On the Hunt With the U.S. Marshals

US MarshalsCourtesy US Marshals
US Marshals

"From everybody that we've interviewed or talked to, he's going to either fight or run. So I want to emphasize that."

The caution comes from a U.S. marshal briefing his heavily armed colleagues in a parking lot before a fugitive takedown operation in the Atlanta area.

Kicking down doors, chasing criminals, fighting if they have to: For the marshals, the urban soldiers in the nation's oldest law enforcement agency, it's all part of the job.

And today's marshals are at the forefront of a new strategy increasingly used by police across the country to reduce crime. By implementing fugitive task forces, the marshals are targeting repeat offenders who terrorize neighborhoods. In Atlanta, violent crime has dropped nearly 32 percent and murders almost 22 percent in the four years since a regional task force started.

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The law enforcement officers continue to discuss Douglas Parker, a Georgia man wanted on charges of aggravated assault of a police officer, escape and attempting to elude authorities.

If a suspect runs, it adds another dimension to the situation.

"The last thing we want is for a fugitive to do is run, especially if it's in a car because it's like the fugitive has a 3,000-pound bullet," Danny Doyle, a Fulton County police officer on the Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force, told ABC News.

The marshal leading the briefing adds that in his high school days, Parker "was big on steroids, so he's a big, stocky guy." But they believe he's moved on from the drugs he allegedly did in the past. Now, "he's supposedly doing meth and smoking crack at the same time," the marshal said.

The marshals and police fan out in a dozen cars, using the latest technology -- which they requested ABC News not describe -- to track the suspect in what amounts to a roving daytime dragnet.

The police suspect Parker has been stealing cars all week and is believed to be driving a white Nissan compact.

Within two hours, the marshals narrow the suspect's whereabouts to a square mile area.

The goal, said U.S. marshal James Ergas, the supervisory inspector of the service's Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force, is to locate the car and pressure the suspect into a place where authorities "can effectively either pin his car or get him out on foot."

The technology zeroes in and one of the marshals sees someone who resembles Parker. But there's a twist. The suspect is not in the car police were looking for.

Over their radios, the marshals hear that the suspect is driving a Honda, with license plates that authorities determine to be stolen from a Jeep.

The chase is on. And the suspect speeds off. "Come on guys, he gunned it," says a voice on the radio.

'We've Got Him

The chase turns dangerous, as Parker appears to race past two kids walking down the street.

Of Parker's near miss of the children, Cmdr. Keith Booker says, "Total disregard for everybody else. He's only worried about himself."

Then, it's all over. Across the radio: "He just wrecked. He just wrecked."

"We've got him."

Parker had allegedly tried to run from the car, but the authorities tackled and Tasered him.

In Parker's car, authorities say they find a loaded gun, suspected drugs, stolen license plates, merchandise and cash. The marshals believe they have ended a one-man crime spree.

Booker summed up the incident: "Multiple offender, tendency to run from the police, fight the police. He's got a gun in the car, he's got drugs in the car and now he's wrecked somebody's vehicle that he's stolen and he's off to the Gwinnett County jail."

Fugitives, Ergas said, tend to repeat their patterns of behavior. "A guy that is a violent criminal isn't going to go get a job and work 9 to 5. That's what he does. It's their livelihood," he said. "And if we don't go find them, they're going to continue to do that to people."

Ergas says that the "vast majority" of the suspects chased are wanted for a violent crime. "More than 85 [percent to] 95 percent of the cases," he said. "And again, about 70 [percent to] 80 percent repeat violent offenders. So you go out with that mindset."

On the wall at the marshals' secret Atlanta task force headquarters are images of the 300 murder suspects caught in the last five years.

Last year, the marshals helped apprehend more than 109,000 violent offenders nationwide. And in the last decade, they've cleared more than 760,000 felony warrants in federal, state and local cases.

Many of the members of the task force are not federal agents, but local police officers, selected by hand to work in this specialized unit. The local officers are fully deputized and proudly wear the iconic U.S. marshals star.

"There is a lot of pride with our agency," Ergas said, noting that the "drive" to "find the bad guy that hurt someone and put handcuffs on him and bring him back to justice" is part of the agency.

"It's ingrained in us," he said.

Army veteran Ergas says he's got "the best job," but for him, like many marshals, the job goes beyond a profession and becomes very personal.

