Fugitives can’t hide from this deputy U.S. marshal

March 12, 2012

It is 6:24 a.m., the sun has not yet risen and the parking lot remains a lattice of shadow and orange-yellow streetlight as Deputy U.S. Marshal Willard King and four other deputies march toward the target of their raid, an apartment in Upper Marlboro where they think a fugitive is hiding.

King, wearing a bright red winter cap, gray sweatshirt and jeans, stations one deputy outside the rear of the complex in case the fugitive — a 23-year-old robber wanted for skipping a court appearance — leaps from the apartment’s third-floor window. Then he and the three other deputies slip through the unlocked entrance and up the stairs to apartment 303. Cupping his ear to the black door, King listens. Silence. The deputy, who at 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds has the solid build of a college tight end, starts pounding on the door — so hard that its metal frame rattles.

“Maintenance,” King screams in a Spanish accent, a common ruse.

No answer.

More pounding. Finally, a rustle and a woman’s groggy voice from just behind the door: “Who is it?”

“Pol-leece!” King yells in a menacing bass, a voice so deep that it has enticed offers for him to join his church choir. “Ma’am, I need you to open this door!”

The deadbolt clicks, and the door opens a crack to reveal King’s quarry, wearing only a pair of cartoon-decorated boxer shorts and black socks. The fugitive blinks against the hallway lights.

“Did I miss my court date?” the man asks while the deputies snap on the cuffs.

The arrest is a dramatic start to a typical shift for King and a 16-member squad of deputy U.S. marshals in the District that focuses on capturing fugitives. The deputies don’t solve crimes, and they don’t care whether fugitives are guilty; their job is to find them. In doing so, they play an indispensable role in the criminal justice system. Murderers, rapists, armed robbers, prostitutes, drug dealers, defendants who skip court dates and reluctant witnesses — deputies chase them all.

Hunting fugitives is dangerous — two deputies were fatally shot serving warrants last year in Missouri and West Virginia — and aspects of the job are just like what you see in movies such as “The Fugitive.” On almost every shift, it seems there is a requisite adrenaline-coursing rush of storming through a door, a high-speed pursuit, the use of high-tech tracking tools and a good-cop/bad-cop routine that can be just as dramatic as the ones you see on “Law & Order.”

But the work is also complex and nuanced — it’s combing databases to build a dossier on a “bandit,” a term deputies have used to describe fugitives since at least the Wild West era; it’s unspooling web upon web of lies; it’s carefully finagling information from a fugitives’ relatives; it’s pre-dawn raids to catch a slumbering fugitive followed by frenetic day-long dashes across the region in search of six more; it’s shivering in a stale-smelling government sedan during days-long stakeouts.

Most of all, it’s a cat-and-mouse chase that pits deputy against bandit, a competition that requires the careful weighing of facts and instinct on the fly — as demonstrated by the effort needed to nab the robber on this frigid Tuesday in Upper Marlboro.

The rules of the game

Just a week earlier, King had pressed his ear to another apartment door, this one in Northeast Washington, where he suspected the bandit was hiding. After a few seconds, the deputy heard the soft murmur of a television, perhaps the game show “The Price is Right.”

King was about to knock when he thought better of it. Hustling outside, he pulled a blue dossier from his bullet-resistant vest and restudied his notes. First, he examined the bandit’s mug shot, which revealed a man with pudgy cheeks and deep-set eyes. Then he skimmed the rap sheet of arrests for an armed robbery, a gun violation, an assault with a knife and drug possession; the man was on probation in D.C. Superior Court for robbery and was wanted because he had cut off his ankle monitor and failed to show up in court to explain why.

Next King flipped to a list of addresses and names he had linked to the suspect. The first address belonged to this apartment, and it was provided by the bandit to court officials. After speaking to a property manager, King had determined that the man’s mother lived here.

But was this the best address to try? King noticed two details that gave him pause — the fugitive had given another address, an apartment in Upper Marlboro, in a previous case, and King had discovered that place was rented to a woman, the same age as his fugitive. The deputy turned back to the rap sheet and noticed that his robber had recently been given a traffic ticket in that same neighborhood. Rubbing his goatee and closing his green eyes, King sighed. The woman, the deputy realized, was probably the fugitive’s girlfriend.

A 40-year-old former Marine who fought in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and joined the Marshals Service in 2003, King is a man of action who at the moment wanted nothing more than to bang on the door and, if there was no answer, smash it off its hinges. But his mind urged him to reconsider in light of two unwritten rules of his job: Fugitives almost always run to their girlfriends, and the first address he hits must be the best address, otherwise the bandit will “go rabbit,” or really start running.

