At the very moment Brian Fitch Sr. gunned down Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick on a sunny July afternoon last year, he had spent two months on a list of Minnesota Department of Corrections fugitives. But Fitch, a violent felon with a decades-long rap sheet, was a low priority for the department’s Fugitive Apprehension Unit.
The five-man team of sworn police officers is on the street, tasked with capturing convicts who break terms of their release from prison. Fitch was lower priority not because he wasn’t dangerous, but because he wasn’t a predatory sex offender.
In the face of legislative mandates, community fears and a growing population of prisoners rejoining society, the number of Level 3 sex offenders who skip out on or otherwise violate their parole is climbing, and their high risk to reoffend puts them atop the list for the understaffed unit.
By concentrating their resources on those most likely to reoffend, the unit, along with local police, has been able to arrest 98 percent of the Level 3 offenders within 72 hours of the warrants going out. To date, only one fugitive Level 3 offender has evaded arrest, and is believed to have fled the country.
But it comes at a price.
In 2014, the Department of Corrections issued 5,180 warrants for fugitive felons statewide. Of those, the unit arrested 361 — a little less than 7 percent.
And the number of parole violators is climbing. It has risen 16 percent overall in the past four years. Among sex offenders, the increase is far more drastic. In the 2009 fiscal year, the DOC issued 66 warrants for Level 3s. In the 2014 fiscal year, that number rose to 203 — a 214 percent increase.
Cari Gerlicher, director of special investigations for the DOC, said that on any given day, an average of 400 fugitive felons are loose, most in the metro area. She acknowledges that Fitch — who had no sex offenses or murder convictions on his record — was not at the top of their list.
“Will adding two, 13, or 72 bodies to my unit make sure Brian Fitch incidents will never happen again? No, it’s not a perfect science,” Gerlicher said. “We obviously would love to have additional bodies, and the more sworn bodies we have, the more work we can do, but in a world of financial responsibility and being pragmatic, I could never sit here and promise this community that a DOC-warranted fugitive is never going to behave badly again.”
The Fugitive Apprehension Unit is seeking an additional $1.2 million in funding from the Legislature over the next two years. That would allow them to add three agents, an intelligence investigator and a support staff member. Gov. Mark Dayton backs the boost in agents as well as prioritizing sex offenders.
Asked if adding three agents is enough, Dayton acknowledged that some may not think so. “It’s three more than we have now,” he said. “We can do more, and the Legislature’s welcome to do more if [the budget] permits that.”
‘Boredom to terror’
On a frigid February day, task force members Bruce Meagher and Dave “Doc” Watson’s first stop was a high-rise senior apartment complex in St. Paul. Their target: Randall Mario Jennings, convicted of felony domestic assault and robbery. Jennings had broken parole. He wasn’t the worst offender on their list that day, but Meagher and Watson had gotten a tip on his whereabouts: Jennings was staying with his mother.
Although Jennings had no gun history, they called on a St. Paul officer to assist. Meagher and Watson were armed and carrying badges, but in plain clothes.
“It can go from boredom to terror in a second,” said Meagher, an 18-year Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy before he joined the unit eight years ago.
The apartment was empty and the door unlocked. The arrest warrant allowed them to search anywhere that a body could hide. “You’d be surprised,” Meagher said, about the spaces a person can squeeze into, describing a small kitchen cabinet where he found one suspect. Tasers in hand, he and Watson swept through the tidy apartment but found no one. A visit with the building manager revealed surveillance footage of Jennings coming and going. They handed the manager a card and left; Meagher pulled up their next target on his laptop.
“There’s never enough daylight,” he said.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, said he finds the low percentage of fugitive apprehensions disconcerting. He would like to bolster the staff by more than three agents, saying “it’s one of my priorities, but the problem is that the system has given me too many priorities.”
Cornish said he fully supports the fugitive unit putting sex offenders at the top of the priority list, even if it results in a low overall apprehension rate.
“That crime probably raises on the public’s radar more than any other crime,” he said. “More than burglary, more than property crimes, more than assault, so I would be very comfortable in saying that’s probably a top public concern, sex offenders. They’re not just stealing something out of your garage, they’ve got the capability of stealing your daughter or son.”
There are a number of reasons for the rise in predatory offenders breaking parole. In 2005 the state passed a law requiring intense supervision of Level 3 sex offenders who had been paroled. The change came after Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. raped and murdered Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old college student. Rodriguez had been on supervised release following a 23-year prison term for rape, kidnapping and assault.
Overall, more than 109,000 Minnesotans are on some kind of post-release or probationary supervision. About 40,000 of those are felony offenders.
DOC Deputy Commissioner Ron Solheid says the number of convicted predators on the streets may rise even higher. The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is on trial for its practice of retaining offenders in a hospital setting long after they have served their criminal sentences. Depending on a judge’s decision, that could result in the release of some of the 709 civilly committed offenders in that program.
“Some communities have expressed that that’s really their main concern: What’s going to happen with these 700 civilly committed sex offenders and where are they going to reside?” Solheid said. MSOP is not under Corrections’ jurisdiction, although Solheid is seeking an extra $2 million in funding to hire 10 agents who would monitor high-risk parolees on intensive supervised release.
‘Hands in the air!’
Hip-hop blasted in the darkened hallway of a West St. Paul apartment building as Meagher, Watson and a third task force member, Dave Schiebel, strategized on what to do next. Their target, Alex Cortez Benson, a 55-year-old with a 30-year record of robbery, burglary and drugs, was inside, but would not answer the door. Meagher was uneasy. He knew from experience that Benson could be bailing out of a window, or worse yet, getting a weapon.
“Ready?” Meagher said to his partners, who stood at the ready with handguns and Tasers drawn. They nodded a go-ahead, and with a few kicks, Meagher splintered open the wooden door.
“Hands in the air!” they shouted, ordering a shirtless Benson to the ground. Meagher and Schiebel questioned Benson’s girlfriend and searched the apartment. They found the pieces of the alcohol-monitoring bracelet that Benson had cut off. Benson, who was on probation following his latest conviction for assault, lay sprawled on the carpet, his hands cuffed behind his back.
“Why didn’t you just open the door?” Meagher asked him.
“I was hoping y’all was just going to go away,” Benson said.
The officers laughed.
“Never,” Meagher said “Never.”
Abby Simons • 651-925-5043