Checkbook Justice: Police Snag Fugitives Using Big Bounties

Rewards go as high as $4 million for information leading to capture of terrorists.

In a criminal justice trend that seems straight out of the Wild West, US law-enforcement officials are increasingly posting bounties on the heads of suspected outlaws.

Wanted posters no longer encourage apprehension "dead or alive." Instead, they offer reward money - from several hundred to several million dollars - in exchange for information that leads to an arrest or conviction.

The crimes range from minor burglaries to acts of international terrorism. But the method being used to nab the alleged perpetrators is fundamentally the same: An appeal to the greed of a suspect's associates, friends, neighbors, or even family members by offering cold hard cash.

Money was the essential lubricant in the 1995 arrest in Pakistan of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the suspected mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing.

It was the key ingredient in the apprehension last summer on the Afghan-Pakistan border of Mir Aimal Kansi, who allegedly killed two CIA employees outside the US intelligence agency's Virginia headquarters in 1993.

And it helped locate the suspected killer of Bill Cosby's son, Ennis, who was shot dead last January while changing a tire beside a Los Angeles freeway.

"Everyone would like to see the utopia where every person is a good citizen and when there is a crime they would come forward with any information they had. But unfortunately, in today's world that is not always the case," says Larry Wieda, a police detective in Boulder, Colo., who has been active in the Crime Stoppers tips program.

Formal reward systems are already in place in most US cities through Crime Stoppers. Under Crime Stoppers, anonymous callers qualify for rewards up to $1,000 if they provide information that helps police solve a crime. In addition, victims' families are increasingly posting their own rewards to help police solve a particular crime.

Checkbook justice isn't just operating locally. Since 1990, the US State Department has offered from $2 million to $4 million to anyone anywhere in the world providing information about terrorism, hijackings, or other acts of violence against the US and its citizens.

The department gets the word out with mini "wanted posters" printed on the back of paper matchbooks distributed throughout the Middle East. Ads announcing the rewards have been placed in a major Arabic newspaper, and the department maintains a Web site to publicize not only who is wanted but also how much money a tipster would receive for turning the suspected criminal in.

"We believe this program has saved thousands of innocent lives through people coming forward, providing us information that helped us resolve or prevent acts of terrorism worldwide," says Andy Laine, spokesman for the State Department's bureau of diplomatic security. "Through our program two-dozen terrorists have been jailed or killed in shootouts with authorities."

Recognizing the value of rewards, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is changing the way it conducts fugitive cases. Starting this year, the FBI is now offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of any suspect listed on the bureau's 10 most-wanted list, says Steven Wiley, chief of the FBI's violent crime section.

The telltale tip

Sometimes a timely tip can save lives. At the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, US officials received information from a source in Bangkok that Iraqi intelligence agents were planning a series of terror attacks against US airliners departing Bangkok. The alleged terrorists had already stockpiled automatic weapons, grenades, and explosives, and were two days from carrying out a bombing at the airport. The advance warning helped US and Thai officials shut down the operation and forced the expulsion of several Iraqi diplomats.

The tipster received a $500,000 reward and was relocated with immediate family members to a home in the US.

But the reward system doesn't always work. Both the Saudi and US governments are offering $5 million in reward money to anyone who can lead investigators to the bombers who hit the US military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996, killing 19 American servicemen. So far, there have been no takers.

Experts say a system of offering rewards can be effective not only because it encourages criminals and their associates to become informants against each other, but also because hefty rewards raise the profile of a case. That can bring witnesses forward who may not have realized they were witnesses to a crime.

But there can also be a downside. Large rewards often generate hundreds or even thousands of false leads from tipsters seeking to hit the jackpot.

When fashion designer Gianni Versace was gunned down in front of his Miami Beach mansion, authorities offered a $65,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspected killer, Andrew Cunanan. Agents were flooded with sightings of Mr. Cunanan, some as far away as New Hampshire and Missouri. Such false leads distracted investigators from the truth that Cunanan was hiding on a houseboat just blocks from the murder scene.

Crime Stoppers

The most active and widespread reward program under way in cities and towns across the country is Crime Stoppers, a nonprofit, privately run organization supported by corporate and other donations.

Although not universal in the US, it is widely acknowledged as a success. Since 1976 when the first Crime Stoppers reward was offered, 610,000 criminal cases have been solved with almost $42.3 million in rewards paid. In addition, more than $2.3 million in illegal narcotics have been seized.

In the past 20 years, Crime Stoppers has gone international, spreading to places including Great Britain, Russia, and Israel. "We have a 99 percent conviction rate on Crime Stopper programs throughout the world," says Mr. Wieda, who is a former president of Crime Stoppers International.

Harvey Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University in New York, says he is discussing with the FBI a plan to set up a nationwide version of Crime Stoppers. In part it would be designed to receive tips about potential terror attacks that would be relayed to the FBI.

"What we want to do is be proactive," Dr. Kushner says. "We are hoping that before that bomb goes off or that person is shot that somebody will make a call and stop that crime from occurring."


Monetary rewards being offered for information leading to the apprehension of elusive criminals:

* Adbel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.

Wanted in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Reward: $2 million from the US State Department.

$1 million, each, from the Airline Pilots Association

and the Air Transport Association.

*r Information on the killing of Navy Diver Robert Stetham during the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.

Reward: $2 million from the US State Department.

* Information on the killing of William Higgins, William Buckley, and Peter Kilburn taken hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Reward: $2 million from the US State Department.

Source: FBI

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