NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. At this point, the fact of last Friday's shooting in Newton seemed well-established. A gunman forced his way into an elementary school, killed 20 children, six adults and himself. Yet investigators have been slow to release information about the details of the shooting, the witnesses and about what they've learned about the killer's motive. Why? In a moment, we'll talk with two men who've investigated mass murders and serial killings. If you've investigated high-profile crimes, what don't we civilians understand about the control of information? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You could also join the conversation on our website. That's npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
James Alan Fox is Lipman Family professor of criminology in Northeastern University. He's consulted on major mass murder investigations, including the Capitol Hill massacre in Seattle and joins us by phone from Florida. Good to speak with you.
JAMES ALAN FOX: Thank you. Good to be here.
CONAN: And Brad Garrett is a retired FBI agent who's investigated numerous homicides, including the D.C. sniper shootings. He joins us now via Skype from his office here in Washington and nice to have you back on the program.
BRAD GARRETT: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And, James, let me begin with you. Again, it seems cut and dried. One perpetrator, no ties so far as we know to any outside organization, no other suspects so far as we know. Obviously, we can't speculate about Newtown. But when the facts seemed cut and dried, why would the authorities be hesitant to release information?
FOX: Well, I think they want to make sure that the information they release is correct and make sense into a whole package before they release it. There's no urgency right now to give out part of the answer. You don't want to mislead people. You've got families of the victims who - obviously, they want to know everything that went on. They want to know everything that has to do with their kids and their kids' death. So they're eager to know, but we need to have to wait until we have the right answers and not do it in a day-by-day briefing.
CONAN: So not dribble out information...
FOX: And dribbling it out can sometimes - can be contradicted by facts later determined.
CONAN: So what facts are trying to establish?
FOX: Obviously motive. We know who did it. And in many cases like this, there is no investigation because the crime is solved, the perpetrator is dead. No need for investigation. But case like this, you know, you got families want to know why. They know who, but they also want to know why and America wants to know. Because this case is so high-profile, I think people have - they won't be satisfied until they understand, at least a little bit, about what happened. They believe they could, therefore, identify and predict future mass murderers but they can't. But at least they'd like to know why this happened.
CONAN: Brad Garrett, you've been involved, as we mentioned, in cases as high-profile - ongoing investigations of the sniper cases here. In the Washington, D.C., there was a grisly murder that you led the investigation on in Georgetown. What kinds of pressures do investigators face to release information?
GARRETT: Well, in an ongoing case, it's tremendous. If you use both the D.C. sniper case and the Starbuck's triple homicide, the media who were just, you know, relentless, wanting information and rightly so. But one of the keys is letting - is to interact with the press, communicate with them but control your information.
And even going to your mass shooting case last Friday, for them to hold back, Dr. Fox is correct. But in addition to that, they don't want to pollute or alter what information people have. And the problem is when you release information, sometimes a - maybe not a witness but perhaps a witness or people that know Adam quite well will incorporate what they hear the police say about the case. And so, obviously, you want to capture the truth, not the truth plus with other people know.
CONAN: Adam Lanza, of course, the man identified as the shooter - and even to the point, though, we just learned yesterday, for example, that there was a second member of the staff at the elementary school who was injured in the attack and in the hospital, they have not identified either of those people as witnesses. Now, you can understand in a mob investigation or something like that, you don't give the names out. They might be intimidated. In this case, why?
FOX: They might be flooded with the press calls. They may not want to be the center of attention. And clearly, if people know who they are, I think there'll be people at their hospital bed, or maybe people will call and pretend that they're a relative and want to speak to them and ask them what happened. So I think it's important to protect their identity, at least for the time being.
CONAN: Brad Garrett?
GARRETT: Neal, you have to take in consideration that - and we're talking emotional versus rational here, is that when you've been the victim of a horrendous shooting like this and you survived, you still don't feel safe. You feel like, guys, this happened. I survived. A number of my friends' children died. And so they still have maybe an irrational fear that they're still in harm's way. Some of it may be PTSD. Who knows? But to the point, that's the other reason that maybe you don't want to release names, or you, as the victim, don't want to come forward.
CONAN: And, James Alan Fox, obviously, every case is different. We mentioned the case that you were involved with in Seattle where one person killed people at a rave there, and that kids there - many of them not kids but young adults, obviously different age group - but children, when they get involved, how does that change things?
FOX: Well, they must, I mean, the surviving children, they're obviously very - not as reliable as witnesses. Their perceptions will be much more impacted by the trauma that they went through. And in addition, in a case like this, one would question whether you would want to approach some of these young witnesses. Remember, the case is solved, and it may not be worth putting children through the task of describing what they saw and what they remember, because there may not be sufficient benefit to us to cause that kind of harm, psychological harm, to them. If it was unsolved, if we had to figure out who this guy was, then, yes, there's a compelling need to talk to the children.
