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Carl Prine
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

It's the hard hand of the law.
According to the watch on that wrist, it's 5:03 p.m. Allegheny County Sheriff's Lt. Jack Kearney, 48, is clawing a Marlboro menthol, the smoke coiling through the cab of his truck, using the glowing nub as a pointer to punctuate what he's saying.
Over the next three nights, that hand will knock on 44 doors; tote 79 warrants for fugitives from justice; cradle the handcuffs that will bind them away to jail; and constantly cup a cell phone that keeps him chattering to Kearney's four undercover detectives as they spread out through the night, looking for people who don't want to be found.
The same fist two nights later will grip a stun baton that jolts a fugitive attempting to snatch Kearney's firearm in a desperate dash for freedom from the law.
"Let's go," Kearney says into the phone.
And so the sheriff's nighttime Fugitive Squad, part of the Investigation's Division, takes to the hunt. The hunted are the nearly 5,900 people avoiding court who are arrested annually by court order -- everyone from a dad accused of being late with his child support payments to a murder suspect on the lam.
It was a suspected murderer, Leroy Harris Jr, 25, of Clairton who police say shot and wounded Fugitive Squad member Ronald N. Stokes Jr. in the calf on Friday near a North Huntingdon convenience store. Officers returned fire, killing Harris, who had been on the run for nearly two years after a McKeesport double-murder. He narrowly escaped authorities on Thursday after they surrounded a Clairton home.
Stokes was taken to Allegheny General Hospital and was recovering Saturday.
The agency Stokes works for is a rarity among the state's 67 sheriffs' offices.
A 1994 state law allows it to double as a protector of judges and an investigative police agency with arrest powers, in a county that has 117 municipal police forces. Led by Kearney, who also runs security for the Steelers, the night shift scours the darkest nooks of the county's underworld -- crack houses, gang lairs, speakeasy bars and flop houses frequented by those on the run.
"Those in Investigations, their job is to go after dangerous people," said Sheriff William P. Mullen, 62, a former Pittsburgh police deputy chief.
"They approach a house. They might not have much intelligence about who is in there or know what to expect from the fugitive, except what they know about the crime he's said to have committed," Mullen said. "So, for them, there's always a great deal of uncertainty."
Kearney's crew features Ted Hughes, 55, a former steelworker with 25 years in the department; Darryl Smith, 31, as big as a linebacker; and Don Macejka, 38, an Air Force veteran. To blend into the night, they wear polo shirts, ball caps, denim jeans and sneakers, to chase after the fugitives most likely to bolt.
"Only one ever got away," said Macejka, who has nine years on the force. "She was all of 5 feet, 3 inches, about 80 pounds. Crazy crack addict. But she could run like Florence Joyner."
In early October, Public Enemy No. 1 for Kearney and his undercover officers in unmarked cars was Arthur Paul Smith, 6-feet, 3-inches tall, and 255 pounds thick. Smith's case file was marked "caution" because the man with three known aliases and a tattooed chest likely would be armed and dangerous. Wanted on charges of intimidating and assaulting ethnic minorities, he celebrated his 30th birthday Oct. 17 in a cellblock after the Fugitive Squad collared him.
Tips on wayward suspects come from a number of sources -- including street-level confidential informants and the seven sheriff's detectives who serve on county and federal task forces and pass on scuttlebutt. Detectives located Smith after a tip from a man who saw his mug on a Comcast Cable TV ad, and recognized him strolling in Mt. Washington.
Kearney's crew ransacked Smith's vacated Mt. Washington digs and retraced his steps until they found him a day later at a buddy's Boggs Avenue apartment.
"I know you'd think that we get all kinds of crazy tips, but only about one out of every 25 is off. We've looked at it, and that's about right. Most of the tips, they're right on," said Kearney, a former ironworker who gave up building bridges 25 years ago to collar criminals.
Team effort
Sometimes the manhunt means seeking help from officers like McKeesport Detective Shelley Gould, 46. After wearing a badge for 22 years, Gould says he tires of catching and releasing suspects who never make it to criminal court. So, when the Fugitive Squad is in town, he helps sniff out those who scoff at the law.
"I don't feel criminals should feel comfortable," Gould said. "I want them to be anxious. I want them to know we're coming."
