Fugitives take a toll on state

Many convicts on supervised release abscond and commit more crimes.

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Latasha McCorkle is reflected in a mirror holding two pictures of her mother, Gale Woods. Woods' boyfriend, Teddy Roark, pleaded guilty to setting her on fire in 2006. Roark was a fugitive from supervised release for almost two months at the time of the attack. Woods died a year later.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Teddy Roark had disappeared.

He should have been attending anger-management classes, staying out of bars and checking in with his corrections agent in Duluth every day. Those were among his requirements on supervised release, after he had been locked up for swinging a knife and threatening to kill a man.

But on a winter day four years ago, he stopped showing up. State corrections officials issued a warrant for his arrest. Nearly two months passed, and he still had not been caught. Then it was too late: Roark was arrested for dousing his girlfriend with rubbing alcohol and lighting her on fire, leaving her severely burned.

A dangerous fugitive had at last been taken off the street. But there are many more in Minnesota.

Every year, about 1,800 convicted criminals finishing their prison sentences on supervised release violate those terms and become fugitives, according to state records examined by the Star Tribune. Some disappear for months or more, eluding state and local agencies with few resources devoted to finding them. Some commit serious crimes.

Over the past decade, records show, fugitives from supervised release in Minnesota have committed more than 1,400 major crimes. About 180 of those have been violent, including 61 felony assaults and seven murders -- most notably the ambush killing in May of Maplewood police Sgt. Joe Bergeron. His assailant, Jason Jones, had been a supervised-release fugitive for nine days.

Records also show that the state's supervised-release program can be a revolving door: Nearly 60 percent of offenders who have committed crimes while eluding authorities as a fugitive had absconded from supervised release at least once before.

Fugitives who committed crimes had eluded authorities for an average of 28 days.

"You know how much a person can do in 28 days before getting caught?'' said Latasha McCorkle, the daughter of Roark's girlfriend. "That's not acceptable. I don't think that's acceptable at all.''

Responding to the Star Tribune's findings, Department of Corrections officials said they are obliged by state law to let out most prisoners on supervised release. The program is designed to hold offenders accountable as they make their transition back to life in the community. "It is not a continuation of prison," department spokeswoman Shari Burt said.

The department's squad of fugitive hunters has grown from four to five officers in the past decade. It plans to add another person to the unit this fall. The unit arrested 449 fugitives last year, more than double the number arrested in 2000, Burt said.

Maplewood Police Chief Dave Thomalla, whose department was shocked by the slaying of Bergeron, a beloved veteran officer, expressed concern over how many fugitives are springing from the state's supervised-release program.

Thomalla called it a "classic example" of whether programs are funded well enough to be effective. "Maybe it needs closer examination with the number of failure statistics that there are," he said.

Hide and seek

Unless inmates cause trouble behind bars, state law requires that most spend the last third of their sentence in the community under the watchful eyes of agents who, among other things, check up on them, surprise them with drug and alcohol tests, and try to assure they obey the law as they adjust to regular life.

In 1980, Minnesota was among the first states in the nation to standardize release times, removing the decision of when to let a convict out of prison from the whims of a parole board. The change helped administrators to better plan prison space and aimed to make sentencing more fair.

That resulted in nearly 11,000 convicted criminals on supervised release last year.

Catching those who abscond from supervised release is no small task. When a fugitive takes off, the Corrections Department is responsible for finding them. Department officials said they put out a nationwide warrant and put the offender on one public and one law enforcement website. Investigators contact relatives and officers patrol known hangouts. Ten department investigators and an analyst look through an offender's mail, phone calls, visitor lists and other associations. Burt said apprehension efforts are often hampered by friends and relatives helping fugitives hide.

The department relies heavily on partnerships with local and federal law enforcement. A Minneapolis officer rotates in to provide help, for instance.

Searches are prioritized based on the severity of the convict's crime -- sexual predators and killers are sought first. About 86 percent of predatory sex offenders are caught within 24 hours, Burt said. About 83 percent of killers are caught within 72 hours.

Still, more than half of supervised-release fugitives elude authorities for more than a week before they're caught. Thirty percent are still on the loose after a month.

As of July 15, about 235 fugitives remained unaccounted for. More than 20 percent of them have been sought by the state for more than one year, including 14 fugitives who have been gone for more than five years. The list includes two convicts who had committed homicide and manslaughter. While most fugitives had been serving sentences for drug or property crimes, 45 had been convicted of sex crimes or assault.

Slipping through the cracks

Sometimes the fugitives are hiding with the ones they love.

Dontae Lavelle Jones' former girlfriend said she didn't know he had a warrant out for his arrest when he stayed with her in the spring of 2009.

Though Department of Corrections officers went out looking for Jones, the girlfriend learned about the warrant, she said, after she reported to police that he tried strangling her in March.

In her suburban apartment, she and Jones argued about pawning a game system when Jones pushed her down on a bed and squeezed her neck, a criminal complaint said.

The girlfriend, who did not want her name used, went to police. Jones, who has a history of assault convictions, is serving a two-year sentence for the attack.

