From catching street thugs to Bobby Thompson, how Cleveland US Marshals earned their reputation

CLEVELAND - Reputations are not established overnight. They have to be earned.

As with any organization, the U.S. Marshal Service of the Northern District of Ohio got its reputation for apprehending fugitives thanks to the men and women who do the hard work on the streets every day.

But that reputation took time. U.S. Marshal of Northern Ohio Pete Elliott formed the Violent Fugitive Task Force ten years ago. He also had some help.

“Before – and I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had tell me this – before Marshal Elliot came here and spearheaded this thing, most people didn’t even know who the Marshals were – even in law enforcement,” said Drew Deserto, Assistant Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal. “They thought we were cowboys or ran the court security. Now, almost everyone knows who we are.”

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Based in Cleveland, the Northern Ohio Marshals traditionally have just over 40 Deputy Marshals whose job is to track down fugitives from that region. And while their duties have not changed in the ten years since the task force formed, their success rate has grown. In that time, the Marshals have partnered with 125 different law enforcement agencies, arresting more than 32,000 fugitives.

“Monthly, we arrest 300 to 400 people. And we’re one of the higher performing Marshal task forces in the country,” Deserto said. “We’re in the top four in the nation for statistics of arrest.”

The task force works about 300 to 400 warrants a month on the state and local level. It was a different story before the task force was formed.

“If we weren’t doing this, a lot of the fugitives would not get caught unless they got pulled over in a traffic stop,” Deserto said. “We’re making a serious impact in my experience on targeting them and bringing them in quickly.”

This all begs the question: what makes this task force so successful?

“It didn’t start out that big,” Deserto said. “It has grown with people, and now it’s a well-oiled machine.”

Under Elliott’s direction, Deserto has had his current position as the person overseeing the Northern Ohio task force in since 2008. He left a job as Deputy Marshal in Houston, Texas, to take this position, but taking the job was really coming home for Deserto: before Houston, he was a Deputy Marshal in Cleveland.

“It was a change of pace, but also exciting,” Deserto said. “The same task force that I helped start in 2003, now I get to run it.”

The Violent Fugitive Task Force covers the 40 counties in the Northern Ohio Marshals’ district. It has task force teams set up in Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Elyria, Mansfield, Toledo, and Youngstown, with part-time teams in Painesville and Warren. Each team has a Deputy Marshal who partners with officers from local, state or federal agencies.

If a fugitive wanted in Cleveland runs off to Toledo, the Cleveland team does not follow him. Instead, it just calls the Toledo team to track him down.

Although an administrator, Deserto still likes to get into the field with the teams a few times a month.

“It starts with one guy, going door to door. Sometimes it’s just an interview,” he said. “People react in all different ways. We try to be respectful and treat them as they treat us.”

But performing a warrant sweep – or “hits,” as the Marshals call them – is serious business.

“Anywhere we go, we always surround the house, because people will jump out windows,” Deserto said. “When we make a hit, everybody is viewed as a potential threat.”

That’s why the Violent Fugitive Task Force is not just a fancy name.

“Most of the people we deal with are violent, dangerous criminals, who would shoot you in the face as say hi to you,” said Ryan Helfrich, Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio.

That is where the task force comes in. If a Marshal tracks a violent fugitive to a city, a team from the task force goes in to make the arrest, which could be half a dozen officers. Helfrich said that overwhelming the fugitive with greater numbers helps ensure no one gets hurt. Hits are also done in the morning, while the fugitives are still sleeping, because the element of surprise helps.

“Ninety-nine percent of criminals we deal with here have no respect for authority, no respect for the police,” Helfrich said. “Most don’t want to go to jail, and will do what it takes not to go back. But they won’t risk shooting it out with ten or fifteen people. They know they’re not going to win.”

When making hits, the Marshals said they never know what they will find on the other side of a door.

“I mentally prepare myself every day I got out, that there’s a chance I could get shot,” said Helfrich, a father of two. “I don’t worry it’s going to happen. I think it’s going to happen.

In my mind, if I’m expecting I’m going to get shot – and I don’t – it’s a good day.”

But the Northern Ohio Marshals have been fortunate when it comes to weapons being fired.

