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jeans and boots to work. His business card carries a quote from American writer Ernest Hemingway: “There is no hunting like the hunting of a man. And those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” Smith has been Deputy Marshal for almost 20 years. His ﬁrst ever real job was guarding a nuclear power plant. That was the ﬁrst time he carried a gun. Then he worked in a prison with a Special Operations and Response Team. They’re the guys who go in when things go very wrong. “I got tired of being with crooks,” he recalls. “I was 22 years old and I felt these were all grown men but a lot of them were like children. They are whiny, they are needy, and they are manipulative. After a while it got on my nerves. I wanted to get out there and lock people up. The people who prey on other people.” So Smith signed up for the Marshals and today oversees San Antonio’s part in Operation Falcon, a month-long campaign across the United States where, under US Marshal guidance, law enforcement agencies – local cops, sheriffs, SWAT teams, US Marshal Tom National Guardsmen, Smith briefs local armed social security and federal police groups ahead of a round-up investigators, anyone of fugitives (top right). who wants to join in Smith works the phones – combine force to clear in his San Antonio, Texas office (right). the streets. “If you run, you will just get caught later,” says Smith. The day began at 7am in 30 degree Celsius heat, fueled by a donut, a banana, and petrol station coffee. The command post roll call would see 11 Marshal-led teams of six law enforcement ofﬁcers criss-cross San Antonio working their way through a room full of cartons of arrest warrants. By 9.05am, we arrived in a middle class neighbourhood that could be a substitute set for Desperate Housewives. We’re looking for a guy new to Texas, a sex offender who has dodged compulsory registration, described as aged around 48, and a big bastard. He doesn’t disappoint when spotted leaving a house with a young boy, around seven years old. Our team’s vehicles click into gear and race down the street, brake in front of the house, and swarm the front yard. The kid turns out to be his son who sees his father cuffed in a blink. It’s not a happy scene. Up against a car, hands cuffed behind his back, the guy’s leg shakes and twitches. He sweats. He’d been hoping to keep a low proﬁle among his new neighbours. That hasn’t quite worked out. Now everyone’s discovered who
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just moved in, in the worst way possible. A few houses over, a neighbour continues mowing his front yard. A Deputy explains “everything is good, sir”. They talk of gardening and weather. A cop car arrives to take the sex offender away. One down. It’s going to be a long day. Over the years, one particular case that stuck with Smith was the murder of a young deaf child. The kid had been standing on a street corner using sign language to communicate with a friend. A gang member had driven by, stupidly assumed the kid was
Words Matthew Hall Photography Mark Sobhani
It’s a simple plan: US Marshals nab their quarry and let others ask the questions.
“If something kicks in, there’s no round in the chamber,” says US Deputy Marshal Tom Smith bluntly, thumbing at the Colt AR-15 automatic riﬂe stashed behind his car seat. It takes a few seconds to digest what he exactly means: If this stakeout gets ugly and I end up the only one on this side of the line still standing, I should grab his weapon and pull the trigger. Twice. At least, having never ﬁred a gun before, I think that’s what he’s suggesting. All of a sudden, I need to piss. Welcome to San Antonio, Texas, on a beautiful Thursday afternoon. You could visit the Alamo, take a stroll along the popular Riverwalk, eat a taco, or instead take part in a stakeout with local US Marshals hunting a killer. 142 MEN’S STYLE Rewind: In January 2008, Fernando Palomino was allegedly one of three men behind a “massacre” (as one TV station reported) in Chicago. Palamino and two buddies bound four people with duct tape in an apartment and shot them execution style. One victim survived. One killer was caught. Palomino ran and, according to an informant, is now hiding out in San Antonio with a girlfriend in an apartment across the street from where we’re now watching and waiting from Smith’s vehicle. “There’s a thing about being patient,” Smith says as we sit in his Nissan SUV, a four-wheel drive he inherited after it was seized from a drug dealer. “You sit and you watch for a deer to cross the trail and you are very quiet. At some
point that deer will probably cross in front of you. At some point, you do something or you don’t. You make a decision and roll with it.” At that point, Smith’s radio cracks into life with a message from a Deputy Marshal on the other side of the apartment block: “We got movement – someone’s coming out.” The United States Marshals are the President’s cops. First appointed by President George Washington in 1789, these days tasks include prisoner transportation, protecting witnesses and judges and hunting down fugitives. In the past, US Marshals have protected civil rights protestors and abortion clinics and also chased Mexican Maﬁa and white supremacists across state lines. Far from bounty hunters, these guys are government man hunters pursuing wanted men and women. They get the job done and let others ask questions later. Tom Smith is the supervising Deputy Marshal for the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force based in San Antonio, Texas. Aged 45, he has greying hair, enjoys talk radio and wears a black t-shirt,
throwing antagonistic gang signs in his direction, and shot and killed him. “You can’t sleep because this person has done such a harmful thing,” explains Smith. “Each night that they’re out, there is a family hurting somewhere, there is somebody terriﬁed because they think that person is going to revisit them. “You try and outthink them. You try to get into their head, what they’re thinking. When I was younger I came to a crossroads where I could have gone either way. I can still think like a bad guy. That’s helped me.” To join the US Marshals Service, you must be a US citizen and have a university degree or three years law enforcement experience. You then ﬁll out an application form, take an aptitude test, and pass an interview where questions may cover whether you’d rat out a corrupt partner (right answer: probably) or whether you should leave a Witness Security post to save a drowning kid (right answer: the kid drowns). Then you prove your ﬁtness (33 MEN’S STYLE 143
