It's Thursday, Nov. 21. Seven blue-uniformed officers fan out toward police cars parked under the spreading oak trees of NOPD's Moss Street facility, across Bayou St. John from the front of City Park. Some are wearing blue police jump suits; others sport windbreakers with "POLICE" across the back. All the SWAT-trained cops wear bullet-resistant vests.
Hours earlier, some of the district cops got in a shoot-out with a suspect, the fifth police shootout in a month.
Each VOWS (Violent Offender Warrant Squad) car has a thick file folder. Inside are rap sheets containing mug shots and data on countless fugitive suspects -- wanted for everything from murder to failure to pay child support. Sgt. Mike Sposito, a 29-year veteran of the NOPD and commander of the VOWS team, leads the four-unit convoy in an unmarked car.
"We pull out early in the morning like this so that we can get these people at home, when they are more likely to be there," Sposito says. "If [police] go out at 10 or 11 at night, and they're not there, you kind of burn the address. They know that we've been there looking for them, and they won't come back."
The seven officers travel as a squad for safety reasons, he says. An eighth officer, 38-year NOPD veteran William "Trap" Trepagnier, is assigned to fugitive extraditions.
Morning gives the cops the element of surprise and reduces the likelihood of violent confrontation. And Thursday mornings are optimal.
Citizen tips generated by mug shots usually published in The Times-Picayune's Wednesday "Wanted by the Law" feature provide cops with fresh intelligence, Sposito says.
VOWS officers Troy Smith and Scott Seymour are deputized marshals of the U.S. Marshals Service Crescent Star Fugitive Task Force. The two-year federal appointments allow Seymour and Smith to make arrests outside of New Orleans, without the jurisdictional clearances required of regular police officers. Seymour and Smith's folder contains raps sheets of fugitives wanted for murder, attempted murder and aggravated battery.
6:45 a.m. -- The VOWS units pull up in front of the St. Bernard housing project. The cops are looking for Malcolm Dolliole, 18, wanted on multiple warrants including aggravated assault and resisting arrest. He allegedly escaped his last encounter with police while wearing an officer's handcuffs.
The courtyard is empty and quiet. The officers walk unhurriedly past the three-story, brick apartment buildings. Most are scarred with graffiti. "All we do is kill each other nigga," reads one.
The squad suddenly stops in front of a building in the 3600 block of St. Bernard Avenue. "This is it," Sposito says. Two officers circle to the back of the building. The rest of the squad walks up to the front door of a first-floor apartment, passing an empty wooden chair on the porch.
"Who's there?" a muted voice says.
"Police Department," one officer replies.
Door locks tumble open and the squad enters. Moments later, Seymour emerges from the apartment with a long-handled ax, which he places against the door frame, in full view of the courtyard.
"We have four people in the house," Seymour says. "Nobody has ID. They say they don't know each other's names. Nobody is on the lease. Technically, we could get them for trespassing."
No one is arrested. Instead, the police refer the names of the occupants to the Housing Authority of New Orleans for review. The fugitive is not there.
7:10 a.m. -- Driving Uptown to the next warrant on the list, Seymour and Smith recall how they got into police work.
Seymour, 34, is married with two young children. He was born into a middle-class family in eastern New Orleans. He attended private schools then transferred to Abramson Senior High, where he graduated. He served briefly in the Civil Sheriff's office, then joined the NOPD at age 20.
He candidly says his lack of a college education hampers his opportunities for police promotion. "I can't afford college even though it's free," he says, referring to free tuition for local police at certain local colleges and universities. He works overtime and paid details to help make ends meet. He has been in the warrant squad three years; he's a police diver, SWAT team member and plays bagpipe.
Troy Smith, 30, is married with five children and a sixth on the way. He graduated from St. Augustine Senior High and attended college for one year. He started in law enforcement as a reserve civil sheriff's deputy; he's been in the NOPD for eight years, the last four with VOWS. He is now working on an associate's degree in criminal justice via the Internet. He once worked as a barroom bouncer on Bourbon Street.
In addition to serving on the warrants squad, Smith is on call 24 hours as a police bomb squad technician and SWAT team member. After federal marshals extradited Keana Barnes back to New Orleans, Smith went out to the airport tarmac to meet her and transport her to jail (see "Countless Fugitives"). "She didn't say anything other than she didn't do it," Smith says. He also participated in the task force arrest of Tarik Smith. He saw the videotape in which a man police believe was Smith "walked into a bar, a crowded bar, put his gun to the back of a man's head and blew his brains out." Barnes was featured on America's Most Wanted, Smith says. "And so was Malik," the officer adds, using one of Smith's aliases.
