Persistence pays off: Camden fugitive arrested

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Benny Santiago has occupied a spot on Camden's Top Ten Most Wanted List.

Camden police had been chasing Benny Santiago for six years when they zeroed in on him last week.

He was wanted for killing a Camden man in broad daylight during an argument over a basketball game.

A fistfight had broken out on the courts at the Centennial Village Apartments that Sunday afternoon in 2004. Police say Santiago settled the dispute by retrieving a handgun and firing a bullet into the stomach of Charles Tokley, a 35-year-old father of four, who witnesses said tried to break up the brawl.

Since then, Santiago has occupied a spot on Camden's Top Ten Most Wanted List, a notorious achievement in one of America's most deadly cities. And Philadelphia authorities wanted to talk to him about a 2007 murder.

Last Tuesday afternoon, investigators tracked Santiago, 29, to a rowhouse in Northeast Philadelphia, where he was living with his girlfriend and young daughter under a false identity and sometimes working as a janitor for Aramark at Lincoln Financial Field.

Having been tipped off that police were coming, Santiago was dashing for his car when he was nabbed, wearing pajama bottoms and flip-flops and carrying a travel kit with cash, paychecks, cell phones, and bogus identification cards.

"He wasn't wasting any time; he was leaving," said Camden detective William Wiley, the lead investigator in the hunt for Santiago.

The arrest highlights Camden's tenacity in recent years when it comes to apprehending violent offenders, authorities say.

Since 2005, the city Police Department, the county prosecutor's office, and other county law enforcement agencies have partnered with a U.S. marshals task force to catch suspects like Santiago.

The 14-person Camden unit of the U.S. Marshals Regional Fugitive Task Force has been assigned 101 murder warrants from Camden and other counties in the last five years, said William Plitt, chief inspector of the task force. All of those fugitives have been caught.

"The hundred percent closure rate is pretty remarkable; you don't see that too often," said U.S. Marshal Lenny DePaul, who commands 13 fugitive task forces in New York and New Jersey, including ones in Atlantic City, Newark, Trenton, and Secaucus.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said the collaborative effort had allowed his department to focus on proactive policing, "rather than having to pull officers from other units to track people."

Camden's murders dropped from 54 in 2008 to 34 in 2009. There have been 37 homicides so far this year.

Santiago represented one of the fugitive squad's few unsolved cases.

"We'll pursue someone if it takes a day, a year, or 10 years," Plitt said.

Investigators had little to work with initially. Santiago had come to Camden from Puerto Rico in 2003 to sell drugs, authorities said. He had no family in the city and few contacts police knew about. The case quickly went cold. Picking up the hunt, task force members established Santiago's street name, "Junito."

They followed tips that Santiago was dead or had fled to Puerto Rico. Another lead ended in Oklahoma, where a man was arrested using Santiago's identity. Investigators worked informants who said he was bouncing around Philly, but the information was always a few steps behind Santiago.

Earlier this year, the task force established that in 2007, Santiago had been living in a house in Philadelphia where a suspected drug dealer was shot to death. The victim was found in his kitchen, facedown in a mound of cocaine, with a bullet in his brain.

Searching the crime scene, police realized the dead man rigged his car alarm beeper to a hydraulic pump in his living room stairs, so that when the beeper was pressed, a stair panel lifted. Police found a kilo of drugs in the staircase.

Authorities did not believe Santiago was the triggerman in this murder but wanted to talk to him in the ongoing investigation.

"Developing and corroborating that Santiago lived at this address is what closed the gap," Plitt said.

With this new lead, authorities quickly established Santiago's new alias and traced it to an address on the 1500 block of Hellerman Street in Philadelphia. Six task force members had their guns drawn Tuesday afternoon when Santiago came out, making a run for his car. He did not put up a fight, they said.

He's in a Philadelphia jail now, awaiting a hearing on extradition to Camden, where he will be arraigned on a murder charge.

"You hope the arrest brings some type of closure to the victim's family," said Wiley, the lead investigator.

Charles Tokley's mother, Carolyn, 66, was working her job as a city crossing guard Tuesday when detectives told her the news.

"I started praising God," she said. "Tears were running down my face."

She hopes to address Santiago in court.

"I want to ask him, 'Do you know the hurt? Do you know the pain?' "

 


Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 856-779-3237 or mnewall@phillynews.com.