Secret Witness turns 40 this year – here’s how Northern NV businesses play a major role in funding rewards
Special to the NNBV
“I carry my daughter with me every day,” says Patricia Quick, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Every minute of every day.” It’s a Friday afternoon in Reno, and Quick is talking about her late daughter, Holly Jean Quick, who she lost nearly 13 years ago in one of the must unimaginable ways possible for a mother to endure. “Things like this change your life forever,” Patricia continues. “Nothing feels right or normal. So I guess just getting up every day honors her — because she can’t.”
At age 16, Holly was brutally raped and murdered in her bedroom in Sparks on Sept. 14, 2006. For nearly a week following her death, Sparks police detectives worked day and night trying to solve the heinous crime.
No arrests had been made, no strong suspects had been pursued.
That all changed with one phone call.
Someone called Secret Witness, a Reno-based nonprofit organization that allows people to anonymously give information on a crime. The caller tipped Secret Witness off to Tamir Hamilton, a friend and former roommate of Holly’s older sister.
After Secret Witness notified the Sparks Police Department, detectives found evidence at a home in Spanish Springs that linked Hamilton to Holly’s attack. Hamilton was arrested and booked in the Washoe County Jail on the day of Holly’s funeral — where Hamilton was supposed to be a pallbearer.
For Patricia, the seven days between Holly’s death and Hamilton’s arrest was “an excruciating pain” that she can’t explain or put into words.
“The unknowns and the whys and all of those questions … they don’t stop,” she added.
Making matters all the more harrowing was the fact that Hamilton was a person Patricia had “considered family.” Betrayal. Anger. Guilt. Patricia said she felt all of these emotions — along with “some you didn’t even know you had” — after finding out who was responsible for her daughter’s rape and murder.
“There’s a rush of feeling like, oh, this can’t be true because this person wouldn’t do this, so this is just a bad dream,” says Patricia, her eyes still wet with tears.
On March 28, 2008, Hamilton was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He remains on death row at the Nevada State Prison in Ely. After years of appeals, the Nevada Supreme Court in April 2018 unanimously rejected a petition to overturn Hamilton’s conviction and death sentence.
Patricia said it scares her to think what might have happened with Holly’s case had it not been for the anonymous tip line Secret Witness provides the Northern Nevada community.
“They possibly wouldn’t have had that evidence had this person not called in,” she said. “Without the public having a place to go to express their concerns without having to give their name, I believe so many people would not come forward (if that wasn’t available).
“That is very true with the person who did (come forward) in my case. If (the person) had not, (Hamilton) could possibly still be out there. And that is a very frightening thought; not just to me, but also to the public.”
• • •
Indeed, Secret Witness tips have played a pivotal role in solving some of the most violent crimes the greater Northern Nevada region has seen. This includes the 1998 murder of University of Nevada, Reno Police Sgt. George Sullivan and the 2008 rape and murder of 19-year-old Reno native Brianna Denison. In the early morning of Jan. 13, 1998, Sgt. Sullivan was ambushed and killed by a man with a hatchet. Following a Secret Witness tip, the fleeing suspect, Siasoi Vanisi, was arrested two days later in Salt Lake City. Vanisi was convicted on Oct. 6, 1999, and has been on death row since.
On Jan. 20, 2008, Denison, a sophomore at California’s Santa Barbara City College, was home visiting friends during college winter break when she was abducted while sleeping on a friend’s couch near the UNR campus. Nearly a month later, Denison’s body was found in a south Reno field.
The convicted killer, serial rapist James Biela, was turned in by one of his girlfriend’s friends through a Secret Witness tip on Nov. 1, 2008. Biela, who is also on death row, recently had his second appeal denied by the Nevada Supreme Court.
“We have great men and women who work in law enforcement, but Secret Witness fills that void of helping get that information out into the community in a rapid manner,” Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam told the Nevada Appeal. “That’s why it’s critical to make sure that we keep Secret Witness around, because it’s a great tool for us when we’re looking for that violent offender.”
As a recent example, Balaam pointed to the June 2018 murder of 20-year-old Paul Dobbins in the Galena area of south Reno. Thanks to a Secret Witness tip, less than a month later, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office detectives were able to determine two suspects — 22-year-old Jamil Geronimo and 21-year-old Tyler Hernandez — had fled to a residence in San Diego.
“We sent investigators down there, reached out to San Diego (authorities), and that’s how we were able to apprehend them,” Balaam said.
• • •
Secret Witness was formed four decades ago by a group of Reno citizens in response to the murder of 6-year-old Lisa Bonham. In 1977, Bonham was abducted from Reno’s Idlewild Park and her remains were found a year later near Verdi. Local businessman Don Richter was at the helm of launching the anonymous tip line, said Mike Hix, former chair and current board member of Secret Witness.
