Jorge Montiel fled to his hometown near Pachuca, Mexico, after he was alleged to have raped and murdered a Georgia housewife in October 2010.
Federal agents tried to bring the international fugitive to justice, but something stood in the way: the cost.
When the U.S. Justice Department called Forsyth County prosecutors to explain America's complex extradition process and to say the county would have to pay for translation and other fees, "the decision was made by Forsyth County to discontinue that effort," FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett told the Tribune.
And with that, Montiel became just another of the thousands of criminal suspects now living with impunity in foreign countries — even when federal authorities have identified their precise locations.
After the Tribune recently exposed law enforcement failures that allowed more than 100 dangerous suspects to flee northern Illinois and remain free abroad, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dispatched his top deputy to meet with officials in Chicago. Holder vowed that the Justice Department would redouble its efforts to return alleged murderers, rapists and other violent fugitives to Illinois — and secured the pledge of his Mexican counterpart to make it happen.
But the flawed enforcement efforts are by no means unique to the Chicago area, according to a Tribune examination of new data from the government's lead fugitive-hunting agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as hundreds of open federal warrants from across the country.
Using that information and a set of reports the Justice Department issued back in 2003, the Tribune was able to cobble together the only public accounting of a fugitive apprehension program that government officials cloak in secrecy.
As global travel becomes easier and criminals get more adroit at creating false identities and slipping back and forth across America's porous borders, federal and local law enforcement officials call these international fugitives a growing threat to public safety. But in cases from throughout the country, the Tribune found breakdowns throughout the criminal justice system.
Local prosecutors facing budget constraints often won't allocate the manpower and resources needed to request extradition through the U.S. Justice Department, records and interviews show.
The Justice Department has been criticized for failing to manage its growing caseload. Even when a fugitive is located abroad, U.S. officials may delay pressing a foreign government to turn him or her over because of competing diplomatic or political priorities.
And foreign allies that receive millions of dollars in U.S. government aid, such as Mexico and the Philippines, often balk at giving up their own citizens — frustrating American authorities who often work tirelessly to locate the fugitives.
In the end, only a fraction of the suspects believed to have crossed America's borders are brought back to stand trial. For the others, each passing year diminishes the odds they'll face justice, as witnesses disappear and new cases take priority, the Tribune's investigation found.
Like many fugitives, Montiel simply returned to his hometown and picked up his life, doing little to conceal his identity or whereabouts. A friend of the victim's family spotted him near Pachuca several months ago and even learned the exact address where Montiel was staying with his family, government records and interviews show.
"The guy told me he was living openly, as if nothing happened," said the slaying victim's husband, Jesus Murillo-Bravo, who immediately gave the address to police in Cumming, Ga.
But unbeknownst to Murillo-Bravo, American officials never asked the Mexican government to arrest the wanted fugitive, according to the FBI.
Prosecutors in Forsyth County, northeast of Atlanta, declined repeated requests for comment. Today, Montiel has little to fear from authorities, while Murillo-Bravo, who recently lost his job as a landscaper, is relying on his in-laws to help him raise his two teenage children.
"It is very sad, very sad to lose a wife in this way," he said. "I am just waiting for the time when I get the news that they have captured this guy."
The stalled hunt for Montiel is one example of how authorities in many other parts of the country do no better than northern Illinois at arresting and extraditing suspects who sought haven in foreign countries.
After months of Freedom of Information requests and queries, the Tribune obtained for the first time new data on nearly 10,000 international fugitive leads opened by the U.S. Marshals Service. The crimes ranged from murder and sexual assault to narcotics and white-collar offenses.
Although the data are imperfect, a comparison of the rate of extraditions versus leads opened in the roughly 100 federal court districts across the country suggests the marshals in northern Illinois fared just below the national average — while many other districts did worse, ranging from Oregon to Colorado, South Carolina and Arizona.
The same holds true if you also count deportations, a slightly different process that is sometimes used by foreign countries to expel a noncitizen. Extradition is by far more complex.
