For more than 25 years, Robert Jackson Crutchfield, a convicted murderer and escapee from a halfway house here, easily evaded the long arm of the law even after he was branded one of the District's most-wanted fugitives.

By changing his name to Robert Lee Dillon and obtaining a new driver's license in West Virginia, Crutchfield, 51, was able to avoid detection among 500,000 names in a database of wanted felons kept by the FBI'S National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Then, by pure chance, Crutchfield was discovered in mid-March, living what the local sheriff called "the good life" in small Denton, N.C. Federal marshals flew him back to the District last month to stand trial.

Crutchfield's evasion of arrest for a quarter century highlights one of the most intractable problems faced by law enforcement nationwide: finding criminals lost in huge backlogs of outstanding arrest warrants. With courts churning out thousands of new warrants each year and law enforcement agencies ill-equipped to keep up, it has become ever more likely that serious felons, many of them repeat offenders, will evade detection.

Law enforcement officials say there are hundreds of thousands of Crutchfields living under assumed names, amended birth dates and altered Social Security numbers. Their ranks are growing, even as computerized tracking systems become more sophisticated.

"You can't walk down the street today without passing somebody who is wanted," said William Bonk, a U.S. Marshals Service agent who formerly headed the D.C. Joint Fugitive Task Force of local and federal law enforcement agencies.

In most jurisdictions, a vast majority of the outstanding warrants--court orders authorizing police to pick someone up--involve minor offenses such as traffic violations, petty thefts or missed court dates. Yet these warrants clog up law enforcement computers and actually help serious felons escape notice, officials contend.

As Crutchfield's case shows, the apprehension of wanted criminals depends as much on pure chance as high-powered technology or gumshoe detective work.

"Most people wanted on a warrant still get picked up in traffic stops," said Lt. John Russell, an Arizona sheriff and National Sheriffs' Association fellow.

Warrant backlogs have reached gargantuan proportions in some states and in the Washington metro area, provoking controversy and a scramble for solutions.

California has 2.5 million unserved warrants, while Washington state counts 300,000. Massachusetts also has 300,000, with another 500,000 not yet recorded. A small but not insignificant number are for serious crimes. In California, for example, 2,600 are for homicides.

In the District and its suburbs, police and sheriff's departments are being pushed to either serve or purge outstanding warrants for offenses ranging from murder to misdemeanors. Prince George's County has 38,000; Montgomery County, 21,392; the District, 13,000; and Fairfax County, 4,100. In nearby Baltimore, the city and county have a staggering backlog of 61,000.

"Having so many outstanding warrants gives the impression that warrants are unimportant. If a warrant is issued, then it should be served," said Betty Ann Krahnke, the recently retired chairwoman of the Montgomery County Council's public safety committee.

Yet pressure to step up warrant service could prove counterproductive, since judicial systems are already stretched, some law enforcement officials say.

"The more arrests you make, the more the courts get overloaded, the more prosecutors you need and the more jails," said Charles "Bud" Meeks, interim executive director of the Alexandria-based National Sheriffs' Association.

In recent years, a series of tragedies has highlighted the sometimes deadly consequences of these backlogs.

In a 1996 Kentucky case, Sandra Colston was shot to death by her estranged husband, Donald, a paraplegic then confined to a wheelchair. A convicted robber, he had been wanted by police for violating parole. But faced with 9,000 other outstanding warrants, Kenton County, Ky., officers had not picked him up.

Charles Jaynes, who killed a 10-year-old Cambridge, Mass., boy in 1997, was wanted on 75 warrants from 18 different jurisdictions.

The problem hit home in suburban Maryland in January, when Janice Michelle Lancaster, 34, was slain by her estranged husband. An arrest warrant lay unprocessed in the Charles County district court clerk's office.

In March, George Trenton Bobbitt, 35, of Gaithersburg was sentenced to life in prison for the December 1998 shooting death of his former girlfriend, Zipporah Mack. Mack had obtained a warrant for Bobbitt's arrest on charges of attempted assault and kidnapping, but it was never served.

