This is what happens when we waste resources on non-violent drug offenders rather than violent criminals.
Free to flee Are fugitives an open secret in law enforcement?
Found but let go, fugitives strike again it’s been an open secret in law enforcement for decades. Authorities refuse to investigation found that authorities have long refused to pick up fugitives who have fled, extradite many sought on warrants, and "these guys know they can just take off."
By Joe Mahr
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
CLEVELAND — Halfway up a gentle slope in Sunset Memorial Park, a heart-shaped wreath of red and white carnations stands over a grave marker etched with Badge No. 545. Cathy Clark and Pat McLaughlin sit on either side, absently plucking blades of grass as they recall the life of the man they loved, and their bitterness over his death. The man who wore badge 545 - Clark's husband, McLaughlin's son - was gunned down by a fugitive from Florida who was wanted for assault and robbery.
A fugitive who, hours earlier, had been in jail in Ohio.
A fugitive who had to be let go, because Florida wouldn't pick him up.
"They should have extradited - there was no excuse," said McLaughlin, on the ninth anniversary of the death of police Detective Robert Clark.
Cathy Clark added: "It's just hard to understand. ... You get really disillusioned the more you learn."
A Post-Dispatch investigation found that authorities have long refused to pick up fugitives who have fled.
Even when their warrants are put into national databases and even when police locate them elsewhere, fugitives regularly don't face justice.
Law enforcement officials across the nation acknowledge that their inability or unwillingness to extradite merely shifts the danger to another community.
"It's a joke really," said Oregon prosecutor Ed Caleb. "And the joke's unfortunately on all of us, because these guys know they can just take off."
The open secret
The unwillingness to retrieve fugitives has long been common knowledge in law enforcement.
Cases that make headlines often result in extradition, but other cases never make the cut.
Most law enforcement data on fugitives is kept secret by state and federal laws and policies. So the best glimpse of the problem comes from information kept by two federal agencies that provided data: the Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs.
Under orders by Congress, both agencies match their recipient rolls against databases of fugitives wanted on felonies and pass the names and addresses to police.
Police often don't tell the agencies what they did with the new addresses. But when they do report back, they routinely say the fugitives were too far away to pick up.
In nearly 5,000 active cases since 2000 in which police notified Social Security of the outcome, authorities refused to retrieve fugitives wanted on violent felonies 28 percent of the time. The rate was 37 percent for the 171 Veterans Affairs cases.
For nonviolent felonies, authorities declined to extradite in nearly 40 percent of the 25,000 matches.
The failure to extradite can backfire.
Social Security notified Virginia authorities in 2000 that fugitive Felipe Fowlkes was living in New York. Fowlkes, with convictions for assault and sex crimes, was wanted on charges of felony theft and voter fraud.
But Virginia was unwilling to travel 500 miles to pick up Fowlkes.
His benefits were cut off in April 2000. Three weeks later, he tried to rob a woman in New York, resulting in three years in prison. Virginia had not filed a detainer to hold Fowlkes, so he was released when his term was up.
In 2003, six weeks after his release, Fowlkes raped a girl, 15, in Massachusetts.
Authorities in Nottoway County, Va., did not respond to questions about why they didn't retrieve Fowlkes.
In Oregon, authorities had an active warrant out for nine years for Victor Batres-Martinez, an illegal immigrant whose rap sheet included armed robbery and kidnapping. The last warrant, in 1993 in Oregon, was for drugs.
Immigration officials arrested him crossing the border into New Mexico in 2002, but Portland authorities wouldn't travel outside the Pacific Northwest to retrieve him. He was driven back to Mexico and released.
Seven months later, he made his way back to Oregon. In Klamath Falls, he came across two nuns on a bike path, and beat and raped them.
One nun died.
There was no outcry over the decision not to extradite.
Even Caleb, the man who later prosecuted Batres-Martinez, said he didn't blame Portland officials.
Oregon's budget reimburses extradition costs only in extreme cases. An informal network of police agencies will shuttle fugitives for free, but only in the Pacific Northwest.
With the state's lack of prison space, authorities usually don't pursue fugitives facing nonviolent charges, Caleb said.
"If he goes across the (state) border, everybody's glad they don't have to extradite him back now, because everybody's so overcrowded," Caleb said. "It's really a horrible way to run a criminal justice system."
Florida's Lee County was willing to cross state lines to retrieve fugitive Correy Major - but not all state lines.
Major had seriously injured an elderly woman in 1997 when he stepped on her face to steal her purse, and he nearly wrestled the gun away from a police officer who chased him down.
County authorities were willing to retrieve him from anywhere in the southeastern United States.
They'd go only as far north as Kentucky.
He fled Florida and was arrested two months later in a strip club in suburban Cleveland for breaking into a pickup and resisting arrest. Police there contacted Florida authorities but learned that Ohio was one state too far for Florida to travel.
So Major posted $900 bond on the Ohio misdemeanor charges. He called his mother to tell her he was being released.
"He said, 'Something ain't right,'" recalled his mother, Annie Watts. "He said, 'They're setting me up.'"
Eight hours later, police officers from a different department came upon Major selling drugs on a Cleveland street corner, records show. They had no idea he was a fugitive.
They chased him up the stairs of an apartment building. Major pulled a gun and shot at them, hitting Detective Clark, before another officer shot back, killing Major.
Officers rushed Clark to the hospital, but doctors couldn't save him. Then they learned that Major was a fugitive, in police hands just hours earlier.
"We all felt like we were betrayed," Sgt. Jerry Zarlenga recalled. "How could that happen?"
Still no solution
Lee County authorities were quick to apologize, and changed their procedure to allow supervisors to make exceptions to extradition limits. They say they rarely decline to extradite now.
Yet statewide in Florida, it's clear that authorities won't cross state lines for nearly 60 percent of felony warrants involving violence, sex or guns, because they aren't even entered into the FBI fugitive database, according to information from the state.
In Florida, as in many states, the local sheriff or prosecutor must pay for extradition costs.
Missouri reimburses local officials, spending about $2 million a year so they can pick up fugitives from out of state. But even in Missouri, in 10 percent of felony warrants involving violence, sex or guns, agencies will not go out of state to retrieve fugitives.
Illinois has a state fund for extradition but hasn't put any money in it.
In 1999, the FBI's Advisory Policy Board, a group composed mostly of state and local officers who help oversee the national fugitive database, tried unsuccessfully to get federal aid for extradition.
Former board chairman Gray Buckley pushed the idea before he left the board that year, and said he was frustrated it had been ignored.
"We're talking about saving lives," he said.
The U.S. Marshals Service will fly fugitives - for a fee, said William Sorukas, the agency's chief inspector for domestic investigations.
To transport suspects in violent felonies for free, he estimated his agency would need $10 million to $20 million and more planes.
But he would support the idea.
"This is frustrating for the detectives who may have put months into the case developing a suspect, and it's up to the DA who says, 'We can't afford to bring them back.'"
The frustration extends to the family and friends of victims produced by the failure to extradite.
Clark's friend Zarlenga wonders why public officials haven't addressed the problem.
"Somebody should be stepping forward."
Clark's family tried.
His sister, Mary Forbes, said family members contacted prosecutors' groups about setting up nationwide extradition guidelines. They were told it was impractical.
Nine years after her brother's death, there remain no standards or federal aid.
To Forbes: "It's just a very broken-down system that has a lot of holes."