Con Air: America's High-Flying Paddy WagonBy Jason R Wojdylo, Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal, U.S. Marshals Service, Southern District of Indiana. Photos by Chris Barfield, U.S. Marshals Service. This is a text version of an article recently published in the National Sheriffs’ Association’s (NSA) bimonthly magazine, Sheriff, “Con Air: America’s High Flying Paddy Wagon” (March/April 2005 issue)
The pamphlet from the local visitor's center promotes Talkeetna, Alaska, as offering scenic vistas, flight-seeing to Mt. McKinley, world-class salmon fishing, rafting, boating, excursions, and a wide variety of other Alaskan adventures. And, while this small, tranquil village two and a half hours north of Anchorage is well-suited to provide a sanctuary for those in search of land untouched by commercialism, in the summer of 2004, it also proved well-suited to be the hideout for an Indiana man on the run from the law.
In February 2004, deputies with the Shelby County, Indiana Sheriff's Department, responding to a 911 call, arrived at the home of a 23-year-old woman who only days earlier relocated to their rural community from Indianapolis. This call would be like no other they responded to that day. Deputy sheriffs discovered the home's female occupant was dead, her body recently re-clothed and repositioned in the cluttered living room. Her boyfriend, who also resided in the home, offered investigators his account of the events leading up to the young woman's death, to include his reasons for redressing and moving his deceased girlfriend's body before notifying police. Suspicions by the visible unusual marks on the victim's forehead, nose and chin, the Shelby County sheriff summoned the coroner, who subsequently ordered an autopsy.
In late June, the medical examiner's report ruled the cause of death a homicide, and the local prosecutor filed murder charges against the boyfriend in connection with the girlfriend's death. In a subsequent announcement, the sheriff sought help from the public in locating the boyfriend, whose whereabouts were by then unknown
The men and women of the U.S. Marshals Service are stationed throughout each of the 50 United States, as well as Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A number of U.S. Marshal can also be found in Mexico City, Mexico; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Kingston, Jamaica. Among the chief missions of the U.S. Marshals Service is to locate, capture and return fugitives to face justice. One specific federal law enforcement program operated by the U.S. Marshals Service in support of that mission would prove to be of particular benefit to the relatively small, 26-sworn member Shelby County Sheriffs Office.
During the course of a statewide manhunt,
the Shelby County man being sought surfaced in July nearly
4,000 miles away in Talkeetna, Alaska. He surrendered himself to an
Alaska State Trooper Post amid mounting pressure from
from his own family, who had
endured numerous routine visits and countless hours of surveillance from
their local sheriff and his deputies back in Indiana.
Understandably, Sheriff Thomas K. Debaun wanted the man back in his jurisdiction without having to send his deputies on a more than a 60 hour one-way drive that, taking the most direct route, would run through five Canadian provinces and over a series of Alaskan mountain ranges. Fuel, meal allowances, lodging and other travel related expenses would have proven costly. Also challenging would have bean the logistics of having to identify jails along the return route where the prisoner could be held overnight while the transporting deputies slept in hotels.
Driving 10 hours a day would have meant almost two weeks on the road. And given that Alaska is not a part of the contiguous United States, transporting an American prisoner through Canada would pose additional international concerns.
The sheriff considered a commercial flight between Indianapolis and Anchorage, but, likewise, cost and logistical challenges made this option impractical as well. Airfare for each of the two deputies, meal allowances, lodging, car rental in Alaska and other travel-related expense would reach into the thousands of dollars. The cost of a one-way airline ticket for the prisoner would also add to the exhaustive assignment. Furthermore, under FAA regulations, special permission would be required for his deputies to fly armed. And there would be a significant impact on the sheriff's office, which would have two fewer deputies to investigate crimes and patrol county roads during the anticipated four day trip.
Sheriff Debaun found himself in an all-too-common predicament faced by other sheriffs throughout the country. Men and women on the run from the law have no territorial boundaries. It is the sheriff, however, who is responsible for returning these people to face justice in state courts when they are found in other jurisdictions and are subsequently arrested and detained pending extradition.
With precious few options available within his own department for returning the man from what seemed like half a world away to his county lockup, the sheriff recalled that the U.S. Marshals Office had considerable success in returning fugitives to face justice. He then called the U.S. marshal in Indianapolis, 30 miles from his Shelbyville office, to request assistance.
