Bill Pavelic, the former lead investigator for O.J. Simpson's defense team, is sitting in his living room, reminiscing about the trial, when he is interrupted by a telephone call.
A man, who claims he is a Canadian psychiatrist, tells Pavelic that Simpson did not kill his ex-wife and Ronald Goldman, but he knows who did.
Pavelic sighs heavily, puts his hand over the phone and says in a weary voice, "We've gotten thousands of these calls. And now that the civil trial is coming up, we're getting them again. Every. Single. Day!"
Pavelic, a private investigator and former Los Angeles Police Department detective, has received calls from prisons, jails and mental institutions. From psychics, astrologers and Tarot card readers. From ex-cons and ex-priests. From clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, research psychologists and dog psychologists. He has talked to people who claimed they saw the killer, people who said they heard the killer, people who supposedly were married to the killer.
The most startling calls, the ones that offered the most promise and ultimately were the biggest disappointments, Pavelic said, were from the dozen people who claimed that they were the killer, that they had stabbed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
False confessions and dubious leads have been the byproducts of high-profile cases since the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, when about 250 people confessed to the crime. Homicide detectives are so accustomed to them that they routinely withhold critical details of murders--what they calls "keys"--from the press. That way they can quickly weed out the real killers from the spurious.
Some people who make false confessions tell such outlandish tales that they are dismissed outright. Others can be convincing, and detectives will attempt to verify their stories, wasting valuable time on red herrings during the early critical stages of an investigation.
Variety of Motives
Forensic psychiatrists say many people falsely confess because they simply can't distinguish between delusion and reality. Some have a morbid desire for notoriety. A few confess out of a general sense of guilt or from a desire to be punished for past transgressions. And some simply crave attention.
"This is not the kind of attention most people want, so obviously you're dealing with a group of very disturbed people," said Richard Ofshe, a psychologist at UC Berkeley who has written extensively about false confessions. "Whenever you get cases that receive a lot of publicity, you can count on one thing. You see the walking wounded confessing or rambling on about crimes they know nothing about."
In most cases, the false confessors go straight to the police. But in the Simpson case, many contacted the defense, to the relief of LAPD detectives. Since the police were convinced that they already had the killer in custody, the callers assumed that the defense would be more receptive to alternative theories. The defense ended up assuming the traditional investigative role by creating a toll-free tip line and offering a $500,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer.
A few months after the murders, someone claiming to be Nicole Simpson's gardener called the tip line and said he had killed Nicole and Goldman because she had refused to pay for yard work.
"This was typical of the kinds of calls we were getting. This guy was ranting about how she called them all kinds of derogatory names, how he swore at her and how it escalated from there," Pavelic said. "He claimed he lost his temper, went berserk and cut her up. When I asked him to describe her living room, he couldn't. So that ended that."
LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division also was deluged with leads and tips--from all over the world--during the Simpson trial.
"We even got a call from Greenland, from a guy who wanted to know if we had checked a certain place for the murder weapon," said Det. Ron Ito, one of the investigators assigned to follow up on the hundreds of leads. "We got calls from people confessing for other people, saying this person or that person did it. We got the psychics who'd describe the parks and the lakes where the murder weapon was stashed. We got the dog psychologists who could interpret barks and tell you what happened."
On high-profile cases, detectives waste countless hours tracking such dubious information. In the Simpson case, for example, Ito and his partner spent 10 months, full time, following up on every Simpson-related phone tip.
Black Dahlia Mystery
While the Simpson case kept Robbery-Homicide detectives hopping, the 1947 Black Dahlia murder set the record for crank leads, worthless phone calls and false confessions. In the years after the slaying, more than 500 people confessed, some of whom were not even born when the body of a 22-year-old actress named Elizabeth Short was found neatly cut in half in a vacant lot.