Much has changed for local Crime Stoppers in 35 years, but legitimacy stays the same

CHAMPAIGN — The call came into the phone in Gary Spear’s office at the Champaign Police Department in the early-morning hours of Feb. 22, 1988, the same morning two women were murdered at a home in the city.

Police suspected that a person of interest, the son-in-law and brother-in-law of the victims, had already fled the state, but the caller said different.

He not only offered the name of the suspected killer — Harry Lee Gosier, who later pleaded guilty to the crime — but said he knew exactly where he was.

“He said, ‘He’s going to be leaving on a bus to Chicago, and he’s hiding at this location right now,’” Spear said. “I took as much information as I could, quickly.

“I took that information, and I went immediately to the SWAT team and to the detectives, and within several hours, everybody was mobilized and they had the house surrounded, and they had Harry Lee Gosier.”

Spear didn’t know the name of the tipster. He never knew the identities of the people who called the line that Champaign County Crime Stoppers installed in his office.

He’ll never forget the call, though.

Before that, Champaign County Crime Stoppers was an outside organization trying to gain the trust of Champaign police and other departments close by.

“I think I realized that in the following weeks, maybe month or so, when we started getting calls from other detectives in other departments saying, ‘We just got this tip from Crime Stoppers. If they call back in, ask them this question.’

“I started to see that type of activity increase. I think that’s when I sat back and thought, ‘I think they’re starting to buy into this program now.’ And we’re starting to see police departments say, ‘This is valuable.’

“We’re not trying to steal their thunder, because we don’t want the thunder,” Spear added. “We just want them to make the arrest.”

In the decades since, the organization’s only president, John Hecker, said that Crime Stoppers has gained the “unqualified support of all law-enforcement agencies in Champaign County.” Since the organization’s inception in 1986, it has received 24,171 tips, assisted in 1,770 arrests and paid out $160,160 in rewards.

While the organization can flaunt its statistics, like the 23 weapons it has helped recover this year, leaders are hesitant to detail specific cases — particularly recent ones, like Wednesday night’s fatal shooting of Acarrie Ingram-Triner, 19, of Rantoul, the 13th person to lose their life to gun violence in Champaign this year.

Even so, in recent months and years, Hecker said, people have become increasingly appreciative of the organization.

“I think there’s a heightened sense of awareness from community members that I haven’t seen, really since the inception of this program,” he said. “I’m a townie, and basically, eight, nine, 10 years ago, you had these crimes happening nowhere near as frequently, and they happened in one area of town, usually at about 3 a.m.

“Now, they can happen anywhere at 3 p.m. One of the most recent homicides happened at 5:30 p.m. near the intersection of Kirby and Mattis. … I think people are realizing, ‘This can happen in my backyard.’”

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In 1976, a man was murdered at a gas station on a relatively busy street in Albuquerque, N.M. Despite the fact that there were most certainly witnesses, no one came forward.

Frustrated by the lack of information, police Officer Greg MacLeese decided to stage a re-enactment to be played on a local news station, according to interviews he’s given since. He offered $1,000 for a tip leading to the arrest of the suspect.

After the re-enactment aired, a man came forward with information that led the police to the killer. Thus, the idea for Crime Stoppers was formed.

“He knew that there were people who had information but weren’t coming forward, and that’s certainly true today,” Hecker said. “One of the biggest reasons they weren’t coming forward was fear of retaliation. That if their name was labeled with that information, the bad guys were going to come back and get them.

“The other thing was that some people just don’t want their names in the media; others don’t want to testify in court.”

Champaign County’s version of the program began 10 years later. That’s when Hecker was approached by Champaign Deputy Police Chief John Gnagey, the first law-enforcement coordinator for the nonprofit organization, and University of Illinois police Chief Paul Dollins to become its first president.

Spear laughs at the memory of how crude certain aspects of Champaign County Crime Stoppers’ original operation seem when compared to today’s technology. A phone line was set up in Spears’ office, where he originated the department’s Crime Analysis Unit. Spear would man that phone from 6 a.m. until he left at 3:30 p.m. each day, at which time that line was transferred to the UI Police Department, where it was manned by desk employees.

When tipsters called in, Spear would take down the information given and relay it immediately to investigators in his office. He’d then give the caller a number with which to identify themselves in the future and tell them to call back in a few weeks to see if their tip resulted in an arrest and, thus, a reward up to $1,000 that was decided by the organization’s board.

Paramount to the success of the organization, Spear said, was gaining the tipsters’ trust.

“There were people who would give us their name because they wanted the reward. I would say, ‘We’ll give you the reward, but I do not want your name,’” Spear said. “If you’re going to blurt it out, we’re done. We’re not going to go any farther, because it ruins the credibility of our program.