Seymour says his work with the marshals' task force differs little from his duties with VOWS, but his federal commission can save valuable time on a hot tip. "It's the same stuff, it just helps me out if I need to go into another jurisdiction," Seymour says. "If I'm investigating something and I find out at the last moment that the guy is in Jefferson Parish, then I can call the Marshals Service and we can go over (to Jefferson Parish) and pick him up."
It is easier and involves less bureaucracy than the current process required of regular cops, who must call the civilian employees of NOPD's NCIC (National Crime Information Center) with the fugitive's information and suspected address. The Orleans NCIC then teletypes the information to Jefferson Parish's NCIC, which in turn relays the data to a police dispatcher, who forwards the request to the deputies on patrol.
"I'm not downing anybody but ... since it's not their (sheriff's) case, they are not going to put as much effort into [our] case as we would," Smith says.
A problem with a different twist may surface for the sheriff's agency -- or any outside law enforcement -- calling NOPD with the New Orleans address of a fugitive wanted outside the city. Because of NOPD's manpower shortage and the huge volume of citizen calls for police service, there may be no NOPD district cops immediately available to track the outside agency's tip on a wanted fugitive. The sheriff's request would get prioritized by the NOPD dispatcher, and life-threatening emergencies take precedent over investigative leads. The hot tip cools.
7:24 a.m. -- We are suddenly Uptown. The VOWS convoy turns onto a side street off Napoleon Avenue near Freret Street. The squad approaches the right side of a modest shotgun double.
They are looking for Romero Ceaser, a reputed drug user. Ceaser is wanted on three counts of domestic violence, a fourth count of aggravated battery and a capias, or a court-ordered arrest for failure to appear in court. In addition, he has allegedly violated the terms of his probation sentence that runs until 2006. Ceaser has a previous arrest for first-degree murder, Sposito says.
"I call domestic-violence cases borderline murders, because they are just one step away," Sposito later says.
The last time they came for the fugitive, he slipped out the back door, leaving the cops outside a gate that appeared chained and locked. This time, the cops brought bolt cutters. But the gate is unlocked. Sposito and another officer enter the yard and head to the back door.
Four officers go up the front steps of Ceaser's mother's house.
The knock. "Police Department!"
The front door opens and the officers enter.
Outside in the backyard, two leashed chows -- their tails wagging -- start barking in Sposito's direction. A search of the house turns up nothing. As two officers interview Ceaser's mother, the rest of the squad waits outside. Seymour and Smith exit the house. The cops return to their units and the convoy drives to the nearby home of Ceaser's estranged girlfriend, the alleged victim in the domestic violence complaints. Sometimes, couples reconcile, so the VOWS cops take precautions.
Two officers go to the back door; five go to the front door.
Outside the front of the house, a school bus eases past the parked police cars, a block away from a hospital on Napoleon Avenue. Uniformed school children pass the cluster of cops, but reveal no curiosity. A young girl walks calmly up the steps of the house next door. The cops come out.
Romero is not at his girlfriend's house either.
The VOWS cops then walk up a block to a vacant house on the corner of Magnolia and Upperline streets, where Romero reputedly retreats to shoot heroin. The blighted, wood-frame house is covered with unforgiving graffiti: "death valley," "cut bitch" and "chop city." The door is missing from the front entrance, which faces a littered street corner. Sposito points to a string of crumpled yellow "crime scene" tape strewn over a patch of grass across the street.
Guns drawn, three officers disappear inside the front door. Other officers, their guns holstered, walk along the side of the house in the 2700 block of Upperline Street. On the sidewalk is a large pool of blood around what appears to be a human organ -- the aftermath from a bloody altercation of unknown origin. Smith gingerly steps around the still-drying blood.
A half-block away, a cluster of uniformed schoolgirls silently passes the unfolding drama, walking toward Napoleon Avenue. They also seem indifferent about the police presence, as if the cops are a part of the neighborhood patina. A norm.
From inside the vacant house, one cop calls to the others: "Clear!" Ceaser is not here, either.
"It's hit and miss," officer Justin Vitrano says.
"We missed him by two or three hours," Seymour says. "It's frustrating sometimes. We'll catch him eventually. The problem is we don't have enough resources to do a stakeout on him."
The cops move to the next fugitive on their list.
8:10 a.m. -- The convoy crosses Napoleon Avenue to the 2800 block of Josephine Street, the last known address of a man wanted for aggravated assault.
A woman wearing a shower cap and blue medical scrubs answers the door, smoking a cigarette. A crude sign outside her front door advertises candy apples and pickles.
The cops have been here before. They believe the suspect's mother knows where he is, and that she's being uncooperative.
