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Some fugitives get free pass

Phillips County sheriff’s warrant practices are blamed

By Chad Day , Cathy Frye

This article was published May 13, 2012 at 4:54 a.m.

sedrick-binky-trice-and-leon-edwards-admitted-in-federal-court-to-running-a-large-drug-dealing-operation-out-of-the-ac-customs-body-shop-on-us-49-in-helena-west-helena-the-shop-is-across-the-highway-from-a-junior-high-school

Sedrick “Binky” Trice and Leon Edwards admitted in federal court to running a large drug-dealing operation out of the AC Customs body shop on U.S. 49 in Helena-West Helena. The shop is across the highway from a junior high school.

— First in a series.

A Phillips County sheriff’s entrenched practice of not filing certain warrants in state and national crime databases allows fugitives in this historic city to live with little fear of getting caught.

An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation found fugitives have been stopped and cited for traffic offenses but then let go because the sheriff’s office had not entered the warrants into the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) database, which would have alerted officers in other agencies that the people they pulled over were wanted.

For the current quarterly circuit court term, more than 400 fugitive cases with active failure-to-appear warrants had not been entered into the state database.

Some of these fugitives used the time they should have been spending in prison, or at the county jail awaiting trial, to build a sophisticated drug-trafficking ring that dealt hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana in the impoverished Arkansas Delta.

One of the fugitives who racked up traffic citations was Sedrick “Binky” Trice, the now-admitted leader of the drug ring. Another was Antonio Rattler, one of Trice’s dealers, who was accused of committing murder during the time he remained free.

The sheriff’s office custom also allows many criminal cases to linger for years and eventually be dismissed because warrants aren’t served, court records show. One such case involved accusations that an area pastor had raped a 12-year-old girl, the newspaper found.

The blanket practice of not entering warrants poses a danger to other law-enforcement officers and adds to the already haphazard handling of other warrants in Phillips County, some of which federal investigators uncovered last fall at the Helena-West Helena Police Department.

Under a new chief, the city department has spent the past several months cleaning up its warrant system.

And in response to the Democrat-Gazette’s findings, Sheriff Ronnie White has said his office is working on a way to let other agencies know when someone’s wanted by Phillips County.

But the coming changes in handling fugitive warrants address only one element of dysfunction within the Phillips County court system. The newspaper found the problem when it investigated the backgrounds of those arrested in a federal drug-trafficking sting called Operation Delta Blues.

The federal operation culminated last October, when hundreds of law enforcement officers, led by FBI agents, descended on the town of 12,000 and arrested scores of people accused in Trice’s drug ring. They also rounded up five police officers charged with taking bribes.

Over six months, the newspaper conducted extensive interviews with key county and city officials and obtained more than 5,000 pages of documents from Phillips County courts, law enforcement agencies and others.

A pattern emerged from the records: Police officers were pulling over wanted fugitives on traffic stops but weren’t arresting them

White said the reason is simple - the sheriff’s office doesn’t enter fugitive warrants into criminal databases where other agencies can see who’s wanted.

The sheriff’s office can’t afford to do it, he said, and hasn’t for years.

A FUGITIVE’S HAVEN

Steeped in Civil War history and known for its blues musicians, Helena-West Helena has long fascinated travelers who go to the Delta.

The city still boasts a variety of architecture, from beautifully restored Queen Annes and Craftsman bungalows to the Gothic-Revival-style Centennial Baptist Church downtown.

The city’s annual blues festival continues to draw devoted crowds each year.

But in the past decade, neighborhoods decayed as drug dealers flourished.

By day, residents marveled at the flagrant manner in which the kingpins operated, driving flashy vehicles through town and bragging about the power they held over the city.

By night, neighbors listened to gunfire and fretted as cars lined up at the homes of neighborhood drug dealers.

As it turned out, a hub of criminal activity was AC Customs, a purported auto shop operated by Trice and Leon Edwards.

The two men have pleaded guilty in federal court to running a drug-trafficking ring out of their shop, which sits in the middle of Helena-West Helena’s business district, just across the street from a junior high school.

