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Fighting crime, 1 paper at a time

For 10 years, a man has created a free newspaper in his garage to help find lost kids and thousands of criminals.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Ken Donovan, 54, writes and assembles the Crusader in the garage of his Tampa home and now makes a "modest profit."

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


TAMPA -- Ken Donovan is a crime fighter.

He is not a cop -- though he once played one on Miami Vice -- but he has helped capture 2,127 fugitives and helped find 366 lost children.

Donovan is the publisher of the Crusader, a monthly newspaper filled mostly with mug shots of criminals wanted in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. It also contains snapshots of missing children and usually a sharply worded, front-page editorial written by Donovan.

Against long odds and a thin budget, Donovan has kept the free newspaper alive. In December, he published its 10th anniversary edition.

"I can't let the bad guys win," Donovan says, taking a long drag of a cigarette during a breakfast interview at a neighborhood diner. "Somebody has got to look for real justice."

Donovan speaks like he writes, and it's usually not politically correct. He doesn't care.

Drug dealers are "poison salesmen," "dirtbags," or "scum." Juvenile offenders are "the next generation of prisoners." In the law enforcement system, victims are treated as though they are "unimportant."

Donovan, 54, is at once melodramatic, funny and likable. He is also one of the last people you would expect to start "the nation's first anticrime newspaper," as he refers to it in the paper's masthead.

For years, Donovan was an actor. He has done TV commercials, movies, an educational serial on PBS, even dinner theater. He had a role in a movie called Elvis: The Final Years. He was an extra on Miami Vice and once met Richard Nixon with an acting buddy, a young Christoper Reeve.

At 6-feet-6 and with floppy silvery-blonde hair, Donovan looks a little like Nick Nolte, or possibly Sam Elliott.

Donovan loves westerns, both acting in them and watching them. He likes the good guys and hates the bad guys. Maybe that's why he has fought to keep the Crusader circulating.

"He breaks his back doing this," said Mike Long, a detective in the career criminal unit of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. "He's not in it for the money. He's just truly concerned."

Donovan started the paper in 1992, after his disabled neighbor was beaten and robbed of his van and wallet at a Tampa shopping mall. The men who beat his neighbor turned out to have outstanding warrants, which meant that police were looking for them while they were committing other crimes.

"I was naive," Donovan said. "I thought they put people in jail, and they stayed there."

Donovan complained to his wife about the situation. She challenged him to do something about it.

Donovan had $3,000 in his checking account. What about a newspaper that showed the faces of wanted felons, he thought.

He had no newspaper experience, but he forged ahead anyway. He persuaded Pinellas and Hillsborough Sheriffs and the U.S. Marshals to tell him about their most wanted criminals.

He spent his savings. The first edition was 12 pages and showcased 28 felons. He wrote and assembled the paper in his garage. Four of those felons were soon found.

"I started it thinking it would last but two months," he said. "And we're still here in this little garage."

Ten years later, Donovan's garage is still the newsroom, research area and production space for the Crusader.

Bicycles sit next to his many awards from law enforcement agencies, and photos of Donovan and Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson stand next to autographed glossies of actors such as John Stamos.

A rusty file cabinet holds such Crusader mementos as Donovan's "Sex Predator Trading Cards," which he printed and sent to Hillsborough principals one year.

The paper is not sophisticated or technologically advanced. He still writes his essays on paper -- with a No. 2 pencil -- and then types them into an old computer. He tried putting the paper on the Internet, but it took too much time.

Besides, the people who are calling in tips on criminals probably aren't surfing the Internet.

The newspaper circulates at sheriff's offices, small businesses and bail bonds joints. Donovan sells the paper's advertising and proudly says that many of the original advertisers are still with him.

"My sales pitch is, 'You all really need to be with us,' " he said.

Donovan laughs when he tells this story. It's almost as if he can't believe that he has kept his idea alive this long.

The paper nearly failed in 1997. He had to stop printing the paper for two months after he ran out of money. "It was the most heartbreaking thing that I ever experienced," he said.

Advertisers stepped forward and helped him restart the paper, he said.

Today, he says he makes a "modest profit" with the paper. He has gained national acclaim for his work; ABC news anchor Peter Jennings has interviewed him, and he is a regular analyst on Court TV.

But Donovan is still angry that so many people with warrants -- 125,000 in Hillsborough and 82,000 in Pinellas -- are out on the streets.

Donovan estimates that authorities catch one of every four fugitives that he puts in his paper.

"When I lay the mug shots on the table and look at their faces, I see their victims," he said. "If they're caught, there won't be another victim for a little while."

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