Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Pinellas sheriff's new warrant unit working its way through backlog

Tristan Hamilton was hiding in a closet when detectives found him.

Hamilton, wanted on charges of armed home invasion robbery, eventually emerged from the master bedroom after detectives talked to him. But inside the closet, they later found a loaded semi-automatic rifle. A .45-caliber handgun, also loaded, and marijuana were stashed in a dresser near a baby nestled on a bed.

"These are the types of situations we deal with on a daily basis," said Sgt. Bryan Bingham. "These detectives have to be on their game."

Hamilton is among more than 90 fugitives arrested so far by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's new violent offender warrant unit.

The unit was formed in response to controversy in 2009 when the Sheriff's Office disbanded its 16-member warrants bureau amid severe budget cuts. After that, regular patrol deputies were assigned to make warrant arrests.

At the end of 2012, the Sheriff's Office had more than 14,000 backlogged felony arrest warrants, with about 55,000 arrest warrants overall including misdemeanors.

But as of last month, the numbers had declined to about 13,000 felony warrants and more than 45,000 warrants in total, as deputies continued to make warrant arrests and older warrants were purged.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the numbers are expected to plummet even more with the new warrant unit, which has worked on more than 160 cases since its launch in April.

"This progress that we made is pretty substantial," Gualtieri said. "They're actively working them and taking people down. They're out there every day."

The unit, which costs roughly $400,000 annually, has five detectives. Bingham is the supervisor. The detectives focus on locating and arresting fugitives wanted for violent offenses, including armed burglaries, sex offenses, homicides and kidnapping. The unit also targets warrants with lesser charges if the fugitive has a history of violent crime.

Patrol deputies continue to serve misdemeanor warrants.

Tactics for the unit vary. Detectives look up criminals on Facebook and Twitter (the unit recently attended a social media investigations seminar in Orlando). They search public and private databases. They interview suspects' families and friends. They conduct surveillance by foot, bicycle and car.

In one case, the unit got word that a suspect worked at a construction site. A detective, disguised as a worker, later tracked down the fugitive, Bingham said.

Hamilton, 28, was wanted on five counts of armed home invasion robbery.

On Sept. 18, 2012, Hamilton and two others stormed into a Clearwater home on Union Street, zip-tied some of the residents and pistol-whipped one in the head, according to a warrant. They ordered three women to undress and remain inside a bathroom, the warrant states, while they ransacked the house. They left with three large TV's, a shotgun, more than $200 and a game system, court records show.

On April 16, detectives from the warrants unit got a tip that Hamilton was staying with his girlfriend at her Holiday home. They watched the house and followed him as he drove to a nearby convenience store. Bingham later reviewed the surveillance video and confirmed it was Hamilton, records show.

Back at the house, detectives spoke with Hamilton's girlfriend, Shnesta Ashley, who allowed them inside. Joined by Pasco authorities, they arrested Hamilton, who was booked into the Pasco County jail the next day.

Hamilton is now at the Pinellas County Jail for failing to appear in court on the same charges, as well as aggravated battery and robbery, jail records show.

Among the challenges the unit faces: balancing old and new warrants. Detectives typically jump on new ones. "They should," Gualtieri said, "because the person's probably still around."

But they also prioritize older warrants with fresh leads and information.

"Which one do you go ahead and now follow today based upon a hunch?" Bingham said. "You have to be very careful in your decision making. There's very little room for error, if any room at all."

The unit is also using a new tool to keep tabs on older cases: a notification system that sends the supervisor reminders on other warrants that haven't been tracked for some time.

Detectives also purge older warrants with help from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. Forty percent of warrants on file were issued between 1900 and 1999, about 16 of them from 1901 to 1912.

"There's actually quite a bit of work to be done," Bingham said.

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157.

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