Authorities play a new card in bid to clear unsolved crimes

Associated Press
Published March 3, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH - First came celebrity poker for charity. Now, inmate poker with a purpose - closing cold homicide and missing-persons cases.

Figuring no one knows more about unsolved crimes than criminals, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office will deal out playing cards to its jails' inmates displaying information on 52 victims whose murders or disappearances are unsolved - including a potential reward for tips.

The hope is to generate conversation among inmates and close some of the county's more than 250 cold cases dating back 40 years.

Polk County already has initiated the program to great success, arresting two murder suspects and four fugitives based on tips generated from the cards. Other agencies around the nation are considering similar plans.

"Who knows better where and who these criminals are than the people they deal with, the other criminals," said Wayne Cross of Heartland Crime Stoppers, who worked with Polk County officials on the first batch of cards last year.

He said the idea came from playing cards distributed to U.S. troops in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion. They bore the names and likenesses of that country's most wanted fugitives, including the Ace of Spades, Saddam Hussein.

After Polk's success, the idea caught on with other law enforcement agencies in Florida.

Cross said cards are being printed for Hillsborough, Collier and Lee counties and Pensacola. The state Department of Corrections has expressed interest in putting them in prisons. Palm Beach will distribute up to 3,000 decks to about 2,500 inmates in a few months. Funds seized in arrests will pay the $7,500 cost.

The decks include a guide on poker rules, listing how the hands rank. And Crime Stoppers will offer rewards for tips leading to arrests.

Thursday marked 11 years since Anne Marie Russo's daughter, Teresa, was found shot to death in her car in West Palm Beach. The unsolved case will be in the first batch of cards.

"Anything they can come up with is good news," Russo said. "There's never going to be closure. ... But getting an arrest and conviction, that's at least something."