CONAN: Was there a time you chose not interview a child?
FOX: Who are you asking? Me?
CONAN: You. Yeah.
FOX: Well, all the case I'm involved with have not involved young children. They've involved teenagers at the minimum.
CONAN: Was there a time when you declined to release information, even well after the investigation?
FOX: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I'm going to give a couple, I mean, for example, in the Seattle case, there was a very important letter that the perpetrator had written to his brother, and it provided so much insight into why it happened. Now I was prepared to quote or paraphrase excepts from the letter so that people understood what happened, but I didn't want to release the letter because it belonged to his brother. It was one person writing a letter to someone else, and it's their property. Unfortunately, you know, the press has their ways, obviously, to get materials from unnamed sources, and they got it and they published it.
In other cases I've worked on, there's this - well, there was this situation, for example, where a victim had been - it's a serial murder case. And the victim had been raped brutally, and we didn't release that. The parents, family, I don't think they were prepared at that point to know everything that happened to their child. Eventually they found out. Unfortunately, they found out through a press report from an unidentified source much sooner than they should have and not in the right place and by the right people.
CONAN: Does that suggest that since, more than likely, people are going to find out eventually anyway, you should go ahead and be the one and try to do it in the right way?
FOX: I think that's what we were - I'm sorry. I missed the name of the other...
CONAN: Brad Garrett.
FOX: Right. I think that's what Brad was saying, that you control the flow of information. You release things when you feel it's the right time, and you have it released by the right people. Investigations like these, you always have victim and witness advocates who were skilled and experienced at working with families of homicide victims.
CONAN: And, Brad Garrett, in the case of the D.C. sniper, there was not only the families of the victims and the terrible fear that everybody in the area felt. There was also this sense of communication with the killer or, as it turned out, killers.
GARRETT: Well, that's right. And that, obviously, was their downfall - communicating with us - and we eventually figured out who they were. But in that case, you know, the fear factor, Neal, and I presume you live around here, is that we affected all of us, even those of us armed. I would look around when I pump gas at night. But the fear was you wanted to release enough information to get solid leads, and we had - I'll give you an example. At the Washington field office where I was assigned, we had one entire floor of a phone bank, just taking the calls in in the D.C. sniper case. And trying to sort through those and figure out fact from fantasy is quite mind boggling.
But the point is that you do want to daily encourage the public to call you because that's how we got a car description, that's how we got a partial license plate. So you try to - the information needs to be measured, but it needs to be regular and consistent, particularly when you got bad guys still running around.
FOX: And actually, that case is a good example where some of the information that came out early was false, that being the white van.
GARRETT: The box truck.
FOX: Yeah. And from that point on, everybody started seeing white vans because it's very common anywhere you go. So every time there was a shooting, people look around, there were white vans. So I'm sure you got many, many leads about white vans, which sent things in the wrong direction. And that's because something that came out was inaccurate.
GARRETT: And that actually is quite common because when a shooting happens, you know, people sort of focus on one thing and their eyes follow. And they saw a white box truck, I think, basically destroyed down the street right by the shooting. And so that went out. I mean, I'll give you another example: the shooting outside the CIA in 1993. When we got to that scene, you know, the initial information was a brown Toyota station wagon. And we put that out in flyers, and we weren't even close. But witnesses driving down 123 at 8 o'clock in the morning, they saw a vehicle and just presumed that was it. And we, of course, were wrong and end up being the shooter's own pick-up truck.
CONAN: Let me ask you another question. And, James Alan Fox, the situation in Seattle, one common thread with the situation in Newtown was that the killer killed himself. How do you find out the motivations of a dead man?
FOX: Well, you start by talking to his relatives. You talk to people whom he went to school with, whom he worked with - in that case, spent a good deal of time in Seattle, but also in Montana, where he was from - and basically collecting everything that people said about him, recalled about him and trying to put it all together. Now in that case, said there was - we were actually quite lucky in that this letter, which confirmed everything we believed about why he did it, happened to have been retrieved from a dumpster about a mile away from where he lived just because someone saw something that looked like a bomb. And the bomb squad came. And while they were doing it, they found this letter. It had nothing at all to do with the investigation of the homicide.
CONAN: Well, thank you both for your insight. We appreciate your time.
GARRETT: You're welcome.
FOX: You're welcome.
CONAN: Brad Garrett, retired FBI agent, and also James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family professor of criminology at Northwestern University, both joining us today here on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.