From the outside, Austin Hunter’s nondescript, white Ford SUV looks like any other vehicle cruising down the highway. Passing travelers with other thoughts on their minds are likely not to notice the thick slab of glass separating the front and back seats or the emergency light bar, that when off, blends into the gray tint of the windshield. This is the point, he said, to blend into the crowd and not draw any attention to himself, particularly when he’s got a couple passengers in back in handcuffs and ankle restraints.
Admittedly, in the world of “normal” jobs, his is definitely an outlier. In fact, he’s pretty sure that most people don’t even know it exists in Campbell County, which it actually hadn’t up until four years ago when he suggested they create it. As one of his many eclectic roles with the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), along with handling IT support and other administrative duties, Hunter is responsible for retrieving fugitives on expedited national warrants. Sometimes, this means driving hundreds of miles across the country to pick up felons on the lam as far away as New York and Florida.
And though it seems like there wouldn’t be that many felons on the run from Campbell County, Hunter has been surprised at how busy it keeps him, with over 800 extradited cases under his belt so far in the four years since taking over. Currently, there’s about 2,000 more active warrants still to go. And though he’s not sure how much money they’ve saved the county by doing the work in-house, it’s definitely cut down on the need to hire private, out-of-state retrieval agencies that charge up to $1.50 a mile.
“I was shocked by how much we were paying other people to do something we could do ourselves,” he said.
After crunching the numbers, he broached the idea with his higher-ups and offered to take on the role, including becoming a federally-certified air marshal, so he could fly in cases where it would be more economical. He prides himself on exploring all the variables to find the most affordable options like a frugal college student budgeting for a cheap spring break trip. Typically, this means leaving at ungodly hours in the middle of the night often from Denver or Rapid City. Other times, if he’s driving, he might drive for stretches at a time without stopping, during which he typically has a partner with him, as he did on a recent trip to collect a fugitive in southern California.
Driving with a fugitive in the “cage” requires being on red alert, he said, and keeping an eye on the back-seat camera on his dash for sudden movements and to make sure that his passengers are staying in their seats.
Surprisingly, the “cage” looks a lot like the back of any other mid-size SUV. No reinforced steel doors or bars, no bullet-proof glass, and no high-tech gagetry of any kind with the exception of the dash cam. The only tweak to the original interior is the missing seat in the front row that has been cut out, so it doesn’t impede Hunter’s view. Otherwise, the windows are regular glass and the doors have anti-child locks. So far, he’s never had anyone try to bust out of the back or make a run for it other than one juvenile he was transporting to court locally who cracked the back passenger window with his head.
Otherwise, it’s a pretty laid back gig, according to Hunter, who said the hardest part is probably all the paperwork involved in every extradition.
Sitting in his office in the back wing of the CCSO, Hunter smiled from underneath the brim of his trademark off-white Stetson as he pointed to an inch-thick stack of papers, including signed warrants, criminal history reports, and travel itineraries with flight and hotel accommodations for an upcoming trip to Daytona Beach, where he’ll be retrieving a former Campbell County resident wanted on multiple burgalaries. First, he has to wait for her to serve her time locally for her crimes in Florida, before she’s able to come back and face the years-old charges in Campbell County.
Trips with females tend to be more difficult, he said, simply because of the logistics of bathroom breaks and arranging assistance from airport police and local law enforcement agencies. Sometimes this requires hours of coordination over the phone and frequent texts and emails at multiple checkpoints along the way. Although, as an air marshall, he and his charge are able to skirt through the employee TSA line without being required to scan his bags or take his shoes off, which is nice.
When flying, he brings a hoodie for the fugitive, so they can tuck their handcuffed wrists inside the kangaroo pocket to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Once on the plane, they’re required to sit in the last row with the fugitive in the window seat and Hunter beside them.
Depending on a person’s criminal past and current behavior, he’ll either use regular cuffs with a waist chain or the “black box,” which were designed by an inmate in federal prison, who knew exactly how to make cuffs fool-proof. The black box fits over the cuffs and fits in place with a key lock. The design restricts movement and makes it painful if someone tries to move them up their wrists. Most of the time, he sticks to the regular cuffs.
And unlike dramatic shootouts in the airport or instances where prisoners are attempting an escape, most trips Hunter takes for the CCSO are drama free, he said. Most of the time, in fact, his charges fall asleep as soon as the plane leaves the runway, so apart from some cursory chit chat, the trips tend to go rather smoothly.
“It’s not like what you might think,” he said. “People tend to be pretty obliging.”
Sometimes, he runs into a hard luck story that makes him feel sorry for a guy or gal, like the man he accompanied back from Las Vegas, who after being pulled over for a speeding ticket, learned he was heading out on a one-way ticket back to Gillette. This guy was crestfallen when he found out that he’d be going back to the place he’d purposefully left behind in order to face his past mistakes. After explaining to Hunter how he’d finally turned his life around with a new job, girlfriend, apartment, and his kids living nearby, Hunter felt for him, and was happy to learn that the inmate was released from the Campbell County jail the following day after paying off his fines, and hopefully, he was able to procure a ride back to his new, more promising life in Vegas.
Other times, it can definitely be a bit more intense, Hunter noted, recalling the husband and wife he transported from Douglas to Casper a while back. He remembers this particular instance for what might have gone wrong. About 30 miles outside of Casper, the man in the backrow seat began screaming and complaing that he was “bleeding out.” And though Hunter is trained in the prerequisite skills necessary for administering cursory roadside medicine, his instincts told him the guy was faking it, so he turned on his siren and hauled it into Casper. It was a long stretch, Hunter recalled, but once there, he was met by a crew of officers in the closed bay of the Natrona County jail, who confirmed the inmate was indeed “faking it.” That said, upon checking the guys’ boots, he realized that they were steel-toed (a potential weapon) and that the arresting officers in Converse County had neglected to check the woman’s purse, which was stuffed full of tools including a couple utility knives.
Those are the kind of lessons he’s grateful he didn’t have to learn the hard way. Like playing music in both the front and back seats for the courtesy of his passengers. In the past, he’d turned on the speakers until he once overheard a guy confess his crimes to his fellow passenger, at which point, Hunter figured he’d better pay attention to some of those muffled conversations behind the glass window between seats, at least when transporting multiple people at once.
Every situation is different, he said, and sometimes people even turn themselves in, like the 70-year-old man accused of poaching who’d fled to Oklahoma but came back to face the charges because it was the right thing to do, or the guy in Rifle, Colorado, who turned himself in for a ride back to Campbell County, where after he completed his jail time, he thought he’d have a better chance of finding a job. Other fugitives are not so accommodating, and he’s confiscated a few escape plans from inmates that he now keeps tacked up on his office wall.
As a by-the-books-guy who joined the CCSO at age 19, before the age to join was raised to 21, Hunter graduated from the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy as the youngest recruit in his class. He believes that showing up on-time means being late, so he regularly arrives roughly 30 minutes before his allotted 7 a.m. daily shift. From an early age, he decided he’d enter law enforcement and never deviated from that plan. Rules and tidy piles of paperwork make sense to him as does treating people with a sense of decency, which he learned from his early days in his first job as a detention center guard. Being tough but not a jerk has worked well for him so far, especially when it comes to retrieving fugitives.
And odd as his job might seem to some, he really enjoys it.
His parents don’t necessarily share his love of his career path, so he spares them many of the details about his excursions. “Parents can worry,” he said simply.
Mostly, it’s long stretches of highway by moonlight, playing music to keep himself awake. But, he likes to think he’s helping people, which is why he was drawn to this line of work in the first place. Solving puzzles, retrieving bad guys, and keeping his community safe.