Fight or flight

Fight-or-flight is a physiological reaction in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. LINK



One minute the guy says, you know, things like, “I can keep a grudge for a long time,” or something of this nature, to me, and the next minute he is like he is on some type of sedative, you know; the guy shows no emotion. Bob Sendle, 1973


What are you doing here? Six women were killed at that time in Arapahoe County. As far as I’m concerned, that gives you a black mark. Duane Frye, 2006


Being questioned by cops is scary for anyone. To a deceptive person, it is a threat to survival. Fight means confronting the questioner; flight is escaping through evasion or lies. But some escape routes are easier than others. According to statement analyst Wendell Rudacille, it is less anxiety provoking to use verbal evasion and linguistic loopholes than it is to tell a direct lie. 

In a police interview, the threat isn’t a gun. It’s the questions. To survive, the suspect faces what Rudacille calls a two-pronged pitchfork. He must lie or suppress his guilt about two things: his role in the crime and how he answers the questions. How much he lets himself say depends on his personality, intelligence and background; how guilty he feels about the crime; how worried he is about getting caught; how well he can blank out what he did; how guilty he feels about lying; how smoothly he can lie; how effectively he can rationalize his guilt; and how he views the questioner. Like a chameleon, he quickly adapts.

Duane made three statements: a written one at the scene in 1973, a formal interview at the Sheriff’s Office days later, and in response to cold case cops who came to his home in Florida without warning in 2006. In the intervening 33 years, some things had changed. Others had not.

Duane’s parents owned thriving businesses in the center of a town in northwest Kansas. He had an engineering degree from CU. His kids called him Mr. Work the Problem. But in October 1972, after sixteen years specializing in efficiency and production problems at Martin Marietta, he was laid off. In June 1973, when Betty was murdered, he was trying to launch two start-ups. By 2006, he lived in a gated community off a golf course with his second wife, Barbara. Duane’s personality had not changed, and he still had a lot to lose. But a suspect’s anxiety level and what he expects depends on the setting in which his statement is made. 

Duane’s written statement was made under Defcon 1: the deputy coroner had verbally Mirandized him, the printed form contained a Miranda warning, his statement was made in front of and formally witnessed by two cops, his first sentence confirmed it was voluntary (“I Herbert D Frye who reside at… make this statement voluntarily”), and his wife’s body lay just feet away in the garage. There are misspellings, inserts and cross-outs, and the most detailed part of his alibi goes to replacing his sunglasses. At the end (“We then drove home where we found my wife”), Duane’s handwriting dramatically changes: the “v” in “drove” is overstressed and there’s a big gap between it and “where we found my wife”. The “my” is so tiny it looks like it’s trying to flee the page. 

Three days later, Duane brought Leonard Davies, an experienced defense lawyer, with him to his formal interview at the Sheriff’s Office. The ADA asked Duane to take a polygraph. On Davies’s advice, he refused. His alibi had solidified and expanded; his stops the morning of the murder had doubled from four to eight. But when Sendle asked what Betty was like, Duane turned combative. An adult who acted like a juvenile, he said. A spoiled brat. I put up with it for eight or ten years. Why would I kill her? Instead of denying he killed his wife, Duane offered up a rationale for believing he was innocent.

In Florida in 2006, cold case cop Marv Brandt remembers Duane sizing him and Bruce Isaacson up at the door. Were they smart, or Barney Fife? Concluding they’d be easy to fool, Duane let them in. He immediately went on the offensive about supposed unsolved crimes in Arapahoe County at the time Betty was killed and told them only what he wanted them to know. He positioned himself at his dining room table to watch Barbara through the opening to the kitchen where she chatted with a Florida cop.

But whatever Duane had managed to rationalize or tried to blank out, three decades did not erase his fear of Sendle. That man was out to kill me, he told Isaacson and Brandt. Who? Brandt said. The investigator who testified in court. The demon he couldn’t outrun.

Which is easier: fight or flight?


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