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An arduous hunt for Katrina's fugitives

In the storm, countless suspects jumped bail and fled. Finding them is anything but easy.

February 05, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Blair Boutte, the co-owner of AAAA Bail Bonds, said he used to feel comfortable putting up thousands of dollars to get accused criminals out of jail because he always knew how to find them.

In this highly parochial city, all it typically took was a stroll through their old neighborhood -- and a trip to Momma's house.

"We were bonding these guys out because Momma had been living in the Lower 9th Ward or Lakeview or Gentilly for 25 years," Boutte said. "I would not bond him out if Momma was living who knows where in Texas."

But after Hurricane Katrina emptied out New Orleans in August 2005, Momma is, in fact, often living who knows where in Texas -- and finding suspected criminals who jumped bail is giving Boutte tremendous trouble.

So many suspects skipped bail that Louisiana bonding businesses faced wholesale bankruptcy; in response, the state passed a law that allows judges to forgive their debts or grant them extra time to find missing clients. Even without the bail jumpers, many bonding businesses are struggling to survive -- new clients are scant in a city where half the population is still living somewhere else.

"Bail is like an insurance policy: We insure the defendant's appearance in court. And we know there is some risk involved in that," Boutte said. "But unlike State Farm, we don't factor in for catastrophes. We don't expect practically the whole city to leave at once."

Exasperation has become a common feeling for the men and women who make a living tracking down fugitives along the Gulf Coast.

After Katrina uprooted the populace of New Orleans, countless suspects disappeared in the confusion. Accused murderers and rapists didn't show up to court. Suspected drug dealers jumped bail en masse. Paroled child molesters who were supposed to register as sex offenders dropped off the radar. The number of registered sex offenders unaccounted for was so high that the New Orleans Police Department assigned two detectives to look for them outside the city; as many as 20% are still missing.

Burdened marshals

The mass scattering has also greatly burdened the U.S. Marshals Service, charged with corralling the most dangerous wanted criminals. It has upped the workload for bounty hunters, the mercenaries hired to hunt down less important suspects who leave bail bondsmen in the lurch.

"Lord help Houston, because they have no idea what they have," said Louisiana private investigator Natalie Biondolillo, who now helps parents find ex-spouses who took off with their children after Katrina. "The hurricane let some people fall off the face of the Earth."

Last month, marshals in Texas located one of New Orleans' 20 most wanted fugitives. Anthony Sylve, who was wanted on suspicion of dealing drugs and brutally beating a woman, had been living in a San Antonio apartment paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Fugitives from other parts of the country, meanwhile, have been flocking to New Orleans to take reconstruction jobs that pay them under the table. The continuing chaos also allows notorious fugitives to walk the streets in plain daylight.

Last month, marshals arrested one of Texas' 10 most wanted fugitives about an hour outside of New Orleans in Larose, where he had been working as a sand blaster. Darrell Wayne Parker, who had been on the run since 2005, was wanted for allegedly sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy, and for violating his parole in the 1991 beating death of a 26-year-old woman.

Also last month, marshals arrested murder suspect Donald Greenup as he was washing dishes at a restaurant in New Orleans. Greenup, a 25-year-old New Orleans native who evacuated after Katrina, came back after he was accused of shooting a man in Dallas during a drug deal.

"New Orleans is as close to a Wild West town as there is right now," said Deputy U.S. Marshal Jerry Dysart, head of Operation Debris Removal, a task force started by U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to help New Orleans-area police deal with the new wave of fugitives. "You can get in, you can get out" without attracting notice, Dysart said, "and there is easy money to be made."

With so many bail jumpers on the lam, the aftermath of Katrina would seem like a golden time to be a bounty hunter.

Not so, say experts in the euphemistically titled art of "bail retrieval." The reward for finding a fugitive, usually no more than a few hundred bucks, has stayed the same. But the trouble has tripled.

With so many New Orleans natives living elsewhere, bounty hunters must travel to big cities and little towns in Alabama, Georgia and central Louisiana to track down friends and relatives who might be hiding suspects.

Bounty hunters outside the hurricane zone, in turn, have to travel to Louisiana in search of suspects who returned to their old haunts after breaking laws in the communities that took them in.

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