“We had a couple of dogs who had to be shot. A couple of fugitives who killed themselves. One instance where one of our guys fired at a suspect who was pulling a gun from a waistband,” Deserto said. “And thank God none of our guys were shot.”

Deserto and the Deputy Marshals said that safety record is due to training. The Marshals typically have some kind of group training every three months.

“If I get into a gun battle, I would like to know I’m going to automatically do the things I’m trained to do,” Helfrich said. “Where are shots coming from? Are there more people in house? Kids in the house? If I shoot, what’s behind that guy, where’s the round going to go?”

The Marshals are also trained to recognize when a situation requires more force. If a fugitive barricades himself inside a house, the task force calls out the SWAT team.

“That’s all they do, that’s all they train for,” Deserto said. “In my experience, every SWAT team we deal with is professional and I would not hesitate calling them out to a scene. We’re good at it too. But they’re a little bit better. Because of that, I think we’ve saved a lot of lives.”

A growing reality is that the majority of the cases the Marshals work on are drug-related. That could mean the fugitive is wanted on a drug charge, the fugitive is wanted for a crime over drugs, the fugitive was on drugs when the crime was committed, or the fugitive has drugs on him when arrested.

“When you’re seeing firsthand the result of long term drug usage, and what it can do and how it destroys people and destroys families, it’s pretty devastating, pretty sad,” Deserto said.

Deserto said the Marshals used to see a lot of amphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana, which is imported. But now people are making their own drugs, like meth. Furthermore, the abuse of prescription pills is growing, as is the heroin epidemic across Northeast Ohio.

“Time and again, we arrest people with a narcotics history and they don’t come out of jail and never use drugs again. It’s hard for them to stay away,” Deserto said. “It’s probably one of the worst plagues of our society.”

But perspective is everything. When Deserto worked with the Marshals in Houston, the drug world was a different story.

Deserto said, arresting a man with five kilos of cocaine is a large seizure in Northern Ohio. “In Houston, that’s nothing. When I got down there, we found fifty kilos in a kitchen and they weren’t even phased. Same with amount of cash seized. The amount along the border is higher.”

In Texas, the Marshals often face cartel-level drug cases. Simply put, the criminals there have more resources available to them, because the drug cartels are just across the border. Drugs are big business for the cartels and the U.S. border is their gateway.

In those cases, the DEA, FBI, or ATF will build a huge case on narcotics, firearms, or trafficking, and indict 50 to 100 people. Over the next couple days, those agencies work with the Marshals to round them up.

But the main problem with trying to bust a cartel is that the well-funded masterminds have never set foot into the U.S. They remain in some South American country while they have their foot soldiers do the grunt work, distributing drugs across the border.

It is possible to make arrests across the border, but it is not easy. The Marshals have the broadest arresting powers of any U.S. law enforcement agency. They have Deputies south of the border, working with local law enforcement to try and make arrests in those countries.

But sometimes a case comes along unlike any other.

“It seems like you’ve seen it all – then the next day might top it,” said Tony Gardner, Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio.

In 2011, Gardner was assigned the Bobby Thompson case. Thompson was accused of creating a bogus charity called the U.S. Navy Veterans Associations, in which he reportedly bilked $100 million dollars from donors.

“Early on, we kind of realized it was a big deal,” Gardner said. “The enormity of the fraud, tens of millions of dollars, in that he defrauded innocent people who gave to charity.”

On a typical day when assigned a case, Gardner said, “I’m handed the case file, ‘John Doe,’ name, date of birth, picture, grew up in Cleveland. You know who the person is, real identity, previous arrests.”

But that was not the case with Bobby Thompson.

“In this instance, we had a picture but we had a false name,” Gardner said. “So we’re trying to find someone who we don’t really know who they are.”

Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation believed Thompson was dead, and he had no records.

“The name was an alias, so we didn’t know who the person was,” Gardner said, “If they really want us to work this case, we’re going to have to find him then find out who he is, or find out who he is then find him.”

Thompson’s web only got more tangled. Whoever he was,

he somehow got invited to the White House and had pictures taken with President George W. Bush. But the more the Marshals learned about Thompson, the more they realized they did not know about him.

