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Police are stepping up their use of special fugitive squads; Officials say the initiative has paid a dividend in arrests

Email|Print| Text size + By Maria Cramer and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

The tip came in on a cool March morning: A fugitive wanted on a gun charge was hiding in his girlfriend's three-decker in Dorchester, there for the taking.

When the officers arrived, some of them fanned out around the house while a few others did something that isn't exactly the stuff of a prime-time television drama. They walked up the front steps and rang the doorbell.

And though the woman who answered insisted she hadn't seen the suspect in a week, like good salesmen, the officers talked their way inside. Once there, they found their man, 25-year-old Christopher Chubbuck, hiding in the third-floor closet of a child's bedroom.

"We don't ever look there," chuckled Officer Paul Bercume, moments after his colleagues hauled away the ropy, dark-haired man in handcuffs.

Bercume has learned it pays to look in likely and unlikely places. He and many of the 11 other officers who make up the Boston Police Fugitive Unit have been scouring houses for perps for about a decade. They know fugitives will hide just about anywhere: in clothes dryers, washing machines, attic crawl spaces, and inside fold-out sofas.

"You name it, they'll try to get inside it," said Officer Eddie Hernandez, Bercume's partner.

Knowing the best hiding places was just one of the qualifications the department was looking for February last year, when it created the unit. The 12 officers who made the squad are all from the city's gang and drug units and known for their ability to talk to street sources and for keeping their cool.

Their mission is to find murder suspects who have evaded capture, witnesses, and fugitives wanted for other serious crimes, such as rapes and shootings.

The department says the unit, which in 2007 captured 215 people on arrest warrants, including 18 murder suspects, is a success.

It is also part of a trend among law enforcement agencies to rely on special units to track down fugitives. Since 1999, the State Police have doubled their Violent Fugitive Apprehension Section to 29 officers, who last year arrested 2,475 people, including 309 sex offenders. The unit captured 211 fugitives in 1986, the first full year of its operation.

"There's a lot more violent crime out there," said former detective lieutenant Kevin Horton, who cofounded the State Police fugitive unit and ran it before he retired last month. "Boston was always the hotspot, now the hotspots are all over."

Fugitive units usually begin their day at dawn, when suspects are most likely sleeping. Often, the searches come up empty. Suspects on the run get their information about police plans the same way police do: from sources on the street. By the time the fugitive unit arrives, its quarry has often fled.

"It could take months, years, to actually catch up with them. It takes a long time, it's frustrating," said Sergeant Detective Brian Albert, head of the Boston squad. "But if you get them in the end, it makes it worth it."

The job can be dangerous, police said. They go into houses where armed suspects could be lying in wait, ready to shoot them. But it's tricky to predict the reception police will get.

Colette Tamuleviz, a trooper who tracks sex offenders for the State Police fugitive squad, said she has gone into a house expecting a violent confrontation with a fugitive wanted for a shooting, only to find a weeping, cowering suspect.

"Every person you encounter is different," she said. "The meekest, mildest guy could be the one who comes out and jumps on you."

Officers said they go out of their way to keep things calm, the way the Boston unit did Tuesday.

They brandished warrants, not weapons, and kept their firearms hidden under bulky sweatshirts.

"Most times being polite and really kind of explaining what you're doing and why you're there, you get the best results that way, I've found," Albert said.

They have learned, officers said, that it is better to be discreet, especially when they must arrest someone whose children are at home.

Over the past week, the state's fugitive squad has hit Brockton, where a recent rash of homicides and shootings has terrified residents and spurred calls for police intervention. Under a weeklong sweep they dubbed Operation Brockton Surge, the state squad teamed up with Brockton police, US marshals, and other agencies to nab 40 suspects wanted on firearm, drug dealing, and sex offense charges.

Early Thursday morning, when the state troopers arrived at the Brockton address of a woman wanted for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, they also found the suspect's daughter: a little girl in pigtails, about 5 years old.

The child stood in the living room, watching cartoons as she waited for her school bus. The troopers waited with her. Ten minutes later, the child's bus arrived. When she was gone, the troopers handcuffed her weeping mother and placed her in a police car.

"We wouldn't cuff her in front of her daughter," said Sergeant Teddy Condon, who had worried about the trauma the girl would endure while seeing her mother arrested.

It was also a strategic move, he said.

"People don't usually cause trouble in front of their children," Condon said.

Members of fugitive units have access to a world where children, even infants, are surrounded by gun-wielding or drug-addicted adults, said Officer Stephen Ridge, of the Boston fugitive unit.

"Kids here, they just know way too much, about drugs, about guns, about sex," he said. "What they know is what a 15-year-old in the South Shore knows."

That makes the job depressing. What makes it rewarding, the officers say, is the sense of accomplishment that comes with catching someone, said Bercume.

"There's a lot of satisfaction that comes with getting somebody that's running, that's hurt somebody," he said. "Families are looking for closure. Sometimes the only closure you can get is an arrest."

During the Boston unit's sweep last Tuesday, an officer called Albert to tell him he thought he had spotted a murder suspect the unit had been looking for. The suspect was one of six people police believe were involved in the fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Terrence Jacobs last year. The fugitive unit had arrested the other suspects over the weekend.

Albert sped toward the house in a large, black four-door pickup truck with Ridge. He tried not to get excited.

"Give me a percentage probability here, what are you thinking?," Albert said into his cellphone as Ridge, who drove, began to accelerate.

"50-50," the officer replied.

"That's worth a peek," Albert said. The truck picked up more speed.

But then Albert's man on the scene called in. He had taken a closer look at the man. It was not their suspect.

"It's negative," Albert said barely above a whisper, then radioed the rest of his units. "Shut it down."

Ridge turned the truck around, and the men moved on to the next address on their list.

Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.

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