Law enforcement, clerks, judges say they're
awash in warrants
olumbus Police Officer James Walker raises his right hand and swears that his report of the attack is accurate.
A woman had told the officer that her ex-boyfriend, the father of her child, struck her 30 times in the head and face. Some of the blows, made with closed fists, ripped her skin. He choked her. She told police she managed to run into the street and scream for help.
“This,” the officer says, “was a nasty one.”
The clerk at Franklin County Municipal Court signs Walker’s paperwork and grants his request for a warrant for the arrest of Jonovan Meek on a charge of domestic violence.
Walker radios other officers and asks them to return to the victim’s home. A few minutes later, they radio back. Meek, they say, is nowhere to be found.
“That’s the way these things usually go,” Walker says. “He takes off, we get the warrant and then go chase after him.”
Dispatch reporters spent a week in August immersed in the world of warrants, following clerks, judges, law enforcement officials, probation officers and bail bondsmen. By week’s end, 1,126 new criminal warrants had been filed in Franklin County Common Pleas and Municipal courts. The charges ranged from an improper right turn to aggravated murder.
Court clerks, judges, law enforcement and others devote many hours to pursuing people wanted on warrants. Even so, they say it's impossible to keep up with an ever-growing pile of cases and suspects who don't want to be caught.
Clerk’s offices are the nerve center for warrants, and at the start of this week in August, officers from at least a half dozen jurisdictions walk to the counter and hand deputy clerk Kim Dain their paperwork. Behind her stands a virtual vault of cases, many connected to open arrest warrants.
One officer barely beats the unofficial deadline of 11 p.m. to place his case on the court docket for Monday morning. He picked up a man for failing to register as a sex offender — a man who had two open warrants connected to domestic violence from years ago.
“This never stops,” the officer says as another call for help comes over on his radio. “It’s shift after shift.”
The third shift in the municipal court clerk’s office starts Sunday at 11:30 p.m. Outside, on the southern edge of Downtown, all is quiet.
But inside the courthouse, those running the warrant assembly line are humming.
Jason Johnson, the third-shift controller, oversees the compilation of paperwork for the arraignment courts that will open at 9 a.m.
“We want to make sure that everybody going to court makes it to court today,” Johnson says.
The gray and blue file folders representing 119 people on the arraignment list this morning fill a cart. Deputy Clerk Morgan Erler will later push it into Courtroom 4D, where Municipal Court Judge James E. Green will take pleas from some defendants and set bond for people arrested over the weekend.
Not long after sunrise, the phones inside the clerk’s office begin to ring and rarely stop for the next eight hours. Five clerks on the first shift each will take at least 150 calls. Many of them are questions from people who are wanted on warrants.
“Can you tell me how to pay my fine so I don’t go to jail?” one of the first callers asks.
“My son was picked up for DUI a couple weeks ago and didn’t show up for court,” another says. “Can you please help me figure this out?”
In Courtroom 4D, a Worthington woman faces Judge Green. She spent the night in jail after an officer pulled her over for expired tags and discovered she was driving under a suspended license. She also had two open arrest warrants on charges of not licensing a dog and not wearing a seat belt.
Green dismisses the cases from the open warrants for time served, and the woman pleads guilty to driving under a suspended license. Green fines her $150.
The judge continues to roll through his criminal cases. Ten floors above him, Municipal Court Judge Mark Hummer sits in Courtroom 14B with a look of frustration.
“Order in,” the judge loudly announces to prosecutors.
That means Hummer is issuing a bench warrant for the arrest of a defendant who failed to show up in court. There are nine no-shows connected to traffic cases already this day, and 80 more cases to go.
The judge deals next with Darrelle Howell, who was convicted of aggravated menacing for threatening to kill a man’s young daughter. He also has an active criminal warrant for a domestic violence charge in 2017. A plea deal has been arranged to release Howell on two years’ probation and the time he has served in jail.
“I just want him to stay away from me and my kids and the threats to stop,” the girl’s mother tells the judge. Hummer then orders GPS monitoring for Howell, before returning to his docket.
“Order in,” he says for another person who didn't show for court. Another warrant is added to the unending pile.
Four days later, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Stephen McIntosh has just sentenced a man to four years in prison. With the man’s family members and friends still sobbing inside Courtroom 4B, the judge moves on to the next case.
A woman facing burglary and theft charges is supposed to be next but has failed to appear this morning. The woman already faces an open warrant for her arrest, and McIntosh has no choice but to issue another.
He presides over more cases, mostly checking on drug abusers and giving them more chances to turn their lives around.
Then the judge learns that another person failed to show up to face a felony drug charge. Another warrant is signed. This process repeats itself almost every day, but McIntosh can’t look back.
