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.
During the first few months after the murder, police interviewed a steady stream of men--and a few women--who claimed to be the killer. A former member of the Women's Army Corps told detectives, "Elizabeth Short stole my man so I killed her and cut her up."
One man marched into Los Angeles police headquarters and confessed. Four times. Detectives began calling him, "Confessin' Tom."
One confessor was asked by skeptical detectives to pick out Short from a series of photographs. He could not and then tried to stagger off. Detectives threw him into the drunk tank.
During the first few years after the murder, an array of housewives, soldiers, winos, farmers and clergymen confessed to the crime. Police ruled out all of them, and the case remains unsolved. Even today, usually after the TV movie "Who Is the Black Dahlia?" is aired, detectives receive another spate of calls.
"Every time that movie is shown we'll all say, 'Oh hell, here come the kooks,' " said Don Ham, a retired Robbery-Homicide detective who joined the department a year after the Dahlia murder. "Decades later, we'd still get a half-dozen confessions a year. In the old days you didn't need a badge to gain entry to homicide. People would just walk in off the street and say, 'Get me a detective. I want to tell them about someone I killed.' "
The most sensational false confession case in recent history involved a Texas prisoner named Henry Lee Lucas. During the early 1980s, Lucas confessed to killing more than 600 people, including Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. The Texas Rangers were delighted with Lucas because, as a result of his confessions, they were clearing troublesome, unsolved cases by the dozens.
The more Lucas talked, the better treatment he received. For almost two years he had a private cell with an unlimited supply of cigarettes and his favorite meal--cheeseburgers and strawberry milkshakes. He traveled across the country to point out the sites of his murders. He was interviewed by countless reporters. Criminologists sought audiences with him.
As his fame spread, his accounts became increasingly outrageous. He talked of cannibalism and necrophilia. He told one detective that he cut a murder victim into little pieces and made hamburger out of her.
His claims began to unravel when a suspicious prosecutor discovered that Lucas had received traffic tickets on the dates of some of his confessed murders. The prosecutor knew Lucas was lying because he had received tickets in different states than the murder sites.
When Lucas' wild ride was over, he admitted that he had killed only one person--his mother. The alcoholic drifter with an IQ of 83 had hornswoggled law enforcement authorities across Texas.
In the end, one of the few declarations by Lucas that rang true was his confession about why he made false confessions. He enjoyed the attention. He liked the perquisites in jail. And he felt important for the first time in his life.
Although Lucas had recanted virtually everything, many prosecutors in Texas still are convinced that some of his confessions were true. He finally was convicted of 11 murders and remains on death row in Huntsville.
At one time, Lucas claimed he was the Green River killer, suspected of murdering as many as 49 women during the mid-1980s in Washington state. Two detectives flew to Texas and interviewed him, but they quickly discovered that all he knew about the killings was what he had seen in the media. Several "keys" about the killings, which had not been publicized, gave Lucas away, said King County Police Det. Jim Doyon, one of the lead investigators on the case, which remains unsolved.
Two prisoners from San Quentin also confessed to the Green River murders in a letter they sent to King County police. They promised to show detectives where the bodies were buried if authorities guaranteed them they would not receive the death penalty.
"We sent two detectives to talk to them," Doyon said. "They knew so little about the geography of the Seattle area that we were convinced that they'd never even been here. We found out from some other inmates that all these two wanted was to get in a wooded area with a few detectives. Then they would make a run for it. The whole thing was just an escape plan."
It is not just murder cases that attract false confessors. After the 1993 Laguna Beach fire, which destroyed or severely damaged 441 homes, a transient confessed to setting the blaze. He had been arrested for lighting three small fires in Fullerton. While in custody, he told police he set the fire to conjure up a demon king named Gotam. He was charged with arson and held without bail.
Unfortunately, the suspect's mother pointed out to authorities that her son could not have set the fire because he was in a Mexican jail at the time. This was confirmed by Mexican prison records, and the charge was dropped. She explained that her son was delusional, was convinced mobsters were trying to kill him and believed he would be safe in jail.
Night Stalker Frenzy
During the 14 Night Stalker killings in Southern California during the mid-1980s, the LAPD received more than 3,000 tips, said Paul Tippin, a retired Robbery-Homicide detective who was assigned to the case.
"I remember one guy wandered into Parker Center and told the desk officers that he could help them out on the Night Stalker case," Tippin says. "They sent him over to us, and he announced 'I'm responsible for a few of 'em.' The guy was a real dirt bag. After we talked to him, we quickly figured out that he was a phony. He just wanted to spend a few days in jail so he'd get a warm bed and a few free meals."
A false confession in one of California's most sensational murder investigations--the Zodiac slayings in San Francisco during the late 1960s--gave discouraged detectives an evanescent glimmer of hope. Police attributed six random slayings to the Zodiac, who wrote bizarre, taunting messages to newspapers.
Dave Toschi, a retired San Francisco Police Department inspector and one of the lead investigators in the case, thought he finally had tracked down the killer on a November night in 1969. A man called a television news show during a program about the Zodiac killer and told the host, "I think you're looking for me."
"The host thought they had the guy, and we put a trace on the call," Toschi recalled. "The guy talked on and on, giving all kinds of details. Meanwhile, we traced the call to a hospital in Oakland, and we talked to one of the supervisors there. He told us, 'You've been talking to a man we just gave phone privileges to. He's a mental patient.' "
Private investigator Pavelic, who chased the leads on the Simpson case, has talked to his share of mental patients--and those who should be mental patients.
The man who interrupted Pavelic on the recent afternoon claiming to be the Canadian psychiatrist sounded as if he was in great need of psychiatric help himself. In a rambling, disjointed monologue, he informed Pavelic that he could clear up "the murder mystery of the century."
"I know who did it," he told Pavelic.
"And who is that?" Pavelic asked, in a bored monotone.
"A guy who works at a Brentwood restaurant," the man said.
"And how do you know that?"
"I saw him on television the other day. I could tell he was the killer by the way he crossed his legs."
Pavelic deftly concluded the conversation and rolled his eyes.
"If I had let him ramble on, by the end of the conversation he probably would have copped to the murder himself and promised to cross his legs for me as proof."