Oklahoma County sheriff's warrant team gets their man -- hundreds of them
It's not even 8 a.m. Wednesday, and the Oklahoma County warrant team already has locked up two fugitives.
Lt. Larry Grant pulls his unmarked Dodge Charger into a southeast Oklahoma City neighborhood. As he passes the target house, Sgt. Mark Johns radios and tells him which house it is. There has been no detectable movement inside since his arrival, Johns reports.
Grant sidles up to a curb down the street from the target house and brings up the warrant on his mounted laptop. A young Hispanic man with a tattooed forehead glares back at him from the screen while Grant stares at the house the man is thought to be inside, likely still asleep.
Deputy Brian Lee waits nearby, but out of sight. The lawmen wait on the final member of their squad, deputy Curtis Back, to return from the jail where he's booking their most recent captive.
A woman approaches Grant's driver's side window with a bawling young girl. She reports that her daughter is being disrespectful and swearing at her. Just before Grant pulled up, the girl hit her, the mother reports.
Grant tells the girl to calm down, then points his finger and gives her a stern warning.
“Don't hit your mom again. If you do, you're going to end up in juvenile with some tough, tough girls that are going to make you look like putty,” he warns her.
The girl is terrified but has stopped sobbing. Grant tells the mother she can call police and make a report if she wishes, but he's here looking for a fugitive. The woman thanks him, and they leave.
“That happens all the time,” Grant said.
'We're not leaving'
Back arrives, and it's go time. The four lawmen spread out, two standing out front while the others go around back. That's when the pounding begins.
A woman answers the door after a few knocks, then tells them she's going to put some clothes on and come back and talk. The deputies agree, but they know it's not going to be quite so easy when they hear the deadbolt slide back into place.
After a few minutes, the pounding starts again.
“We're with the sheriff's office. We have an arrest warrant. You need to come back to your front door. Now. We're not leaving,” Grant shouts.
A few doors open as neighbors come out to their vehicles, but the locked door at the target house stays closed.
Around the back of the house, Johns begins to shout into the back of the house. He threatens the woman with arrest for harboring a fugitive and warns them they're just going to have another problem on their hands if they have to fix a kicked-in door.
Those orders also are met with silence. But when Johns tells them the children inside will be taken into DHS custody, they get confirmation that their target, Raul A. Garcia, is inside the house.
Garcia shouts back through the window that he's trying to reach his bondsman, and Johns tells him he needs to do that after he opens the door. A minute later, he does, with a small child in his arms.
The deputies step inside, and a few moments later the team emerges with a handcuffed Garcia, who was wanted on a failure to appear on a DUI charge. The children and their mother are left at the home with doors intact.
“I was pulling a ruse on him. I was telling him, ‘Hey, look Raul, we know you're in there. Just come to the door, because if you don't, your girlfriend is going to jail, too, and your kids are going to go to DHS.' The minute you throw somebody's kids in the mix, that turns on a different switch in their head,” said Johns, 56.
'Let's go get him'
They get Garcia secured, and a tip comes in from Crime Stoppers. A man named Frank Jay Anderson is at a house in Bethany, they're told.
“Let's go get him,” Grant said.
The remaining team members zip down Interstate 40 toward the area near NW 23 and Rockwell Avenue.
“When we get a Crime Stoppers tip, they're there right then 99 percent of the time,” Grant said.
Today isn't the anomaly. When they pull onto the street, they see the house with garage door halfway open and Anderson working under the hood of a vehicle in the driveway.
He doesn't seem surprised and doesn't attempt to flee as Johns takes him into custody.
A search of his person and the open garage yields a syringe, three sets of digital scales, assorted pills, a plastic bag with residue inside and scores of identification cards and fraudulent Oklahoma and Illinois driver's license printouts.
Anderson is staying with his 90-year-old mother, who allows the team to search his bedroom. Inside, they find another baggy stuffed full of a rock-like substance.
He tells them the pills are antibiotics and the bag is full of sea salt. But even packaging fake drugs for sale is a crime, and he doesn't have prescriptions for the supposed antibiotics.
And that doesn't include the warrant which they were there serving. Anderson was charged March 1 in Oklahoma County District Court with three counts of second-degree forgery, three counts of possession of a driver's license bearing the photo of another and a count of possession of a counterfeit instrument, court records show.
'Behind that door'
It's been a good week for the warrant team. It's not even lunch time, and they have four fugitives bagged. They picked up five Monday and another four Tuesday. But that's not always the case, they say.
“We can go two, three days with absolutely nothing, and it's frustrating. Then bam, you're arresting people all over the place,” Grant said.
Grant, 67, heads up the warrant team, which is in its 18th year. Back, 54, holds the second-longest tenure at 14 years.
“This is the stuff television shows are made out of, really honestly. If I had half a brain for writing, I could sit down and I could write a pretty damn good book. Some of the crazy stuff we've seen. Some of it is really funny, as well,” Grant said.
