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Getting at the Truth of It

Justice: Former FBI agent has become a top polygraph expert. He has more than one way of finding out the real story.

June 27, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Trimarco makes a living off spotting lies. Lies that make hearts race and blood pressure rise. Lies that reveal the crimes of kidnappers, child molesters and murderers.

The Ventura County polygraph expert also makes his living off of cleverly leading people into making self-incriminating statements--even before the actual polygraph begins.

A retired FBI agent, Trimarco spends his days asking questions, watching the lines of the lie detector machine rise and fall. In an unrelenting search for the truth, he cajoles suspects to confess and convinces witnesses to divulge key information.

"You have to go in there with a gladiator mentality," said Trimarco, 53, who lives in Camarillo. "It's a competition, and you have to win."

Law enforcement agencies have long used the polygraph exam to get damaging admissions as much as to measure honesty. The exams are used to screen applicants, catch criminals and clear innocent suspects. But the test results are rarely admitted in court because they are not considered reliable.

The American Polygraph Assn. says results are accurate 90% of the time, if tests are conducted by qualified examiners. But judges have said they are inaccurate 30% of the time.

"I think it's junk science," said Stanley I. Greenberg, a longtime Los Angeles criminal defense attorney. "It's very easily manipulated."

But supporters say the lie-detector machine is an investigative tool that can help distinguish the innocent from the guilty. The machine records changes in blood pressure, pulse and respiration, changes some say show whether a person is lying or not.

"Polygraph is a blend of science and art," said Don Weinstein, president of the American Polygraph Assn., which has 2,000 members. "It has scientific foundation, but the art is in knowing how to talk to people."

As an FBI agent, Trimarco said he conducted more than 1,100 polygraph exams, working on high-profile cases such as the Unabomber bombings, the assassination of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena and the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building.

Now, the investigator runs a private practice, testifies as an expert witness and conducts training seminars. He also monitors the polygraph program at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Because of his polygraph expertise, Trimarco was hired by Universal Pictures to do some promotional work for the film "Meet the Parents," which tells the story of an ex-CIA agent who hooks up his daughter's fiance to a lie-detector machine.

Raised in New Jersey, Trimarco enlisted in the Air Force after graduation from high school and was sent to northern Italy. He then worked as a patrolman and a detective for the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Trimarco began a 20-year career with the FBI in 1978, working as a psychological profiler, a SWAT team member and a hostage negotiator. He talked people down from roofs, chased suspects through alleys and caught serial killers.

"The polygraph isn't going to go anywhere in court, but the confession always will," Trimarco said. "You give a case agent a confession and . . . you have a lifetime friend."

Trimarco, married with three daughters, retired from the FBI three years ago and started a private practice.

Occasionally, prosecutors hire him to interview witnesses. He recently interrogated an informant in a murder case, leading to the discovery of one of the alleged weapons.

More often, defense attorneys hire Trimarco to polygraph defendants. If they pass, he testifies on their behalf. But if they fail, he is sworn to secrecy. So he chooses his cases carefully and turns down those with DNA or physical evidence.

"I've learned about atrocities," he said. "And I can't tell anyone. Whether it's murder or embezzlement . . . monsters are within the criminals. Once I turn on the polygraph, the monsters come out."

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