The 50-year-old drifter read a script into a “voice exemplar.” He played the part of a man calling 911 from a pay phone to report that his roommate had a gun and planned to “start shooting people” on Yale’s Campus.
That voice exemplar recording—analyzed by a New Jersey criminologist recommended by Dr. Henry Lee—gave Detective Kealyn Nivakoff (pictured at left) the key piece of evidence she needed to convince a judge that the drifter wasn’t saying those words for the first time.
She convinced the judge that he had in fact on Nov. 25 called in a hoax that sent downtown New Haven into a day-long panic and cost the government tens of thousands of dollars. (Click here for a blow-by-blow account of how the threat turned into a full-blown downtown panic bringing federal and state agents swarming onto closed-off downtown streets and onto Yale’s locked-down campus.)
The recording figures prominently in an arrest warrant affidavit that Nivakoff wrote. A judge signed the warrant on Tuesday. Later that day the 50-year-old turned himself in to police, who arrested him on charges of falsely reporting an incident, threatening in the second degree, reckless endangerment in the second degree, misuse of the emergency 911 system and breach of peace in connection with the Nov. 25 Yale incident.
The man made a brief appearance in state Superior Court on Wednesday afternoon before Judge Maureen Keegan, who ordered him held on $250,000 bond. He did not enter a plea during his brief appearance. It was the latest in a string of arrests of the man, here and in other states, for alleged hoaxes and criminal acts acts police or police property. Police also suspect him of calling in a violent hoax to Hillhouse High School on Dec. 19 and, on March 13, of calling in a false report, from a Mobil gas station phone on Leetes Island Road in Branford, of a robbery and shooting at a Citizens Bank branch at 568 E. Main St. He has not been charged in either of those cases.
Outside the courtroom Wednesday, the drifter’s mother and older brother asserted his innocence.
“I believe that he is innocent,” the defendant’s mother, Jacqueline Sperry, declared after her son was returned to the lock-up following his court appearance. “He’s quiet and subdued.” She described her son as a “loner.”
The defendant’s older brother, Douglas Jones, accompanied her to court Wednesday and echoed her sentiments. “There were 30 or 40 people sucked up off the street [for questioning] for this phone call,” Jones said. “The bureaucracy seeks the path of least resistance.” Jones complained that when four state troopers came with a canine to his mother’s Westbrook house Tuesday looking for the suspect, they approached the family in an “adversarial” and “confrontational” way, “as though I’m an advance warning of a secret cell of al Qaeda.” (State police spokesman Lt. Paul Vance could not be reached for comment.) He said the family subsequently informed the suspect, “There’s a warrant. Get your ass to New Haven.” His brother subsequently turned himself in, according to Jones.
Later Wednesday afternoon, Detective Nivakoff joined top New Haven and Yale cops at a press conference at 1 Union Ave. to announce the arrest.
Nivakoff served as lead investigator in the case. She said police identified him as a suspect early on in the investigation. He wasn’t cooperating. So they had to build the case piece by piece—leading up to the fateful voice exemplar recording.
A Prime Suspect Emerges
New Haven beat officers and detectives, aided by state cops and federal agents, swarmed through New Haven on Nov. 25 looking for a person who matched the description of the man who phoned in the hoax from a pay phone outside Columbus Market Store on Columbus Avenue. They rounded up lots of people that day. The 50-year-old drifter was not among them.
Nov. 25 also happened to be the day the state released an investigative report on the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. (More on that later.)
Police soon had “10 to 14” people of interest to investigate, Nivakoff said.
One by one the police eliminated each of them as suspects.
“Sometimes the fast answer,” Police Chief Dean Esserman noted Wednesday, “isn’t the right answer.” Investigators, with the help of a surveillance photo enhanced by the FBI, kept looking for suspects.
Here’s how they ended up focusing on the drifter, based on a conversation with Nivakoff as well as details contained in the arrest warrant affidavit:
On Dec. 6., two city detectives, Martin Podsiad and Matt Merced, spotted a man walking a couple of blocks from the police station. They thought he matched the physical description of the hoax caller, including the “distinct walking gait” signalling an injured left leg. They stopped him. At first he allegedly tried to flee. Then he “hesitant[ly]” turned over a Louisiana ID and “mumbled, as if to disguise his voice.” The detectives learned the drifter had outstanding warrants issued in Louisiana. They told him why they had stopped him; they placed him in a cruiser. He then “spilled out of the rear seat” of the cruiser and claimed he had a leg injury. He was taken by ambulance to Yale-New Haven Hospital.
