03/03/2006

Fla. SO hopes playing cards for prisoners will help solve old cases

By BRIAN SKOLOFF
Associated Press Writer

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.- First came celebrity poker for charity. Now, there is prisoner poker for help in solving old cases of homicide and missing persons.

Figuring no one knows more about crimes committed than criminals, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office plans to deal out playing cards to jail inmates displaying information about unsolved murder or missing persons cases.

The reward for inmate tips: a potential $1,000 (euro833).

"Who knows better where and who these criminals are than the people they deal with, the other criminals," said Wayne Cross of Heartland Crime Stoppers, who worked with law enforcement in Polk County to roll out the first batch of cards.

Investigators hope the plan will help them close some of the county's more than 250 cold cases dating back 40 years.

Polk County, just east of Tampa, initiated the program last year. Sheriffs there have arrested two murder suspects and four fugitives based on tips generated from the cards. Other agencies around the nation are now considering similar plans.

Cross said the idea came from cards distributed to U.S. troops in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion, displaying the names and likenesses of that country's most wanted fugitives, including the Ace of Spades, Saddam Hussein.

Cross said cards are also being printed for three other Florida counties and Pensacola. The state Department of Corrections has expressed interest in distribution in prisons and agencies in Boulder, Colorado, and Odessa, Texas, are exploring the idea, he said.

Palm Beach will dispense its cards in a few months, distributing up to 3,000 decks to about 2,500 inmates. At least indirectly, the inmates will be footing the $7,500 (euro6,250) cost because it will be covered by funds seized in arrests, said sheriff's Capt. Jack Strenges.

The decks also include a how-to guide to playing poker, listing the best hands in descending order.

Wendy Balazik, of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the Florida initiative is the first time the group has heard of such innovative efforts to closing cold cases.

"Agencies are always looking for new ways to solves crimes and this sounds like a great idea," Balazik said.

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