Trice, 28, spent his days cooking drugs, arming his middlemen, brokering deals and arranging deliveries until his arrest last year.

Last winter, the Democrat-Gazette began looking into Trice’s background.

Documents obtained by the newspaper showed that, when federal agents arrested him in October 2011, Trice should already have been more than a year into a state prison term.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals had ordered the sheriff’s office to take Trice to prison in 2008, but the convict remained free and continued to expand his drug operation. He also put some local law enforcement officers on his payroll.

When the Court of Appeals issued its order, a clerk sent a copy to Circuit Clerk Lynn Still well, who says she routinely puts copies of such orders in the sheriff’s mailbox at the courthouse.

White said he never saw the order and doesn’t know why it never made it to his office.

Further documentation obtained by this newspaper shows Trice also was wanted for more than two years on a fugitive warrant issued on Feb. 25, 2009.

But the appeals-court order and the fugitive warrant went unserved and without entry into ACIC. The state’s criminal database is designed to alert officers to any fugitive or outstanding warrants during traffic stops or other times when police check people’s personal information.

In Trice’s case, Helena-West Helena police officers stopped and cited him five times while the court’s order and the fugitive warrant were active, district-court records show.

During those stops, officers could have run Trice’s information through ACIC and arrested him if the system had showed he was wanted.

Instead, Trice was cited and released by four different officers, the records show.

Helena-West Helena Police Chief Uless Wallace said that because the warrant wasn’t in ACIC, the officers didn’t know Trice was wanted.

The fugitive warrant was the responsibility of the sheriff’s office, not the Police Department, Wallace said.

But he acknowledged he also found that city police had been mishandling warrants when he became chief in September.

Federal investigators noticed as well.

COMPLICATIONS

In testimony in a Delta Blues case last week, FBI Agent Ward Seale said the Police Department’s handling of its own warrants kept federal authorities from seeing that one of their confidential informants was wanted.

The FBI had run a warrant check on the informant before agreeing to use the man, and the check turned up nothing, Seale said.

While working for the FBI, the man was later arrested by a desk officer at the Police Department on an active warrant, Seale said.

Former Helena-West Helena police Lt. Marlene Kalb took care of the warrant, allowing the informant’s release, he testified.

Seale testified that the warrant later vanished. But Kalb has maintained no active warrant existed. Her federal case is still pending.

Nevertheless, federal authorities learned that checking the database was largely worthless when it came to Phillips County warrants. The Police Department wasn’t entering warrants into ACIC, and instead, kept them in what Seale called a “big bucket.”

Wallace, the police chief, said the department’s warrant system was in disarray when he arrived in September.

“The only things they would enter into ACIC were local stuff - felonies. Misdemeanors and out-of-state offenses weren’t being entered.”

While some felony warrants were being entered, they weren’t properly maintained, Wallace said.

“A lot of the stuff was already in the system, they didn’t pull it. We still have old missing stuff. It took me three months just to sweep out all the old stuff and make sure everything was current,” he said.

Dispatchers and court clerks have worked for months to clean up the mess he inherited, Wallace said.

In early May, at the police chief’s request, Still well, the circuit clerk, also began sending updated, quarterly fugitive lists to the Helena-West Helena Police Department.

“I had the dispatchers and the court clerks verify all the warrants that we have in the system. ... Now I’m in the loading phase of loading new stuff and old stuff in there. I’m still working on that, plus I’ve got new cases,” he said.

“It’s only been seven months. It feels like seven years.”

While the city police have been working to straighten out their warrants on their ACIC terminal, the sheriff’s office hasn’t made attempts to enter documentation on fugitives.

Not entering any warrants - particularly for hundreds of fugitives - poses a danger not only to city police, but also to other law enforcement officers who depend on the Arkansas Crime Information Center to let them know when a traffic stop might involve a repeat felon, violent offender or a fugitive from Phillips County, Wallace said.

“It runs the risk of other law enforcement officers getting killed,” he said.

Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said his agency wasn’t aware of the practice and doesn’t have any authority to tell local jurisdictions how to handle warrants.

