It’s the bleary, wee hours of the morning, and the murder interrogation has yet to yield the confession the detectives are counting on to seal the case. They have sat and stood and paced in this cramped little room for 12 hours already, and although the suspect keeps inching close to giving them what they need, he repeatedly draws back, as if he can’t admit even to himself the enormity of the crime.
The date is November 6, 1986, and the place is Clearwater, Florida. Three days ago, an attractive 25-year-old cake decorator named Janet Staschak was found naked and murdered in the upstairs bedroom of her apartment. Her purse was missing, a window screen had been cut, and her car had been found in the parking garage at the airport. But the detectives, Pete Fire and John Dean, don’t believe this was a burglary; they think the killer arranged things to make it look like one because he was someone who knew the victim.
They have no doubt that this someone is the suspect sitting across from them in the interrogation room. His name is Tom F. Sawyer, and from the minute they laid eyes on him, they knew they had their man. On the day Staschak’s body was found, they caught the handsome, athletic 33-year-old ducking under the police tape at her apartment complex. When they approached him, they learned he was Staschak’s neighbor. [pullquote]He was also a nervous wreck, sweating so profusely that he actually mopped his head with a towel.[/pullquote] He provided no alibi for Saturday night, probably the time of the murder. And despite his nervousness, he was unusually curious about the case—eager, he said, to help in any way he could.
That was days ago. But now, when it comes to the actual interrogation, they find that Sawyer is a tough nut to crack. They initially lured Sawyer down to the station under the guise of asking him to help them solve the case and, over the course of hours, have eased into their questioning by asking him to develop some hypothetical scenarios about how the murder might have taken place. As the hours have worn on, Sawyer’s chief scenario has begun to closely match the known facts of the case. So, after a bathroom break, Dean and Fire shift tactics. They read him the Miranda warning, and Dean tells him point-blank, “Tom, I think you did it.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Tom,” Fire says. “You know too much.”
“I didn’t kill her,” Sawyer protests. “I’ve never been in her apartment before.”
They’re losing him. So Fire switches tactics and plays Good Cop. “It was an accident, Tom,” Fire suggests. “I know it was. I need you to tell me what happened.”
“I was never there. I never did it.”
“I’ll look you in the eye and say that all night.”
“We’ve got all night.”
In the days between the murder and the interrogation, the detectives learned some interesting facts about Tom Sawyer. He began drinking in high school and soon started off each day with a bottle to keep from shaking. He had been in and out of rehab for years. He worked as a groundskeeper at a golf course. He moved to Florida from Illinois, where his drinking played a role in a difficult romantic breakup, and he had not led much of a social life since achieving sobriety 13 months ago. Could the stress of sobriety, coupled with the painful breakup, have made him snap, taking out his anger on his neighbor?
And now, tonight, he has openly admitted that he found Staschak attractive but never managed to work up the courage to ask her out. A few nights before the murder, she paid him a visit in his apartment. They watched a movie together—The Shining—and chatted about life. Had that experience of near intimacy stirred up feelings that could find no other outlet but rape and murder?
Hours into the interrogation, Sawyer agrees to take a polygraph test. Only when the detectives confront him with the results does his attitude begin to shift. “You know what that test says?” Fire asks him. “It says you’re a liar. Your heart blew those needles right off the screen.”
The detectives also tell Sawyer that they have gathered considerable evidence, including his hairs. It’s time to face facts, they tell him. It’s not that much different from the first step required in quitting drinking—you have to admit the truth to yourself.
“I don’t know,” Sawyer finally answers. “I’m thinking I had a blackout. But I never heard of a blackout when you haven’t been drinking.”
Over time, the detectives get Sawyer to admit that he struck Staschak in the head with an ashtray from her coffee table, dragged her upstairs, stripped and sodomized her, strangled her, placed her on her bed facedown, and pulled the covers over her. By 8:30 a.m., after more than 16 hours of grueling interrogation, they have a narrative that matches the details they have gathered about the murder: Staschak was indeed found naked facedown in her bed with the covers pulled up; the ashtray is missing from the coffee table in her apartment, as is a single knife from a set in the kitchen, which Sawyer has described using to cut the screen and the ligatures with which Staschak’s wrists and ankles were bound. Sawyer says he threw those missing items off the bridge of a causeway. With all the key elements ticked off their list, the detectives decide to end the interview. As far as they’re concerned, they have their confession.
With their son facing murder charges, Sawyer’s parents reach out to a local defense attorney named Joe Donahey. Donahey files a motion to suppress the entire interrogation as evidence, alleging that not only had the detectives taken too long to read Sawyer his Miranda rights, but the confession had been coerced, and his pleas to speak with a lawyer were ignored. After hearing six weeks of argument, Judge Gerard O’Brien throws out the confession. The state appeals, but the higher court upholds the decision. After 14 months in county lockup, Sawyer walks free. There are no other suspects.
Fast-forward 28 years, to January 2014. Fire and Dean have long since retired. Donahey is 80 years old and blind. Tom Sawyer has moved back north and faded into obscurity, quietly working maintenance jobs and keeping a low profile.
A team of Clearwater Police Department detectives is revisiting cold cases, and it opens the Staschak file. The officers find samples of biological matter that was retrieved from beneath the victim’s fingernails—probably produced by Staschak’s efforts to scratch at her killer in self-defense. In 1986, DNA evidence was unheard of in Pinellas County, but in 2014, it is an easy matter to run the sample through a federal database. There is a hit. Surprise: The DNA is not that of Tom F. Sawyer. Instead, the alleged match is to the DNA of a 57-year-old man named Stephen Manning Lamont, who, at the time of Staschak’s murder, was an escaped prisoner. Police arrest Lamont in Alabama and extradite him to Florida.
