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Federal Aid

The U.S. Marshals Service has launched a support program to help local officers track down the worst of the worst.

May 01, 2004  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Last year Edward Mathis was living in a Detroit-area motel room under the alias Manny Rohena. He had been on the run since 1997, escaping custody after being charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and the brutal 1994 machine gun murders of Ari and Millie Espinal.

Mathis, who police reports say fired a burst from a Mac-10 machine pistol into the Espinals in front of their three-year-old son, was a primary target of a joint task force of local officers and U.S. Marshals. And they got their man.

On August 16, law enforcement officers from the New York/New Jersey Regional Task Force, the Redford (Mich.) Police Department, and U.S. Marshals converged on Mathis' hotel room to serve a Drug Enforcement Administration arrest warrant. Mathis didn't go quietly. He produced a 9mm Smith & Wesson semi-automatic with a laser sight and fired on the officers. The officers returned fire, killing Mathis. A subsequent search of the dead man's car yielded a .223 caliber SKS rifle, a ballistic vest, a smoke grenade, knives, boxes of 9mm ammo, and false identification.

The Mathis case didn't make a big splash nationwide. In fact, if Mathis had not been located by tips received from the viewers of "America's Most Wanted," it probably wouldn't have been covered in any nationwide media outlets.

But the Mathis case is noteworthy because it's a primary example of a new and important alliance between the U.S. Marshals Service and local law enforcement officers.

Improved cooperation between Marshals and local cops is the goal of a new federal initiative that was established after 9/11. U.S. Marshal Service Supervisor Inspector Lenny DePaul explains that the program was actually developed immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks. "After 9/11, Congress decided we needed to concentrate a little more on homeland security and tracking more dangerous fugitives," DePaul says.

One of the reasons why the Marshals Service was asked to establish a program to lend more comprehensive aid to local law enforcement was a concern that, in the wake of 9/11, anti-terrorism tasks would monopolize all of the resources of federal law enforcement agencies.

"The FBI is concentrating on terrorists," explains DePaul. "But Congress asked, 'What about our homeland? What about the criminals? The repeat offenders? If the FBI is targeting terrorists, then who is targeting the criminals? We are here to do that and the local departments should know about it."

Surprisingly, improving police and Marshal cooperation in the pursuit of fugitives was not just a fleeting concern for Congress. It was actually something that the legislature was willing to fund.

The pilot program was launched in New York and California with a $6 million appropriation. More funding was allocated last year when program offices were opened in Atlanta and Chicago.

And by all accounts, the program is a huge success. During the 20 months since the New York/New Jersey task force began its operations, joint efforts by Marshals and local cops have yielded 4,885 arrests. Of those arrests, 1,926 were for drug felonies, 214 were for murder/attempted murder, 359 for felony assault and kidnapping, 108 for rape, 173 for rape and sexual assault, and the remainder for robbery, illegal re-entry and other crimes.

Silent Partners

Local police chiefs and sheriffs hearing that the feds are offering to help them track a fugitive might reflexively respond, "No, thanks." But they might want to give the new U.S. Marshals Service task forces a closer look.

The Marshals say their cooperative program is unique because of the way it requires them to interact with local law enforcement. Much like a silent partner in a successful business, the Marshals bring with them money, manpower, and expertise. But when it comes to controlling the case and the publicity afterwards, they take a back seat.

"We don't adopt cases, we assist with them," DePaul says. "We are here to assist. We have a ton of money; we have resources, and it's all for the locals. That is why we are so unique."

The Marshals also say they don't play the kinds of "claim jumping" games that make so many local police officials reluctant to call in the feds. "They make the press releases; their chief takes over. We don't do press conferences. If they ask us to stick our heads in, we will," DePaul explains.

Success Stories

Police chiefs hearing DePaul's comments may be skeptical, but local departments who have requested the Marshals' assistance through this program say it really works.

Guidelines specify that any department can ask for help, and because the program is so well funded, most will get it. For example, if a fugitive leaves the state or the country, the Marshals have the ability to cut through red tape and seemingly endless domestic and foreign bureaucracies to get wire taps, search warrants, and anything else that they need to bring him home.

"We can make life very easy for local investigators," DePaul says. "We know what to do to get court orders and set up electronic surveillance. Instead of three weeks to wait, we can do it in hours and be up and running on phones."

Inside the Task Force

Police magazine was granted access to the inner workings of the Long Island unit of the New York/New Jersey task force.

The New York/New Jersey task force is headquartered in New York City, but it has satellite offices on Long Island and in three New Jersey cities: Trenton, Newark, and Atlantic City. The task force also includes representation from 80 law enforcement agencies.

On Long Island, the local task force is comprised of officers and agents from 21 different agencies, including local, county, state, and federal law enforcement, social services workers, prosecutors, and probation officers.

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