Saturday, May 1, 2004

It was robbery suspects' lucky day

Simple phone call would have kept them in jail

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Catching bank robbers is usually harder than keeping them in jail.

At least that's what authorities in Cincinnati thought before they met James Black and Leonard Drister, two bank-robbery suspects who were mistakenly freed last week just days after their arrest.

With the two men still on the loose, federal and local law enforcement officials met behind closed doors for more than an hour Friday and found that they still don't agree on what went wrong.

But they did agree on one thing: The system is flawed, and they need to fix it.

They will have their work cut out for them. Court records and interviews with those involved with the case show that the system broke down more than once last week before Black and Drister walked out of the Hamilton County Justice Center.

The two men benefited from a combination of misunderstandings, miscommunication and dumb luck that could have been avoided if federal and local officials had worked more closely.

A phone call from any number of people - at almost any point in the process - is all it would have taken to keep the men in jail.

"This was a peculiar alignment of circumstances," said U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith, who hosted the meeting Friday. "Everyone is genuinely committed to making sure it never happens again."

The trouble started about a week after Black, Drister and a third suspect, Trevor Woods, were arrested April 12 on charges of robbing a PNC Bank branch in Springfield Township.

Federal prosecutors called county prosecutors April 20 to notify them that they intended to take the case to a federal grand jury.

Such calls are common, and County Prosecutor Mike Allen agreed to hand the case over.

But everyone involved knew there was an important catch: The county must not drop its charges until federal prosecutors have filed theirs. Otherwise, there is no arrest warrant, and the jail can't keep a suspect locked up.

"If they don't have a warrant, we can't hold them," jail spokesman Steve Barnett said.

The next day, April 21, Assistant County Prosecutor Rick Gibson said he received a voice-mail message about 10:30 a.m. from Assistant U.S. Attorney Wende Cross, who told him the federal grand jury had indicted all three suspects.

Cross declined comment, but Gibson said her message led him to call the grand jury's office that afternoon to dismiss the local charges.

"The feds have indicted them," Gibson told the assistant prosecutor in charge of the jury.

But that wasn't entirely true. Gibson didn't know it, but federal prosecutors didn't turn the indictment over to Magistrate Timothy Hogan until hours after Cross's phone call, meaning that the federal charges were not yet entered into the court record.

The paperwork finally got to Hogan at 3:42 p.m., records show. But just one minute later, at 3:43 p.m., county prosecutors notified the jail that local charges had been dropped, setting in motion the process of releasing the suspects.

Woods was being held on out-of-state charges, so he remained locked up. Black and Drister, however, were led from their cells to the jail's records unit, where their records were checked three separate times to ensure that they had no pending charges.

Because the federal indictment had not yet been processed, the jail found nothing.

Though they probably didn't know it, Black and Drister were now in a race for their freedom. If federal arrest warrants arrived before the jail finished its release process, they'd be going back to their cells.

If the warrants didn't arrive, they'd walk out the door.

Meanwhile, federal officials continued to process their indictment as if it was any other case. Hogan's office issued federal arrest warrants at 4:24 p.m. and turned them over to the FBI by 5 p.m. - still enough time to stop the release of Black and Drister.

At that point, federal officials say, it became the FBI's job to get the information to the jail. The FBI declined comment, but jail officials say they never received the warrants.

Black and Drister were among 145 inmates "processed out" of the Justice Center that day, and jail employees had no reason to suspect an arrest warrant had been issued just a few blocks away at the federal courthouse.

Corrections officers took the two men to the property room and let them change into their street clothes. Then they walked them to the front door and let them go.

"We did everything we were supposed to do," Barnett said. "But we're still not happy about it."

Cross realized that there was a problem the next morning, when the three men were supposed to be arraigned on federal charges. A deputy U.S. marshal told her that only one suspect, Woods, was still in custody.

Gibson said Cross called him a short time later and said the indictments were returned late the day before because federal prosecutors had trouble finding a judge. Judge Beckwith disputed that, and prosecutors now say that was not a problem.

"Nobody is going to play the blame game," said Fred Alverson, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Greg Lockhart, Cross' boss. "Right now, our No. 1 focus is getting these two guys arrested and behind bars."

They also want to make sure they don't repeat the mistakes that put Black and Drister back on the street.

County prosecutors told Beckwith Friday that they now will indict all suspects on state charges, regardless of what federal officials say they are going to do. And Hogan said he will begin sending e-mails or faxes to jails holding federal suspects, ensuring that prisoners remain in custody whether or not the arrest warrant is delivered on time.

"There's not going to be any informality in this process any longer," Beckwith said.


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