On occasion, fugitives caught by local agencies are released before the Department of Corrections has a chance to deal with them.

After serving two-thirds of a sentence in prison for drug possession and assaulting a corrections officer, Vidale Lee Whitson stopped reporting to his supervised release agent in February 2001.

He turned himself in to authorities in Hennepin County for a careless driving warrant about six weeks later. The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office transferred him to Ramsey County, where the warrant originated. There, he was mistakenly let out, Burt said. Another Department of Corrections warrant was issued.

About two weeks later, police arrested Whitson for shooting and killing a drug dealer in a Duluth apartment and wounding a woman there.

Whitson is serving a sentence of life in prison, plus another 15-year term. This time, he will be locked up for 40 years before he's eligible for release.

Run, run, again

It doesn't matter whether habitual criminals have absconded from supervised release before. When they're in prison for a new crime, most serve the last third of that sentence on supervised release.

Michael Todd Richardson fled supervised release twice in 1993, records show, but still got out on intensive supervised release in 2006 after serving two-thirds of a 4 1/2 year sentence for burglary and selling drugs.

He absconded immediately, records show. He visited people, his sister Jacqueline Dean said recently, occasionally coming to her Minneapolis apartment building. Dean said she didn't know he was wanted and authorities never contacted her in efforts to find him.

Burt said the Corrections Department no longer has notes on efforts to find Richardson.

One rainy evening in June 2006, the building's 52-year-old caretaker cracked open her door, thinking it was her neighbor knocking. What happened then changed her life, the caretaker recounted recently.

A cloud of aerosol spray hit her face and a man burst in. When her eyes cleared, she recognized him as Jacqueline's brother -- someone she had talked to a few times. Then she saw the butcher knife in his hand.

He grabbed her and tried to pull her hair, but she was wearing a wig and it flew off, she said. She struggled to get the knife as he dragged her through the apartment. "Why do you have all these lights on?" he demanded, as he flicked switches off.

He dragged her into her bedroom and she stopped resisting for a while. When the man seemed to relax his grip, she fought again. Harder this time.

She didn't know his name, but she yelled what she did know about him, hoping her neighbors would hear: "Dial 911 ... It's Jackie's brother ... She lives in number 8."

She stopped and asked him: "Am I gonna die today?"

"You're gonna die," she remembers him responding.

She felt a surge of strength.

"Then I'm taking you with me."

She grabbed the brass, tulip-shaped lamp near her bed. She had lugged that heavy thing every time she moved over the years. That night, it felt light.

"I swung like a baseball bat," she said. She kept swinging.

When he ran out the apartment door naked, she slammed it shut, locking the dead bolt.

Police found Richardson's clothes and identification on her floor. He pleaded guilty a year later to first-degree criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to more than 16 years.

It wasn't the first time Richardson had been accused of a sexual assault. In 2003, a woman who had been doing drugs with him reported to Minneapolis police that he raped her. She declined to have an examination and charges were not filed because of a lack of physical evidence, police said.

Richardson, 43, declined to comment.

The apartment caretaker, who didn't want her name used, has been haunted ever since. She went into hiding for a while, she said. She lost friends and hurt family members because anger kept coming out in her words. For a year and a half, she slept in her closet most nights, trying to drive away nightmares in the only place she felt safe.

She said she can't understand why, even now, Richardson likely won't serve his entire sentence behind bars. She said she hopes authorities find a way to keep him locked up longer this time.

"If you have violated your [supervised release] three times ... that should be like a three-strikes-you're-out thing," she said. "Why do you keep letting a person out [when] they keep on disappearing?"

A violent reunion

Teddy Roark's arrest for burning his girlfriend, Gale Woods, topped off a tumultuous history for the couple. Roark had at least six prior charges for assaulting or threatening Woods. She once stabbed him.

After Roark skipped out on his agent in February 2006, he went back to live with Woods in St. Louis Park.

The night of April 4, deep into yet another argument in Woods' apartment, Woods decided she'd had enough. She told Roark she'd be leaving him for good in the morning. Then she went to bed.

Woods woke up to intense burning pain and the scent of rubbing alcohol. She ran out of the bedroom, screaming.

When emergency responders arrived, they found Woods lying on the ground with burns across her chest and face like a beard, her daughter McCorkle said. She required skin grafts.

Roark pleaded guilty to a felony count of second-degree assault and was sentenced to five years.

After spending more than three years of his sentence behind bars, Roark is now finishing his sentence in the community. He lives in a tiny Minneapolis apartment on intensive supervised release, a heightened form of supervision for certain high-risk offenders.

Roark insists he's innocent. Woods burned herself by accident, he said, and his guilty plea was coerced.

Woods died of natural causes about a year after the burning. McCorkle said she wonders how different her mother's last year would have been if authorities had found Roark before that night.

McCorkle lived nearby at the time and said she didn't know Roark was wanted and never saw police knock on her mother's door looking for him.

Burt said the Corrections Department no longer has notes on what was done to try to find Roark.

"He had been there ... the whole time," McCorkle said. "To me, they weren't looking that hard."

plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102 howatt@startribune.com • 612-673-7192

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