With no one chasing them across state lines, fugitives are free to rape, kidnap, even murder
AIKEN, S.C. — Before they killed him, the intruders bound Frederick Tucker's hands and feet with duct tape, beat him with a pistol and seared his hips and neck with the tip of a screwdriver they heated on his kitchen stove.
Then one of them shot Tucker in the chest.
The crime was stunning for its brutality, but in another way it was remarkably ordinary: One of the murderers — the man Tucker's family is convinced orchestrated the crime — was a fugitive whom the police in Philadelphia repeatedly allowed to go free because he had left their state.
Tens of thousands of felony suspects get away as easily, because police and prosecutors across much of the United States will not pursue them beyond their state borders. For many, that decision is a license to commit new crimes, a USA TODAY investigation found. With no one chasing them, unwanted fugitives went on to rape, kidnap, rob banks and kill, often as close as in the state next door.
Another Philadelphia fugitive killed his 1-month-old daughter, Arianna Ellis, by hurling her tiny body into the wall of a Trenton, N.J., apartment. Another savagely beat and kicked 79-year-old Roosevelt Morrow during a Father's Day robbery, leaving him to die on a hallway floor outside the bathroom of his modest Salem, N.J., home.
Had they been looking, the police would have had no trouble locating Tucker's killer, or any of the others. They all were arrested in other states before they killed, a process that would ordinarily alert authorities in Philadelphia to come and get them. But in each case, because they had left Pennsylvania, police and prosecutors had decided in advance to take a less costly course and let them get away.
"Oh my God," Tucker's mother, Gloria, sobbed when she found out. "This didn't have to happen?"
It is impossible to tally how much money that saved taxpayers, but the total is likely less than a few hundred dollars per case.
Prosecutors and police officials are making similar decisions — with similar results — in cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta. But few refuse to extradite fugitives as explicitly and as often as Philadelphia, the hub of a metropolis that spans four states, where officials have chosen not to pursue more than 20,000 people once they cross the state border, just a mile and a half from the city's courthouse.
Gloria Tucker and Zera Black talk about the fugitive convicted of killing their family member. They say that police should have known about the fugitive and brought him to justice. Brad Heath, Sarah Cartron, Shannon Rae Green, Steve Elfers
They are among more than 186,873 felony suspects whom police nationwide say won't be pursued into other states, USA TODAY's investigation found.
Using court records and police reports, USA TODAY tracked 572 of Philadelphia's fugitives, focusing on those who faced particularly serious charges or who listed addresses outside of Pennsylvania. More than half had been arrested at least once since they were wanted; some had been jailed in other states dozens of times.
Perhaps most startling of all: Those fugitives alone killed at least seven people from New York to South Carolina after they left Pennsylvania.
Those deaths are part of a coast-to-coast trail of violence committed by fugitives, often after police in another state had been forced to let them go. In Tennessee, police charged that a fugitive fatally shot four people on a country road after authorities in Santa Rosa County, Fla., turned down four chances to come get him. In New York City, a man wanted for a shooting in North Carolina shot a police officer in the face, the second time a fugitive killed an officer there in less than a decade.
The New York killer, Lamont Pride, said in a jailhouse interview that he was "shocked" that he was allowed to go free despite the North Carolina charges.
No one knows just how often fugitives are to blame for violent crime in the United States because few courts or law enforcement agencies bother to keep track. But the toll is almost certainly substantial. In Washington, D.C., alone, one in six murder cases between 2007 and 2011 involved someone who was already wanted by the police for another crime, usually in another state, USA TODAY found after reviewing hundreds of confidential pretrial reports.
Prosecutors in Philadelphia and elsewhere insist they have no way to stop that violence. For one thing, it is impossible to say with certainty that extraditing a fugitive would prevent him from committing another crime. Even if it would, prosecutors say they can't tell which fugitives might become dangerous, and they don't have the time or money to extradite everyone who flees the state, even if they have not gone far.
"We're trying to use our limited resources to prosecute heavy hitters," said Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Laurie Malone, who supervises the city's extradition unit. "We don't have a crystal ball."
That's little consolation to Tucker's relatives, who were stunned to learn that one of his killers, Melvin Cummings, was running from a felony gun possession charge in Philadelphia.
"I just don't understand," said one of Tucker's sisters, Zera Black. "I'm quite sure they wanted him to get his time or whatever was going to come of that case, and I wish South Carolina would have known about that at the right time."
On the day Frederick Tucker died, Cummings had been a fugitive for nearly eight years.
Police arrested him outside a Philadelphia 7-Eleven in October 2000 after they found a handgun in the car he had been driving. He was charged with carrying a firearm without a license, a felony. Free before his trial, Cummings simply moved back home to Aiken, a city of tree-lined boulevards just outside Augusta, Ga. On Dec. 13, 2000, a Philadelphia municipal court judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
"I knew I was skipping out on a court date. I had intended on going back up there," Cummings said in an interview from a Columbia, S.C., prison. "I didn't think it was that serious."
