ROSELAND —Three officers pull up to a home in Roseland in search of a woman who might have witnessed a recent murder.
The three — Chris, Jason and Steve — a 6-foot-6, 280 pound man, nicknamed "Tiny" — wait for three hours, but the woman still hasn't returned home in the coupe in which she was last seen.
Suddenly, a car pulls out of the garage and another unmarked car in the stakeout follows behind, its blue lights flashing. The three Area South fugitive apprehension officers quickly spot a man who resembles a friend of the murder suspect, and the situation tenses up.
Jason leans back in the passenger seat, his hand ready on the door handle as a jittery-looking man walks toward them. The officers suspect he's just returned from a drug score.
But they realize it's not who they are looking for as the man passes within feet of the car, seemingly unaware of the cops' presence. The other car that left the home also turns out to be a false lead. The stakeout is called off soon after.
Welcome to the world of the Chicago Police Department's Fugitive Apprehension Unit, which is tasked with finding suspects wanted in some of the city's most notorious crimes, people who know them, and witnesses reluctant to talk to police.
Darryl Holliday joins DNAinfo Radio after a ride-along with the Chicago Police Department's elite fugitive hunters:
"There are days when you strike out, there are days when you are hitting them all," noted Officer David Calle, a 18-year police veteran who had earlier tried to find the woman.
While high-speed chases and Hollywood-style police raids might get the headlines, officers who work for the unit are more likely to find themselves in hours-long stakeouts — some fruitful, others not — or tracking suspects through computer databases or other mundane means.
“It’s like flying over the city, dropping a pin needle and saying, ‘Go find it,’” one fugitive officer says about the challenging nature of the job.
But while the job can be tedious, statistics show the slow and steady tracking of fugitives in the city is producing results.
Chicago fugitive apprehension officers made 2,568 arrests in 2013, nearly double the 1,385 arrests made in 2011, according to Capt. Robert Cesario, who heads the Fugitive Apprehension Unit.
Cesario's officers helped make arrests in the theft of 300 iPads from Drake Elementary in September, one of which was found in Rockford, as well as the arrest of Terrell Rush, who was found in Indiana after a string of South Side rapes last year.
“Anybody who could kill somebody, hurt somebody, I feel more comfortable getting them off the street," said Jason, a nine-year veteran of the force, who like some of the other officers in the Fugitive Apprehension Unit, asked that his last name not be used. "You don’t want a murderer walking around. ... It’s a good feeling once you get them.”
While they wear bulletproof vests under plain clothes, many of the officers carry a set of worn manila folders, their covers scribbled with dozens of phone numbers and addresses, stuffed with photos and other evidence that will help lead them to those wanted by police detectives.
On a recent dreary Wednesday, the 10 officers that make up the unit’s night shift leave their Garfield Park headquarters in groups of two or three. Their caseload is limited to crimes originating in Area South on the South Side, but the chase can take them anywhere in the Great Lakes region — including outside the city in Downstate Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
The teams are active all night. The officers are in constant communication via radio as they split up for some cases and team up on others.
Steve searches for a man wanted for questioning in a burglary after an "investigative alert" is issued by detectives. He heads to the man's mother's home in suburban South Holland, where she tells him she hasn't talked to her son in a couple of days and she doesn't know where he is.
"He's in the city somewhere," she said, giving the officer possible contact information for her son.
While Steve and other officers are polite, he warns the family, "If detectives can't get a hold of him, things will escalate."
Within an hour, five other officers — including Calle — surround a home in Harvey before knocking on the door looking for a suspect in a robbery. No one comes to the door, and police don't have a warrant, so they leave. Both cases are ongoing, and no arrests have been made.
Some of the cases involve months of investigation, dozens of door knocks and multiple witness interviews, and the number of suspects they are searching for climbs into the double digits.
But the time officers spend researching suspects' day-to-day moves ends up giving police “a mental advantage” in the long run, says Sgt. Jose Tirado, the group’s leader.
“We’re not gonna go in kicking doors down; we let them determine where we go,” Tirado said of the suspects or witnesses wanted for questioning. “Usually, by the time we’re on top of them, they don’t even realize it.”
The investigative techniques are similar in each case, Calle said.
In the case of the woman the officers sought in Roseland, it was a pattern of checks that helped lead officers to her door, Calle said.
First, Calle and Officer Jeff Rumbaugh tracked her to a gas station in Pullman, where a purchase was made the day before. They then reviewed the store’s surveillance tapes, saw a woman who resembled a 2-year-old photo of her and then spotted the license plate on the car she was driving. The address connected to the plate led them to the Roseland address.
While officers didn’t end up finding her that night at the Roseland home, they'll likely return until they can question her and cross her name off the list in their manila folders. The investigation is ongoing.
But the fruitless stakeout is also evidence of how different their job can be from night to night: The day before the officers on the team were involved in two foot chases, and two men suspected in shootings were arrested — which is a pretty busy day, they say.
"To me, it’s like a game, I guess you’d say. I like the thrill of the hunt,” said Chris, a 14-year police veteran.
"We're the last stop," added Jason.