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Los Angeles; FBI Gets Creative in Efforts to Catch Fugitives; from billboards to movie trailers, the bureau — stretched thin and with added duties fighting terrorism — is open to new ideas.

Date: December 28, 2002

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The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Dec 28, 2002

 

As an L.A. epiphany should, the idea came to FBI agent Eric Ives as he drove on a freeway beaded with traffic.

 

The challenge: How to catch the remaining fugitives linked to a cargo theft ring that the FBI had targeted for five years? The wanted men were truck drivers or had connections to truck drivers. They allegedly stole from trucks or cargo containers.

 

"You have to ask yourself, 'Who's your target audience? And how do you reach it?' " Ives said. The answer came to him on the Long Beach Freeway, where trucks rumble to Los Angeles Harbor.

 

His audience: other truck drivers.

 

Ives, who has a degree in marketing, asked FBI officials if he could rent a billboard in the City of Commerce overlooking the freeway and a rail yard near the Atlantic Boulevard exit. On Dec. 5, pictures of fugitives Eliseo Placentia Medina, 33; Billy Ray Davenport, 49; and Rosendo Avina-Gallegos, 49 were plastered over the sign. Eight days later, Davenport was arrested at Union Station after a driver saw the billboard and called in a tip.

 

"I thought it would be the media coverage of the billboard that would catch these guys," Ives said. "But the actual billboard led to the [first] tip. I was ecstatic."

 

Ives' $5,000 gambit was among the creative steps some of the bureau's agents are increasingly trying when trails grow cold and staff is stretched too thin, especially with the FBI's new responsibilities for counterterrorism.

 

Creative, even quirky, ideas for spreading the word about fugitives are welcome by the bureau. For instance, coming soon to a theater near you: movie trailers featuring the FBI's most wanted.

 

Ron Chavarro, a supervisory special agent in the nation's capital, was the first to try movie ads. Two years ago, he and other members of a fugitive task force were looking for gang members suspected of killings in the Washington area. Chavarro pitched the idea of featuring their mug shots as moviegoers waited for the main attraction.

 

"If you've got a gang member who's wanted, and you know specific theaters where other gang members may be going, including rival gang members, you're more likely to reach people who know where your fugitives are," Chavarro said.

 

The first weekend that the movie ads ran, two murder suspects were arrested, said Laura Bosley, an FBI spokeswoman.

 

Similar ads are expected to begin appearing in Los Angeles next year.

 

Scott Garriola, a special agent in a fugitive task force that includes LAPD and sheriff's detectives, has high hopes.

 

"With fugitives, you have to be creative. You have to rely on unusual methods, because criminals are becoming more educated on the ways that we catch them," he said.

 

Among the fugitives he plans to profile before movies:

 

Jose Luis Saenz, now 27, who police say killed two unarmed gang rivals in Boyle Heights in 1998. Fearing that his girlfriend (the mother of his child) was going to turn him in, he raped and killed her, authorities say.

 

"Saenz is charged in three killings. He's good for three times that many," Garriola said. "That guy is going to kill again."

 

Garriola said he also plans to present moviegoers with a profile of Eduardo Santana, 51, who had reportedly become obsessed with 39- year-old Guiselle Rojas.

 

In June, police say, Santana ambushed her outside her Pasadena- area home and stabbed her more than 50 times.

 

The problem with theater ads and billboards is that they can be pricey, said Rex Tomb, who is in charge of the FBI's Fugitive Publicity Unit. There has to be a reasonable expectation of results, he said.

 

Many of the more novel ideas go through Tomb, and they don't always come from agents.

 

A few have been clever, if impractical. For instance, one vendor proposed programming fugitive mugs into video arcade machines, so players would glimpse them before popping in their quarters.

 

Someone else pitched the idea of passing out T-shirts with fugitives' pictures. A good idea, Tomb said, except that as soon as the fugitive was captured, you'd be left with a product you couldn't return.

 

The pinnacle of fugitive publicity is still the TV show "America's Most Wanted," Tomb and other agents said. But only so many cases can be publicized on the program.

 

Meanwhile, Ives' billboard still looms over the freeway. Two of the mugs now bear stripes that read, "Captured." Six days after Davenport was caught, Medina was arrested in South L.A., although not as a result of the billboard. The third fugitive remains at large.

 

"I hope he thinks, 'I'm next,' " Ives said

 

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