TAMPA — Week after week as the summer rolled on, authorities picked away at a list of the state's most notorious fugitives until they locked up nearly 2,500 of them from the Panhandle to the Keys — including almost 200 in Tampa Bay.
Some, like Tyree Jenkins, 22, of Dade City, were featured as suspects in widely publicized news reports. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office wanted Jenkins for the execution-style murders of two Wesley Chapel teenagers.
Others, like Jeffrey Mark Lew, 47, of St. Petersburg, never made headlines. Tampa police wanted him for attempted homicide and aggravated assault with a firearm for allegedly shooting an Ybor City nightclub employee in the head.
On Thursday, the U.S. Marshals Service announced that the targeted emphasis on arresting dangerous fugitives across the state and in the Tampa Bay area was part of a federal, state and local law enforcement task force effort called "Operation Orange Crush."
"Why was this operation different than what we do everyday? We targeted the worst of the worst," Thomas Figmik, U.S. marshals chief for the Middle District of Florida, said during a news conference at the Tampa federal courthouse.
Operation Orange Crush lasted from July 7 through Sept. 12, a period in which task force members arrested 2,497 fugitives and cleared 2,959 warrants statewide. Locally, the collaboration involved seven bay area county sheriffs' offices and three local police departments.
"Collectively, we'll never know how many future crimes were prevented by these arrests," said U.S. marshals deputy director Brian Beckwith, who came from Washington, D.C., for the announcement.
In the Tampa Bay region, the operation netted 179 fugitives and cleared 230 warrants. Among the local arrests, 52 were for assault and battery, 29 for weapons charges, 28 for robbery, 19 for homicide and three for kidnapping.
Beckwith said there's no way to tell how many fugitives are in Florida, because federal, state and local authorities have separate databases that track absconding criminals. But officials across the agencies are aware of the most significant offenders, he said.
"I wouldn't say that Florida is a safe haven (for fugitives), and clearly operations like this will make sure that it won't be," Beckwith said.
Six permanent task forces currently operate around the country, working full time to do what Operation Orange Crush accomplished in a few weeks.
Beckwith said he'd like Congress to approve funding for 10 more regional task forces, including one for Florida. He estimated the initial cost for a permanent task force in the state at $15-million to $20-million.
In 2007, Sen. Mel Martinez secured the $2.8-million it took to run Operation Orange Crush for 10 weeks.
He didn't attend Thursday's news conference but said in a statement, "Decreasing violent crime in Florida is one of my main priorities, and I will work to ensure the U.S. marshals continue to receive funding to expand efforts in the state."
Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, who attended the news conference, said afterward that he likes the idea of a permanent task force but isn't sure the bay area can sustain it.
"I don't know if we could staff that full time," Coats said.
With shrinking budgets and tightening resources, Coats said it was difficult finding deputies to serve on Operation Orange Crush because his agency serves on other task forces as well. If the opportunity for a permanent task force presented itself, Coats said, "I'd give it some strong consideration."
On Saturday, a Pinellas County fugitive will be featured on America's Most Wanted.
Courtenay Savage, 46, is wanted by the Pinellas Sheriff's Office on eight counts of attempted murder and resisting law enforcement. Coats said Savage once worked as a detention deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and was a reserve officer for the Tampa Police Department.
That last time authorities came in contact with Savage and arrested her, they found a bulletproof vest and a gun inside her vehicle. Authorities consider her armed and dangerous.
Also known as Stephanie Casio, Savage is accused of firing into the home of a former business partner. Authorities said a security camera mounted at the home captured Savage in the act.
Kevin Graham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.