Claimants for reward failed to call tip line

Many seek the $40,000 for capture of Johnston, but they only called police

August 26, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- The number of citizens who want dibs on Norman Johnston's $40,000 reward seems to be growing faster than the escaped killer's whiskers did during his 19 days on the run.

But no one, it seems, thought to call the appropriate tip lines to get a code that would make him or her eligible for the cash.

So it might make one wonder: If a killer is on your doorstep knocking over flower pots, whom do you call first?

Should you call Crime Stoppers first to get your code? Or should you first call the cops to get the killer off your porch?

There are an awful lot of people who called 911 to report they may have spotted the elusive Johnston, who broke out of a state prison Aug. 2.

Do they all deserve a reward?

First, there was the couple from Mendenhall, Pa., in whose driveway Johnston was nabbed Friday morning.

If they didn't call police to report hearing noises, they reasoned, the cops would not have been there at the right moment to see Johnston trotting up their driveway.

"A trooper mentioned the reward right away," said Rick Mercurio, who helped signal a state police helicopter with a flashlight to help them find his home after hearing noise outside Friday morning. "They said they would call us, and we told them we'd have a big party for them."

Tuesday, businessman Tim Honey gave $1,000 of his own money to Mercurio and Ellen Baldo, saying they showed a "positive example of leadership."

Then, there's the woman who, a day earlier, called police to report seeing a man driving a stolen Oldsmobile that Johnston was suspected of driving. If she hadn't called police, she argues, the state trooper who later spotted him in the area might not have been there to chase him, right?

And there's the guy who owned that stolen green Oldsmobile. He thinks he should get a piece of the reward because if he had not reported the car stolen in the first place, cops wouldn't have known what Johnston was driving, and then the woman who spotted him wouldn't have spotted him and then the trooper who chased him wouldn't have chased him and then Johnston wouldn't have bailed out of the car and been walking up that driveway in the first place.

"You can see the problems that can develop. Everybody calls 911 and there are arrests made every day," said John Apeldorn, president of Citizens Crime Commission, one of the agencies that offered a reward for Johnston's capture.

"This is why we have to operate by rules," Apeldorn explained. "We can't give everyone who calls police a reward. We have a lot of people who post rewards for victims and entrust us with their life savings. The rules protect them. Otherwise, anybody could call and claim the money."

Apeldorn said neither Mercurio nor anyone else appears to be eligible for the reward.

The rules are basically the same for both the crime commission and Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers, the two nonprofit agencies that offered up to $1,000 each for information leading to Johnston's arrest.

Under their terms, rewards go only to those who call the agencies' tip lines to obtain a special code that they may later use to collect the reward.

Peggy Severine, state coordinator for Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers, said the agency's board of directors planned to meet today to discuss whether to award any of their reward money. "There's multiple claims to the reward," she said. "But ultimately, the decision is not up to state police. It will be up to the individual or agency who put up the funds."

Chester County, Pa., District Attorney Anthony Scarcione, who put up $5,000, said he's hopeful some money will be given to those who are entitled.

"There's a lot of different agencies involved," he said, "and even some anonymous individuals who contributed. It may take time to figure it all out."

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