Kensington Strangler Reward Money Should Go to Murdered Tipster’s Son

In Philadelphia, it's often easier to do the wrong thing instead of the right thing. How City Hall can start to change that.

This isn’t difficult: Give the kid the money.

You probably know the kid I’m talking about: He’s the infant son of “Oscar,” an anonymous Philadelphia tipster who helped end a brief wave of terror in this city by identifying the so-called “Kensington Strangler” to police back in 2011.

Oscar helped take a murderer off the streets. But what happened next will astonish precisely nobody who pays attention to crime in Philadelphia: Nine months after he tipped off police, Oscar himself was murdered—shot to death in Kensington.

And what happened after that will also surprise nobody who pays attention to the way stuff doesn’t get done in Philadelphia: Local officials started hemming and hawing about whether Oscar’s heirs would get the money they owed Oscar—the bulk of the $37,000 reward they’d promised for the arrest and conviction of the Kensington Strangler. The conviction has been obtained; the payout has not been forthcoming.

Instead, we get this: “When the Daily News contacted the Citizens Crime Commission last week, its president, John Apeldorn, was unavailable, but a man who answered the phone said that the reward program wasn’t ‘hereditary.’”

To be fair, there was some other hemming and hawing too, to the effect that Oscar’s son would get the dough when and if Oscar’s estate is sorted out. But we only know this because the boy’s mother was given such a runaround that she finally went to the local papers for help. The family is understandably frustrated.

“What if he didn’t call the tip in?” a relative said. “What if a serial killer got away?”

No doubt, everybody involved wants the right thing to happen. The problem is this: In Philadelphia it’s almost always easier to do the wrong thing than the right thing. Whether it’s turning in a killer or cleaning a vacant lot or stopping trusted adult authority figures from molesting children, the incentives almost always seem to align in favor of chaos, decay, and the bad guys.

This is where we point out that we do not definitively know if Oscar was killed because he snitched: The case is unsolved. He’d had some drug problems, and the city can be full of trouble even if there aren’t complicating circumstances. But it’s worth noting that the witness to Oscar’s murder was herself later killed. Even if all of this is a coincidence, lots and lots of people will take it as an affirmation that Philadelphia’s “don’t snitch” culture has once again ruled the day.

City Hall doesn’t have a lot of effective tools to counter that culture. Rewards are one.

But ask yourself this: If you had witnessed a murder in this city, what would you do? Would you take the chance of being murdered in exchange for a reward that might or might not come? In such cases, silence isn’t exactly irrational.

There are other reasons to talk to police, of course: One of them is that it’s often, simply, the right thing to do. In Philadelphia, though, it’s not always that simple. Oscar did the city a favor by helping police catch the Kensington Strangler. He  lost his life without seeing most of his reward. Let’s hope his example—and the example of his young son—don’t make it that much more difficult to stop the next wave of terror.