But if Tom Sawyer didn’t commit the murder, why did he confess to it? And why were Dean and Fire so convinced he was the killer?
Part of Donahey’s defense strategy was to have Sawyer psychologically evaluated, and those assessments revealed that Sawyer suffered from an acute social anxiety disorder and a pathological urge to please others. From the outset, Sawyer’s unique psychological makeup had thrown the detectives off: He had initially aroused their suspicions by acting nervous and mopping sweat off his brow with a towel—but he had been doing that very thing since high school. The mere thought of having people’s attention directed on him made him go red in the face and perspire profusely.
When the detectives invited Sawyer down to the station, his eagerness to please made him genuinely excited. He was a big fan of TV detective shows, like Quincy, M.E., and relished the thought of helping to crack the case. “I thought this would be a way for me to give something back,” he says, referring to the burden he had been to society as an alcoholic. His alcoholism made him even more susceptible to false confession: Not only had decades of drinking shattered his already fragile ego, but he had experienced hundreds of blackouts over the years, so it was nothing new for him to be accused of bad behavior without any memory of the wrongdoing.
Donahey also zeroed in on the “confession” as better proof of his client’s innocence than his guilt. The turning point in the interrogation, the point at which Sawyer began to entertain the possibility that he was the murderer, did not come until he was confronted with the polygraph results—which turned out to have been bogus. He had not “blown the needle off the charts,” nor had the lab returned conclusive hair samples or other physical evidence linking him to the crime. But Fire and Dean thought it was worth telling him both things were true. “I still didn’t believe I’d done it,” Sawyer says, “but I believed that the police didn’t lie.”
That was the crux of it: a man already racked by self-doubt, with a lifetime’s experience of blackouts, confronted by what to him is inarguable proof of his guilt. He doesn’t believe he has committed the crime, and yet he’s a gentle enough soul to want to take responsibility for his actions if he did (“I pray to God that if I did do it, I’m punished for it,” he told the detectives). Donahey has made a study of the false confessions of American POWs during the Korean War, and he believes that Sawyer’s experience closely resembles theirs. He was sleep deprived, hungry, badgered, cajoled, and lied to, until, as he put it to the detectives at the time, they had driven him “bananas.” By the end of the session, he was begging them to end the questioning, ready to agree to just about anything to make it stop.
But how could the murder scenario suggested by Sawyer have so accurately matched the facts of the case? First, a talkative police officer at the crime scene had told Sawyer several details, including the position of the body on the bed.
Second, the detectives spent all night guiding Sawyer’s answers. One example: They needed Sawyer to confess to binding Staschak’s wrists and ankles with duct tape, which had left a sticky white residue on her skin. “What was it you used, Tom?” Fire asked.
Nearly out of his mind with exhaustion, Sawyer answered, “A jock?”
“A jock strap? A jock strap won’t leave marks like that.”
“Scotch tape?” Sawyer asks.
“No, it’s white. It’s not Scotch tape.”
“Well, masking tape, then.”
No, not quite—and so on until finally, through team effort, they all land on the notion of duct tape. Playing Twenty Questions was working for the detectives, so they continued the technique, giving partial descriptions of the crime scene and then asking Sawyer to describe to them the images he was seeing in his mind. To them, and, increasingly, to him, these were blocked-out flashbacks from the night of the murder rather than images they were producing through their line of questioning. [pullquote]One chilling moment of the interrogation has particular echoes of the brainwashing of the American POWs. Sawyer says, “I just keep getting thoughts that say I didn’t do it, you know?”[/pullquote]
“But those are thoughts, and that’s all they are now,” Dean answers. “You’ve learned to recognize the difference between the reality and the thoughts. What are the pictures you see? Concentrate on the pictures.”
As might be expected, despite the detectives’ best efforts, the “confession” turned out not to match the evidence after all. They had gotten Sawyer to say that he had sodomized Staschak, but when the forensics finally came in, they showed that she had not been sodomized. What about the missing ashtray? Donahey had an investigator track down Staschak’s ex-husband and take him to the apartment, where he promptly pulled the ashtray down from the top of the refrigerator. “It was never kept on the coffee table,” he said. And the missing knife? “That thing was missing when we moved down to Florida from Pennsylvania,” the ex-husband said.
That’s why, without the “confession,” the state had no case against Tom Sawyer.
Sawyer has been sober for all these years. He is married and lives a simple life in a northern town. Despite having spent 14 months in a jail cell, he is remarkably philosophical about his ordeal. “It’s part of life,” he says, blaming himself for his troubles. “None of this would have happened if I had had a little more sobriety in me,” he says. “I had no confidence whatsoever. No self-esteem.”
Still, a shadow hung over him for 28 years: Because his case never went to trial, there would have been no double jeopardy if the state had decided to prosecute him after all. For the past three decades, he says, every time the doorbell rang, he worried that it would be the police.
The nightmare came to an end this past March, when Sawyer and Donahey flew to Florida to watch Stephen Lamont confess to murdering Janet Staschak and agree to a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years. As the gavel fell, Sawyer silently clenched his fists and raised them over his head, like a runner crossing a finish line. He then approached the state’s attorney who had prosecuted both him and Lamont. Sawyer stuck out his hand. “Thanks for your hard work,” he said. “I just want to let you know there are no hard feelings.”
Later, he received a call from the chief of the Clearwater Police Department. “I feel a little awkward about this, since I was in tenth grade when it happened,” he told Sawyer. “But I think you’re owed an apology for what happened to you. I’m sorry.”
The apology was long in coming, but it mattered. When asked what he would do now that it was all over, Sawyer shrugged. “Live my life,” he said—the life that was so senselessly interrupted on the night in 1986 when Stephen Lamont almost got away with murder.