Finding a Fleeing Felon

Shortly after I wrote my article on using thermal imagers (TIs) to catch fleeing suspects, my shift experienced a classic example of how the TI makes a difference at the patrol level. At around 0030 hours, Mike and I were dispatched to a burglar alarm at a new car dealership. The alarm company indicated that they had a noise-activated alarm in the service center. I got there shortly after Mike; he took the front of the building, and I took the rear. As I approached the rear, I could hear someone fumbling with the overhead door, as if trying to unlock it.

I wasn't backlit, so I could see inside the windows in the overhead door without announcing my presence. An SUV was parked in front of the door, and a man in blue coveralls, looking kind of like a mechanic, was trying to operate the door. I informed dispatch that we had someone inside the building, and I asked for a canine unit to respond. The man was about 5'7" tall, 150 lbs., and despite the coveralls, seemed out of place (you know, that gut feeling someone is wrong). Part of me was thinking…maybe he actually works here, since he is dressed like a mechanic. As I was mentally calculating the odds that an employee would be here at 0030 (on a holiday weekend, no less) and not know how to get out, the man jumped in the SUV, backed up, and headed to the front overhead doors.

I told Mike that the suspect was headed his way. Apparently he had given up on the rear door, so the man parked the SUV in front of a front door and unsuccessfully attempted to open the overhead. Unfortunately, Mike was backlit. So, as he tried to get into a viewing position, the suspect saw his shadow or movement and bolted for an exit. Mike called out on the radio that the suspect was running toward the back of the building. As he came charging out, I ordered him to the order, as you might imagine, he completely ignored. He promptly fell off the elevated ramp onto the asphalt, again ignoring an order to stop.

The suspect sprinted towards the west, heading for a 10-foot chain link fence, topped with barbed wire. As I charged after him, I was confounded by where this fellow thought he was going. After all, there was no way he could scale that fence before I got to him and yanked him down. So as we sprinted to the fence, and I anticipated snatching him down from the fence and cuffing him, he dove to the base of the fence. He had apparently pulled up a small section that enabled him to get in and would later facilitate an emergency escape. I don't know if I was more stunned by his headfirst dive along asphalt, or the fact that there was a tiny gap there.

By the time I got to him, he was almost halfway on the other side of the fence. He was on a downward slope, pushing and kicking with all his might. Mike quickly arrived and the two of us slowly lost leverage, eventually holding just his left foot and ankle. I managed to get out a radio call asking for more units immediately. We knew we just had to hang on until the cavalry arrived. As the sirens got closer, I heard the unique roar of Crown Victoria engines accelerating towards us.

Just as two backup officers arrived, gravity, pain and fatigue won out: Mike and I finally lost our grip. The suspect slid down into a drainage ditch, crawled slowly up the other side, and limped behind the dense trees surrounding him. The area was packed with evergreen trees, all of which had branches from ground level up. The gap he had slithered under was too small for either Mike or me, so we desperately searched for a way around the fence as other officers streamed into the area to establish a perimeter.

Once canine arrived, the officer and his dog started on a track. It seemed strongest in the tree line, but the dog could not pinpoint an exact location. At first, we thought the suspect may have eluded the perimeter and escaped into the darkness. As the handler expanded the search area into open areas and parking spaces around the trees, he turned to me and said, "No one has been through here."

That got me thinking...maybe this guy was still in the tree line, possibly even up in a tree. So, I went back to the dealership and my cruiser, where I consulted my sergeant and we decided to deploy a thermal imager (our SOP specifies a supervisor's approval to use a TI). I went back into the tree line, scanning up and down the trees. After almost ten minutes of scanning the 25-foot by 90-foot area, I was beginning to think that this guy had won. I wasn't seeing anything on the TI. Just then, I noticed an odd warm spot near the base of a tree. I shined my flashlight on it, and lo and behold, I saw the brown boot that I had desperately clung to for what seemed an eternity! Attached to it was our suspect, pretending that we still had not found him.

Moments later, the man was in handcuffs and being escorted to the wagon for transport. The trees were so dense that we never would have found the guy with flashlights...his dark clothing, the poor lighting, dense foliage and all the shadows from the trees made it the perfect hiding spot for him. The dog had come close, but for some reason lost the track. If it wasn't for the TI, the bad guy would have eventually sulked away.

Instead, not only did we help prevent the theft of the SUV (and all of the mechanics' tools loaded therein), but we also caught the guy who committed the burglary.

So, long story short? The thermal imager helps the good guys win.

And in case you're wondering, the suspect claimed he had just fallen asleep there after eating at a nearby fast food place. He denied being in the dealership, despite wearing the same clothing and being covered in mud from his trip through the drainage ditch. His charges included burglary, two counts of assault on a police officer, fleeing police, resisting arrest and unauthorized use of a vehicle.

The reclaimed property was valued at almost $36,000.