Since Secret Witness began taking calls in 1979, the nonprofit has received over 80,000 anonymous tips. All told, its tip line has grown from receiving roughly six calls a month in the early years to now more than 200. These are tips that have helped solve more than 3,400 crimes in the Reno area, including 40 murders, according to the nonprofit.
Hix said the Reno-based organization does not keep statistics that break down “tips received” versus “tips that led to a conviction.” In other words, they do not track the success rate of their tips.
When asked if the WCSO keeps track of its arrests that were aided by Secret Witness tips, Sheriff Balaam said, “Unfortunately not,” adding, “but that’s probably one (stat) we should keep.”
This year, Secret Witness has received 872 calls through June, including 167 online tips made from Reno-based computers, according to the organization. The crime category with the most tips thus far has been drugs (143), followed by bodily assault (110), robbery/thefts (94) and homicide (37).
When a person calls the tip line, they speak to a Secret Witness volunteer who has been trained by a local dispatcher to ask the right questions. Calls are then filtered to the appropriate law enforcement agency based on the crime’s location, Hix said. Secret Witness, he noted, even has a multi-language line.
Which begs the question: Who are these people taking Secret Witness calls and where are they located? Hix told the Nevada Appeal the nonprofit doesn’t want that information made public due to the risk of retribution from committed criminals.
• • •
“It’s been nice not meeting you.” This is something Hix says after he hands an envelope of cash — ranging from $50 to over $2,000 — to a Northern Nevada resident. Sometimes this takes place behind a 7-Eleven, other times in a parking lot, almost always in broad daylight. No, Hix is not purchasing illegal drugs during these interactions — let’s make that perfectly clear. Hix is handing out reward money to community members whose tips led to arrests and convictions.
“The payment of the rewards is always in a weird spot,” Hix said. “Because in a lot of cases, they’re totally freaked out. They’re worried that somebody will see them getting money. But we’ll go where the person wants us to go to pay the reward because that’s the place they want to stay anonymous.
“I’ll also say to them,” he continued, “if we’re in the mall and we pass each other, I might remember you, but I’m not going to act like it. That’s part of honoring the anonymity.”
At no point does Secret Witness ask for a caller’s name, age, address, anything. Each tipster is given a unique code to write down and — if their tip helped solve a crime — they give that number to the Secret Witness board member during the cash exchange to prove their secret identity.
“We don’t know names at all, we only have code numbers — all we care about is the code number,” said Hix, adding that in very rare instances a caller will forgo their anonymity and ask to be sent a check.
• • •
To date, Secret Witness has paid out more than $300,000 in rewards to anonymous tipsters. Rewards range from $50 (graffiti/tagging) to $1,500 (armed robbery) to $2,500 (murder). While some callers may be purely motivated to snag the nonprofit’s cash reward, the majority of callers are simply trying to help local law enforcement bring criminals to justice. In fact, says Hix, only 25 percent of people whose tip leads to an arrest and conviction ask for the reward money.
It’s a fact that might shock some. Not Sheriff Balaam.
“Being from this community all my life, no matter what occurs, I’ve always seen that willingness to help,” Balaam said. “And you see it here, even though it’s an anonymous tip, they just want to help. This community always comes together and I think that’s just rolling over into Secret Witness. They’re looking to just get that individual or individuals off the street and they just want to help.”
From the folks answering phones to the folks handing out reward money, Secret Witness is 100 percent volunteer-based — no staff, no salaries, no office. The nonprofit’s expenses include telephone and text lines, which are funded by grants, and, most importantly, reward money.
So, where does Secret Witness get the cash to pay anonymous tipsters? The Northern Nevada business community foots the bill.
Specifically, Hix said, businesses — banks, car dealerships, construction companies and more — sponsor the program with lifetime commitments of $10,000, meaning only after Secret Witness has been successful in solving a crime do businesses get billed for their proportional amount of the organization’s annual expense.
Because of the sheer number of sponsors, the proportional amount billed to each sponsor averages between $200 and $400 per year, according to Secret Witness.
Added Hix: “I don’t think anybody’s ever paid over $300 for a year.”
When the businesses are billed, the nonprofit reports which crimes were solved and how much in reward monies were paid out thanks to Secret Witness and, in turn, its sponsors. Hix said showing sponsors the direct impact their contributions make goes a long way.
“If I’m a business owner,” he said, “getting a bill that says my hundred dollars helped pay rewards that solved all of these crimes and kept this community safe, it’s an easier check to write.”
One such business is Lamar Advertising, a national outdoor advertising company with a Reno-Lake Tahoe office that does more than just contribute to rewards. For the past four years, Lamar has been donating the use of its digital billboards to help Secret Witness seek information on area crimes, said regional general manager Matt Strohfus.
