18 | Reading Between the Words

You have to read not just between the lines, but between the words.
-Wendell C. Rudacille

Wendell Rudacille is an investigator and polygraph examiner with the Howard County, Maryland Police Department. He’s spent fifty years in law enforcement, has a Master of Science in Psychology, and has written a treatise on deception, memory and text analysis. I read Identifying Lies in Disguise in 2013, when I got the Frye case files, to try to make sense of statements Duane and his kids made in 1973 and afterwards.

Rudacille has devised a psycholinguistic process to determine whether a statement is probably true or false. He breaks the oral or written text into clauses and phrases. Then he notes redundancies, changes in pronouns and adjectives, spatial gaps and overstressed letters, places where information is missing or was censored, and other criteria mined from hundreds of statements that have been confirmed as true or false. Scoring this data on worksheets produces a density analysis for probable truth or deception.

In March 2019, I contacted Rudacille for permission to quote from his book in my blog. To my surprise and delight, he didn’t just agree: He offered to analyze the written statement Duane made shortly after he discovered Betty’s body. Duane’s statement scored a VIRPD (Verbal Indicators Related to Probable Deception) density of 6.6, quite close to the 9.0 density for confirmed deceptive suspect statements. The statement and report are here.

Rudacille is disciplined. He is wary of external things that might contaminate his analysis. (He didn’t ask if I thought Duane was a psychopath until after he’d delivered his report.) And he doesn’t speculate. Instead of reading a suspect’s mind, he tries to put himself into his or her head. But even working in the blind—without context, based on Duane’s words alone—he has no doubt Duane knew Betty was dead when he left the house that morning.

To Rudacille, four things stood out: Duane used “my” with reference to Betty’s car; his statement contained no emotion; he didn’t react to finding her body; and he didn’t mention Betty at all until he found her dead. Language changes when your perception of reality shifts. In talking about his sunglasses, Duane’s syntax changed. When you try to tell a coherent false story while suppressing the truth, knowledge of the offense can leak. In saying he was at the Chevron station “about 10:55 A.M.” (or 10:35, depending how you read it), Duane may have thrown down a marker.

Here’s what Rudacille didn’t know.

For her 44th birthday that March, Duane had given Betty a secondhand Lincoln convertible. The car he brought to the Chevron the morning she was murdered was hers, not his. Calling it “my car” supports Rudacille’s conclusion that Duane already knew Betty was dead when he embarked on the odyssey recounted in his statement. But Duane’s taking ownership of his wife’s car before he legitimately could have known she was dead isn’t the only reason the Chevron is significant.

At 8:30 that morning, when the eldest Frye daughter, Jan, came home, Betty was fixing breakfast. At 9:30, Jan and Greg followed Duane to the Chevron where he dropped off Betty’s car. (After giving Duane a ride home, Jan drove Greg to his karate lesson in Boulder.) Chevron mechanics recalled seeing Duane twice: at 9:30 when he dropped the Lincoln off, and at 11:40 when he returned to check up on it. But Duane said he was there at 10:55.

10:55 (or 10:35) opens an even bigger can of worms. Unlike “a little after 5:00 P.M.” when Duane came home to find Betty’s body, it is specific to the minute. And it falls right between the time Betty was murdered and Duane answered the door to Greg’s friend Bret.  

In 1973, the coroner said Betty died at around noon. When she was attacked, she fell onto her left hand. The watch on that wrist cracked and stopped at 10:03. Back then a jeweler examined the watch and found no internal damage. Because it needed to be lubricated and cleaned, he thought it had been running intermittently, stopping and starting up again, before Betty was killed.

How time of death is estimated hasn’t changed much. But in 2006, cold case coroner Michael Doberson was hamstrung by deficiencies in the autopsy report. It didn’t mention rigor or livor mortis, and Betty’s body temperature wasn’t recorded at the crime scene or the morgue. Luckily, he had other evidence to go on.

Doberson said Betty died at 10:30 a.m. at the latest. He based it on when she was last seen alive (by Randy Peterson around 10:15, shaking out her mop), and remnants of meat found in her stomach. A light meal can be partially digested and leave the stomach within an hour. Digestion stops when you die, and Betty died within minutes of being attacked. The meat in her stomach told Doberson she died within an hour or two after breakfast.

The sunglasses are also telling. Duane’s earlier stops are precise: “I went to the Chevron station to ask them when they would have my car finished. about 10:55 A.M. I then went to Safeway & bought a can of charcoal lighter, I then went to the liquor store in the old shopping center & bought a six pack of beer.” Even without taking into account the Rayban clip-ons found with the loot in the garage, the sunglasses hit a psycholinguistic trifecta. Duane switched to past perfect, fuzzed up the adjective, and changed his explanation mid-phrase: “I then went to Cinderella City to get some sunglasses because I had forgotten mine. I [discovered crossed out] didn’t miss them until I got to Hampden.”

Duane doesn’t say he actually bought sunglasses. But his chatty explanation about why he needed them strikes a welcome note, and Hampden and Cinderella City sound reassuringly specific. The problem is Cinderella City. When it opened in 1968, it was the largest covered shopping center west of the Mississippi. Its five malls had 250 stores and drew 15,000 visitors a day. On a summer weekend in 1973 it was so crowded you couldn’t find a parking spot.

Can truth and deception be scored?

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