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Cleavus”, a comedic bucked-tooth alter ego somewhere between Flavor Flav and Dennis Rodman. Cousin Cleavus, legend has it, knocked on the door of a fugitive’s house with a pizza delivery. There’s also Chip, who plays The Pogues’ version of And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda on his car stereo when he learns an Australian is on the team, before delivering an impromptu history lesson on the Gallipoli campaign. The talk at Friday’s roll call is about last night’s action. As Marshals busted into a house, a woman unleashed a dog. It was Tasered and crapped itself before collapsing. The woman who let the dog loose was dumped in the dog shit. Justice at work. “At least you don’t have a dead dog,” says Smith. “Legally, the marshal could have shot and killed the dog. But it’s not the dog’s fault. She had puppies. She didn’t know who we were.” If you hung out with Tim Smith everyday then you might think San Antonio is infested with sexual predators and serial killers. “There’s an underbelly in any city. I never feel totally at ease. I never let my guard down.” Late on Friday afternoon, as the day and operation winds down, Smith suggests maybe meeting up with his wife at a local bar and, later, catching a band. A rare treat. “My wife doesn’t ask me when I’m coming home for dinner anymore,” he says. Then the radio crackles into life. It’s Mark “Gator” Rodriguez, who we’d earlier been with as he arrested a woman wanted on robbery charges. It turns out, during the drive back into town for processing she’d ﬂipped, giving up her Bonnie and Clyde accomplice. She’s decided she’s not going down alone and offers up an address where she thinks her ex-accomplice is staying. Smith guns his SUV and we drive into rush hour trafﬁc. Thirty minutes later we’re parked, again, on a quiet street in another “normal” suburban neighbourhood. We’re watching a house with two pick-up trucks in a driveway, three guys working away on one of them, drinking beer, and hanging out as you would do on a Friday evening. After an hour, one guy gets in his truck and drives off. We can’t see the target – the wanted man – but over the radio, it’s agreed with Gator that the two guys working on the truck will know him. “What do you want to do?” Smith asks Gator over the radio. On this hit, there is just Smith, Gator, and his partner Quito. “Burn the location or come back tomorrow?” This is the US Marshals. They hate to wait. They like to get the job done. “Let’s do it,” crackles Gator. Smith pulls on his ﬂak jacket and checks his weapons, and clips a laser pointer onto his Glock pistol. It’s now dark and a good idea to know where your bullets might be going. He takes a swig from a giant bottle of mouthwash, as he does anytime the pressure gauge goes up a notch, and says, “When we pull up, I’m going to throw you the keys to our car. If it gets out of hand, use the vehicle as a weapon.” The signal drops and our two vehicles, the SUV and an unmarked cop car, land quickly and precisely in the front yard of the house. Our SUV pops its lights at the last second. “I want them to know we are cops and not just gangsters making a rip off,” says Smith, smartly.
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That confession, although not the reason why this guy is wanted, is enough to open up the brothers to Federal charges of harbouring a known felon. The cell phones are worked some more. The sister is ﬁnally located. She’s driving around San Antonio with our man. Something clicks inside the ofﬁcers’ heads. There are kids inside. Let’s kick it up a gear. Either he comes here and gives himself up or you’re all going to jail and the kids are going to Child Protective Services. The game just changed. The cards are out on the deck. The brothers are stunned. He’s not their relative, they claim. Why should they pay for his crime? Well, exactly, the conversation continues. Who has brought this on you? He brought this on you. Quito calls in on his radio to request a CPS vehicle. “This is all fucked up,” says one of the brothers. “Only one person has brought this on you,” Smith emphasises. “Get him here and we go away.” The phones are worked a little more frantically. “Where are you?” pleads the older brother to his sister. “I just got the kids back. If I lose them because of this, they’re no longer mine…” The wanted man is now on the phone with the brother who, facing the prospect of losing custody of his children, is sobbing. “I don’t know how they found us… They crept up on us and now there’s ﬂashing lights and US Marshals, man.” A car comes speeding around the corner in the dark and skids, dramatically, into the driveway. It’s our guy and his girlfriend. The sister gets out of the car ﬁrst from the driver’s side. Then the fugitive opens the passenger door and tosses a cigarette ﬂamboyantly into the garden. He’s cuffed by Gator and searched. He says nothing. The girlfriend cries and tries to hug him. He’s led away. The sister rushes out of the house with a phone in her hand, stumbling in the dark, crying. “It’s his momma,” she squeals. “Can she talk to him?” But the cop car door is slammed shut. One of 35,000 fugitives arrested across the US during Operation Falcon in 2009, it’s too late for momma now. “I have put cuffs on guys who have said, ‘I’m just glad it’s over’,” Smith explains. “‘You guys don’t quit. I’m tired of looking over my shoulder.’” “I got one guy who escaped from prison and had been on the run for 17, 18, years. He said, ‘This will be my ﬁrst peaceful sleep since I escaped. Tomorrow, I am going to get my breakfast and not worry about anything…’” ✚ MEN’S STYLE 145
Marshal Smith takes a fugitive who broke the terms of his probation to be processed at the federal courthouse (top left) and walks behind as Sheriff’s deputy “Gator” Benavidez takes a woman into custody (top).
