New Orleans — Pat DiGiovanni was looking for a fugitive in the blustery pre-dawn darkness Tuesday morning, and he had some solid leads to track down.
DiGiovanni had a good description and was familiar with the fugitive as well.
For DiGiovanni, a member of the U.S. Marshals Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force, the only real challenge was figuring out which one of his fellow task force members had decided today would be a good day to make his lunch disappear.
He finally spotted the neat Tupperware container in the hands of Mark Gunnoe, one of the task force’s team leaders. Gunnoe laughed off the shenanigans as the group prepared to head out for its real work.
But while practical jokes and banter are a part of the task force’s routine, it’s not what the group does to earn its keep. When local law enforcement agencies need help tracking down violent or high-profile suspects, they often turn to the task force for assistance.
Just recently, members helped track down Larry “Sly” Haynes to Kentwood after, New Orleans police say, he killed his girlfriend and shot three others on South Roman Street in November.
The task force found Timothy Reed holed up in an eastern New Orleans motel when the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office suspected he might have killed Desmon Brown, 3, in Marrero earlier this month. And just last week, the task force helped track down Larry Ard, an inmate who escaped from the custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and was found living in a homeless shelter in Houston.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Doug Farrell, who supervises the task force, said the group finds suspects larger agencies can’t seem to locate and that smaller departments don’t have the manpower to chase.
“What we do is about 85 percent state and local warrants,” Farrell said. “We do different things for different agencies … If those agencies don’t pick up the fugitives they’re looking for immediately, we’ll pick them up.”
The U.S. Marshals began the task force in 2008 as part of plan to get federal resources more involved in local police work, Farrell said. The 16-member task force is an amalgamation of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. In addition to five U.S. Marshals, there are two New Orleans police officers, two Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies and an officer each from the Kenner Police Department, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s office, Louisiana State Police, Slidell Police Department, United States Border Patrol, St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office and the state office of Probation and Parole.
The task force is an example of how law enforcement agencies have increased their cooperation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the increased mobility of criminals in the region, Farrell said. With the involvement of multiple agencies, the task force can move between jurisdictions and actually operates in 13 parishes in Southeast Louisiana.
“This is really a force multiplier and a benefit for the agency,” he said. “The law enforcement community is not isolated any more.”
The U.S. Marshals and local agencies collaborate on selecting possible members. Participating agencies pay the base salaries for the officers, but overtime and equipment is provided by the federal government, Farrell said. Task force members collaborate to locate suspects wanted by their home agencies, and on suspects wanted from other agencies. Each day the task force starts with a binder of between five and 20 names and tries to work its way through the pile, Gunnoe said.
DiGiovanni has been with the task force for about four years after moving over from the warrants division with the JPSO. He’s worked in narcotics and as a patrol officer but said he likes the flow of the task force better than his previous stops.
“I don’t take things so personal,” he said.
In other work, like being a homicide detective or working sex crimes, the constant toll of dealing with distraught victims can be emotionally draining, DiGiovanni said. While the task force takes pride in catching fugitives, it’s more of a mental exercise than a personal quest, DiGiovanni said.
“I never did play chess, but someone told me that it’s a like a chess game,” said DiGiovanni, adding that successful task force members have to think like a fugitive to predict their next move.
Fellow task force members describe DiGiovanni as the guy who keeps things loose, mainly because he’s constantly ragging on any task force member who takes a long time to clear a case.
DiGiovanni claims he can establish a rapport with anyone, which is useful in persuading family members to help authorities find a fugitive. Kenner Police officer Matthew Glapion agreed that DiGiovanni is good at getting people to talk, but it’s often because Glapion offers the stick to DiGiovanni’s carrot.
It’s not that Glapion abuses suspects, but he said his sheer size seems to make him the “bad cop” by default in most situations. A former college basketball player, Glapion is an imposing figure who was a patrol officer before he joined the task force.
“Just by my size they remember me. Whatever happens, they remember me,” Glapion noted ruefully.
One of the keys in finding fugitives is to “decipher through the nonsense,” Glapion said. That means figuring out when relatives and love interests are lying and discovering which one of a fugitive’s favorite haunts he’s likely to return to. Although the task force has access to each department’s information database, and some federal sources of information, that’s not how most cases are solved. Mot of the information the task force receives comes from family members who are worried their loved one may be killed if they aren’t captured quickly, Farrell said.
“Many of them feel like their child is better going to jail than on the streets,” he said. “Running is no way to live.”
On Tuesday, the task force assembled on Poydras Street in the wee hours of the morning to get briefed on their first target: a fugitive named Angelo Ross who was wanted by the JPSO and believed to be hiding near Lapalco Boulevard or in Algiers. The task force does most of its field work in the pre-dawn hours because that’s when fugitives are least likely to respond violently, Farrell said. They are tired, often sleeping and typically staying with someone they care about.
Task force members donned their standard-issue bulletproof vests, complete with emergency medical kits. Task force members also have long rifles, shields and battering rams stowed in special compartments in their vehicles.
Gunnoe said that if the task force believes that someone might be a serious risk, they can call in SWAT teams from other agencies, but every task force member has tactical training to aid in making entry into homes.
The task force looks for members who have both tactical and investigative skills, because both are crucial to the job, Farrell said. But the most important skill, according to DiGiovanni and Glapion, is the ability to develop and maintain a network of contacts.
There are task forces throughout the country, and standard U.S. Marshals offices in most states. Joining the task force allows an officer to cut through the red tape, because he often knows someone who knows someone who might know where a fugitive may be hiding.
“I can pick up a phone and call to make something happen,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s a lot smoother to transferring from parish to parish with the U.S. Marshals.”
Kenner Police Chief Steve Caraway said that for a smaller agency like his, the task force fills a substantial void. He’s seen the task force track down fugitives so quickly it’s shocking.
“I can’t say enough about them, because they are mind boggling at what they do,” Caraway said. “I’ve seen cases where we give them information on hard-to-find criminals, and they find them in hours.”
More importantly, the task force helps Kenner be more efficient, Caraway said. If Caraway had to chase down suspects with his own department, he would likely have to dedicate three officers instead of the one he uses now. With the task force he gets a much greater return on his investment.
“To be honest with you, I thought we made out on this deal,” Caraway said. “I wish they would have come along sooner.”