The little boy would not wake up. It wasn’t as if he was short of sleep; the night before, seven year-old Michael Anderson said he was getting tired not long after eating a few pieces of his Hallowe’en candy. His parents assumed he was just overcome from the excitement of trick-or-treating. But now it was morning and a schoolday, so it was time for him to get out of bed. Except his mother could not wake him up.
Then she noticed he had vomited on his pillow while asleep.
Instead of taking him to Sheppard Elementary, she rushed Michael to Memorial Hospital.
Blood tests revealed he had consumed an overdose of barbiturates. Also, he had aspirated some of his stomach contents, which put him at risk of death. He was in a coma for over 24 hours.
Elsewhere in Santa Rosa on that 1973 Hallowe’en, two teenage girls went to the hospital. One of them was in the same Roseland neighborhood where Michael lived; she began having convulsions and feared she was having a “bad trip” (hey, it was 1973). The other girl was in South Park and felt sick after eating wrapped taffy which doctors thought might have contained aspirin with codeine.
Sonoma County Sheriff Don Striepeke told the Press Democrat “there’s no doubt at this point that all three of these young people were drugged by candy from trick or treat bags” and advised all Hallowe’en candy given out in Santa Rosa be thrown away.
Deputies went door-to-door in the area where Michael made his rounds that night and contacted 150 residents, warning them about the tainted candy. Two people were given polygraph tests and nothing further was said about them. But no matter – Michael’s story made him the perfect poster child for “Secret Witness”!
Secret Witness was the PD’s anti-crime, anti-drug program that started in 1972 and ran for seven years. Informants who anonymously provided a tip on a major crime which led to a conviction would get a reward starting at $250. The reward for finding the candy poisoner was $500 and heavily promoted in the paper.
It operated like a clunky version of the assorted CrimeStopper programs which are common today. Instead of calling a toll-free number, tipsters were instructed to write a letter to the PD and mail it to the newspaper’s P.O. box. The note was to contain a six character code appearing twice – the informant was supposed to tear off and keep a corner of the paper with one of the codes. (An advertisement shown below illustrates how this was supposed to work.) If Gentle Reader thinks this scheme was unnecessarily complex and rather stupid, you are not alone.
Should the tip be deemed of sufficient interest, a little notice would appear in the paper using the code number, asking the person to phone the Press Democrat’s switchboard and ask for the “Secret Witness Editor.” (So if he was out to lunch, did the operator get a name and number to call back?) Later it was changed to have the informant directly contact a specific police or sheriff investigator.
There are a few different ways to view the legacy of the Secret Witness program.
It was presented as a community service project and was embraced as such by many. The Soroptimist Club raised reward money, as did high school students who held car washes. Radio stations KSRO and KVRE joined in support. From its launch, Secret Witness served to put a spotlight on (what would be named) the “Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders,” which included at the time only two of the eventual 7+ victims. Sheriff Striepeke deserved kudos for holding a 1975 press conference to present his belief it was the work of a serial killer, which was controversial at the time but came to be the accepted theory. Sadly, he also discredited himself by promoting his wacky notion that the murders were part of black magic rituals.
But Secret Witness was also cynically structured to be a circulation builder for the newspaper. Anyone who submitted a tip was locked into subscribing or buying copies of the PD over the following days (weeks?) looking for an invitation to phone Mr. Secret Witness Editor. In that way it sought to attract readers in the manner of an old-fashioned contest or lottery.
At the end of 1979 Secret Witness closed, giving what funds remained to the statewide “WeTip” program which had a toll-free hotline. It had not been terribly successful; there were only seventeen awards given over its lifetime, for a total of $10,025.
Whoever poisoned Michael’s candy was never found and the Hitchhiker Murders remain unsolved.