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Cat-And-Mouse Beat

Task Force Is Quietly Pulling Fugitives Off The Streets

May 7, 2007
By TRACY GORDON FOX, Courant Staff Writer

Four years ago, 350 local, state and federal law enforcement officers swooped into Hartford and rounded up dozens of suspects during a high-profile two-day operation that was supposed to reduce crime on the streets.

By the time it was over, and the 240 troopers left, police had only captured three of the 50 offenders considered most dangerous, who were wanted for murder, assault and drug dealing.

Less hyped but far more effective has been a small team of streetwise investigators made up of state troopers, Hartford police and parole and probation officers who remained in the city to track the violent fugitives who had eluded the 2003 sweep and the justice system.

Since that first raid in late 2003, the Statewide Fugitive Task Force has quietly nabbed 1,547 people wanted on felony warrants - 32 of them murder suspects - from the streets of Hartford and its surrounding towns.

"As we approach summer, we know there is going to be more people on the streets, and the propensity for violent crime seems to proliferate," said Lt. Col. Peter Terenzi, commander of operations for the state police. "I think with these guys pursuing those people and bringing them in, it gets them off the streets so there will hopefully be less shootings."

Dressed in baggy jeans, bulletproof vests and football jerseys emblazoned with "police," the team of officers fan out in groups of six to play the daily cat-and-mouse game with suspects who often move from house to house to avoid being captured. The Hartford detective assigned to the unit taps his street sources to find suspects, while the troopers use computer search engines and telephone and credit card records to find them.

This year, 137 felony warrants have been served, including three for murder. They have also seized two pistols, 10 grams of marijuana, 216 bags of heroin and nearly 4 grams of cocaine.

On Jan. 9, the task force caught Stephen Campbell, 21, who was wanted on charges of shooting two robbery victims in Hartford. They tracked him to his girlfriend's house in East Hartford, where he was arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder, assault and robbery in the non-fatal shootings. Two days later, they arrested Robert Jackson, 28, in Bloomfield after fleeing from the back of a home where he was staying. He was charged with attempted murder and assault in connection with a stabbing in November 2006.

Three murder suspects have been arrested while staying at the Motel Six on Weston Street in Hartford, including two men wanted on charges of shooting a man six times in Springfield in 2005.

"The task force has been able to focus on fugitives wanted in the most serious cases and who were possibly a risk to commit more violent crimes if they were not caught," Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said.

The task force has even caught eight fugitives wanted in a total of five other states.

Warrants for thousands of fugitives had piled up prior to 2003 because the Hartford police department had been unable to devote enough manpower to track down the suspects.

"They go out and look for folks before they commit further acts of violence. They've done some phenomenal stats. It is a lot," Lt. John Horvath, commander of the Hartford Police Intelligence Division, said of the number of arrests. "In 2003, there were a lot of warrants that needed to be served. We have the right people who know how to find people."

There are still numerous outstanding warrants, but "as soon as a serious felony warrant comes down, these guys are on top of it," Horvath said.

Although much of their focus is in Hartford, the task force has also arrested fugitives around the state. On Thursday, the team was called by the Danielson barracks to find a fugitive wanted in Massachusetts accused of robbery who had supposedly moved to the Plainfield area.

The sergeant and several troopers did some research and interviews, and after looking in a few different locations, they arrested their suspect, Antonio C. Bettencourt, 35, of Massachusetts, who had just been hired to paint the interior of a house in Brooklyn.

On a recent chilly spring morning, the task force met just after sunrise in a windowless classroom inside a nondescript government building in Hartford to discuss who they were going to pursue that day.

All of the police officers also work as members of the gang task force, auto theft task force or work under cover. They asked that their names not be used.

"We jump around. Sometimes we fly by the seat of our pants," said the state police sergeant, an 18-year veteran who has been with the task force for several years.

The first three suspects of the day were in Hartford's South End. In three unmarked cars, the troopers teamed up with the parole officers and the Hartford officer and all drove in a caravan to Franklin Avenue.

"It's business as usual," the sergeant said, reminding his team to cover the front and rear of their first target's home, a multifamily home on Franklin Avenue, where they were going after a fugitive wanted on charges of assault. The city was beginning to come to life with buses and cars and students walking to school as the officers spilled out of their cars and ran toward the home.

"We got our target. We got our target," the police radio crackled at 6:53 a.m.

But minutes later, the team realized they had the suspect's brother instead. Everyone in the house spoke only Spanish, and none of the officers could. Some of the residents hid in closets, fearing immigration officials. It turned out their suspect may be in Peru.

The officers then headed to a housing complex off Franklin Avenue to look for their second suspect.

The woman who answered the door told the officers that her relative was staying a few blocks away. The officers went to that house, where another woman said the suspect was no longer there. She slammed the door in their faces. "I don't want you in my apartment," she shouted.

Without a search warrant for that address, they could not force their way in, so they tried yet another address to look for the suspect, a rundown house on Oakland Terrace.

It was there that, finally, a few hours after starting their day, the task force found its first fugitive, Robert Morris, wanted for failing to appear on narcotics charges. They entered his niece's house as he was finishing his breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. He had a bag of marijuana on him.

"They are determined," Terenzi said. "For lack of a better term, they are going to dog whoever it is until they get them and bring them in."

By 1 p.m., the task force had arrested three more fugitives: one in Meriden on charges of auto theft, a Hartford man who failed to appear on narcotics charges and a man in Shelton who had failed to register as a sex offender.

Eric Gilbert of Martin Street in Hartford, rousted from his bedroom, did not seem surprised to see the cops.

"My man," Gilbert said calmly to one of the officers. "My warrants? You know what they is for?"

One of the troopers told him it was for failing to appear in court on charges of sale of narcotics.

"That's it?" he said. "I tried to turn myself in."

The sergeant said the task force has had busier days.

"We don't hit home runs every day," he said. "But even if it is a felony narcotics violation, the more of them we get off the street, the safer everyone else is."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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