Lure of big money not enough to break Nova Scotia cold cases

A Nova Scotia program that offers up to $150,000 to those who can provide information on major crimes isn’t attracting many callers.

That’s led criminologist Michael Boudreau to say it might be time to scrap the program.

In the almost 14 years since it started, the Rewards for Major Unsolved Crimes program has received 163 tips, according to the Department of Justice. That’s about 12 tips per year on average.

“That’s somewhat surprisingly low,” said Boudreau, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.  

The program began as a tool to help police solve cold cases by offering a substantial cash reward. The program seeks tips on unsolved homicides and missing persons cases considered suspicious.

Only 3 tipsters paid

The money is awarded for “information that leads to the arrest and conviction of a person(s) responsible for a major unsolved crime,” according to the department’s website.

Only three tipsters have actually been awarded money in that time. Two were given $150,000 while a third received $100,000.

Michael Boudreau is a professor criminology and criminal justice at St. Thomas University. (Jon Collicott/CBC)

The latest award, in 2018, went to a caller who was paid $100,000 for a tip that led to the arrest of Elmer Higgins.

Higgins faced a double murder charge in the 2012 deaths of Earle Stewart and Matthew Hebb in Sheet Harbour. But Higgins had a chronic health condition and died awaiting trial. 

In 2014, the program paid $150,000 to a person who came forward with information in the 2011 Melissa Peacock homicide. Peacock’s body was found in Upper Stewiacke in 2012.

Dustan Joseph Preeper and his brother, Joshua Michael Preeper, are serving life sentences in that case.

Another reward in the same amount was handed out in March 2016 in connection to the 2010 murder of Ryan White in Halifax. That same year, Kale Gabriel was sentenced to life in prison for the second-degree murder of White.

A person who came forward with a tip that led to charges being laid in the murders of Matthew Hebb and Earle Stewart. The tipster in that case was paid $100,000. (Submitted by Kirtley Beaver/Facebook)

There are 101 unsolved cases that are part of the program, from the 2018 shooting death of Ryan Nehiley in Halifax to the 1985 double homicide of Jack and Micheline Hulme, in Lunenburg County.

“Overall, over this long period of time, that’s a fairly low success rate,” said Boudreau. “Why is the province continuing to operate the program? Maybe they need to revisit it because it doesn’t appear to be working that effectively.”    

Problem not unique to Nova Scotia

But he said many programs that offer money for crime tips in Canada have the same problem.

“Arguably, from a more pessimistic perspective, these are not very effective programs, but they allow governments to say, ‘Well, we’re doing something to try and help,'” said Boudreau. 

Ryan Nehiley was shot to death on Clovis Avenue in Halifax in 2018. (Nova Scotia Department of Justice)

One of the reasons more tips don’t come in, according to Boudreau, is that most people aren’t that interested in the money.

He said most people phone in tips for altruistic reasons and because they want justice.

As a result, most tips come in shortly after a crime is committed. Once a case goes cold, few tips come in despite the potential for a big payout, he said. 

Province sees program as successful

Despite the low numbers, the province still views the program as a success.     

“If this program has assisted victims families find closure when a person has come forward with information leading to the arrest or conviction of a suspect — if the program can assist even one of those families with finding closure — then we would define that as a success,” said Heather MacDonald-Chisholm, a case manager with the Department of Justice.

But she the program can be improved.  Part of that could be a higher public profile to generate more calls.

Rickey Walker was shot to death in 2016. He was found behind John McNeil Elementary School in Dartmouth. His death is unsolved. (Submitted by Brandon Walker)

“The Rewards for Major Unsolved Crimes program does give police another tool to help solve crime, so while a person may feel like a tip might not be of value it’s really important if they have any information to call,” she said.

While Boudreau questions how well rewards programs work overall, he said they do have some benefits. 

“If this program of offering money for tips keeps the public engaged and aware of the case maybe that’s a good thing. If it jogs someone’s memory … but often times that just doesn’t happen.”

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