Gun crimes have long been viewed as especially serious in Philadelphia, a city whose murder rate is routinely among the nation's highest. Malone said she could not tell from Cummings' file whether prosecutors ever considered extraditing him; if they did, they decided against it, likely because the evidence was thin, she said. But not so thin he wouldn't be tried if he ever came back to Philadelphia on his own.
"If it would not require extra resources and money and time and effort, we would absolutely proceed," she said. "Because it's a gun case, there is a public interest."
Because prosecutors didn't approve extradition, police did not enter his name into the FBI's fugitive database. So even the prosecutors who ultimately sent Cummings to prison for Tucker's murder had no way to know that he was a wanted man. "I would have wanted to know about that," Aiken prosecutor Beth Ann Young said after USA TODAY contacted her.
Somehow, the police in Aiken knew. And in the years that followed Cummings' return, they had plenty of other reasons to lock him up — on charges of domestic violence, illegally carrying a gun, driving with a suspended license and selling drugs. Each time, Cummings said, jailers contacted Philadelphia authorities about picking him up on the gun charges. And each time, the answer was the same.
"They didn't want to come get me," he said. Aiken officers "knew Philadelphia wasn't really interested in the situation."
All of that explains why Cummings was free and still in South Carolina on a Monday morning in September 2008 when he and three other men pulled their green rental car to a stop in front of Tucker's house on a narrow country road just outside Aiken.
Tucker, 39, was a drug dealer, though his relatives said he was trying to put that life behind him. He doted on his twin daughters, then 9, who grew up meeting him in the visitation room of a federal prison. "When he got out, he wanted to do things different," said the girls' mother, Alisha Barnes. "He was a great dad."
Detectives never learned precisely what happened inside, but what they found told most of the story. Shell casings dotted the kitchen floor and bullet holes dotted the walls. The coils of the electric stove were glowing. A trail of blood led from the kitchen to the front door, where Tucker lay facedown, hands duct-taped behind his back.
Cummings insisted that he was merely the getaway driver, and that he knew nothing about the robbery until after Tucker was dead. He did not go inside the house with the others. He said he doesn't know how they decided to rob his old acquaintance or why they invited him along.
"Drug dealers attract a certain type of people. That's what they do. It just so happens that he attracted guys that I was involved with," Cummings said. "It was a hideous thing what they did."
Tucker's family sees it differently. Cummings and Tucker had known each other for years. Cummings used to buy drugs from him, and Tucker's girlfriend told the police that Cummings still owed him money.
"He should have gotten life," Gloria Tucker said. "He brought 'em there."
Police arrested the killers within hours, following the signal from a GPS unit hidden inside their rental car to Columbia, S.C. The trio made at least one stop along the way, one of the killers, Ronald Grooms, later told the police, at a Publix supermarket, where Cummings bought a bottle of champagne.
Even fugitives wanted for seemingly minor charges can wind up committing far more serious crimes in another state.
Jacob Allen Bennett, for example, fled charges in Santa Rosa County, Fla., that he drained more than $1,000 from his girlfriend's bank account. Not long after Santa Rosa officials refused the last of at least four opportunities to pick him up, Bennett was arrested for fatally shooting three teenagers and a young mother inside their car on a remote road outside Knoxville, Tenn.
Florida authorities knew Bennett was in Tennessee. Not long after he disappeared from Florida, he sent a Hallmark card to his former girlfriend in apology, postmarked in Knoxville. And within months of putting his name into the FBI's database in 2009, they fielded calls from Tennessee police telling them that their fugitive had been found, records show.
Every time, the response was the same: Florida authorities were willing to extradite him from neighboring states, but they would not travel to Tennessee.Authorities in Florida last heard from Bennett in March 2013 shortly after he was released from a Tennessee prison. He called to ask whether there was any way to "take care of this (Florida charge) without being arrested,"according to a police report. When the officer said no, he hung up.
"They should have watched him more," said Danny Crombie, whose stepdaughter and grandson were killed.
Assistant State Attorney James Parker said Florida officials did not pursue Bennett so far north because it would have cost too much and because the charges were not serious enough for a prison sentence. Parker said he has not second-guessed that decision: "If we had brought him back in 2009, he would not have been incarcerated at the time he committed these murders," he said.
The lead detective on the murder case takes a different view. "If he had gone to Florida, would it have changed the outcome? Very possibly," Cumberland County, Tenn., Sheriff's Investigator Casey Cox said. "The system is flooded with these. It all falls back on the mighty dollar."
In October, the prison in Wartburg, Tenn., where Bennett was locked up facing four counts of murder, sent one last message to Santa Rosa County advising the police that he was in custody again in case they wanted him back if the murder charges were dropped. Again, the answer was no.
Little research tracks the consequences of such decisions. For years, researchers have studied violence by people on probation or parole. But no similar studies measure the extent to which fugitives commit violent crimes, and few police agencies keep track.
