CLEVELAND - A Deputy U.S. Marshal put a bulletproof vest on me because he did not want me to get shot.
It was not for show. It was a legitimate precaution. A week earlier, a fugitive who identified as a “sovereign citizen” opened fire on the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Deputies who were apprehending him in Middleburg Heights. That man was shot and killed on scene.
Such are the very real dangers facing law enforcement officers on a daily basis when their job is to remove threats from our neighborhoods.
I met up with the members of the Violent Fugitive Task Force outside of Cleveland’s federal court on a brisk April morning before the sun was up. Before many fugitives are up, too. I was invited to do a ride along so I could include real world observations into my ongoing reports about the U.S. Marshals Service of the Northern District of Ohio.
Each member of the task force strapped on their gear, their guns, and their vests.
I asked one deputy how long he had been with the service here. For more than a decade, he said. He then added without pretense that this morning they would soon head out to thwart evil and protect the innocent.
I would be joining ten members of the Violent Fugitive Task Force, a program that U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott established Northern Ohio in 2003. It has since become one of the most successful task forces nationwide at nabbing fugitives.
After loading up, we set out in five black vehicles with mostly blacked-out windows. If you picture a scene from a film about federal agents in a caravan of blacked-out SUVs, it probably would not be that far off from reality.
The team had warrants for several fugitives. If they couldn’t find one, they would simply move onto the next. We would end up performing several “hits” that morning.
We headed east on Interstate 90 just as the morning commute was starting to pick up and headed through Rockefeller Park to Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. We were looking for a sex offender who raped a 12-year-old and failed to register.
We drove down a side street, looking for the address of his baby’s mother. We soon spotted it.
The five vehicles parked. The 10 deputies got out of their cars, their hands on their sidearms. While eight deputies went to the front door, two covered the perimeter: one in the front of the house, one in the back. They do this in the event that some slippery fugitive tries to sneak out and run.
They knocked on the door, loudly announcing, “It’s the police! Open up!” It opened and a woman let them in. The eight men entered the house and asked the family if they could to search it for the fugitive.
The deputies told me most people are helpful and understand that the deputies are only doing their job. It’s a different story if the person has something to hide.
I stood outside, standing near one of the deputies watching the perimeter. They all wear radio earpieces and were in constant communication. He could hear what the rest of the team was doing inside the house.
“They found alligators in the basement,” he told me.
I dryly asked if that is some sort of status symbol.
“It’s not uncommon. People have little Caimans,” he said. “Don’t ask me why.”
After 10 minutes, the team had cleared the house and verified that their man was not there.
Senior Inspector Brian Fitzgibbon told me that one of the women in the house said the man they were looking for had been there – and had left 10 minutes earlier.
I asked how frustrating that was, and Fitzgibbon told me I had no idea how much.
But the grandmother directed us to another house a few blocks away, where the suspect sometimes stayed with a relative.
We started to head over this time, but not as a caravan. I was in one vehicle that scouted the address first, before the team descended on the house. Same drill: eight deputies at the door while two watched the perimeter.
But no luck here either. The resident told us that the man we were looking for had not been by, and a search did not turn anything up. So it was onto the next fugitive.
“You don’t want to be known as the bad luck guy, Colin,” Fitzgibbon joked. When a new guy goes out with a team and the team doesn’t catch anyone, that person can get saddled with a bad luck reputation.
We headed down East 55th Street to get to the next neighborhood, where we arrived at Cleveland Municipal Housing. We were looking for a woman with distinct tattoos and facial piercings. She was wanted for charges connected to assaulting her sister on New Year’s Eve. The report said she broke several plates over her sister’s head.
When we arrived at the apartment, the deputies actually spotted the woman in the window, smoking a cigarette. She watched them walk up.
Furthermore, her sister was there with her. Domestic disputes are a world of their own. When deputies entered the apartment, they smelled marijuana, which the residents did not deny smoking that morning. The fugitive came along peacefully. The deputies put her in the back of one vehicle, which then took her back downtown to be processed.
Now, we were one for two.
Then a collateral lead came in. That’s when another district sends in a lead about one of their fugitives in our area. This one came from Columbus, and the deputies quickly tracked the fugitive to Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood.
We drove to Murray Hill and scouted out the address. The deputies parked and approached the house. It was a four-story house, including a basement and attic. It was not immediately clear if the house was divided into several units and which the fugitive could be in.
As I waited outside with another deputy, a neighbor approached us and asked what was happening. Little Italy is a neighborhood that prides itself on taking care of its own, and the sight of 10 armed officers swarming a house is not common.
As the deputies went upstairs, a door opened on a home across the street. A middle-aged Italian woman came out, asking what was happening.
We said there was no reason to worry, that it was just a warrant.
Moments later, the deputies emerged from the fourth floor with the fugitive in handcuffs. He was a 23-year-old man. After being placed in the back of a vehicle, two deputies then took him downtown to be processed.
The Italian lady watched this all play out and said, “I feel like I should be serving you guys coffee!” which got a laugh from the team.
I said to Fitzgibbon, “See, I’m not a bad luck guy after all.”
Now, we were two for three. While standing on the street, one deputy then handed out a new warrant to the others.
We went farther south into Cleveland, looking for the new fugitive. Again, deputies circled the home in question. The people who were there let the deputies inside but a search turned up no fugitive.
While we were on the scene, a couple neighbors came out of their homes, and the deputies made sure to talk to them, because they know a tip or a lead can come from anyone who’s paying attention. Most people are willing to help remove a bad element from their neighborhood.
We headed back to Glenville. More CMHA apartments. Our information lead to us to an address at an apartment building.
Because CMHA housing is part of Cleveland, the maintenance people can let deputies into buildings. They went up to look for the fugitive, but he wasn’t there.
It was nearing 10 a.m. One deputy said that hour is kind of the tipping point for finding fugitives; after that, usually they just aren’t around.
Because I’m a member of the media, one deputy told me about the impact of media coverage on a case. He said, once we cover it, everything changes; more tips can come in for wanted fugitives and more attention can speed up cases already in the system.
We had another name. A 23-year-old woman wanted for robbery. We stopped by two homes around West 110th. Each time, an acquaintance answered the door who did know the fugitive, but did not where she was.
Despite the fact that we were out hunting for violent fugitives and were two for five, the deputies kept the mood light. The humor they displayed builds their camaraderie. But at no point did I feel the deputies took their responsibilities lightly, nor at any time did I feel my safety was in question. It was clear the deputies are serious about their mission.
“No matter how much time we have to joke around, when it’s time to put our game face on, everyone is professional,” Fitzgibbon once told me. “Sometimes, we deal with the lowest of the low, but we have a job to do, and we will be professional.”
The Marshals’ record speaks for itself. As we rode through the back streets of Cleveland that cold April morning in a darkened SUV, Fitzgibbon gave some perspective.
What people don’t realize, he said, is that Northern Ohio’s Violent Fugitive Task Force catches a good 90 percent of the people it looks for with all due haste.