Rapists, killers and thieves are among the tens of thousands of open felony warrants that have been piling up in Maricopa County for the past two decades. There are nearly 200 outstanding warrants for accused murderers and another 1,200 for those suspected of committing sex crimes, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
While most of the 42,000 warrants were issued for minor court and probation violations, the high number of violent felony fugitives has prompted calls by political leaders to fix a problem in which every law enforcement agency throughout the county shares part of the blame.
Officials with numerous Valley police agencies said they simply don't have the resources to track down the thousands of felony fugitives running free.
The issue has ignited a fierce political debate regarding who is to blame and what is to be done. Recently, Gov. Janet Napolitano sparked a political firestorm when she took more then $1 million from funds Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio had been using for illegal immigration enforcement to instead pay for a new statewide task force aimed at clearing warrants.
The problem has been growing for years - and in the past few months has been written about in local newspapers - but a spokeswoman for Napolitano said the governor just recently learned about the problem and decided to act on it.
"Why now? Well I would say why not," said Jeanine L'Ecuyer.
The decision to divert the money has angered Arpaio, who says he needs it for illegal immigration enforcement.
Some politicians, including Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, say the growing warrant problem is Arpaio's fault, that he has spent time and manpower going after illegal immigrants when he should be serving felony warrants. When Arpaio says some politicians have created "sanctuary cities" for undocumented immigrants, they counter he has created a "sanctuary county" for felons.
But the sheriff is not legally required to serve the warrants. And some law enforcement officials, such as David Gonzales, U.S. marshal in Phoenix, argue it's every police agency's responsibility to hunt down fugitives. Everyone shares in the blame, he said.
"What's happening is a lot of fugitives are just hard to find and may not even be in the county or the state," Gonzales said last week.
In most cases, officials said, the warrants were issued by a judge following a police investigation. But when police move to arrest the suspects, they can't find them. In some cases involving suspected killers, the suspect may have appeared in court on a lesser crime and was only later charged with murder, said J.W. Brown, a spokeswoman for Maricopa County Superior Court. By that time, she said, they may have already taken off.
Sheriff's office spokesman Capt. Paul Chagolla said warrants often contain bad information, such as a false name or address. That makes them difficult to serve.
When the statewide task force ramps up, it will find some of these warrants are 20 years old, according to the sheriff's office. Under state law, the sheriff's office is required to store all warrants issued in the county. Its records show more than 600 outstanding warrants are more than two decades old and nearly 1,200 were issued between 15 and 20 years ago.
Pennie Gillette-Stroud, DPS' chief of criminal investigations, said the task force's top priority will be finding the most violent fugitives."We're going to get the worst of the worst," she said. By going after these felons, she said they also expect to net human smugglers as well as illegal immigrants.