It’s been almost 20 years since police started looking for Israel Ramos, who was accused of “heinous” child sexual assault crimes in 1999 and became one of Atlantic County’s most wanted fugitives.
The search ended April 5, thanks to a tip, lots of digging on social media and facial recognition software, police were finally able to put handcuffs on Ramos, now 51, as he tried to leave his home in Philadelphia.
Ramos had assumed a fake identity as Juan Vasquez-Perez, was working at an auto parts store and living with a woman.
He’d also managed to avoid interaction with law enforcement for 19 years, according to Detective Anthony Branca of the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office Fugitive Squad, who has been heading the search for five years.
“It was a relief, a weight off my shoulders,” Branca said Monday, when the sheriff’s office announced the arrest. Branca said it was a case that, as a father, especially bothered him. “It was a heinous crime on a young child.”
Branca said Ramos sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl in Atlantic County in 1999 and was eventually charged with aggravated sexual assault, among other charges.
In 2000, police in Cumberland County filed firearm and assault charges against him in connection with a domestic violence case involving Ramos’ then girlfriend, he said.
But Ramos disappeared.
Police were unable to find him and in 2013, his case file fell on Branca’s desk at the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office. He said he spent countless hours interviewing Ramos’ family, friends and acquaintances, and following leads from Florida to Connecticut.
Nothing was panning out until late last year, when he got a tip that Ramos might be staying with a woman in Pennsylvania.
That’s where social media came in handy.
He said that he found the woman’s social media presence and while looking at her Facebook page, found that she was connected with a man named Juan Vasquez-Perez – who had several similarities to Ramos. He was the right age, looked kind of similar, and had a former address that matched Ramos’ old home in Vineland.
Branca said the new photos were sent to New Jersey State Police who ran a facial recognition comparison and found it was a 90 percent match to Ramos’ 1991 mugshot.
Branca said officers from Atlantic County, Philadelphia and U.S. Marshals staked out the apartment in Philadelphia and watched as Ramos walked out the door and to his car. He spotted the officers and tried to drive away, but they quickly moved their vehicles and boxed him in.
He had nowhere to go.
“I think he knew the jig was up at that point,” Branca said.
Seeing Ramos arrested was a big moment, but the trepidation wasn’t over. Because he was arrested on a warrant out of state, he was granted bail in Pennsylvania pending his extradition to New Jersey.
It was a high bail — $750,000 — but if any of his friends or family came up with 10 percent, he could have been released and on the run again, Branca said.
That’s why the sheriff’s office delayed in publicly announcing the arrest, Branca said.
His moment of relief finally came when Ramos didn’t make bail and was extradited to the Atlantic County Jail. He is now being held without bail pending trial on the charges from the turn of the millenium, the detective said.
The case is far from over, but Branca said it still felt “overwhelming” to cross Ramos of the county’s most wanted list after all that time.
“That’s why we do this job,” he said. “That’s why I get up every day. To get people like this off the streets and make things a little bit better.”
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