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L.A. Cops Tap GPS to Nab Drive-By Killers

By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2007-12-19 Print this article Print

Parolee wearing high-tech ankle bracelet leads cops to fatal drive-by shooters

Dick Tracy, eat your heart out!

If ever there were a classic case for the famous lantern-jawed cartoon detective's "Crimestoppers Textbook," this is it. On December 10, an alert Los Angeles Police Sgt. Ruby Malachi noticed a radio call that went out reporting a drive-by shooting at Venice Boulevard and Wilton Place, a neighborhood known for gang activity.

On a hunch, Malachi, a watch commander in the LAPD's Realtime Analysis and Critical Response (RACR) division, went to her computer and logged on to the Web site of VeriTracks, an Internet-based tracking application for corrections and law enforcement. She put in the address of the shooting and the approximate time of the 911 call that reported the incident.

Right away she got a hit— the screen displayed a green dot at the location of the shooting just three minutes prior to the 911 call that reported the incident. Malachi knew the dot indicated that John Garcia, age 20, an MS-13 gang member, one of 20 high-risk gang members paroled only a month earlier on the condition that they must wear a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet, had been at the shooting.

"Whenever there is a shooting, we look to see if any of our gang members are in the area," explains Lt. Sean Malinowski of RACR. Under a program initiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California has begun paroling high-risk gang members on the condition that they wear the tracking devices. Since 2005, the state already has released 500 sex offenders who wear the high-tech anklets as a condition of their parole.

Malachi immediately ordered air support, and within three minutes a police helicopter was tracking the gang member's GPS trail to a home in Compton, where police teams on the ground moved in and arrested seven suspects. "We can't see the vehicle, but by the rate of speed we can tell that the person being tracked is riding in one. We tracked this guy southbound on the 110 to Compton, and pinpointed his location to one or two houses. We've been very happy with the accuracy of the system."

Six of the seven gang members, included the one with the ankle bracelet, were charged in the drive-by shooting death of a 20-year-old woman. The driver and the shooter were charged with homicide; the paroled gang member with the tracking device was charged with conspiracy to commit homicide, Malinowski said.

LAPD, which has accelerated its efforts to stem the burgeoning problem of violent crimes by gang members, is bullish on the new technology because it's one more weapon that can be used to disrupt their criminal activities. "It's likely that this suspect didn't advise his friends that he had this thing on his ankle," Malinowski says. "I'd imagine right now that he's not being held in too much esteem among his fellow gang members as a result. From now on, I think gang members are going to be suspicious of each other, and they'll be wondering who's wearing a device, who's going to be bringing the police onto them."

Both the VeriTracks system and the ankle device, called a BluTag, are from a company called Satellite Tracking of People LLC in Houston. The BluTag is a one-piece unit that resembles a two-headed portable hairdryer. It contains both a receiver and a transmitter, and uses an active GPS system capable of generating immediate notifications based on realtime data. When officers log on to the VeriTracks system, they use its mapping feature to analyze an offenders' "tracks" for patterns and zone violations. They also can "ping" an offender to get his or her location. In the event the GPS signal is unavailable, the ankle unit connects to VeriTracks using cellular towers.

The VeriTracks system has an automated crime scene correlation feature that instantly compares offender monitoring data with information about crimes reported. When data from the two sources intersect, VeriTracks generates a "crime hit" report that is e-mailed to officers using the system. More often, though, an alert cop will check the whereabouts of a parolee in connection with a particular crime.

For example, last July an armed robber who committed five robberies on the street and in parking lots in the city of San Bernardino was apprehended after a parole agent and a police officer checked and discovered his online "tracks" went to all five robbery locations. Within hours, police arrested the culprit, sex offender-parolee Armando Villareal Hernandez, 37, again using his GPS tracker to locate him.

Of course, paroled gang members who are outfitted with the devices could conceivably remove them by cutting them off, but that would defeat the purpose of their accepting them as a condition of being freed in the first place. That's because removing the anklet requires cutting an embedded fiber-optic line in the device's strap, which automatically triggers an e-mail message as well as an automated telephone message to the State Department of Corrections agent assigned to that parolee. "The agent then calls us and we send a police unit to find the parolee, who will most likely not be eligible for parole again, or at least not for a long time," Malinowski says.

Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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