“If John Smith doesn’t show up in my courtroom for a felonious assault, I issue a warrant,” the judge says in his office. “But am I thinking about John Smith the next day? To be honest, no. I have moved on to the defendant standing in front of me — provided he or she actually appears in my courtroom.”
Not just bad guys
A man had told his family he could hear voices coming from the television telling him the CIA was after him. He was working to save the world with Vice President Mike Pence and actor Chris Pratt. He also made threats to throw his family under a bus.
SWAT team members from the Franklin County sheriff’s office wake the man as they enter his Dublin apartment early on a Wednesday morning.
“I’m fine ... I’m fine!” yells the man, who has recently stopped taking medication for his mental illness. “My family doesn’t know anything. Just go away, please.”
Deputy Nate Chalfant spends about five minutes calming the man and explains that they need to take him to a local mental-health treatment facility, where he can be evaluated. The deputy lets him smoke a cigarette. The man eventually walks out of the apartment and into the SWAT car without incident.
“We spend a lot of time doing this,” said Sgt. Brandon Walls. “This is why we can’t just chase bad guys all day.”
In addition to serving warrants, the SWAT team and the sheriff’s warrant and extradition unit pick up people on detention orders issued by Franklin County Probate Court. They’re not warrants, but orders typically remanding someone to a mental-health facility, usually after a report from concerned family members or a social worker.
Last year, the Franklin County SWAT team helped serve about 600 of these probate orders — a third of the 1,800 orders issued by the court and twice the number of criminal “high risk” warrants they served. This year, the probate court is on track to issue about 2,200 temporary orders of detention.
And for the SWAT team, that’s on top of hostage situations, search warrants, training and daily administrative duties.
“Each day, you try to prioritize and figure it out,” said Lt. Mike Raven, who leads the SWAT team. “Some of the criminal warrant cases can take over your life once you get into them. But it’s all a water hose that doesn’t shut off.”
Hassan Hassan cowers in a back bedroom as seven armed deputy U.S. marshals swarm his small, ground-floor apartment on the Hilltop.
“Hassan, come on out … now,” yells one of the deputy marshals.
Hassan tells them he has no pants on and doesn’t come around the corner, heightening the tension.
The 6-foot, 245-pound Hassan slowly walks around the corner, where guns are pointed directly at him.
“OK, man, OK, man — you got me,” Hassan says.
The deputy marshals help Hassan get dressed and give him a full bottle of water before they hand him over to Columbus police officers. Authorities handcuff Hassan and lead him out of the apartment.
The many hours spent tracking Hassan have paid off on this dark, rainy morning.
“That one went well,” says one of the deputy marshals. “They don’t always go that smoothly.”
When the 21 people who make up the U.S. Marshals Service, Southern District of Ohio, have time to track fugitives, it’s almost always a case for local law enforcement. In their office, three large file cabinets hold local fugitive cases. Active federal cases fill less than one drawer.
Marshals also have sworn in some local police officers and deputy sheriffs as special deputy U.S. marshals to work on their task force and help them keep up with the crush of warrants.
They have worked about 3,500 active-warrant cases this year for the “worst of the worst” crimes and are on track to arrest about 2,500 fugitives in those cases from the southern 48 counties in Ohio. Some of the other 1,000 fugitives have left the country. Others require too much time to track. Or the fugitives are found but are too far away and extradition would be too expensive.
Beyond searching for fugitives, marshals transport federal prisoners to court, run witness protection and perform other administrative tasks.
“Finding bad guys is, sadly, a part-time gig for us,” said Jim Cyphers, assistant chief for the Southern District of Ohio office. “If we doubled our manpower or could focus our own guys on just hunting these guys, we could clean up a lot of those older warrants.”
This morning, the fugitive-apprehension strike team calls it quits after four hours. Some must report to court, transport a prisoner or are needed back in the office.
They had hoped to nab four fugitives. They ended up with only Hassan. They still consider it a win.
“There will be more to find tomorrow,” one deputy marshal says.
Hunt them early
In pouring rain, the snake of vehicles that Lt. Paul Ohl calls “the parade” rolls off of Route 161 and onto Parkville Street on the North Side: a dark-gray armored car emblazoned with the Columbus Police Division SWAT insignia, a prisoner van, a six-wheeled dark-blue equipment van and command center, and enough marked cars from the K-9 unit to secure a scene and keep onlookers back.
The caravan takes another right turn into the Trinity Square apartment complex, tires splashing in deep puddles. It closes in on a ground-floor apartment in the rear of the complex, where officers suspect a theft ring is holed up with as much as $50,000 in power tools stolen from big-box hardware stores in Delaware County.
