Escaping across state lines
Police won't chase 330,000 accused felons
YUCAIPA, Calif. – For a time, the intruder charged with pressing a revolver to Armando Botello's forehead truly was a wanted man. When he disappeared, the police promised to pursue him anywhere in the United States.
No longer. Last year, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department notified the FBI that it would pursue the accused armed robber only as far as the state border, even though investigators suspected he had long since left California.
In effect, the change meant that as long as the gunman left the state, he, like thousands of others, was now free to go.
Nationwide, police and prosecutors quietly told the FBI they had abandoned their pursuit of nearly 79,000 accused felons during the past year and a half, a USA TODAY investigation found. They have given up chasing people charged with armed robbery and raping children, usually without informing their victims. Police in one county in California reported they would no longer pursue three of their most-wanted fugitives and a man charged with a murder for which prosecutors have sought the death penalty.
The authorities had previously told the FBI – which maintains a vast index of the nation's fugitives – that they would arrest each of those suspects if police anywhere else in the United States happened to find them, a process known as extradition. But in each case, police and prosecutors have since indicated they will no longer fetch the fugitives if they flee.
So each can now escape the charges simply by crossing state lines. And FBI records suggest many do.
"That shocks me. I can't imagine why anybody would take a major felony and say we'll only arrest him within the state," said Joshua Marquis, the county prosecutor in Astoria, Ore., and a former vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. "I cannot imagine a case of sexual abuse or rape or murder where I would not go to the ends of the earth to get that person back."
In March, a USA TODAY investigation identified thousands of fugitives who police said they would not pursue if they fled the state, usually because they did not want to spend the time or money needed to get them back. The decisions, typically made in secret, allowed old crimes to go unpunished and offered fugitives a virtual license to commit new ones, often as close as in the state next door.
Those cases are multiplying. In just the past year and a half, the total number of fugitives who police won't pursue beyond a state border swelled nearly 77%, to 330,665. The main reason was police agencies changing their minds about what to do with people who have been wanted for years.
In San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, the sheriff's department told the FBI that it would no longer extradite 1,952 felony fugitives if they are arrested outside California. Among them was a man charged with sexually assaulting a young relative and others wanted for armed robberies, according to court records. It also includes the man police there charged with putting a revolver to Botello's head late one night in August 2011, Joshua Tillery.
Botello said he was awakened around 1 a.m. by a woman pounding on the side of the small travel trailer where he lives, pleading in Spanish for his help. When he opened the door, a man pressed the muzzle of a small revolver between his eyes, forced him back inside and sat him on his bed. He sat "frozen like a statue," he said, while another man loaded up the few luxuries he had accumulated working as a gardener: a flat-screen TV, a DVD player, his cellphone and his wallet. When the men left, Botello pedaled his bicycle to the police station to get help.
"My friends told me I should just leave the issue in peace. But I say no. They were my things, I worked hard for them, and they should catch him," Botello said through an interpreter. He said he doesn't wish Tillery ill, "but if he's done something bad, he should pay for it according to the law."
A spokeswoman for the county sheriff, Jodi Miller, said that she could not discuss the case to "ensure the integrity of the investigation." She said any change in Tillery's status – or that of any other fugitive – would have been approved by the county District Attorney's office. A spokesman for that office, Christopher Lee, said officials were "looking into this matter."
Botello said investigators from the Sheriff's Department told him that they had searched for Tillery but never found him. They concluded that Tillery had left the state, Botello said. It was a safe assumption; Tillery had ties to Washington state and was already wanted there on a weapons charge.
That's precisely where he ended up. In 2013, Tillery was sentenced to 13 years in prison for shooting an acquaintance in the head during an argument. That September, prison officials noted that Tillery has an outstanding robbery warrant in California, a fact that would ordinarily give authorities there an opportunity to be notified if he is going to be released.
But the notice from San Bernardino made clear what authorities intended to do when Tillery is freed: "NO EXTRADITION."
Southern California is the epicenter of the surge of newly unwanted fugitives.
