May 31, 2008
State stacks deck in cold cases gamble
Prisoners given playing cards with info about missing persons, unsolved crimes
Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
A display shows the 52 playing cards which show a picture and a written description as well as contact information if any information is known about missing persons or unsolved homicides. The cards are being given to inmates in the state’s 57 county jails in an effort to turn up new leads.
In an effort to help solve open missing persons cases and unsolved homicide investigations, the state is distributing packs of playing cards featuring the pictures of victims, along with identifying information, in the 57 county jails.
State Sen. James Seward (R-Milford) announced the program Friday at the Cortland County Jail and other jails in his district.
“The theory is that there’s a social network among inmates in our penal institutions,” Seward said during his press conference Friday morning. “They have time on their hands, time to play cards, and the hope is that seeing these cards … might spark their memory or start that feeling of remorse, and they might start talking about a case and help us solve it.”
The 52-card decks were distributed to inmates at the Cortland County Jail at the end of last week, said Capt. Budd Rigg, who is in charge of the jail’s administration.
“They (the inmates) thought it was quite interesting when they got these cards,” Rigg said Friday morning. “Immediately, we could see a reaction among the inmate population.”
Rigg said his research into a similar program in Florida that has been ongoing for about a year indicated approximately 20 percent of the cases listed on the first deck of cards had been solved with the help of tips from inmates.
“Just because the inmates are in the jail doesn’t mean they can’t have compassion and a heart for their communities,” Rigg said.
The state Senate set aside $10,000 to purchase 7,200 decks of cards for the state’s county lockups, and Seward said the next step would likely be increasing the number of decks distributed to the jails, as well as eventually providing the decks to state penitentiaries.
He said it was a way to “inexpensively help solve some crimes … and bring closure to some families.”
There is also the possibility of the cards being distributed to the general public, Seward said.
Rigg pointed out that the program does not cost the counties any money, and he hopes to eventually receive more than the 70 decks of cards distributed to the Cortland County Jail, which has a capacity of about 70 prisoners — with about 1,000 inmates processed annually, and a turnover rate of about a week for many of the inmates, many more cards are needed.
District Attorney David Hartnett said he hopes the program would continue to be expanded.
“It’s a great project, great initiative, and if we can save one family … from having to go through this, the long wait … than it would be a success,” Hartnett said.
The New York State Sheriffs’ Association will offer rewards for tips that are viable, and the state Division of Criminal Justice Services will provide a toll-free tip line. Rigg said the inmates also have access to phones that ring directly to a confidential tip line, where they can speak freely.
The cards feature investigations that could be as old as 10 years, many featuring age-progressed photographs. Seward said subsequent installments of the program could update the decks as some of the older cases are solved.
Seward said that eventually, if no leads turn up in the interim, a future installment could feature Bethanie L. Dougherty, 40, of Killawog. Dougherty was reported missing from her Jennings Creek Road home on April 3, and extensive searches have not turned up any trace of the woman.
The program originated with Doug and Mary Lyall, whose daughter, Suzanne, has been missing since 1998. The Lyalls founded the Center for HOPE, based in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, to assist other families and to advance the cause of missing and unidentified persons.
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