Task force: Deaths in JCAT arrests are exceptions
For the second time in three months, the Joint Criminal Apprehension Team was embroiled Tuesday in an attempted arrest that devolved into a deadly shooting, shining a spotlight on a group that its Salt Lake City commander said typically captures violent fugitives without such fatal consequences.
According to JCAT commander Jim Phelps, of the U.S. Marshals Service, the team makes an average of 3,000 felony arrests every year. Incidents like Tuesday's fatal shooting of 37-year-old Ronnie Manuel Ontiveros are an exception, he said.
JCAT is the statewide, multi-agency task force comprised of U.S. Marshals and officers from local police agencies that arrests wanted violent offenders.
"The majority occur with no incident," Phelps said.
Ontiveros was killed Tuesday afternoon by multiple JCAT officers after he allegedly shot at least one round at them. The Salt Lake City Police Department, which is no longer a member of JCAT, is investigating the shooting.
Salt Lake Sgt. Shawn Josephson said his agency was not aware of the Tuesday JCAT operation inside its jurisdiction until the shooting was reported. JCAT is not required to notify Salt Lake police of their operations, he said.
"There's nothing that says that it has to be done, but we do like to know what's going on in our jurisdiction," he said.
According to Phelps, JCAT's policy is to notify local police about operations by broadcasting over the shared public safety radio. Phelps maintains that was done on Tuesday.
After the shootout, Ontiveros was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he was later pronounced dead. Neighbors, including some children, were evacuated after the shooting, which led to a brief standoff between the wanted fugitive and others inside the house the officers were targeting.
The JCAT team descended on 1149 S. Foulger St. (35 East), to apprehend another man, James McIff, who was wanted on a parole violation by the state Board of Pardons and Parole. According to Phelps, both McIff, 30, and Ontiveros were known gang members but police are uncertain at this point if or how the two men were connected.
McIff and a woman in the house, Amber Zinda, were arrested on warrants. Another woman found in the garage and a man inside the house were later released.
Phelps said that at least 10 armed JCAT officers surrounded the house on Tuesday standard protocol in such operations. Phelps said that in most cases, the overwhelming show of force convinces fugitives to surrender peacefully.
But that didn't happen in January, when a South Salt Lake Police officer involved with JCAT shot Kelly Fay Simons after she allegedly tried to run down the officer with her pickup. Simons was wanted for several robberies and a previous shootout with police. That shooting, which also took place in Salt Lake City, was found to be justified after a joint investigation by Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
Phelps said more than 120 officers from about 50 agencies in Utah are members of JCAT. Some are full-time officers who, while still employed with their local agencies, work as special deputy U.S. Marshals every day. Others work only on a part-time basis. The Salt Lake City Police Department was among the original participating agencies when the task force was formed in 2000, but recently dropped out, according to Josephson.
Phelps said the recent departure of Salt Lake City is temporary and due to the department investigating the fatal Simons shooting. Phelps said Salt Lake City wanted to avoid any conflict of interest.
Ontiveros had a criminal history dating back more than a decade. In May 2002, he was sentenced to a prison term of five years to life for first-degree felony burglary. He also was found guilty of class A misdemeanor assault in November 2010, and of misdemeanor counts of intoxication and lewdness in February 2012.
McIff was sentenced to a term of one to 15 years in prison in June 2001 for second-degree felony robbery. According to the Board of Pardons and Parole, he served six years of that sentence before being paroled in 2007. In 2008, McIff was paroled for a second time after serving six months for drug possession. He was paroled for a third time in 2009 after serving three months on a misdemeanor assault conviction.
The state parole board issued an arrest warrant for McIff on Feb. 14. JCAT's Ogden unit took up the case and tracked McIff to Salt Lake City, according to Phelps.