“We can’t tell somebody how they need to push out felony failure-to-appear warrants,” Sadler said. “Now, from an officer safety perspective - without question, state troopers need to know ... as much as possible about the persons that they encounter during traffic stops on Arkansas highways.”

Brad Cazort, the field services division administrator of the crime database, said officer safety is one reason for having a centralized crime information system; another is keeping the court system running.

“You’ve got open-ended criminal prosecutions that they’re looking for people to appear in court and they’re not doing anything about [finding them],” he explained.

“I don’t know how to say this. They’re ignoring the judicial system.”

‘WE TRIED’

Phillips County fugitive warrants have gone through the sheriff’s office for as long as White has worked for the county, some 24 years, he said.

The newspaper found more than 400 cases with active failure-to-appear warrants in Phillips County court records.

None has been entered into the database, the sheriff said.

“We don’t even have an ACIC terminal,” he said.

Instead, the sheriff’s office uses the Marvell Police Department’s terminal to enter stolen property and certain felony warrants - but not those pertaining to fugitives. White said he’s concerned about making wrongful arrests because the sheriff’s office often isn’t notified when judges set aside the failure-to appear warrants.

“A lot of times a fugitive warrant will be set aside by a circuit judge and us not know anything about it, and then we pick this person up and, well here comes a lawyer, ‘Well I got that set aside.’ ”

Since he doesn’t have the staff to computerize the warrants or the terminal on which to do so, he said, his staff keeps only paper copies in a file cabinet for reference during daytime business hours.

“We try to let all the deputies know when we get warrants - who we’ve got fugitive warrants for - and advise that if they should see them on the street, pick them up,” he said.

White said he allows his deputies to arrest people on warrants only when the deputy personally knows someone’s wanted.

“We tried at one time just making a list of all of our fugitives, but then you’ve got to update it every month. That worked out fine until the deputy in charge of it decided he didn’t want to do it anymore.It was a hit-and-miss thing,” he said.

But Stillwell, who took office 5 1/2 years ago, says she gives the sheriff an updated list of active fugitive warrants after each court term.

And her office always notifies the sheriff if a judge decides to set a fugitive warrant aside, she added.

“Believe me, they know - they’re well aware of it.”

Phillips County Circuit Court holds four terms a year. Each term is four weeks. Two of those weeks each quarter are dedicated to criminal proceedings.

If the sitting judge deems a defendant a fugitive, Stillwell looks at her docket sheet and highlights that person’s name.

“Blue means, ‘Buddy, you’re a fugitive,’” she explained.

Then, during the next break in proceedings, Stillwell gives the names of any fugitives to a deputy clerk who draws up the warrants and places them in the sheriff’s courthouse box.

If a warrant gets set aside during a court term, the deputy clerk will check the sheriff’s box. If the warrant is still there, she removes it, Stillwell said. If it’s already been picked up by a deputy, the clerk places a call to the sheriff ’s office to have the warrant destroyed.

At the end of each quarterly court term, Stillwell draws up a list of fugitives and gives copies to the sheriff, jail and prosecutor. She began this practice soon after taking office, she said.

“I just thought, ‘Well, if I start providing them with a list, maybe they’ll start picking these people up.’ ”

White acknowledged that he does receive Stillwell’s fugitive list and copies of the warrants, but said the notification to his office alone isn’t enough for the warrants to be entered into the state crime information system.

The sheriff’s office doesn’t have the money for its own ACIC terminal or the four or five people needed to staff one 24 hours a day, White said. The system requires that a law enforcement agency be able to confirm at all time that it has a paper copy of an active warrant.

Without entry into ACIC, White acknowledged, other law enforcement officers aren’t aware of any fugitive warrants issued in Phillips County unless they find outon their own.

Cazort said choosing not to enter warrants goes against the purpose of the database.

“It’s not against the law,” he said. “It’s just they’re allowing people who are wanted in the judicial system in their county to essentially move about unfettered.

“They’re not going to be subject to being picked up for anything if no one knows they’re wanted.”

