Don't Overlook The Person Who Reported The Crime

Written By: Reid
Jan 01, 2002

A guideline we teach during our seminars is that the first person interviewed during an investigation should be the individual who reported the crime. The primary reason for this is because that person often can provide the most accurate investigative information surrounding the crime. Consider a homeowner who reports that someone entered his home and stole jewelry from a bedroom. The investigator needs to establish that the jewelry actually existed, when the jewelry was last seen, who has keys to the home or knowledge of an entry code, whether doors are always locked, which acquaintances knew where the jewelry was kept, etc. As with any interview, the investigator must keep in mind that the person who reported the crime may lie about these details. In fact, in a significant number of our investigations, the person who reported a crime also turns out to be the perpetrator of the crime.

The most common circumstance where the reporter of a crime is also the perpetrator occurs when the reporter has the best opportunity and means to commit the crime. Under this circumstance the suspect reports his own crime because it would be suspicious not to. In other words, the suspect would logically have been the first person to discover the crime. This may involve the husband who claims that he returned home from work and found his wife stabbed to death, the individual who reports that his car was stolen from an apartment parking lot or the individual who reports unauthorized charges on his latest credit card statement. A contributing motivation to report one's own crime is the belief that by reporting the crime the person will escape scrutiny or even consideration as a possible suspect in the crime. The following case, involving a teller who stole $1000 from his cash drawer to pay expenses related to renting an apartment, is typical of a guilty person who reports his own crime:

At the end of the day the teller reported a $1000 shortage to his supervisor. He reported his own theft because he knew it would have eventually been discovered by auditors and he would then have to face tough questions about why he failed to discover a $1000 discrepancy in his funds. During his Behavior Analysis Interview he denied having any suspicions as to who may have stolen the money. In fact, he denied the probability that his shortage was the result of employee theft. Rather, he suggested the possibility that a customer may have reached over the counter and grabbed the money or that he may have mistakenly given a customer too much money. The teller openly acknowledged violating bank procedures by failing to keep his cash drawer locked and also leaving it unattended for a period of time. He also volunteered the fact that he did not verify straps of money he received from the main vault.

There are a number of characteristics of this interview that are typical of many guilty suspects who report their own crime. One of these is that the suspect failed to name a particular person as someone he suspects may be guilty of the crime. To do so would require pointing a finger at someone he knows is innocent. Rather, these suspects will often suggest unrealistic explanations for the commission of the crime. In this regard, it is not uncommon for the suspect to acknowledge the possibility that he may be inadvertently responsible for the act. This might include careless use of smoking materials in an arson, accidentally throwing away a deposit in a theft or causing a spouse's despondency which resulted in an apparent suicide when, in fact, the suspect staged the suicide. By accepting (non-criminal) responsibility for an act the guilty suspect relieves a great deal of anxiety associated with his crime because he is telling part of the truth. Finally, these suspects often acknowledge sloppy security procedures in connection to the crime (not verifying money straps, leaving house doors unlocked, loaning keys to unauthorized personnel) . By doing so, they open up the investigation by providing access to individuals who normally would not have the means to commit the crime.

Another variation of crimes reported by the perpetrator involves delayed reporting of an on-going crime. A manager at a savings and loan was embezzling funds from customer's loan payments. After stealing almost $25,000 over a six-month period of time he reported the embezzlement and initiated the investigation. His reporting of the thefts coincided with the departure of an employee in the loan department who recently resigned to spend time with her children. Going into the investigation we certainly believed that she was the prime suspect. However, the first person we interviewed was the manager and his behavior clearly reflected deception. After a relatively short interrogation he confessed. In his confession he stated that he was concerned that the embezzlement would be detected in an up-coming audit and saw an opportunity to divert suspicion from himself by reporting the embezzlement shortly after the loan department employee resigned.

The most common motivation for a suspect to report his own on-going crime is a fear that he will be caught in the near future. A typical case is the drug dealer who comes forward to report drug sales in his neighborhood. By doing so he is hoping to diffuse allegations buyers will make against him once they are arrested. A parallel situation exists in a sexual harassment case where the harassing supervisor files a complaint against the complainant, again in an effort to negate that person's credibility. It is human nature to believe the first person who comes forward. The investigator needs to recognize this possible underlying motive especially when the reporter is later implicated in criminal behavior. A revealing question to ask during the interview in these cases is, "Why did you decide to report this now?" Often the deceptive suspect cannot identify a credible cause and effect relationship explaining his decision to report the crime.

The final variation of the guilty person reporting his own crime is the most rare. In this circumstance the perpetrator intended to flee after committing the crime, but someone discovers him at the crime scene. We will call this second person the discoverer. Under this circumstance, the perpetrator may decide to run and hope that the discoverer cannot identify him. If that is not a viable option, he may turn to the discoverer and report the crime. Possible examples include homicide, arson or criminal damage to property. We have also worked cases where the perpetrator was caught during the commission of his crime, e.g., stealing merchandise from a warehouse or using illegal drugs at work. Regardless of the circumstance, as soon as the perpetrator realizes that he has been seen, he turns to the discoverer and says, "Call 911, the apartment building is on fire," or, "Gee, it smells like someone's been smoking marijuana in here." Such a portrayal of implied innocence by reporting the offense is often effective at diverting attention away from the perpetrator. In fact, many of these cases are solved only after an investigator has eliminated a number of possible innocent suspects and then goes back to conduct a formal interview of the reporter. When a crime is committed in an unpopulated or private area it is unusual to have one person discover the crime shortly after its commission. To have two independent people make this claim is highly improbable.

A thorough interview of the discoverer may also provide meaningful information. The investigator should keep in mind that a suspect who has just narrowly escaped being caught committing a crime will typically appear overly anxious and nervous to the discoverer. Being in this frame of mind, the reporter's answers to initial questions asked by the discoverer may be inconsistent or quite vague. In addition, the reporter may ask inappropriate questions of the discoverer such as, "How long have you been standing there?" or, "What did you see?" An investigator should take advantage of the discoverer's recollections of the reporter. In particular, the discoverer should be asked questions about the reporter's demeanor and appearance, e.g., frightened, guarded, quiet, out-of-breath, flushed, perspiring, etc. The conversation between the reporter and discoverer should also be explored. The investigator may learn that the reporter offered the discoverer a completely different explanation for his presence at the crime scene than what the reporter later told the responding officer.

In conclusion, when an investigator interviews the person who reports a crime, there is a tendency to afford that person instant credibility because he came forward to report a crime. This credibility is probably warranted when the reporter could have just as easily not picked up the phone and hoped that someone else would call the police. However, when the reporter of the crime has immediate access and opportunity to commit it the investigator must maintain a high index of suspicion to identify possible behavior symptoms of deception. To accomplish this, the reporter of a crime should be interviewed in a private and controlled environment. Most importantly, the interview should incorporate behavior provoking questions to elicit behavior symptoms of truth or deception.

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