A recent case involving a University of Wisconsin student who falsely claimed that she was abducted highlights some important characteristics of these investigations. This particular case quickly achieved national attention and was followed on a daily basis by morning talk shows. The reason for this attention was probably because the media were able to build suspense by showing surveillance video of the victim leaving her apartment the night of her alleged abduction. It certainly was not because of the scarcity of missing person cases nor was it the rarity of claims of alleged abductions. Indeed, while this drama was unfolding in Madison, Wisconsin, police 150 miles to the northeast were investigating another mysterious disappearance of a school teacher that also turned out to be faked. Because these cases tend to be high profile, an agency must be sensitive, but also diligent, in their investigation.
When a law enforcement agency initially receives a report of a possible abduction, or when a person comes forward and claims to have been sexually assaulted or robbed, the initial response must be to accept the facts at face value and conduct an appropriate investigation based on available information. However, the investigation should be two-pronged. One effort should be to develop investigative information which may lead to possible suspects. At the same time, a second effort should focus on verifying the credibility of the report. For example, when questioning the victim's acquaintances the investigator not only must ask questions about who might have a motive to harm the victim but also ask questions to learn whether or not the victim may have a motive or propensity to fabricate such a claim.
Whether these cases are real or fabricated, the investigator must appreciate that the best source of information will be the alleged victim. Too often, victims are initially interviewed in an effort to gain basic information about the crime and then dismissed until needed for an identification or trial testimony. Our strong recommendation is to always re-interview victims perhaps 24 or 48 hours after the initial report (depending on the person's psychological/ physical health). The follow-up interview should be in-depth and should incorporate behavior-provoking questions to assess the person's credibility.
When an actual victim is initially interviewed, often that person is emotionally distressed and focuses on the emotional components of the attack. They strongly remember how they felt, what words were said and the humiliation they feared when others found out about what happened to them. However, the information an investigator most needs such as the physical description of the rapists, whether the rapist had a tattoo or unusual marks, or the description of the car the rapist was driving are foggy and uncertain. Often when a legitimate crime victim is re-interviewed more detailed information about the perpetrator is learned and the victim has more certainty about peripheral details of the crime which may help the investigator. On the other hand, when a person who has fabricated a crime is re-interviewed, the results may be quite telling. Poor eye contact, a frozen posture and a sketchy memory during the initial interview may be forgiven as a result of trauma. However, when these same symptoms are still apparent two days after the alleged crime, the investigator should consider the possibility of a fabricated claim. Similarly, when relating a fabricated claim a second time the account may contain obvious inconsistencies. In particular, the investigator should listen for a change of sequence of events between the first and second accounts, since this strongly suggests a fabricated claim.
The decision as to whether or not the media should be contacted during an investigation is, at best, a judgment call. If public exposure is likely to develop further investigative information, such exposure is probably desirable. But public exposure is a double-edged sword. In the Madison case, media exposure resulted in phone calls from people who saw the victim the day after the alleged abduction but also greatly increased the personal consequences the victim faced if she wanted to tell the truth. It may have been a relatively easy task to persuade her to tell the truth if the only people affected were her family and friends. However, once the entire country became aware of her predicament, the consequences of telling the truth must have been almost insurmountable.
When an investigation or second interview of a reported victim develops information that reasonably suggests a fabricated claim, it is entirely appropriate to interrogate the alleged victim in an effort to learn the truth. To develop an interrogation strategy, it is important to establish the probable motive for the false claim. The following can be used as a guideline for most false claims:
To cover their own theft
To cover complicity in the theft
To cover negligence
Abduction / Assault where no person is named
To explain absence or tardiness
To cover pregnancy
To cover sexually transmitted disease
To cover injuries caused by a person being protected
Sexual assault where person is named
Caught in embarrassing situation
For financial gain (paternity, settlement)
The confrontation of the interrogation should avoid descriptive language, e.g., "Mary, our investigation indicates that you did not tell the truth about being taken from your apartment." It would be incorrect to put Mary on the defensive by accusing her of "lying" and it would also be non-productive to confront her ambiguously, e.g., "Mary after reviewing your statement, things are not quite adding up." If an investigator does not come out with a direct and unambiguous confrontation statement often the suspect will offer a revised version of his story which satisfies the investigator's "things are not quite adding up" accusation, but still does not represent the truth.
Following a direct positive confrontation of guilt, the investigator should offer an interrogation theme which will reinforce the suspect's own motives for committing the crime. The theme is delivered as a sympathetic monologue and serves to create an environment where the suspect feels comfortable discussing his or her crime. In the previously referred to case from Wisconsin, the college student confessed that she made up the abduction story to gain attention and sympathy from her boyfriend. Consequently, this concept would have been an appropriate theme for her interrogation.
When the suspect appears to be ready to make the first admission of guilt the investigator should ask an alternative question. This is a question that offers the suspect two choices concerning some aspect of the crime. Accepting either choice results in the first admission of guilt. Some possible alternative questions to consider in cases involving a fabricated claim include:
"Did you do this for attention or because you are vindictive and wanted to get even with someone?"
"Did you plan this out for months in advance or did the idea just come to you on the spur of the moment?"
"Did you start out with a full story in mind, or did it just kind of grow as people asked you more and more questions?"
"Have you made up stories about other people your whole life, or was this pretty much the first time?"
Once the "victim" has started to tell the truth by accepting an alternative question, the investigator must learn the whole truth and develop a legally admissible confession. This confession must not only be obtained without the use of threats or promises, but must also be trustworthy. The best evidence supporting the trustworthiness of a retracted claim of robbery, abduction or rape is independent corroboration. This describes information not known until the confession that can be independently verified. In the Madison case, the police were able to independently establish that the student herself purchased the knife, duct tape, and other articles allegedly used during her abduction. Other examples of possible independent corroboration in claims of false robbery, abduction or assault include recovery of stolen funds, recovery of object used to create an injury, bloodied material showing that injuries occurred other than where originally stated and a diary or conversation with a friend indicating the intention to fabricate a story.
The national attention recently given to a false claim of abduction suggests that this is a very rare occurrence. In truth, it is not and law enforcement agencies must always consider the possibility that an alleged robbery, abduction, rape or physical assault is fabricated. An important aspect of the investigation is to re-interview the victim. When a false claim is suspected the interrogation theme will center around the probable motive for the claim. Once a person acknowledges that he or she made up the story, the investigator should elicit information about the fabrication that can be independently corroborated.