5. Dirty Call

Sometimes the person who calls 911 to summon help for a dead or dying person is the one responsible for the person’s death. Guilty callers often sound different than innocent callers, and they inadvertently say things that indicate their guilt. This is not merely a matter of subjective interpretation. There are objective criteria for evaluating statements made by 911 callers.

Huck’s 911 call

Susan H. Adams and Tracy Harpster wrote a textbook entitled Analyzing 911 Homicide Calls: Practical Aspects and Applications (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, 2017.) The authors analyzed a thousand homicide calls to emergency dispatchers over a 12-year period. The cases they analyzed were clearly adjudicated. Meaning, questions of guilt and innocence regarding the callers had been formally weighed by the justice system. Based on their research, Adams and Harpster developed a checklist for evaluating whether a caller’s statements indicated innocence or guilt.

Research showed that innocent callers immediately demanded help for the victim, such as saying, “I need an ambulance really quick.” Innocent callers tended to focus on the victim, and to assess the victim’s condition, saying things such as, “We have a resident who is lying on the floor and he feels cold to the touch.” Innocent callers tended to provide aid to the victim, and to cooperate with the dispatcher. Innocent callers tended to volunteer sensory descriptions, and to gush relevant information about the situation. The tone of voice of innocent callers tended to be urgent, demanding, and even aggressive at times.

Guilty callers, on the other hand, often made no immediate plea for help for the victim. Guilty callers tended to offer extraneous information, such as statements about where they had been, or what they had been doing. For example, a husband called to report finding his wife dead in the backyard, saying: “I just got home from a baseball game.” In this example, mentioning the baseball game had nothing to do with the victim, and everything to do with establishing the killer’s alibi.

Rather than urgently volunteering details and cooperating with the dispatcher, guilty callers tended to use a variety of tactics to resist the dispatcher, such as evasion, equivocation, repetition, and self-interruption. Guilty callers tended to offer conflicting facts, and to use awkward phrases. They often spoke with little variation in the tone or pitch of their voices.

Guilty callers also tended to have unexplained knowledge about the situation. For example, a man who allegedly came home and found his wife dead told the dispatcher, “My wife has been stabbed 13 times.” Unless he had committed or witnessed the murder, it’s unlikely that he would know how many times she had been stabbed.

Here’s a transcript of Huck’s 911 call. To the left of the speaker’s name is the time that the statement was made within the context of the recording.

[00:00] Electronic voice of time/date stamp: Monday, March
3rd, 2014. The time 8:51 a.m.

[00:08] Dispatcher: Long Beach Fire Department and Paramedics. What’s the address of your emergency?

[00:11] Huck: 7053.

[00:13] Dispatcher: What street?

[00:14] Huck: East-East Stearns Street.

[00:16] Dispatcher: OK. Is this a house or an apartment? What is that?

[00:18] Huck: It’s my home. It’s my home.

[00:19] Dispatcher: OK. And is this for you or for someone else?

[00:22] Huck: It it’s for my wife. She was doing yoga, doing a headstand, fell, and she’s, um, bleeding from behind.

[00:26] Dispatcher: How old is she?

[00:27] Huck: Uh, fifty.

[00:29] Dispatcher: OK. She’s bleeding from the back of her head, or?

[00:31] Huck: Yes. Yes.

[00:32] Dispatcher: OK, did she go unconscious at all?

[00:34] Huck: Yes.

[00:35] Dispatcher: She did pass out, yes?

[00:37] Huck: Yes. Yes.

[00:38] Dispatcher: Listen, help is coming. Stop yelling at me. OK. I’m trying to help you. Is she alert and aware of what’s going on right now?

[00:44] Huck: Um, vaguely. She—you could tell she’s concussed for sure.

[00:48] Dispatcher: OK. How’s her breathing? Any difficulty breathing?

[00:50] Huck: I’m holding her and everything’s fine, and the pulse seems to be calm and steady.

[00:55] Dispatcher: OK, OK, so can you lay her down, though?

[00:57] Huck: Um, I, I tried. It’s a little combative. So I’m holding her, um, vertic—not not. She’s sitting but I’m holding her upright [unintelligible.]

[1:04] Dispatcher: OK. So she was doing a head, like a handstand when it happened?

[1:08] Huck: Correct.

