by NATHANIEL NELSON
Since the 1990s, the Winona Area Crimestoppers (WACS) has been bringing the community together to help local law enforcement find the edge in tough cases. With its anonymous tip line, community members can call in tips for a potential reward, and tipsters can remain anonymous.
WACS Board Chair Wayne Valentine has been on the board of directors for the past 25 years now, and has seen dozens of cases solved through the help of the WACS tip line.
On the first Tuesday of every month, the WACS Board meets at the Winona Family Restaurant along with members of local law enforcement agencies, including the Winona County Sheriff’s Office and the Winona, Lewiston, and Goodview police departments. There, they discuss current cases to see which areas need help and where anonymous tips may be of help. In the case of an arrest and conviction, the board votes on whether a person who provides information gets a reward, which can range from $50 to $500.
“Over the years we have given out numerous rewards for those who provide those tips to law enforcement,” Valentine explained. “Several years ago we had a major drug bust that came about as a result of tips, and we paid a reward of $500.”
WACS’ tip line is completely anonymous, Valentine explained. Callers are forwarded directly to the Winona law enforcement center and put in contact with the correct agency, and the board never sees who made the tip –– law enforcement handles all of the payout.
According to Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude, when someone calls the tip line, they are given a reference number and told to call back later to check in on the case. No name or phone number is necessary. If a tip leads to an arrest and conviction, tipsters can call in and request the reward, and arrangements can be made to pick it up. The way that happens varies from person to person, Ganrude said.
“If they are rewarded money, we will find a way to get it to them,” Ganrude said.
WACS is only there to help connect the dots, and it does so in its own hands.
“We do all our own fundraising, and we don’t get any public funds,” Valentine said.
These fundraisers range from presentations at schools to get the word out to pancake and fried chicken dinners, where all the money raised goes straight to the reward pool or back to law enforcement. Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack explained that the police have been involved in several fundraisers in the past.
When calling in a tip, many people get nervous about the prospect, Bostrack said. People worry about whether they might be found out or pursued by someone related to the crime.
“It allows for an anonymous tip process, which does help lead us down a potential path for investigation,” Bostrack said.
According to Bostrack, the Winona Police Department typically gets between four and 10 tips every month. Some lead to convictions while others help build cases, he explained, and every month the department discusses those tips with the WACS Board, which then decides whether those tips are due a reward. The department also shares current cases, calling for information from the public when needed.
“They’ve been very supportive of law enforcement, and it’s a good information-sharing group,” Bostrack said.
Another program offered through WACS is the “Fast 50” program, which is geared toward Winona County students. If students have information about a crime, regardless of whether it leads to a conviction, they might be eligible for a $50 reward.
“Good information toward solving a crime can make a quick $50 for a student in schools, and that encourages people to call in information if they have some,” Bostrack added.
Bostrack explained that the community group helps close the gap between the public and the police, giving those who might be willing to help that extra incentive they may need.
“It’s a great group,” Bostrack said. “We certainly appreciate being a part of it.”
For WACS members, the real reward is seeing justice served.
“I think the ultimate goal is that all of us are against any type of crime,” Valentine said. “The satisfaction for all of our members is that we know we have helped law enforcement get a criminal off the streets.”
For more information visit https://winonaareacrimestoppers.com/. Those with information about a current case can place a tip on the WACS website or by phone at 507-457-6530.