It comes as no surprise that few people know much about the Chester County Sheriff’s Office Fugitive Apprehension Unit: It often works under cover of darkness.
Before most county residents have awakened, the eight members of this elite team have donned 35 pounds of equipment – about 10 more than a typical deputy sheriff – and headed out to find people committed to remaining under the radar.
The team made headlines recently when it located Barry Baker, the fugitive accused of sucker-punching a man with cerebral palsy outside a West Chester convenience store last month.
Baker’s apprehension, accomplished with assistance from the U.S. Marshals and Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit, capped a weeks-long search that benefited from tips from the public and spanned the tri-state area.
“This was an outstanding example of good cooperation with multiple agencies,” said Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh. “We’ve been fortunate to not only work with the marshals but also train with them.
“Mr. Baker was fortunate that the Fugitive Apprehension Unit, the K-9 Unit, and the U.S. Marshals were able to pick him up,” Welsh continued. “There were a lot of very angry citizens looking for him.”
Cpl. Joseph E. Woulfe, who heads the unit, said his team has apprehended 50 wanted subjects so far this year, serving an additional 30 warrants because, in the process, it located other fugitives.
Woulfe said one of the individuals apprehended had 11 active warrants, issued out of three different counties, while another, picked up with the assistance of Pennsylvania State Police, had been on the lam for nearly a decade. The charges ranged from summary offenses to violent felonies.
“I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Chief Deputy Jason Suydam said of the unit. “Fifty is a pretty impressive number.”
Suydam said it’s difficult to know whether the arrests broke any office records because statistics weren’t compiled during the first few years of the unit’s operation, which started in 2010. However, he pointed out that even though the vast majority of the wanted subjects work to avoid detection, members of the Fugitive Apprehension Unit work harder to stay a step ahead of them.
In addition to the routine training regimen that all deputies perform, the Fugitive Apprehension Unit members log an additional 100 hours of SWAT drills, firearms instruction, and physical fitness training. The latter is particularly essential, Woulfe said.
“We wear heavier ballistic gear but have to be able to react to what many fugitives do when they see us, which is run,” he said.
Woulfe said subjects that don’t flee often hide and have been found in locations ranging from closets to car trunks. One defendant even hollowed out a dresser so he could squeeze inside it.
The team gets its targets from a variety of sources and pursues them at all hours of the day and night, both within and beyond county borders.
Sometimes another department, such as Adult Probation or Domestic Relations, will request assistance in locating defendants; at other times, the unit focuses on the county’s most-wanted list – a collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office – or the database maintained by the county’s Warrant Enforcement Bureau.
With higher-risk cases, the unit will enlist the aid of the K-9 Unit. “Most defendants think twice about running when they see a dog,” Woulfe said.
Members of the team maintain a heightened passion for what they do; hitting roadblocks only strengthens their resolve, Woulfe said.
He recalled one defendant who managed to evade capture after a pursuit through the woods. Undaunted, the unit regrouped with a different strategy – and a K-9 team.
“In the process of apprehending him, we came in contact with family members who also had warrants so we took multiple people into custody,” Woulfe said.
In addition, the former escape artist ended up getting state prison time after fleeing-apprehension charges were added to his rap sheet.
“That one ended up being pretty satisfying,” Woulfe said. “It was gratifying for the team not only because they did so much work, but also because we knew the community was safer with that individual off the street.”