In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, police reclassified 11,860 felony warrants as not extraditable, including three in cases listed as homicides, according to FBI records. Police in Los Angeles County gave up on extraditing 3,971 fugitives. And in neighboring Riverside County, FBI records show police stopped pursuing 3,934 fugitives, including three men the District Attorney still lists among the county's most-wanted fugitives.
One of those men, Javier Padilla, was charged with molesting a relative more than 100 times, starting when she was 7 years old. At officers' request, the girl called Padilla to ask whether he was embarrassed for touching her when she was so young. As police listened in, he "responded by apologizing and said he was sorry for everything," one of the officers wrote in a court filing.
Court records show the District Attorney's office approved extraditing Padilla when the case was filed in 2010, but they do not explain when or why his status changed in the national records.
Any changes in officials' extradition decisions are reflected in the FBI's confidential fugitive database, known as the National Crime Information Center. Police officers in all 50 states check that database whenever they pull drivers over for traffic violations or book them into jail. It tells them whether the person is wanted for a crime, and if so, how far the agency that wants him is willing to travel to get the person. USA TODAY identified newly unwanted fugitives by comparing extradition codes in two copies of that database, one from May 2013 and the other from mid-October.
In addition to three of its most-wanted fugitives, that comparison showed the Riverside County Sheriff's Department indicated to the FBI that it no longer intends to extradite Javier Hernandez, one of two men charged with pulling a man out of his car in 2004 and shooting him to death in front of his wife and children. Prosecutors said they intended to seek the death penalty against the other accused killer if he is convicted.
Just how many fugitives get away by crossing state lines is impossible to determine, in part because the FBI discourages police from notifying out-of-state authorities if fugitives are found beyond the extradition limit.
But FBI records nonetheless suggest that a significant number of fugitives have been found by the police but never returned. Nationwide, more than a quarter of felony fugitives whose warrants were marked as extraditable in the FBI's database had been located by the police at least once since they have been wanted, USA TODAY found.
Exactly why police reported they would no longer extradite those fugitives remains unclear even to some of the agencies responsible for making the decisions. Police and prosecutors from Southern California to Boston said they were unaware of the extent to which their warrants are now listed in the FBI's fugitive files as not extraditable until USA TODAY contacted them. The FBI said it could not comment on the changes because they are considered sensitive law enforcement information.
Riverside County sheriffs officials had no record of having changed the extradition records and would not have done so without authorization from prosecutors, Sgt. Mike Manning said. He said the department's own records were "squared away." He said a "glitch" in the state computer system that transmits fugitives' information from local police to the FBI might be to blame. The state Department of Justice, which operates that system, declined to comment. County prosecutors said the FBI's extradition records should not have been changed, and they did not know why they were.
The FBI requires law enforcement agencies to verify the accuracy of their fugitive listings at least once a year.
Whatever the reason, officials acknowledged that the non-extradition codes now associated with thousands of their warrants could result in fugitives going free because police in other states rely on that information when deciding whether to detain someone. Still, spokesman John Hall said the county has "no indication or evidence at this time that anyone was allowed to go free."
After USA TODAY inquired about 10 of those fugitives, Hall said that all "are and should be approved for extradition," even if that view isn't reflected in the records that the FBI had as of October.
Riverside County's District Attorney-elect, Mike Hestrin described the extradition changes as "ridiculous." Hestrin, a longtime prosecutor, said he didn't know whether they were made by mistake or as part of an effort to save money. Either way, he said he would fix it when he takes office in January.
"If this is simply an error, then we need to correct it. If it is a policy, then I am going to reverse it," he said.
Advocates for crime victims said they fear the reasons might be financial. "I'm troubled as to what might be driving these choices, and if it's solely financial, then what are we going to do to reverse that," said Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. "These are dangerous people."
Victims of the crimes involved said they were troubled by those changes, and by the fact that no one had notified them. Gina Avilez said police never told her that they would no longer pursue her former boyfriend, Alfonso Ramirez-Coronoa, who they charged in 2009 with assault for allegedly choking her to the point that "she started to lose her breath," then keeping her trapped in her bedroom for more than three hours.
