March 31, 2006

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Portland Tribune

Today marks 13,571 days since a Multnomah County judge signed a warrant for the arrest of Mildred Fay Brackhahn.

That warrant, for illegal possession of narcotics, is still in the active files of the county sheriff’s office after more than 37 years. It has never been served.

It is the oldest of nearly 31,000 warrants issued in Multnomah County that remain outstanding. Since being charged, tens of thousands of people have never been found.

More than 30 percent of the warrants are for felony crimes. Five are for murder, five more for aggravated murder, 25 for rape. Another 64 are for first-degree sex abuse.

“There are victims out there,” District Attorney Michael Schrunk said. “The police invested resources. We sat down with police or presented these cases to a grand jury and got indictments. This is frustrating as hell. It makes a mockery of our justice system.”

A yearlong review of the warrants by the sheriff’s office has reduced the number of valid but unserved warrants to 30,920 from 37,047 Ñ still more than exist in the county surrounding San Francisco, which has about 70,000 more people. The 9,511 unserved felony warrants are far more than the backlog in some small states.

“I don’t know what the right number is, but that’s too high, almost absurdly high,” said Kathy Walliker, manager of the sheriff’s enforcement support unit, which handles the records.

For the review, two people Ñ records supervisor Francis Cop and a part-time assistant, Carol Strong Ñ have gone through each record by hand, pulling files from 18 long shelves in the moldy, decrepit Hansen Building in east Portland.

They have found that 2,220 of the people named in the warrants are dead, accounting for an estimated 2,500 warrants.

In one case, a warrant charged Richard B. Slade in 1970 for contempt of court. Slade died June 1, 1972. The warrant fell out of Oregon’s Law Enforcement Data System, which police use to check suspects, then was re-entered May 25, 1981 Ñ nine years after Slade died. A county judge finally recalled the warrant Feb. 18 this year.

In another case, a warrant to arrest Jay W. Shinkle for failing to appear in court on a driving-under-the-influence charge was re-entered into the system the same day his obituary appeared in a local newspaper, 10 years after the warrant was issued.

“Oh, my God,” said Maggie Miller, executive director of the local Citizens Crime Commission. “This has been a problem for years, but that’s just terrible.”

The sheriff’s office has no personnel assigned specifically to serve warrants, and hasn’t since the 1969 warrant for Brackhahn was fresh.

Asked how warrants get served in Multnomah County, Sheriff Bernie Giusto immediately said: “Blind luck.”

“You shouldn’t assume that nobody’s ever tried to serve those warrants,” he said. “But it’s not as simple as going out to an address and saying, ‘We have a warrant for your arrest, can you please come with us.’ ”
Suspects can be hard to find

In the absence of a team of deputies to serve warrants, the sheriff’s office has long relied on police.

Bret Smith, commander of the Portland Police Bureau’s Northeast Precinct, said his officers often get warrants at shift roll calls that they should make attempts to serve during downtime on their shifts.

“We try to serve all the warrants we get,” he said. “Our officers make up to three attempts to get them taken care of. But they go to addresses and find out that the suspect no longer lives there, moved out of state, never lived there or they get referred to another address.”

The severity of a crime listed on a warrant often does not determine its priority, police and sheriff’s officials said.

“You’d like to jump on every warrant for a homicide or another serious crime right away, but it depends on what information you have about making contact with the person who was charged and how fresh the warrant is,” Smith said.

Giusto also said that a shifting calculus of the type of crime, when it was committed, when the warrant was issued and the strength of address information determines priority.

“It also depends on what else you’ve got to get done that day,” he said.

And some of the warrants are less serious than others, Smith said

“Sometimes it’s a warrant issued in another county for someone who lives in Multnomah County, but the crime is digging excessive clams on the beach or something,” he said.

A few of the warrants, police and sheriff’s officials said, go unserved on purpose: Cops don’t want some suspects to know they’ve been charged with anything because police want them to continue breaking laws, giving police and prosecutors bigger, better cases.
Amnesty idea falls flat

Felony warrants are entered into Oregon’s Law Enforcement Data System for 99 years. But misdemeanor warrants, of which Multnomah County has 21,409 still unserved, drop out after two years. When the warrants are re-entered, suspects on parole or probation have their records automatically flagged.

Because the unserved warrants go back to 1969 Ñ joining Brackhahn’s that year is a contempt of court warrant for one Sylvester Steward, who now would be 78 years old Ñ Giusto proposed a general amnesty for people with misdemeanor warrants.

He was rebuffed.

“You can’t just dismiss all those warrants,” Schrunk said. “It sends the wrong message to criminals with warrants still outstanding, even those who wouldn’t be covered by the dismissals. It tells them this isn’t really that important and that it’s really an administrative issue for us. It is not. These people have been charged with crimes.”

There is concern, too, especially with older warrants, that the people charged will get the charges thrown out, citing the lack of a speedy trial.

“This game goes on all the time,” Schrunk said.

But for some, there is little chance they will ever stand trial.

One of the oldest warrants on file charged William Dennis McAlister with larceny when it was issued Jan. 19, 1971. A search of public records databases showed that McAlister, who will turn 54 on April 12, has lived for at least the last decade outside Nevada’s state capital, Carson City.

But his warrant is valid only in Oregon. Even if sheriff’s officials knew how to reach him there, they could not arrest him.

“I can send him a letter, though,” said Cop, the records manager working to update the warrant list. “I can at least tell him we’re looking for him. That might surprise him enough to get in contact with us about resolving this warrant.”

The Portland Tribune called numbers associated with McAlister’s addresses but could not locate him.

The case of Brackhahn herself is even trickier. She might be dead. But Cop can’t tell for sure, so the warrant for her arrest stays active.

A person named Mildred F. Johnson died in Tennessee, age 56, on June 24, 2003, according to the Social Security Death Index. Her birthday, first name and middle initial match Brackhahn’s exactly. That she died in Tennessee is worth noting because a cluster of people with the Brackhahn name also live in Tennessee, public records show.

“I think it’s probably the same person,” Cop said. “It’s likely that it’s the same person.

But there is no Social Security number on the warrant to compare to the one in the index. There is no hint of a maiden name. So there is no way to be sure.

Both Brackhahn’s and McAlister’s warrants were issued in secret, sheriff’s officials said, meaning the suspects never were notified they were wanted.
Lack of resources plays part

Multnomah County officials, however, would rather focus on more recent Ñ and more violent Ñ crime.

If Giusto wants to organize a group of deputies to specifically target people with unserved warrants, he said, “it had better be for some pretty high-end warrants. Otherwise, they’re going out my back door four hours later because I don’t have the jail beds.”

Resources, from still-scarce jail beds to clogged courtrooms to fewer prosecutors, weigh heavily on officials’ minds.

“I want all these warrants served today,” Schrunk said. “But if that happened, it would bring this system to a screeching halt. No room for trials, no jail housing Ñ nothing would get done so we could try to deal with the sheer volume of it all.”

And Miller of the Citizens Crime Commission worries that warrants that have dropped out of the Law Enforcement Data System leave cops at a dangerous disadvantage.

“If a person has a warrant but the officer doesn’t know they do, the officer doesn’t have enough information to do the job,” she said. “The guy may know he has a warrant and may be more likely to act violently toward the officer, and the officer won’t be prepared.”

She said she was glad that the sheriff’s office made updating the warrants a priority, but she was still disturbed.

“Sex offenders and violent felons should be a top priority, absolutely,” she said. “Jail beds are an issue, sure, but we always have room for those people. Always.”

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