IN COURT AND WANTED

The lack of warrant information allowed fugitives like Trice to appear in the city’s courts on traffic and other offenses and not risk arrest on the outstanding warrants, records show.

Trice twice appeared in Helena-West Helena District Court - across the street from the sheriff ’s office - while his fugitive warrant was active, entering guilty pleas to traffic offenses and misdemeanors and paying fines, court records show.

Other Delta Blues defendants appeared in district court as well.

Jarvis Washington, 25, turned up six times while he had an active fugitive warrant out of circuit court, records show. The warrant, issued in August 2007, was disregarded until the FBI nabbed him in October.

Washington was wanted in a terroristic-act case. He and Trice were accused of shooting at a woman in her car on Feb. 27, 2007, court records show.

On that day, then-Deputy Winston Jackson contacted the Helena-West Helena Police Department to report the shooting.

Jackson said he saw a white SUV and a silver car speed away. He stopped the silver car, which was driven by Ashley Kelly. She said Trice had shot at her.

Police caught Trice and Washington as they walked away from the white SUV. Officers found three shell casings in the vehicle.

When examining Kelly’s car, police noted what appeared to be two bullet holes and a live bullet on the rear floorboard.

Washington was subsequently charged.

A bench warrant was issued Aug. 14, 2007, when Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Todd Murray filed the information and affidavit in Phillips County Circuit Court.

A failure-to-appear warrant was issued Aug. 31, 2007.

Court records indicate it wasn’t served at any point before the FBI arrested Washington in the Delta Blues sting.

After Washington’s arrest, a Little Rock attorney representing him in the federal case sent a letter to the circuit clerk asking if the terroristic act case had ever gone anywhere.

Five days after the attorney’s letter arrived, Helena-West Helena Public Defender Don Etherly filed an entry of appearance, waiver of arraignment and a request for a trial in Washington’s terroristic-act case.

After taking the case, Etherly noted that even though Washington had been in and out of district court for several years, he had never been picked up on the 4-year-old fugitive warrant, Etherly said.

On Nov. 2, 2011, Etherly filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of a speedy trial.

In an interview, the public defender elaborated on Washington’s case, saying, “He had been in [district] court on numerous occasions and there was no service of the warrant from circuit court. It’s one of those instances where you know where he is, we know who he is. If he’s not served, then that falls back on the prosecutor.”

All the same, Etherly said, neither the prosecutor nor defense attorneys should have to chase down fugitives.

“We don’t go out and look for them. We have too many, hundreds on the adult docket. That doesn’t count the juvenile docket, the misdemeanor docket. There’s just not enough time to try to hunt people down.

“We depend on the agencies - the police department, the sheriff’s office - to serve those warrants,” he said.

On Dec. 13, 2011, U.S.

probation officer Dwayne Ricks faxed a letter to the circuit court asking for the outcome of the terroristic-act case against Washington. He also wanted to know if the failure to-appear warrant from 2007 was still active.

On Dec. 28, a circuit judge granted Murray’s motion to nolle prosse the case. This legal term, known properly as nolle prosequi, is a declaration by prosecutors that they will not pursue a case. They do, however, have a year to refile charges.

While the case against Washington was dropped because his warrants weren’t served, other fugitives’ cases languished for years until they were picked up on more serious charges.

One such fugitive, Antonio Rattler, now faces a murder charge.

MURDER CHARGE

Rattler, one of the Delta Blues defendants charged by a federal grand jury in Trice’s drug ring, became a fugitive in 2005. A warrant was issued June 10, 2005, after he failed to show in court on six felony charges.

The charges stemmed from a Phillips County sheriff’s investigation in 2004.

After Phillips County informants made two undercover cocaine buys, deputies searched Rattler’s home on March 2, 2004, county court records show.

Officers found cocaine, a shoebox of marijuana, electronic scales, a loaded .45-caliber pistol on the kitchen table, a loaded .40-caliber pistol in a bedroom and a Mossberg .22-caliber rifle in the living room, according to court records.

