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Mexican authorities capture fugitive in slain nursing-student case

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 11:14 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHICAGO — For 13 years, the family of Alma Chavez clung to dwindling hopes that law enforcement would catch up to the man accused of killing the soft-spoken nursing student.

Chavez’s ex-boyfriend, Raul Andrade Tolentino, was out on bond facing murder charges for the brutal stabbing in 2000 when he slipped across the U.S. border to Mexico. Stretching from Chicago’s Pilsen community to California and then Mexico, the fugitive manhunt was marked by blown opportunities and inexplicable delays—before it seemed to stall completely.

But a fresh turn has come to a case that exposed grievous weaknesses in America’s extradition system: Mexican officials announced this week that they captured Tolentino in the central Mexican city of Morelia.

Mexican authorities credited The Chicago Tribune with spurring them to re-open the hunt for Tolentino following a 2011 newspaper investigation that determined the suspect had been living in his central Mexican hometown. “We opened the case and pursued it and we finally reached the end when we captured him,” said Luis Lopez, a prosecutor with the attorney general’s office in the central Mexican state of Michoacan.

Tolentino, now 42, had been moving from apartment to apartment in blue-collar neighborhoods of that historic city, living under a series of assumed names and holding a shifting array of unskilled jobs, authorities in Mexico told the Tribune.

“He was one step ahead of the law,” Lopez said.

Tribune reporters previously found evidence that Tolentino had lived in Morelia, and Alma’s father had traced him there as well, passing along that information to authorities before his death.

Tolentino is now detained in a federal jail in the city of Hermosillo, in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, awaiting extradition to the U.S., Lopez said.

“The Mexican courts will have to rule with respect to the extradition based on existing treaties and understandings, and that can take months,” cautioned Chicago FBI spokeswoman Joan Hyde, who confirmed Tolentino’s arrest.

In Chicago, Chavez’s brother Miguel “Mike” Chavez expressed surprise and elation when told by the Tribune that Tolentino had finally been apprehended after 13 years.

“I am so happy to hear that,” said Chavez, choking back tears. “I just hope the law from over there (in Mexico) can bring him to justice.”

In the family’s neat living room later on Tuesday, Miguel Chavez and other relatives huddled around a cell phone to call Alma’s mother in Mexico, where she was visiting family, and give her the news.

“Thank God,” said Ana Maria Chavez, weeping.

She said of her deceased husband: “He will see from heaven that there is justice.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., issued a statement Tuesday applauding the capture. “When I spoke with the Mexican ambassador last year, I raised the Tolentino case and others highlighted by The Chicago Tribune with him and discussed the need to pursue justice in these cases,” Durbin said.

“Mexico has continued to make progress in its apprehension and extradition efforts, and I commend its law enforcement agencies as well as U.S. authorities for their work to bring justice to Alma Chavez’s family. But other Illinois victims and families still wait for justice in cases where fugitives have fled all over the world.”

The 2011 Tribune investigation documented law enforcement lapses throughout America’s international extradition program, using new Justice Department data and sealed warrants to identify more than 200 international fugitives from northern Illinois, and then thousands more from across the country. The U.S. Justice Department, county prosecutors and local police failed to work together effectively, neglected to keep track of their mounting caseloads, allowed cases to languish for years and committed outright errors, the newspaper found.

More than half of the Chicago-area fugitives fled to Mexico, a reflection of regional immigration patterns. In many of these cases, the victims and defendants were both immigrants, and often they hailed from the same villages or shared kinship and social networks. Sometimes the victims’ families knew where the perpetrators were last seen in Mexico and shared the information with law enforcement, yet no arrests were made. In the end, the lack of justice shattered the faith these families had in American government.

That is what happened with the case of Raul Tolentino.

The extended families of Tolentino and Chavez came from small towns near Morelia, and relatives knew each other from Mexico as well as in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where members of both families settled. Two of Tolentino’s brothers even briefly rented an upstairs room in the Chavez’s home.

A 19-year-old nursing student and daughter of two Chicago factory workers, Alma had dated Tolentino for about a year, but she broke off their relationship without telling her family why.

Authorities allege that in the early morning of January 7, 2000, Tolentino surprised Alma at the family’s Pilsen home, stabbed her to death and then stabbed himself in an apparent attempt to conceal his role. Chicago police immediately arrested Tolentino, and he confessed, according to a federal warrant.

But he fled a little over a month after his family posted a bail bond of $20,000. Alma’s family was outraged that the price of Tolentino’s freedom had been set so low.

The FBI soon gleaned information that Tolentino was with his mother in California. But when agents arrived at that address, they found the two had gone back to Mexico.

After that, according to a later federal warrant, “the matter was not pursued.”

After frustrating meetings with authorities in Chicago, Alma’s father, Bonifacio Chavez, took it upon himself to travel repeatedly to Mexico in search of leads. He slipped through the small towns around Morelia, discreetly interviewing informants and paying small bribes to interest local cops and officials in the case.

Finally, in 2006, Bonifacio determined that Tolentino had settled in Morelia, started a family and taken a job at a pizza parlor. The U.S. Justice Department recounted those findings in Chicago federal court papers filed that year accusing Tolentino of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

The following year, Bonifacio Chavez died.

Then, in 2008, at America’s request, Mexican authorities issued a warrant for Tolentino’s arrest in that country. But the Mexican probe soon fizzled, according to a U.S. law enforcement source. In one instance, that source said, Mexican authorities knocked on what they believed was Tolentino’s door in Morelia. When the man who answered said he wasn’t Tolentino and wouldn’t open the door, the police simply went away.

When they returned weeks later with an American law enforcement liaison, the house was empty, according to the source.

As part of the Tribune’s 2011 investigation, two Tribune reporters and a photographer traveled to central Mexico searching for nine Chicago-area fugitives wanted for homicides and other serious felonies.

Tolentino was the only suspect the reporters couldn’t locate. But in Morelia, they determined that he had registered to vote in recent years and also obtained title to a truck.

After fielding the Tribune’s questions and determining that the Mexican federal arrest warrant for Tolentino was still pending, the state attorney general in Michoacan pledged to revive the fugitive manhunt.

Roughly 17 months later, on Friday evening, Tolentino surrendered to four Mexican federal police officers in the city of Morelia, according to Lopez. “He was submissive” and put up no resistance, Lopez said.

“I’m happy you can give the news to them (Chavez’s family),” Lopez added. “Sooner or later, we are going to arrest the fugitives. We only ask that society has faith in us.”

Tolentino is the fourth fugitive highlighted in the Tribune series who has been captured.

Durbin said he is continuing to seek ways to improve America’s faltering efforts to apprehend violent fugitives who cross U.S. borders to evade justice in Illinois. In the wake of the 2011 Tribune series, he introduced a bill that would direct $1 million to $3 million a year in bail bond money and other fees to a fund dedicated to enhancing efforts to apprehend international fugitives. But that legislation did not receive a hearing last Congress or a vote in committee.

Durbin said he plans to reintroduce the bill and will look for opportunities to move it forward.

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