By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Accused child abusers Janet and Ramon Barreto resided in a filthy mobile home in rural Union County prior to evading the U.S. Marshals Service on a cross-country hide-and-seek for five years and eight days.
The fugitive husband and wife faced a combined 25 counts of federal and state crimes and managed to zig-zag from Northeast Mississippi to northwest Oregon, possibly by way of Mexico, California and Washington before being arrested Tuesday.
Janet Barreto wore a wig and went by a dozen or more aliases, while her husband used a half-dozen or so fake names as they tried to avoid capture by the U.S. Marshals Service, a federal law enforcement agency of about 4,000 marshals and deputy marshals.
On average, the U.S. Marshals Service arrests 302 fugitives daily.
Next week, the parents each will face indictments for failure to appear in court for original charges of manslaughter of a child, three counts of child abuse and six counts of child neglect and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Janet Barreto also is charged with tampering with a witness, related to trying to convince her biological daughter to lie about the abuse.
Even with their capture, the question remains: How could the couple avoid capture for so long?
Most people in the U.S. provide information the federal government can use to track them like a driver’s license, voter registration, payroll taxes and Social Security numbers, debit or credit cards or even email usage.
Resources available to the Barretos remain a mystery, a family who had eight children and 232 animals living in squalor.
They apparently had resources: Authorities believe the couple traveled to Guatemala from 2005-2008 to adopt seven children. They also paid $90,000 on Nov. 28, 2008, in New Albany, 10 percent of their combined $900,000 bonds, to leave jail.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Jamaal Thompson’s years of familiarity with the case gives him ideas of how the pair did it all.
They sold puppies and pirated DVDs from their cars.
“They were big-time hustlers,” said Thompson, based in U.S. Marshals Service’s Oxford office.
But federal law enforcement officers face too many unknowns to have certainty about what kept the Barretos hiding from the law.
“We don’t know where his connections and money were coming from,” Thompson said.
Federal and local law enforcement have described them and others who evade arrest as sneaky, cunning and even lucky. But, the government will continue to devote resources to track them down, no matter how long.
The U.S. Marshals Service 15 Most Wanted List included Janet Barreto until she was found. The list still includes someone on the lam for more than a quarter century.
Larry Cooper retired in 2003 as a chief deputy U.S. Marshal after serving 26 years with the agency, mostly in Florida but also other parts of the country. He said the nation’s oldest law enforcement agency captures roughly 98 percent of fugitives on the run within a year. However, the remaining 2 percent require patience.
Cooper, who described his current location as somewhere in southeast Missouri, said poor fugitives often have the best instincts to avoid detection, since many already live outside the mainstream.
“They’re dealing in cash only,” he said. “They don’t have to give Social Security numbers out to anybody, at least not their own.”
Others however, make little effort to hide from authorities.
Cooper once arrested a woman in New York City living in low-income housing overlooking Central Park, who sold clothes out of the trunk of her Cadillac and even owned rental property in North Carolina.
She had 29 warrants for her arrest.
“Some of them are lucky, some of them are good,” he said. “But we have a system that’s overloaded.”
So many accused criminals walking the streets require law enforcement officers to prioritize who receives the most attention and focus at a given moment.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson’s 34 years of law enforcement has convinced him most criminals can’t avoid making a mistake forever, leaving a clue of their identities and whereabouts. Arresting fugitives often can require a tip at just the right time.
The challenge keeps him and other lawmen searching.
“You keep punching away and look for that next piece of the puzzle,” he said.