push-ups in a minute, 40 sit-ups in a minute and 1.5 miles in 12 minutes and 18 seconds if you’re a male under 29 years old) , and then wait for an invitation to attend 17½ weeks of training academy. Upon commission, you will be paid an entry level salary of around USD$40,000 a year. “For your ﬁrst few years you keep your mouth shut and your ears open,” advises Smith. “That’s why God gave you two ears and one mouth.” We were driving along one of San Antonio’s freeways in Smith’s seized SUV when the call came over the radio about the Chicago killer. “Triple homicide? Felony or misdemeanor?” asked Smith. This is something of a Marshal in-joke. A homicide is never just a murder. If a victim is an innocent bystander or a fellow law enforcement ofﬁcial, just between us there’s a little more motivation to bring in the killer than if it’s bad guys taking each other out in some gang feud or drug war. Palomino’s San Antonio address has been located. We drive to a nearby suburban park to meet the team that will kick in his door. In the car park, body armour and weapons come out and adrenaline kicks in. If someone were walking their dog at this time they might consider they’d been transported to Baghdad. We take up positions around the apartment block – and wait. The clock ticks over. We realise that, in life, you have no idea what’s 144 MEN’S STYLE
really going on around you. Passers by going about their everyday business really have no knowledge of what’s going on or who lives among them. Right now, they have no idea that armed to the teeth US Marshals are sitting in an indistinguishable car keenly watching an apartment block for a man wanted for triple murder. (On the funny side, during surveillance, Smith has to deal with a woman who calls his cell phone demanding compensation for a fence that has “fallen over” after, she claims, Marshals ran through her backyard in pursuit of a fugitive. She’s obviously drunk and wants $1500 and then “everything will be clear”. He politely tells her he will call her “right back when he’s done surveillance on a fugitive wanted for a triple homicide”. He does.) “We got movement – someone’s coming out.” Speech on the radio is slow and deliberate. A woman matching the description of Palomino’s girlfriend is spotted leaving the apartment block. She’s driving a vehicle that ﬁts our information except it is registered, we learn, to a woman who lives in Laredo, near the Mexican border. Is she really the girlfriend? She’s missing a front licence plate, enough grounds for a uniformed car to make a trafﬁc stop. She will either be eliminated from the investigation – or not. As it turns out, she’s about to have a very bad day. A cop car lights her up and pulls her over. Listening on the radio, according to the cop she gives a name and address that doesn’t check out. She’s using a fake name. The radio crackles, the Marshals decide this is the killer’s girlfriend. They pull her in. A Deputy takes over
THE MARSHAL COULD HAVE SHOT AND KILLED THE DOG. BUT IT’S NOT THE DOG’S FAULT. SHE HAD PUPPIES.
questioning. She confesses she is the woman they’re looking for but says the triple killer is not her man. But why, then, has she given a false name if she’s only wanted on a trafﬁc violation? Her apartment is searched, ﬁlling up with marshals, cops, and sheriffs. People on the run will hide anywhere – so even the refrigerator is checked in case Palomino is in there. It’s clear, though, she’s telling some truth. There’s no sign any male has recently been present. Her bedroom is a mess. Underwear and used panty liners litter the ﬂoor. “Don’t look down,” advises a marshal. No killer but the search does turns up evidence this woman is involved in credit card and social security fraud. You go after one, you get another. “At best, she’s going to have a bad day with us,” says a local cop. Smith’s team is a tough crowd. Robert Aguilar is second-in-charge with a scar that rips across the top of his short black cropped hair. He looks like the type of guy we might otherwise be arresting. His cell phone ring tone blasts a Mexican radio hit. He tells stories about arresting overweight fugitives who can neither run nor be lifted into the back of a cop car. He jokes that when a description comes in for a fat escapee he goes cruising lunchtime buffets. Then there’s Troy Smith, a 20-year veteran detective on loan from San Antonio Police Department. Smith is a giant black guy known to somewhat bizarrely dress as “Cousin
ad to come
For these guys, late-20s, early-30s, seconds earlier gooﬁng about working on a truck, Friday night has just gone wrong. It turns out they’re brothers and own the house. There are young kids inside. Their sister also lives here. She’s another girlfriend of our fugitive. The questions go like this: Where is he? Don’t know. Did he stay here? Yes. What’s his phone number? Don’t know. As darkness creeps in, the tone is ratcheted up. Flashlights in faces, cherry lights lit up, criminal histories checked on computer. We need to know where he is – now. You know why he’s wanted? Some assault at a mall, or something.
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