At some point during an otherwise quiet spring weekend three years ago, Lavelle Sullins' phone started ringing, proffering strange news.
"Hey, Lavelle, you'd better watch out. I just saw you on TV. The cops are looking for you."
Sullins broaches the subject casually on a recent afternoon, but a hint of shock still runs through his words. The course of events, running wildly among the routine of his day-to-day life, has yet to be left in his past.
"I did everything I was supposed to, as far as the case goes," the 27-year-old man says, looking out the window and reflecting on his trip through the criminal justice system, a journey buoyed by the conviction of passing bad checks.
He got the money and took care of loose ends, he says. He wrapped up his probationary period eight months ahead of time, but such pleas don't matter much at this point.
Upon finishing his sentence, he walked back into his life as a free man once again.
For a while.
Sullins' adult life is pockmarked with legal infractions, if you want to be technical. But the violations, which include driving with expired plates, missing a court date on a tinted windows charge, failing to pay traffic fines and being cited for playing music too loudly, are minor.
Hardly blemishes at all, really, and hardly the sort of action that lands a man on TV as one of the city's most wanted or a man on the run. Those snafus play out in local court systems every day for guys like Sullins or moms from Rocky River with little fanfare or attention. But somehow Sullins' record rose from courtroom minutiae to local airwaves.
He leans back in the chair and begins to rattle off one of the many stories that weave through his memory. This particular story, however, isn't over yet.
In mid-2006, Sullins signed off on the purchase of a 2004 GMC Yukon Denali for about $18,000 and change from Quality General Auto Sales. After financing the vehicle through his bank, he owed $1,536 for the tax and title of the car. But then came the last-minute insurance acquisition, which levelled his checking account for the day. He attempted to work out a deal with the used car company - to no avail. The police were contacted.
"I tried to make other arrangements, but they didn't accept that," Sullins says, referring to the check.
Nonetheless, he was able to take off in the car, thinking that everything would be attended to in due time. The vehicle was financed and the sale was made, but the car company was not entirely satisfied.
Within the year, Sullins was tossed in jail on a $1,000 bond.
He posted the requisite cash that same day, but the process worked itself ragged for another two years. He pleaded guilty to one count of passing bad checks - a felony of the fifth degree - in 2009. Ordered to pay restitution and a fine, as well as serve a year on probation, Sullins wrapped up his sentence Oct. 15, 2009, within four months of leaving the courthouse and six months before a local company made him a wanted man.
"I was done with it," Sullins says. "Or so I thought. I wanted to get that done and over with so I could look forward to just making that a thing of the past."
And for a while, he accomplished just that. Sullins was building electric industrial control panels for Industrial Control Design that winter, letting his mid-20s wash over him.
As Sullins was working his way through the court system in Cleveland, a longtime local crime-fighting task force was entering its own stage of evolution.
Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County took shape over the years as a collaborative tool to combat crime in the area. The organization has come to boast a much-touted estimated "capture rate" of around 80 percent, as noted by several stakeholders, including County Executive Ed FitzGerald. (Crime Stoppers was brought under the umbrella of county oversight last month.)
"Crime Stoppers gets a huge punch from television coverage," budding filmmaker and Pinpoint Media owner Shawn Rech says. The organization worked in tandem with local news outfits for years, preparing two- to three-minute news packages for television. As such a piecemeal route became unwieldy, Rech stepped up to offer a broader approach to media coverage, helping to put together a half-hour news program.
Dramatic in style and detailed in its narrative format, the formerly titled Warrant Unit typically features two unsolved and reenacted homicide cases. Interviews with detectives and family members form the backbone of the reportage. The program was broadcast on WOIO/WUAB - channels 19 and 43 - for the first half of its life. It is now shown at 7 p.m. Saturdays on WKYC - Channel 3.
In all, Cleveland viewers have helped solve four murders in the time the program has been airing, according to Rech.
The show, which now goes by the name Crime Stoppers Case Files, at one point featured a brief segment on its back end called "Fugitive File." This part of the show highlighted 25 wanted criminals from around town. Or the perception thereof, as it were.
"It was very effective," Rech says. "A lot of people were caught."
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