A murder confession that aired on radio station KROQ and caused a media stir last summer has turned out to be a hoax, sources at the station and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department told The Times this week.
The Sheriff's Department has closed an investigation of the faked crime that included hundreds of called-in leads by police agencies around the country. The station has acknowledged the hoax to the Sheriff's Department, but station officials have declined to discuss the incident publicly. According to two of the deejays who pulled off the stunt, neither has been disciplined by station management, and their out-of-town confederate who posed as the murderous caller has since been hired by KROQ (106.7 FM) as an on-air personality.
"These guys did something stupid and it snowballed on them," said Sheriff's Sgt. John Yarbrough. "They certainly exercised poor decision-making in this."
According to station sources, the murder hoax was concocted last June--apparently without the knowledge of KROQ management--by morning deejays Kevin Ryder and Gene (Bean) Baxter with the help of then-Mesa, Ariz., radio personality Doug Roberts.
Ryder and Baxter developed a comedy bit called "Confess Your Crime" in which listeners were encouraged to reveal their transgressions on the air. The duo, according to station sources, fabricated a conversation with Roberts, who acted like a "whacked out and disturbed" caller confessing to killing his girlfriend. Ryder and Baxter elicited a rambling murder confession from Roberts and persuaded listeners that the call was for real.
Over the next few days, several local television news crews descended on the Burbank radio station and interviewed Ryder and Baxter, who said they were stunned by the call. The series "Unsolved Mysteries," which airs nationally on NBC affiliates, broadcast the phone call on its program twice (most recently in March) and was deluged with leads.
Burbank police passed the matter to the sheriff's homicide division. Yarbrough, who handles unsolved murders, spent several weeks sifting through hundreds of leads and coordinating the investigation with police agencies around the country.
"Since June we've been working on this, trying to sort this out," said Yarbrough, who estimated the segment generated about 400 calls.
Because the particulars of the phony crime were vague enough to sound similar to a host of other cases, some individuals and law-enforcement agencies thought they recognized the circumstances surrounding the murder, Yarbrough said.
Among the most persistent callers were a mother and father in Northern California desperate to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of their daughter.
"I feel most sorry for people like them," Yarbrough said Tuesday, as he flipped a computer print-out of "leads" several-inches thick.
After conducting an internal investigation, this week--nearly 10 months after the incident--KROQ and its parent company, Infinity Broadcasting Corp., admitted that the call was a fraud. A letter from Infinity lawyer Steven Lerman to the Sheriff's Department acknowledged that " . . . the statements made by the caller were untrue and more particularly, that the homicide described by the caller did not occur."
To reimburse the county for the hours spent investigating the case, Infinity Corp. offered to make restitution by donating an undisclosed sum to a Sheriff's Department Community Service program.
However, the department will not accept a contribution.
"Their intentions may be forthright, but we will not be accepting any type of donation," Sheriff's Lt. Russell Collins said. "We may very well ask to be compensated for the time spent on this case, but that would go to the county general fund."
The Federal Communications Commission said it had not been contacted in regard to the incident, but officials said that cases of this kind are often considered serious violations.
"The commission has in the past indicated that it was very concerned with broadcasters who engage in hoaxes which resulted in police and public safety officials expending time and effort and money to resolve them," said Charles W. Kelley, chief of the FCC's enforcement division. "And these matters have in fact been dealt with by the commission in the past in a variety of ways, some have even involved the broadcasters' losing their licenses."
Deejays Ryder and Roberts refused to comment and referred the matter to KROQ General Manager Trip Reeb, who did not return numerous telephone calls from The Times. Infinity attorney Lerman and deejay Baxter also did not return repeated calls.
According to a source at the station, the fabricated crime was an effort on the part of the morning duo to draw publicity.
Sources said Ryder and Baxter called Roberts, who was then a deejay in Arizona and now has the 9 p.m. to midnight shift at KROQ, and worked out details of the story.
At about 9 a.m. on June 13, a caller telephoned the program and refused to give his name.
"I heard you guys talking," he said. "I really need to tell somebody about this.
"I had this girlfriend for like about six years," he continued, "and we were right on the verge of getting married and all of this stuff. And I came home and caught her with somebody . . . a good friend of mine, as a matter of fact."
After some prodding, he admitted that he had badly beaten his girlfriend.
"I don't know if she made it through actually," he muttered.
Asked by one of the deejays, "Is there a chance, seriously, that you killed her?"
The caller responded quietly: "Yeah, I know I did."
The station said last June that it received at least 60 calls and several faxes from listeners commenting on the call. When Ryder and Baxter were interviewed by reporters last June, they described the call as sounding authentic.
"It just blew us away," Baxter said in a June 14 report in The Times. "The only thing I could think of to do was to suggest we put him in touch with someone who could help. And I got the feeling that he thought we were going to trace the call or something and he just hung up. We were stunned so we just went to commercials and cut the bit off for the rest of the day."
When the case was brought to Yarbrough's attention, the sheriff's sergeant entertained the possibility that it was a hoax, but also was compelled to chase down every lead.
"I figured there were three possibilities," Yarbrough said. "One was that it was a crank call, the other was that the deejays set it up and the third was that it was real. But . . . I couldn't ignore it."
Meanwhile, Yarbrough spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday explaining to other law-enforcement agencies who have been trying to match the details to their own unsolved cases that the incident was a fraud.
"What I'm trying to do is undo any of the investigations that have been going on around the world," he said.