BARTOW – A.G. “Chip” Brown Jr. remembers the call that came in not long ago, letting him know that in Winter Haven, that there was a drug operation going on – but not the kind involving cocaine or marijuana.
Instead, the tip was about a “moonshine” operation – or an illegally produced distilled beverage, sometimes known also as Mountain Dew or Hooch.
Brown, the executive director of Heartland Crime Stoppers, said that took him by surprise.
“That was quite an unusual one,” he said. “I said, ‘Moonshine, are you serious?’ That raised my eyebrows.”
Brown’s office was advised that someone was in possession of moonshine at a Winter Haven address. The tip was forwarded to the Polk County Sheriff’s office, which went to the home and seized 13 gallons of moonshine, and arrested Willie Lee Smith, 51, and charged him with possession of moonshine, a third degree felony. As it turned out, the moonshine was valued at $390.
“I think he had picked up the moonshine from out of state and brought it in and had 13 gallons of it at the home,” Brown said. “He had paid $30 a gallon for it. I don’t know what the retail value was, but that’s what he had.”
Heartland Crime Stoppers, an agency that assists law enforcement officials in Polk, Hillsborough and Hardee counties, just paid out a reward to the tipster who let them know about the moonshine operation. On Monday, Feb. 27 the agency provided $2,720 in rewards to 16 tipsters at the Heartland Crime Stoppers’ monthly meeting, since those tips resulted in the arrest of 19 people. In another high profile case, a tip on drug activity in Lakeland resulted in a father and son being arrested and charged with manufacturing marijuana, also a third degree felony. The father was identified as Willie Murray and his son, Willie Murray Jr., and during the investigation, Polk County detectives confiscated marijuana plants valued at $1,000.
Brown said those awards, and the arrests, are a reminder of the important role that his agency plays – and, by extension, the role that the public plays by providing those tips – in fighting local crime.
“We started our organization as the Polk County Crime Stoppers in 1995,” Brown said. “We are now doing business as Heartland Crime Stoppers because we expanded and now cover Polk, Hardee and Hillsborough counties. It’s part of a worldwide organization that actually started back in 1976 out of Albaquerque, N.W. We have 34 Crime Stopper organizations in the state of Florida alone, and there a Florida Association of Crime Stoppers.”
The agency is funded, as it turns out, by the state – although in actuality their money comes not from Florida taxpayers, but from people who get arrested and end up in court. Those defendants are required to pay court costs, and that money helps fund Crime Stopper agencies like Browns’.
“There is a fee that has been mandated by the state Legislature, a $20 fee assigned to all criminal cases that go before the court,” Brown said. “It’s funded through Tallahassee. When the money is collected, it comes back to us in the form of a grant through the Attorney General’s office. It’s not taxpayers’ money, it’s money that is collected through cases that go through the court. The clerk of the court gets to keep $3 for the administration of it, and the reminder of it goes through (Florida Attorney General) Pam Bondi’s office in the form of grants to the counties.”
Before the Crime Stoppers network was established, anyone could call their local police department or sheriff’s office to provide a tip about criminal activity. What’s different about Crime Stoppers, though, is that the tips can be made anonymously – and they stay anonymous.
“That is the main thing,” Brown said. “Typically when people call the police department, they want your name and address and that ends up in the police report, so they don’t want to give that information to law enforcement. They can call our tip line and they’re never asked their name. They’re assigned an ID number and that’s all we know them as, that ID number. When it’s determined that the information provided by the tipster results in an arrest or the recovery of illegal drugs, then they’re eligible for a reward. It’s like a points system depending on the charges. Our board of directors meets once a month and goes over all the tips that were submitted that are eligible for rewards.”
In addition to providing that money, calling a Crime Stopper tip line allows people to help fight criminals without being afraid they could get targeted for retaliation, he said.
“We never ask their name,” Brown said. “We don’t want to know their name. If we do, they become informants, not tipsters, and there’s a big difference in that. With us, they don’t have to worry about their name getting into the police report, because sometimes there’s a lot of hesitancy about that. This way, it encourages them to turn the information over to Crime Stoppers instead, and it’s a real good tool. It’s an opportunity for the people who don’t really want to get involved, but you put a little money as an incentive, and that turns their mind around.”
Heartland Crime Stoppers encourages anyone with information on criminal activity to contact them by phone (1-800-226-8477), text (text “tip196” plus the information to 274637), or by logging on to the web site at heartlandcrimestoppers.com.
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