STILL GETTING AWAY WITH IT

THE STATE IS CATCHING MORE HALFWAY-HOUSE ABSCONDERS THAN EVER. UNFORTUNATELY, IT'S ALSO LETTING MORE CRIMINALS ESCAPE.

Governor Romer was in the midst of a re-election battle in July 1994 when he became the object of negative headlines and stinging editorials for his apparent lack of action in dealing with halfway-house escapes. Romer had been shut down just the year before when he asked the legislature to fund a fugitive task force. But this time, with gubernatorial opponents breathing down his neck, Romer announced he was establishing a task force that would work under the auspices of the CBI. The proposal would cost nothing, because he planned to "borrow" state employees from the parole department, the probation department, community corrections and the CBI.

Up to that point, the only metro-area groups actively searching full-time for people with outstanding felony warrants were members of the Denver Police Fugitive Unit and the Metro Fugitive Task Force. Halfway-house escapees, though, weren't always high on the wanted list--not with more than 16,000 outstanding felony warrants still active statewide.

The task force was up and running less than two months after Romer's announcement. And since that time, the five-member unit has put away hundreds of fugitives--so many that the cases have begun to run together in the agents' minds. A few, however, stick out.

There was the time last month that agent Frank Vanecek leapt from his car to chase a man fitting the description of a halfway-house escapee. As Vanecek was in hot pursuit, the man threw down a 9mm Glock handgun, which was loaded with armor-piercing "cop killer" bullets. It turned out that the suspect, Clarence Hatchett, wasn't an escapee. But he was on probation and in possession of a weapon, which earned him a trip back to jail.

Another case last month involved halfway-house escapee Derrick O. Winston, who has a history of armed robbery and assaults. Winston gave the task force some anxious moments when he swore that he wouldn't be taken alive. The squad called in the Aurora police SWAT team, which surrounded the East Sixth Avenue motel where Winston was staying. Winston didn't make good on his threats and surrendered peaceably.

Then there was the time agent Howard "Jake" Jaquay went to a house looking for fugitive Peter Castro. Just as Castro's mother was denying any knowledge of her son's whereabouts--"I haven't seen him in three months," she said--Castro's leg popped through a ceiling tile. The agent politely aided Castro from the crawl space and hustled him off to what Jaquay calls "the gray bar hotel."

When the CBI task force was established, Jaquay was loaned to the agency by the state parole department, where he went to work after serving as Wheat Ridge chief of police for six years. He's still considered a parole officer, though he says he'd like to stay in his present job--if and when the legislature funds the squad permanently.

The task force places absconders into three categories, with the highest level of attention given to violent offenders, followed by "career criminals" and perpetrators of property crimes. The agents run computer checks on driver's licenses and car registrations. Unlike glamorous TV-style investigators, the job consists of long hours waiting on stakeouts or nailed before a computer screen. It can be a boring job, albeit one that is punctuated by adrenaline-pumping moments.

The best time to capture a fugitive, squad members agree, is at dawn. "If they're in the house, Jaquay says, "they're probably going to be there in the early morning, after a night of partying." Squad members say they've managed to handcuff some fugitives before the suspects were even awake.

A typical day, however, consists of waiting, watching, and making a slew of phone calls and computer checks. One recent Tuesday Jacquay staked out various addresses, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fugitive or spot a car belonging to a known associate.

The first stop on Jaquay's itinerary is a home in West Denver. The fugitive, says the investigator, who keeps up a running commentary that occasionally slips into street slang, "has a mama who lives down here." The man fled a Denver halfway house two months ago and has made himself scarce since then. This day will prove no different. Jaquay checks the license plate of a Chevy parked out front, but it belongs to an elderly woman from northern Colorado, not one of the fugitive's friends. Jaquay could knock on the door and inquire about the man's whereabouts. But that would run the risk of "burning the address," he says--tipping off the fugitive that somebody's on his trail.

Jaquay's second stop is the suspected hangout of a man who escaped from a halfway house more than two years ago. Standing at the door of the house is a sharp-faced woman, the fugitive's girlfriend. Jaquay drives on by. "She knows me," he says, "and I think she saw me. I went to her old apartment once looking for him." The fugitive wasn't there, but Jaquay was so disgusted with the state of the apartment--"her four children were living in shit"--that he called Denver Social Services and asked them to check out the situation. The apartment manager evicted the woman, which did little to endear her to Jaquay.

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