A New Breed of Crime Fighters

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About 80 people have gathered in this South Akron conference center to learn how to catch a criminal. Bill Holland of the Summit County Sheriff’s Department grills the group about a sexual predator, who he says just walked through the crowded room a few minutes ago. In this training exercise, Holland is trying to make a point about getting accurate descriptions of crime suspects. Like, how much he weighed...

BILL HOLLAND: What would you say? 210?

AUDIENCE: Too high. More like 180.

HOLLAND: Anyone see what his eyes looked like?

AUDIENCE: Brown…brown and shifty…

HOLLAND: How old would you say he was?

AUDIENCE: Mid 30s…16… 19

In fact, the 22-year-old had blue eyes and weighed 240. And he’s really just a waiter pretending to be a criminal. The people trying to recall his physical attributes are members of Grandparents Against Sex Predators. Better known by the acronym: GASP.

Bill Holland of the Summit County Sheriff’s Department and Fran Doll, founder of G.A.S.P.

FRAN DOLL: Everybody says that’s a great name, because what do you do when you hear about a child being abducted? You gasp to yourself.

GASP Founder Fran Doll had that reaction when she was visiting Florida in 2005 and heard about a young girl named Jessica Lunsford who was abducted from her home, raped and buried alive.

DOLL: So, that really set me on fire to the point where I thought, I don’t want to sit and watch the Amber Alerts anymore and do nothing about it.

And so, the following year, Fran Doll used her skills as a retired business owner, to put together a volunteer organization composed of a workforce she knew well --- grandparents, who had a desire to protect children. In the Spring of 2006, Doll met with local law enforcement officials to find ways that they could contribute. Garry Moneypenny, who heads Operations for the Summit County Sheriff’s Dept., says a group like GASP is invaluable.

GARRY MONEYPENNY: Police departments are only so large, and to suddenly get a large group of trained volunteers it’s just a tremendous asset.

So far, there are nearly 160 GASP members --- and not just seniors, younger people are also getting involved. They help out by distributing suspect descriptions, answering phones, and otherwise helping get information out in the critical hours after a person goes missing. The Sheriff’s Department has installed what is known as a “Reverse 911” system that can put out calls for assistance to GASP volunteers when a case breaks. Janet Witt and Tracy Vier were on the team of searchers who combed fields looking for Jessie Davis, after the pregnant Lake Township woman disappeared last summer.

JANET WITT: You feel helpless, and yet, something just touches your heart. And since we were with GASP, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to help…because it just… hit us. It could be our kid…

For Tracy Vier, it was much more personal than that.

TRACY VIER: My brother was murdered, several years ago. We never had an outpouring like this. I always want to give back and help other people avoid what happened to my family.

The need to overcome a feeling of helplessness in the face of senseless brutality gets to the core of why Fran Doll founded GASP to begin with.

DOLL: We’re trying to do anything we can to be the extra eyes, ears and hands to help law enforcement.

Summit County Sheriff Drew Alexander, who sits on the Board of the National Sheriff’s Association says GASP is unique --- he knows of no comparable volunteer organization in the country. And that has Fran Doll thinking of taking her group national.

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