Rattler, 28, was arrestedthe same day on two counts of delivery of cocaine, two counts of possession with intent to deliver (one for cocaine, the other for marijuana),and single counts of simultaneous possession of firearms and drugs and second-degree endangering the welfare of a minor.

Two weeks later, on March 19, 2004, he was released from jail on bond. Formal charges were filed two months later on May 7.

A year later, a judge issued the fugitive warrant.

Yet Rattler remained free for six years and, according to the federal indictments, stayed active in the Delta drug trade.

Although the circuit court warrant remained active, it - like all others in Phillips County - wasn’t entered into the state crime-information database, and the 2004 drug and weapons case against Rattler went dormant, court records show.

City police stopped and cited Rattler twice in 2009 without arresting him on the warrant, district court records show.

Rattler, known on the street as “Sam,” also appeared twice in district court to facethose traffic offenses, the last time in 2010 - the same year federal agents began investigating Trice’s drug ring.

The resulting federal indictments describe Rattler as a repeat customer and dealer during the time he was wanted on the state charges.

Trice and his partner, Leon Edwards, routinely supplied “distribution quantities of cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana and other controlled substances” to Rattler and at least 16 other mid level dealers, according to federal indictments.

The indictment specifically cites two instances when an FBI phone tap picked up Rattler setting up a drug deal - once on March 15, 2011, at 6:38 p.m. and again the next day at 11:29 p.m.

Four months after federal authorities eavesdropped on his phone call, Phillips County court records pick up Rattler’s whereabouts.

On July 8, 2011, someone shot and killed Charles Watkins of Helena-West Helena.

Witnesses told police they saw Rattler shoot Watkins, and that he forced others at the scene to give him a ride as he fled, according to court records.

A responding officer said he saw Rattler with an “assault rifle,” according to an affidavit signed by Sheriff White.

Rattler was arrested during a traffic stop in Georgia a few weeks later, police records show.

This time, a warrant had been entered into the law-enforcement database.

A FUGITIVE PASTOR

People not connected to the federal Delta Blues drug operation also benefited from the sheriff’s practice of not entering fugitive warrants into ACIC.

In the autumn of 2008, Calvin Frierson, then 48,was the well-known minister of two churches in Phillips County.

He also worked for the Phillips County Developmental Center on U.S. 49, the main thoroughfare through the town.

Yet when he was charged with the rape of a 12-year-old girl and deemed a fugitive by the circuit court, no one ever served him with a warrant.

As a result, the case stalled for several years before a judge dismissed it because of the delay. The law allows prosecutors a year to take a case to trial, though that time can be extended for certain delays, such as continuances requested by the defense.

The Arkansas State Police and the Helena-West Helena Police Department opened the investigation on Sept. 23, 2008, when they were notified that a girl had been raped, according to court documents.

The girl told investigators that Frierson, her pastor at Second Baptist Missionary Church in Lexa, had raped her on four separate occasions after offering to take her to choir practice.

The girl described several sexual acts, as well as Frierson’s bed and the color of his sheets.

She told investigators that after the first rape, Frierson gave her a $100 bill. Another time, she said, he gave her $3.50.

Frierson was arrested on Oct. 6, 2008.

He was formally charged on Nov. 13, 2008, and a bench warrant was issued that same day. The circuit clerk’s court docket indicates that someone called out Frierson’s name three times that day in court, but he didn’t answer.

The next day, the judge issued a fugitive warrant.

Nothing in the case file indicates that either of these warrants were ever served.

Nearly two years later, onAug. 6, 2010, Frierson’s defense attorney, J.L. Wilson, filed a motion to dismiss for violation of the speedy-trial provision.

In the motion, Wilson noted that the bench and fugitive warrants for Frierson had never been served. He also noted that Frierson wouldn’t have been difficult to find, as he was living and working within the community.

More than a year passed.

Then, on April 12, 2012, Circuit Judge L.T. Simes issued an order dismissing the case after finding “that the statute of limitation for the prosecution of this case has expired.”

Frierson’s attorney didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Murray said he never got a clear answer on why Frierson wasn’t arrested.

