HELENA-WEST HELENA At least a third of Phillips County’s most serious fugitive cases face dismissal because it’s too late to try them, court records obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette show.
The newspaper found that 35 of 101 fugitives charged with Class Y felonies - the state’s most serious offenses, carrying prison terms from10 years to life - have been stopped for traffic offenses, arrested on misdemeanors or appeared in Helena-West Helena District Court while at the same time being sought by Phillips County Circuit Court.
Some of the fugitives are wanted on charges of child rape, armed robbery, home invasion and drug-trafficking.
In total, authorities had at least 228 opportunities since 2000 to arrest the 35 fugitives in Helena-West Helena alone, court records show.
But they were never served with their failure-to-appear warrants, court records show. Until last month, one accused felon had not been picked up on an outstanding warrant for 12 years.
These fugitives remained free largely because of Phillips County Sheriff Ronnie White’s long-standing practice of not entering fugitive warrants into state and national law-enforcement databases. White says his office hasn’t entered fugitive warrants for the past 24 years.
Had these warrants been entered into the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) or the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) databases, many of those who were wanted would have been arrested when they encountered police during traffic stops or in other situations.
Instead, the state’s missed opportunities to serve the warrants can now be used by the fugitives to avoid prosecution altogether.
Last month, the Democrat-Gazette published stories about several Phillips County fugitives who had managed to build up a sophisticated, multistate drug-trafficking ring right in the middle of Helena-West Helena’s business district.
These fugitives were finally arrested in October 2011 during a federal sting dubbed Operation Delta Blues.
The sting capped a two year investigation by the FBI into allegations of public corruption and drug trafficking. More than 60 people, including five law-enforcement officers, were arrested. Several of the arrested, including four former police officers, already have pleaded guilty to a variety of charges.
The Democrat-Gazette has since expanded its investigation into Phillips County’s lengthy fugitive list to include those who weren’t arrested by the FBI.
The 35 Class Y fugitives turned up during a comparison of district and circuit court records.
In the case of three men, police had more than 20 opportunities to arrest each of them while they were wanted by the Phillips County Circuit Court, the newspaper found.
Some of the 35 will finally face their charges during the coming court term, which begins July 30, because law enforcement agencies began processing warrants after the newspaper’s articles appeared last month. As of Thursday, at least 20 former fugitive cases appeared on the active criminal docket.
And a circuit judge recently ordered the sheriff’s office to immediately begin entering fugitive warrants into the state and national crime center databases.
Even so, many of these cases are vulnerable to being dismissed solely because the defendants weren’t served with fugitive warrants even though they were in contact with police or the court system.
In Arkansas, the state has a year to try a defendant. If the person isn’t tried within that time, a judge can dismiss the case for violating the defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Delays on the part of the defense, such as continuances, don’t count against the state’s year of speedy-trial time.
But most delays on the part of the state do.
Because authorities failed to serve many of the fugitives’ warrants when they had an opportunity to do so, that time can count against the state. At least one case in Phillips County has already been dropped for that reason, court records show.
In that case, Jarvis Washington encountered police several times while he was wanted for failing to appear on a terroristic-act charge.
After Washington was arrested in the FBI’s Delta Blues sting, questions arose about the disposition of his circuit court case.
After reviewing the old case, public defender Don Etherly pointed out several potential speedy-trial problems.
Etherly has said in recent interviews that Washington’s six district-court appearances and police encounters were evidence that the state had the opportunity to locate and prosecute Washington, but didn’t.
When Etherly brought this to deputy prosecuting attorney Todd Murray’s attention, Murray moved to drop the case.
Circuit Judge L.T. Simes granted the motion.
In a recent interview, Simes said he’s researching speedy-trial issues because he expects other cases like Washington’s to come up in court terms later this year. He anticipates a flurry of motions for dismissals based on the state’s failure to try in a timely manner cases involving fugitives, he said.
“It is going to be an issue, there’s no doubt,” Simes said. “Defense attorneys will make arguments about speedy-trial [law] and whether there was due diligence in serving fugitive warrants. I want to make the right call the first time.”
Etherly said he would be reviewing his cases to see if any are similar to Washington’s, and would make motions for dismissal in those that he finds.
“If it applies in the case, I’m sure the defense lawyers will act accordingly. ... I will and [so will] every other defense lawyer,” he said.
First Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Fletcher Long said the Y felony fugitives cases - which make up about a fourth of the fugitive docket - will be scrutinized to see if they can still be prosecuted.
He acknowledged that his office likely will be unable to prosecute several cases because fugitive warrants weren’t served when they should have been, allowing the time to count against the prosecution under Rule 28 of the Arkansas Rules of Criminal Procedure.
That rule outlines how to compute time for speedy-trial purposes.
“A case that’s 5 or 6 years old is probably going to be extremely hard to put back together again, and if they’ve been in custody several times, probably has serious Rule 28 problems,” he said.
“Of course, it’ll be an issue. ... It concerns me as much or more than it concerns you that people have a fugitive warrant out for them and then they’re in custody in a community the size of Helena-West Helena and they’re not kept for what they’re wanted for,” he added.
LONG TIME COMING
Defendants in some of those cases are scheduled to appear in court for pretrial hearings Tuesday.
One of them is Carvant Hancock.
Hancock, 39, has been stopped for traffic offenses or arrested on misdemeanor offenses 11 times since late 2004. He’s appeared in Helena-West Helena District Court 12 times during the same period.
