Originally Published: November 11, 2018 8:29 p.m.
For 34 years, Steve Skurja has been the face and driving force behind Yavapai Silent Witness.
“Skurja has ate, drank and slept this job,” said Rowle Simmons, a charter member of the Yavapai Silent Witness Board of Directors and current Yavapai County Board of Supervisors member.
At the end of this month, however, Skurja, 69, will be retiring as the organization’s executive director and a new leader – who is currently being selected – will take his place.
Yavapai Silent Witness assists law enforcement agencies throughout Yavapai County – and sometimes across the state – solve crimes. It provides members of the community the opportunity to report criminal activity while remaining completely anonymous by calling 800-932-3232. When the information provided leads to a felony arrest, cash rewards are offered.
Since 1985, the organization has assisted in the arrest of 3,621 felons and paid out more than $525,000 in rewards to members of the community.
Skurja showed interest in the program before it was even founded and began managing it as soon as he was given the opportunity to in 1984. He was a detective at the Prescott Police Department and had seen the program struggle at the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) for about two-and-a-half years.
“No arrests had been made, no rewards had been given,” Skurja said.
The sheriff at the time agreed to transfer the program to PPD and Skurja immediately incorporated it into a non-profit organization with a 20-member volunteer board of directors.
Since then, nothing has changed but the location – it returned to YCSO about nine years ago.
Over the years, Skurja has been the brainchild of many different marketing campaigns for the organization.
Some were simply placing the name and number of the non-profit on different items and distributing them throughout the county at events, to law enforcement agencies and even in the Yavapai County jail.
“We put our name on these miniature pencils and provided the jail with them so the inmates could write letters,” Skurja said. “Since [the pencils] are short, you can’t stab each other with them – if you do, it only goes in a little ways.”
Other marketing efforts were more involved, such as hosting a cooking show on a local broadcasting station in the early 1990s.
“We called it Cooking with Cops,” Skurja said.
The show aired every two weeks and featured Skurja with different guests from local law enforcement agencies who would cook their favorite recipes.
“It got to be pretty popular,” he said.
By far his most effective marketing idea, however, was Catch 22.
The campaign began in 1997 and continues to runs about twice a year.
“When that thing took off, it was like the invention of the wheel,” Skurja said. “We were looking for a way to get more information in front of the public and decided to start a program where we would pick 22 high-profile felons with warrants from throughout Yavapai County.”
When the campaign is running, one of the 22 criminals is featured in print and broadcast media each day until all 22 are featured. Any tipsters whose information leads to the arrest of one of the felons is awarded at least a $500 reward.
To date, Catch 22 is credited for leading to the arrest of 86 felons. About $43,000 has been paid out to tipsters because of those arrests.
Looking back on such achievements and stories, Skurja is clearly proud of what he and his partners have done over the years.
“I thoroughly love law enforcement. I love this position. And I love Yavapai Silent Witness,” he said.
But there comes a time when even great leaders need to move on with their lives.
“It just feels like the right thing to do,” he said. “I’m going to be 70 in March and I want to do some retirement type things.”
Those who have worked with him can’t emphasize enough how much he has done to help Yavapai Silent Witness become the respected organization it is today.
“He really has been the Silent Witness program,” said Sheriff Scott Mascher, Skurja’s boss and longtime friend.
“They are huge shoes to fill,” Rowle said.
But Skurja isn’t worried about the organization’s future.
“I see nothing but big things out of this program forever,” he said.
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