Paired with the Fugitive Squad, Gould's job becomes easier. Instead of spending long hours building criminal cases, he and sheriff's detectives put their brains to work locating the "wanted."
Kearney and Hughes unfurl warrants, pushing pages before Gould with three questions, "Who's good?" -- which is to say, who is in town? -- "Who's gonna run?" and the most important, "Who's gonna fight?"
In McKeesport's 10th Ward, less than an hour later, Gould and the Fugitive Squad meet up with a man who will be charged for trying to run and trying to fight.
"Po-Leeeece!" yells Detective Hughes as he smacks against a door on Pine Street no one inside would open. The TV is on; lights are on. Minutes roll by. Gould, Smith and Macejka quietly orbit the house, making sure there's nowhere someone could flee.
"Come on! Po-Leeece!"
Then, Terri Keys, 57, places one eye to a crack in the door to stare at the cops. Her son, Justin, 27, is wanted on five counts of child endangerment. Once briefly confined as a mental patient at Mayview State Hospital, Justin Keys is accused of keeping lice-infested, unbathed children in a house spackled with dog feces.
Terri Keys says he's not home. When the detectives tell her they want to check, she yells, "My boy didn't do nothing!"
Clomp after clomp after clomp, Kearney and Hughes brush past her and rush up the stairs. They see Justin crouching behind boxes in a bedroom closet. He wasn't hard to find, not like the fugitive they once located stuck in a chimney, or another chilling in a basement meat locker.
But they know he's considered at best a runner, at worst dangerous. Screams echo through the home, then shouts from the cops: "Taser! Taser! Taser!" followed by an arc of white light, and more screams.
Kearney said the man tried to grab his Taser from his belt, and so he used a handheld baton to shock him into submission.
Terri Keys claims her son is innocent and says she didn't block him away by stacking boxes over him. Screaming and thrashing, Justin Keys struggles to escape his cuffs.
Detectives place Keys and his mother into the van that will take them to jail. An hour later, Gould and the Fugitive Squad members are picking lice from their hair, necks and shirts.
Their odyssey in McKeesport this autumn night will take them to a streetwalker working Fifth Avenue. They'll burst into a room searching for a fugitive, but instead confront his flatmate who sleeps gripping a loaded revolver.
There's the man urinating on his fence after a night of drinking. The woman with four children who couldn't find a relative without outstanding warrants to take her kids before she went to jail. And a prostitute holed up in a Hi-View housing complex apartment with her paramour, who was wanted on drug charges.
"It smells like feet, someone's behind, and mayonnaise in here," said Smith as he boxed their crack pipes for evidence.
Sticking to a budget
With 20 detectives working around the clock, the Sheriff's Office is on pace to clear 11,603 warrants by Christmas -- about twice as many as it cleared in 2004, before Mullen replaced long-time Sheriff Pete DeFazio, who resigned after two of his top deputies were sentenced to federal prison in a corruption scandal.
With a budget of about $11.5 million, Mullen has sought to cut expenses and do everything he's supposed to do -- serve warrants and 61,000 legal writs; issue 13,000 firearms permits; transport prisoners to jail, court and halfway houses 11,000 times; and sell 4,500 seized properties to satisfy liens.
In 2007, the department's operations closed out $100,000 below budget. Mullen credits reforms that streamlined management, cut payroll and nixed overtime he thought was spiraling out of control. Sheriff's Office personnel charts provided to the Tribune-Review show that Mullen even cut sick-day usage by 11 percent last year.
"You're held hostage by your budget. If you can't manage that budget, then it destroys the credibility of our office. One of the primary functions of a sheriff must be to manage money well," Mullen said.
Because detectives on the Fugitive Squad and their related task forces make up only 15 percent of the department, they find themselves toiling without break to deliver vans full of wanted men and women to the county jail. For every escapee, deadbeat parent or wanted felon they net, however, judges issue orders to retrieve three more.
"The one thing that isn't going out of business is crime," Kearney said. "Does it affect me that there always will be more to get? No. When you've been doing this as long as we have, you get used to it."

Story From: Pittsburgh Tribune Review
 
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