Rodney K. Gregson, a 15-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, wrote to tell me a funny story about a faked lie detector used to fool suspects in criminal cases.
He commented, "This story deals with two items found in all police stations - a photocopy machine and a not-very-bright arrestee - and with one item I've never seen in any station - a metal colander."Already this was beginning to sound familiar! The story turned out to be a variation of one I mentioned in a column last March, shortly after it showed up in a news item datelined Radnor, Pa. (a town west of Philadelphia).
Gregson's version goes like this:
"The suspect is put in a metal-framed chair with the colander inverted on his head and wires running from it to the photocopy machine. The officers have prepared a sheet of paper with the word `lie' (or `false') neatly inscribed on it.
"The suspect is told that he's hooked up to a lie detector, and officers start to ask him questions like `Where is the gun?' or `Did you do this alone?'
"When he answers with what the officers can tell is a lie (Trust me - we can tell when someone is lying!), one officer pushes the print button on the machine and out comes a sheet saying `lie.'
"Believing that he can't fool the machine, the suspect starts confessing his crimes, at which point an officer surreptitiously switches the `lie' paper with one saying `true.' "
Gregson concluded, "Knowing the slightly skewed (some would say warped) sense of humor that cops have, I would not doubt that this event might really have happened."
Why did the LAPD officer send me the story, then? Because, as he put it, "I've heard it in several parts of this city, but the officers telling it never played the trick themselves and were never even there when it was used."
The news report from Pennsylvania differed only in that the officers had written the words "He's lying" on the sheet.
Perhaps just two appearances of the story - even with the friend-of-a-friend network implied from Los Angeles - do not guarantee that this is a legend. However, I have a third report that indicates further variation and distribution.
A lawyer sent me the fake lie detector story as told in 1983 by an instructor at the U.S. Naval Justice School in Newport, R.I. Supposedly, officers of the Naval Investigative Service had used the old colander-on-the-head trick to interrogate an enlisted man who was suspected of a series of petty thefts.
Besides NIS agents, however, the lawyer also heard that the same phony lie detector had been used either by FBI agents or by detectives in some big-city police department.
Let me guess - could it have been the Los Angeles or Philadelphia police departments, by any chance?
The lawyer offered another hint of how the story has traveled. He said, "I've heard it or read it a couple more times in different contexts, always in speeches or publications directed at criminal defense lawyers."
This may help explain how "The Colander Copier Caper" found its way into a supposedly factual news article. Possibly the Radnor police acted out a legend they'd heard, although that seems unlikely, considering the strict rules of individual rights and use of evidence that modern law-enforcement personnel adhere to.
More likely, I think, the police with their "slightly skewed" sense of humor told the colander story to a newspaper reporter as a joke, but it was accepted as truth. During a slow night on the police beat, the legend could have found its way into print.
If I could get that reporter or his sources to sit down next to my copy machine with a colander on his head, I'll bet I could get to the truth behind this case.
1990 United Feature Syndicate Inc.