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Fla. Budget Could Cost Crime Stoppers

Agency Offers Cash Rewards To Anonymous Tipsters

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – First Coast Crime Stoppers, the nonprofit agency that helps police solve crimes in Jacksonville, the murder capital of Florida, is in jeopardy because of Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget cuts.

Crime Stoppers covers six counties in northeast Florida -- Duval, Nassau, Clay, Baker, Bradford and Union -- and allows people to anonymously call, text or submit a tip online. Tips leading to an arrest can result in a reward of up to $1,000.

"I think it would be a devastating blow to the city," said Wyllie Hodges, executive director of First Coast Crime Stoppers. "People will tell you anything as long as they feel comfortable that they can remain anonymous and not have to go to court. Nobody knows who they are. That's what makes the program unique, different and what makes it work."

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Since the agency was founded 7½ years ago, tips to Crime Stoppers have solved 87 murder cases, many of which were cold cases.

"These are cases, in a lot of cases, the police have absolutely no info on. The program works," Hodges said.

Three years ago, a tip to Crime Stoppers led police to Raymond Bright, a man who later admitted and was convicted of killing two people with a hammer on Sibbald Road in Jacksonville. Bright was sentenced to death.

A Crime Stoppers tip also led Jacksonville police to an abduction suspect in the killing of Michelle McCoy earlier this year.

And though the Crime Stoppers phone system went down for several hours last month, a tipster was still able to notify police of the whereabouts of a suspect in a fatal hit-and-run crash on Beach Boulevard.

The state pays about $300,000, or about 75 percent, of First Coast Crime Stoppers' annual budget. That money goes into a trust fund.

"We're not costing the state a nickel," Hodges said. "We're not costing the citizens a nickel. The bad guys are paying this. This is coming from fines, additional fines. They're having to pay into this trust fund."

But that could change under Scott's proposed budget.

"Our concern is with the trust fund," Hodges said. "We were a little bit protected, and if our money moves into the general revenue, which is what is being proposed, we're vulnerable for any time they need money."

"The governor's proposed budget does not eliminate Crime Stoppers, just shifts funding from trust fund to general revenue," said Amy Graham, Scott's deputy press secretary. "This will ensure more accountability and increased efficiency."

Crime Stoppers pays $100,000 to $200,000 in rewards each year. But if the money's no longer there, the agency may have to shut its doors.

"If there's any senators or legislators listening, or people that know them, please speak to them on our behalf," Hodges said. "We got too much crime in Jacksonville. We cannot afford to lose a program that is helping solve crime."