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One night fighting crime: JCAT tries to prevent the violence from happening

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This year has been substantially more busy that last year which was more busy than the year before. – Jim Phelps, supervisory deputy U.S. marshal who heads JCAT in northern Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Deputy U.S. marshal Mark Thomson thinks the man he is after has just walked into a convenience store, but he can't tell for sure.

As the deputy U.S. marshal sits in an unmarked police vehicle next to a gas pump, he takes a closer look at the man as a second marshal circles the parking lot. Other law enforcement officers race to the area.

The man Thomson is looking for is known to carry a gun and has a federal warrant out for his arrest. Members of the Joint Criminal Apprehension Team are feeling pressure to capture this man because an informant has told them he is planning to commit a violent crime in just a few days.

Thomson decides the similarities are too close too ignore. He makes the call for members of JCAT to move in.

A half-dozen unmarked vehicles speed into the parking lot, boxing in the man's pickup. Thomson approaches the driver's side window and knocks several times until the man finally responds.

His hunch has paid off.

"You know what this is about, right?" Thomson asks the man. "Nice new dye," he adds, noting the man has changed the color of his goatee in an attempt to alter his appearance.

The man is pushed against the side of his truck and handcuffed. In his pocket, investigators find several high quality fake IDs, including a phony Utah driver's license.

A female passenger is also taken out of the vehicle and placed in cuffs. It's obvious to detectives that the woman is hiding something under her hoodie, but she denies it, even after being questioned directly three times about what she's hiding.

On the fourth time, she admits something is there.

Officers lift her hoodie to find a gun tucked in her waistband. Looks real, but the weapon turns out to be a BB gun. If she'd have gone for it before police knew it wasn't a lethal weapon, she could have been shot.

The arrests at this convenience store near 4800 South and 600 West were just two of more than a dozen the JCAT team would make during one recent November evening.

Violent crime overall is down in Utah and the nation, according to the FBI's recently released Uniform Crime Report for 2011. Robbery, aggravated assault, rape and murder all decreased from 2010. It was the fifth consecutive year the FBI reported an overall decrease in violent crime.

But Jim Phelps said the numbers don't seem to change what he sees each night.

"This year has been substantially more busy that last year which was more busy than the year before," said the supervisory deputy U.S. marshal who heads JCAT in northern Utah.

"You always hear of statistics coming out that crime is decreasing," Phelps said. But it doesn't stop the threat officers say they feel each night. During the first weekend of November, at least five people along the Wasatch Front were shot, three fatally, and two were stabbed, one receiving fatal injuries. Stopping the violence before it happens is the goal of JCAT.

'Criminals know us'

During this recent night, Phelps and the JCAT team worked non-stop following leads and rounding up more than a dozen wanted felons from West Jordan to Salt Lake City to Tooele.

For 13 years, JCAT — comprised of law enforcement officers from departments across the Wasatch Front and the U.S. Marshal's Service — has been rounding up wanted violent fugitives and people with outstanding warrants. The team currently averages about 3,000 felony arrests per year and has developed a reputation as one of the most proficient units in the state, even among the bad guys.

"The criminals do know us," said Phelps. "They know JCAT. We see that on a regular basis."

And while the number of arrests are easily tabulated, the statistic that cannot be measured is how many future crimes JCAT members may have prevented by taking violent felony offenders off the street.

JCAT has branches in northern Utah and southern Utah. There are 63 members in JCAT's Salt Lake office and 160 statewide. While the Salt Lake team is typically the most active, the southern Utah team also has its fair share of action. Most recently, they've been looking for the "Mountain Man," Troy James Knapp, 44, accused of burglarizing dozens of cabins in central and southern Utah. He has eluded law enforcers for up to seven years. JCAT also has teams in Ogden, Provo and the Uintah Basin.

During the past decade, the JCAT team has been involved in tracking down fugitives in some of the state's biggest criminal cases. But it's the daily work that makes the difference:

"The media doesn't catch half of what's really going on out there. We know that home invasions are up dramatically. And these aren't just criminals on criminals, thugs on thugs. They are going after your everyday good citizen," Phelps said.

He says more and more convicted felons are carrying guns, apparently not deterred by the potential hefty federal sentences that can bring.

"They don't hesitate. They'll use them on their own friends, they'll definitely use them on a law enforcement officer. There's no hesitation," Phelps said. "This year alone, I can't tell you how many guns we've taken off criminals."

A typical night

Phelps and his team start each shift by discussing what cases each agent has, who has the strongest leads on suspects and what cases are the most pressing. Seventy percent of what JCAT does is work on leads and doing investigative work, Phelps said.

What makes the team so effective is the sharing of information and the simple fact their specialty is tracking down criminal suspects.