“We spend lots of money, right now and even back then, we spent so much time trying to make people believe us that this is totally anonymous. We never, ever, ever tried to find out who a caller was.”

When a cash reward was approved, Spear said he would put money in an envelope and set up a clandestine meeting between the tipster and a Crime Stoppers volunteer in a public place with a significant amount of foot traffic.

The Crime Stoppers representative would have some sort of unique identifier that Spear would relay. The handoff would happen quickly, and the two sides would go their separate ways with little more than a few words spoken.

Today, the process is significantly more sophisticated.

When calls come in, they’re routed to a company in Canada called Northern Communications, where identifying information is stripped. A random number is then given to the caller, who is answered by employees of a company called Alternative Answers. Information is taken down and recorded in an app called “P3 Tips.” Tipsters can also submit directly to the app or at champaign

The fact that calls are routed to Canada is not random happenstance. Canadian law protects the information that might identify a tipster, Geoff Coon, the agency’s current law-enforcement coordinator.

“Perhaps during discovery, the defense could trace the tip back to a certain individual or they could subpoena the records, something that might put a person in a position where they would have to testify in court,” Coon said.

The way money is paid to tipsters, Spear said, is also more sophisticated technologically nowadays, although he declined to go into detail about the process.

Procuring that money has changed as well, and it’s never been easy. From the start, fundraising was an issue.

“We used to go out and just try to beat the bushes to get donations and do cold-calling and that kind of stuff,” Spear said.

In 1996, a “crime fee” was instituted in Champaign County for defendants who were found guilty. A portion of that fee goes to Crime Stoppers, although recent legislation was passed to give defendants the ability to petition to waive those fees.

Hecker said he hopes to increase the maximum payout to as much as $10,000 in the future, but that depends on fundraising. The organization recently set up a GoFundMe page to support its gun-bounty program, which automatically pays out $1,000 to tipsters in cases that involve a gun. That the local chapter is run entirely by volunteers also helps.

“We are very hopeful and very desirous of increasing that amount,” Hecker said. “We feel that will entice more people to come forward, if we can increase that amount. Of course, that’s coupled with, we’ve got to make sure we have enough money in the bank to do that. And so, that’s a challenge we’re confronting right now.”

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Of course, a tip from an anonymous source cannot necessarily be used in court in the same way information from a witness who comes to the police.

Coon’s predecessor “used to say that a tip is an arrow to point us in the right direction,” he said. “Very rarely on its face is it enough to act directly upon. A lot of times, it does require additional law-enforcement investigation, law-enforcement resources, to rise to probable cause, to rise to the situation where we make an arrest in a particular situation.”

The tips, though, may not have been procured otherwise. Previously, Spear said, there wasn’t an organized way to provide anonymous information other than simply calling the police and declining to provide personal information.

“I think that’s the beauty of Crime Stoppers,” Spear said, “is that we gave them the system where they could do that, and they could do it efficiently and effectively and they would know that that information was going to the right people all the time.”

Strategies to make people aware of the organization are constantly changing.

In his 13 years as a night-shift supervisor, Coon said he noticed that people would linger around crime scenes, but they wouldn’t always be willing to talk with police. So recently, Crime Stoppers decided to put up sandwich-board signs at crime scenes telling witnesses how to contact them with tips.

“It wasn’t uncommon for people not to want to answer their doors or to not want to be seen talking to the police,” Coon said. “However, several months ago, I was at a scene near Hickory and Bradley, and a lot of traffic was taking the side street to drive by the police officers as we were securing the residents for a search warrant.

“And there was an inordinate amount of traffic that was going down this side street, and it was simply for the fact that they were curious about what we were doing. We thought about how curious people were about what’s going on. They may not want to talk to an officer, but if they’re looking at this police tape that’s surrounding this area, they’ll see information on how to submit a tip.”

And when those calls do come in, they can pay for themselves. For instance, Spear said, the caller who spoke with him about Gosier, who was given a $1,000 reward, paid for his own reward many times over.

“The question is this: If he had gotten on that bus and gotten to Chicago, and then gotten on another bus and gone anywhere in the United States, how long would it have taken us to find him?” Spear said. “How many dollars would it have taken for detectives to find this guy? How many hours? Because in a case like this, every detective and most of the department is working on this case, on a double homicide like this. Everybody is devoting time to this.

“The expense would have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time we found him one month, two months, three months, who knows how many months later.

“Those cases take hours and hours and hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars if it would have taken him a couple of months to find him,” he added. “Crime Stoppers, we paid that person $1,000, and within hours, we had him in custody thanks to one call and one person who was anonymous, and we will never, ever, ever know who that person is.”