Secret Witness: Where It Came From, How It Works

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RENO, NV - Most people hear about Secret Witness in news accounts. There's been a crime. A reward is offered for information.

What they don't see is what follows.

The phone rings at an undisclosed location. The person, a volunteer answers, "Secret Witness. How can I help you?"

The caller may be afraid to call police directly or they may be motivated by the offer of a reward. Their motive is not important. Their information is.

Each caller is given an identification number and, if they choose, remains otherwise anonymous.

If their information leads to an arrest, they call back and arrangements are made to meet a member of the Secret Witness organization. In most cases, it's yours truly. I've been involved with the organization throughout its history. I'm currently co-chairman of the reward committee.

If they have that ID number, the reward is paid. It's always in cash by the way. They leave with the money. Their true identity protected and unknown.

It's that simple. And it's often successful, no one knew how well it would work 35 years ago.

The inspiration grew out of a shocking crime. The kidnapping and murder of 6 year old Lisa Bonham in 1977. Taken from Idlewild Park on a Labor Day weekend, sexually assaulted and killed, her remains were found months later in Dog Valley.

Frustrated as the crime remained unsolved, local businessman Don Richter began looking for a solution which led to Secret Witness.

It began close to home. In fact, right here at KOLO. Richter asked and News Director John Howe agreed to answer the phone while the organization looked for a more permanent location.

"I never identified myself," says Howe. "The person, he or she, never knew they were calling a newsroom."

After a year or so, other arrangements were made. Today the phone is answered at another site.

Lisa Bonham's killer was identified 23 years later. Secret Witness played no role in his arrest, but it has solved more than three dozen other murders.

In January of 1999 UNR Police Sergeant George Sullivan, a family man with five kids, was hacked to death by a man who set out to kill a cop at random.

After a day and a half there were no leads. Then a caller to Secret Witness identified the murderer as Siaosi Vanisi.

"Secret Witness played a huge role," says Sullivan's widow, Carolyn. "The Secret Witness tip was the only way they were able to track Vanisi down."

Vanisi was located and after a standoff with police was arrested in Salt Lake City that night.

The quick arrest preserved evidence that would help convict him.

Today he's on death row at the Maximum Security Prison in Ely.

There have been hundreds of other success stories large and small, but many more crimes remain unsolved.

If you have information on any crime call Secret Witness. ,Or you can text 847-411 keyword SW or contact us on line at

For victims, for law enforcement, for the community itself,Secret Witness works.

"No matter what's happened to us in the past, we need to move forward," says Carolyn Sullivan, "and Secret Witness is a way for this community to move forward and keep us all safer."

Secret Witness is a non-profit organization with a civilian board of directors.

Its reward fund is supported by a list of sponsors. No government funds have ever been used. It's staffed by unpaid volunteers.

As its founder, Don Richter is fond of saying, "We're a lean, mean crime-fighting machine,"