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One night fighting crime: JCAT tries to prevent the violence from happening

Published: Saturday, Nov. 10 2012 2:00 p.m. MST

Members of the Joint Criminal Apprehension Team arrest a fugitive Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Deputy U.S. marshal Mark Thomson thinks the man he is after has just walked into a convenience store, but he can't tell for sure.

As the deputy U.S. marshal sits in an unmarked police vehicle next to a gas pump, he takes a closer look at the man as a second marshal circles the parking lot. Other law enforcement officers race to the area.

The man Thomson is looking for is known to carry a gun and has a federal warrant out for his arrest. Members of the Joint Criminal Apprehension Team are feeling pressure to capture this man because an informant has told them he is planning to commit a violent crime in just a few days.

Thomson decides the similarities are too close too ignore. He makes the call for members of JCAT to move in.

A half-dozen unmarked vehicles speed into the parking lot, boxing in the man's pickup. Thomson approaches the driver's side window and knocks several times until the man finally responds.

His hunch has paid off.

"You know what this is about, right?" Thomson asks the man. "Nice new dye," he adds, noting the man has changed the color of his goatee in an attempt to alter his appearance.

The man is pushed against the side of his truck and handcuffed. In his pocket, investigators find several high quality fake IDs, including a phony Utah driver's license.

A female passenger is also taken out of the vehicle and placed in cuffs. It's obvious to detectives that the woman is hiding something under her hoodie, but she denies it, even after being questioned directly three times about what she's hiding.

On the fourth time, she admits something is there.

Officers lift her hoodie to find a gun tucked in her waistband. Looks real, but the weapon turns out to be a BB gun. If she'd have gone for it before police knew it wasn't a lethal weapon, she could have been shot.

The arrests at this convenience store near 4800 South and 600 West were just two of more than a dozen the JCAT team would make during one recent November evening.

Violent crime overall is down in Utah and the nation, according to the FBI's recently released Uniform Crime Report for 2011. Robbery, aggravated assault, rape and murder all decreased from 2010. It was the fifth consecutive year the FBI reported an overall decrease in violent crime.

But Jim Phelps said the numbers don't seem to change what he sees each night.

"This year has been substantially more busy that last year which was more busy than the year before," said the supervisory deputy U.S. marshal who heads JCAT in northern Utah.

"You always hear of statistics coming out that crime is decreasing," Phelps said. But it doesn't stop the threat officers say they feel each night. During the first weekend of November, at least five people along the Wasatch Front were shot, three fatally, and two were stabbed, one receiving fatal injuries. Stopping the violence before it happens is the goal of JCAT.

'Criminals know us'

During this recent night, Phelps and the JCAT team worked non-stop following leads and  rounding up more than a dozen wanted felons from West Jordan to Salt Lake City to Tooele.

For 13 years, JCAT — comprised of law enforcement officers from departments across the Wasatch Front and the U.S. Marshal's Service — has been rounding up wanted violent fugitives and people with outstanding warrants. The team currently averages about 3,000 felony arrests per year and has developed a reputation as one of the most proficient units in the state, even among the bad guys.

"The criminals do know us," said Phelps. "They know JCAT. We see that on a regular basis."

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