What goes on during a manhunt?

What goes on during a manhunt?

What goes on during a manhunt?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 18 2007 3:36 PM

Manhunt 101

How to catch a fugitive.

Two inmates, Jose Espinosa and Otis Blunt, escaped from a New Jersey jail on Saturday evening. The jailbreak was right out of The Shawshank Redemption: Espinosa and Blunt dug their way through a cinder-block wall and kept their progress hidden with smutty magazine photos. There's now a "widespread manhunt" under way for the two fugitives. That makes the Explainer think of flashlights, sudden downpours, and Tommy Lee Jones yelling into a megaphone. What really goes on during a manhunt?

Old-fashioned detective work. Local law-enforcement officials will most likely start the chase by looking for footprints in mud or snow (depending on the weather). They may also dispatch a canine unit to sniff out the fugitives' trail. Dogs are fairly effective in rural areas, but they have a tough time in cities due to distractions like food smells and loud noises.


If local law enforcement doesn't catch an escapee right away, it's common practice to ask the state police and the U.S. Marshals for assistance. The FBI may lend a hand and, in some cases, place the escapee(s) on its Most Wanted list. It's also customary to solicit help from the general population by placing wanted posters in public places (especially public transportation hubs) and sending bulletins to newspapers or radio and television stations.

Convicts on the lam have no ready access to cash, clothing, or food. Desperate, they often make amateurish mistakes, like heading to a family member's house. To stay one step ahead, fugitive task forces comb through an escapee's file to find his last known residence, where his parents live, and any information available on friends who came to visit the inmate while he was still in jail. Then detectives do some door-knocking to suss out if the fugitive's around. In high-profile cases, surveillance teams will stake out these locations.

When a fugitive task force homes in on the escapee's probable location, the hunt becomes more cinematic. The task force creates a perimeter and gets a dog team together. If it's dark out, the task force members may strap on heat-seeking night-vision devices. Then they slowly tighten the perimeter until the escapee has to give himself up.

Manhunts aren't always speedy affairs. One example from recent memory: Eric Robert Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber, spent more than five years hiding out in the Appalachian wilderness. The hunt finally ended in Murphy, N.C., on May 31, 2003, when a police officer spotted Rudolph scavenging food out of a garbage can in the middle of the night.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer. 

Explainer thanks Deirdre Fedkenheuer of the New Jersey Department of Corrections; David A. Klinger of the University of Missouri-St. Louis;Richard Kolko of the FBI, and Michael Schroeder of the U.S. Marshals service.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.