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'Wanted' Billboards Cropping Up Across U.S.

Associated Press/LISA CORNWELL | November 25 2005

Comment: How long before these billboards bear the faces of 'political dissidents' and other enemies of the state?

CINCINNATI -- Wanted posters offering rewards for Jesse James and other outlaws were a common sight in America's Old West. Now a modern twist on that idea is showing up increasingly across the country: wanted billboards.

Many of the billboards, which typically include a suspect's photo or a sketch drawn from witness descriptions, have resulted in tips leading to an arrest.

Eight of the 10 suspects shown on billboards in the Kansas City, Mo., area have been arrested, seven of them because of the billboards, authorities say.

And police in Passaic, N.J., say a billboard was instrumental in catching a man charged in the stabbing death of a police officer's son.

"This is an idea that is working fabulously," said Lt. James Wood, leader of the Major Crimes Unit of the Passaic County prosecutor's office.

A high-profile supporter of the billboards is John Walsh, host of Fox's "America's Most Wanted."

"We reach a lot of people through television, but billboards are seen daily and serve as a constant reminder," said Walsh, whose 6-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered in Florida 24 years ago.

But the billboards raise concerns for Marc Mezibov, a defense attorney in Cincinnati, where the city's first went up recently.

"If a client's face and name were posted on billboards ascribing some horrendous crime to him, I would certainly raise issues with the court about whether he could receive a fair trial," he said, adding that he might request the trial be moved.

Tips from one of the billboards in Kansas City led to the arrest of a man in the 2002 slaying of 19-year-old Ali Kemp. Roger Kemp, who found his daughter's body at the swimming pool where she worked, said the idea came to him while driving.

"I was looking at billboards one day and thought, 'Why not try that since so many people drive by them every day?'" Kemp said.

He asked Lamar Advertising Co. about renting a billboard, but the company offered to donate one to post a suspect sketch and hot line number for anonymous tips. Some billboards also include reward information.

Police were somewhat hesitant at first.

"We thought a generic sketch could create false leads," said Sgt. Craig Sarver, coordinator of the Crime Stoppers program of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission.

The billboard was so successful, however, that other area law enforcement agencies have been calling to get photos of their fugitives put on billboards, Sarver said.

So far, advertising companies have donated at least 14 billboards, whose values run from about $1,500 to more than $5,000 each.

The Cincinnati billboard, donated by Norton Outdoor Advertising, has led to some tips on the whereabouts of Michael Anthony Mitchell, 35, who is charged with shooting a man to death over a parking spot.

"Even if not every subject is caught, this creates a better awareness of crime and the need to do everything possible to stop it," said Chuck Kreimer, director of Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Crime Stoppers.

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