In the small command room at the front of the equipment van, Ohl explains that Delaware detectives have asked the Columbus SWAT team to serve a search warrant on the apartment, where they also expect to encounter as many as five suspects wanted on arrest warrants charging them with theft.
Columbus SWAT has 26 officers, including three teams that each have a sergeant. They receive between 700 and 800 requests to help serve warrants each year, and typically arrest 350 to 400 high-level offenders. But they, too, have other duties: search warrants to execute, hostage situations to handle and training to conduct.
In this case, Ohl tells his team to surround the apartment and call out the occupants. There’s no reason to risk a forced entry.
“There could be infants,” Ohl said. “You have to secure them.”
Most everyone exits, including children. But the team learns that one woman is asleep in a bedroom. Ohl orders more attempts to get her attention, starting with knocking on the bedroom window.
Ohl’s radio comes to life: “He’s pounding on it now.”
There’s no response. The next step is firing nonlethal wooden baton rounds through the bedroom window to break it. “Knockers, knockers, knockers,” Ohl commands. The window is blasted out.
The SWAT team gets the OK to enter the house, and minutes later officers take the woman into custody.
The officers have arrest warrants for four of the people who were inside. They load them into a prisoner van to be taken to jail. Within minutes, the parade moves on, and the rain continues to pour down.
A last resort
Crisha Wallace didn’t know that a warrant had been issued for her arrest until she showed up for an appointment with her probation officer. The warrant stemmed from a felony count of forgery, accusing Wallace of using a stolen credit card.
Probation officer Anna Schmidt took her to jail. Now, three weeks later, Wallace is back in the probation office to deal with the fallout.
Wallace, 27, makes it clear that she isn’t upset with Schmidt, who has been her probation officer since December after Wallace pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of drugs.
“I can’t get mad at you,” Wallace says.
A Franklin County Municipal Court judge released her on an appearance bond — a promise to return without paying bail — the day after she went to jail.
Schmidt can’t ignore what happened when Wallace was taken to jail: A search revealed that she was carrying a bottle of someone else’s urine in case there was a drug test.
Schmidt warns her to get into counseling before their next meeting, which is in late August.
But Wallace won’t show up for that meeting, or for her Sept. 6 bond revocation hearing in Municipal Court.
The judge issues a warrant for her arrest, sets it aside two weeks later when Wallace reaches out to the court through her attorney, then issues another warrant when Wallace fails to show for that hearing, too.
Schmidt, who had recommended that Wallace be placed on more intensive probation rather than be sent to jail, was surprised and disappointed.
Of the 138 people that Schmidt is assigned to supervise, Wallace becomes the 51st with an active warrant for their arrest.
Protecting their investment
“Woody Fox Bail Bonds!” he yells as he pounds on the front door of a North Linden home around 10 p.m. Friday. “Come on, open the door, we know someone is in there.”
Woody Fox and his armed team — Pitbull, TAZ and Pitchfork — are hunting for Sheldon Curry. He skipped out on a $10,000 bond after being released on a drug charge. Fox wants to protect his money, but there is extra incentive to go after Curry. He has another warrant accusing him of intentionally infecting a woman with the HIV virus, and authorities believe there are other women he has exposed to the virus.
“This dude needs to go back to jail real bad,” said Theodore Owens, who goes by TAZ.
He adjusts his body armor.
“Have to always assume they have a gun,” he says.
Lights go on and off inside the home. A screaming woman finally answers. She calls Fox’s team every possible name but eventually allows them inside to search.
Larry Garrett, also known as Pitbull, has invested more than 100 hours tracking Curry.
The team searches every room, opens every closet and looks under every bed. Curry is not there. They missed him by three hours.
“No one wants to go back to jail,” Fox says, “so they keep running and hiding.”
People typically pay Fox 10 percent of the bond for their release from jail, and Fox is responsible for the entire bail if the suspects don’t show for a court appearance.
He works with about 1,000 people a year. Of those, 30 to 50 run. Very few have gotten away from Fox, a former Columbus police officer, since he started this business. He proudly keeps a long file drawer of all the cases in which he tracked down a runner.
Bail bondsmen are obligated to either produce the defendant in court or pay the bond amount that a judge had issued for his or her release. When bondsmen catch someone who skipped out on a bond, they take the fugitive to jail and notify the court.
While Fox’s team talks to neighbors to find new leads on Curry, a woman drives by the house. She says Curry infected her with HIV.
“I hope you guys find him,” she says.
But on this night, they won’t.
They pack up their gear and head down another dark street, this time hoping to find a woman who skipped out on a bond for felony drug charges.
“The warrant thing is an epidemic,” Fox says. “Just too many of these guys out there for police to handle.”
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