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Chicago police take aim at even minor fugitives when they’re on ‘heat list’

Sgt. Michael Nallen left Lt. Robert Cesario right Chicago Police Department's Fugitive ApprehensiSectiinvestigate leads whereabouts fugitive South Side. | Andrew

Sgt. Michael Nallen, left, and Lt. Robert Cesario, right, of the Chicago Police Department's Fugitive Apprehension Section investigate leads on the whereabouts of a fugitive on the South Side. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:03AM

B randon Milton’s crime might have been minor compared with the hundreds of murders and shootings in Chicago every year.

But when he was arrested in June for reckless conduct and then didn’t show up for a court hearing, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest, and the hunt was on.

The Chicago Police Department’s Fugitive Apprehension Section began looking for the 19-year-old reputed gang member Oct. 7. Three times, officers visited his mother’s home on the Far South Side, but no luck.

Then, on Oct. 15, officers cruised through the West Englewood neighborhood where he was known to hang out. They spotted him in the 2100 block of West 63rd, seven blocks from where he’d been busted in June for trying to start a street fight. Milton pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

With the number of murders in Chicago so far this year already surpassing the total for all of 2011, why would the police make it a priority to track down a teenager wanted for only a misdemeanor?

It was because Milton was on the police department’s “heat list” — part of a new anti-violence strategy pushed by Supt. Garry McCarthy to arrest fugitives who have been linked to people who have been killed.

The effort springs from a Yale University sociologist’s finding that these “hot people” are far more likely, as a result of those social ties, to become a victim or perpetrator of deadly violence themselves.

“They were stopped with a murder victim, or arrested with a murder victim — or victims — in the past two years,” said Joseph Salemme, commander of the fugitive unit. “Or they were two degrees of separation away from the victim or victims.”

Citywide, Chicago’s murder rate is 14.5 per 100,000. But it jumps to 44.5 per 100,000 in the Harrison District on the West Side, one of the city’s highest-crime districts. And for “hot people” in that district, the murder rate jumps to 1,865 per 100,000, according to the police department.

Each person on the heat list is given a number — a heat index — rating how likely it’s deemed that person will be involved in a murder.

Starting this past summer, McCarthy doubled the number of officers in the fugitive unit — in part to focus on these hot people.

So far, about 165 people with arrest warrants across the city have been placed on the heat list.

Since August, when the push began, the fugitive-hunters have tracked down 39 people on the list, including one suspected killer.

The idea behind the initiative is to get hot people off the street whether they are wanted for a serious crime, like murder, or the most minor offenses, like failing to show up in court for trespassing.

The police want to interview them to see whether they know anything about the murder that put them on the heat list, Salemme said.

But they also want to warn them that, based on their association with these victims, statistics show they are far more likely to become involved in a shooting than someone not on the list, he said.

“Hopefully, we get them to realize that it’s time to make some drastic changes in their lifestyle,” Salemme said, adding that, so far, the reaction seems to be good. “They’re paying attention.”

Milton’s mother said she didn’t know her teenage son was identified as a “hot person.”

“It’s scary to think there’s a list of kids who are possible targets,” Gidget Milton said.

She said he might have been placed on the list because a friend of his had been killed about a year ago after robbing a barbershop in the 3100 block of West 63rd.

She said the police were very aggressive in hunting down her son.

“They were so determined, I thought they wanted him for something more serious — not a misdemeanor,” his mother said.

This year, the level of urgency has been raised for the police to do all they can to stanch the bloodshed. It’s why McCarthy latched onto the hot-people research findings of Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist and expert on Chicago gangs who teaches at Yale. McCarthy has called Papachristos’ work “groundbreaking” and predicted that going after those on the heat list “will make a difference.”

“The superintendent felt catching bad buys who are wanted — in a timely fashion — is an important part of our violence-reduction strategy,” Salemme said.

In June, the department added 35 officers to the fugitive unit, doubling the number of officers there. It was a sought-after post. The officers were selected from about 500 applicants, only 120 of whom got interviews.

On a warm, drizzly night late last month, two of the fugitive unit’s new members — veteran Officers Alex Wolinski and Walenty Byk — went out in their unmarked cruiser in search of someone wanted for murder and another suspect wanted for robbery. They started at the South Side home of the robbery suspect’s girlfriend, then visited his mother, another girlfriend’s mother and, finally, the other girlfriend.

“Girlfriend and momma — our offenders usually don’t stray too far from either of them,” said Sgt. Mike Nallen, who was riding with Lt. Robert Cesario on the same manhunt that night.

They knocked on the doors of four homes and spent much of the night cruising the streets in search of their target but didn’t find him.

They were always on guard: at one apartment building, Cesario and Nallen watched the gangway while the other officers went inside. In the dark, they came across two men sitting under a stairway. Tensions were high for a moment until they realized the men were simply playing a game of dominoes in the dim light.

Their next stop was the home of a murder suspect’s girlfriend. At first, her family wouldn’t talk, but Byk and Wolinski eventually got them to admit the target might be out of state.

Not having much luck that night, the officers headed back to the Harrison District station, where the fugitive unit is based. They wanted to do more homework before resuming the hunt.

“It’s time-consuming at times,” Cesario said. “You can do eight, 10 addresses before you find your target.”

Wolinski said he once searched 35 addresses before finding a guy wanted on gun and drug charges.

“Nobody feels better than when you find the guy you’re hunting,” he said. “You look in every crevice — until you find them.”

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