Fugitives find little reason to hide

More than 4,000 people are on 'wanted' lists in area suburbs, and few run the risk of being tracked down

Staff Writers
Dec. 19, 1996

A car with temporary license plates caught the attention of North Royalton Patrolman Phil Centorbi.

Centorbi, who was patrolling near State and Royalton roads, ran what he believed would be a routine registration check on the vehicle.

It turned out to be anything but routine.

The crime computer showed there was an outstanding warrant for the woman who owned the car. And when Centorbi stopped the vehicle, he found the driver was also a fugitive: He was wanted by the FBI for a bank robbery in Pittsburgh.

Instead of driving away with a ticket, the man was handcuffed, taken to jail and turned over to federal authorities.

If he hadn't given a police officer a reason to pull him over that night in 1994, the bank robbery suspect might still be at large.

In fact, many fugitives could say the same thing.

Because that -- a slip-up behind the wheel -- is how a surprising number of wanted criminals come to justice.

"Generally, most warrants are picked up on traffic stops," North Royalton Sgt. Glen K. McGraw said.

Fugitives wanted by area suburbs find it isn't difficult to dodge the justice system. Many go about their daily lives with little threat of being apprehended.

There are more than 4,000 suspects currently on "wanted" lists in Cleveland's southwestern suburbs, according to police and court records. But unless they get caught breaking a traffic law, few will be arrested.

"We don't have the manpower to go out and serve all these warrants," Parma Officer Bill Mauer said.

Berea Lt. Gary Black said the same manpower constraints prevent Berea police from conducting regular roundups of wanted individuals.

"It (picking up someone on a warrant) takes a minimum of two officers, for safety reasons. We do it when we have the chance, but we don't have an organized program," Black said.

Middleburg Heights Lt. Kenneth Smith said that city also cannot spare the manpower to operate a warrant division. He said police "will go out for a warrant for some specific cases, like domestic violence. But for traffic (warrants), you're just not going to do that."

Parma, the largest suburb, currently has 1,416 active arrest warrants, according to records.

The city has not had officers specifically assigned to tracking down offenders and serving warrants for at least 15 years, Mauer said. Instead, that department -- and most others in the area -- rely on suspects tripping up again, usually by breaking a traffic law. Police routinely run errant drivers' names through a national crime computer to check for outstanding warrants.

Those arrested for more serious crimes are likewise checked for warrants. "You have a tendency to put them in the computer and hope (the offenders) encounter the law again somewhere along the line," Brook Park Police Chief Thomas Dease said.

But that can take years.

Take, for example, the woman who never showed up in Berea Municipal Court after being cited by police for a traffic violation and ignored subsequent notices from the court. Ten years later, she was stopped for another traffic violation -- and was promptly arrested on an outstanding warrant stemming from the earlier ticket.

"To say she was surprised would be an understatement," said Raymond J. Wohl, Berea Municipal Court clerk. "But computers don't forget. Computers don't misplace."

Every area police department has a backlog of people on its wanted list, most numbering in the hundreds. Brook Park has 379 active warrants, while Strongsville reports 338, North Royalton has 281, Berea has an estimated 250 and Middleburg Heights has 239, according to officials.

Among smaller departments, Seven Hills is carrying 169 warrants, Olmsted Falls has 106 and Olmsted Township has 60.

Parma Heights carries about 600 active warrants, but that figure includes those wanted for failing to pay city income tax, according to Capt. Ray Hill.

The 'wanted' list

Warrants are generally issued when someone is arrested for a crime and fails to answer to it -- doesn't pay a fine for a speeding ticket or never shows up for a court hearing.

Bench warrants come from the courts, when a defendant fails to abide by a judge's order or violates probation.

A smaller number of warrants seek someone who has not been arrested for a crime, but is wanted for questioning. Police investigating a robbery or other serious crime sometimes develop a suspect based on evidence and issue a warrant for that person's arrest.

Nearly all of the warrants held by southwestern suburban departments are for misdemeanors, which can range from traffic offenses to simple assault to theft. In Parma, for example, 623 are contempt of court charges for failure to appear at an arraignment hearing on a misdemeanor offense; another 595 are for failing to pay fines.

Suburbs carry few, if any, felony warrants. Parma currently has 30, while Brook Park has eight and Strongsville one.

That is because prosecutors typically present felony cases to a grand jury, taking the case out of the suburb's jurisdiction and putting it in the lap of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department, which is responsible for bringing in people under indictment throughout the county.

The sheriff's wanted list now hovers at 12,000.

The vast majority of those come from Cleveland, although suburbs also contribute cases. But all city police departments see their responsibility end once the grand jury indicts.

"You would think when they go to the grand jury, the warrant would come back to (the cities), but it doesn't," said Chief Deputy Ray Ressler, who heads the sheriff's six- to eight-person warrant unit. "They know the guy, they made the (initial) arrest, they even see him on the street. It's their warrant, but we've got to find them."

That can rankle the deputies, who are handed 800 to 1,000 new warrants to serve every month.

Sheriff's Lt. Ralph Bottone said the local agencies are better equipped to locate some felony suspects but tend to wash their hands of the cases.

"We'll get calls from detectives in the suburbs telling us they just saw the suspect on the street the other day," he said. "We'll say, "Well, why the heck didn't you arrest them?' They'll say, "It's your warrant."'

In November, the sheriff's department cleared 924 felony warrants and received 891 new ones, records show.

Ressler said the unit typically tries at least once to serve all the new warrants. It then spends its time tracing the most serious offenders.