Crimes such as these have led officials in Montgomery and Prince George's counties to set up special committees to sift through thousands of old warrants, closing out those judged unserviceable and activating more serious ones. Officials acknowledge a treadmill quality.

"We've made a minor dent in our backlog and that was with every initiative we could pull out of our hats," said Sgt. Bill Ament, spokesman for the Prince George's County sheriff's office.

But the U.S. Marshals Service, ordered in 1998 by Attorney General Janet Reno to reduce its 24,000-warrant backlog, reported that its housecleaning paid off. In one year, the agency found 219 felons among "the worst of the bad" and caught three of its 15 Most Wanted, according to Arthur Roderick Jr., head of the service's fugitive investigations division.

One quick fix being discussed nationwide is linking criminal data centers to state motor vehicle bureaus and barring anyone with an outstanding warrant from renewing a driver's license.

"Right now, if you have an outstanding parking ticket, you can't get your license renewed. But if you have a murder warrant out on you, you still get your license renewed," said Mike Davis, spokesman for the Baltimore County Executive Office.

Lawmakers in Maryland recently passed legislation that takes effect July 1, barring people with outstanding warrants from renewing their licenses. Similar proposals are under consideration in California, Washington and Massachusetts.

Some law enforcement officials believe far more radical steps are needed to stanch the flood of misdemeanor warrants. Suggestions include establishing separate courts to handle minor drug and traffic violations, setting warrant expiration dates and imposing fines instead of so-called bench warrants on those who miss court appointments.

But Mark Spencer, Prince George's County deputy state's attorney, said he felt the backlog could be managed simply by setting up permanent review committees to regularly vet outstanding warrants.

Housecleaning In Montgomery

One by one, John McCarthy, Montgomery County's deputy state's attorney, read the case numbers of people wanted on 10-year-old misdemeanor warrants--a lady with an unlicensed dog, a homeless trespasser, a bad check writer, a petty thief.

It was boring work that took nearly two hours. But when McCarthy and three aides had sorted through the files in an overheated side room of the District Court building in Rockville, they had eliminated 500 cases from the county's backlog. (Another 2,000 were not yet entered into the tracking system.)

"You've got to use some common sense in the administration of justice," said McCarthy. "These were cases where there was no reason to hope we could prosecute."

The housecleaning serves a serious purpose.

"This is a process that will allow us to focus on the most serious cold cases," said Sgt. Michael Mancuso, head of the Montgomery County police department's fugitives unit.

No jurisdiction in the Washington suburbs has worked more diligently than Montgomery County to clear up outstanding warrants. County officials have produced three in-depth reports on the backlog since 1996. (The first surveyed eight area jurisdictions and concluded that all received more warrants than they could possibly serve.)

Three years ago, Montgomery launched a Warrant Reduction Initiative mobilizing additional personnel, including several AmeriCorps volunteers. It also installed a high-tech Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) to track warrants.

The state's attorney's office last August began a crash program with the police department and District Court to identify all misdemeanor warrants no longer serviceable because of their age, unknown addresses or lack of witnesses. The three parties are using a Maryland statute empowering the court's chief justice to invalidate open misdemeanor warrants after three years.

Nevertheless, at first the backlog kept growing, by 3,600 from 1995 to 1998. Last year, for the first time, it dropped, but only by 5.4 percent. The biggest improvement has been in the percentage of the almost 14,000 new warrants that county police and deputies serve each year: It rose from 67 percent in 1996 to 97 percent last year.

Police want to reduce the backlog to 5,000 within five years. But John A. Danskey Jr., who heads the department's warrant unit, said he needs at least nine more officers to accomplish the goal.

Krahnke, too, has doubts. "The current plan won't get us where we need to be," she said in a written statement.

Closing Out Cases In Prince George's

The first thing troubleshooter Alan V. Cecil did last year upon joining Prince George's County's special Stale Warrant Team was to seek advice on dealing with the county's 38,500-case backlog.

"We figured there must be a protocol for dealing with [the backlog] because this is a national problem," he said.