[1:09] Dispatcher: OK, did you see her, well, did you see her when it happened by any chance?

[1:13] Huck: Uh, no. I just heard a loud crash and came running into the room.

[1:15] Dispatcher: OK, do we know if she, if there’s a possibility of her having a neck injury, like her twisting it, or a back injury?

[1:21] Huck: I’m gonna say, um, at this stage, right now, no.

[1:25] Dispatcher: OK. OK. Alright. Uh. I need you to keep a, a very close eye on her breathing and her alertness for any changes, OK. How heavily is her head bleeding?

[1:34] Huck: Uh, massive.

[1:35] Dispatcher: OK. Is there, do you have a clean, dry cloth or a towel, or something you can grab?

[1:39] Huck: I can’t, I can’t leave her alone, so I have a yoga towel around her, but I can’t get anything else, um, I can’t leave her alone.

[1:44] Dispatcher: You don’t have anything you can tie like a tourniquet, right?

[1:47] Huck: Uh, no, no, no not around her [unintelligible.]

[1:49] Dispatcher: OK. OK. It’s like a yoga towel that’s like a hand-towel-sized thing?

[1:54] Huck: Yes.

[1:54] Dispatcher: OK. Take that, put—

[1:55] Huck: I’m applying pressure but at some point I have to unlock the gate.

[1:58] Dispatcher: OK. Just keep an eye on her. Keep your phone with you. If she gets worse…

[02:01] Huck: OK I—

[02:02] Dispatcher: …before we get there, call back on 911. OK? They’re on the way.

[02:06] Huck: Alright. Bye.

Huck’s 911 call

The most immediate indicator of Huck’s guilt is the fact that he never asked for assistance of any kind. He never requested an ambulance. Thirty seconds ticked by before anyone mentioned help, when the dispatcher said, “Listen, help is coming.” Huck never said the word help.

To me, this is a clear indication that Huck was not calling for help. I believe that, from Huck’s perspective, there was no emergency. Rather, Huck was calling primarily for the purpose of framing the situation: his wife had been doing yoga, and she had hurt herself somehow.

It was like pulling teeth for the dispatcher to extract details from Huck. She asked: “What’s the address of your emergency?” He responded: “7053.” He waited for the dispatcher to ask: “What street?” Huck said the name of the street. The dispatcher asked if it was a house or an apartment. Huck responded: “It’s my home. It’s my home.” This didn’t answer the dispatcher’s question, and the repetition of the statement was another unnecessary delay. At this point, Huck had given the dispatcher no information about what his “emergency” might involve.

She asked: “Is this for you, or for someone else?”

At last, 14 seconds into their exchange, Huck told the dispatcher: “It it’s for my wife. She was doing yoga, doing a headstand, fell, and she’s, um, bleeding from behind.”

Notice how he prioritized the information. His top priority was to establish the framing that his wife was doing yoga. She had hurt herself doing yoga. No one had done anything to her; she had done it to herself. If anyone was to blame, she was.

Next, Huck used a peculiar turn of phrase: “She’s, um, bleeding from behind.” This doesn’t sound grave or life-threatening because it’s hard to guess what it might mean. People are hit from behind or ambushed from behind. But “bleeding from behind” is not a phrase that anyone uses.

When he said, “bleeding from behind,” Huck inadvertently hinted at what had really happened, I believe: Dana had been assaulted from behind. Huck’s total lack of urgency in his communication with the dispatcher suggests to me that this assault from behind was not an emergency because it had not occurred in the minutes just prior to his call. Rather, I believe, it had happened several hours before he called 911.

At this point in the call, the dispatcher knew only that the victim was “bleeding from behind,” and had to guess what this meant. For the next 10 seconds, the dispatcher tried to find out how serious the victim’s condition was. She asked a series of questions that Huck answered with only one or two words.

Adams and Harpster describe this pattern as “Only Answers What’s Asked.” According to their research, this is a method of resisting the dispatcher, and it is a strong indicator of guilt. Callers who used this pattern of communication often resembled “hostile witnesses being questioned in the courtroom, after receiving legal advice to answer only what’s asked.” In their research, “over a quarter of all the calls (26 percent) contained this method of resistance, which was almost exclusively used by guilty callers (94 percent versus six percent.)” In other words, 94 percent of the time, callers who only answered what was asked were guilty.

