It is 4 in the morning when the warrant squad pounds on the door in Overbrook Park.

"You have a bench warrant for narcotics, sir," declares Investigator Kevin Milligan, his all-business voice incongruously alert in the dead of night.

When Ronald Poindexter, 54, opens the door to his home on Drexel Road, Milligan and other black-clad members of the Philadelphia courts warrant unit crowd inside. The investigator staking out the back comes around front.

The officers quickly cuff Poindexter, who is unprotesting and a touch bewildered, to take him off to prison. He'd blown off his trial a week earlier on charges of possessing a small amount of crack.

"You have to take care of your business, sir, or we wouldn't be here," Milligan, 44, a 10-year veteran, tells Poindexter.

Milligan's unit makes an effective crew. But its numbers are dwindling, and the problem it's up against is enormous. There are 51 officers in the unit, down 17 from a year ago. Their mission: tracking down and hauling in 47,000 people who have skipped court or violated probation.

It's not surprising that warrant officers have described their job as "emptying the ocean with a spoon."

To make matters worse, the people they bring in will often simply be released again.

"It's frustrating. It's very frustrating," said Lt. Daniel C. Stefanowicz, 39, the highest-ranking officer on the street that recent night.

"Because you think to yourself, 'How many times do I have to see this guy?' " he said. "I know the prisons are overcrowded. But enough's enough."

David C. Lawrence, the chief administrator for the Philadelphia courts, said that in an "ideal world," he would have enough people to arrest every fugitive.

"It's not an ideal world," he said. "So you prioritize and hope you got it right."

Throughout this recent night, the 10 warrant investigators crisscrossed Philadelphia in a caravan of dark Ford Explorers, ultimately arresting a dozen people charged with or guilty of sexual assault, drunken driving, theft, harassment - and Traffic Court violations.

The unit fields street squads of about this size around the clock.

The budget is about $3 million yearly. But in serving Traffic Court scofflaws, it collected $8 million in back costs and fees last year, more than covering its expenses.

This year, the unit has averaged 98 arrests per officer of criminal fugitives and probation violators. That's a heavy count, and up sharply from the previous year despite a city job freeze that took a toll on staffing.

Still, each investigator would have to make more than 900 arrests in the coming year to clear the backlog.

"We're bringing in the same numbers as when we were fully staffed," Stefanowicz said. "But the guys are getting tired."

In a recent interview, the unit's longtime commander, Tom Press, said investigators honed their skills to get the job done while defusing possible confrontations.

They have learned to read the signs: a rustle in the upstairs blinds as someone peeks out, a pair of men's sneakers in a house where a female resident says no man sleeps there, too long a lag from an acknowledgment to a door being opened.

"We always have to be aware of our surroundings," Press said. "We never know what we're going to be walking in on."

A warrant officer slain

At the start of the shift, squad members muster up in the roll-call room. They wear black shirts, black cargo pants, and black shoes, and carry black Sig Sauer .40-caliber handguns.

"Guys?" Stefanowicz says at the end of the roll call. "Do me a favor. Be safe."

The risks are real. In 2004, a man sought on two bench warrants started firing through a bedsheet after his girlfriend let officers into their Germantown apartment at 1:40 a.m.

The wanted man got off 19 shots, killing field supervisor Joseph E. LeClaire Jr., 53, and wounding two others. The killer is now on death row.

For this risk, officers are paid from $35,000 to the high $40,000s. By contrast, average pay for Philadelphia police is $56,000.

Before heading out, the investigators hunker down behind computers in their Center City offices.

They mine a variety of databases to develop portraits of their targets and where they are likely to be hiding out. The officers pore over court files, driving and auto-registration records, traffic tickets, voting records, and the unit's own detailed book of intelligence from past arrests. Even Facebook can get a look.

"It's great going out and making the arrests," Stefanowicz said. "But finding them, it's a cat-and-mouse game."

Chains, belts, and an animal noose

At midnight, the unit rolls out. The road gear includes bulletproof vests, ankle chains, restraining belts, and an animal noose.

An early stop this night is in the West Oak Lane section, in the city's northwest. The squad is looking for Thomas Wimbush, 28, wanted for violating probation in his conviction for hitting and sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. Wimbush had failed to show up for two urine tests.

After lights go on in the house, the squad searches the place. They have found fugitives hiding in washers, dryers, and refrigerators.

"He's not there. His girlfriend's there," reports Sgt. Adam Scholl, 27. "She's saying she hasn't seen him."

The unit moves on, leaving a contact number behind. Before the night is over, Wimbush will call and agree to turn himself in.

This marks the second time the unit has arrested him in five months. The last time, he was given new bail and released, only to disappear.

A bit later, the squad is outside the Olney home of Charles Hayes, 50. Six judges have issued seven bench warrants against him. Tonight, he's wanted on charges of drunken driving and contempt.

His elusive trial dates keep getting blown and reset. One of his cases, a charge of verbally abusing his estranged wife, has been in limbo for five years.

He gave himself up without incident.

The squad moves into West Philadelphia, looking for Kenneth Martin, 40. Over the years, Martin has been arrested 16 times, on crimes ranging from drug dealing to forgery to robbery.

This time, Stefanowicz's people want him for ducking a drunken-driving case. After a bit of delay, Martin is cuffed and escorted out into one of the Fords.

Police originally pulled Martin over in January 2008 and charged him with drunken driving. He was released to await a trial in May 2008.

Martin skipped. Police arrested him anew on a burglary charge, this past June, and discovered that he'd been on the lam for 13 months.

He was freed again. He ran once more, blowing off a second trial set for August.

When he was released this year, Martin in effect signed IOUs, stating he would owe taxpayers $3,000 in forfeited bail if he missed court dates. But despite pledges to go after these kinds of debts, the city has never dunned him for the money.

In fact, fugitives collectively owe $1 billion in such forfeited bail pledges, but court officials have said that for decades, no one has tried to collect any of it.

An unsurprising outcome

The night's adventure came to a predictable conclusion.

Martin was released within 24 hours. He again put up 10 percent bail, pledging to forfeit more if he ran, just as he had done twice before.

Poindexter, too, was released the next day. He hadn't had to post bail after his initial arrest, and even after he ran, he was freed without having to put up any money.

Hayes was out within several days, after putting up $300 of $3,000 bail.

As for Wimbush, a judge said at a later hearing that he needed to be placed in a better drug-rehab program, but not returned to prison.

In an interview, his mother, Sharon Wimbush, said her son was innocent. Of the predawn visit from the warrant unit to her home, she said, "My personal opinion? They were pretty decent."

As his tour ground into the morning, Stefanowicz wondered about the point of it all.

"Me, personally, I say to myself, 'Where does it end? How many times do we have to go through this?' " he asked.

"It's almost like, 'We're doing our part. Can't you do yours?' "

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy

at 215-854-4821 or

Inquirer staff writer Olivia Biagi contributed

to this article.