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Lying, Murder and Deceptive 911 Calls

I don’t mean to bother you, but I just got home and my irritable wife is dead.

Imagine you walked into the door front door from work one day and discovered your blood-covered spouse and seriously injured teenage daughter lying lifelessly in the kitchen. Of course, you’d immediately pick up the phone and dial 911. But what would you say?

What if, instead of being an innocent and shattered bystander, you were actually the one who killed them? Would your words be different? Could you convince a 911 dispatcher, who has handled hundreds of emergency calls, that you are a genuinely distressed relative who is in shock and whose only goal is to get help for a loved one?

Get Your A** Over Here!

In my last blog, I talked about lie detection when a murderer fakes a relative’s abduction and goes public to appeal for help. Although not perfect, there were subtle clues that differentiated fake abduction appeals from those of genuinely distressed and innocent family members. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the strength of our nonverbal language to communicate, many of these cues were in found in facial expressions (the inability to express genuine sadness and/or facial expressions that were inconsistent with the situation).

911 obviously removes those visual clues. However, even when we’re blind to how callers look, fake 911 phoners just aren’t able communicate the way we’d expect them to. This is especially true when we look at how fake versus genuine 911 callers handle the request for emergency assistance.

Genuine 911 callers have one goal in mind; to get medical assistance to respond as soon as possible. (I need an ambulance at 1940 Seaview Avenue RIGHT NOW! My husband has been shot!) They don’t care about being polite, offer explanations for where they’ve been before they discovered the victim, or offer extraneous information such as the fact that the two of them had been in an argument or that the victim had been in a car accident two weeks ago. Their message is simple and urgent; get your butt over here as soon as possible and save the person I love. In fact, even when it’s clear to emergency responders that the victim is beyond resuscitation, genuine 911 callers may refuse to believe their loved one is dead and demand that medical professionals continue to attempt to revive their loved one.

Long Distance Calling

On the other hand, researchers who analyzed 100 emergency phone calls found that fake 911 callers tended to distance themselves from their victims. This could occur in a number of ways. Although relatively rare, one of the most telling clues was when the caller either insulted or blamed the victim at the same time they were asking for help. Researchers Tracy Harpster and Dr. Susan Adams cited the following communication as an example of a caller who was ultimately found guilty of second degree murder after he punished his 4 year old adopted daughter to drink 64 ounces of water.

“Dispatcher: Do you know what’s wrong with your daughter?

Caller: Not a clue.

Dispatcher: Has she taken any medications?

Caller: She might have, she’s very, very sneaky. She threw a huge temper tantrum earlier;

she might have taken something.”

A guilty 911 caller might spontaneously launch into an explanation of how the “accident” happened (we were arguing and he wouldn’t let me leave) or what s/he was doing before s/he found the victim (I just got home from a business meeting). These statements are especially significant if offered before advising the dispatcher of the seriousness of the event.

I Have a Problem and it’s Dead on the Floor

Since the real goal of a guilty party’s 911 call is to establish his innocence, it makes sense that the focus of the call would be on the caller instead of the victim. In comparison to genuine calls for help, fake 911 callers tended to ask for help for themselves as opposed to their victims. Their choice of words (I have a baby and she’s not breathing; Help me! My father’s been murdered!) tends to suggest that the problem is the victim rather than the victim’s medical condition or injury.

Finally, one distinguishing factor between fake versus genuine 911 calls is in the use of evasion. We all know it takes a lot more energy to lie than to tell the truth and keeping a story straight is especially hard when you’re making it up as you go along. As a result, fake 911 callers are more likely to get thrown by easy questions (Huh? In response to how many stairs did she fall down), give conflicting information (he was fine a few hours ago; I’ve been asleep all night), and avoid or repeat answers.

The Bottom Line

The goals of deceptive versus genuine 911 callers are different. One is to start the cover story that will hopefully persuade the audience of his innocence; the other is to get immediate medical attention for a wounded loved one. These vastly different goals inevitably influence the way these 911 callers communicate to emergency dispatchers, and the words they use are the first evidence in what will turn out to either be a criminal prosecution for the caller — or a tragedy.