"We know what to look for," Phelps said. "We know the questions to ask."

Each member of the team may have information about a criminal or a case that another member doesn't. It is not uncommon for two officers from different agencies to have separate warrants for the same person. But when the group shares information about that person, they quickly develop contacts and leads, Phelps said.

On this night, the team has an urgent need to track down 19-year-old Gabriel Mascarenas, who was wanted in Tooele for allegedly choking his girlfriend until she passed out and then stabbing two people at a party. A warrant was issued that morning for attempted homicide. Another person they want to capture quickly is a man with a warrant for raping a child.

All JCAT agents ride with at least two officers per vehicle for safety. Likewise, when they approach a house, apartment or hotel with a suspected fugitive inside, they approach in large numbers. They hope a show of force will prompt the suspect to surrender, rather than try to run or resist arrest.

In an estimated 90 percent of their cases, Phelps said the suspects give up without a fight.

City to city

Shortly after making the arrests in the convenience store parking lot, the team races to a motel in South Salt Lake where a Utah State Prison parolee and two friends suspected in recent burglaries may be hiding. They reportedly have been staying at different motels around the valley, staying on the move to avoid being caught.

Unlike SWAT teams, JCAT does not conduct no-knock warrants. However, the group will send detectives out ahead of the rest of the group to scout out possible locations where a suspect might be staying or hiding. If the team can verify the person they want is inside, they will go in after them.

At this motel, JCAT members grab assault rifles from the trunks of their cars, a shield and a battering ram to break through a door if needed. They surround all the windows and escape routes before approaching the room. An officer pounds on the door.

"Police! Open the door now!"

The suspects open the door and the target of the investigation is pushed face down on a bed while another officer secures his hands. The man is taken directly to the Utah State Prison for parole violations.

The arrest completed, it's now off to Cottonwood Heights where the team is looking for a man with a warrant charging him with being a restricted person in possession of weapons. The restrictions stem from a previous aggravated assault conviction. The JCAT officers also received information that other people were known to crash at the residence, including one person known to sleep with a gun nearby.

The heavily armed agents surround the house, but discover the man they are looking for is not there. They gather a lead about a girlfriend that works at a nearby restaurant. Detectives race there and learn the woman is not working that night, but get information leading to another Salt Lake City apartment.

The lead pays off.

JCAT members find Eugene Pavlov, 20, and arrest him on his outstanding warrant. He is wearing a shirt with the inscription: "I am not a role model." Investigators discover more than $1,000 in cash under the bed in the apartment, but both Pavlov and his girlfriend say they don't know how it got there.

Pavlov is taken to jail and Phelps calls it a perfect example of how investigators track down felons by piecing together several pieces of information during the course of a night.

Off to Magna

The team heads to Magna holding a $100,000 warrant signed that morning for Luis Raigoza. He was charged in 3rd District Court with 20 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, all second-degree felonies, for allegedly downloading child pornography.

JCAT members surround the house where Raigoza is renting a basement bedroom. The homeowner lets the officers inside. But when they get to Raigoza's bedroom, he doesn't immediately unlock the door. He says he's getting dressed.

After Raigoza failed to comply with their commands, an officer kicks the door off its frame and several investigators storm into the unkempt and filthy bedroom, taking Raigoza into custody.

Next stop for the team is a home in West Jordan. While driving there, Phelps learns other members of the team have successfully arrested a man in Tooele wanted for investigation of aggravated robbery. Now, the team has information that a person who might have information on Mascarenas — one of the team's main target this night — is in West Jordan.

But when JCAT arrives at the house, they find something they didn't expect to find. Six people, all with outstanding warrants, are discovered smoking bath salts in the basement. Three men and three women are arrested and taken to jail.

The six are questioned and information leads to a home in Salt Lake City's northwest side to investigate a possible Mascarenas sighting. Because of the man's history of violence, all available JCAT members are called to the staging area, including officers who just completed a spice bust with their home agencies.

In their largest show of force of the night, the team quietly walks up to their target house, an old structure with potential for danger because of a trailer parked in the yard, a shed and several other potential hiding places. Each member of the team has their weapons drawn.

It is now after midnight as they make several attempts to get someone to answer the door. Finally, they find someone inside the trailer, another person inside the shed, and two more in the house.

The person in the trailer was a federal fugitive who had been on the run from law enforcement for more than a year, Phelps said. He was arrested.

Mascarenas wasn't there, but they did get information from another man in the house about another wanted fugitive, and were able to find and arrest him the next night.

A week later, the JCAT team is able to track down the man with the child rape warrant in Park City.

As for Mascarenas, he was found and arrested the next day by the Tooele City Police Department.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam