk security let them in, and they took the
elevator to the 10th floor, where they stood quietly
outside an apartment, trying to hear movement inside.
They had the front desk call the fugitive's in-house
phone, but there was no answer. One officer pressed
his ear to the door. They knocked. No answer. They
They noticed a flier from a pizzeria tucked halfway
under the door.
"Normally, you see one of those in the doorway, and
it's a pretty good indication he hadn't come in,"
Next, the team headed to the Barry Farms public
housing complex off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE
in search of a different man wanted for assaulting a
D.C. Housing Authority police officer and stealing his
Investigators rushed up to a man entering a late
model Pontiac Sunbird. They thought he was the
fugitive. He was not.
They knocked on an apartment door. The fugitive's
friend was there. He was not.
Investigators headed to another address on L Street
SE where they suspected that the fugitive was hiding.
To be safe, they left two detectives behind to make
sure that the friend didn't warn the fugitive before
The next stop proved fruitless, too. "Today isn't
looking so good," Atcheson said.
Some of the "most wanted" know how to elude
authorities. Thirteen are in El Salvador, which has no
extradition treaty with the United States, authorities
When investigators raid a home, some fugitives hide
under a pile of clothes or in empty box springs,
Atcheson said. Others are more innovative and, for
example, remove drawers from dressers, glue on the
front panels of the drawers and hide inside.
The standard hideout is the attic. Sometimes,
investigators must crawl up there or send in a K-9
The fugitive team is particularly proud of certain
captures. A member recalled one during the blizzard of
1997, when most city workers stayed home. The team
apprehended a man wanted in a triple slaying as he
took a bath with his girlfriend in Northeast
Washington. He put up no resistance.
"They run for such a long time, and when you
finally get them cornered, they know the game is
over," said one D.C. police detective, who asked that
his name not be used because he occasionally works
Investigators are also not above trickery.
Atcheson said he'll call some part-time
construction workers, who are being sought by the law,
and tell them that he needs them "immediately" for a
$13-an-hour job. He said he'll tell them to meet him
at a parking lot.
"You'd be surprised how many people are dumb enough
to throw on a hard hat and grab a lunch pail and show
up at the Safeway parking lot at 7 o'clock," he