A naked man hanging halfway out from beneath a bed he can't fit under, a man standing at attention pretending to be a statue, Grant and his warrant team have seen it all.
“The year before the pseudoephedrine law came into effect, going in for arrest warrants, this four-man team found 128 labs. We had been in a lot more than that, but we'd actually found, while we were making an arrest, 128 labs,” he said.
“We're not only arresting people on warrants, but we're taking their freedom away from them. There's an element of danger for a patrol officer that's walking up to a car that doesn't know what to expect. ... Civil deputies going and serving a guy papers, they've got an element of danger. They don't know what's behind that door,” Grant said.
“And here we come. We've got history because we can look up their history and see who they are and what they've done in the past, so we've kind of got a little bit of an edge that way, but at the same time, we're dealing with people who don't want to go back to prison.”
And while apprehending felons and fleeing fugitives might seem like the kind of material cop movies are made of, Back is the only one to have been wounded by a bullet while serving on the team.
A bullet hit his ear during the team's only recorded shoot-out, on March 11, 2004. Grant and Back, along with other law officers, were trying to apprehend Michael Barnett, 28, on five warrants. An informant was in the car with Barnett when the squad descended on them. The informant was shot and killed by Barnett before he turned his gun on the officers, who fatally wounded him. District Attorney Wes Lane justified the shooting.
“We've all been doing this job a long time. We all know the danger that we step into every day. We walk into it a lot more than just your average patrol guy. When you see us, that means somebody is going to jail. And a lot of time, they want to fight it. They would rather fight and maybe get away rather than put their hands behind their back and just go to jail. Believe me, when the crap hits the fan, these guys know what to do,” Johns said.
“I love this job. I do. I've done everything from the jail to the courthouse, motors, patrol, I've been an investigator and then I got offered this job. By far, this is the best job there is,” said Johns, an eight-year veteran of the team.
Instead of brute force, their team uses common courtesy as its primary strategy.
“Doing this job, there's a time to turn it on and to turn it off. If you're cordial to people, normally you can get what you want. But when they decide that you being cordial and friendly is not working and they don't want any part of you after that, then it's time to turn off the being nice and go to work. Then it's all business,” Johns said.
“A lot of what we do is verbal. Negotiating. I've got to determine within a few seconds how I'm going to treat that person, how we're going to handle this. Because sometimes the only way you can do anything, you've got to get down on their level verbally, and it can get ugly,” Grant said.
“How many people have we talked out of their house that have locked their door and won't come out? Lots,” Grant said.
“I can't tell you how many times somebody has barricaded the door.”
But if they come peacefully, the warrant team tries to extend that courtesy, taking them away from their families before they get searched and cuffed.
“That's something kids remember forever, seeing mommy and daddy get handcuffed, and we don't do that.”
There is one way out of being dragged from your house or business by the warrant team. If they descend upon you with a warrant, and you've already made arrangements with a bail bondsmen that they can confirm on the telephone, they'll allow it.
“The bondsman says, ‘Yes, we have it set up for this morning at nine o'clock, we are doing a walk-through.' If the bondsman verifies it, fantastic. You do the walk-through. We're good. See you later,” Johns said.
But if you were busy and haven't already scheduled that walk-through before they get to you, you're going in.
And that arrangement will not be honored if another officer stops stops a suspect on a traffic offense or otherwise comes into contact with them, Johns said.
Grant said they've been called upon by the courts to find witnesses who were subpoenaed that didn't want to testify, and over the years they have dragged in half a dozen impaneled jurors who refused to show up for the rest of their jury duty.
“We've put harboring on lots of folks, and it sticks. We're not afraid to put it on them. If somebody's going to tool us around, and we warn them and warn them and warn them, oh yeah, you're going down,” Grant said.
“Dope, guns, we find it all. We've run into just about every situation you can imagine under the sun,” he said.
'Best job in law enforcement'
Lee, 44, is the new man on the team, having served about two years with them since coming out of a five-year stretch in the special investigations division of the sheriff's office.
“It's quite a bit different. Working in special investigations, you're behind the desk all day. Being on the warrant team, you get to go out in the field and make arrests and be active,” Lee said.
“It's the best job in law enforcement,” Back said. “You don't have to be young to do this. Just smart.”
“Yeah, but being young helps when you're trying to jump fences,” Lee countered.
In 2015, the team cleared more than 1,100 warrants on about 820 people, Grant said. Without the sweeps, hundreds of accused offenders may still be on the streets.
“When I took office, there really wasn't a coordinated effort to address the warrant issue. We had almost 70,000 warrants that were unserved,” Sheriff John Whetsel said.
“I created a four-person warrant team to take one bite at a time out of a real big apple,” he said.
“There are very few uses of force when the warrant team takes people into custody. I'm convinced that the reason why is the way the team operates. They are hard-charging go-getters, but they also treat people like people,” Whetsel said.
“They know how to do their job well. I'm proud of them. It's been a huge success in keeping our citizens safe,” he said.