Frustrated at not having noticed the potential link earlier, King summoned four fellow deputies waiting in the apartment complex parking lot — they assist each other on cases — and explained that he was calling off the raid because he needed to do more homework.

The next week, he visited the Upper Marlboro apartment complex, where he has arrested a number of fugitives, and spoke to one of its managers.

“Hi, sweetie,” the manager greeted King before confirming that the potential girlfriend lived in the place. King next obtained a court order that allowed a unit at the Marshals Service to use technology to track suspects, but the effort bore no fruit. (The Washington Post agreed to withhold details of the agency’s technology so as not to compromise future manhunts.)

Still, the information from the manager and the traffic ticket were enough to get King to switch from the mother’s house to the potential girlfriend’s.

“This is really a big game, a mental and physical game,” says King, who has been on the fugitive squad since 2009. “The bandit’s job is to run; our job is to catch him.”

Being good at the game — and King is very good, his supervisors say — requires an understanding of its rules. Among them: Homicide suspects are the easiest to catch because they usually don’t know they have been charged and haven’t adjusted their routines. Those who skip a court appearance are the toughest to nab because they know the law is coming. It’s almost always best to hit a house early to catch suspects sleeping, and a favored hiding spot among bandits is the closet. Scorned ex-girlfriends make the best informants — such as the one who helped King arrest a bandit he’d been hunting for six months.

And the most universal rule: Everybody lies. Mothers, fathers, aunts, cousins, the city employee, the federal worker, the average dude on the street — they all lie, about big things and small things, about the whereabouts of a witness, about where and what they ate for breakfast. From dawn until nightfall, a deputy’s day is measured not just in arrests but also in lies — those absorbed and those rendered.

Win some, lose some

It’s only 7:17 a.m., and the day is off to a promising start. King and his team have arrested the AWOL robber, and they are about to head to Northeast Washington in pursuit of a prostitute who skipped a court date. As he pulls out of the complex, the deputy taps the Ford’s radio and gospel music begins to reverberate from the car’s speakers.

King, who prays before every meal, hasn’t missed a service in years. He considers church a sanctuary away from the stresses of his job, although even there, his work intrudes. During a recent Wednesday night Bible study session, as the pastor spoke about grace and mercy, King received a call from an informant with a tip about a wanted drug dealer.

That was not an unusual moment for King, a man so dedicated to his job that his BlackBerry’s screen saver is a mug shot of a man he has been hunting for months — a fact that irks his girlfriend. He conducts surveillance on his days off, dreams about the men and women he is chasing, and refuses to eat until he catches someone, believing that food is a reward. His only fuel seems to be the Monster Energy drinks that he guzzles on the road in search of the dozen fugitives whose biographies he has catalogued in blue dossiers wedged into a torn blue duffle bag, which he keeps on the rear seat of the Ford.

One of those dossiers explains why King is pulling in front of a white, squat apartment complex on 46th Street NE just after 7:30 a.m.: A 28-year-old prostitute and drug addict with 31 arrests is wanted for failing to appear for a recent hearing in her latest case.

The deputy believes the woman is holed up in this apartment, which belongs to her sister. Again, King pounds on an apartment door. A few moments later, he hears someone frantically shuttling about inside. He keeps knocking and shouting, “Police! U.S. marshals with a warrant! Open the door!” But nobody answers.

“She’s trying to hide,” King tells the other deputies.

Ray Brown, a taciturn and hulking deputy whose head is obscured by the hood of his thick gray sweatshirt, pulls out a lock-picking set from the pocket of his blue jeans. After a few seconds of tinkering, he successfully unlocks the doorknob but can’t budge the deadbolt. He gives up and delivers four savage karate kicks to the door. It doesn’t budge, forcing Brown to retrieve a battering ram from his car; three smashes later, the deputies are inside the apartment, guns drawn.

To King’s chagrin, they don’t find the prostitute — just a man recently released from prison, whom the deputies find cowering under dirty clothes in the closet. The parolee claims to not know where the prostitute is hiding — a statement that King immediately dismisses as a lie.

“I thought that was a sure thing,” King fumes to Brown as they head to their cars to discuss which of their fugitives to hunt next. After a bit of back-and-forth, they select one of King’s: a potential homicide witness who has ducked D.C. police and prosecutors for weeks.

