Citing an ongoing Tribune investigation, Illinois Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on Monday urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to fix breakdowns in America's criminal justice system that allow growing numbers of criminal suspects to flee the country each year and evade trial for murder, rape and other serious felonies.
Durbin added that he plans to convene a meeting in Chicago with Justice Department officials as well as leaders of the Cook County state's attorney's office, Chicago police and Cook County sheriff's office, to address what he called "an unacceptable lack of enforcement" that has crippled efforts to bring back fugitives who fled across the U.S. border.
"Our law enforcement agencies must ensure that dangerous fugitives are brought to justice in Illinois and that other suspects clearly understand that they cannot flee our borders without being caught," Durbin wrote in a letter to Holder. "I am ready to use all available resources to facilitate your action plan."
Justice officials said they were reviewing the letter but declined to comment further.
Separately on Monday, a leading Illinois Republican lawmaker said he would move to amend the Illinois criminal statute that protects close family members from prosecution for aiding or harboring a fugitive, a loophole highlighted by the Tribune articles.
Published last week, the Tribune's four-part "Fugitives From Justice" investigation showed how easily and often felony suspects flee to Mexico, India, South Korea and other countries.
Although authorities often quickly pin down the fugitives' locations abroad, learning the towns and even exact addresses where they fled, many of them remain free, making a mockery of the law and leaving victims' families shattered and communities distrustful of police.
In an examination of more than 200 international fugitive cases from northern Illinois, the Tribune found an astonishing lack of coordination and follow-through among U.S. Justice Department officials, county prosecutors and local police on the U.S. side of the border; a failure by these agencies to keep track of their mounting caseloads; inexplicable years-long delays and outright errors.
During a recent 18-day trip through central Mexico, Tribune reporters searched for nine fugitives and located eight of them — five accused of homicide, two of sexually abusing children and the other of shooting and wounding a man.
All eight fled the U.S. and went right to their hometowns, the Tribune found. They used their real names to register cars or get marriage licenses and birth certificates. In an on-camera interview, fugitive Abraham Caudel said he had never made any effort to conceal his whereabouts from U.S. or Mexican police.
"They've never looked for me," said Caudel, who told the Tribune he was innocent of pending charges that he sexually assaulted a child.
Citing the Tribune series, Durbin wrote to Holder that "reports indicate that the lack of apprehension of fugitives may stem partially from the lack of coordination and information-sharing between local, federal and international law enforcement agencies."
Representatives for the Cook and Will County state's attorney's offices said they welcomed Durbin's initiative and would participate in any summit aimed at improving the apprehension of border-crossing fugitives. Representatives for the Chicago police and Cook County sheriff's office could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.
Glenn Fine, who retired this year after serving for more than 10 years as the Justice Department's inspector general, said in an interview that the Tribune series highlighted "significant problems of communication and coordination" among state, local and federal government agencies. Fine produced a 2009 report exposing weaknesses in America's efforts to apprehend international fugitives.
"Increasingly crime is international and people cross borders to commit crimes and evade detention and detection — and with that, the international communication and the way the communication gets filtered through the Justice Department and to the state and local levels is of critical importance," said Fine, now a Washington attorney in private practice.
The solution isn't necessarily increased funding or manpower, Fine added, but improved coordination and oversight at the highest levels of government.
"There needs to be sustained management attention to these issues," he said.
In Springfield, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, said he would work with law enforcement groups, the judiciary and others to revise the Illinois law that protects close family members from prosecution for harboring fugitives.
In a case detailed by the Tribune, Muaz Haffar, then 21, fled to Syria after being charged in the fatal beating of a University of Illinois at Chicago student, Tombol Malik, in July 2005. Law enforcement sources said Haffar's father paid for Haffar's airline ticket out of the country, and one of Haffar's older brothers accompanied him on at least one leg of his journey out of Chicago, the Tribune investigation found.
Haffar's relatives were not charged with any wrongdoing, and Haffar remains at large.
"It makes my blood boil to see that people are able to assist fleeing felons," Dillard told the Tribune. "That should definitely be against the law."