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Phoenix Kidnappings: FBI's Role Minimal in Immigration-Related Cases

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The FBI is the nation's premier agency when it comes to kidnappings, right?

Well, not in Phoenix, the so-called kidnapping capital of the country. The FBI decided years ago that it would try not to get involved when the kidnappings involve immigrants and human smugglers.

Both the FBI and Phoenix police tell New Times that the federal agency passed along criteria to local police agencies that suggests when the FBI should be called on kidnapping cases.

"We've certainly had discussions over the last several years ... as far as who would help out in various scenarios," says Dave Larson, supervisor of the local FBI office's violent crime program.

Phoenix police use the suggestions from the FBI in deciding whether to call the agency on a kidnapping, says Lt. Lauri Burgett, who helps oversee the Phoenix police task force on home invasions and kidnappings.

What it comes down to is this: If a kidnapping is thought to involve immigrant-smuggling in some way, police have been asked to call the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement instead of the FBI -- the agency that traditionally handles kidnappings.

The system helps ensure limited law enforcement resources are used in the most efficient ways, officials say.

And that explanation makes sense. But it means the FBI had relatively little to do with the 370 kidnappings cases investigated last year by Phoenix police.

It also means the FBI's kidnapping policy is, in a sense, prejudiced.

Here's why:

Let's say John White, a U.S. citizen, gets thrown into a van by masked kidnappers, and his wife -- who sees the crime -- calls Phoenix police. Imagine that no one ever sees White again. Which federal agency, FBI or ICE, do you think would be more likely to help local police investigate that crime? The FBI, right? Bingo.

Now imagine the same scenario, except the guy has four names of a Spanish origin and his wife is an illegal immigrant from Mexico. In that case, apparently, the understanding among law officers is that ICE would get a call instead of the FBI.

Larson says part of the issue here is that the FBI gets involved when the kidnapping is believed to involve the crossing of state -- not international -- borders. But, like in our examples, law officers can't always tell where the victim has been taken. Assumptions must be made about the kidnapping by the initial investigators, usually local police, in order to figure out who to call.

One look at the FBI's "Kidnapping and Missing Persons Investigations" Web page shows how few Hispanic victims are being sought, despite the overwhelming numbers of kidnappings involving Mexicans in Phoenix alone. The jurisdictional issues can also create the kind of confusion that can't be good when trying to solve crimes.

Yet there's no question that the FBI is, historically, the federal agency that investigates kidnappings, Larson admits. That's been the case since the first federal anti-kidnapping law was passed following the 1932 Lindberg baby murder. After that, Congress passed more statutes that allowed the FBI "more access" in kidnapping investigations. The new laws were needed because airplanes and automobiles had made it easier for criminals to travel over state lines, Larson says.

Technically, the FBI can get involved on any kidnapping case once 24 hours has passed, just in case there's an "interstate nexus," Larson says. Kidnappings involving children can receive more immediate federal attention because of the potential danger to the victims.

Despite the current criteria, the FBI will still help in any kidnapping case its called out on, both Larson and Burgett agreed.

For example, Larson says, Phoenix authorities received a call on a recent kidnapping, and it was decided that ICE should handle it. Then, two days later, another kidnapping call came in. ICE was still busy on the other case, so the FBI stepped in as the lead federal agency on the new case, Larson says.

"We adjust and we all help each other out," he says of the resource-intensive investigations. Each case can require as many as 60 local police officers, plus federal agents, all working round-the-clock to effect a rescue before the victim is harmed.  

With all the attention being placed on Phoenix as the "kidnapping capital" these days, though, questions naturally arise: Can the FBI be doing more work on the crimes? And if smuggling-connected kidnappers begin snatching non-immigrants in droves, will the FBI or ICE investigate those cases?

Larson says he doesn't want to speculate on "where it's all heading."

At the Phoenix Police Department, though, the FBI does appear to be taking a more proactive stance against kidnappings. Cops have been asking the FBI for its expertise on more kidnapping cases and providing the agency with more intelligence in related busts, hoping the feds can connect the dots and take down the syndicates behind some of the crimes, Burgett says.

And this week, some FBI agents from out of state are "camping out" at Phoenix police headquarters this week, looking over data related to kidnappings.

"Hopefully, it's something where they can more involved investigatively," Burgett says. "It's not an easy decision for them to make."

True enough. The FBI's Phoenix office only has a few dozen agents who are not only responsible for investigating certain crimes, but also for protecting the country against mass-murdering terrorists.

Still, kidnappings and the FBI go together -- or at least, they once did. 

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