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For Fugitive Unit, The Hunt Never Ends

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 said.

Another capture for the D.C.-FBI fugitive task force.

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 rate."

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, authorities said.

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 murder suspects."

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 hide."

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 knocked again.

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," Atcheson said.

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 pistol.

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 police arrived.

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 said.

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 dog.

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 undercover.

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 said

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