Fugitive hunters

A small squad of Department of Corrections officers takes to the streets to catch those who have fled from supervised release.

Dave Schiebel sat behind the wheel of his Chevy Tahoe, scrolling through his laptop. The mug shots of more than 200 fugitives stared back at him from the screen, almost taunting: Bet you can't catch me.

Schiebel wanted nothing more than to arrest every last one of them -- some rapists, some drug dealers, almost all fugitives from supervised release.

Over the past decade, supervised release fugitives have committed more than 1,400 major crimes in Minnesota, records show. Each year, about 1,800 take off from their agents.

The task of catching them falls mostly to Schiebel and his small unit of four fellow Department of Corrections officers. Every morning, they meet to pick that day's targets. They prioritize based on each convict's danger. They go over their fresh tips.

On this early August day, they had new information on a man they considered dangerous. Schiebel stopped scrolling. "There he is," he said. "Rahmad Lashad Geddes." A 31-year-old man, approximately 6 feet 2 inches tall and 240 pounds. Convicted of shooting at a police officer.

"Over south then?" Schiebel asked another officer through their open windows, discussing the address of a Minneapolis apartment building where Geddes might be hiding. Schiebel put the Tahoe in gear.

Ready to roll.

Most of the time, when fugitive hunters knock on doors, it doesn't yield an arrest. Often, they end up simply looking around and talking to whomever is home, asking them to be on the lookout and warning them that harboring a fugitive is a serious crime.

There is never a shortage of work. Schiebel and the others arrested 449 fugitives last year, though not all were actively on the loose. U.S. marshals and local authorities also arrest state-supervised release fugitives, but officials couldn't say how many. The corrections department plans to add another officer to its fugitive-hunting ranks his fall.

Around the country, states take varying approaches to rounding up fugitives from supervised release or parole. Some rely simply on the web of awareness created by an active warrant. Others deputize all supervisory officers to be armed and make arrests. Some, like Minnesota, create special units to track down absconders, often with the help of supervised release agents.

While Minnesota's five-officer fugitive unit may seem small compared to the number of people who have bolted the system, they are not alone in their efforts. Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, said all law enforcement plays a role in catching people who have warrants for their arrest.

"It's everybody's job," Wicklund said.

How they search

When an offender goes missing, officials put out a nationwide warrant. Corrections investigators look at the convict's prison visitor list and read to see who they corresponded with and find old addresses. They put the fugitive's picture on a website. They interview friends and relatives. They get tips from the public on a phone hotline and through e-mail. Often, they said, girlfriends who become annoyed by their fugitive boyfriends will help break a case.

When they get credible information, they try to act no matter who it is -- even when it's a low priority case. Later that day, for instance, Schiebel's colleagues picked up 43-year-old fugitive Lawrence Joseph Schultz Jr., who absconded from supervised release after serving prison time on a drug possession charge. Schultz, who had failed a mandatory drug test, said he knew they were looking for him, but he wanted to resolve his family's living situation and didn't turn himself in.

Schiebel, 54, also spends some time trolling the streets, learning where certain offenders hang out, constantly scanning for fugitives wherever he drives. In his unmarked SUV, few would guess he is a police officer. He wears a scraggly beard, T-shirt and often some type of camouflage cap or shorts.

A Corrections employee for 33 years, Schiebel calls his last 17 years of fugitive hunting "the best job in the world." He doesn't have to fill out consuming paperwork, doesn't have to respond to tragic car accidents or confusing domestic calls. His mission is simply to go out, find fugitives, and put them behind bars.

"You wanna throw bad people in jail, that's why you become a cop," he said.

Once the team has solid information that a fugitive has been staying at a specific address, they carefully approach. Sometimes they call the phone first, or listen at the door to try to hear if someone is home. Sometimes they disguise themselves as maintenance workers or pizza delivery guys to see if anyone answers.

Often, they work together for safety.

Tracking down Geddes

In south Minneapolis, corrections fugitive hunters surrounded the brick Bryant Avenue apartment building where they suspected Geddes was staying.

Schiebel had pulled the Tahoe into a driveway about a half-block away and trained his eyes on the apartment windows one story up. Another officer watched the back door.

A plainclothes officer and a Hennepin County supervised release agent went into the building. They quietly walked up to the apartment door and heard a TV: Someone was home.

When they knocked at the door, an officer said, a male voice asked who was there.

They answered, "police," and a skinny, bleary-eyed man wearing only shorts opened the door. He wasn't Geddes. Another man lay under blankets on the soiled living room carpet. One of the men's girlfriends lay wrapped in a blanket.

The officers asked to look inside.

The man under the blanket wasn't Geddes either. They peered into closets, lifted up an air bed -- they looked anywhere a person could hide.

No Geddes.

The officers did, however, confiscate a sandwich bag full of marijuana from the kitchen table -- a small amount that they couldn't legally prove belonged to any specific person in the apartment -- and they ran checks on a semiautomatic pistol that lay tucked under the air mattress. The gun's owner wasn't home, but one of the men staying in the apartment had a felony record. Schiebel unloaded the gun and took it for safekeeping until he could return it to its lawful owner.

Then the officers headed toward St. Paul to look for Geddes at another address.

Geddes was at the top of the fugitive hunters' list that day because he was considered dangerous and because they had fresh clues on where he might be hiding.

Killers and sex offenders always take priority. Besides shooting at a police officer's car in Minneapolis in 2004, Geddes threatened prison staff and assaulted other inmates, and had to stay behind bars nearly three months longer because of it, officials said. Police in Elk River wanted him on domestic assault charges: He was accused of trying to strangle his girlfriend.

Closing in

In St. Paul, Schiebel stood in a neighborhood alley, his eyes and his black pistol pointed at the back door of a white-sided house.

The team of fugitive hunters already had struck out once that day, and they weren't hopeful that Geddes would be inside this house, either, but they prepared for action just in case.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Plainclothes officers rapped on the front door. Just then, Schiebel saw movement.

The back door opened a little, as a man in a white T-shirt peered out, then quickly went back inside and closed the door behind him.

"Had someone come out the back door and go back in, you guys!" Schiebel called urgently into his radio, warning the others.

Officers moved in on the back door and another man let them inside.

The man in the white T-shirt sat at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette.

The officers, one with a gun at his side, the other pointing a Taser at the man, asked him his name.

An officer said the man grinned slightly and replied, "Rahmad."

The fugitive gig was up, and he knew it. He raised his hands and the officers walked over to cuff him.

As he sat cuffed in the officers' vehicle, Geddes said he knew he was wanted and had planned to turn himself in. Later, he pleaded not guilty to the domestic assault charges.

It was shortly after noon, and the fugitive-hunting squad had knocked one more fugitive off their list. A good day so far.

Schiebel basked in the success, but only for a minute, as he climbed into his Tahoe and drove away. "He's a dangerous man and he's proved it," Schiebel said. "He belongs in jail."

Then it was on to the next fugitive. Back to the screen of more than 200 images.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102 • plouwagie@startribune.com Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192 • howatt@startribune.com

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