- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

The creation of a “21st-century posse” by the U.S. Marshals Service paved the way recently for the arrest of several high-profile fugitives, including one on the agency’s “15 Most Wanted List,” agency authorities say.

The program, built around the marshals’ task force for fugitives concept, grew at the end of last month to include four regional task forces of local law enforcement authorities designated to work with federal agencies in the hunt for criminals.

The growing number of task forces and the interagency, interstate communication they support is “completely facilitating us cutting through the red tape,” said Geoff Shank, a senior inspector with the Marshals’ Investigative Services Division.

Mr. Shank said one of the task forces, based in Chicago, was key to the arrest last month in Belize of Michael Webster, who was wanted in Chicago for parole breach, sexual assault and unlawful flight.

Police were seeking Mr. Webster for questioning in a 2001 Chicago homicide and had a warrant for his arrest on three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault on suspicion that he sexually abused three children who had been in the custody of his mother.

The marshals-run task force tracked Mr. Webster to Belize, where he was apprehended June 30 by U.S. Diplomatic Security Service officials and Belizean police officers.

The task forces are invaluable because they allow marshals to operate investigative teams with modern intelligence-gathering ability without breaking away from a style of law enforcement so simple it’s old-fashioned, said Harry A. Layne, also a senior inspector in the investigations unit.

“It’s like an outgrowth of the old Wild West, when we used to raise a posse,” he said. “Only it’s a modern posse, a 21st-century posse.”

The congressionally funded regional task forces — in New York/New Jersey, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago — grew out of a previous fugitive-hunting program that employed Fugitive Investigation Strike Teams.

But FIST operations were limited in scope and temporarily were set up randomly around the country, organized to hunt a specific group of fugitives for a set amount of time.

Mr. Layne said the inherent difficulty in hunting fugitives is that often “in the criminal justice system, fugitives are overlooked and pushed into the background.”

That’s why the marshals pushed to make the FIST operations permanent by establishing regional task forces. One goal is to keep fugitive investigations alive when they otherwise would have faded into obscurity.

For each task force, marshals “deputize” local law enforcement officers so that they have the same level of authority as a marshal. A deputized New York City police officer has the authority to chase and put handcuffs on a fugitive outside his local jurisdiction of New York City.

Deputizing is key, marshals say, because it allows local authorities to act quickly in interstate investigations. For example, on Thursday, deputy U.S. marshals in Denver arrested Robert Nunes, who was wanted for an aggravated kidnapping and robbery in Allen, Texas.

Deputy marshals in Dallas learned Mr. Nunes had left Texas for Colorado, so they traveled there and conducted interviews that led them to the suspect at a hotel, where he was arrested without incident.

Marshals say, however, that the essence of the task forces is not how much power is given to local authorities, but the overall level of cohesion brought to interstate investigations by integrating local and federal agencies, including the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“It’s the classic force multiplier,” Mr. Layne said. “We’re able to enlist the services of local authorities and police that otherwise wouldn’t be working these kinds of cases.”

Marshals cite the Washington sniper investigation last fall as an example of cohesion in an interstate investigation. Members of the New York/New Jersey and the Pacific Southwest Regional Task Force were involved in the investigation.

“We bring all these different agencies together, and there’s a very powerful synergistic effect,” Mr. Layne said.


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