By Keith Gushard
It’s a milestone the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office didn’t expect to hit so quickly — the capture of its 100th “Most Wanted” person in less than two and a half years.
Friday’s arrest of Jesse Spangler was the 100th out of 124 fugitives who have been featured each week as “Crawford County’s Most Wanted.”
Put another way, it’s an 80.6 percent capture rate for “Most Wanted” since the program began in the fall of 2010.
“I’m very surprised, but I really shouldn’t say that because the citizens of this county are very pro-law enforcement,” Sheriff Nick Hoke said Friday. “If we were at 50 percent for the captures, I’d have been ecstatic.”
“Crawford County’s Most Wanted” is a weekly report from the county’s Sheriff’s Office on a person wanted by Crawford County Court of Common Pleas. The report, which features the wanted person’s picture and charges, is published Tuesdays in The Meadville Tribune.
Spangler was captured by Crawford County Adult Probation officers Tricia Wolf and Nate Rhoades Friday morning before 9 at his residence at Forest Green Apartments in West Mead Township, according to Hoke.
The two probation officers acted on a tip Wolf had received that Spangler was seen earlier this week at his residence, Hoke said.
The public — both here and around the country — can serve as extra eyes and ears, according to Hoke.
“Citizens in this county and country do whatever they can to lend a hand,” Hoke said. “How did they catch the Boston (Marathon) bombers? — they put their photographs out to the public.”
Whittling down the number of outstanding active warrants was something Hoke wanted to do when he first took office as sheriff in January 2008.
Hoke campaigned on the issue of reducing the court’s backlog of outstanding warrants — which had hit 860 when he started.
“None of county’s outstanding warrants were entered in the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) computer system,” Hoke said.
The NCIC system is a computerized index of criminal justice information including outstanding warrants for people who are wanted by law enforcement.
“If someone was pulled over in Franklin for a traffic violation, a warrant showing them being wanted in Crawford County wouldn’t show up because it wasn’t entered,” Hoke said.
Through work by then-deputies Ira Custard and Dale Collins, the backlog started to be cleared. Many of the warrants were for owed court costs and some went as far back as 1982, Hoke said.
One of the ways many of the court cost warrants were cleared was writing a letter to those wanted on court costs telling them they could be picked up for outstanding court costs.
“Some owed a few thousands, but most were in the hundreds of dollars,” Hoke said.
About 100 of the 860 warrants were cleared just by cross-checking names with the Social Security Administration’s database — finding the wanted person had died, Hoke said.
The county court system also did an amnesty program one week in 2010, allowing people who owed court cost warrants make arrangements to pay them without fear of arrest.
Hoke spoke with President Judge Anthony Vardaro about stepped up service of warrants by the sheriff’s office rather than just serving warrants on a haphazard basis.
The sheriff’s office got involved with forwarding information to the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, a free service to police agencies through the Pennsylvania State Police, and use of the Western Pennsylvania Fugitive Task Force.
Slowly, the backlog of warrants was lowered to 500 and then lower still to where it stays in the 200 to 300 range. The number can fluctuate over any given period of time as outstanding warrants are cleared, but new ones are issued by the court system, Hoke said.
“The deputies have been very successful,” Hoke said of his staff in handling the program. “I steer the ship, but they row the oars.”
Chief Deputy Sheriff Neil Fratus, who oversees the office’s outstanding warrant service, said many times those featured as “Most Wanted” call the office and arrange to turn themselves in to authorities.
“Bad guys read the paper, too,” Fratus said. “It looks better for them if they turn themselves in.”
Often, it can be someone close to the wanted person who offers up information, Fratus said. That’s because authorities keep up the pursuit and friends or family of the person grow tired of the situation, he said.
“We’ll go to someone’s home several times and somebody will tell us ‘We’re tired of seeing you’ and we say ‘We’re tried of coming,’” Fratus said, noting the wanted person then starts running out of places to hide.
Fratus said he knows of one workplace where the employees gather at their lunch table on Tuesdays to review “Most Wanted.”
“They try to see who can recognize the person and be the first to call,” Fratus said.
It’s the media exposure that makes the program a success, according to both Hoke and Fratus.
The Sheriff’s Office even has used social media — such as the Internet site Facebook — with the “Most Wanted” program.
Fratus said the use of Facebook helped bring about the arrest in March of Jason M. Csorba, a man wanted for failing to appear in county court on felony charges of assault, terroristic threats and illegally possessing a firearm. Csorba was on the run for about a month.
The Sheriff’s Office is looking to expand the “Most Wanted” program’s exposure through other media outlets in the Meadville and Titusville areas and already uses radio station WMVL-FM, Cool 101.7, as one additional avenue.
“In a small community we have an advantage — people know people,” Hoke said. “We couldn’t do it without the help of the public.”
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.