There, according to the warrant, the cops and hospital security “struggled” with him “in order for hospital personnel to obtain his vitals and collect his clothing.” While struggling with detectives, the drifter allegedly stated: “All those kids died in Newtown. You’re not doing shit about that.”
The hospital released the drifter the next day back into police custody. Detective Nivakoff tried to interview him. He asked for a lawyer, and returned to the lock-up to await a court appearance on the outstanding warrants.
In court on Dec. 9, it was revealed that the drifter has a criminal record going back years in multiple states, including a 2006 attempted arson and battery of a police officer. New Orleans police charged him with attempted arson, among other charges, when he allegedly poured gasoline in one instance, bleach and ammonia in another, in their department elevator. He allegedly confessed to those two incidents, telling police, “I’m sorry for pouring the stuff in the elevator. I don’t know why I did it. I think I did it because I was mad at the police. One of them beat me up last week. ... I didn’t mean it. Please let me go. I will clean it up,” according to the new New Haven warrant. He also allegedly slashed tires and scratched the exterior of police vehicles.
On Dec. 19 a caller, also using a pay phone, transmitted a hoax threat to Hillhouse High School, leading to a lockdown there. Hearing the recording of that call, Nivakoff concluded it was the same caller as the Yale hoax caller, and she believed it to be the drifter. Investigators also came up with a physical description of the Hillhouse caller that also seemed to match the drifter again, in the view of police. They thought they had the right suspect. Assembling the evidence to prove it would take months.
He Shows Up Again
The drifter helped, in part by staying within sight.
On Jan. 9, for instance, an officer saw the drifter “walking around the perimeter” of police headquarters, then “throw nails underneath several vehicles,” according to the affidavit. Spotting the officer, the drifter flashed his middle finger, then hid behind a car. They arrested him. He has a May 2 court date scheduled on felony attempt to commit criminal mischief and misdemeanor charges in connection with that incident; he has not entered a plea. Police also discovered that someone had scratched numerous cruisers and slashed and flattened tires on some of them in a previous incident by the police station. They suspect the drifter but didn’t charge him in that previous case.
As the investigation progressed, detectives spoke with famed criminologist Dr. Henry Lee about their take on the similarities between the Yale and Hillhouse hoax calls. Lee steered them to a forensic audio, video and voice identification expert named Thomas J. Owens of Colonia, N.J. Yale hired Owens’ firm on behalf of the city cops to conduct a “voice exemplar.” That involves taking a recording of someone’s voice and comparing it to a voice on a recording for pitch, breath patterns, mannerisms, dialect, and “syllable coupling.” A suspect is asked to recite the same words found on the recording.
Detectives obtained a search and seizure warrant on Feb. 11 to conduct a voice exemplar with the drifter. Ten days later Detective Nivakoff and two colleagues met up with the drifter at the Elm Street courthouse, where he had an unrelated appearance. They brought him to 1 Union Ave. to conduct the voice exemplar.
The drifter asked his attorney, public defender Jennifer Mellon, to accompany him. The detectives called Owens in New Jersey; the recording would take place over the phone.
At first, the drifter “disguised his voice by speaking in a high pitch and almost childlike manner,” Nivakoff reported. Warned about the need to comply with the warrant, the drifter nevertheless allegedly repeated the fake voice a second time.
At that point, after another warning, attorney Mellon spoke privately with the drifter. Then he read the script, this time in his natural voice.
On April 1, Owens handed over his findings to the cops: “It is the opinion of this examiner based on my education, training, experience, and to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, that [the suspect] is the person who made the 911 call in question on November 25, 2013.” He wasn’t able to produce a similar finding about the Hillhouse call, because it “cut in and out” and “the words were not pronounced clearly,” among other problems.
Nivakoff now had the material she needed to put into an arrest warrant affidavit, and on Wednesday saw her work lead to an arrest.
After Wednesday’s press conference, Police Chief Archie Generoso called hoax calls a growing problem not just in New Haven, but throughout the country.
Authorities at first have no choice but to react as if lives are at stake, he said. That raises the potential for other problems. At Yale on Nov. 25, New Haven got lucky that no accidental shootings or other injuries occurred based on mistaken gun sightings, say, or the flagging down of a motorist by a mentally disturbed man, who got into his car. (The driver took him around the block to police without incident.)
As it was, New Haven taxpayers shelled out more than $30,000 on police overtime that day. That’s on top of the regular costs of the officers working that day. That’s on top of the cost of federal agents and state cops hauling their equipment downtown and working the streets all day.
And it doesn’t count the delays in police response to lower priority calls while they combed the city seeking a man who might be looking to shoot up a college campus.
“People don’t realize,” Generoso said, “how serious this is.”