"We go out of our way to get the major ones," Ressler said.

But less serious crimes, like some drug cases and other non-violent crimes, can take weeks or months to serve. One bail bondsman whose company does work throughout northern Ohio said county offenders -- many of whom have posted 10-percent bonds -- run little or no risk of being apprehended if they don't show up in court.

"The court's not going to go after you," said the bondsman, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. "They're not going to even go across the county to get you. They're overloaded. They don't have the manpower to do it."

Some wanted criminals do seem to get comfortable within the system.

In 1993, an 18-year-old Valley City man was arrested on an outstanding murder warrant from Cleveland when he came to Berea Municipal Court to see a probation officer. The murder suspect, who was arrested after a police computer check, was complying with a municipal court order in a misdemeanor case when he was nabbed.

In April 1990, a 30-year-old man who witnessed a disturbance outside a downtown Berea bar not only didn't bolt when police arrived, he willingly submitted to an interview with officers. Police soon discovered the witness was a fugitive: The Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department wanted him for forgery, uttering a forged document and receiving stolen property, all felony offenses.

Even when fugitives are picked up by police on another charge, they are not always made to face the original offense. When someone who has jumped bond is found outside Ohio, a number of factors are considered in determining whether to bring him back, according to Thomas J. Sammon, a supervising assistant county prosecutor in charge of extraditions.

Those include the person's criminal history, the seriousness of the offense and the cost of transporting the person.

Police say they make every effort to retrieve wanted suspects but the effort can only go so far. "The more serious the offense, the wider the pickup area," Black said.

Knocking on doors

Some departments, including Strongsville and North Royalton, periodically run warrant details to round up fugitives, but most do not have a continuing program.

The exception is Parma Heights, which for the last two years has had a unit that does nothing but serve warrants. In the first 10 months of this year, the two-man detail has served 383 people, clearing 465 warrants.

Hill said the unit was started because Parma Heights, which collects its own income tax, had no way to track down those who owed the city tax money.

Hill said that even though failure to pay income tax is a crime, it is not eligible to be placed in the Law Enforcement Automated Data System computers and, therefore, would not show up when a police officer checks for warrants.

"The only way those (back taxes) get collected is to go out and knock on doors," Hill said.

But even with full-time officers assigned to the duty, it's not always easy to serve warrants.

"These people move around a lot," said Parma Heights Detective Robert Mash, who serves warrants for everything from murder to parking tickets.

When Mash and partner Lee Faecking started working in the unit, they were serving some warrants dating back 15 years or more.

Gradually, they have whittled down the stack. Mash said they have pursued all old warrants, including decades-old traffic cases even offenders have forgotten.

"It all adds up," Mash said.

Looking for 'tools'

Tracking down people with outstanding warrants is not a priority for most area police departments. But Berea's Black said it is unfair to suggest that a department isn't doing anything about fugitives because it has no warrant division.

"They (the fugitives) are all entered into the (crime) computer system. It's not like we're holding all these warrants at the police station and no one else knows about them," he said.

In fact, the computer -- because it provides immediate information about outstanding warrants -- can be a powerful tool for catching fugitives. A few examples:

In May 1991, now-retired Parma Capt. Joe Bovenzi answered a call about an intoxicated man walking on Pleasant Valley Road, became suspicious of the man's evasive answers and ran his name through the national crime computer. "It came back he's wanted on a double homicide in Bedford, Va.," Bovenzi said. The man, who is now on death row, had shot his estranged wife and their year-old son to death the previous day, which had been Mother's Day. The warrant had been in the computer less than 24 hours.

In March, Middleburg Heights police discovered the 20-year-old Brunswick man they'd pulled over for speeding on Interstate 71 was wanted in Medina County for receiving stolen property, a felony offense. Instead of getting a ticket and being sent on his way, the man was arrested, turned over to sheriff's deputies and taken to Medina County Jail.

In July 1991, a Berea police officer stopped to help a motorist with a flat right front tire and discovered there were outstanding warrants for the driver and a passenger. The passenger, 20, was wanted for robbery in Cleveland; the warrant was three days old.

But the crime computer isn't the only tool used to catch offenders.

Senate Bill 121, which took effect Nov. 19, prohibits anyone with an outstanding traffic warrant from renewing his or her vehicle registration. License bureaus now refuse annual registration stickers to people wanted on traffic offenses.

State Sen. Gary Suhadolnik, R-24, of Strongsville, who sponsored the bill, said the system offers a less costly way of nabbing fugitives than sending police officers to track them down.

Other efforts are also effective, police say. Some departments run an aggressive traffic patrol, in part, to chance upon outstanding warrants.

"That's one reason we make traffic stops on even minor violations," North Royalton's McGraw said. "It gives you a tool to use in trying to locate (fugitives)."

Parma hopes to shrink its wanted list with a special warrant unit, made up of retired police officers, next year. The officers would work as bailiffs of the Parma Municipal Court to serve warrants to people who failed to appear in court or pay fines.

Crime Stoppers, a privately funded organization that offers rewards to informants who provide tips about crimes or suspects' whereabouts, is also an effective means of locating fugitives, police say.

Police departments throughout Cuyahoga County provide information about wanted felony suspects to Crime Stoppers, which publishes their photos on posters, according to Cleveland Police Sgt. Daniel Hayes, who coordinates the program.

Law enforcement officers also maintain faith in the more hit-and-miss system of nabbing fugitives on the roadways.

"Eventually," Mash said, "everyone gets a traffic ticket."

ęCopyright 1996 Sun Newspapers