Violent Offender Task Force looks for county’s most dangerous

SMOKEY POINT — They’ve gone about their business with little fanfare.

Quietly, which is the way they like it, the Snohomish County Violent Offender Task Force has made 804 arrests during its three years together.

The total includes 201 registered sex offenders and hundreds of the county’s most dangerous felons.

Often the people they’re hunting face years in prison versus days in jail and have little to lose by taking big risks. Some are caught with handguns in their waistbands. Fifteen were homicide suspects.

Their quarry can be elusive. The team has tracked crooks into swamps and attics, woods and outbuildings. One spent a night, scratched up and shivering, in a beaver dam along the Snohomish River. Another was 40 feet up a tree in Clearview before a few firehose blasts convinced him to come down.

There was the vehicular homicide suspect Velcroed inside a couch. A kitchen cabinet with a false back concealed one fugitive. Another was in a crawl space behind a basement bookcase.

It is getting harder to hide since the task force formed in January 2013.

The 10-member squad includes deputy U.S. marshals, state Department of Corrections officers, deputy sheriffs and police officers from Arlington, Lake Stevens and Mukilteo.

By combining forces, they don’t duplicate efforts. They share databases. They’re cross-commissioned, which expands their legal authority and geographic jurisdiction.

Each agency brings expertise. All four deputies graduated from local high schools. They know the county’s nooks and crannies, its crooks and their cronies. The state corrections officers have kept tabs on the offenders, often for many years, and have insight into patterns and old haunts. The marshals can track across the country and around the world.

Their goal: work together to put more violent criminals and sex offenders behind bars quicker.

Trust is their bedrock.

“He knows what I know and I know what he knows,” sheriff’s office Sgt. Keith Rogers said. “The red tape has been cut.”

First impressions

Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Gerg was given one directive when he was assigned to the task force: Find a way to make it work.

Sgt. Rogers knew little about the U.S. Marshal’s office.

That first night, the task force made three arrests. There were no ice breakers, team-building exercises or mission statements, just a Starbucks stop to map out the shift’s strategies.

Their first arrest was a Lake Stevens area man convicted earlier of threatening to kill his neighbors. He had later beat another neighbor, 71, before fighting with a deputy sheriff and trying to grab his holstered gun.

The suspect left a hospital and was back in Lake Stevens eating dinner when the task force swooped in.

That night they also arrested two sex offenders.

As he headed home afterward, Gerg was impressed. He thought to himself: “I found my team.”

Rogers keeps statistics, but tries not to dwell on them. The goal is not big numbers, it is tracking down the biggest threats. Or, as Mike Woodruff, a state corrections officer on the task force, puts it: “We want the worst of the worst.”

One number — 129 to be precise — is meaningful to Rogers. That’s how many guns the task force has seized, usually from one felon at a time.

Ask Rogers and Gerg to list high-profile collars and they look at each other and shrug. After a while, the names blend together.

Rogers sees the task force as a clearinghouse. By rounding up violent offenders for the sheriff’s office Major Crimes Unit or local police departments, they are freeing up more time for detectives to investigate, talk to witnesses and gather evidence.

Often, they are merely there to assist other agencies, to bottle the volatile and reduce the risks. There is strength in numbers.

Arrests pile up

The arrest of a 16-year-old Everett gang member in September is a good example of how the task force can help, Gerg said.

Sylius St. Amie, now 17, is accused of shooting two high school students, a brother and sister, after reportedly mistaking the boy’s blue shorts as a sign he was a member of a rival gang.

The task force spent the night developing and following leads for the Major Crimes Unit. Witnesses eventually disclosed where St. Amie was hiding. A SWAT team tried to convince the teen to surrender. He refused. Several hours later tear gas was fired into the house. Deputies found him lying on a closet shelf. They also recovered a stolen handgun.

For a marshal like Gerg, success came from working on a fugitive case before there was a chance for the trail to grow cold.

“If he wanted to flee, he never had the opportunity,” he said.

The task force has brought back registered sex offenders from Austria, the Philippines and Thailand. The latter was an Arlington man in his 70s who bought a one-way ticket to Asia and settled in with a woman and her 6-year-old daughter.

Closer to home, the task force has been involved in myriad arrests: a man who broke into the home of slain corrections officer Jayme Biendl after her death, a California murder suspect hiding out in Snohomish County, an Arlington man accused of shooting his girlfriend in the head and claiming it was a drive-by shooting.

The task force has received help from the U.S. State Department, Interpol and other agencies near and far. It has used county and U.S. Border Patrol helicopters on manhunts.

More recently, assistance came from a Seattle police dog’s snout.

Bear is trained to detect a chemical compound found in hard drives, laptops, cellphones and SIM cards. He’s one of few police dogs across the country with that credential.