"Why don't they care?" she asked. "He still has a record of something he's done wrong. Anywhere he goes, he should be punished. It's just not right at all."
In addition to giving up on older cases, police across the country have also added thousands of new fugitives to the list of people they won't pursue.
Since May of 2013, the total number of unwanted fugitives more than doubled in 12 states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts and Texas, USA TODAY found after examining records police submitted to the FBI. The number of non-extradition warrants for violent crimes nearly doubled, and the number for sexual offenses more than doubled, to 6,919.
The FBI would not release information that could identify any of those fugitives because it said doing so would violate their privacy. USA TODAY tracked them by reviewing police records and court cases across the United States.
In one case, for example, police in Framingham, Mass., charged that Carlos Alvarez raped a girl while holding a knife to her throat before gathering the telephone cords from her apartment and using them to tie her to a chair so that she could not call for help. In another, police accused Ader Mendoza of assaulting and trying to rape a former co-worker before she punched him off of her. Framingham police told the FBI they would not extradite either man, or 16 others wanted for sexual assaults.
"In my opinion, that's not right," said the woman Mendoza is accused of having attacked, who asked not to be identified.
Framingham's position, and that of other agencies, could reflect growing reluctance by the police to spend their time and money fetching criminals from other parts of the country. But in many cases, it also appears merely to reflect growing candor about the way police have operated for years.
The acting head of Massachusetts' Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, Jim Slater, said many police agencies had long indicated that they would decline to extradite some of their accused felons, but that fact was not reflected in the extradition codes the FBI uses in its database. Earlier this year, he said, state officials and the FBI updated thousands of fugitives' electronic files to reflect the decisions prosecutors had already made.
"This has been a historic problem with all states," Slater said. Now the FBI's records just reflect just how common that practice is.
In Brockton, Mass., south of Boston, prosecutors confirmed that they had not approved extradition for a man wanted for smashing an acquaintance's arm with a baseball bat before driving off in a car with Florida license plates, another man charged with slashing a man's neck during a fight over milk and a man accused of cracking two of Jessica O'Donnell's vertebrae as he choked and kicked her in December of 2011. "Maybe if I was dead they'd go get him," she said.
O'Donnell's accused attacker, Dennis Chaplin, could still end up being extradited if police ever find him, but not because of anything Brockton authorities have done. He is separately wanted for violating his parole in a breaking and entering case, and parole officials have promised to retrieve him from anyplace in the United States.
Brockton police referred questions about those cases to the Plymouth County District Attorney. Assistant District Attorney Bridget Norton Middleton said prosecutors had not yet decided whether to approve extradition in two of those cases, even though both have been pending for more than a year. In the third, she said prosecutors recently approved extradition, but she did not know whether the FBI had yet been told of the change. Brockton police list fugitives as not extraditable until prosecutors tell them to do otherwise.
"If you come here and commit a crime and hurt somebody, then you should come back here and answer for that crime," Middleton said. Still, she said it makes little sense to fetch suspects from other states if the case against them is flimsy, particularly if the victim has disappeared, too.
That's why she said prosecutors had not approved extraditing a man charged with raping his girlfriend's mother there in 2012.
The woman, who asked not to be identified, awoke on a July morning to a strange hand on her body. She said she saw her daughter's boyfriend, David Jones, beside her bed, sexually assaulting her. "I got this wicked feeling that somebody's in my house doing that to me," she said. She jumped up and chased him out the back door. Once he was gone, she discovered that he had stolen two televisions from her apartment.
Police charged Jones with burglary and rape, and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
But they told the FBI that they will retrieve him only if he comes back to Massachusetts. The woman said she heard he is in Florida. Middleton said prosecutors had not approved the case for extradition because they had been unable to get in touch with the victim, who still lives at the address listed in a police report.
"I feel like they let me down," the woman said when she found out. "It makes me angry that they let him go, that they won't pursue him."
Contributing: Brett Kelman of The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert-Sun
Follow investigative reporter Brad Heath on Twitter at @bradheath.