Life on the run less comfortable, briefer, thanks to U.S. marshals

New thinking, technology locate fugitives abroad

January 18, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the summer of 2001, Warren Smith and Michael Robinson, two upper-middle-class drug traffickers, scaled the wall of a Tennessee detention center and disappeared, leaving few clues other than a homemade rope and a nearby scarecrow they undressed for its clothes.

But by that fall, after carefully watching financial transactions, interviewing the pair's acquaintances and becoming intimately familiar with their lifestyles and habits, the U.S. Marshals Service tracked the two to a resort on the coast of Brazil.

Brazilian police arrested them. Three weeks ago, Robinson was extradited to the United States after spending a year in Brazilian custody.

Smith, much to the distress of the Marshals Service, escaped from a Brazilian prison during a riot while awaiting extradition and is again on the run. Still, the marshals aren't worried.

"You can run, but you can't hide anymore," said Cassie Rowntree, senior inspector at the Marshals Service and lead agent on the Robinson-Smith case. "Things have changed."

The Smith and Robinson case is just one of hundreds the marshals have been solving in growing numbers lately. For almost five years, a quiet revolution has been under way in the world of international fugitive hunting, the result of new technology, better international cooperation and a greater sense of urgency on the part of law enforcement.

Even a decade ago, fugitives who fled abroad were often considered as good as gone and not worth the effort. Today, the Marshals Service and other agencies with foreign tracking units, such as the FBI, are focused on catching more and catching them sooner.

Their efforts are paying off.

In the past fiscal year the Marshals Service, whose wide-ranging duties include protecting courts and running the Witness Protection Program, apprehended more than 375 fugitives around the globe.

This reflected a steady increase from 252 in 1995, the earliest statistics available, without adding much to agency's resources or personnel. Officials suspect 7,000 to 8,000 fugitives are hiding abroad.

At the heart of the change is a new philosophy that finding a fugitive is no longer a matter of luck but skill.

"We've changed techniques to more personalize our investigations," said Marshal Chris Dudley, chief inspector of the International Investigations Unit, which is charged with finding federal and some state fugitives who are either suspected of a crime, have been convicted of a crime or have escaped from prison and fled the country.

"We look at them closely, and we look at cases that are 10 or 15 years old when everyone has forgotten about them," he said.

Knowing the quarry

It's a far cry from the past when the cases piled up and the agencies were satisfied to bring in a couple of dozen fugitives a year. Now they track even the smallest financial transactions and clues to a fugitive's travels.

Marshals study fugitives, learning their hobbies, habits and work patterns. They learn how they like to live, what they eat, where they prefer to sleep, all the while keeping tabs on the fugitives' relatives and acquaintances.

Their efforts have been greatly enhanced by new technology that allows them access to worldwide police networks and affords them the ability to track financial exchanges, phone records and e-mail.

They also benefit from better cooperation with other counties, dispatching marshals overseas to reinforce the importance of their own cases while making an extra effort to find other countries' fugitives hiding here.

"The Marshals Service has gone from moving at the speed of a hot air balloon to being the Concorde," said Bob Burton, a lifelong fugitive apprehension veteran and director of the National Enforcement Agency Inc., a private industry group that works with the FBI and the Marshals Service. "They have really blossomed."

To assist the marshals' new efforts, the Office of International Affairs at the Justice Department, the Marshals Service's parent agency, has created geographic teams to better maneuver through foreign legal systems and update extradition treaties.

"I don't know if people were any less committed to [finding fugitives] a generation ago," said one of the attorneys, "but now the U.S. and other countries believe strongly that you can't give up just because someone has left the jurisdiction."

More cooperation

The Marshals Service and other U.S. agencies have made strides, as well, to better work with Interpol, the France-based international police organization that brings together law enforcement officers from 181 countries.

"In the past, it was a lot of gumshoe work," said Jim Sullivan, a U.S. marshal and deputy director of the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol in Washington. "You see if there's a record that might exist that could lead you somewhere. Today everything is truly electronic."

But some of the best investigative work in recent years has come from approaching cases differently.

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