"If I see him I'll bring him over to you," she says.
Seymour warns the woman that if the squad returns and finds the suspect hiding in her house, she will be jailed for harboring a fugitive. He leaves the fugitive's mother his police card.
Stationed near the rear of the house, Sposito and Officer Patrick Barre befriend a large dog on the other side of a fence. The dog wags his tail. Barre tosses him a stick. Several days later, the wanted man will call police and surrender.
8:30 a.m. -- The four-car convoy quickly moves to the 3000 block of Magnolia, with Sposito in the lead. Smith and Seymour marvel at how easily their commander navigates the maze of city streets. "He's like a mole with GPS (Global Positioning System)," Smith says of his sergeant.
The squad is looking for Santana Robinson, a 28-year-old suspected drug dealer. His rap sheet is in the case folder of VOWS officers James Foucha and Donald Haynes III. Robinson swallowed some of his product several days ago as police closed in on him, Foucha says later. An ambulance took the suspect to a hospital. Once there, Robinson pulled an IV out of his arm and fled from the hospital, Foucha says. The suspect is now wanted on drug charges and for escape.
The street is lined with modest, neat homes. Neighbors look out from behind doors and windows as the police step up on the porch and two officers head to the rear.
A short time later, Foucha emerges with his suspect in handcuffs and transports him to jail. Robinson's mother reportedly tells police her son comes over occasionally to sleep.
But as the squad is leaving, a second man steps out the front door of the house. The cops are alarmed. Somehow, they missed him when they cleared the house. From the street, Sposito motions the man over with a curled forefinger. "Come here," the sergeant says.
The man retreats anxiously into the house and tries to lock a metal gate. "What you worried about me for? Ya'll got who ya'll wanted," he says.
Smith reaches inside the gate and pulls the gate open, and the cops go back inside. A police check shows the man has an arrest record, but no active warrants in Orleans or Jefferson parishes, Sposito says. "So we cut him loose."
Police also learn an Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's deputy lives in the house. The deputy was present during the arrest. Seymour says Foti's Special Investigative Division has been notified, and the deputy will have to explain to S.I.D. how she came to share a residence with a fugitive drug dealer.
8:45 a.m. -- After a search for another fugitive at the B.W. Cooper housing project comes up empty, the squad drives across the Crescent City Connection to Algiers. The first stop is the home of a woman wanted for allegedly calling in a bomb threat to the downtown Marriott Hotel. "She called over there looking for her boyfriend," Sposito says later. "And when she couldn't get him, she threatened to blow the place up." The squad pulls up in the 1300 block of Nunez Street. The woman is not home, and officers are told the woman is working at Harrah's Casino downtown.
9:18 a.m. -- Before going back across the river, the VOWS cops pull into a well-kept, middle-class Algiers neighborhood. They are looking for Dennis Blichollz, 39, wanted for a municipal attachment in Orleans Parish and a fugitive warrant in Jefferson Parish alleging failure to pay child support. Seymour and Vitrano say they have previously arrested Blichollz for incidences of violence, including a fight with his own father. On another occasion, Seymour says, Blichollz scuffled with police trying to arrest him for aggravated battery, burglary and "multiple warrants."
Minutes later, the suspect emerges from his parents' home -- on crutches and wearing a body cast. He turns to his mother: "Mom, are you going to come get me out of jail?"
She nods, yes. Motioning to the four police cars and a news photographer, she asks, "All this for a missed court date?"
Police later say the municipal attachment was invalid, but Blichollz will still have to contend with the Jefferson Parish warrant for alleged failure to pay child support.
9:45 a.m. -- The squad rolls into the Fischer housing project, looking for Zina Massey, 29. She is wanted for cruelty to a juvenile. The cops stop outside an apartment building, defaced with a graffiti greeting: "F--k ya!"
Inside a second-floor apartment, police say they find Massey and 100 cigars cut in half and spread out on the kitchen table. "Blunts," says Smith. "They'll use them to conceal drugs. We'll pass the information onto the narcotics unit." Massey is arrested and taken to jail.
10:09 a.m. -- The squad prepares to return across the river. Seymour and Smith could execute a warrant for a suspect wanted for theft in Harvey, an expedition that would require them to use their federal marshal's commission for the first time this morning. But after conferring with Sposito, the convoy heads back across the river to Harrah's Casino to search for the woman accused of the hotel bomb threat.
The officers confer with NOPD's gaming division. After a half-hour wait, Sposito learns the woman's employment with the casino ended two weeks ago.
The morning is coming to its close. "The later it gets, the harder it gets," Seymour says. "By 11, they are out there doing their dirt again."