Flaws in the criminal justice system help fugitives cross borders

4:35 p.m. CDT, October 31, 2011

Justice Department officials say they are capturing more international fugitives than ever. But breakdowns at every level of law enforcement enable uncounted numbers of suspects to flee across the U.S. border and then hamper their apprehension.

County prosecutors
Local prosecutors prepare voluminous extradition packages that are sent to the Justice Department and then to foreign governments. County officials can be overwhelmed by the complex paperwork and the costs of translators, outside counsel and even airline tickets for sheriffs and returning fugitives. The Tribune identified more than 60 Cook County fugitives law enforcement traced to Mexico, yet the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said they are actively seeking the extradition or deportation of only 12 of those suspects.

Example: Among those not on the county’s active list is career criminal Juan Jacquez (Tribune summary), wanted on charges of killing a South Side man in 2002. Months later, a family informant provided Chicago detectives with Jacquez’s exact address in Santiago Papasquiaro, Mexico, but no visible progress has been made in the case.

County judges
At cursory bond hearings, judges gave some murder and rape suspects the keys to their own escape by setting low bonds or failing to limit the travel of foreign-born and dual-nationality citizens by confiscating their passports or imposing other restrictions.

Example: Chicago maintenance mechanic Dimitrios Amasiadis (Tribune summary) posted a cash bond of just $1,000 after being charged in 1998 with sexuallyassaulting his 10-year-old stepdaughter over a period of years. Born in Guatemala to a Greek father, Amasiadis mortgaged his house to raise more than $30,000 and then fled to Greece, where he remains today. Amasiadis was convicted in absentia. His sister Patricia Echeverria professes his innocence and told the Tribune that Amasiadis is "still happily married" and raising a new family. "He’s not looking over his shoulder," she said.

Illinois law
A family exemption in Illinois law bars authorities from charging close relatives with harboring or aiding fugitives. There is no deterrent against family helping suspects flee by driving them to bus stations and airports, providing cash or withholding information from police.

Example: In 2005, after 21-year-old Muaz Haffar was charged with murdering a university student with a bike lock, he fled to Syria. Haffar’s father in the Chicago area helped arrange his trip and a brother accompanied Haffar on part of his journey out of Chicago, according to law enforcement sources. Muaz Haffar remains at large.

U.S. Justice Department
Government audits over the last decade have found sloppy record-keeping and growing caseloads at the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, which handles border-crossing fugitive cases. Justice said it has added staff and is making better use of case-tracking and paralegals. Still, the department administratively closed many Chicago-area cases even though local prosecutors still seek the fugitives.

Example: Will County police and prosecutors say they still want suspects like Roman Medel Jr. (Tribune summary), who fled to Mexico in 1994 after he wasaccused of beating two fellow drug dealers and shooting at them as they ran. But Justice in 2004 asked a judge to dismiss the federal warrant, stating in a court filing that Will County prosecutors "were not willing to extradite the Defendant once arrested."

America spends millions of dollars to help fund Interpol, a network of law enforcement authorities from 187 countries that share information on border-crossing fugitives. Yet the U.S. rarely involves the network in fugitive hunts or requests the "red notices" that alert other governments and can trigger capture and extradition, the Tribune found.

Example: After applying for political asylum in the U.S., Bassam Yassin was accused of torching a family grocery store to collect insurance money, killing a relative and seriously injuring a bystander. Yassin fled back to the West Bank. In 2006 a U.S. official in Tel Aviv, Israel, positively identified Yassin and reported that he traveled frequently between the West Bank and Jordan, records show. Still, Yassin is not among the fugitives listed on Interpol’s website and he remains at large.

International treaties
The U.S. is working to update its extradition treaties with more than 100 foreign governments and move away from using lists of extraditable crimes that can be incomplete.

Example: Under America’s treaties with numerous allies, including Mexico, reckless homicide for killing someone while driving drunk is among the crimes that are not extraditable. Arcadio Pintor (Tribune summary) was allegedly driving more than 60 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone in 1993 when his car struck and killed 15-year-old David Wilda, who was walking with his girlfriend. Police found one open beer can and two that were full in Pintor’s 1980 Plymouth Colt. Pintor was bailed out on a $7,500 bond and soon fled to his native Michoacan, Mexico, authorities believe. Pintor was found guilty in absentia but remains at large.

Foreign governments
Some U.S. allies or countries that have garnered American aid have thwarted efforts to catch fugitives, including those that simply will not extradite their nationals to stand trial in the U.S.

Example: Judy Chen (Tribune summary) fled back to her native Taiwan in 1989 just before she was charged in the fatal beating of her 2 1/2-year-old son. Chen called family from Taiwan and saw her daughter when the girl visited relatives there. But the case drifted until 2007, when Deputy Chief James Gunther of the Westmont Police Department reactivated the file. Federal authorities issued a warrant for Chen’s arrest in 2009. But an extradition treaty is still being negotiated with Taiwan, where Chen has started a new family. "I can’t imagine it will take that long to track her down (in Taiwan) if and when we get a treaty," Gunther said. But that "is a political deal."

SOURCES: Chicago Tribune reporting, federal warrants, court and police records, other government documents

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