Originally created 06/27/99

Officials: Fugitive teacher likely never sought



Police never arrested Vanessa Velez-Cruz in 1991 after she was indicted for theft because they probably weren't looking for her.

Technically a fugitive for nearly 10 years, the Aquinas High School Spanish teacher became a beloved friend of many students, was a member of Augusta's Hispanic American Cultural Association and appeared in newspaper photos grinning with teen-agers as they visited exotic countries.

All the while an unserved bench warrant was filed at the then Augusta Police Department, because she had jumped a $9,450 bond after being indicted for felony theft.

Ms. Velez-Cruz now is being investigated by police after checks she wrote for a tour through Europe bounced, leaving 28 students stranded last week in Paris without accommodations.

The accusations and revelation of the past charges have left parents wondering how Ms. Velez-Cruz managed to elude police for so long without even trying.

The 1991 theft case was handled by the now defunct police department, but sheriff's Chief Deputy Ronnie Strength said there are many wanted people who are not being actively sought.

"No law enforcement agency in the country has that kind of manpower," he said.

Currently Richmond County has more than 2,000 bench warrants that 15 officers are assigned to serve, said Capt. Donnie Chavous, head of the fugitive squad.

"I'm limited on manpower," Capt. Chavous said. "I can't have a guy sitting at one place for 24 hours a day seven days a week."

Many people are arrested on bench warrants through sheer luck, such as from traffic stops.

For instance, when a person is pulled over for speeding or some other traffic offense, a deputy runs a background check. If the person is wanted on a bench warrant, it then is served on the spot.

Members of the fugitive squad also serve as bailiffs in court -- taking a lot of time away from serving warrants.

"No fugitive squad that I know of can dedicate itself solely to serving bench warrants for nonviolent criminals," said District Attorney Danny Craig. "It's very likely they weren't looking for her."

Meghan Gourley covers crime for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3227 or mgourley@augustachronicle.com.