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

Published: Saturday, Nov. 10 2012 12:00 p.m. MST

And while the number of arrests are easily tabulated, the statistic that cannot be measured is how many future crimes JCAT members may have prevented by taking violent felony offenders off the street.

JCAT has branches in northern Utah and southern Utah. There are 63 members in JCAT's Salt Lake office and 160 statewide. While the Salt Lake team is typically the most active, the southern Utah team also has its fair share of action. Most recently, they've been looking for the "Mountain Man," Troy James Knapp, 44, accused of burglarizing dozens of cabins in central and southern Utah. He has eluded law enforcers for up to seven years. JCAT also has teams in Ogden, Provo and the Uintah Basin.

During the past decade, the JCAT team has been involved in tracking down fugitives in some of the state's biggest criminal cases. But it's the daily work that makes the difference:

"The media doesn't catch half of what's really going on out there. We know that home invasions are up dramatically. And these aren't just criminals on criminals, thugs on thugs. They are going after your everyday good citizen," Phelps said.

He says more and more convicted felons are carrying guns, apparently not deterred by the potential hefty federal sentences that can bring.

"They don't hesitate. They'll use them on their own friends, they'll definitely use them on a law enforcement officer. There's no hesitation," Phelps said. "This year alone, I can't tell you how many guns we've taken off criminals."

A typical night

Phelps and his team start each shift by discussing what cases each agent has, who has the strongest leads on suspects and what cases are the most pressing. Seventy percent of what JCAT does is work on leads and doing investigative work, Phelps said.

What makes the team so effective is the sharing of information and the simple fact their specialty is tracking down criminal suspects.

"We know what to look for," Phelps said. "We know the questions to ask."

Each member of the team may have information about a criminal or a case that another member doesn't. It is not uncommon for two officers from different agencies to have separate warrants for the same person. But when the group shares information about that person, they quickly develop contacts and leads, Phelps said.

On this night, the team has an urgent need to track down 19-year-old Gabriel Mascarenas, who was wanted in Tooele for allegedly choking his girlfriend until she passed out and then stabbing two people at a party. A warrant was issued that morning for attempted homicide. Another person they want to capture quickly is a man with a warrant for raping a child.

All JCAT agents ride with at least two officers per vehicle for safety. Likewise, when they approach a house, apartment or hotel with a suspected fugitive inside, they approach in large numbers. They hope a show of force will prompt the suspect to surrender, rather than try to run or resist arrest.

In an estimated 90 percent of their cases, Phelps said the suspects give up without a fight.

City to city

Shortly after making the arrests in the convenience store parking lot, the team races to a motel in South Salt Lake where a Utah State Prison parolee and two friends suspected in recent burglaries may be hiding. They reportedly have been staying at different motels around the valley, staying on the move to avoid being caught.

Unlike SWAT teams, JCAT does not conduct no-knock warrants. However, the group will send detectives out ahead of the rest of the group to scout out possible locations where a suspect might be staying or hiding. If the team can verify the person they want is inside, they will go in after them.

At this motel, JCAT members grab assault rifles from the trunks of their cars, a shield and a battering ram to break through a door if needed. They surround all the windows and escape routes before approaching the room. An officer pounds on the door.

"Police! Open the door now!"

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