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Exposing The Big Lie : From the case of Charles Stuart to the tragic actions of Susan Smith, when a 'victim's'story doesn't add up, sometimes all police really have to go on are gut feelings and plain old experience.

August 29, 1995|Pamela Warrick | Times Staff Writer

A bullet to the gut can explain a lot.

Charles Stuart--bleeding, confused, about to lose consciousness--calls Boston police to report he's been held up. He's shot, his wife is shot--maybe dead, and he is lost.

Where are you? asks the dispatcher.

Stuart's voice chokes with panic. He doesn't know the streets.

When the police finally locate him, by a strange twist of fate, a crew from the television show "Rescue 911" is riding along.

The cameras are rolling as Stuart, his pregnant wife dying on the seat beside him, is helped from their blood-spattered sedan. His face is ashen, his features contorted. He is clutching his belly.

It was a scene the district attorney's homicide chief Phyllis Broker would return to again and again.

"What a classic picture. He looks like a devil. You could see it as a man in excruciating pain--or you could see it as a man trying to get himself together so he can pull this off."

Broker, whose unit examines every violent death that occurs in Boston's Suffolk County, wasn't the first or the only person with "a bad feeling" about Stuart's story.

Why, detectives wondered, had he been shot in the abdomen while his wife had been shot in the head? And why couldn't he describe where he was more accurately so his wife and unborn baby might have been saved?

Still, says Broker, Stuart's story was compelling. For the next 2 1/2 months, Stuart, the charming onetime football star, escaped indictment for the murder of his wife.

"Lying there in his hospital bed, he could be very convincing," Broker says.

Charles Stuart's deadly fraud ended when he leaped to his death from a Boston bridge.

"The only time, the only moment I knew for certain [that Stuart had lied]," says Broker, "was when he jumped."

When handsome Charles Stuarts and sweet-faced Susan Smiths tell us their breathtaking stories, they evoke genuine pity and terror. Anxious to believe them--and just as anxious to believe no husband or mother could commit such heinous crimes, our first impulse may be to offer rewards, help the victim, find the killer.

But for police who have seen it all and heard it all, the first impulse is to give the "victim" a polygraph.

While it may sound hard and cynical, says forensic psychiatrist Bruce Danto of Fullerton, that is how crimes are solved.

"To catch bad guys, " says Danto, "investigators have to proceed on two assumptions: First, stories have to make sense; second, people frequently lie.

"I was a cop for eight years before becoming an M.D. and in both psychiatry and police work, people lie all the time. After a while, you feel like no one tells the truth, that justice and honesty are myths of the criminal justice system."

As lies go, Stuart's was a stunner. Overnight, the man who had been the object of universal sympathy was transformed into a cold-blooded killer.

But as horrific as it was, the Stuart case was only the beginning. Soon came Smith and other weeping parents with their news conference pleas for the safe return of children they knew were already dead.

Victim or villain? Schemer or saint? How do police get to the truth beneath the lies?

Even as the networks were broadcasting Smith's tearful appeals, Howard Wells, the soft-spoken sheriff of Union County, S.C., was beginning to doubt her story.

For nine days, Wells, his deputies, and a team of FBI agents took turns asking Smith to tell them again exactly what happened to her two little boys.

Every time she hesitated to answer, failed to remember a part of her story or refused to look an interrogator in the eye, her credibility shrank.

To her face, they told her they didn't believe her. Over and over, one agent told Smith, "We know it didn't happen that way. We know you are lying."

Smith's odd demeanor also fueled suspicions. "She would make sounds of crying, but I would look at her eyes--no water, no tears," testified FBI agent, David Espie.

By the time Smith confessed to drowning her sons, few were surprised. When Sheriff Wells sat down with Smith in the local Baptist church to pray, he told her the truth had to be revealed.

"She dropped her head and started crying. Then she asked me for my gun so she could shoot herself."

Wells asked her why she wanted to kill herself.

"She said, 'You don't understand. My children are not all right."'

Wells nodded. He had understood for some time.

Jolynn Ritchie of Dayton, Ohio, made it clear during the massive search for her missing daughter that she was "no Susan Smith."

The fact that she said that made police wonder.

Ritchie's frantic 911 call on July 18 had rallied the entire city. Almost 5,000 people called a news hot line to hear her sobbing, hysterical pleas for help. They mobilized searches, printed 20,000 leaflets, wore T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of the missing 4-year-old.

But while neighbors were handing out 200 pink ribbons and organizing prayer vigils, detectives were proceeding as if Ritchie knew more about the disappearance of her daughter, Samantha, than she was letting on.

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