Copyright 1993 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
October 17, 1993, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 4; Page 4; Column 3; Week in Review Desk
LENGTH: 974 words
HEADLINE: THE NATION: Wanted: Hot Leads on Cold Cases; Now Bounty Hunters Can Make Out Like Bandits
BYLINE: By STEPHEN LABATON
THE prices on the "Wanted" posters are going up.
Earlier this month, the Federal Government offered $1 million to anyone who helps crack the 15-year-old "Unabom" case -- the hunt for the bomber whose parcels have maimed and killed executives and professors.
And last month, the Clinton Administration offered its second $2 million reward in the World Trade Center bombing case. It said the money would go to anyone providing information leading to the capture of Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the bombing of the World Trade Center who may have fled to Iraq. Over the summer, the Administration made a similar offer for information about another suspect, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. He is also believed to have escaped to Iraq, although investigators think he may have gone from there to Iran or Afghanistan.
While million-dollar rewards are still rare, the trend toward them seems to be rising much faster than inflation can account for. After United States troops were sent to Panama in 1989, President Bush approved a $1 million bounty for information that would lead to the capture of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was hiding in the Vatican diplomatic mission. The money was never paid because Mr. Noriega gave himself up.
Some private groups and other countries have offered seven-figure rewards, including the Colombian Government's bounty earlier this year of more than $6 million for the capture of Pablo Escobar, one of the leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel. But in the United States, by and large, Federal and state agencies have posted more modest offers -- in the $10,000 to $50,000 range for killers and kidnappers.
And private bounties seem to be getting larger as well. For many years, armored truck companies and art galleries have offered large rewards when they have been the victims of robberies. But a recent offer by the film star Winona Ryder of $200,000 for the safe return of a 12-year-old girl kidnapped at knife-point from her California home has struck some law enforcement officials as unusually generous. Like the girl, Polly Klaas, Ms. Ryder is from Petaluma and began her stage career in a local theater at age 12. She decided to offer the reward after seeing a segment about the case on "America's Most Wanted."
What has changed things?
Officials say that high-profile, high-stakes cases -- like the World Trade Center explosion and the serial mail bomber -- put enormous pressure on investigators. And when the trail starts to grow cold, sometimes the only way to keep an investigation going is to tantalize the public with lottery-sized jackpots.
"A million dollars tends to wonderfully focus the mind," said John C. Killorin, a spokesman for the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "It's a fair assessment to say that when an agency comes forward with a reward offer, it means that either the leads have run out or there are just too many of them out there."
The firearms agency is one of three Federal agencies, along with anonymous private donors, to jointly offer $1 million for information that leads to the conviction of the serial bomber. Mr. Killorin said it already prompted more than 1,200 calls offering tips, although the case still remains far from being solved. He said the agencies will divvy up the reward if more than one person offers clues that crack the case.
Do bounties work? Sometimes. Of course, governments have offered them since before the founding of the Republic. One of the earliest Federal laws on the subject was adopted in 1899, when Congress authorized the Government to provide rewards to anyone who helped turn in those who failed to pay taxes. And earlier this century, rewards played an important role in the Government's enforcement of Prohibition laws forbidding production or sale of liquor.
Because big rewards are rare and Federal and local agencies account for them in different ways -- most lump them in with their payments to street informants, for example -- it is hard to compare such programs. But officials say the largest is probably the Internal Revenue Service's program that gives informants a portion of what the Government collects (up to a $100,000 maximum). Between 1967 and last year, the I.R.S. paid more than $21 million to recover more than $1 billion in unpaid taxes. Some rewards reached the full $100,000, and officials think those are the largest government bounties collected.
Civil libertarians and defense lawyers say they are generally less troubled by rewards offered to the public than by other kinds of inducements -- like payoffs to informants. Still, they are worried when the awards get so big that they encourage crackpots. They can also taint a trial when a jury begins to consider how much money was paid to help catch the defendant. The large awards, they say, can be big incentives to those tempted to violate civil liberties and privacy rights.
Vivian Berger, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who teaches law at Columbia University, said that because the rewards are usually offered to the public at large and paid only after convictions, they are not as problematic as payments to an informant who may have participated in a crime or to someone who can entrap a defendant. She also said that rewards, "to the extent that they are not humongous," are less likely to "skewer the reliability of information."
Still, some rewards encourage abuses anyway. Last year, the Internal Revenue Service received 10,966 claims for prizes. It awarded 671.
"Some of the complainants are people who are disenchanted with their neighbors, spouses or employers," said Johnell Hunter, an I.R.S. spokeswoman. "They don't always work out very well. We don't publicize the program just for that reason. We don't want a rush of unhappy people ratting on their neighbors without cause."
GRAPHIC: Photo: Ramzi Ahmed Yousef is wanted in the World Trade Center bombing case, with a $2 million Federal reward offered. (Associated Press) LANGUAGE: ENGLISH LOAD-DATE: October 17, 1993