Bear paid a visit to the Everett home of an registered sex offender where he found three cellphones the man was prohibited from possessing.

It was nothing new for the black lab. Last year, during a child pornography investigation, he sniffed out an overlooked thumb drive at the Indiana home of ex-Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, now a convicted sex offender.

Working the streets

Federal agents weren’t particularly optimistic in the summer of 2013.

Detectives had identified a suspect in a homicide out of Lake Stevens.

Phillipa S. Evans-Lopez, 20, a young mother, was stabbed two dozen times and her throat was cut.

Genetic material collected from the crime scene, including on an electrical cord, reportedly matched a DNA sample taken from a Spokane-area fugitive named Anthony Garver.

Garver already was being sought on state and federal warrants. He’d been released from prison a few months earlier, after serving time for threatening to blow up a government building in Spokane. He’d been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital and had claimed ties to anarchist and domestic-terrorism causes. He also was described as a survivalist capable of dropping off the grid.

Two weeks after the killing, federal agents speculated that Garver was long gone.

As sheriff’s deputy and task force member Marcus Dill remembered it, the message was “You aren’t going to find that guy.”

The task force, at the behest of the sheriff’s office Major Crimes Unit, kept looking. They visited homeless camps, shelters and bus stops, but were short on leads for a suspect who had little connection to Snohomish County. He’d vowed in an email to his mother that he would never go back to prison.

In north Everett, sheriff’s deputy and task force member Luke Robinson approached a teen who had a skateboard. It was 15 days after Evans-Lopez’s body was found. He showed the youth Garver’s photo. The teen said he’d seen him around. Robinson then asked him what Garver was wearing. The teen said he was dressed in black and carried a camouflage backpack. The teen, it seemed, had good information.

Robinson told him he could earn some money if he could provide a location for the fugitive.

The teen said he’d get back in touch if he saw Garver.

About 40 minutes later, he called. Garver, it turned out, was not roughing it in the woods. He was at an Everett McDonald’s.

The task force found Garver hunched over a laptop. With his eyes on the screen and buds in his ears, he was oblivious to their approach.

In his backpack, detectives found a blood-stained folding knife.

A night in the life

Darkness fell early over the Skykomish Valley on Tuesday.

Taillights appeared a reddish smear in the downpour along U.S. 2.

Rivers spilled their banks beneath leaden skies.

Inside the sheriff’s office east precinct, the task force discussed the day’s first target.

Trent Jesmer, 36, was wanted on a federal warrant. In 2009, he was among 16 people indicted in the federal court in a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine. The group had connections with the “La Familia” crime syndicate. Twenty-eight pounds of meth, 10 kilos of cocaine, seven guns, and $200,000 in cash had been seized. Six years and a prison term later, Jesmer was on the run.

The task force had received tips about his potential whereabouts.

Back and forth they went, weighing the likelihoods of finding him at two locations.

Either would be a roll of the dice.

Around 4 p.m., they headed towards Sultan to a large house off Ben Howard Road.

The darkness made it seem more like midnight than late afternoon as task force members quietly passed through the wrought-iron gate, walked past blue, red and green Christmas lights and fanned out around the home’s perimeter. A white horse ambled across the carport as police radios crackled updates.

People inside allowed for a search of the home. Jesmer had been there, but left in a dark SUV, they said.

The caravan of unmarked police vehicles turned west toward Option 2, a rambler well known by law enforcement off Ingraham Road near Monroe.

Outside, the task force spotted the SUV they believed Jesmer was driving.

They surrounded the house before announcing that they had a federal warrant for Jesmer’s arrest. Six young people emerged, standing beneath the eaves on the front porch while the home was searched.

Jesmer, it turned out, had left suddenly, not long before the task force arrived. He’d driven off in a red car that belonged to someone else. There seemed to be collective amnesia. No one could recollect the last name of the car’s registered owner.

“If we would have come here first, we would have had him,” Rogers said. “Among all the success, there are a lot of dead ends.”

It’s never as tidy as a 60-minute TV crime drama.

Many cases can take months.

On a whiteboard at the north precinct are columns of names divided by rows of silver tape. They are all fugitives.

There is an Everett attempted-murder suspect believed to be in Mexico City. Another fugitive is thought to be in Nevada.

The printer spews out mug shots.

Land lines and cellphones ring.

At any given time, there are 3,000 active felony warrants in Snohomish County. Roughly a third are for people considered violent offenders.

There is always more to do.

There also is a sense of purpose.

“This is the best job in law enforcement, arresting felons with handguns,” deputy Dill said. “As fast as we clear them, we get more.”

As their shift neared its end there were predictions that they’d catch up to Jesmer the next day.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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