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Bill Brownell, 71; Former L.A. County Deputy Helped Launch WeTip Hotline for Reporting Crime

Times Staff Writer

Bill Brownell, founder of WeTip, a national hotline that helped pioneer toll-free crime-fighting, has died. He was 71.

He died of complications related to emphysema on May 13 at his home in Rancho Cucamonga, said his wife, Miriam.

Brownell, a retired deputy, and his wife created WeTip in 1972 after hearing their teenagers talk about how easy it was for their friends to buy drugs. When Miriam asked why they didn’t report the drug dealers to the sheriff, they said: “You want our friends to think we’re snitches?”

The idea for a telephone tip line, (800) 78-CRIME, which required callers to remain anonymous, was born. If a caller even tries to give a name, the call is terminated -- only the unidentified can avoid being subpoenaed to testify. WeTip assigns code names and numbers to identify those interested in receiving rewards. Over 33 years, almost $1 million has been awarded.

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WeTip stands for We Turn in Pushers, but the hotline quickly expanded to handle many other crimes. It was citizen policing for a modern era and would be joined by another major informant network, Crime Stoppers International, in 1976.

“We are like Hamburger Helper for the police,” Brownell told Associated Press in 2001. “One good tip from us saves a detective about 100 hours of work.”

Law enforcement officers saw the hotline as politically correct vigilantism and a safe way for people to get involved because the anonymity protected callers from retribution. The tips often provided useful clues even if they didn’t directly solve cases.

The nonprofit organization grew from one hotline operator working in the back room of the couple’s beauty supply shop in Ontario to 14 operators handling calls on a busy day operating from a secret location in Rancho Cucamonga. More than 420,000 tips have been called in, leading to 15,000 arrests and nearly 8,000 convictions, according to WeTip statistics.

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“It’s very possible that their numbers are that high,” said Cindy Beavers, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. “They are very helpful, especially to our homicide investigators. Their tips are timesavers for us, and the majority of them provide valid information.”

Brownell’s wife said WeTip averages about 100 crime reports a day or roughly 36,500 a year, which is a fraction of the 24 million personal and property crimes committed in 2003, the latest available Department of Justice statistics. A small percentage of those tips result in convictions.

Still, it was enough for Brownell, who saw the tip line as an attempt to “level the playing field against all those criminals out there,” he told Associated Press. “So hopefully this will live on after we’re gone.”

At first, WeTip relied on volunteers from local service organizations and “a lot of spaghetti dinners” to meet the hotline’s initial $14,000 budget, Miriam Brownell said. Now it is a $1.5-million-a-year operation funded mainly through contracts with corporations, counties, cities and law enforcement agencies.

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It has 40 employees and thousands of volunteers across the U.S.

Four teenagers who called WeTip helped solve the 1983 attempted murder of Los Angeles TV anchorman Jerry Dunphy, Miriam Brownell said.

Informants can receive as much as $1,000 if the information leads to a conviction, but in the Dunphy case three teenagers split $25,000, donated by KABC-TV Channel 7. One of the youths declined the money. It was the first of many times a corporation would sweeten a reward.

Bill B. Brownell -- the middle initial stood for nothing -- was born in Tama, Iowa, and moved to Rosemead with his family when he was 11. After graduating from high school in 1952, he worked with his father for a year in a soap factory, then spent four years in the Navy. He joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1958 but a series of back injuries that began during the Watts riots in 1965 forced him to retire three years later. The couple ran a beauty supply business from 1969 to 1973 before devoting themselves completely to the hotline.

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WeTip played a role in an early crime-buster television show, “Counterattack: Crime in America,” which predated Fox TV’s more successful “America’s Most Wanted” by six years. Presided over by actor George Kennedy, the show profiled cases and urged viewers to call the hotline with information.

It ran on ABC for four Sundays in May 1982, went up against “60 Minutes” on CBS “and died a horrible death,” his wife said. But the money from the dalliance with the small screen paid for WeTip’s telephone lines for a year and allowed the operation to expand to 24 hours a day.

Brownell officially retired in 2002 but worked for the organization until the day he died, said his wife, who remains WeTip’s chief operating officer. Two daughters and one son will continue to lead the organization.

Brownell is also survived by two other daughters and three other sons, 14 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

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A memorial service will be held Sunday at the family’s Rancho Cucamonga home.


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