Once he realized the scope of the Thompson case, Gardner said he told Elliott, “If we’re going to be working this case, I think we’re going to be traveling.”

The Northern Ohio Marshals ended up traveling more for this case than nearly any other. It amounted to the type of manhunt that people associate with action movies about super spies. In fact, Thompson would later claim that he was a CIA agent and that his scam was some sort of classified operation.

“It was frustrating, it was exciting,” Gardner said. “We got information, thinking we’d come close, traveled, but weren’t much closer. Like, this is where we’re going to find the answer, type thing. We knew his patterns, a little bit about his personality, but we didn’t know where the guy was born.”

In the 15 months the Marshals looked for Thompson, Gardner traveled to Columbus, Detroit, Indiana, West Virginia, Seattle, Providence, and Albuquerque, before finally catching Thompson in Portland, Oregon.

After some investigating, Elliott connected enough dots to determine Thompson was John Donald Cody, a fugitive who the FBI wanted for fraud.

Cody was also in military intelligence, which could lend some credibility to his CIA story because his fingerprints did not show up in the FBI database. They should have because he had a military record.

On Monday, December 16, and Thompson was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Thompson may not have appeared as dangerous as the normal fugitives they arrest, but several investigators described him as the person who liked to think of himself as the smartest person in the room.

“It’s fun tracking these people down. They always think they’re smarter than we are,” Helfrich said. “Guys on the run for a long time, they can only make one mistake. We can make hundred, but once they trip up, that’s when we’re going to find them.”

But the Marshals try to stay down to earth about their job. None displays a cavalier or gung ho attitude. In fact, they are rather approachable.

“I like dealing with the people in the inner city,” Gardner said. “We’re in mostly the bad neighborhoods. I enjoy that. It’s different. So we’ll get people who just say, thanks for doing what you do.”

Gardner described one such situation: A man murdered his stepfather around 1990, and was paroled in 2011. About a year later, he stabbed and killed his girlfriend.

“I spoke with her mother and she periodically called me, and she was the first call I made when we caught him,” Gardner said. “She mostly called me and was upset. I think she needed an avenue to someone who maybe felt her pain, or that she was helping us to catch him.”

Even if no helpful information comes out of those conversations, Deserto said that simply having them can boost morale.

“I just got an email the other day,” Deserto said. “The family reached out and was extremely thankful for the work we did. That’s one of the most satisfying feelings you can get, when the victim or the family of the victim calls you. It makes the capture that much more meaningful. And even talking to them during the manhunt, it makes your drive that much more personal.”

Sometimes it is not the victims or their families calling the Marshals. Sometimes it is the fugitives.

“They call us,” Gardner said. He characterized a possible phone call this way: “‘I heard you’re looking for me.’ ‘Yeah, we got a warrant for ya, for shooting that guy.’ ‘Well, I’m not ready to turn myself in yet.’ ‘That’s okay, but I gotta keep looking for ya. You got my number if you need me.’”

“They don’t take it personally,” Helfrich said. “A lot of these guys we arrest, how they get treated by us is how they will treat us. A lot of these guys you’re working with over and over again. Some guys will meet you at the Justice Center if you ask.”

By now, the fugitives know who the Marshals are, and the community knows it can call the Marshals for help. That is the type of reputation that the Northern Ohio Marshals have developed in the ten years since the formation of the Violent Fugitive Task Force and its successful track record.

“Since I’ve been here, there’s nobody we haven’t found,” Helfrich said. “We’re still working some cases, but we’ll find you eventually.”

“It’s easy to sit here and say we arrested three hundred to four hundred fugitives a month and seized so many guns and how much cash,” Deserto said. “The hard part is saying, what did we prevent? How many crimes did we prevent because we arrested that fugitive yesterday? How many victims did we prevent from happening because we took that fugitive off the street? What we prevent from happening by catching those people is truly the most important part of the job. And you can never truly know what that is.”

More information can be found at: http://www.usmarshals.gov/district/oh-n/index.html .

[Look for more from Colin McDermott’s

series on the U.S. Marshal Service of the Northern District of Ohio in the new year.]

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