The U.S. Marshals Office operates the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS), more commonly known as "Con Air," one of the largest transporters of prisoners in the world. Each year U.S. marshals use a fleet of high-flying paddy wagons to transport more than 175,000 prisoners throughout a sophisticated and secure government-operated, regularly scheduled, national airline system. For its passengers, there is no first-class cabin, no complimentary beverage offered during flight, and restroom breaks are traditionally allowed only during brief four-to-six-city daily stops. The "seat belt" sign remains illuminated throughout every flight. Handcuffs, shackles and a belly chain supplement the passenger-restraint system. Unlike traditional commercial flights where laptop computers and portable CD players are common, the only electronic devices permitted on board are maintained in secret compartments and accessible only to aviation enforcement officers and contract guards on board.
Most of the prisoners flying JPATS are federal detainees and criminal aliens moving between U.S. Marshal offices, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) correctional facilities and international destinations for the removal of deportable aliens. But JPATS also offers to move military, state and local prisoners through cooperative (co-op) agreements for a reasonable cost. The U.S. Marshals Service makes roughly 3,000 such co-op movements to aid state and local law enforcement agencies in the extradition of men and women wanted within their own jurisdictions for prosecution or to serve sentences.
JPATS routinely serves approximately 40 domestic and international cities, plus other major cities in the United States on an "as-required" basis. All prisoner-movement scheduling is managed at JPATS headquarters. Located in Kansas City, Missouri, the JPATS headquarters is the equivalent of a national travel agency that aims to fill every seat on of its own airline system. Air fleet operations are located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; with hubs in Alexandria, Louisiana; Mesa, Arizona; Anchorage, Alaska; and the Virgin Islands.
The 2005 one-way rate to move a prisoner through a co-op agreement is $1,153.00. This fee schedule covers ground and air transportation by U.S. marshals from the point of origin to the closest U.S. Marshal's office at the destination city and it also covers secure housing in federally contracted detention facilities and/or BOP correctional institutions throughout the JPATS transfer process.
In early July, the Shelby County sheriff entered into a co-op agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service in Indianapolis to return the man from Alaska wanted on murder charges in his county. The U.S. Marshals Service coordinated with Alaska State Troopers to make the three-hour round-trip drive between Anchorage and the Alaska Department of Corrections Mat-Su Pretrial Facility in Palmer, where the prisoner was being detained. From Anchorage, the U.S. Marshals Service used one of their turbo prop Piper Cheyenne six-passenger aircraft to make the five-and-a-half-hour one-way flight to the Federal Detention Center in Seattle, Washington. There, the prisoner remained for two weeks awaiting a seat on a larger aircraft to the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City.
In mid-August, after a week at the Federal Transfer Center, the Shelby County sheriff sent his deputies to meet U.S. marshals on the tarmac of an Indiana airport to await a JPATS flight carrying their prisoner on the last leg of his "Alaskan adventure." As the deputies escaped the Indiana summer heat conversing within their air-conditioned sedan, in the distant haze a Boeing 737 emerged in the skyline. Moments later the airliner's wheels touched down and the aircraft taxied to the far corner of the steamy runway.
As the aircraft came to a stop, a BOP tactical team established a perimeter of heavily armed guards toting rifles and shotguns to thwart escape attempts. U.S. marshals converged to set up a smaller circle near the jetliner's rear air stair passenger door, where prisoners would be exchanged. First to emerge was the Shelby County man, in handcuffs attached to a belly chain and shackles, escorted by a federal marshal. Dozens of other prisoners exited to find a seat on an awaiting BOP bus or one of a number of U.S. marshal vans and sedans from surrounding cities. The aircrafts passenger seats were then quickly filled by other prisoners originating in Indiana with other nationwide destinations.
On the ground less than an hour, the JPATS
aircraft was loaded and reloaded under heavy guard, all while being
refueled and readied for departure. As the Shelby County deputy sheriffs
drove off the tarmac with a man facing murder charges and who weeks
earlier was in Alaska, they could hear the jet engines roaring down the
runway. The JPATS flight was off on the next leg of what would be a
five-city itinerary before landing back at the Federal Transfer Center
in Oklahoma City by dusk.
Jason R. Wojdylo is a Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal with the U.S. Marshals Service assigned to the 60 county Southern District of Indiana. He manages a workforce of deputy marshals to oversee the custody and care of federal prisoners, provide courtroom security, carry out federal court orders and perform other enforcement duties, such as criminal investigations and fugitive apprehension. Wojdylo's primary duties include the assignment and placement of federal prisoners in local contract detention facilities, transfer of inmates between those local facilities and Federal Bureau of Prison correctional institutions and medical centers, scheduling federal prisoner productions in U.S. District Court, responding to federal prisoner medical care needs and other enforcement responsibilities. He also coordinates his district's JPATS activities and the weekly aircraft leg into Terre Haute, Indiana home of one of the country's largest maximum-security U.S. penitentiaries