25 Years of Northern Nevada's Secret Witness Nets 700+ Arrests


Reno, Nev. (AP) -- A community's anger and helplessness following the kidnap and murder of a little girl more than two decades ago sparked what has become a powerful crime-fighting tool -- Secret Witness.

Founders, staff, volunteers and law enforcement representatives marked the 25th anniversary Thursday of the anonymous hot line that has led to more than 700 arrests in the Reno area since its inception in 1979.

It's a success story that shows the power of people getting involved in their communities, said Don Richter, a Reno businessman who spearheaded the northern Nevada program.

Richard Bryan, the former governor and U.S. senator who was Nevada's attorney general at the time, agreed.

"Law enforcement is not just a political responsibility, it's a community responsibility," Bryan said.

While the program uses the lure of money, 80 percent of tipsters decline the reward, Richter said.

"People are just happy to see a crime solved," said Richter, who estimated the program supported by local businesses and residents has paid out about $100,000 over the years. Conversely, roughly $1 million in reward money was refused.

Because it is staffed strictly by volunteers, no money has ever been spent on wages.

Guaranteed anonymity is what makes the program work.

"In an ideal world, every citizen who has information about a crime should come forward," Bryan said. "The reality is, there's people who live in crime-infested neighborhoods, who are fearful of the consequences. They have to go back to that community.

"Secret Witness gives them an opportunity to come forward."

Volunteers field about 200 calls a month. If a caller speaks a foreign language, the call is patched through to a translation center in Dallas that provides interpreters for up to 140 different languages.

Program operators go to great lengths to maintain that confidentiality, Richter said.

The office where volunteers man the hot line 24-hours a day is not disclosed, and callers are given a personal ID code known only to them.

Delivery of rewards is also cloaked in secrecy and sometimes made at unusual places, Richter said.

He recalls one payment being left at the fourth tee at Lakeridge Golf Course at 2 a.m., and another under a garbage can at a rest stop along Interstate 80 east of Sparks.

The push for a Secret Witness program in Reno began in earnest after 6-year-old Lisa Bonham was kidnapped Sept. 3, 1977 from Idlewild Park, where Thursday's anniversary luncheon was held.

The Martinez, Calif., girl was with her family visiting relatives in Reno when she disappeared. Her remains were found two months later in Dog Valley west of the city.

Twenty-three years later, convicted sex offender Stephen Robert Smith was arrested and ultimately confessed to the killing after advanced technology matched his DNA to semen found on Lisa's clothing.

More recently, authorities said tips to Secret Witness were instrumental in solving several high profile cases, including the arrest and conviction of Siaosi Vanisi for the 1998 hatchet killing of University of Nevada, Reno police Sgt. George Sullivan; and David Middleton, an ex-Miami police officer convicted of the 1995 killings of Reno schoolteachers Katherine Powell and Sparks casino worker Thelma Davila.

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On the Web:
Secret Witness: www.secretwitness.com

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