The target: A convicted felon and registered sex offender from Selah who’s charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm, based on a Yakima police investigation that suggests he shot himself in the leg.
The mission: Locate and apprehend.
An arrest warrant was issued earlier this month for that Selah man, and the job fell to the Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force, a multi-agency unit based in Yakima.
During a recent shift, task force members paid a visit to the home of the man’s mother, hoping to find him. She was emphatic that he’s not in the state, and a quick check of the home determined he wasn’t there.
The task force didn’t get its man that day, but his warrant will remain active, and there’s no shortage of other suspects to look for. Day after day, the task force targets suspects accused of serious crimes and puts them behind bars.
“A lot of it is old-fashioned police work,” said Sgt. Aaron Wuitschick of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, who started as the team’s supervisor in January.
The current task force has its roots in the Crime Reduction Unit started by the sheriff’s office in 2006.
Along with another sheriff’s deputy, the six-member unit now includes representatives from the Yakima Police Department, the state Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
Unlike patrol officers or detectives, who have to jump from case to case, these officers have one job: find identified suspects and bring them to justice.
The multi-agency approach gives the task force access to a broad array of databases and other tools investigators can use to locate suspects.
And there’s plenty of them to chase.
The unit reported 232 felony arrests in 2016. In recent years, that number has been as high as 354, said sheriff’s Sgt. Judd Towell, Wuitschick’s predecessor.
“There’s only so many days in a year, and we’re arresting almost an offender a day,” Towell said.
This year is already off to a busy start.
Task force officers made 24 arrests in January and more than a dozen so far this month.
This week, about a half-dozen targets are at the top of the list: an assault suspect, two shooting suspects, another shooting suspect, a child rape suspect identified through a Crime Stoppers tip and a material witness in another shooting.
On Tuesday afternoon, the team spent several hours rolling between Gleed, Selah and Yakima.
Officers headed toward a possible job site for the rape suspect, but he’s not working. The home address he gave doesn’t exist, so they’ll have to try again.
Later, they’ll knock on a series of doors at a downtown apartment complex, trying to locate a material witness tied to a Yakima shooting. Residents acknowledge seeing him recently, but it’s not clear where he is right now.
At motels along North First Street, officers check for the man, showing his picture.
“$100 cash if you can tell me where this guy is,” says Erik Hampton, a Yakima police officer and longtime member of the team.
Other team members pass out business cards, hoping for a phone call.
This job can involve a lot of patience.
Task force members spend time researching a suspect’s support network. If they can figure out where he’s likely to hide, they might spend hours waiting for him to pop up there.
Other days, the latest homicide might force them to set aside active cases as they help detectives track a suspect.
“Our goal is to go find that person before they get out of the area,” Wuitschick said.
The team operates across a broad swath of Central Washington, from Klickitat to Chelan counties and beyond. The hunt for an Adams County robbery suspect recently took team members to Wenatchee, where they arrested him.
The task force is one of 10 similar units that seek suspects across Washington, Oregon and Alaska. They sometimes take tips from their counterparts or pass on information about suspects thought to be in other parts of the region.
Participating agencies pay for their own member of the task force. Overtime costs in key cases — such as murder, rape or robbery — are reimbursed by the federal government.
Task force members say they enjoy the challenge.
“I definitely think it makes the community safer,” said Chris Smith, one of two federal marshals assigned to the unit.
Hampton said that in addition to the constant search for suspects, the task force position allows him to keep active ties with the police department’s SWAT team.
There’s a sense of accomplishment to bringing a suspect into custody, Hampton said.
“It’s a good unit to be in because we catch the worst of the worst,” he said.