Portage County succeeds in catching criminals on ‘Most Wanted Fugitives List’


Portage County Sheriff’s Department Website of the 10 criminals listed on the Sept. 24, 2014 Portage County Most Wanted Fugitives list. One, Ashley Marie Henson, was apprehended at the beginning of October. 

Christina Bucciere

The Portage County Sheriff’s Department succeeded in catching 70 percent of fugitives registered with its Most Wanted Fugitives program during the past nine months.

Every two to three weeks, Detective Susan Hillegas of the Sheriff’s Department gathers 10 names of criminals with outstanding warrants to post on Portage County’s website.

Former Portage County Sheriff Duane Kaley’s administration started the Most Wanted Fugitives program about eight years ago.

“It’s not a program we have to do, it’s not state mandated that we have to do it, but we’ve seen how it can be successful with people calling in with tips, and sometimes the criminals will actually see themselves on the list, realize they have a warrant, and go to the courthouse themselves,” Hillegas said.

Because the program is not required for the county to have, Hillegas said she doesn’t keep track of or save the lists she creates when she sends them to the county’s IT department to be posted.

The IT department gathered what it could find. Nine lists, one list each month from January through September this year, were compared to department records showing who was captured and who still has outstanding warrants.

Of the 90 criminals named, 63 were apprehended, creating a 70 percent average apprehension rate for the lists provided.

Data comes from nine Most Wanted Fugitives lists provided by the Portage County IT Department and Portage County Warrants Department.

There are no specific criteria a criminal must meet to be considered a most-wanted fugitive. Hillegas’ only personal criterion is a felony status, but the type of felony committed doesn’t matter, she said.

Hillegas said she only includes criminals with a felony charge because “those are a priority,” but only openly, not secretly, indicted criminals can appear on the list.

“By nature, secret indictments are pretty serious cases,” said David Doak, Portage County sheriff. “Those are people that if the detectives and the warrants folks are out there looking for them, they don’t want them to know they have warrants in hand.”

The criminals who do appear on the list may meet different criteria, typically failing to appear in court, violating probation or having an outstanding arrest warrant, Doak said.

“These people may be known to be on the run or uncooperative or may have missed a court date, or they know their warrant’s out there and don’t want to deal with the consequences,” Hillegas said.

The majority of criminals on the top 10 list commit crimes involving stolen property or drugs, particularly heroin. Hillegas said she tries to only include criminals whose warrants were issued in Portage County and with whom local residents will be more familiar, so they can call in with tips.

Many of the criminals listed are repeat offenders, Hillegas said.

Some criminals say, “It was cool to be No. 1 on the top 10 list,” Hillegas said, but she insists the criminals are ranked in no particular order.

Hillegas said she decides how long to keep the criminals on the top 10 list as she updates it each month.

She said she likes to filter in the newest warrants every few weeks because those criminals are usually still in the area. Then, every few weeks she filters in and out criminals whom the department has had no success finding to see if it has received new tips.

Posted on each Most Wanted Fugitives list is information to contact Doak regarding details of the fugitives’ whereabouts. Doak said he receives about two to three tips per month by phone or email.

Hillegas said she receives at least four tips per top 10 list, mostly through emails.

“We get calls from family members a lot,” Hillegas said. “One of the reasons a lot of people like to tell is because of heroin. As you notice on the top 10, a lot of them are out on drug possession charges, and this heroin is so dangerous.”

But Hillegas said while there may be a correlation between fugitives who appear on the top 10 list and those that are caught, it’s difficult to say whether there is a causal relationship.

“Just because you’re on the top 10 list doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed we will catch them,” Hillegas said. “It seems to help because we do get helpful tips from people about where the criminals are, but it’s not a guarantee. It’s just something we do to get all the help we can.”

Doak and Hillegas also receive help finding the fugitives from local citizens who post the lists in their communities, trailer parks and other public areas, as well as from other departments like the Kent Police Department, Hillegas said.

Jim Prusha, City of Kent Police administrative lieutenant, said the lists are posted around the police department so that officers know whose faces they should look for while patrolling.

“Sometimes, when officers are not busy with other things, they try to serve these warrants and other warrants,” Prusha said. “Usually people with warrants are located by chance, but we also actively seek people, especially for the more severe offenses.”

Doak said most county sheriffs’ departments do choose to produce some variation of the most wanted fugitives program. For example, the Summit County Sheriff’s Department posts a Most Wanted Sex Offenders list, and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department has its own Valley Task Force website to help locate most wanted criminals.

At one point, Doak said he thought about discontinuing the Most Wanted Fugitives program after receiving a call from an upset local whose deceased father’s driver license photo was included on the list.

“Sometimes we do get those calls,” Doak said. “But those are not common, and this program does more good than harm. The people of Portage County help us out a lot.”

Contact Christina Bucciere at [email protected].