By Brad Heath / USA TODAY
PHILADELPHIA — For a man on the run from charges that he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl, Thomas Terlecky has surprisingly little to fear from the law. The police here know exactly where to find him, but they will not go get him.
Terlecky got away by catching a Greyhound bus to Miami.
The police in his new hometown know that Terlecky is a fugitive, and they have tried repeatedly to return him to Philadelphia — both before and after he was convicted of having sex with two other underage girls in Florida. As recently as November, police handcuffed Terlecky and called Philadelphia authorities to tell them their fugitive had been found.
But just like every time before, the authorities in Philadelphia refused to take him back.
Across the United States, police and prosecutors are allowing tens of thousands of wanted felons — including more than 3,300 people accused of sexual assaults, robberies and homicides — to escape justice merely by crossing a state border, a USA TODAY investigation found. Those decisions, almost always made in secret, permit fugitives to go free in communities across the country, leaving their crimes unpunished, their victims outraged and the public at risk.
Each fugitive's case is chronicled in a confidential FBI database that police use to track outstanding warrants. In 186,873 of those cases, police indicated that they would not spend the time or money to retrieve the fugitive from another state, a process known as extradition. That's true even if the fugitives are just across a bridge in the state next door. Another 78,878 felony suspects won't be extradited from anyplace but neighboring states.
Few places are immune. Police in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Little Rock — all among the nation's highest-crime cities — told the FBI they wouldn't pursue 90% or more of their felony suspects into other states. Los Angeles police said they would not extradite 77 people for murder or attempted murder, 141 for robbery and 84 for sexual assault.
The FBI refuses to say who or where those fugitives are. But USA TODAY identified thousands of them using records and databases from courts and law enforcement agencies. Among the fugitives police said they would not pursue: a man accused in Collier County, Fla., of hacking his roommate's neck with a machete during a fight over two cans of beer; a man charged with drawing a gun on a Newport News, Va., store manager during a robbery, and even one of the men Pittsburgh identified as among its "most wanted" fugitives.
Such fugitives should be among the easiest targets in the nation's fragmented justice system. The police typically don't hunt them; instead, they wait for officers to come across them again, during traffic stops or when they're arrested on new charges.
More often than not, the suspects are found locked up in another city's jail.
But if that jail happens to be in a different state, local law-enforcement officials regularly refuse to get them because they don't want to pay the cost or jump through the legal hoops required to extradite them. That process can be either swift or surreal: In many cases, it costs no more than a few hundred dollars, but it can also require months of paperwork and the signature of both states' governors.
The police let them get away instead.
Even Terlecky, wanted in Philadelphia for a first-degree felony, was surprised. "Why would they not extradite on a felony warrant?" he said in an interview. His only guess: "This wasn't a case where I forcefully grabbed the kid. That's the only reason I'm thinking why they won't push to bring me back."
Terlecky said that in the 17 years he has been a fugitive, he has lost count of how many times Florida police threw him in jail in hopes of returning him to Pennsylvania. But the arrests all end the same way. In November, Miami-Dade police detained him after he was pulled over for an obscured license plate. A few hours later, Philadelphia officials "asked that (he) be released" because they were unwilling to travel beyond Pennsylvania's neighboring states to get him, according to police records. An officer drove him home.
Terlecky is wanted on charges that he had what prosecutors called "consensual" sex with a 14-year-old girl in a downtown Philadelphia hotel in 1996, a felony because of her age. He was convicted of having sex with two other girls in Florida — one 14, the other 15 — in the years that followed and is now a registered sex offender. Terlecky said in interviews that he is innocent of the Philadelphia charges, that he fled because he was afraid of being locked up awaiting a trial, and that he would gladly go back if he could be assured that he would not spend time in jail.
Prosecutors said they didn't chase Terlecky because the woman he is accused of assaulting was uncooperative.
"That's not true," the woman said when USA TODAY contacted her this year. She asked not to be identified to protect her privacy.
Her father took her to court on her 15th birthday to testify against Terlecky at a preliminary hearing. "We walked out of there with our heads held high thinking he's going to jail for what he did to me," she said. It was the last she heard of the case; she assumed Terlecky was in prison.
Pennsylvania's Victim Advocate, Jennifer Storm, said victims need to be informed whenever officials choose to let a defendant get away. "It is alarming that there are victims who are further harmed by denying them the opportunity for justice, restitution and safety," she said.
The woman Terlecky is charged with assaulting said no one told her that he fled Philadelphia or that prosecutors there had decided not to pursue him as long as he stayed in Florida, where he started a general contracting business that he said counts police officers among its customers.
"He got away with it," she said when she found out. "That makes me sick to my stomach. It's disgraceful."