Crying wolf creates danger:  Police chief fears for the real victims, the cities and towns, and others

Curt Brown, Star Tribune

April 4, 2004

http://www.startribune.com/stories/462/4702964.html

 

Bogus abductions, such as the case that unraveled in Madison, Wis., last week, scare Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus. As the top cop in a mid-sized Midwestern city, Magnus has seen firsthand how a community's attitude can shift from heightened sensitivity to a betrayed sense of skepticism when a horror winds up a hoax. Magnus sees "the start of a really dangerous situation" in between the legitimate outrage sparked by Dru Sjodin's abduction in Grand Forks, N.D., last November and the attention on Audrey Seiler's ultimately fake kidnapping report.

Here's why he's worried: A few weeks after Sjodin was snatched, a Fargo woman reported being abducted at gunpoint and raped. Turns out she fabricated the story to cover up an affair amid mental health problems.

"The Dru Sjodin case showed us all that people are capable of doing terrible things even in safe cities..." Magnus said. "When they strike, we have to respond not only as a police department, but as a community, even though we don't have thousands of officers or unlimited budgets."

As law enforcement pours all its resources into such cases, attention is diverted from other serious work. Citizens turn out in droves to search fields and marshes. News media cover the story around the clock. And authorities are forced to sort out the facts on the fly, unable to ignore a possible atrocity even when it seems suspicious.

Magnus said cases such as Seiler's -- the University of Wisconsin sophomore from Rockford, Minn., who appears to have staged her disappearance March 27 -- won't change law enforcement's response.

"If we have one or 10 bogus reports, we will continue to investigate because we know how serious the stakes are," Magnus said. "What concerns me is, will the community continue to respond? Or will people start out with the idea the report isn't true and wonder what's fishy or bogus about this one."

Case in point: A Fargo jogger told police last month that a man tried to drag her into a vehicle but she escaped. Magnus said she's "very credible" and the investigation continues.

"But the community's reaction has been far more subdued than it was to the prior abduction report that turned out false," Magnus said. "People pour their energy into these cases, beating the bushes in Madison, taking away time from work and their families, and they end up feeling angry and betrayed. That leads people to start out with the assumption that it's probably not true the next time around."

Belief and cynicism

That shift concerns law enforcement experts and advocates for missing children.

"Hopefully, people are not going to come to the conclusion that all missing people are just hoaxes," said Carol Watson, director of Missing Children Minnesota. Even if someone exploits the media attention in one case, it doesn't mean all cases should be ignored, she said.

Larry Brubaker, a retired FBI agent, says skepticism sometimes creeps in. "Police officers don't like getting burned," he said. "They want to believe people and solve cases, but they remember these nicks and bruises. And when a true victim comes in and can't remember this or that, police have to fight that 'Here we go again, making things up' cynicism."

Paul McCabe, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, said his agency doesn't keep track of bogus abductions. Neither does the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. "But it's not that unusual," McCabe said.

To wit: Six days after Sjodin vanished, a high school senior from Fertile, Minn., reported that she was abducted outside a grocery store but jumped out of her kidnapper's car. Authorities eventually determined that she made up the story. "We went after it full bore with citizens and state and federal resources," said Polk County Sheriff's Capt. Karl Erickson.

Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist, criminal profiler and author in Alaska, said criminologists seldom study false reports. He hopes that changes.

"The actual number of false reports is staggering, and it's a huge problem," he said. The media, he said, play a large role in such cases as competitive live coverage and instant Internet updates have become the norm. "They define the case right away: 'Innocent girl miraculously survives,' and then when it winds up a fabrication," Turvey said, "they vilify her and tear her down in the backlash while all the time pressuring the police to get it right quicker than they normally would be expected to."

And that's why Fargo's police chief is so worried.

"My sense is legitimate abductions such as Dru Sjodin's bring the less legitimate, questionable and bogus ones out of the woodwork," Magnus said. "When some people see all the attention garnered from law enforcement and the community, in their minds, they want to be the focus of all that." True victims, he fears, will have a harder time being believed. "The saddest outcome of these bogus reports is that it will make it much more difficult for real victims to come forward and report situations that need to be investigated," Magnus said.

The Seiler case

On Saturday, Audrey Seiler's uncle said at a news conference in Madison that her family is pursuing medical and legal help for her. "As many of you know, Audrey has been through a difficult ordeal over the past week," Scott Seiler said.

"Tumultuous" was how he described the series of events that began with her disappearance March 27 and ending with the police announcement that the kidnapping was a hoax.

The facts are still not fully known, and the family's primary concern is Audrey's well-being, Scott Seiler said. The family hired Twin Cities attorney Randy Hopper to represent Audrey Seiler, Madison police spokesman Larry Kamholz said. Hopper declined to comment Saturday. Kamholz said he couldn't confirm media reports that Seiler is receiving psychiatric care at a Madison-area hospital, but he said she is in Madison. She's free to leave, he said.

So far, police estimate the costs associated with the Seiler case at $75,000 and rising.

 

Staff writer Allie Shah contributed to this report.

Curt Brown is at curt.brown@startribune.com.