Fugitives lured with fake giveaway

Springfield, Mo., police sent bogus letters that said fugitives were owed money or property.
Monday, December 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:06 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — More than 100 people wanted for crimes ranging from passing bad checks to assault have been nabbed in an elaborate police sting that fooled suspects into thinking they were receiving unclaimed money.

Springfield police, under the guise of Jefferson City-based Missouri Settlement Retrieval Corp., sent out 1,200 certified letters to people wanted on outstanding warrants and said they were eligible for “unclaimed money or property to which you may be entitled.” If they didn’t respond, the letter said, they could forfeit the claims.

Police set up a fake Web site for fictitious Southwest Claims Office Inc. and had employees answer the phones and make appointments.

Those appointments were scheduled for Saturday at a Springfield hotel, where 50 police officers waited. A banner at the hotel read: “Southwest Claims Welcomes ‘People Who Deserve It.’”

Police Chief Lynn Rowe said the department spent $5,000 on the operation, which he said was a “cost-effective” way to resolve the more than 33,000 outstanding warrants held by city and county law enforcement.

Officers also said they hoped the sting, which resulted in 118 arrests and the resolution of 162 warrants, would spur others to come in and resolve their warrants.

“Our goal is not to arrest everybody we can. Our goal is to get the warrant adjudicated,” said police Maj. Steve Ijames. “The system has not worked if that suspect is not sitting in front of a judge.”

But many of those arrested and their friends and family were angry over the sting. Some said they didn’t know they were wanted and others said they had already planned on using the money police promised them for the holidays.

“I think it’s complete deception on the government’s part,” said James Jones, 48, who came to the jail to bail out his wife’s friend. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Added Wes McKee, 24, whose pregnant wife, Nikohl, was among those arrested: “We’re never going to see that money. So basically instead of helping out the community, they’re just (fooling around with) us.”

Bryon Holman, a local bondsman whose business got about 30 of the people arrested in the sting, took away a different message.

“If you’ve got to go to court, go to court,” Holman said.

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