(Image via philly.com)


Philadelphia Inquirer
By Peter Mucha, Inquirer Staff Writer

Four years ago, Natosha Gale Warner, who works in Philadelphia for the FBI, was batting around ideas with Clear Channel vice president Barbara Bridge about ways to use the company’s new digital billboards – the kind that can change images a half-dozen times a minute.

After discussing using the billboards to publicize a citizen-action program, Warner recalled saying, “How about featuring fugitives, the kind you would normally see in the post office?”

Since that inspiration, hundreds of billboards have sprung up around the country, contributing to the arrests of at least 40 people – most recently a man picked up in Connecticut who authorities believe is the “East Coast Rapist.”

n Feb. 28, the very day his picture went up above highways in seven states – including one next to the toll plaza at the Benjamin Franklin Bridge – a crucial tip was called in to Maryland police.

“What took you so long?” Aaron Thomas, 39, reportedly said when U.S. marshals arrested him Friday afternoon in Connecticut. Authorities believe the unemployed truck driver attacked at least 17 women over a dozen years from Virginia to Rhode Island.

This week, drivers on I-95, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, and the Walt Whitman Bridge can catch glimpses of the likes of Cornell Sutherland, wanted for murder, staring back between ads for Mars Needs Moms and March Madness on CBS.

The Philadelphia area has had the lion’s share of successes since Clear Channel launched the effort on Sept. 13, 2007, with eight people arrested since then in connection with crimes including operating a Ponzi scheme, drug dealing, rape, and murder.

Clear Channel, said Philadelphia division president George Kauker, has long worked closely with police and firefighters – posting billboard tributes to fallen officers, for example – so getting on board the fugitive billboard idea was “pretty automatic.”

The first arrests came quickly. The month after the billboards went up, two fugitives were captured as a direct result of the publicity, the FBI announced.

And then the billboards helped catch a man later convicted of killing a police officer.

That Halloween, Philadelphia Police Officer Chuck Cassidy was gunned down while responding to an armed robbery, and digital billboards quickly spread the word about the manhunt for suspect John “Jordan” Lewis, who was captured within a week in Miami.

Lewis, who confessed, was sentenced to death in 2009 by a jury.