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Seeking government funds, fugitives get handcuffs instead
Cook County officers arrest 66 with outstanding warrants in Operation Rebate and Switch

Monday, August 18, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Liam Ford

The lure of free money in the form of federal economic stimulus checks drew dozens of fugitives accused of drunken driving, robbery, burglary and other crimes to a Southwest Side storefront in recent weeks.But once they were past receptionists at what appeared to be a tax-preparation office, the fugitives found themselves in the custody of Cook County Sheriff's deputies working a sting they dubbed "Operation Rebate and Switch." Sixty-six were arrested.

Starting a little more than a month ago, the sheriff's office sent out 5,000 letters to people with outstanding Cook County warrants, telling them there could be "hundreds or even thousands of dollars that the government owes you!"

More than 100 responded to the letters, and arrests were made at offices of "Tax Recovery Experts Inc." at 2906 S. Archer Ave. or at their homes after they "took us up on our offer for our assistance on their taxes," said Sheriff Tom Dart.

Stings save the sheriff's department time and money, officials said, since deputies often have difficulty tracking fugitives who constantly move to avoid arrest.

These arrests were announced by Dart at a news conference outside the fake tax office Sunday. Sting operations like "Rebate and Switch," which took about three weeks to plan, usually prey upon the desire for something free, he said.

"We homed in on what is probably people's prevailing motivator at times, which is greed," Dart said.

Until a few days ago, officers acted as receptionists, tax preparers and clients in the office's waiting area. The office had two desks, a shelf full of law books and a dry-erase board listing fictional clients who supposedly had gotten large rebates.

People traveled from as far away as Michigan to try to collect their checks, officials said.

When a target came in, an undercover officer would pick up a telephone and pretend to announce his arrival, then usher him into the back, where several officers made the arrest, said Don Morrison, head of the department's fugitive unit.

Thirty-two people were arrested at the office. Some, like Sergio Garcia, 44, of Chicago, who officials said had a warrant from Oak Lawn on a DUI from more than a year ago, were confused about their hoped-for checks.

"He still asked whether or not he could use his stimulus check to help bail himself out of jail that day. We informed him that that was not going to work terribly well," Dart said.

The owner of the building donated use of the first-floor space. The operation's cost of $8,000 to mail notices and set up the office was only a fraction of the typical expense to arrest 66 people, Dart said.

Besides, he said, the department took in about $6,000 in fines because many of those who drove to their appointments had revoked driving privileges and the sheriff's office towed their cars.

lford@tribune.com



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