Friday, October 21, 2011

True story: Holding Hands with Evil (pt. 4)

What follows is a true story. I wrote it following interviews with murderer Eric Nenno and Mark Young, and after reviewing newspaper accounts of the case. All names and information are public record. What is different is the perspective: of the killer, and the man who caught him. Parts One, Two and Three are below.

PLEASE NOTE: while not unduly graphic in description, this is the story of the murder of a young girl. Do not read this if the subject matter is disturbing to you.


By Saturday evening, Young was frustrated. They had ruled out the family’s involvement and also excluded the neighborhood weirdo. This one, anyway. And while excluding suspects was essential to this kind of investigation, no case was solved until a suspect was ruled in. They hadn’t managed to do that, and time was ticking by.

In the command post, Young received a page. There was one neighbor who had not been properly interviewed, and he’d just been located. Harris County deputies had interviewed the man, Eric Nenno, briefly at his house and were now bringing him to the trailer.

When he arrived, Young and Johnson stood to greet him. Young studied the man. He was short, perhaps not quite five-and-a-half feet tall, and slight of build. Barely 120 pounds, Young thought. In his early 30s, he had red hair and a red beard, and carried himself like a man afraid of the world. This guy was no threat to an adult, that much was sure. But a child? That’s what Young needed to know. As they moved into the trailer and, for no particular reason, he asked: “Just curious—were you in the service?”

“Yes,” Nenno replied. “I was a ventilation and plumbing systems technician. In the Navy.”

Young knew not to place any serious weight on the response, but he felt Johnson stiffen beside him.

They moved into the trailer and sat down, and Young asked Nenno if he knew what was going on. Nenno was subdued, speaking clearly but quietly. He would be unable to help them, he said, but yes, he knew what was going on. He’d even helped in one of the many searches.

Young watched the man carefully, his sole objective to figure out whether he needed to spend more time talking to Nenno or dismiss him from the investigation and concentrate on someone else. Not that there was anyone else right now.

“So you live here,” Young said casually, “do you have any insights on this thing? I’m an outsider and am always looking for help from someone who knows the neighborhood. Any thoughts on what happened?”

“Yes.” Nenno looked up at him. “She was raped and murdered.”

Young tried to hide his surprise. He had encountered the gamut of responses to that question, many of them odd. But never before had anyone answered it so specifically and definitively. Before Young could respond, a Harris County Detective clattered into the trailer, unaware that an interview was taking place. The interruption destroyed the moment and once the detective had apologetically backed out, Young knew he had to get them back to that moment.

He started slowly, not wanting to frighten Nenno back into his shell. He handed Nenno a pen and paper and asked him to reconstruct his Thursday. Young sat and watched as he wrote.

This was a technique Young had used before, and with some success. It was based on a theory developed by a former Israeli police lieutenant named Avinoam Sapir, called Scientific Content Analysis (SCAN). A former polygrapher, Sapir posited that information could be gleaned not just from a person’s verbal responses and bodily reactions to questions, but from the text of a written statement itself. His theory was that at least ninety percent of statements made by people are truthful, and that even when they are untruthful most people do not attempt to lie directly. Rather, they hedge, omit crucial facts, feign forgetfulness, and pretend ignorance. Sapir reasoned that liars are reluctant to commit themselves to their deceptions, especially when they are in writing. Instead, they tend to use conversational tricks to avoid or skirt around damaging admissions. When avoiding the truth in written statements, a person would take a similar circuitous route around the truth, or simply leave gaps.

When Nenno finished, Young took the statement and quickly read through it, scanning Nenno’s account of the day. Young used the description of the morning hours as his baseline, his point of comparison, because he knew that those hours were essentially irrelevant to the investigation and gave Nenno no cause to be deceptive. Young quickly saw that Nenno’s statement contained impressive detail for every moment of the day, right up until the hour that Nicole went missing. At that point, the statement was terse, devoid of real information. If nothing else, this vagueness meant that he needed to spend more time with Mr. Nenno.

And time was of the essence, so Young had made sure that more was happening than just their conversation. While they talked, he had Nenno’s background examined, his criminal history checked. This check would reveal one previous accusation against Nenno. A young girl had been having problems with her bicycle and Nenno offered to help. While doing so, Nenno had fondled the girl, who then ran away. For some reason, nothing ever came of it. Earlier in the interview, Young had asked Nenno if he would sign a consent-to-search form, allowing officers into his house. Nenno agreed to the request and several deputies were dispatched to see what they could find.

With Nenno’s written statement in hand, the next step was obvious to Young.

(To be continued on 10/24)

1 comment:

  1. Another cliffhanger. That is really fascinating about the SCAN!


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