Fugitive's arrest in Merced shows power of TV's 'Most Wanted'

Paul Clouston
Paul Clouston

Paul Clouston probably thought he had found the perfect place to hide.

The 74-year-old convicted cop killer had been on the U.S. Marshals Service's most wanted fugitive list since 2006, when he disappeared after failing to register as a sex offender in Virginia.

For most of that time, he is believed to have lived quietly in a cluster of dormitories for transients in a rural area just outside the Merced city limits, drawing no attention to himself as he worked as a maintenance man.

"It's not really the kind of place that's going to check someone's background when they move in," Merced County sheriff's spokesman Tom MacKenzie said Thursday.

But Clouston apparently hadn't counted on the power of television.

He was sitting on a porch reading a newspaper Tuesday when he was arrested by a fugitive task force that had been tipped off by an "America's Most Wanted" viewer who recognized him, the latest in a string of fugitives tripped up in the region because of the Fox program or other media and Internet sites.

"It is extremely effective," said FBI special agent Steve Dupre, spokesman for the Sacramento FBI field office.

In fact, such tips have resulted in numerous arrests in the region, and law enforcement agencies say they increasingly work with the program and other media to ferret out fugitives when the trail has gone cold.

Airing segments on "America's Most Wanted" has resulted in about 150 fugitives being arrested in California in the past 23 years, said Angeline Hartmann, a correspondent with the program in Bethesda, Md. Nationwide, 1,118 have been found, she said.

Four years ago, a convicted sex offender from Sacramento named David John Sprong Jr. fled the state on the eve of a court hearing and disappeared with his girlfriend and their 9-year-old daughter.

Sprong was gone for 11 months. Meanwhile, Mike Rayfield, who headed the Sacramento FBI's fugitive section at the time, worked with "America's Most Wanted" to track him.

Rayfield flew to Washington, D.C., with Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Kevin Givens for the first broadcast focusing on Sprong. By the time Rayfield had arrived back in Sacramento, his cell phone was filled with messages about a particularly tantalizing tip.

"We got this tip that he was in Houston, which sounded really good," Rayfield said.

Sprong was watching the show, too, and took off before authorities arrived.

But the FBI wasn't done looking, and "America's Most Wanted" eagerly broadcast two more segments on Sprong in the next few weeks.

He was arrested in February 2007 in Baton Rouge, La., and 17 months later was sentenced in Sacramento Superior Court to more than 26 years in prison.

A few months ago, a snippet aired on the program about a man wanted by Sacramento police in a sex assault case involving a juvenile, police spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong said.

A viewer tip led authorities to a homeless shelter in Texas, where the man was arrested, Leong said.

Without the help of fugitive programs or websites such as the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, finding fugitives in shelters or group homes like the one Clouston was found at in Merced is next to impossible.

"You can go into these places and nobody knows," said Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla, who had one of his agents track a fugitive last year to the same compound where Clouston was found.

Sometimes, however, fugitives simply cannot be found, no matter how hard authorities look.

Convicted murderer Glen Stewart Godwin has been on the FBI's top 10 list since 1996, following his 1987 escape from California State Prison, Folsom, and his later escape from a Mexican prison.

He has been featured on the program numerous times and has his wanted poster featured in FBI offices and other government facilities, right alongside Osama bin Laden.

"There may be a point where we have to ask whether he's even alive anymore," said Dupre, the FBI spokesman.

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