South Jersey lawyer Craig Mitnick broke into the TV business after his exposure in the sensational trial of Cherry Hill wife-slayer Rabbi Fred Neulander. Mitnick defended one of Neulander's hit men, Paul Michael Daniels.
Now the former Fox TV News analyst has quit the law and TV for his own Internet venture: Nixle.
Mitnick, who begins his pitch for Nixle with the sweeping generalization that "everyone has this perception that their kids are going to be kidnapped," launched a service in February that sends Amber Alert-type messages to local residents' cell phones, BlackBerrys, and personal e-mail accounts on behalf of police departments.
The messages, also posted on Nixle.com, tell people of road closures, lost pets, fires, and even wandering Alzheimer's patients. Police can send the alerts from the road.
The rollout is blazing. About 800 towns and cities have signed with Nixle in the last four months, among them Baltimore; Minneapolis; and Scottsdale, Ariz., and 20,000 people have registered for alerts, Nixle officials say, with more joining daily.
This week is an example. Mitnick said Friday that 647 new Nixle users joined Thursday, 567 Wednesday, 460 Tuesday, and 420 Monday. The users get alerts and messages only about their towns or other towns they designate.
Nixle is the latest riff on the social-networking theme, the hottest sector on the Internet with the cultural fads Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. Wildly popular with a chatty generation of tweeters who post online thoughts and frustrations, the networks have one big drawback from a business perspective: They're free.
Nixle service is considerably different from other social-networking tools, Mitnick insisted, and he has plans to make the business viable. The main difference between Nixle and Twitter is that only authorized users can send messages on Nixle, so there are no mindless chatter or false scares.
The service also could "revolutionize local advertising" because of its audience in towns and neighborhoods, Mitnick said. Businesses could offer discounts or special promotions through the same immediate service that alerts people to local emergencies. "This allows real-time discounts to consumers with money in their hands," he said. "It's the golden pie."
Nixle users interested solely in official information could opt out of advertising, Mitnick added.
As for the name, think Google. "I wanted one that didn't mean anything and could be used as a verb," Mitnick said.
Burlington Township, Clementon, Deptford, Gloucester Township, Haddonfield, Voorhees, and several other New Jersey towns use Nixle, according to a company list of authorized agencies.
Voorhees Police Chief Keith Hummel said his department had sent messages on crime tips, an apartment fire, road closings related to hospital construction, and a walkathon.
"It's a simple and easy way to keep in touch with the community," Hummel said. "If we had a rash of burglaries, we would probably be out knocking on doors. With this, we can put out something very quickly," he said.
On Thursday, Voorhees sent this Nixle alert:
"The Bayer Aspirin Company will be mailing out approximately 30,000+ envelopes that contain a sample of Bayer Aspirin Crystals, which is a white powdery substance. Mailrooms and residents should be aware that packages may break and the product could leak out."
Capt. Gary Wedge of Chula Vista, Calif., the first police department to sign with Nixle, said: "There's nothing difficult about posting a Nixle alert. The challenge is getting people to use it." Chula Vista has Nixled users about counterfeit money and a traffic jam related to a local concert.
Nixle faces competition. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Task Force, which is funded by grants from the federal government and coordinated by county emergency managers, has an alert system that sends messages to cell phones and e-mail accounts.
To get the messages, Philadelphia-area residents have to register. Spokeswoman Joan Przybylowicz said 12,000 people had enrolled in the last year. Messages sent so far included those on swine flu and a tornado watch.
People can learn about the service at www.readynotifypa.org, Przybylowicz said.
Even with its national reach, Nixle is a modest financial venture. Mitnick's partner is Firas Emachah, a former legal client who operates a commercial window business in South Jersey. Mitnick said Emachah was one of his few corporate clients when he ran his Haddonfield law firm.
Emachah was the primary initial investor when the venture began in 2007 with funding of about $1 million. Private individuals have invested $9.3 million into Nixle, including the initial $1 million.
Mitnick, 46, made his reputation as a courtroom litigator with clients such as Daniels, the hit man for Neulander. The rabbi was convicted of having his wife, Carol, bludgeoned to death in their Cherry Hill home in 1994.
Len Jenoff and Daniels confessed to their participation in the murder for hire. They were allowed to plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors.
Mitnick's TV appearances during the Neulander trial brought him to the attention of Court TV and Fox TV News. Mitnick, who remains a lawyer, no longer practices.
He misses his TV analysis appearances, but not his law firm. Some defense clients, he said, expected him to be a "magician."
Harvey Mitnick, his father and a longtime Camden County lawyer, said he was cheering for Nixle but would have liked his son to stay with his law practice.
"I asked him if he wanted to make money or win the Nobel Prize."