Nov 15 2006

Task force finds quick success tracking fugitive and criminals

Birmingham News

By Val Walton

In the early morning darkness, five members of the Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force gather in a downtown Birmingham parking lot, plotting their next hunt.

The quarry is 49-year-old Theron Seals, wanted on a parole violation and failure to register in Jefferson County as a sex offender for the first-degree rape of an 8-year-old girl.

Dressed in blue jeans, shirts and jackets emblazoned with US Marshals Service, the officers huddle. At 6:13 a.m., they roll out in a caravan to a house in West End. By 6:42 a.m., they have their man in cuffs and leg irons.

The 4-month-old task force, composed of more than 60 law federal, state and local enforcement is one of six in the country and is the largest, said Mike Richards, its commander.

When a major case hits, the members operate around-the-clock, sometimes going 35 to 40 hours straight. "They work a case until it comes to a conclusion," said Birmingham's Police Capt. Charles Rafford, a task force deputy commander. "They are not 9-to-5".

Most recently, they were instrumental in Saturday's arrest of Justin White, 19, charged in the strangling death of 20-year-old Sirrea Black, a University of Alabama at Birmingham student.

In other high-profile cases:

In September, the task force nabbed Dedrick Griham, who had escaped from Staton Correctional Facility where he was being held for violating parole on a 20-year robbery sentence. Griham is in Birmingham this week, where he is on trial on federal charges related to the May 31 abduction of a Birmingham lawyer while Griham was out on parole.

In October, the task force ran down Demetrius Avery Jackson, now charged with capital murder in the fatal shooting of Fairfield Police Officer Mary Smith.

The Gulf Coast task force, based in Birmingham, was organized after Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., recognized a need for one to operate in Alabama and Mississippi. Cities with regional task forces are Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Twelve million in federal dollars got the unit under way. In Alabama, additional offices are in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville. The task force also has offices in Jackson, Gulfport and Oxford, Miss.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said the united front of law enforcement has yielded positive results. "I am confident that the regional task force will continue to help put the most wanted violent fugitives back behind bars where they belong," he said.

In Alabama, the task force is under the U.S. Marshals Service investigative service division and brings officers from local and state agencies such as Birmingham, Alabaster, Hoover, Alabama Department of Corrections, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and sheriff's deputies from Jefferson and Shelby counties together.

Tuscaloosa joins up:

Last week, officers from the Tuscaloosa police department and Tuscaloosa sheriff's department came on board, said Marty Keely, marshal for northern Alabama, and overall commander of the unit.

"We stand ready to go to these agencies and work with our local partners in finding and apprehending the most violent offenders," said Keely, a former Mountain Brook police chief.

Jefferson County Sheriff's Lt. A.L. Finley, also a task force deputy commander, said the task force is able to cross jurisdictional lines, combine personnel, and assist police in 31 municipalities, many of them small departments.

Law enforcement leaders applaud the task force, saying it has provided manpower, networking and training opportunities that would not be available otherwise.

Birmingham Police Chief Annetta Nunn said her department has been working closely with the task force for months. "In times of limited resources these type of partnerships become more and more important," Nunn said. "We just make a phone call and they help."

The task force hopes to draw officers from other municipalities to join the hunt.

"This Gulf Coast Regional Task Force is here for the long haul," said Keely, a former Mountain Brook police chief. "We've been busy. We're going to be busier. We're going to make a difference."