Law enforcement experts say many factors can account for such district-by-district disparities, from the aggressiveness of local prosecutors to regional immigration patterns that often define where a fugitive seeks haven.
The marshals service would not comment directly on the data but said the apprehension of dangerous international fugitives is complex and presents unique challenges.
"We are continually working to improve efficiency in the apprehension of fugitives from justice, including coordination with other law enforcement agencies," said William Sorukas, the marshals' chief of international investigations.
In South Florida counties where high numbers of fugitives have been traced to the Caribbean, Mexico and other parts of Latin America, local officials and bail bondsmen express fury with the reluctance of some county prosecutors to extradite defendants whose precise whereabouts are known.
"Why in the world would you charge somebody with a crime and then want to leave him on the street ... whether it is in Brazil or Mexico? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. It's happening more and more," said Collier County Clerk of Circuit Courts Dwight Brock, who has appeared in court to defend the government's right to keep the bonds of absconding fugitives. "You're basically visiting Florida's former problem on some other country."
One factor is cost. To request extradition, local prosecutors typically pay $50 to $150 per page to translate the legal packets submitted through the Justice Department to the foreign government — typically putting the price tag per case at $500 to several thousand dollars.
Randall McGruther, chief assistant state's attorney for South Florida's 20th Judicial Circuit, which includes Collier County, said his office had sought the extradition of several defendants from overseas but must make "tough decisions" to turn others down. In addition to cost, considerations include the seriousness of the crime, the legal and logistical support they get from U.S. federal authorities and whether the foreign country is likely to cooperate.
"We have to consider, quite frankly, whether it is a wise use of taxpayers' resources to bring a person back or not — and (cost) is something that's taken into account," McGruther said.
From 2009 through the middle of last year, only three international fugitives wanted on state charges were extradited from foreign countries to South Florida counties by the marshals service, the Tribune analysis found. Meanwhile, federal authorities successfully extradited hundreds of suspects back to South Florida in recent years, largely because of Colombia's growing cooperation with the U.S. on drug cases.
In Florida and other parts of the country, bail bond agents have a financial stake in hunting down international fugitives, because they put up tens of thousands of dollars in cash to guarantee the defendants will appear in court.
Attorney Lauren Renee Fernandez, who represents several Miami bail bond firms, hires private investigators who go abroad and locate many fugitives. Then she watches in frustration as the trail goes cold.
Authorities "will decline to extradite, and it just baffles me," Fernandez said.
One of the bounty hunters she hires, Rolando Betancourt, recalled tracking Luis Fonseca, a fugitive who pleaded not guilty in Naples, Fla., to 2007 charges of molesting a 6-year-old boy.
Fonseca fled the next year after marrying a Brazilian woman he had met at a nearby church. Tracking Fonseca to the Amazonian capital of Manaus in Brazil, Betancourt obtained what he said was a recent photo that showed Fonseca putting an arm on the shoulders of that woman's smiling grandson.
Betancourt said he presented the photo and information about Fonseca's whereabouts to the Collier County district attorney's office, but prosecutors told him they wouldn't try to extradite the suspect.
"They just want to export crime," Betancourt said bitterly.
A spokeswoman for the district attorney declined to discuss the case in detail but indicated that the information presented to them was not precise enough to begin the extradition process.
The problems are not just at the local level. A government audit and interviews with local and federal officials reveal a vexing lack of coordination between the marshals service and the FBI, which have overlapping missions.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department's central clearinghouse for hunting border-crossing fugitives — the Office of International Affairs — has been criticized for sloppy record-keeping, missing documents and growing caseloads. Officials with the office told the Tribune they have solved those problems by adding paralegals and computerizing case-tracking systems.
The impact of the local and federal breakdowns is hard to gauge because government agencies are unwilling to disclose comprehensive information about their efforts to extradite fugitives — even figures as basic as how many suspects America is actively seeking from foreign countries. They argue that providing such data could spook wanted fugitives.