To track that toll, USA TODAY reviewed confidential pretrial assessments of 383 people charged with murder in Washington, D.C., between 2007 and 2011. Those reports, mistakenly included in D.C. court files, are essentially background checks meant to help judges decide who should be locked up awaiting trial and who can be released on bail, and they offer a rare assessment of a suspect's criminal record.
Those reports show that 61 of those murder suspects — about one in six — already had at least one outstanding warrant, usually from other states. Many were wanted only a few miles away, in the district's Maryland and Virginia suburbs, and some had been picked up by D.C. police but released because the other states would not extradite them. Among the fugitives charged with killing:
• Charles Clark, wanted on a probation violation in Pinellas County, Fla., fatally stabbed his girlfriend in her bed in 2007.
• Kevin Lamont Clark, wanted for violating his probation in Maryland after he was convicted of robbery, shot and killed a 17-year-old in 2011.
• Charles Coates, wanted for grand larceny in Virginia and theft in Maryland, shot his cousin after an argument about money in 2011.
USA TODAY found a similar pattern in Florida by analyzing the prison records of more than 10,000 people locked up for homicides. One in six included a formal request by local police agencies that they be notified before the prisoner was released, usually so that they could pick him up on other criminal charges. (The analysis excluded similar requests by probation and immigration officials.) Police made similar requests for one of every seven convicted rapists.
Not every such request, known as a detainer, necessarily signals that the prisoner was on the wanted list when sent to prison, but most do, and records show the overwhelming majority were made shortly after the inmates began serving their sentences.
To those who hunt fugitives, the connection is obvious.
"We're going after people who are habitual criminals," said Rob Fernandez, the head of a U.S. Marshals Service task force in Washington, D.C., whose officers track down fugitives facing the most serious charges. "There's no better way to lower the crime rate than to get the people who are always committing the crimes off the street."
Callie Morrow shares how a fugitive murdered her husband. She says if the fugitive had been captured, her husband would be alive today. Eileen Blass, Jennifer Harnish, Shannon Rae Green
Callie Morrow remembers dialing her husband's phone number over and over on the morning he died in June 2005. She had forgotten to wish him a happy Father's Day before she left for work. She grew alarmed when he didn't pick up.
She rushed home and headed to the bedroom of their Salem, N.J., home, thinking he was sick. Clothes were strewn everywhere. Her husband, Roosevelt, was 79, but she said he was healthy. He was a trustee in their church and mowed its lawn. Retired from a glass plant, he sold soda and candy out of his living room to neighborhood kids, who called him Pop-Pop.
A few seconds later, she found him lying lifeless in the hallway outside the bathroom. She ran from the house and collapsed in the front yard.
Police caught the killers a week later, after a girlfriend admitted to investigators that one of them, Dwayne Slaughter, had come home with blood on his clothes and told her "he hoped he didn't kill" Morrow.
It wasn't Slaughter's first robbery. Five years earlier, police in Philadelphia charged that he and two others shoved a man to the ground near the University of Pennsylvania and ran off with a lighter, cigarettes and $60. They charged him with robbery and aggravated assault, both felonies, and eventually let him out on bail.
Slaughter said he robbed that man on a dare. "I grabbed him and pulled him to the ground, and they went through his pockets," he said in an interview at New Jersey's South Woods State Prison. "I'm the one that committed the robbery."
He said he went to court on that case once, in a crowded basement under a North Philadelphia police precinct. He said he watched the judge sentence one person to jail, then he got up, walked across the street to buy a drink and headed back to Salem, only about 45 minutes away, but on the opposite side of the state border. "I honestly didn't think it through. I said I was scared and I'm just going home," he said.
Slaughter said his cousin, Pritchard Watts, is the one who beat and kicked Morrow. Watts told the police the exact opposite. Both were convicted. "It was easy money from an old man," Salem Police Chief John Pelura III said.
Neither Salem detectives nor Callie Morrow knew Slaughter was wanted in Pennsylvania until USA TODAY contacted them last year. Philadelphia prosecutors did not approve the warrant for extradition and therefore did not enter his name into the FBI's fugitive database, leaving the police in New Jersey in the dark. But even if they had known, Philadelphia authorities would not have come to get him.
Slaughter was arrested often enough — and then set free — that he eventually stopped worrying about the Philadelphia charges. "I'd be sitting there in jail and I'd be thinking it's going to come up and they're going to take me back to Philly. But they didn't. I started to think maybe they'd dropped it. I thought it was over with," he said.
"That's crazy," Morrow said. "If they had come and got him, he would have been locked up, and my husband would still be living."
Pelura agreed. Police records show that his officers had Slaughter in custody at least three times in the years that followed, and Salem is small enough that his officers usually knew where to find him. "If we had known he was wanted, we would have arrested him," Pelura said. "We can't say (the killing) wouldn't have occurred, but it might not have. It would have changed things."
The Philadelphia district attorney's office said it decided in 2008 to go to New Jersey to collect Slaughter after all — three years after Morrow died. He is due in a Philadelphia court at the end of March.