It's just after midnight, and a group of about 20 U.S. marshals and JCAT (Joint Criminal Apprehension Task Force) members from several jurisdictions quietly surround a house near 3500 South and 700 East.
The group is looking for a fugitive wanted for investigation of attempting to run over a police officer. The officers have every window and door covered, assuring the man has nowhere to run if he is inside. Once everyone is in position, a task force member knocks on the door. The people inside say the man they are looking for is not there.
But just as the group is preparing to leave, a red vehicle approaches the house, sees the small army of law enforcers, and speeds away in a hurry. Despite the red car's head start, two groups of cops are able to get to their own vehicles, chase the fleeing car and stop the vehicle near 3400 South and 500 East.
Law enforcers discover the car is stolen. The man and woman inside say they were going to the house to buy drugs and say they don't know the man wanted by police. But when interviewed separately, their stories don't match. They are both taken to jail for outstanding warrants.
That incident was one of many arrests made by U.S. marshals both locally and nationwide last week as part of the U.S. Justice Department's annual effort to round up wanted fugitives.
Operation FALCON 3 was a weeklong intensive effort to arrest Utah's, and the nation's, most dangerous outstanding criminals. This year 161 fugitives were arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service in Utah and 201
warrants cleared. That compares to 134 arrests during the second FALCON (Federal and Local Cops Organized Nationally).
Arrests included two people wanted on charges of homicide and attempted homicide. Police seized firearms and a "substantial amount" of meth, marijuana and crack cocaine.
On average each night in Utah, there were nearly 30 arrests accounting for up to 40 warrants being cleared. Some suspects had more than one outstanding warrant.
But U.S. Marshals Utah District Chief Deputy James Thompson, who helped lead the operation locally, said no goals or quotas were set for the weeklong project.
"We never set a personal goal. You risk sacrificing quantity for quality," he said.
Some of the arrests were planned targets. Others, like the two arrested after inexplicably drawing attention to themselves by "peeling out" in front of 20 officers, were not planned but came about because of work conducted on other cases.
In one incident, JCAT members approached a house near 5400 South and 5400 West. They found a woman in the backyard and told her to step back. After going inside the house they found parole fugitive Teresa Larsen, the woman they were seeking, who was originally arrested on charges of drug possession. The marshals put her into a police car to be taken to jail. But just as they were about to leave, one of the marshals recognized the woman who they had asked to step out of the backyard and realized she was also wanted.
The marshals went back to the house, where the woman was still standing, and took her into custody, getting two fugitives for the price of one stop.
This year, for the first time, authorities made the FALCON project truly a statewide effort, rounding up fugitives from places like St. George, Richfield and Moab.
"Each year we've grown a little bigger and bigger," said Thompson. "That's what we want criminals to understand, that there's no place safe for them to hide, that we'll come looking for them regardless of where they are."
This year, the Utah roundup averaged 100 officers working per night.
The main goal of FALCON nationwide is to get wanted gang members, sex offenders and violent criminals off the street. Because of that, those fugitives were at the top of the list when the squad decided who to go after first.
"You prioritize the more violent offenders, the ones that need to be off the street," Thompson said.
Not all those arrested last week were violent offenders. Some had outstanding warrants for crimes such as forgery and fraud.
Officers spent nearly 10 minutes banging on Christopher Cochran's door in Sandy before finally getting him out of bed to answer.
"Open this door now," demanded one officer as he spotted Cochran in the window.
When officers entered his home, they found cat feces all over the floor, some just one foot inside the doorway. Cochran was arrested on the warrant and taken to the Salt Lake County Jail.
Before each fugitive is arrested, the group meets in a nearby parking lot to show all the group members a picture of the next suspect, what he or she is wanted for and to go over the game plan. A convoy of about five to ten vehicles then moves to the target's neighborhood. JCAT members surround the house but do not draw their weapons. In the majority of arrests, the suspect surrenders without incident.
"Because we overwhelm them with manpower, (the arrests) have been peaceful," Thompson said. "That's our goal. We emphasize officer safety. If he sees he's overwhelmingly outnumbered, he's less likely to try and resist."The marshals and JCAT team rounds up fugitives all year long. The FALCON operation is simply an intensified weeklong effort, Thompson said. FALCON is held at different times each year so as not to tip off criminals when officers will be coming.
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