Threats, lies andarm-twisting

Six feverish hours later, King is glaring at the godmother of the 19-year-old witness. The diminutive woman is sitting on a mattress half-covered by a green sheet in the bedroom of her apartment, which has stained white walls and a floor littered with food wrappers, trash and dirty clothes. Casting a shadow over the godmother, King threatens to have the woman arrested because she has lied to him about knowing the witness and even momentarily slipped away in her car.

The woman can’t even bear to make eye contact with King; she seems to be hyperventilating.

“I, I, I don’t want to seem like I’m lying, just give me a moment,” she stammers, pausing, looking down at her hands, clasped in her lap. She seems like she is about to burst into tears. “I saw him, saw him, on Sunday,” she says. “That’s when I last saw him. He was here for dinner.”

King nods and does the math. Today is Tuesday. She last saw him Sunday — the deputy is only two days behind his fugitive. That is how deputies measure time — in the hours and days they trail a bandit — and King has made up a lot of ground in the past few hours, having started his chase two weeks behind. First, King and his team visited the witness’s mother, then his sister’s apartment, where they came across the teen’s girlfriend. The case would take some finesse because King cannot tell anyone that the teen might be a witness — that could get him killed or get him to really start running.

At first, King cajoled: “Help your son do the right thing.”

Then he lied: “Your boyfriend is only wanted for a curfew violation. I just have to bring him before a judge.”

Then he threatened: “Listen, I know you are pregnant,” he told the sister over the telephone. “How do I know that? I know lots of things. . . . Listen, the bottom line is that I would hate to have to charge you with obstructing a federal investigation. And I would hate to have you evicted. There are people here who are not on the lease.”

The arm-twisting, lies and threats worked. Eventually, the mother called King on his cellphone and gave him the name and address of her son’s godmother, with whom she said she thought her son was staying.

Still, no surprise to King, the mother lied — providing a bogus name and address, though she inadvertently put the deputy in the right neighborhood. After 20 minutes of speaking with residents, King tracked down the godmother.

“I know you are scared,” he tells her in her bedroom, shifting and softening his tone.

“You make me nervous,” she says, handing King her cellphone to prove that her godson’s number isn’t in its speed dial or in its memory. King glances at the phone and places it on a cluttered nightstand.

“Do you know anyone who can find him for me now?” King asks.

“My other son knows him,” she says, explaining that her son and the witness were grade-school classmates.

Suddenly, the front door opens, revealing a young man in black boots and a black sweatsuit. His jaw momentarily drops when he spots several heavily armed deputies in his living room. Before the woman can finish saying, “That’s my other son,” King and the other deputies whisk the teenager into a bedroom and sit him on a bed. The teen glowers before dropping his head to study his boots.

King lets silence fill the room as he mulls how to proceed. Getting tough with a street-tough kid like this won’t work, he thinks. King — who grew up on upper 9th Street NW and graduated from the District’s Coolidge High School in 1989 — has an ear for the street. So, he tries a different approach.

“I’m not going to [expletive] you, you know, all right?” he says softly, as if he were a coach on a high school basketball team trying to mentor a player. “Your mother lied to me. I’m not trying to charge her. I know [the witness] is your boy . . .

“I don’t know nothing,” the teen says.

“Unfortunately, the marshals are after him,” King continues, ignoring the teen’s interjection. “I need to get [the witness] down to the courthouse and bring him before the judge to explain why he missed curfew. Your mother . . . she has never been arrested before. But she lied. For real. I’m not trying to charge her with anything . . .

King lets his words hang in the small room. “Will you call him for me? Get this over with. Man up. I know this is your boy.”

“I don’t know,” he says, still staring at his boots. “I can try to approach, let him know.”

Ripping a scrap of paper from a spiral-bound notebook on the floor, King jots down his cell number (he avoids passing out business cards because nobody wants to be seen with one on the street) and slips the paper into the teen’s hand.

“I can’t let this go on for long. If it goes bad, it goes bad,” says King as he walks out of the apartment and to his car.

It is only 2 p.m., but it has been a long day. King is going to return to the office, type reports and court orders, and build yet another dossier on yet another fugitive. He is not optimistic about catching the witness any time soon and is convinced that he will be revisiting the mother, sister, girlfriend and godmother, asking the same questions and making the same threats. Even when he catches the teenager, King isn’t sure what good it will do — the witness will probably just lie anyway.

But none of that is King’s concern.

The bandit’s job is to run, and the deputy’s job is to catch him.

Post script: The next morning, while working on another case, King received a call on his cellphone. It was the witness, wanting to turn himself in. An hour later, King dropped the witness off with police and prosecutors — proving yet another rule of the marshals’ code: Expect the unexpected.

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