But he quickly discovered there was no "Rosetta stone," not even any useful advice from most other cities and states, according to deputy state's attorney Mark Spencer, who is Cecil's boss.

Since last July, Cecil, who deals with special projects, has been helping devise a protocol. His team had sifted through thousands of cases--some still recorded on 3-by-5 index cards--to decide which warrants would still stand up in court.

So far, the team has closed out 4,500 cases--1,000 simply because the defendants are dead. Hundreds dating back to the 1960s could not be served because the arresting officer was dead or retired. Hundreds involved complaints against companies now out of business.

Then there were the cases of wanted criminals already in jails. "There is a core of 5,000 who we know are locked up in other counties or cities, but the warrants are still open here," said Capt. James M. Tabb, coordinator of the sheriff's office warrant unit. (Warrants issued in one jurisdiction remain valid even if a person is serving time in another.)

Those sorting out the mess wonder if their efforts are futile because the sheriff's office, reeling from deep budget cuts, doesn't have the manpower to follow up. Since 1994, the force has dropped from 310 to 190, and the warrants unit has decreased from 28 officers to six.

Still, spokesman Bill Ament said the agency has tried. It has tapped federal food stamp records for current addresses of criminals, conducted month-long roundups and participated in federal stings.

Ament's conclusion: "Unless additional resources are allocated to this effort, it's going to take years to get rid of this backlog."

Annapolis Rebuffs A Joint Aid Request

In early February, Baltimore authorities discovered that two suspects in the slaying of a county police officer, Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero, had outstanding warrants. Suspect Donald White had three, including one for a charge of attempted murder. Suspected gunman Richard Moore had one.

A week after Prothero's death on Feb. 7, Baltimore Mayor Martin J. O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger proposed to Gov. Parris N. Glendening using $5.8 million in state money to establish a 60-person Joint Warrant Task Force.

The crux of Baltimore's crime problem, they argued, was a small number of repeat offenders. Many, like White and Moore, had outstanding warrants.

But the letter evoked no support from Annapolis.

State officials questioned O'Malley's commitment to providing city funding for a warrant squad and asked how the city could devote 30 officers to the proposed task force when it could not fill 234 vacancies.

"That's a local matter. The state is not prepared to get involved," said Michelle Byrnie, a Glendening spokeswoman.

Baltimore County is getting 28 new officers under a $22 million U.S. Department of Justice grant. But Byrnie said the county plans to use them to beef up patrols along high-crime commercial corridors--not to serve more warrants.

A District Fugitive's Number Comes Up

Police in Denton didn't need to go looking for Crutchfield. His friends did the work for them. His undoing came after a domestic squabble--much like the May 1971 incident in which he fatally stabbed his sister's boyfriend at 330 Ninth St. NE.

Crutchfield was serving the last months of his sentence in a halfway house when, on Jan. 28, 1975, he fled the District. He disappeared from law enforcement radar until March 10 this year, when his girlfriend's son pressed charges after a quarrel.

When he learned there was a warrant for his arrest, Crutchfield dutifully surrendered, and went home after posting a $500 bond. Soon afterward, a tipster urged Davidson County Sheriff Gerald K. Hege to check Crutchfield's history in the District.

Hege turned to the NCIC database and put in Crutchfield's alias--Robert Lee Dillon. Nothing turned up. Then he entered Crutchfield's Social Security number.

Bingo, a hit.

Hege notified the Marshals Service, and on March 13, officers picked up Crutchfield, who did not resist.

"We went up and called him by his real name," said Hege. "He replied, 'That's me.' "

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Montgomery County Warrants Backlog

There were 21,392 unserved items in the database on 12/1/99, including criminal, traffic and civil cases.

Total issued

Criminal 13,853 64%

Traffic 6,962 33%

Civil 577 3%

Responsibility

Police 19,695 92%

Sheriff 1,697 8%

* 18,486 (86.4%) of the unserved warrants were issued for persons with different names.

* 12,632 (59.1%) of the unserved warrants were issued for failure to appear in court.

SOURCE: County