- Associated Press - Monday, October 9, 2017

HOUSTON (AP) - Leslie Ramin peered out the tinted windows as he eased his white Ford F-150 past a beat-up looking recycling center on Southview.

The Houston Chronicle reports the deputy U.S. marshal had just one question on his mind: Where in heck was Joshua Greene?

He had been hunting the accused armed robber for a week but Greene was proving an elusive target.

Charged with stealing $30,000 and medicine from a southwest Houston pharmacist as she opened her store, Greene posted bond then promptly skipped his next court hearing.

His failure to appear in court - and the severity of the crime - landed the 30-year-old south Houston man in the crosshairs of the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force, a multi-agency squad led by the U.S. Marshals Service.

The elite unit hunts many of the region’s most dangerous fugitives, working behind the scenes from a nondescript government office in downtown Houston.

In recent years, they’ve joined in the search for the killer of veteran lawman Clint Greenwood, the man who gunned down Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth, and a Houston man accused in a crime spree that left two people dead and another injured.

“Marshals have been forming posses from way back,” said Art Fernandez, the supervisory deputy U.S. Marshal who oversees the task force’s day-to-day operations. “We’re unique in the fact that we bring together experienced manhunters from local, state, and federal agencies.”

Their mission keeps them busy. A hub for drug traffickers, gangs and other criminals, Houston is a common hiding ground for fugitives, whether they are evading local police or trying to flee the country.

In 2016, the Houston-based task force apprehended 2,288 fugitives, including suspects wanted in more than 140 homicides, 400 aggravated robberies, 240 sex assaults and other sex offenses, and 750 assaults.

The hunt for Greene - who now sits behind bars in the Harris County jail awaiting trial - offers a window into the decades-long effort between local law enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service to get violent criminals off the street.

Deputy marshals make strong Hollywood and television fodder, from Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive” to Raylan Givens, the trigger-happy protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s “Justified.”

The day-to-day work, however, is less dramatic. Unlike the tidy plotlines of the silver screen, the real job requires tedious surveillance, hour after hour sitting hidden in trucks, following false leads to their disappointing conclusions, a steady zeroing in on suspects.

“Did you think it would be chasing crooks and kicking in doors all day?” Ramin asked. “I spend 10 to 12 hours in the truck every day.”

Ramin received orders on July 20 to find Greene, an open warrant added to the dozens he was working at the time.

A burly 46-year-old Army vet with a salty mouth and a keen sense of mischief, he started the way he always does: trying to get a sense of his next prey.

“You have to make a life picture of the guy,” Ramin said. “You want to be where he’s going, not where he was. You have to know him.”

Ramin had already scoured social media, searching for clues and potential leads. He had reviewed property and vehicle records, pored through case files, trying to figure out who Greene associated with and where he might be hiding.

There’s a grim calculus to the work. The more egregious the case, the higher the priority of catching the perp.

Simpler cases get picked up as time allows. And then there are the long-range, more difficult targets. One violent offender on Ramin’s list has spent a decade on the lam.

On a recent summer morning, Ramin headed out to his pickup with lunch and a backpack. It was time to hunt.

Ramin joined the Marshals Service 17 years ago, after two tours riding in tanks. He keeps his hair clipped short and has an affinity for military T-shirts, but he’s allowed himself to grow a bushy white patch of hair on his chin.

Greene’s case was one of several Ramin would be juggling that day.

First he turned his attentions first to a 19-year-old charged with aggravated assault, accused of beating another person with a broken table leg. He’d also been accused of attacking his mother.

The teen, with long blond hair, smirked in his booking photo.

“That’s always concerning,” Ramin said. “They’re not going to send us a kid if he doesn’t have problems.”

He drove first to a stately home in a leafy west Houston neighborhood and parked nearby, blending in with landscaping crews as he looked for the teen through small, black binoculars.

No dice. A security guard recognized a picture of the teen, but said he hadn’t been around for weeks.

Ramin headed next to an apartment in Humble, nearly 40 miles away. He spotted a maintenance worker heading down the sidewalk.

“You seen that kid?” he asked, pulling out a case file and showing the teen’s smiling mug.

No dice.

He headed to the complex’s leasing office, disappearing inside for several minutes, before lumbering out.

No dice.

Finally, he called the teen’s mom, who answered, sounding slightly panicked.

“He’s not trying to evade the law,” the woman said. Her son would turn himself in the next day, she promised.

The teen called Ramin soon after, repeating his mother’s pledge to turn himself in. Ramin hung up and shrugged.

“Nobody said we had to do it the hard way.”

The next morning, Ramin headed to a west Houston Starbucks to work in the early morning quiet for several hours, running down leads, identifying addresses he thought looked promising, and planning the rest of his day.

