$500,000 reward is latest challenge in sniper attacks

Authorities must decide which tips were critical and how to split the cash

Search For The Sniper

October 26, 2002|By Stephanie Hanes and Laura Barnhardt | Stephanie Hanes and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Now that police have made arrests in the sniper case that terrorized the Washington area, they face a more mundane mystery: How should the $500,000 reward be distributed?

Law enforcement officials - who received thousands of tips during the three weeks of shootings - will determine which ones were important enough to merit some of the money, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said yesterday.

He put off more specific answers, pointing out that no money will be distributed until suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, are indicted.

But authorities have ruled out one tipster: a truck driver who called police with the location of the suspects' Chevrolet Caprice early Thursday from an Interstate 70 rest stop in Frederick County. The trucker, Ron Lanz, has said in television interviews that he would give his reward money to the families of those shot and killed. But authorities said he was not the first to call about the car and therefore would not receive any money.

Montgomery County and the state established the reward fund - for information leading to the sniper's arrest and indictment - with $150,000, said county spokeswoman Donna D. Bigler. A California businessman then donated $50,000.

From there, she said, "the money started pouring in." The county received donations of $2 to $17,000, from people across the country and as far away as Belgium.

"I think it was a case that just horrified people all over the world," she said.

Montgomery officials decided to limit the reward at $500,000, directing further donations to funds for the victims of the sniper attacks.

Rewards are used throughout the nation and have been a part of fighting crime for centuries, even though experts say there are few studies, if any, that analyze their effectiveness.

In 18th-century England, "thief takers" were compensated for their help finding and arresting criminals, said Chris Hertig, an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania and an expert in crime prevention.

"It was a government-sponsored reward system where the thief taker got 40 pounds plus the property on the person of the arrestee," he said.

Today, tipsters are not encouraged to do any sleuthing themselves. But Margaret D. Cooper, the president of Crime Stoppers USA, an organization whose local affiliates offer an anonymous tip line and $1,000 rewards for information that leads to the arrest of felons, said some people seem to use the rewards as an income boost.

"A lot of them are repeat callers," she said. "They're in the know of criminal activity and use it as a money-making venture."

Most of the people who call Crime Stoppers, however, are not interested in the reward, she said. About 80 percent never call back for their money.

There are rewards in noncriminal cases, as well.

Sandra D. Jordan, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor who used to prosecute white-collar crime, said informers under the Whistleblowers Act can collect substantial awards - as much as 30 percent of the money the federal government recovers - for pointing out fraud.

"Some people have gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars or more," she said.

The Internal Revenue Service has also paid money to informants who reveal substantial fraud, she said.

The $500,000 reward for sniper information is high for a criminal case, experts said, but it's not the largest ever offered.

There is a multimillion-dollar reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden. A $1 million reward is posted for Eric Rudolph, who is accused in the bombing of Olympic Centennial Park in 1996, a bar and two abortion clinics.

Sometimes rewards are offered by victims' families or people who want to help find the killers, but law enforcement agencies offer most of the cash. For example, the FBI offered a $440,000 reward for the capture of seven men who escaped from a Texas prison last year.

In 1999, Philadelphia authorities had trouble figuring out how to divide $30,500 offered for the capture of Norman Johnston, who escaped from a Pennsylvania prison where he was serving four life sentences for murdering four teen-agers. Because people who called police to report Johnston didn't use the designated hot line number, there were questions about their eligibility for the reward.

In the end, the money was split among two people who called police with sightings of the fugitive and the K-9 Search and Rescue Team of Lancaster County, which helped track down Johnston.

In Baltimore County, the $10,000 offered for information leading to the arrest of Joseph C. Palczynski in 2000 was never awarded, in part because the killer and hostage-taker was slain after a four-day standoff with police.

One of the hostages, Andy McCord, contacted homicide detectives to try to claim the $10,000. But police said his 911 call as Palczynski barged into his apartment didn't qualify as a tip, nor did it lead to an arrest, according to police spokesman Bill Toohey.

In Montgomery County, police say distributing the sniper reward money is a task they will get to later.

"We're just celebrating the information that we were able to release [Thursday], and we'll begin to deal with that tomorrow," Montgomery County police spokesman Lucille Baur told reporters yesterday.

Sun staff writer Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.

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