“Anytime they have a wanted or missing (person) or even just a person of interest, they can contact me and give me a picture and can we have it on the streets within 10 minutes,” Strohfus said. “It’s something we feel is our duty to make sure that we’re able to communicate to the public and the community.”
Notably, Secret Witness also accepts individual donations from the public.
• • •
For Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong, Secret Witness’ importance over the past four decades can’t be overstated. “They have worked with us on some of the most grueling investigations that Carson City has seen — (cases) that have taken years and years to resolve,” Furlong said. One such case was the four-year investigation into threats made against Carson City Justice Court Judge John Tatro. The investigation began in December 2012 when deputies responded to reports of shots fired at Judge Tatro’s front door in the early morning hours.
A year later, the judge received a Christmas card with the phrase “You will die” written inside. The third incident occurred in May 2015, when the suspect attempted to ignite several milk jugs filled with rubbing alcohol and several used and unused matches, according to previous reports.
Furlong said Secret Witness helped keep the lengthy investigation “very high on people’s minds” over the four years. In the end, it was a tip to the sheriff’s office, not Secret Witness, that led to the arrest of the suspect, John Aston.
Aston was later found to be a positive DNA match to evidence found at the crime scenes. He died in prison in October 2017.
“We really had to join hip with all of the newspaper agencies and Secret Witness in order to resolve that case,” Furlong said. “It was unbelievable, the legwork and the cooperation and coordination that we used with Secret Witness and the media outlets.
“I don’t think that most people recognize that their small little piece of information might result in a major case resolution. It’s those little pieces that often make the difference in a prosecutable case versus a non-prosecutable case. And Secret Witness provides for one of those avenues.”
Sheriff Balaam agreed.
“Secret Witness plays in integral part in helping law enforcement get the message out to the community and get those individuals that may not feel comfortable calling law enforcement directly,” Balaam said. “And over the years those tips have played an integral part in solving a lot of crimes in our community and bringing those people to justice.”
• • •
Last month, on June 19, 2019, Patricia Quick and her family, friends and supporters gathered at the Holly Quick Memorial Garden at Sparks Marina Park. The annual event, put on by Alliance for Victims’ Rights, started in 2009 to honor Holly and victims like her. Patricia noted that the Home Depot in Spanish Springs donated supplies to build a butterfly-shaped garden in memory of Holly, who was fond of butterflies. Each year, Patricia said, victims of violence and people who’ve lost family and friends to violence are handed out live butterflies that they release in memory of their loved ones.
“The butterfly memorial isn’t just there for families, it’s there for anybody that is touched by violent crimes,” said Patricia, wearing a necklace with a sparkling butterfly pendant. “Sadly, we have to add more names to the wall … for victims of violent crimes.”
This, Patricia said, is why Secret Witness is such an important program to have in Reno-Sparks, and why it’s equally important people continue to support the nonprofit.
With that in mind, Patricia said she would like people to consider donating $40 to celebrate Secret Witness’ 40th year of making the region a safer place to live and raise a family.
“It should be in every community, not just ours,” Patricia said. “Because the world is changing so fast. There are so many people out there who need the community to come forward because there’s so much crime.
“I believe when you step up and call in your thoughts and questions and suspicions, you’re possibly giving somebody their life back — some closure to that life.”
• • •
Through most of its 40 years of operation, Secret Witness’ future has not been threatened. The only hurdle, says Hix, stems from the 2017 Nevada Legislature, when lawmakers approved SB212. The bill established a statewide program called SafeVoice, an anonymous reporting system used to report threats to the safety or well-being of students. Secret Witness has a school program, including a Reno-Sparks phone line, a Carson City phone line and a text line. Unlike Secret Witness, SafeVoice is funded by tax dollars and does not pay reward money.
“SafeVoice is a great program,” Hix said. However, “I went down to Carson and I’m saying (to the lawmakers), ‘we’re not saying you shouldn’t do this, we’re saying you already have it. You already have something that’s being funded by the public and not taking any taxpayer dollars.’”
Since SafeVoice’s inception, the Secret Witness school program’s tip numbers are down, said Hix, who did not have specific numbers available.
“But,” he added, “we are continuing to work hard to promote the (Secret Witness) program in the high schools and middle schools, knowing that the program has been a huge success.”
Overall, though, Secret Witness shows no signs of slowing its role in making the fast-growing Northern Nevada region a safer place to live. For the next 40 years and beyond, anonymous calls, texts and digital tips will roll in, crimes will be solved, and thousands in cash will be rewarded.
Go to secretwitness.com to learn more.
Government officials attending the summit included Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen (District 32), Mineral County Commissioner Chris Hegg, Mineral County District Attorney Sean Rowe, and Lyon County Manager Jeff Page.