Task force's teamwork turns up heat on fugitives Agencies unite to track violent criminals


Even fugitives miss their pets.

Tony Joshua was in hiding last April but he still cared enough to phone a local animal shelter to check on his boa constrictor and three piranha-like fish.

When Joshua was warned that the animals were about to be adopted, he showed up to rescue them, packing a semiautomatic pistol with 17 rounds of ammunition and about $15,000 worth of heroin and cocaine, according to police.

Waiting in the shelter parking lot were eight members of the Maryland Joint Violent Crime Fugitive Task Force, including Sgt. Al Rehn of the Maryland State Police.

It was Sergeant Rehn who had led Joshua to the ambush, posing on the telephone as a shelter employee.

Joshua stuck the pistol in his waistband even as officers surrounded his car, but they disarmed him without incident. Another prey, another collar.

Catching criminals on the run isn't easy. But members of the task force, made up of local and federal law enforcement officers, say they are doing a lot better these days thanks to the creative thinking and teamwork reflected in the Joshua arrest.

Since the 19-officer task force was formed a year ago, its members have gone after 825 fugitives and captured 381 murderers, armed robbers, sex offenders and others linked to violent crimes.

Nearly 200 other cases were resolved without arrest, when someone believed to be a fugitive was discovered already in jail, for example. Some on the wanted list are suspects, others are convicts who have fled, and some are like Joshua, who police say skipped out on his parole officer after serving time on drug and weapons charges. The task force only goes after fugitives it believes are dangerous.

"We unanimously agreed that what we wanted to do was not just go out and try to arrest everybody we could arrest," said Mel Fleming, the FBI agent in charge of the team. "We're out looking for people who have histories of violent crime. We know that statistically in America, those who did it before are doing it now."

Nationwide effort

There are 110 other fugitive task forces in the nation. They were formed as part of the FBI's Safe Streets campaign, which began early last year when the agency shifted several hundred agents from foreign counterintelligence to work fighting violent crime.

Members of the FBI, Maryland State Police and Baltimore city and county police departments make up the local task force, with 12 officers working out of the Baltimore FBI office in Woodlawn. Seven others work from an office in Landover, in the Washington suburbs.

"You can't have a criminal justice system if you can't get fugitives before the court," said Danny O. Coulson, special agent in charge of the FBI's Maryland-Delaware office. "People seem to have very little confidence in the criminal justice system. This shows we care, that we're trying to put violent offenders away."

He said it also forges good working relationships between federal agents and local police, and gets more investigators on the street, where they can develop informants.

Members of the task force say the team approach also is more efficient, allowing them to pool resources from the different agencies and avoid duplicating efforts.

"You can get things done a whole lot faster," said Don Diehl, a Baltimore County detective and task force member.

Before the task force was formed, the state police had about 10 people tracking fugitives statewide, said Lt. Robert L. Scruggs, commander of the investigative services section. They would succeed in 25 percent to 50 percent of their cases, he said. "But we weren't able to focus as this group has been able to," Lieutenant Scruggs said. "They are able to do much more."

Nationally the teams have arrested about 20,000 suspects, according to the FBI.

The task force members received special training for high-risk duty during a weeklong survival course conducted by the FBI in Quantico, Va. And they routinely train together locally to coordinate and improve their work.

Tracking Abernathy

In July, the local team logged one of its most significant arrests when it captured Gerald A. Abernathy, a paroled sex offender from Norfolk, Va., with a history of assault, kidnapping and rape convictions. He was suspected in the June 23 kidnap and murder of a woman who was abducted while jogging at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The woman's body was found buried in a cornfield.

Local investigators, informed that Abernathy had relatives here, discovered that he was staying at his stepdaughter's Northeast Baltimore home. Officers surrounded the house.

"He came out of that house hold ing his 9-month-old grandchild as a shield," said Maryland State Trooper Vaughn Foreman, who led the investigation. "After about five minutes of him being reassured that we weren't going to harm him, we arrested him." The baby was not injured.

In June, they tracked down Chauncey Dwayne Scott, a Baltimore man charged in the armed robbery of a Highland Avenue convenience store the previous August.

Scott had been on the run since 1991, when he escaped from a work release program. Officers closed in on Scott in the parking lot of his girlfriend's Woodlawn apartment as he tried to drive off in a BMW. Police said Scott jumped from the car while it was still moving, then tried to outrun officers, who tackled him after chasing him on foot for more than a mile. A duffel bag on the passenger seat of the car contained a loaded .38-caliber handgun.

Hiding in the refrigerator

Not all arrests are so eventful. Some are just strange. One time officers emerged from a house without a clue after searching for a woman who, witnesses assured them, was still inside.

They looked in every hiding place they could imagine but were befuddled, until an officer thought to check the refrigerator.

Despite a large volume of high-risk arrests, the only injury on the local team so far occurred during a recent stakeout that was interrupted by a house fire across the street.

When Detective Diehl and Baltimore City Detective Michael Morreale realized the house was ablaze, they made their way through thick smoke inside and rescued the two occupants.

Detective Morreale broke his hand on the way out.

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