Tracking down suspects wanted for murder in Harris County

Tens of thousands of arrest warrants are filed every year in Harris County involving crimes ranging from misdemeanors to murders. Along with rising crime rates and a backlogged court system, local and federal investigators tell KPRC 2 Investigates they’re seeing an increase in warrants as well.

“We’ve seen over the last four years a warrant explosion in Harris County,” said Capt. Max Turner, with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “We went over 6,000 warrants in the last two months. We had not seen that before.”

According to Turner, HCSO went from receiving an average of 4,085 warrants a month in 2018 to seeing an average of 5,476 warrants a month in 2021. Local officials are not the only ones seeing an increase in warrants, the US Marshals Service for the southern district of Texas, which runs from the Houston area to Brownsville, is seeing an increase as well. Officials with the Marshals Service tell KPRC 2 the number of new warrants coming into their office each week has increased about 40-percent.

“You could say it’s because of COVID, but I just think we’ve seen an overall backlog with a lot of cases,” said US Marshal T. Michael O’Connor. “Criminals don’t stop.”

A lot of warrants are cleared every year when patrol officers run license plates and driver’s licenses during traffic stops. HCSO data shows 36,457 warrants were executed in 2018, 40,866 were executed in 2019 and 38,942 in 2020. Through the end of April 2021, HCSO data shows 17,885 warrants executed.

“A warrant never goes away, a warrant is forever,” said Turner.

Then there are those suspects that are not so easy to track down. KPRC 2 Investigates analyzed a database from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office showing 524 open murder warrants. These are cases where evidence was collected, witnesses interviewed and charges filed, but the suspect was never arrested.

More than half of the warrants in the database KPRC 2 examined were more than 20 years old. A little over 36% of the warrants pre-date electronic record keeping in the county. The oldest murder warrant in the database was filed in 1973. Only 15% involve murder cases filed in the last 5 years.

“We’re chasing these guys, they kind of know the tricks of the trade,” said Houston police officer Chris Helton, who is also a member of the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force.

Helton said some of the harder-track suspects are ones who’ve fled the country. HPD is looking for 56 murder suspects who’ve fled to Mexico involving cases dating back to 2005.

“We might not have any pictures, ID, you know, good information, they might be going by a different name,” said Helton.

Helton said another hurdle is that Mexican authorities have to first review the criminal case filed locally against one of its citizens and agree there is enough evidence to warrant the charge, before agreeing to help investigators arrest the person. Helton said that process can take more than a year.

“And that’s just to get the green light to go over to Mexico and hope that the information that you got is still good,” said Helton.

The US Marshals Service remains the go-to agency for tracking down wanted criminals. In the southern district of Texas, the Marshals formed the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force, which involves investigators from across our region.

“We’ll go anywhere, I just recently sent some to Spain,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor said Marshals have something local agencies don’t, time. It can take weeks, months, or years to track down a single fugitive.

“Most of these departments and offices do not have funds for overtime, they’re limited,” said O’Connor. “That’s where we come in. The old saying, ‘you can ride but you can’t hide,’ is true to form for the Marshals Service.”

KPRC 2 rode with the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force recently.

In a single morning member of the task force arrested a man wanted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon out of Pasadena and another man wanted on 2020 charges of murder and attempted murder out of St. Louis. Both cases highlighted the time-consuming nature of this work.

Both took weeks of surveillance to find where the person was living, make a positive identification and learn the person’s comings and goings. In the case of the fugitive from St. Louis, task force members spent two weeks on surveillance to make sure they had the right person.

“Every time he would come out he’d cover his face up, because he has distinctive tattoos,” said task force officer Roger Williamson.

As for the current list of wanted murder suspects, investigators say all it takes is one tip. Investigators reminded us of the 2017 capture of William Joseph Greer, who was accused of killing his girlfriend in 2006. Greer was on the run for 11 years before Marshals and Harris County Sheriff’s deputies got a tip he was hiding in Mexico. Greer remains in the Harris County jail awaiting trial.

“We’re just waiting for that one piece of information that fits in the puzzle, that completes it so we can get that person in custody,” said Turner.

Information is a key factor in prioritizing warrants for violent offenders, the Marshals and all the members of the Gulf Coast Gulf Violent Offenders Task Force said it does not matter how long someone has been on the run, they will work the case as long as there is information to follow.

You can find the US Marshal’s current list of the 15 most wanted fugitives here.

If you have a tip about any wanted suspect, please call Crimestoppers at (713) 222-TIPS.