Public Safety

Hello, I’ve Got Some Money for You

Probation Officer Gordon Terry said he often feels like Ed McMahon in the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes Prize Patrol.  He is a Victim/Restitution liaison in the District Attorney’s Office, which means he tracks down crime victims who are owed money as restitution or compensation. He often takes people by surprise—his call usually comes years after the crime happened—and then he makes arrangements to send them a check.

Terry remembers his very first case in which he gave a victim’s family $19,000. The family was struggling financially after the tragic loss of the father who was killed by a drunk driver in 2006, he said. The drunk driver had made financial arrangements from prison to pay the family restitution, but the state held the money because it couldn’t locate the widow. Terry said he was able to track down a phone number for the family and the widow and children were extremely grateful.

Finding victims usually takes several steps, and the Internet can be very helpful for Terry. Last July, he called a drunk-driving victim after a bit of online sleuthing. The accident happened in 2000, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation collected $3,373 from the criminal prior to his release.

When the state was unable to find the victim, they called Terry. He did a Google search and tracked the victim to Arizona after he came across the man’s father’s obituary and a computer club membership roster. The man was appreciative of the unexpected windfall 12 years after the crash, and he did feel a sense of justice served. But he was overcome with tears as he recalled the horrible events and suffering of the people involved.

The County and state are holding about $4.2 million worth of funds for local victims, many who Terry still needs to find. The money collected for each victim ranges from small amounts to thousands of dollars, depending on the court judgment. Terry helped to disburse more than $499,000 in state funds to 406 San Diego County crime victims between May 2012 and May 2013. From locally collected money, Terry helped disburse $230,307 from July 2012 to June 2013.

“Sometimes I challenge myself. I say, I want to give out at least $1,000 today,” said Terry, who immediately offers to make some calls on some cases and give out money to show how it’s done. He grabbed a case that he said should be easy, but he got nowhere with it, so he set it aside to try later. He grabbed another. He called the Indian Health Council and reminded them they had been burglarized in 1984 and had a loss of about $600. In about six weeks, the County will send out a check for that amount, he told the manager.

“So, that was a success,” Gordon said.

Restitution is money awarded by a judge for property losses, and compensation is money awarded to a victim of a violent crime to reimburse medical or counseling bills. A convicted criminal can pay a fine or have his assets seized, or pay from money garnished while she serves time or is on probation. The franchise tax board then continues to collect any remaining balance from a criminal even after they are released from probation or parole.

RELATED: Victim Advocates are a Guide Through a Nightmare

Why do some victims have to wait so many years for restitution? Criminals may not be able to pay right away or may pay incrementally over a long period of time, and long Court processes may be involved in collecting restitution. Then, since so many agencies may be making the actual collection—state, county, tax board— they may not each have a record with a victim’s current contact information.

San Diego County Probation Chief Mack Jenkins said probation officers feel strongly they want to help victims and they hold probationers accountable to pay restitution or compensation.

“And Gordon has done simply an outstanding job of making that part of the probation mission real and impactful,” Jenkins said. “Gordon epitomizes being dedicated to his duty. He really takes pride in helping some of these victims in our effort to help them be made whole.”

Terry usually investigates about 50 cases at a time, which requires that he takes good notes for every phone call he makes; otherwise he’d never be able to keep his leads straight.

This job is about healing.
-Gordon Terry, Probation Officer

Terry is given special records access for his job. He can access Probation, District Attorney and San Diego Court files, and he has contacts at the state who can help look up their records for him. This special access is usually all he needs to find a victim. Sometimes it just takes a date of birth, middle name or some other clue from a police report – something that might be in one file but not another.

Sometimes it is as easy as looking up an old address in a criss-cross phone directory and sometimes it takes months or years to find someone.

“I’ve never given up on a case yet,” he said. “There’s nothing to say that in one year’s time, someone won’t pop up again.”

In a case where a victim has died, Terry said the money is given to a child or next closest relative. Terry has a stack of cases referred to him every day. He has them organized in piles. His favorite is the done pile, but he also has pending cases, cases he still hasn’t looked at, and a pile of dead-end cases which he holds onto because he hopes to give them one more try. He also works directly with victims who know they are owed money from a case.

“This job is about healing,” for the victim, he said. Terry said the money can sometimes give a victim a sense of empowerment. “There have been so many gratifying cases,” he said.

On the flip side, there have been a lot of sad cases and sometimes the payment helps them and sometimes it just opens the wound again for some, but even that can hopefully bring the victim some closure, Terry said.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact