Too long a wait

City teen fled system, was killed as warrant languished

Sun special report

April 03, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

When Jeffrey C. Butler ran away in November from an out-of-state treatment facility where he was serving a sentence for a carjacking in Baltimore, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

The warrant languished for months. City police said they did not receive information about it until March 21, as part of a joint effort with the state to reduce a backlog of juvenile warrants.

And by the time officers went looking for Butler on March 24, it was too late. He had been shot and killed the day before on a Southwest Baltimore street.

It wasn't the first missed opportunity to get the 18-year-old back into state custody. On March 16, Butler was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct in Baltimore, but he provided authorities with a fake name, Antwon Davis, court records show.

A fingerprint check revealed Butler's true identity, but a computer check turned up no warrants and he was freed, a state prison spokesman said.

Butler's case is the most recent example of a Baltimore youth who has been found dead after escaping custody or awaiting trial while on home detention.

In November, two 17-year-olds wanted on warrants for violating the terms of their pre-trial release were shot to death. And according to a Sun analysis, as many as 11 youths were killed last year after judges allowed them to await trial at home, rather than in jail.

"This kid was in the custody of a state program in Pennsylvania, and he ran," Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said of Butler. "It's very difficult to find these kids, and sometimes the kids don't realize that the best thing for their safety is to be in the system."

The lag in obtaining and serving Butler's warrant highlights the importance of a new initiative the Baltimore Police Department's Warrant Apprehension Task Force and state juvenile authorities began in February after several youths sought on warrants were killed before being found by police.

After Butler escaped from the Concern Treatment Unit for Boys in Coatesville, Pa., Circuit Judge Sylvester B. Cox assigned a "priority 3" - the second-lowest priority on a scale of one to four - to Butler's warrant.

Clifford said the task force received a list of unserved juvenile warrants in March, and that Butler's warrant for his November escape was in it.

"Why he didn't get on the list [until then], I don't know," the police spokesman said yesterday.

State officials were trying to determine last night how the warrant for Butler apparently got lost in the system.

Butler's personal and criminal history was typical of many juveniles in state custody. A Maryland Transit Administration officer first arrested him for trespassing at age 5, according to court records. His mother, who had six children with six men, abandoned Butler and a sibling when he was 7, records show.

Since then, he had been in and out of state custody for most of his life. And year after year, the crimes escalated from drug dealing to auto theft and finally the 2006 carjacking, according to court records.

Butler was found delinquent in that case and placed in state custody Aug. 6, at age 17. He was committed to the Concern program, and a judge was scheduled to review his status on June 4, according to court records.

Before he was sent to Pennsylvania, Butler apparently feared for his life, but his sister said she didn't know why. According to an Aug. 6 order signed by Judge Cox, Butler needed "individual therapy to address: familial and peer relationships, anxiety about being shot, psychiatric symptoms and anger."

"He told me he was afraid of being shot," said his sister, Mia Hawkins. "He got shot three times once before, when he was like 15. One stayed in him, and two came out."

Maryland officials sent Butler to Pennsylvania because there are not enough beds in Maryland to house all the children labeled too dangerous to live in the community.

As of September, Butler was one of 126 youth offenders in out-of-state facilities, according to Maryland data. Those facilities can be as far away as Texas, Iowa and Minnesota, said Circuit Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon.

The Concern program in Coatesville is defined as a "staff secure" facility, meaning that employees are supposed to monitor the boys around the clock, as opposed to a more restrictive "hardware secure" facility, which has locked doors and fences, said Tammy M. Brown, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

After Concern notified Butler's juvenile services caseworker of his escape, the caseworker immediately initiated the warrant process, Brown said. Butler called his caseworker to tell her he was safe.

"The caseworker made several attempts to go to his home," Brown said. "She did talk to the youth, who reached out to her. She made several attempts to contact a family member to determine the location of the youth."

Once a judge issues a warrant, it is law enforcement's responsibility to serve it.

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