The dispatcher, not understanding the nature of the situation due to Huck’s resistance, sought to clarify: “She did pass out, yes?”

Huck responded with aggravation in his voice, as if the dispatcher was being obtuse: “Yes. Yes.”

The dispatcher retorted: “Listen, help is coming. Stop yelling at me. OK. I’m trying to help you.”

The dispatcher must have been frustrated by Huck’s resistance. Still, it’s important to note that Huck did not yell. His tone was taciturn and annoyed, but he didn’t yell. It’s interesting to me that when accused of yelling, Huck didn’t argue in his defense. My sense is that he was trying extra-special hard to say as little as possible to avoid incriminating himself. Therefore, I think, he didn’t dispute the dispatcher’s mischaracterization of his tone.

Also, it’s worth reiterating that, according to Adams and Harpster, innocent callers in an emergency tend to be demanding and even aggressive in their tone. Huck was neither. On the contrary, he sounded brusque, as if being inconvenienced by the dispatcher.

The dispatcher asked: “Is she alert and aware of what’s going on right now?”

Huck replied: “Um, vaguely.” He had to think about his answer, inserting “um” to buy time. The word “vaguely” is an equivocation; it’s the rhetorical equivalent of saying yes, no, and maybe at the same time. Next, he interrupted himself, saying, “She—you could tell she’s concussed for sure.”

To me, it sounded as if he was going to make a definitive statement about her condition, starting with the word “she.” But he interrupted himself and went in a different direction: “you could tell she’s concussed for sure.” While this might sound like a definitive statement because he said“for sure” at the end, it’s a distant, impersonal assessment. Notice that he could not say she was concussed. Rather, you could tell she’s concussed. When confronted with a direct question from the dispatcher, he gave a vague answer.

The dispatcher pressed for more information: “How’s her breathing? Any difficulty breathing?”

Huck replied, “I’m holding her and everything’s fine, and the pulse seems to be calm and steady.”

Everything’s fine. He minimized the situation, signaling to the dispatcher that whatever had happened, it wasn’t serious.

The dispatcher sounded as if she understood at last that the situation was not urgent, saying: “So can you lay her down, though?”

Huck immediately contradicted what he had just said: “Um, I, I tried.” (When did he try this, I wonder? Prior to calling 911?) “It’s a little combative. So I’m holding her, um, vertic—not not. She’s sitting but I’m holding her upright [unintelligible.]”

In other words, no, he would not comply with the dispatcher’s reasonable suggestion to lay the victim down because, somehow, everything was not fine when he tried.

Try to picture it. He has a phone in one hand and is holding Dana in a seated position. If he does not maintain this position, and instead tries to lay her down, she fights him somehow.

Dana’s voice cannot be heard in the 911 audio. Her silence tells me that she was so severely injured that she could not speak or cry out and could not even moan. I wonder how, then, she managed to be combative.

The dispatcher attempted to understand the situation: “So she was doing a head, like a handstand when it happened?”
Huck answered as if on the witness stand: “Correct.”

The dispatcher asked: “Did you see her, well, did you see her when it happened by any chance?”

Huck answered: “Uh, no. I just heard a loud crash and came running into the room.”

This is a telling statement. First, it’s a demonstrable lie. According to the surveillance video, he did not go running into the room after allegedly hearing a loud crash; rather he stood in the dining area and appeared to brush his teeth.

Second, it’s a partial truth in the sense that, truthfully, he did not see her when she fell while doing yoga. He didn’t see it because it didn’t happen.

Third, this statement reaffirms Huck’s purpose for making the call: to assert his alibi that something happened to the victim, but he didn’t do it. He couldn’t have done it because he wasn’t even in the same room with her when it happened.

The dispatcher, still seeking to understand, asked: “Do we know if she, if there’s a possibility of her having a neck injury, like her twisting it, or a back injury?”

Huck responded: “I’m gonna say, um, at this stage, right now, no.”

He offered no sensory description of the victim to explain why or how he reached this conclusion. He wanted the dispatcher to believe that the victim’s head had been injured in a fall. Therefore, he waved the dispatcher away from thinking about other scenarios, and other possibilities.

Note the equivocation and stalling as he contemplates his answer: “I’m gonna say, um, at this stage, right now, no.” What stage was he referring to? How many “stages” of this situation had already occurred, and, in his mind, how many stages were yet to come?

