08/29/2007

Operation FALCON 2007 nabs over 300 fugitives

By Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic

ARIZONA Close to a dozen lawmen quietly swarmed Apartment 27, pushing themselves against the stucco walls and clamoring to peer over a fence.

Guns pointed at the front door and an upper window.

"Police officers!" they yelled as they pounded on the door and a window. "Open the door!"

They could hear movement inside, but no one answered. They pounded and yelled some more. Nearly 20 minutes passed.

Finally, Deputy U.S. Marshal Mike Nahorniak punched the battering ram into the door. Once, twice, a third time, and officers rushed inside.

"Police! U.S. marshals!" they yelled. "Put your hands in the air! Come on down right now!"

Teresa Greene was led outside, barefoot and in her bathrobe, and handcuffed.

"What is going on?" she whined. "I was asleep."

Across Arizona, federal and local law-enforcement officers banded together last week to round up more than 300 fugitives as part of a nationwide effort to make communities safer. The sweeps ended Saturday. Among those snared were homicide suspects, robbers and child molesters.

"We try to pick the ones with the most-violent histories," said Tom Fairburn, who apprehends fugitives for the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department. "People that have the most potential to cause harm to the community."

There are more than 77,500 active warrants in Maricopa County alone. Those targeted have criminal histories that include things like aggravated assault, weapons violations, drug sales and sex offenses.

Greene, 48, ended up on the list when she violated her probation for drug charges.

"I didn't do nothing to bring 20 cops," Greene protested.

Greene said she had used methamphetamine and violated her probation only because she couldn't get into a treatment program. She was "clean" now, she insisted.

"This is a joke, right?" Greene asked as officers handcuffed her feet together and chained her arms to her waist before loading her into a van for transport to jail.

Joining forces

Operation FALCON as it's called was launched in 2005. Since then, more than 30,000 fugitives have been arrested nationwide, and nearly 38,000 warrants have been cleared in the annual sweeps. Across the country and in Arizona, murderers, sex offenders and gang members have been taken off the streets.

"It's a melting pot," Deputy U.S. Marshal Joshua Butout said. "We're trying to get as many as we can."

Bonus catches

Phoenix police were looking for a vehicle thief when they stumbled on a forgery ring and broke that up, too.

At another location, they found not only the armed robber they were looking for but also three other people with warrants.

Detectives with Phoenix police's fugitive-apprehension unit track down the wanted every day. But, with the stepped-up resources that come with Operation FALCON, officers busted about as many people in one week as they usually do in a month.

While the arrests of murder suspects and other violent criminals often catch headlines, Phoenix police Sgt. Bob Baker said catching those involved with drugs and document crimes, like forgery, actually can prevent a greater number of future crimes.

"They're terrorizing the city," he said. "Those are the people that are preying on you, me and our families."

Officers raided dozens of homes every day for a week, striking in the morning when fugitives were more likely to be asleep and less likely to run.

They scaled fences, hid behind walls and climbed into one apartment through a window they jimmied open.

Neighbors watch

John Ioannou watched police descend on his neighborhood near 23rd Avenue and Butler Drive at sunup.

"There's always activity late at night," said Ioannou, who has lived in the area since 1973. "They're always unloading stuff. There's always new people moving in, like they were probably doing drugs and other illegal stuff over there."

Still, Ioannou said, the arrested are usually back in a couple days.

"Two or three days later, they'll come out," he said. "They'll make bond and stuff. Maybe this time it's serious enough that they won't."

Roger Ramirez, 27, was pulled out of his house shirtless and in blue slippers.

Ramirez had already served a year in prison for aggravated assault and theft when police say he violated probation in a domestic violence case.

As he was chained and loaded into the van, Ramirez said he thought the warrant for his arrest had been "squashed."

"I'm not a bad guy," he said.

Every little bit helps

Police acknowledge the roundups aren't going to solve the crime problem, but they say flooding the streets and taking out a chunk of fugitives does help.

"You'll see kids running around these trailer parks, and we've got felons, known fugitives, living right next door to them," Butout said.

"We're at least making a little dent."

Copyright 2007 The Arizona Republic

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