From the Old West to the Mideast |

From the Old West to the Mideast

NEW YORK ” The cowboy hats and horses are long gone, distant memories of a Wild West frontier where justice was dispensed by U.S. marshals named Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp.

In the 21st century, the nation’s first lawmen have a broad global mission, capturing fugitives, protecting judges, running the Witness Protection Program, and even training Iraqis.

Deputies for the U.S. Marshals Service protected witnesses during the historic trial of Saddam Hussein and assisted the American military in transferring the deposed Iraqi leader to local authorities for execution by hanging.

It’s a long way from home for the law enforcement descendants of Earp, Masterson and “Wild Bill” Hickock, members of an agency founded by George Washington himself. Since 1789, the U.S. marshals have gone wherever the action is.

For Paul McErlean, a deputy U.S. marshal who grew up on Long Island, that meant escorting a shackled Saddam from cellblock to court during his trial.

“It’s been a wild experience,” McErlean told The Associated Press from Iraq. The 30-year-old New Yorker is one of several marshals who volunteered to train Iraqis, hoping to secure the integrity of a justice system riddled with corruption and fear.

Iraqi courthouses are routinely bombed, and more than 60 judges have been killed. Judges travel with no fewer than four bodyguards, McErlean said. The heightened security still wasn’t enough when the marshals’ Iraqi interpreter was ambushed and murdered after nearly a year of service.

The marshals in Iraq are one example of the service’s expanded global role since Sept. 11. But the core mission remains the same ” tracking down fugitives and providing judicial security, said Joseph Guccione, the U.S. Marshal for New York.

“Getting bad guys off the street, whether mobsters or terrorists, remain a priority,” said Guccione, sitting in his office in the Manhattan federal courthouse.

A reminder of the constant threat to federal judges came two years ago when the husband and mother of U.S. District Court Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow were found dead in her Chicago home, slain by an unemployed electrician angry over Lefkow’s dismissal of a malpractice suit.

Judges across the country are now offered enhanced home protection including the use of a high-tech surveillance system.

Deputies scrutinize blogs and chat rooms and closely communicate with other agencies, sharing intelligence and trends.

Guccione, whose district covers Manhattan, the Bronx and the northern suburbs, joined the Marshals Service 15 years ago. His interest was piqued as a child through his fascination with the Old West and the early roots of “America’s star” ” the five-point star worn by the marshals throughout their storied history.

“Send in the marshals” became a familiar order, given by presidents and federal judges, to establish law and order amid crisis ” from the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881 to rescuing victims during the World Trade Center attacks.

Danger often is only seconds away.

“Many times we have to kick down doors not knowing what’s behind them,” said Eugene Corcoran, U.S. Marshal for New York’s Eastern District. “The person on the other side is not happy to see us. We are the only thing standing between the fugitive and freedom.”

Corcoran was appointed to head the district covering Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island in 2003. About 200 deputies are assigned in both federal jurisdictions in the New York City area.

The nation’s top manhunters are always looking for new strategies against fugitives. In 2002, the Marshals Service created a New York-New Jersey Fugitive Task Force to track violent felony fugitives with three or more prior convictions.

The task force has locked up 16,282 fugitives, and expanded its posse to 180 full-time officers from federal, state and local agencies. The cooperative effort also became the model for five similar task forces across the country.

Nationally, the marshals, partnered with other law enforcement officers, rounded up 41,049 fugitives ” murderers, sex offenders, gang members, kidnappers and robbers ” between May 2004 and last November.

To transport prisoners, the Marshals Service manages Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation, the only U.S. government-operated passenger airline, based in Kansas City, Mo. It handles 1,000 detainees a day, with a fleet of aircraft serving cities around the world.

The service also runs the Witness Protection Program, which was created 36 years ago and is one of the government’s greatest crime-busting tools. About 17,000 people have entered the program, and insiders can testify against criminals with the knowledge that a new life awaits them somewhere else once they leave the witness stand.

Marshals recently began sharing the coveted techniques of the program with foreign governments seeking to establish their own witness protection plans. Poland, Lithuania, Serbia, Australia, Germany and Canada are among those receiving training.

The program has become critical in combating organized crime, drug cartels and terrorists.

“It’s been said there are a few things that America has contributed to civilization ” the Constitution, jazz, baseball,” said Joseph Paonessa, who worked with the program for more than 20 years. “But I would like to add the Witness Protection Program. It is uniquely American.”

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