"I get emotional, I care about this," Ergas said, standing up to take a break from the interview. "I don't like people that kill people and rape people. They gotta go."

"I don't like people that hurt others, in any way," he said. "I think these people need to be brought back to face the music, to face the law and the criminal system every time. And somebody's got to do it. Somebody's got to bring them back."

Fugitives, Surveillance and the Takedown

ABC News came along as the hunt for an illegal immigrant who allegedly fled to Atlanta from New York ramped up.

Ergas describes the man's alleged crimes as he looks at the information on his computer screen: "He shot an innocent woman in the chest when she was with her child. Nothing is believed to have provoked the incident."

The marshals get a lead that the suspect is holed up in a suburban neighborhood.

Surveillance teams are dispatched to track the suspect and are in place, trying to determine whether or not the suspect is in the house.

Word comes in that the suspect is there. The task force convenes under the cover of rain at an abandoned warehouse nearby.

The marshal leading the briefing gives a description of the suspect named Mohamed Jaal. He's a Jamaican national originally from Sierra Leone wanted for allegedly shooting his girlfriend while she was holding her child.

Jaal's in the country illegally, authorities say, and has allegedly threatened to take his own life and has also fled from authorities before.

The marshals close in on the home. As they move in, they realize that an entire family is inside.

With three young children screaming, upset by the frantic scene unfolding before them, marshals yell for everyone to get down.

One man taken to the floor is also from Sierra Leone and is believed to have grown up with the suspect. But it is not Jaal; the man on the floor is not involved with the alleged crimes.

So the search continues until task force members locate Jaal hiding out in the garage.

Meanwhile, a mother comes to terms with a scenario in which her family unknowingly harbored a violent fugitive.

"Do you know what that guy did?" a marshal asks the woman. She gasps audibly and puts her head in her hands as the federal agent says, "He shot his girlfriend in the chest."

With the suspect in custody, Keith Booker turns his attention to the children.

"We don't want them to have been scared by this. The fugitive put them into this situation," he said. To ease the trauma caused by the melee, the marshals deputize the children and give them teddy bears.

The job is stressful, and constantly so. There are frustrations. In one instance, the marshals scrub a massive operation because of a possible leak.

The next night, they search through abandoned houses into the early morning hours. Again, no luck.

But the adrenaline spikes again later before another takedown, as the marshals pick up the trail of a multiple offender on the run, a man who authorities say was packing an assault weapon at the time of his last arrest.

Staying 'One Step Ahead' of Fugitives

The marshal briefing his fellow law enforcement agents describes Derrick Lakeith Lee and says that he's been charged with aggravated assault after an incident in which he allegedly pulled up to his girlfriend's car in a gas station parking lot and "shot her car up, left her, got in the car and drove off."

Lee has a criminal history, authorities said, with one assault and battery conviction, two for burglary, a drug conviction and other charges for weapons possession and robbery.

When dealing with fugitives such as Lee, the marshals are prepared to use overwhelming force.

Ergas said authorities have to "be one step ahead" in the force continuum. Factoring in reaction time, fractions of a second make a difference. And if a suspect has a gun ready and the officers don't, "he's already ahead of you. You are putting yourself in danger. And not only are you putting yourself in danger, you're putting your teammates at danger and you're putting the public at danger."

Police bang on the door of the apartment where they believe Lee is hiding out. They spot a man peering out of a window and they know their man is inside.

The potential for a violent confrontation increases as he refuses to come to the door. So they break down the door and throw in a "flash bang," a nonlethal stun device that disorients those in range when it detonates.

The suspect is caught, but there is a sad surprise. A child who appears to be about 6 years old is inside.

Ergas appears with the child in his arms, walks down a hallway and exits the house.

A short time later, he describes the scene inside, saying that Lee "fought investigators as they were trying to secure him, at which point in time he was Tased." Even then, the suspect "continued to fight," making it difficult for officers to determine if he had a weapon.

So authorities had to use a Taser on him again, Ergas said. As the suspect is led away, he says nothing to the boy who was in the apartment with him.

"There's nothing more messed up than someone being willing to put a child's safety at risk for themselves," Ergas said.

As for Lee's alleged crimes, "He obviously was careless. He's alleged to have fired up a car with a woman in it. So he proves he is who he is -- who we thought he was."

Another suspected bad guy to be locked up. Just another day on the job for the U.S. marshals.