The $500,000 in reward money for tipsters in last month’s sniper shootings will remain in limbo until officials go through a long and involved process to figure out who deserves a share, Maryland officials said Tuesday.
Though the reward money was collected during the three weeks of sniper attacks from more than 930 donors, a newly formed panel of law enforcement officials must decide who contributed to the capture of the two sniper suspects and how much those contributions are worth.
“Do not be upset if the process takes a while, if it does not take place immediately. We want to be very careful,” said Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who will head the group. Its members include officials from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Montgomery County Chief Executive Douglas M. Duncan said answering questions about the disposition of the reward money was less important than getting money to the victims and their families before the holidays. Duncan presented almost $116,000 that was raised in excess of the reward fund’s $500,000 cap to the United Way Healing Fund at a news conference.
“We have suspects in custody, our community is safe again, and we’ve got the luxury of time to make sure that we get it right, that we make the right decisions on who gets the reward money,” Duncan said.
David Weaver, Duncan’s spokesman, said the reward panel would be “an extension of the task force” formed to help capture the sniper suspects, and it may include local prosecutors.
The law enforcement and prosecution representation is deemed necessary because the reward process faces a number of obstacles. Officials must decide which of the 60,000 tips were valuable and which arrived first when the area was terrorized by the snipings. They are seeking to avoid being accused during trials of paying for witness testimony. There is also the possibility of lawsuits over the distribution of the reward.
Weaver said Moose has already heard from lawyers representing several tipsters.
Although officials would not speculate or discuss specific cases, beneficiaries could include a Richmond-area parish priest whom one of the suspects called, the man who alerted police to the suspects’ location in a Maryland roadside rest stop and a Washington state resident who told investigators that a neighbor had been using a tree stump for target practice. A caller who reported seeing a car believed used by the snipers near a shooting could also be in line for a reward.
“This is not going to be resolved any time soon,” Weaver said, stressing that reward money would be only for information that led to the arrest and indictment of suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17.
Deciding how to distribute such a large reward fund could be a big headache, said Richard W. Carter, executive director of Crime Stoppers International. Crime Stoppers considers the timing of tips “most important” in cases where there are multiple claims for a reward, Carter said, providing all information was useful in making an arrest.
Carter said that if a second caller also provided valuable information to a case he might, for example, consider splitting the reward 75% to 25% in favor of the first tipster.
Carter added that the size of the reward could lead to more complications and more claims, including lawsuits, and he said “a few” large rewards have wound up in the courts.
Duncan also used Tuesday’s announcement to appeal for more donations for the victims. “In this season of giving, I would ask that we all find it in our hearts to help the families of those” affected by the shootings, he said.
Contributions to the fund came from 33 states and three foreign countries, including $151,000 Duncan said was raised by Coachella Valley, Calif., developer Tim Blixseth, who was present for the announcement Tuesday in Montgomery County.
“I think that we have reached out and touched the heart of America,” Blixseth said.
His donation joined $50,000 that Montgomery County used to start the fund and $100,000 contributed by the state of Maryland.
Tuesday’s donation comes on the heels of the disbursement of about $260,000 to local victims over the weekend.
On Monday, the Washington-based Victims’ Rights Foundation announced that it had distributed about $18,500 to each of the snipers’ 14 victims or their families.