Utah's Joint Criminal Apprehension Team marks 10 years, 10,000 arrests

The task force is made up of federal, state and local police officers

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 17 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Joint Criminal Apprehension Team officers gather information recently on a known felon from the owner of a residence in Murray where the felon used to reside. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News) Joint Criminal Apprehension Team officers gather information recently on a known felon from the owner of a residence in Murray where the felon used to reside. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — First, there was the scream of joy from the mother.

But what supervisory deputy U.S. marshal Jim Phelps will remember most about informing the family of Faviola Hernandez that the man wanted for allegedly shooting and killing their daughter inside her salon in 2007 had been arrested in Mexico was the reaction from Faviola's son, who was 6 at the time of the shooting.

"He looks at me and says, 'I can go outside now.' For a year, he was too afraid to go outside," Phelps said. "The next day, we held a press conference and he came up to me and said, 'Hey Jim, I rode my bike today.' That's the first time he's rode his bike since the shooting."

It's cases like the Hernandez homicide that motivate Phelps and his Joint Criminal Apprehension Team to continue doing what they do. It's about giving the victims, or the families of victims, some closure to their case by bringing the perpetrator to justice, he said.

Joint Criminal Apprehension Team detectives handcuff a man wanted on aggravated burglary charges. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News) Joint Criminal Apprehension Team detectives handcuff a man wanted on aggravated burglary charges. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

Ten years ago, Phelps came up with a proposal to start JCAT, a partnership between federal, state and local police agencies aimed at arresting violent offenders, gang members and sex offenders with outstanding warrants. The marshal's office first partnered with the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office. Next was the West Jordan Police Department.

"It slowly evolved to every agency in the valley had representation on our squad," Phelps said.

During its first year of existence, JCAT made 227 arrests. That number has increased by an average of 200 to 300 arrests each year. Now, in its 10th year, JCAT has surpassed 10,100 arrests.

Today, the JCAT team comprises more than 170 local, state and federal law enforcers covering the entire state. During the week, JCAT members will meet, review cases and then make their way throughout the Wasatch Front tracking down and arresting people. The JCAT team has become so successful that the marshal's office is able to provide equipment and even vehicles to local agencies using federal money.

"It's one of the most successful task forces in the country," he said.

Phelps is proud that his group receives requests nightly from other agencies to assist in cases. Sometimes, when a department's SWAT team isn't available, JCAT will get a call, he said. JCAT members are on call 24/7. A look at Phelps' laptop shows how often JCAT members have been called out recently in the middle of the night for an emergency. On his screen, there are still the pages sent out the night Millard County sheriff's deputy Josie Fox was shot and killed, sparking a massive manhunt that ended in Beaver County.

Many times using the cover of night to move, a group of between six and 20 officers — with more being used for offenders with known violent tendencies — will walk en masse to the place a suspect is believed to be, surround the building and then knock on the door. Sometimes a suspect will answer and surrender without incident. Sometimes he'll try to run. And other times officers are forced to kick in the door and go after the perpetrator.

"Once we get up and surround a house, there's no way he's getting out," Phelps said.

On Feb. 10, JCAT members had a busy night making many arrests. In Midvale, they went to the apartment of a 22-year-old man charged with child abuse for allegedly beating a 2-year-old he was baby-sitting. The man opened the door but did not comply with officers' commands. He quickly found himself pinned face down on the ground while officers put him in handcuffs.

While waiting to be loaded into the back of a police car, the man's body shook.

"This is my first time being arrested," he said.

Just 20 minutes later, JCAT officers visited an apartment in Murray where a man wanted for a parole violation was believed to be. The officers announced "Police!" very loudly as they entered. The man tried to flee out the back but was quickly captured.

The group's personal best for number of arrests in a single night is 19.

The majority of arrests are uneventful. But that's because JCAT sends so many officers to each location.

"There's safety in numbers, both for us and the target," Phelps said. "If the intended target sees three or four officers, they back down really quick."

The JCAT team used to find the winter months a little slower. The past two winters, however, "it has not slowed down," Phelps said.

The problem is a mixture of a growing population, more criminal organizations and overcrowded state and federal prisons that are forced into have a revolving door, he said.

Many of the people JCAT members are arresting today are people they've arrested before. And if they're not arresting a person known to them, it's not uncommon to arrest a family member. To illustrate the generational trend that officers are seeing, Phelps recalled one case in which a mother, daughter and grandmother were all arrested at the same location for drugs.

There are several cases over the past decade that will always stick with Phelps.

In 2008, JCAT members tracked down Esar Met, the man accused of abducting and killing 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo.

"Our team surrounded the house," Phelps recalled. "We cuffed him and threw him on the ground, and he went into unbelievable shakes."

Listening to Moo's father talk about his daughter had a big impact on Phelps, who has a daughter of his own.

In another case, JCAT developed information about a suspect who was in a stolen vehicle and possibly heading south on I-15 to southern California. The man had at least a 45-minute lead. Calling ahead to officers to be on the lookout, Phelps and his crew took off as fast as they could after the man. The suspect was spotted near Cedar City where JCAT crews were able to catch up with him and make an arrest.

In yet another case, JCAT went after a man wanted for allegedly molesting a young neighbor girl. The day after the incident, he and his family moved out of his house. Because of leads developed by JCAT, officers were able to track the man to California. The man had not only changed his name and obtained new identification documents, he had also tried to alter his fingerprints by sticking his hands on a stove to burn them off.

"He never would have paid the price for what he did. All those hours the sheriff's office worked would go to waste (if JCAT hadn't tracked him down)," he said.

That is what's most rewarding to Phelps' crew — helping victims get justice. It does no good if local police agencies develop a great case against a suspect but that person can't be found and brought to trial, he said.

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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