May 13, 1997
Rewards seldom do good
By Bill Briggs
Denver Post Staff Writer
May 13 - Call now. Operators are standing by.
Some big bucks can be all yours just for answering a few quick questions:
Who tore up the Aurora Hills Golf Course last December?
Who poisoned those four dogs in Littleton?
Who robbed the Colorado National Bank?
Who killed JonBenet?
Almost a quarter-million dollars in reward money is being dangled to help crack those four crimes.
And lots more has been offered in a smattering of other unsolved mysteries as local police, neighborhood groups and grieving families hope the promise of fast cash will flush tipsters out of the woodwork.
Rewards are, of course, a time-honored tradition in law enforcement. A century ago, the government put $5,000 on the head of bank robber Jesse James, leading one of his own gang pals to shoot him in the head for the payoff.
But how often do rewards bring outlaws to justice today? How valuable are they in sparking key breaks on stalled cases?
The answer to both: not very.
"Large rewards do not generate any more information," acknowledged Larry Wieda, president of Crime Stoppers International and a Boulder cop.
"It can help at times certainly," added national FBI spokesman Rex Tomb. "But in an overwhelming number of cases we have, it's not a factor. You have to be selective" as to when you offer money for tips - and when you don't.
Kidnappings are a dangerous example.
Say a child is abducted in Denver. The city is instantly outraged and vows to do whatever it takes to nab the bad guy. A reward for the kidnapper's arrest starts at $100,000 but jumps to $500,000 and then grows to $1 million as worried citizens pump up the pot with donations.
However, someone who knows the child's whereabouts may sit on that information until the bounty stops rising, Wieda says. "They're waiting to see what the biggest bid is going to be." Meanwhile, the child might be sick, injured or near death.
"People will shop the reward," Wieda said. "But if it's standardized, they know it's the maximum that they're going to get." Huge rewards - like the $2 million put up to solve the Oklahoma City bombing - have another pitfall. Such a massive payday might be enough for even a friend or relative to rat out a crook. But defense attorneys can later claim that the tipster merely tailored his testimony to collect the cash. That happened in the case of Timothy McVeigh, now on trial in Denver for allegedly blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killing 168 people. As a potential witness for the prosecution, Tom Kessinger helped the FBI create composite drawings of McVeigh and "John Doe No. 2." But McVeigh's defense has hinted that it may attack Kessinger in court as a mere mercenary who wanted only to pocket the $2 million government reward.
It's a slick defense theory called "reward money as motive." Yet whether rewards begin in the hundreds or stretch into the millions, cash offers don't seem to be a consistent investigative tool.
The Denver Post looked randomly at 10 crimes in the last 24 months - all involving reward money. Arrests were made in two cases, although the bounties apparently were not a factor. Eight of those cases remain unsolved. Many are at a dead end.
Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence is all we have to assess the value of rewards, said Jack Levin, director of the Program for the Study of Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. He knows of no "systematic research that has been done on the effectiveness of rewards." And while rich bounties earn headlines - and bring extra attention for baffling crimes - they also unleash a torrent of tips that are often "meaningless or irrelevant," Levin said.
Look no further than the Ramsey case in Boulder.
John and Patsy Ramsey used their meeting with reporters May 1 to promote a $100,000 reward they're offering to help find the killer of their daughter, JonBenet. Since then, the Boulder County Crime Stoppers tip line has fielded 400 calls.
"Basically it's everyone trying to tell us their theory, who the suspects are and that law enforcement really doesn't know what it's doing," Wieda said. Out of the 400 calls, there were just two that investigators deemed worthy of pursuing.
That's not to say using cash as a carrot for clues is always a total waste. An Albuquerque couple charged last year in the execution-style slayings of five people was turned in by the woman's ex- boyfriend - who earned a $100,000 reward.
And in March, Los Angeles police tracked down the killer of Bill Cosby's son, Ennis, with information provided by a tipster who had called the National Enquirer seeking the tabloid's $100,000 reward offer.
Typically, though, a reward is more likely to work after a property crime or a nonviolent incident that goes down far away from the front pages, say detectives around Colorado.
The ugliest cases - like the murder of 70-year Helen Archer in Fremont County last November - typically bring a flood of calls to tip lines whether there's money available or not.
After Archer was found stabbed to death, her family put up $10,000 to help sniff out her killer. But the tipsters who dialed up police didn't want a penny of the reward money, said Fremont County Sheriff's detective Mike Krauth.
"The people who called just said, 'I want this guy put away,' " remembered Krauth. "It's been my experience that any time you have victims like children or the elderly - cases that are appalling even to bad guys - people don't call because of a reward. Even (most) criminals have a code not to harm children or the elderly."
The same thing happened last month after a teller was killed and a customer wounded during a robbery at the Colorado National Bank in Westminster. Bank officials offered a $100,000 reward, prompting about 150 people to phone in with information.
"I was surprised that a lot of the people I talked to said, 'I'm not calling for the money.' It almost restores your faith in people," said Westminster police detective Dan Mayer.
Still, like the Ramsey case and the Archer murder, the bank robbery remains unsolved. All that money hasn't pried loose any useful clues.
But there is one organization that can lay claim to serious success when it comes to rewards.
Crime Stoppers International - which pays "up to $1,000" for information that leads to an arrest and the filing of charges - has helped clear 624,000 felony cases in 21 years, all while paying anonymous informants $40 million in rewards.
Those tips led to the recovery of $1.4 billion in stolen property and the removal of $2.3 billion in drugs from the streets. And the most impressive stat of all: 99 percent of the people they've helped arrest were convicted.
"It's been tremendously successful," Wieda said. "Crime Stoppers has been able to accomplish this (because) the general population is reluctant to get involved with the justice system, whether it's a fear of coming forward or of having to spend several months in a courtroom testifying.
"This gives them a vehicle to call and give us the information. We don't know who the informants are. We don't ask and they don't tell us." That makes the transfer of reward money tricky.
So once a month, local Crime Stoppers boards meet to analyze the value of their tips and - determine how much of the $1,000 the tipsters should earn. The informants are given a secret code word - usually a color or street name - and told to go to the bank where the reward money is kept in each jurisdiction. (The cash is all privately donated.)
"They drive up to the drive-through teller and give the code word," Wieda said. "The teller puts the money through the tube and the informant drives into the sunset."
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.