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3,400 Fugitives Lured to Arrest : Florida Suspects Fall for Offer of Free Trips

United Press International

Nearly 3,400 fugitives wanted for crimes ranging from murder to robbery were lured out of hiding across Florida and arrested by law enforcement officers who promised free trips and other prizes, authorities said Sunday.

The roundup was the largest ever organized by the U.S. Marshals Service, surpassing the 3,309 fugitives seized late last year in a sweep of eight Northeast states, the officials said.

“The operation has been a huge success,” said one official, who asked that he not be identified. “We picked up more fugitives than we ever dreamed possible. It’s winding down now, but it’s a success by any measure.”

Called Operation FIST, for Fugitive Investigative Strike Team, the secret roundup was conducted by marshals offering promises of free trips to the Bahamas through a fictitious agency called Puno Aero Tours, dinners at exclusive restaurants and other prizes to fool fugitives into identifying themselves.

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The Puno scam promised winners a weekend in the Bahamas and $350 to spend, said Chris Usiak, who was brought to Miami for the roundup from the warrants division of the Chicago U.S. Marshals Service.

Usiak and Marshal Mike Hayes worked at the Puno ticket counter at Miami International Airport.

Hayes said the advantage of arresting persons en route to the airport was that the criminals were less likely to be armed because they had to pass through metal detectors. He said the 14 arrests in the airport operation went smoothly.

“They went so smoothly that one (fugitive) called back from jail wanting to reschedule,” Hayes said.

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One woman was so surprised by the bogus Puno trips that she asked agents who arrested her: “Can’t we take care of this next week? I’ve won a free trip, and I want to take that first.”

The scam had been arranged by the marshals in letters that began: “Congratulations! You are the winner of a weekend retreat in the Bahamas. Enclosed please find your champagne-flight boarding pass.”

Various federal agencies, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and local police and sheriff’s departments reportedly worked with the marshals in conducting the statewide sweep.

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday morning in Miami to discuss the operation.

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Sources said that the 11-week roundup began April 1 and netted more than 30 murder suspects and hundreds of others sought on felony warrants for rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

In all, more than 3,000 of the arrests were made on felony warrants, with the rest citing misdemeanor infractions or traffic warrants.

The marshals operated from temporary quarters set up in Miami, Orlando, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Tampa. Many of those arrested were sought in other states, the sources said, but the majority were wanted on Florida warrants.

Last Nov. 21, federal agents announced the arrest of 3,309 fugitives in a two-month sweep of eight states from Maryland to Massachusetts. About 30 murder suspects also were arrested.

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