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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2005

Toledo case exposes gaps in criminal databases

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

At least six traffic stops. Five driver's license renewals. One night in jail.

At any of those times, Toledo's most elusive murder suspect could have been nabbed in a four-decade-old electronic, nationwide web for fugitives - had Toledo police entered the arrest warrant into an FBI database.

Now, the arrest of David Delacruz raises a key question: Are there other fugitives whose warrants have not been entered into the proper electronic databases?

Toledo police have 8,476 active warrants, dating to 1954, court records show. A third of those are felonies - the more serious category of crime.

Toledo police say they don't have a system in place to ensure fugitives' names have been entered into the correct databases. While such information has been automatically sent to databases since the late 1980s, old warrants had to be typed in.

And police have no central repository for those old paper warrants, particularly from the 1970s. Court records show Toledo police have 512 active felony warrants issued before 1980.

Capt. Jeff Hennessey, who oversees warrant entry, told The Blade last week that he will begin to assess how the department could audit old warrants.

"That's something I will look into, now that you bring that up," he said. "I'm not sure how we would do that, but I will check and see if there is some way to do that."

The Delacruz case is just one of several across the country - from one of the 9/11 hijackers to Vermont's "most wanted" fugitive - that highlight failures to enter warrants into fugitive databases. And a national advocacy group says the problem has long been understated.

"Plain and simple, it just isn't happening the way it should be happening," said Rhoda Cook of the Colorado-based group Citizens United to Find Fugitives. "The problem is nationwide."

Advocates for crime victims have long complained about the limited budgets for police departments to extradite fugitives - one reason many departments enter only the most serious fugitives into the FBI database. That's prompted Ms. Cook's group to start its own Internet database of fugitives at www. straightshooter.net.

Other police agencies have discovered that failing to enter warrants into crime databases can cause serious problems.

In 1993, a Massachusetts police department learned it had hired a new officer who had an active warrant for assaulting his sister in the same town. The warrant was discovered only after the new officer was arrested for kidnapping his girlfriend.

In 2000, Detroit police twice stopped a man wanted on a drug charge but let him go after he passed background checks. In between those stops, he killed a man.

In 2001, a Florida court failed to put Mohammed Atta's warrant for skipping traffic court into a local fugitive database, so police 25 miles away let him go when he was caught speeding a month later. Two months after that, Atta piloted the first plane into the World Trade Center.

Vermont state police discovered their own problem 16 years too late.

While renewing the manhunt last fall for that state's most-wanted fugitive, Lt. Mark Lauer learned that a clerk had failed to enter the suspect's warrant into the FBI database in the 1980s. Before police could track him down, he died of natural causes.

That wasn't the end of Lieutenant Lauer's work. He has since discovered that four out of five felony warrants that should have been entered into the FBI database never showed up in the system. His review turned up 120 missing warrants - from just one county in Vermont.

He's still checking others and says patrol officers have no way to know what's been entered.

"Unless we manually ran or manually audited the system, I wouldn't know a guy wasn't in [the FBI database]," Lieutenant Lauer said.

Toledo police have yet to do such an audit.

Captain Hennessey said the only known active murder warrant, from a recent killing, is in the FBI database. And he said the department, to save money on extradition, commonly does not enter any other felony crimes, like robbery or burglary, into the national database.

But considering the exclusion of the Delacruz warrant, he said it is important to figure out what warrants might be missing from the proper databases.



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