“That’s an odd situation there. The defense when they presented that motion to me made a point of saying, ‘Well he’s been around town the whole time.’ ”

“I have no knowledge of why Calvin Frierson wasn’t picked up on that fugitive warrant,” Murray continued. “He was a preacher, and it’s my understanding that he was preaching the whole time.”

‘IT’D BE NICE’

Murray said he wasn’t aware until informed by the newspaper Friday that the sheriff’s office hadn’t been entering fugitive warrants into ACIC.

“I was under the assumption that they did input the data into NCIC/ACIC. If you’re telling me they don’t put [fugitive warrants] in, that’d be a surprise to me,” he said.

“I know they need additional resources, but I didn’t know that,” he added.

After being informed of the newspaper’s findings concerning fugitive warrants,Sheriff White and Chief Deputy David Lawman said they would work on a way to better serve the warrants.

“To be honest with you, it appears that we’re going to have to come up with a system of our own. I’m going to have to dedicate an employee to take care of it for us,” White said.

White is not seeking another term. Lawman, who is running to replace his boss, said that it will be difficult to keep the office’s own system updated without ACIC.

“If we could be absolutely positive that these warrants were good at the time, then, yes, it would be better. But you have to be absolutely positive that a warrant is good before you go entering someone,” Lawman said.

And, White said, his budget can’t accommodate salaries for the 24-hour staff required to run an ACIC terminal.

The sheriff ’s office 2012 budget is about $850,000, of which more than $685,000 is taken up by salaries, benefits and other employee costs for 16 employees, not including jailers, records show. Half of the sheriff’s salary comes from the tax collector’s office budget.

“It’d be nice if we had the money to do that. It would be nice if we had the money to hire enough deputies to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” White said.

While paying for employees is the largest cost of having ACIC, the expense of installing the system runs in the hundreds of dollars per month.

Cazort said the state’s information center charges a onetime $50 installation fee plus monthly fees of $18 for software on each computer. It charges another $25 a month per computer if the crime information center provided the sheriff’s office with computers.

In addition, each agency is charged a little more than 4cents every time it runs a name through the system.

In Helena-West Helena, the Police Department’s average monthly bills for the criminal database system are about $750.

Agencies without their own terminals can house fugitive warrants at whichever agency agrees to let them use their terminals, Cazort added.

In the Phillips County sheriff’s case, that’s the Marvell Police Department. That Police Department’s ACIC bill is about $400 per month on average, he said.

Cazort said most law enforcement agencies see the warrant system as an essential cost.

“I don’t know of any state assistance anywhere for any local law enforcement. That’s just something they have to budget for,” Cazort said.

Of the sheriff’s office, he added: “They could have done it. ACIC’s been around since the ’70s. That was a tool that was available almost early on. There was a warrant file available for their use for the last 24 years or longer,” he said.

For years, the state database also has been connected to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, allowing law enforcement agencies across the country to see if a person is wanted in Arkansas simply by entering personal information found on an ID card.

“I don’t know why an agency would not enter a warrant. If it’s not entered, nobody’s going to know that they’re wanted if they get stopped anywhere else. That’s the whole purpose of the system,” Cazort said.

White said he realizes that if the fugitive warrants had been entered into ACIC, the outcome of many city traffic stops would have been different, including those involving Trice.

“We would have put him in jail and held him until the next term of circuit court,” he said. And the cases would have been reactivated.

In Frierson’s case, White said he wasn’t aware the charge had been dismissed until the newspaper informed him.

He also questioned the argument in the court motion filed by Wilson, Frierson’s attorney.

“If his lawyer knows there’s a failure to appear, the lawyer ought to contact him and have him come to court.”

Wilson didn’t return calls seeking comment. But public defender Etherly said defense attorneys don’t have the time to track down the many clients who fail to show up for court. And it’s the responsibility of the sheriff’s office to pick up fugitives, he added.

Lawman conceded the warrant should have been served

“That’s something anyone should worry about,” he said.

Tomorrow: More problems plague the Phillips County justice system

© 2012, ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

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