For nearly eight years, he was a fugitive, wanted for failing to appear in Phillips County Circuit Court in two felony cases - one involving drugs and another involving accusations that Hancock shot at two men fleeing in a car.
Hancock’s warrants weren’t served until May 18, when Helena-West Helena police arrested him.
Another case that’s recently restarted involves Willie Smith, 52, who was arrested on drug charges in December 1994.
Now, 17 years after it was filed, his case is again scheduled to be heard in court.
Smith was formally charged with possession of crack cocaine with intent to deliver - a Class Y felony - and possession of drug paraphernalia on Feb. 3, 1995.
He was declared a fugitive on Oct. 20, 2000.
Since then, Smith has been pulled over for traffic citations or arrested for misdemeanor offenses nine times. He’s appeared in district court 10 times.
But Smith’s warrant wasn’t served until May 31 of this year.
While Smith and Hancock have finally been served their warrants, the Democrat-Gazette’s most recent comparison of district and circuit court records reveals extraordinary examples of other fugitives who remain free despite repeated arrests and traffic stops.
Combined, Helena-West Helena police alone have had at least 50 opportunities to arrest two other men on fugitive warrants, court records show. In all 50 instances, the men went free while their circuit court cases languished.
One of the men, Derrick Rose, 28, has been a fugitive since February 2006, when he failed to appear in his Class Y felony drug case.
Since then, Rose has been stopped by police on traffic or misdemeanor charges 15 times, appeared in district court 11 times, and been arrested on another Class Y felony, court records show.
In 2008, he was charged with new felony drug and gun charges. That time, he had a 1-year-old child in the car with him.
There’s no indication in court records that anyone realized that Rose was a Class Y fugitive when he was charged with the new counts. Again, he failed to appear in circuit court, and a fugitive warrant was issued in the second case.
Phillips County also missed yet another opportunity to arrest and prosecute Rose when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons sent a letter on June 24, 2011, to the Phillips County circuit clerk’s office asking whether it should place a detainer on Rose after he finished serving a federal sentence for a drug conviction.
The circuit clerk’s office forwarded the letter to the sheriff and prosecutor, according to notations on the letter. Nothing in Rose’s files indicates that either White or Murray requested a detainer.
Murray did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
A prison spokesman declined to say whether a detainer had been placed on Rose, citing bureau policies.
Rose was released from the federal prison in Yazoo City, Miss., on March 20, according to prison records.
Since then, Rose has been stopped in Helena-West Helena on traffic offenses, including driving while intoxicated as well as disorderly conduct, court records show. He remains listed as a fugitive in Phillips County.
So does Antoine Culler, 26.
He was originally arrested in March 2003 on a charge of possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, court records show.
Culler later failed to appear in the case. A fugitive warrant was issued for him on Dec. 1, 2005.
Since then, he’s been cited for traffic or misdemeanor offenses on 12 occasions and appeared in district court 12 times.
He remains free.
A TODDLER CASE
Despite an active circuit court warrant, Willie Otey Jr., accused of raping a toddler in 2006, has lived freely in Helena-West Helena, according to district court records and other evidence obtained by the Democrat-Gazette.
Otey has appeared in the city’s district court twice on misdemeanor charges.
Also, phone listings offer numbers for Willie Otey Jr. in Helena-West Helena. And a public-records search often used by legal professionals reflects city addresses for Otey.
The newspaper’s efforts to locate him for comment were unsuccessful.
According to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission records, Otey has repeatedly obtained hunting and fishing licenses from Helena-West Helena stores - usually the Wal-Mart off U.S. Business 49 - in the years since his fugitive warrant was issued.
Most recently, he bought a fishing license in late March at that Wal-Mart.
The newspaper also found a Facebook page for a Willie Otey who graduated from a Phillips County high school (Central) in 1992. He subscribes to daily Aquarius horoscope updates on his Facebook page.
The fugitive Otey is 38. He was born Feb. 12, 1974, making him an Aquarius.
The Willie Otey on Facebook is friends with a Grace Otey.
Grace Otey is the name of the woman who signed a sheriff’s surety bond when Willie Otey was first arrested on the rape charge. White approved that surety bond - with bail set at $75,000 - without requiring cash or 10 percent of the bail amount, records show.
Willie Otey’s case file doesn’t show what happened with the bond after he failed to appear in circuit court one year later, on Feb. 28, 2007.
That unserved fugitive warrant is the last page in the file that details the events leading up to Willie Otey’s first arrest and the resulting rape charge.
Arkansas State Police and the then-West Helena Police Department began investigating Willie Otey in March 2006, when a woman called city police to report that he had performed sexual acts on her 16-month-old daughter while the mother was at the store with a friend.
The woman’s older children, ages 8 and 9, witnessed the molestation, according to an affidavit.
The two children told investigators that Otey had pulled down the little girl’s diaper, put a condom on his finger and penetrated her, the affidavit states.
After he fell asleep, one of the older children took the baby, put a new diaper on her and dressed her.
When the children’s mother and her friend arrived home, the older siblings met them at the door, and said Otey had “put his fingers in the baby’s privates,” the affidavit states.
The two women went into the bedroom, where Otey was sleeping, according to the mother’s friend. She told investigators Otey’s pants were unzipped and that “his penis was sticking out of his pants.”
He’s now been a fugitive for more than five years, even though he was most recently arrested last Christmas Eve on a charge of third-degree battery by Helena-West Helena police.
That case is pending in district court.
Front Section, Pages 1 on 06/17/2012
Print Headline: Court files show string of misses