Police in Houston blame Katrina evacuees in part for the city's rising homicide toll
By PAUL J. WEBER
HOUSTON- A letter to inmate No. 1352951 and a cell phone bill for $76.63, both found in a soggy New Orleans duplex ruined by Hurricane Katrina, led Louisiana bounty hunter James Martin to Texas.
It marked the seventh time since Katrina that Martin, whose pursuit of bail jumpers often begins with clues salvaged from abandoned New Orleans homes, has followed a trail to Texas.
"I don't think Texas really knows what they got," Martin said.
Katrina sent a lot of bad guys to Texas, as Houston is finding out.
Houston took in 150,000 evacuees - the most of any U.S. city - after Katrina struck on Aug. 29. Houston police believe the evacuees are partly responsible for a nearly 17.5 percent increase in homicides so far this year over the same period in 2005.
About 21 percent of Houston's 232 homicides through July 25 involved an evacuee as either a suspect or a victim, according to police, who attribute much of the bloodshed to fighting among rival New Orleans gang members.
"New Orleans allowed a lot of these guys to stay on the street for whatever reason or be picked up and released after 60 days," said Capt. Dale Brown, who oversees Houston's homicide division. "Texas law, I don't want to say it's tougher, but we take these offenses very seriously."
Judge Robert Eckels, chief executive of Harris County, which includes Houston, said Katrina evacuees arrested in the Houston have cost the county's criminal justice system more than $18 million. In June, Texas Gov. Rick Perry sent $19.5 million to Houston to help pay for additional officers and overtime to police the city after Katrina.
The police and the Harris County sheriff's department said they have no figures on how many Katrina evacuees have been arrested. Houston police said misdemeanor and felony arrests overall actually dropped last fall from the same period a year earlier. But the sheriff's department reported a 41 percent increase in felony arrests in November from the year before.
"I think some saw (Katrina) as an opportunity," Martin's bounty-hunting partner, Michael Wright, said of evacuees who fled New Orleans with criminal records. "No one knows who they are over here."
Katrina evacuees received fair warning when they arrived in Houston. Days after the storm, Mayor Bill White went on television, flanked by Houston police, and welcomed Katrina's bedraggled survivors with a stern warning that a jail cell was waiting for anyone who crossed the line.
Evacuee Vincent Wilson, a leader of the Katrina Survivors Association, was impressed. He said that in New Orleans before Katrina, "everyone knows that if the jail's crowded you get a slap on the hand and get released."
Eckels predicted the county's worst guests will go home once their federal assistance dries up. And if many choose to stick around, the county will be ready: "We don't put up with it here. If you break the law, you're going to be prosecuted."
On the Net:
Houston police: http://www.houstontx.gov/police
Louisiana Capital Assistance Center: http://www.thejusticecenter.org/lcac
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