by Jerry Mitchell, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting
Expert interrogator Steven Rhoads has made a career out of catching liars.
And he believes Carole Baskin is lying when she shared the last words of her husband, animal sanctuary owner Don Lewis, before he disappeared Aug. 18, 1997.
The multi-millionaire’s disappearance is the subject of the wildly popular Netflix documentary, Tiger King, which has resulted in the reinvestigation of the case.
Baskin, the last known person to see Lewis alive, said the last thing he said to her was to get the truck ready “because he was going early, early, early, he said, the next day to Costa Rica, and that was the last thing he said to me. That was the last I saw of him.”
The words “early, early, early” struck a chord with Rhoads, president of Spotting Lies Inc., whose interrogation helped lead to a conviction in the 1985 murder of Stacie Pannell, a student at Northeast Mississippi Community College.
When someone repeats a word three times in a row, it raises a red flag, especially when that word is a “discounter” or “amplifier,” ending in “ly,” Rhoads said. “It’s my Rule of Three. People tend to lie in threes.”
He pioneered the use of eye movement in interrogations, borrowing from the neurolinguistic programming field.
He tested the accuracy of such eye movement in four research projects, first using college students and then inmates convicted of violent offenses. Using only eye movements, they were able to determine if a person was lying in 98% of cases, he said.
These techniques are also helping law enforcement clear people of wrongdoing by the absence of deception, he said.
People’s eyes generally go up and to the left when they are being truthful, he said. He saw that when Baskin described meeting Lewis for the first time.
But when their eyes go up and to the right, that generally signifies deception, he said. When Baskin made the remark “early, early, early,” her eyes went up and to the right.
He noticed the same eye movement on the documentary when she read from The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles: “There is a science of getting rich, and it is an exact science. The ownership of money and property comes from doing things in this certain way. Those who do things in this Certain Way, whether on purpose … or (her eyes went up and to the right) accidentally … get rich.”
Rhoads said the Rule of Three also comes into play when people are “reinforcing something critical, in this case affirming what her real thoughts and actions were, in my opinion.”
But Atlanta lawyer Andrew Sheldon, a trial consultant with a doctorate in psychology, whose work involves reading witnesses and potential jurors, remains skeptical after studying deceptive behavior for many years. He believes that a great many factors go into discovering whether someone is lying or not.
“Determining whether a person is telling the truth or lying is so unpredictable,” he said. “I don’t think it’s cut and dried by a long shot.”
As studies have shown, he said, there is no silver bullet for identifying deception, pointing out that facial expressions could result from reasons other than lying.
A 2016 study concluded that people have a difficult time telling whether a speaker is lying or telling the truth. The study also discovered that people can accurately detect deception when measures that aid accuracy assist them.
“A courtroom and life in general is an open field for liars because people really can’t tell whether others are telling the truth,” Sheldon said. “A trial boils down to a consensus about truth or lying. Can 12 jurors agree that a witness is lying or telling the truth?”
Rhoads said he agrees with Sheldon that detecting deception is difficult. “Too many people rely on just one thing,” he said, “and when they see or hear that one specific gesture or phrase, they jump on it as a lie.”
This is why an interrogator must establish “the person’s baseline of communication both verbally and nonverbally and then the deviation and bundles of gestures that are present are the critical determining factor,” he said. “In Carole’s case, I attempted to establish that baseline by applying it to statements that I could prove were true or that there was no need for her to be deceptive.”
In Tiger King, Baskin laughed as she discussed the theory that she put her husband’s body through a meat grinder.
“She has a s—eating grin when there’s nothing funny about it,” Rhoads said.
In the same program, Baskin told a reporter that the worst part is not knowing. “There’s no way I can finally say, ‘See? I didn’t do it,’” she said with a laugh before turning serious. “I can’t do it.”
Rhoads found it odd for her to say she can’t do it. “Why can’t you?” he asked.
In a video she posted, Baskin discussed why she refused to take a lie detector test.
She initially agreed to do so because she wanted Lewis’ daughters “to know that there was no way I was involved in harming their father,” she said.
But a criminal defense lawyer advised her to not take a polygraph test because it could only measure if she were having an emotional response, she said. “Well, for crying out loud, I was having all sorts of emotions going on.”
If she failed the test, she said, everybody would “think I’ve done something horrible.”
And if she failed to be emotional, she would be accused of being “a stone-cold killer,” she said. “There was nothing good that was going to come out of that.”
In watching this video, Rhoads sees the same level of deception by Baskin, he said. “The rapid eye blinking and looking up to her right side are classic indicators.”
He noted that Baskin also showed hesitation and changed the topic to Lewis’ habit of looking in dumpsters “as an avoidance.”
Throughout the video, she used the word “missing,” rather than “murder,” and talked of “harm” coming to Lewis, rather than him being a victim of homicide, Rhoads said. “Liars typically will use minimized terms to avoid guilt.”
Clashes between the verbal and the nonverbal cues can also be seen, he said.
“‘When he (Lewis) showed up missing, I didn’t know what was happening’ are the words coming out of her mouth,” he said, “but her head is shaking yes. That same conflict is present throughout the recording.”
As she discusses the emotions that could come with taking the lie detector test, “you get the deceptive micro gesture of the one shoulder shrug, the left one in this case,” he said. “She pulls way back in the chair when she says she’s getting emotional all over again, but I detect more of a smirk in her mouth than sadness.”
Rhoads’ opinion? “She either killed her husband or knows exactly who did.”