Still waiting to hear from the teen, he turned his attention to Greene, the accused robber.

“I’m trying to figure out where he would go,” he said. “But nothing’s lining up.”

In his truck, he cracked open his laptop, poring back through public records and social media.

In the back of his mind was a nagging worry - that someone else might get hurt before he found Greene.

“I’m worried that I won’t catch him in time,” he said.

The radio crackled. A Houston police officer helping Ramin had some new information: An associate, arrested days before, had recently rented a room for Greene at a local motel. By 11:25 a.m., Ramin was cruising along San Felipe, jawing with the officer over the radio.

Then came a tip an hour later, that Greene might be at a pawnshop on Briar Grove.

Ramin posted up outside, eyeballing a suspicious-looking pickup truck parked outside. Fifteen minutes later, an old man shuffled out of the shop and got into the truck.

“That really sucks,” Ramin said.

At 1 p.m., he was tooling the streets near Renwick and Gulfton, following another lead. His phone buzzed moments later. The teen was on the line, getting ready to turn himself in. He wanted to know what to do.

Ramin told him to head to the Harris County Jail.

“Thank you for doing the right thing,” he said.

He trolled the streets for another hour before his colleagues called again. They needed help: An accused killer from Mississippi was holed up in an apartment with marijuana and weapons.

Ramin joined the team at a staging area in the parking lot of Greenspoint Mall. They donned bulletproof vests and helmets, waiting for the word. It was just past 3:54 p.m.

“There’s a ton of drugs and a ton of guns in there,” one officer said.

Twenty minutes later, they drove caravan-style to the Imperial Oaks Apartments, then piled out of their vehicles, guns drawn, moving fast.

Two task force officers secured the perimeter. The rest ran up the stairs single file.

“Police!”

“Open the door!”

Inside, a toilet flushed and the door opened a crack, as a wide-eyed teen crawled down the stairs, keeping his hands very, very visible.

Behind him, a toddler wailed.

A deputy marshal grabbed the little girl and rushed down the stairs to get her away from the scene.

Two more men came out, including their fugitive.

A search of the apartment found one gun. It had been stolen, and was loaded with G2R R.I.P. bullets, solid copper rounds designed to break apart in their targets’ bodies.

The whole thing lasted just a few minutes.

“Just because it was easy doesn’t mean we’re not nervous or scared,” one deputy marshal said. “But if you do it enough, you eliminate hesitation, you go in with purpose. Hesitation kills.”

Ramin was back on the hunt for Greene the next morning.

It would be another day following tips across the city, another day spent cramped in his pickup, the aging air conditioning battling the scorching mid-summer heat. But he was optimistic.

“He’s tired,” Ramin said. “He’s going to make a mistake.”

He headed first to a battered neighborhood in south Houston where he’d heard Greene might be. Then, he got another tip that Greene might have gone to northwest Houston. He eased into the neighborhood and spotted a house with blinds drawn, a single plastic lawn chair sitting in the yard.

Then, finally, a solid tip from Greene’s old haunts in Sunnyside. Half an hour later, Ramin was easing through the neighborhood’s narrow streets.

“If I can get eyes on him, he’s going to jail,” Ramin said.

A recycling center caught his attention. A small shack leaned at one end of the property. Something didn’t feel right.

“He might be in there,” he said.

He wasn’t going to investigate alone, however.

“If I saw (him) and I couldn’t get the others, I wouldn’t make an arrest,” he said. “We don’t arrest alone. We use overwhelming force every time. It’s safer for everyone.”

A call came across his radio - a couple of Houston Police Department officers helping out wrongly thought they’d spotted Greene a few blocks away. Ramin circled back, trawling the streets. He stopped at a church, flashing his badge and showing staffers Greene’s photo, heading down the narrow streets, looking for suspicious cars, searching for his prey.

Hours after he first began searching the neighborhood, his radio crackled again.

Greene’s brother had flagged down one of the other officers. His brother was in the recycling center, he said, and wanted to surrender. He didn’t want to get shot.

Ramin rushed over and threw on his bulletproof vest. The other officers were there, too, with Greene’s brother.

“I’m not mad,” Ramin told him. “As long as he turns himself in.”

Greene emerged in khaki shorts and a white T-shirt.

He didn’t say much. He’d known the cops were looking for him - he’d found out days before, after Ramin interviewed some of his friends.

Then he’d seen Ramin’s white pickup truck circling his rabbit hole and decided to give himself up.

Greene stood quietly as an HPD officer cuffed him.

Ramin watched, a pace or two away, his hand resting on his Taser, a triumphant grin on his face.

“You were going to do the right thing anyway, right?” he asked Greene.

Greene looked back at Ramin.

He straightened, smirked, and slowly shook his head.

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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