Cops hunt felons turned loose by system
Updated March 25:
A high percentage of the top fugitives sought by U.S. marshals in the region had been in the hands of authorities only to slip away through cracks in the legal system or questionable judicial decisions.
Of the criminals designated “Most Wanted” by the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force, more than 70 percent had been released from custody for various reasons, requiring marshals’ deputies to track them down again.
Some presented a clear danger to area residents:
» Two-time convicted killer Darryl Hazel was two months out of prison when he was arrested on drug charges, released on his own recognizance and went into hiding.
» After Virgilio Nunez was charged with 15 counts of child sex abuse involving multiple children, the El Salvador native was allowed to post $10,000 bail.
» Robert Joseph Williams was out on supervised parole after serving 20 years of a 35-year prison sentence for raping his adoptive mother. He was put on supervised probation. But during that time he was charged again with drug distribution. He violated the conditions of his probation and disappeared.
» D.C. Jail inmate William Brice, awaiting trial in a near-fatal shooting, was allowed to be released into the custody of his defense attorney and attend his father's funeral. The inmate fled the funeral, his lawyer failed to notify the court and Brice has the been on the run for more than two years.
William Chambliss, a criminologist at American University, said the biggest mistake when talking about the law or the courts is to think the system is rational, organized and precisely managed.
"It's fundamentally flawed," Chamblis said. "It's impossible to create a large bureaucracy that is not going to make a lot of stupid mistakes."
Hazel, 33, already had two murder convictions under his belt when he was re-arrested in D.C. for misdemeanor marijuana and heroin charges last year. At age 15 he pleaded to the shotgun death of a Capitol Hills store clerk. At age 22, Hazel killed again, this time in Northern Virginia. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in federal court, served eight years hard time and was placed on probation.
According to records, after his drug arrest, D.C. court officials attempted to call Hazel's probation officer but the officer had been transferred and the replacement was unavailable. Five days later, the U.S. Attorney's Office withdrew its request to keep him behind bars.
Hazel was set free and told to return to court in four weeks. He didn't.
Seven months later, on the day he was featured as a Most Wanted fugitive in The Examiner, U.S. marshals said they got a tip from a reader who reported that Hazel was living under the name of a dead relative. Marshals arrested him.
During their investigation, detectives discovered that Hazel was involved in a shooting three months earlier while using his alias. Hazel has not been charged in connection with the shooting.
The most lenient cases, said one Maryland prosecutor, seem to fall on people accused of sex, child abuse or domestic violence crimes, especially if the supsect "doesn't look like central casting with the knuckles dragging to the floor." One violent sex offender had to be picked up three times for violating his parole.
Virgilio Nunez, 44, was indicted on 15 counts of child sex abuse in February 2009 when a Montgomery County court commissioner allowed him to post a $10,000 bond, authorities said. Nunez's court records were sealed under adoption privacy laws.
State's attorney for Montgomery County John McCarthy's office said he could not comment.
Valencia Mohammed, a victim's rights advocate who lost two sons in separate killings, said she's amazed that Nunez was allowed to post bail.
"Immigrants seem to be let off on things that I know that we would be held on," Mohammed said. "Why give them the opportunity flee? Why put the bail so low or make the sentence so lenient that you let the person out to commit so harm? It makes no sense."
Joe diGenova, former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said these incidents are inevitable in a system that handles huge numbers of cases.
"It happens all the time," said diGenova. He said sanctions should be considered against judicial officials whose mistakes endanger the public. "This is important stuff," he said. "The public relies on the function of the system."
Correction: This story originally stated that Virgilio Nunez remains on the loose. Nunez was in fact captured and convicted of child abuse earlier this month.