Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Northeast Kingdom Crime Stoppers.
Since Oct. 22, 1986, callers to 748-2222 have been able to provide anonymous tips about local crime and in some cases qualify for cash rewards. Northeast Kingdom Crime Stoppers began as a partnership between St. Johnsbury police and local businesses during a rash of break-ins and other unsolved crimes.
"It was a group of concerned citizens and business owners," said Barbara Schoolcraft, who was executive director of the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce when the program began and remains on the Crime Stoppers board of directors serving as its treasurer. "There was a concern with some increased criminal activity. Crime Stoppers was a way for communities like us to take some action to help reduce crime."
On the police side, a young St. Johnsbury police officer named Mike Bergeron was appointed the first NEK Crime Stoppers Coordinator. Bergeron, who would later rise through the ranks and eventually be elected Caledonia County Sheriff, oversaw the program from 1986 until being elected sheriff in 1998. He was given the job by then St. Johnsbury Police Chief Bruce Pratt. Bergeron said that over the years the strategy of getting the public more involved in helping police has proven to be a productive one.
"Bruce Pratt spearheaded it," said Bergeron. "We'd get about 200 tips a year. We'd help solve about 20 cases a year...arsons, burglaries, all kinds of stuff. One tip in every 10 helps solve a crime."
The new coordinator of Northeast Kingdom Crime Stoppers is Detective Sgt. Jennifer McGarvin of the St. Johnsbury Police Department. McGarvin is taking over the job from former St. Johnsbury Police Chief Richard Leighton. McGarvin's job is to get the tips that come in from the tipsters and to the investigators. She said the program remains a key part of the department's emphasis on community policing especially in the area of generating leads.
"It's another avenue to open lines of communication," said McGarvin Wednesday. "It's difficult to solve a crime when you don't know what's going on out there and some people might be uncomfortable coming forward if they know something. Crime Stoppers provides an incentive in terms of the possibility of getting a reward and there's a level of comfort there knowing that their name will not used and they'll remain anonymous."
The system has remained basically the same for 25 years. Tipsters who call the Crime Stoppers line will talk to an officer or dispatcher who will ask them several pre-determined generic questions such as what the tip is and whether anyone else might have have knowledge of the information. The tipster will not be asked for their name and will be assigned a "tip number."
The information is put on tip cards to be filed and checked out.
The tip number can be used when a tipster calls back to check on the status of a case or to seek a cash reward. Rewards are not given out for every tip that leads to an arrest and the amount paid out varies. Those decisions are decided on a case by case basis by the Crime Stoppers board of directors. It is also board members who arrange for anonymous delivery of reward money.
"They (tipsters) call us back and give us their tip number. I take that information to the board and in some cases a reward is offered," said McGarvin.
Reward money comes almost entirely from private donations from businesses and individuals. The program used to get some of its reward money from restitution programs but not anymore.
"That hasn't happened in quite a few years," said Schoolcraft. "The money comes from private donations. There is no other way to make it work."
The St. Johnsbury version of the Crime Stoppers was inspired on the original first in the nation Crime Stoppers program which was started in 1976 in Albuquerque, N.M. According to the Crime Stoppers International Web Site, an Albuquerque police officer frustrated with the lack of leads following an unsolved murder at a gas station organized a re-creation of the case that was broadcast on a local television station. The broadcast resulted in a tip from someone who remembered hearing a gun shot near the gas station and seeing a car drive away.
Armed with new information Albuquerque investigators were able to arrest two suspects within 72 hours on murder charges.
Donations to Northeast Kingdom Crime Stoppers can be sent to: Crime Stoppers, PO Box 4111, St, Johnsbury, Vt., 05851.