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COVER STORY : Arresting Drama : With 'Reality' Cop Shows Helping Crack Tough Cases, Beverly Hills Police Turn to TV Viewers to Solve Slaying

November 27, 1994|SUSAN STEINBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The cameras started rolling. An actor playing a gunman snuck up behind another actor dressed as a Brink's guard, raised his pistol and fired. The guard crumpled to the sidewalk, and the gunman seized the bag of money and hurried away.

Two months earlier, on Sept. 6, this scene had been played out in real life: Guard Dennie Plese was shot dead in a robbery outside Manufacturers Bank in Beverly Hills. Now a television crew was re-creating the brutal murder for the TV crime show "America's Most Wanted."

TV at its sensationalistic worst?

Not to Beverly Hills Police Detective Tom Linehan, who invited the "America's Most Wanted" crew to the scene of the crime.

Coached by the program's producer, Linehan patiently stood before the camera, telling and retelling the facts of the case. Linehan has high hopes that the publicity will lead him to the murderer.

"A murder is like a puzzle. The more people we can reach through shows like this, the better the chances are that someone will give us a piece of information that will lead to an arrest," he said.

Linehan's optimism is well-founded. Law enforcers say reality-based crime shows have produced impressive results, helping to solve cases across the country.

The two top shows, Fox's weekly "America's Most Wanted" and NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries," attract millions of viewers--and thousands of tipsters who dial the programs' toll-free numbers to pass on tips to police. The programs enable law enforcement agencies to broadcast a fugitive's photograph or composite drawing to homes from Key West, Fla., to Weed, Calif.

"With law enforcement (budgets) being cut, and since our ratings are so high, (law enforcement) reaches out and calls us," said Tony Zanelotti, West Coast producer of "America's Most Wanted." "They can't beat our 10 to 15 million viewers."

Representatives of "Unsolved Mysteries," whose format covers not only fugitives but also lost loves and missing heirs, say 40% of the suspects the show has identified by name or photograph have been caught since the show premiered in January, 1987.

"America's Most Wanted," which celebrated its seventh season this year, claims the clues it has presented have led to the capture of 329 fugitives, more than a third of the criminals it has profiled.

"There is something like 280,000 fugitives in the country, and I know that 329 is just a little dent," said Donna Brant, a reporter for "America's Most Wanted." "But a lot of these cases wouldn't be solved without us."

Some of the successes have come in local cases.

Homicide Detective Dan Andrews of the Los Angeles Police Department's Wilshire Division says eight of his cases have been featured on "America's Most Wanted," "Unsolved Mysteries" and NBC's recently canceled "Prime Suspect." Most of them, he says, have been solved with the help of tips from viewers.

One such effort is expected to culminate this week with the sentencing in Los Angeles of Franklin LeGrand Perkins, who was convicted in the murder of Lee Selwyn, a popular disc jockey who worked at clubs on the Sunset Strip.

The case illustrates not only that reality crime shows can help law enforcers, but also that the critical information does not always come immediately.

On Oct. 8, 1988, Selwyn and some friends were riding motorcycles and got into an argument with the driver of a red and white Ford Bronco. The driver of the Bronco chased Selwyn and forced his motorcycle into a telephone pole on La Cienega Boulevard, according to police.

When the "Unsolved Mysteries" story about the Selwyn case aired on Jan. 11, 1989, the response was overwhelming, said Los Angeles Police Detective Dan Andrews. It was the first time the LAPD's Wilshire Division had ever had one of its cases featured on one of the reality-based programs, which were new at the time.

"That show generated about a thousand clues," Andrews said, referring to the tips the show's telephone operators took down during the program. "We had boxes of computer printouts to go through."

Yet the detectives, Andrews said, were unable to come up with a suspect.

"At first we kept hanging on to the hope that there would be closure. But as years passed, I didn't think he'd be caught," said Lori Selwyn, Lee Selwyn's sister.

But as the show's popularity grew, "Unsolved Mysteries" was syndicated and its reruns began airing on several channels--with the high-profile Selwyn murder case often being shown.

"We would get a flurry of clues every time the (Selwyn) program would air," said Andrews, the only LAPD detective who has remained on the case since its start.

Nothing came of the tips until the program was broadcast as a rerun on the Lifetime channel on March 15, 1993. The call that broke the case came through the program's 800 number, and the anonymous tipster tied Perkins--then serving time in a Georgia prison for illegal possession of firearms--to the Selwyn murder.

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