The dispatcher continued: “I need you to keep a, a very close eye on her breathing and her alertness for any changes, OK. How heavily is her head bleeding?”

Huck replied: “Uh, massive.”

He kept this information to himself for a full minute and a half. Imagine: you find a loved one at home on the floor, bleeding massively from a head wound, yet when you call 911, you neglect to mention this detail until prompted. According to Adams and Harpster, innocent callers immediately assessed the victim, informing the dispatcher of massive head injuries and profuse bleeding within the first several seconds of the call.

Funny thing, though: according to the first responders, Dana’s head wasn’t bleeding massively when they arrived. One paramedic quantified the amount of blood at the scene as “20 drops.” So why did Huck describe Dana’s bleeding as “massive,” if it wasn’t?

This is perhaps another “truthful lie.” According to Dana’s trauma surgeon in the emergency room, there would have been a lot of blood wherever her injury had happened. Immediately after Huck allegedly bludgeoned her, I believe, Dana’s head bled profusely for hours. Huck applied pressure to stop the bleeding. Later, he washed the blood from her hair, dried the wound as much as possible, clothed her, and staged her in the yoga room.

Yes, Dana’s bleeding was truly massive. But by the time Huck called 911, he had it under control. He didn’t mention it until late in the call because it was no longer an issue. He had handled it already.

The dispatcher asked, “Is there, do you have a clean, dry cloth or a towel or something you can grab?”

Huck answered, “I can’t, I can’t leave her alone, so I have a yoga towel around her, but I can’t get anything else, um, I can’t leave her alone.”

Notice his repetition of “I can’t.” He said it four times. Why can’t he leave her alone? Why can’t he walk a few feet to the laundry nook, and grab one of the clean towels from on top of the dryer, which can be seen in a police photo? Perhaps he can’t do anything the dispatcher suggests because he has painstakingly staged the scene. He doesn’t dare mess it up by going through the motions of providing aid.

It’s also possible that Huck was not even in the yoga room with Dana at the time of the call. It would be like him, in my opinion, to say, “I can’t leave her alone,” at precisely a time when he has left her alone.

Huck claimed to “have a yoga towel around her.” A yoga towel is something that goes over a yoga mat to absorb perspiration. Yoga towels have roughly the same dimensions as a yoga mat; they’re two feet wide, and six feet long. A yoga towel is large enough for Huck to wrap around Dana’s head like a turban.

The dispatcher asked, “You don’t have anything you can tie like a tourniquet, right?”

This sounded odd to me the first time I heard it, but it makes sense. The dispatcher assumed that the yoga towel was relatively small like a gym towel. She was suggesting, I think, that Huck could use a cord or tourniquet to secure the towel to cover the wound and apply pressure, leaving his hands free.

In response, Huck said: “Uh, no, no, no not around her [unintelligible.]”

It’s worth noting that, according to police photographs of the scene, there were several items nearby in the yoga room that could have been used as a tourniquet to apply pressure to the wound, such as exercise bands and yoga straps.

The dispatcher tried again: “It’s like a yoga towel that’s like a
hand-towel-sized thing?”

Huck misled her by answering: “Yes.”

What was the point of his lying about the size of a yoga towel? Was he really holding a yoga towel to Dana’s head, or was he merely pretending that he was providing aid? If there was a yoga towel, where did it go? The first responders didn’t report seeing it. When asked by police if they saw blood anywhere in the room other than under the victim’s head, they said no. Nor did police find a bloody towel in the house.

Huck told police that he had thrown the towel in the trash, and the trash truck had taken it away. The curiously incurious detectives were satisfied with this answer.

Again, try to picture the scene as described by Huck. He has a phone in one hand. He is pressing a hand-towel to the back of Dana’s head as he holds her in an upright, seated position as her head bleeds massively. If this were true, he would’ve had blood on his hands and clothes, but surveillance video shows he didn’t.

Another thing that jumps out at me as I listen to the recording, which can’t be discerned from reading the transcript, is the fact that Dana’s iPad was not audible in the background of this call.

Huck told investigators that when he returned from walking the dog, he could hear Dana’s iPad playing a yoga video in the yoga room through a closed door. Based on the start time and duration of the yoga video, it would have been playing when Huck called 911. If the video was so loud, and playing in the yoga room with Dana, why can’t it be heard in the 911 audio?