The only broad data available date to 2003, when the Justice Department told Congress it estimated "several thousand" U.S. fugitives were "located in various countries around the globe." Yet only 1,413 were being sought through extradition requests with foreign countries that year, according to a set of reports the department issued at the time.
Some 311 of the requests were pending with Mexico, the country with the largest number of known fugitives. Yet only 31 criminal suspects were extradited from Mexico in 2003, a tenth of those formally sought.
Mexico has improved since then, extraditing about 100 wanted suspects to the U.S. each year. But those returned fugitives still represent a small portion of the criminal suspects who are believed to have absconded to Mexico in recent years, separate government records and interviews show.
The San Diego County district attorney recently issued a news release touting success in extraditing six felony suspects from Mexico in the last year — "a record number" — compared with a total of eight in the three previous years.
"We are making great progress," said Deputy District Attorney Sylvia Tenorio, who handles international extraditions, according to the news release.
But asked in an interview if there weren't hundreds of other fugitives from her county living in Mexico, Tenorio said: "I'm sure there are. ... It's a problem of a permeable border."
In some cases, law enforcement could track the fugitives only because the crime victims hailed from the same villages or shared kinship and social networks, and victims' families told authorities where the perpetrators had last been seen. Many of those immigrant families spoke of losing faith in America's courts and government when no arrest was made.
"I am very, very mad and upset at the lack of justice," said a Houston landscaper whose 6-year-old daughter was allegedly sexually assaulted in 2005 by a fellow Honduran who fled to his homeland and remains at large today.
The fugitive, laborer Alejandro Leiva, returned to his native coastal village of Cuyamel and moved in next door to his parents, according to court records.
Federal authorities issued a warrant for Leiva's arrest in 2007, but the Honduran constitution prohibits extradition of its nationals with few exceptions, such as for terrorists.
The landscaper, who asked that he not be identified, said other countrymen traveling to and from Houston have told him they encountered Leiva in Honduras, including one sighting about a year ago.
"He is living openly there," the landscaper said.
Honduras is one of several U.S. allies that garner American aid yet have been slow to cooperate in fugitive-apprehension efforts.
The U.S. government has sent the Philippines tens of millions of dollars in assistance in recent years. But U.S. officials were unable to secure the extradition of San Diego County taco restaurant owner and murder suspect Abelardo "Larry" Tasa from the Philippines, even after he was arrested there.
Tasa's wife, Rebecca, was found strangled and stabbed on the doorstep of their suburban San Diego home after an apparent burglary in 1992.
But the crime scene looked "staged," and investigators soon learned that Tasa may have been having marital difficulties because of his apparent sexual interest in men, according to a court declaration by a San Diego County sheriff's officer.
A month before his wife's murder, Tasa took out life insurance policies on her worth $300,000; Tasa flew to his native Philippines after collecting that money, court records show.
Authorities eventually charged Tasa with hiring two of his Taco Time employees to kill Rebecca, a nurse known for her kindness to family members. Both employees ultimately were convicted and imprisoned.
A 2005 federal warrant said the two killers and other witnesses made statements implicating Tasa in the murder scheme. That year, FBI agents and their Filipino counterparts traced him to the city of Kalibo on Panay Island in the Philippines. There, Tasa was working as the managing officer for a preschool, a federal warrant said.
Filipino authorities arrested Tasa a year later, court records show. But in August 2011, the Filipino Court of Appeals denied the extradition request after ruling that the U.S. "merely harped on ... circumstantial evidence" linking Tasa to the murder.
"I'm speechless," Rebecca's brother Ferdinand Ellazar said upon learning of the court decision from reporters last week. "This person should not be anywhere except in jail."
A U.S. trial for Tasa, now 65, seems unlikely.
"The extradition case is over at this point," said San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Brent Neck. "The Philippine court made their decision, and we have to respect it."
Data analyst Christopher Groskopf contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times