The Face of Lying

UCSF's Paul Ekman, a national expert on the science of lying, helps police (and journalists) determine whether perps (or presidents) are practiced prevaricators

"J.J. and I flew to Chicago to interview Darryl Handy. That was the first major break in the case," recalls ATF agent Al Mabanag, of the bureau's Oakland office. "This was going to be a key interview. This guy was present when these acts were committed. The thing I recall most was that he was tense and nervous, and a good portion of that was because he was in custody in the Cook County Jail.

"J.J. made him feel at ease. He gave him a firm handshake, grabbed his elbow, asking him if he was OK. He asked how they were treating him. He asked if there was anything we could do for him. J.J. had a very laid-back approach. ... We did a little chatting on the side, and then J.J. approached him with what we were after. We just let the guy talk. We'd ask him questions just to keep him on topic."

Handy lied to minimize his role in Johnson's killings; supervising agent and ardent Ekman disciple J.J. Newberry could tell that by reading Handy's expressions. Further investigation showed he had been, alternately, a gunman, a driver, and who-knows-what-else during One-Eye's East Bay crime spree. But Handy didn't lie about everything. During the course of repeated interviews, Handy revealed the location of spent casings, guns, hideouts, and accomplices, all of which allowed the agents to assemble the pieces of what had seemed a hopeless case.

Marvin Johnson was not one to take betrayal lightly. He gave the order from jail to firebomb the home of Handy's sister. He gave more orders to kill, harass, and terrify a shopping list of witnesses and their families.

The agents spied on Johnson in jail. His jail-house messenger, it turned out, was a local video-store owner who had been visiting Johnson with odd frequency.

Agents allowed this courier to deliver one last message before arresting him at the jailhouse, so that Johnson could not learn that his line to the outside world had been cut. Then they brought the courier to the interview room. He had to turn informant fast -- before Johnson got wise -- or face 20 years in prison. It was Newberry and Mabanag's job to flip him.

At first, the courier lied about his role.
"We did everything I showed you in the class," Newberry recalls. "He was a baseball player. I told him I remembered when he played, and what a great life it must have been playing pro ball. Then we talked about how he could have possibly gotten himself into this mess. He related how he got involved with One-Eyed Marvin; how he wanted to get back into baseball. I told him, 'You've got to make up your mind what side of the line you're going to go on.' I touched him on the shoulder. He was a decent man, and I played to his decency. He was more worried about his wife than anything, and we played that up. I really liked the guy, so it did not take long to establish a relationship with him."

Mabanag was in and out of the interviewing room -- getting more information from prison deputies, checking information obtained during the interview with reports -- so he didn't see everything that went on, and his memory of the interview isn't as complete as Newberry's would be.

That said, as is the case with any two witnesses' recollections, Mabanag remembers things slightly differently than his partner.

"When you do interviews, sometimes a guy will just not like you. No matter what you do, he will not confess and tell the truth. [The courier] kept being deceptive," Mabanag recalls. The two agents decided to take a break, regroup, then return for more interviewing, and they called another agent to serve as a security guard with the courier while Mabanag and Newberry were out of the room.

"It seems like he took a liking to the agent. I guess he felt more comfortable with this agent being there, and based on the agent's recommendation, this guy saw the light at the end of the tunnel. He thought it would be better if he cooperated," Mabanag recalls.

The courier's cooperation made the case, former U.S. Attorney Eric Havian recalls; the newly responsive witness phoned Johnson's main hit man, setting him up for arrest. The courier also showed officers hand-written murder instructions that Johnson had passed from jail. His cooperation de-fanged Johnson, convincing other witnesses to the drug dealer's crimes that it was safe to talk, and Johnson was convicted of conspiracy to run a criminal enterprise.

Modern police interviewing had saved the day.
The hideous criminal was off the streets.
The ex-ballplayer he had roped in could go back to his wife.
Witnesses to Johnson's crimes could rest at night.

But the story didn't seem complete, really.
Did the analytic interviewing methods espoused by Newberry and Ekman flip the courier? Or did a friendly agent on security- guard duty do it by happenstance?

Perhaps the answer lay with the courier himself (who is not being named in this article at the request of law enforcement authorities, who still fear for his safety). "He'd remember those hours in the interviewing room," I thought. I called directory assistance and dialed the first of two numbers the operator gave me. A woman answered the phone, who said the man who had been the courier wasn't in town, but that she might be able to reach him through another relative.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.