Perhaps the iPad was not in the yoga room. Or Huck was not in the yoga room with Dana when he talked to the 911 dispatcher. I believe that both could be true.

Alternatively: Huck heard a loud crash, ran into the yoga room, saw his wife bleeding massively, took time to fiddle with the iPad volume control, engaged in some sort of combat with her as he tried to lay her down, and then called 911.

The dispatcher continued to focus on providing aid. She started to offer a suggestion: “OK. Take that, put—”

Huck interrupted: “I’m applying pressure but at some point, I have to unlock the gate.”

Suddenly, Huck expressed a hint of urgency. He couldn’t spend too much time applying pressure to the wound because he needed to hurry up and unlock the gate. Why was he urgent about unlocking the gate? Perhaps because the next “stage” of Huck’s performance would entail convincing the first responders, and he was anxious about this. His mortally wounded wife wasn’t an emergency for him but dealing with the paramedics was, perhaps.

The dispatcher understood that Huck wanted to get off the phone. She said: “OK. Just keep an eye on her. Keep your phone with you. If she gets worse before we get there, call back on 911. OK? They’re on the way.”

Huck said: “Alright. Bye.”

The duration of the call was just under two minutes. At the end of the call, the time was approximately 8:53 a.m. According to surveillance video, Huck opened the front gate at 8:56 a.m. First responders arrived at 8:57 a.m.

This timeline suggests Huck wasn’t urgent about opening the gate, after all. Rather, it’s more likely he was urgent about getting off the phone. The dispatcher was asking too many questions. The more he said, the harder it would be for him to keep his story straight.

The first time Huck appears on camera after the 911 call, he opens the exterior door of the yoga room. He moves the wood-framed loveseat away from the door. After he opens the front gate, the camera’s view of this part of the patio is blocked.

If, as I suspect, Huck had placed Dana’s iPad on a table near the loveseat when he returned from walking the dog, opening the gate gives him a chance to grab the iPad off the table and put it in the yoga room before paramedics arrive. In police reports, however, none of the first responders mentioned an iPad.

According to the checklist developed by Adams and Harpster, Huck’s 911 call demonstrated several guilty indicators:

  • No immediate plea for help for victim
  • No immediate assessment of victim
  • Extraneous information (“She was doing yoga….”)
  • No urgency
  • Only answers what’s asked (“7053.”)
  • Short answers (“Correct.”)
  • Self-interruption (“So I’m holding her, um, vertic—not not. She’s sitting….”)
  • Conflicting facts (Huck somehow knows that she was doing a headstand, but he didn’t see her. Everything’s fine, but “it’s a little combative.”)
  • Awkward phrases (“Bleeding from behind.”)

Adams and Harpster refer to such calls as “dirty” calls. They point out:

“In cases involving callers who display guilty indicators, questionable issues often appear at the crime scene. Thus, a ‘dirty’ call corresponds to a ‘dirty’ scene.” A ‘dirty’ scene may include the following problems:
• illogical objects near the victim’s body,
• implausible witness statements,
• inconsistencies with timelines, and
• impossibilities regarding the victim’s physical condition and location at the scene.”

Huck’s call to 911 was a dirty call, I believe, and the scene of Dana’s death was a dirty scene. Huck’s 911 call was not included on the disc of digital media in Bryan’s notebook. Rather, I had to wrangle the recording from the Long Beach Fire Department. They initially denied my request for it. It’s my impression that police never requested a copy, and probably never listened to it before I posted it online in late June 2014.

From March 2014 through the summer of 2014, my dad’s Denver-based lawyers repeatedly asked Detective Johnson to meet with us. Johnson declined, saying he was too busy touring colleges with his son Blake, a top-rated football punter who eventually committed to the Arkansas Razorbacks that summer.

On September 16, 2014, my dad and I at last got a chance to meet with Johnson. He raised an interesting point. When the paramedics found Dana, she was severely injured, but she wasn’t dead. If Huck meant to murder her, why did he call 911 to get help for her while she was still alive? The mere fact that Huck called 911 indicated his innocence, didn’t it?

No. Huck called 911 to establish his alibi, not to get help for Dana. By that time, she was beyond help.

Read Chapter 6: Dirty Scene