Richmond's FBI-led fugitive task force quietly finds many of the area's most violent felons. 

Silent Hunters

Joseph Overton Swann slept wearing a bulletproof vest and kept a 9 mm handgun under his pillow, but he was a late sleeper and after seven months on the run, they caught up with him.

Him and more than 400 other fugitives here this year.

They are the members of the Richmond Area Fugitive Team. Six of them captured Swann about 7:30 a.m., March 15, in a Chesterfield County motel room.

Swann, 20, had been sought in connection with a drug-related double murder in Richmond last year. "He didn't have much to say besides - like many of these guys - 'I was just about to turn myself in,'" recalls FBI Special Agent Ken Mikionis.

Mikionis heads the Richmond Area Fugitive Team, a little-known but apparently highly effective effort by the FBI's Richmond office and a dozen other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The agencies supply officers to the team and in return get help finding fugitives they haven't been able to capture on their own.

RAFT has arrested more than 1,450 fugitives since it was formed in 1990, says Richmond FBI spokeswoman Mary Johlie. About half of those arrests have been made since 1998, when the FBI began funding in earnest what had been an informal network of Richmond-area law enforcers. "Now they're just scooping them up," she says.

This year RAFT has arrested more than 400 fugitives, but perhaps more remarkable is the number of times arrests have involved gunfire: zero.

"You come through the door with four to six people, they usually don't give you too much problem," Mikionis says. "We've had weapons drawn and scuffles, but no shootouts. They don't want to be arrested, and they'll hide and they'll run, but they haven't been inclined to shoot it out."

Because of the electronic surveillance, advanced techniques and overwhelming manpower RAFT uses in approaching fugitives it has located, many of them don't have time to run but often manage humorous attempts at hiding.

"Hiding is big," Mikionis says, recalling the time a fugitive almost escaped detection by occupying a large cardboard box in a closet.

"We've had 'em run from us, hide under beds, in closets; jump out three-story windows," says Detective Sandy Ledbetter, the Richmond Police Department's representative on RAFT. "You name it, we've had it."

For all of RAFT's success, some fugitives stay hidden. Jerry Otis Robinson, for example, has managed to avoid arrest since allegedly shooting his former financée six times in January 1999. She survived; Robinson, 27, is wanted on attempted murder and firearms charges.

"He's one guy we'd really like to get," Mikionis says.

Mikionis used to work drug- and white-collar crimes before joining RAFT in 1998. He prefers the quicker turnaround on the fugitive beat: "It's enjoyable and it has some rewards to it. You can see progress."

RAFT's purpose is to capture the area's most violent offenders, but it's been so successful the team also finds itself picking up a variety of nonviolent offenders. Team members bring their respective agency's priority warrants to the table. According to the FBI's Johlie, 39 percent of the warrants RAFT has executed have been for violent crimes, 38 percent have been for drug offenses, and 23 percent for nonviolent crimes.

"We don't like to look at ourselves as a warrant squad," Mikionis says. "We try to address more of the fugitives, the guys who are running."

Not many of them get far from Richmond. "They tend to stay in the area, but there are a percentage that flee," he says. "They'll flee, come back again. They've got contacts here and they really don't know how to live anywhere else."

Johlie says about 60 percent of RAFT's arrests this year have been in Richmond. Henrico and Chesterfield counties have combined for 24 percent, with the rest of the state adding 10 percent. Six percent of the arrests have been made outside Virginia.

RAFT members say it wasn't until the FBI's formal adoption and funding of the program in 1998 that the number of arrests rose significantly. When RAFT was launched in 1990, Mikionis says, it was more of a concept than an organization.

With no designated office, equipment or formal policies and procedures, the unit "would just get together or phone or meet here or at the state police," Mikionis says. Each member agency had its own fugitive squad or coordinator and RAFT was an "ad hoc" effort; now, more of the area's fugitives are being captured, faster and more cost-effectively, he says.

RAFT consists of representatives of the FBI, U.S. Marshals and Secret Service; the state police and state corrections department; and the police departments and sheriffs' offices of Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield. The Social Security Administration and U.S. Attorney's Office also participate. RAFT's headquarters is somewhere in the area in "what we call an off-site location," Johlie says, revealing only that the office is not at the FBI complex off Staples Mill Road.

With the office, equipment and a small full-time staff, Mikionis says, RAFT has all the resources it needs to succeed. But while RAFT makes use of computers and hi-tech surveillance equipment, old-fashioned informants remain essential to tracking fugitives.

"We get a lot of information from people on the street," Ledbetter says. It's how she was able to make her most memorable arrest - that of Michelle Arlene Garcia, charged in three shooting deaths in early 1999.

Six days after the third homicide, Ledbetter and other RAFT members captured Garcia on Poe Street and recovered the handgun used in the crimes. Garcia has been found guilty of one of the murders.

Ledbetter worked for two years with the city's auto-theft task force before joining RAFT. She's hooked.

"I like the challenge of having to find 'em," she says. "Sometimes it takes us an hour, sometime it takes us a year. Every day is something

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