WASHINGTON – Authorities have captured the largest number of violent sex offenders ever nabbed in a single law enforcement effort, federal officials announced Thursday.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and John F. Clark, director of the United States Marshals Service, detailed the results of Operation Falcon II, a seven-day nationwide fugitive roundup, during a press conference in Washington. Among those arrested during Operation Falcon II were 1,102 violent sexual offenders.
Others arrested were fugitive gang members and violent offenders wanted for homicide, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, carjacking, weapons offenses and narcotics sales. In total, 9,037 individuals were arrested, who Gonzales said were "the worst of the worst fugitive felons in the country."
"This is an important step in ensuring a culture where the law is respected, where the judicial process is observed, sentences are meaningful, and hard time is served," Gonzales continued.
The operation was conducted from April 17 through April 23, timed to coincide with National Victims Rights Week.
"In this country, it's suspected there are literally thousands of people wanted for some sort of sex crime. That's a startling number," Clark said, adding that it is a top priority of the Justice Department to protect children from such offenders.
Gonzales has directed investigators to focus on sex crimes as part of his effort to call attention to child pornography and other crimes against children.
Clark also hailed the hundreds of state and local authorities who were pivotal to the operation's success and said that while similar operations may not always make headlines, they are hunting down society's most violent predators.
"The cynic may look at this and see it as just a way to pat ourselves on the back for doing a good job but that would not do it justice," Clark said. "While the public may not know what we do, the bad guys out there certainly do."
The "priority targets" arrested were fugitives wanted for committing sexual offenses and crimes of violence against women, children and the elderly, as well as unregistered convicted sex offenders, according to Justice Department officials.
Falcon II (Federal and Local Cops Organized Nationally) was conducted in 27 states mostly west of the Mississippi River, and the territories of Guam and Northern Mariana Islands, according to the Justice Department. The U.S. Marshals coordinated police officers from 120 state agencies, 330 county agencies, 312 police departments, six foreign law enforcement agencies, and 24 other federal agencies. Over 700 state and local law enforcement agencies and departments participated and over 2100 officers were on the street each day.
"Because of their work and dedication, thousands of fugitives will now receive the justice they tried to escape," Gonzales said.
Federal investigators point to the case of William Wisham is one example of "what can go wrong when a community is not aware that a convicted sexual predator is in its midst."
Wisham had failed to register as a sex offender when he moved to a motel in Victorville, Calif. On April 21, Operation Falcon investigators found Wisham at the motel during the unrelated arrest of two individuals wanted for child endangerment. They discovered Wisham had violated his requirement to register as a sex offender and that he had letters to children, notes explaining why he enjoys sex with children, child pornography, candy and methamphetamine. Investigators determined that Wisham, using candy as a lure, violated at least one child.
One of those arrested last week was Primo Montes, 37, who was picked up April 18 as he tried to visit his pregnant wife in Escondido, Calif. Ten years earlier, Montes and a second man allegedly raped a 14-year-old girl. Montes fled to Mexico to escape prosecution, but investigators learned he might try to see his wife, the Marshals Service said in a summary of the case.
Marshals arrested Montes when he appeared.
On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, police arrested Herbert Damwijk, 30, who is wanted in Washington state on two counts of child rape and molestation against 8-year-old girls, the department said. He was arrested April 17 at his father's residence and awaits extradition to Washington.
Reginald Dozier, 39, was arrested in Belleville, Ill., at 12:01 a.m. on April 17, the first minute of the operation, for failing to register as a sex offender. Dozier had earlier been convicted of raping a girl younger than 13 and giving her gonorrhea.
Nearly 80,000 fugitives were arrested last year, just under half by the Marshals Service and the rest by state and local police working with federal authorities. More than 10,000 of those arrests came during a similar nationwide sweep last year.
The operations in the past two years produced roughly 10 times the average number of weekly arrests, but even that barely dents the fugitive caseload. The FBI database contains names of a million fugitives. Clark said Thursday there are a "few million fugitives" in the United States, most of them wanted on state and local charges.
The agency spent $531,000 on the weeklong exercise, most of it to pay overtime to local and state police, said David Dimmitt, chief deputy U.S. Marshal. More than 2,100 officers from 786 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies took part.
A second phase, targeting the eastern U.S., will take place in the coming months, Gonzales said.
FOX News' Mike Levine, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.