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Next Case on the Court Colander

Claim:   Police fool a criminal into confessing through a ruse involving a photocopier and a colander.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Collected on the Internet, 1997]

COPYING A PLEA

A Xerox machine cannot be substituted for a lie detector, according to a recent ruling by a Pennsylvania judge.

Detectives of the Bucks County Police Department were hellbent on getting a confession out of the suspect. But instead of resorting to the old rubber hose approach they put technology to use. They clearly [sic] converted the office Xerox machine into a lie detector.

First, the supersleuths put a card saying "He's lying" into the machine. Then they put a metal colander (normally used to drain spaghetti) over the suspect's head. Next, they wired the colander to the Xerox machine.

When the suspect gave an answer the detectives didn't believe, the officers pushed the copy button and the machine spewed out a paper which read, "He's lying." Faced with such advanced-level police tactics, the fellow finally confessed.

When the judge heard all of the details, he ordered that the criminal charges be dropped and the suspect released. Lucky for him there's no law against gullibility.
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1994]

A judge admonished the police in Radnor, Pa., for pretending a Xerox copy machine was a lie detector. Officials had placed a metal colander on the head of a suspect and attached the colander to the copier with metal wires. In the copy machine was a typewritten message: "He's lying."

Each time investigators received answers they didn't like, they pushed the copy button and out popped the message, "He's lying." Apparently convinced the machine was accurate, the suspect confessed.
 

Origins:   The colander lie detector story has been part of oral lore since Cartoon of the legend at least the late 1960s. So far, the oldest print sighting comes from an article in the 22 June 1977 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which attributed the tale to "a small police department in the county."

A version placing the action in Radnor, Pennsylvania, appeared in News of the Weird in 1989. (No source was given, so it's now impossible to say where News of the Weird picked up the tale from.)

The Radnor version is by far the one most familiar to the online community. It routinely circulates in cyberspace, going through periods of dormancy followed by moments of revival when it seemingly makes its way into every inbox imaginable.

In an attempt to verify or prove the story false, folklorist Jan Brunvand contacted the Radnor Police Department. Their 10 October 1990 response stated:
The fake lie detector incident referred to in your letter did not happen in Radnor.

We do not know how the story originated; however, over the years, we have received numerous letters inquiring about this incident.

Articles have been sent to us which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, and other publications.

Our guess is that some reporter had the story and used Radnor as the place of occurrence.

Sincerely,
Maurice L. Hennessy
Chief of Police, Radnor Township
Throughout the years, this story has popped in various "dumb criminals" or "true tales of the legal profession" books, as well as surfacing every now and then in the media. Its popularity continues undimmed, with Ann Landers airing it in her 4 January 1998 column.

Could the story have happened? It's a remote possibility, and certainly police are tricky enough to want to try something like this, but one has to wonder about the metal colander detail. Though it's reasonable to expect to find cups, plates, and cutlery in a workplace kitchenette,
food preparation items are far less common. Colanders are used to drain cooked pasta or wash salad ingredients; they're not exactly standard implements in even home kitchens. Neither pasta draining nor lettuce rinsing are activities usual to a workplace setting, with the vast majority of lunch-bearers preferring to bring already-prepared meals to work, items that are ready-to-eat or require only a quick heating in the office microwave.

In other words, no matter how resourceful the officers were, they'd have had a time laying their hands on a colander to use in this deception.

TV police shows and movies routinely feature suspects being subjected to lie detector examinations. For the colander lie detector story to ring true, we have to suppose the hapless bad guy not only was unaware that results are not given as the test proceeds (hence no machine spitting out "He's lying" notes), but also that all those guys on the big screen didn't have metal colanders (or anything else) placed on their heads. It would take a truly dim bulb indeed not to realize something was terribly wrong with how the police were going about this interrogation. Or that the printing device looked remarkably like a photocopier.

It's still possible some police department somewhere did indeed act out this legend at one time or another. Judging from the numerous verifiable "dumb criminal" stories afoot, no shortage exists of baddies who would willingly fall for it. But did it happen in as many places as now claimed? Very likely not — in common with a number of urban legends, numerous enthusiastic raconteurs have "localized" the tale by inserting the name of a nearby town. Police departments everywhere have claimed this story as their own, perhaps as a way of reassuring themselves that the good guys do indeed win and their officers in particular are always two steps ahead of the criminals.

Barbara "wry detector" Mikkelson

Sightings:   This legend formed part of the plot of an episode of the television drama Homicide.

Last updated:   4 July 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 139-145).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (pp. 107-108).

Also told in:

    Petras, Ross and Kathryn.   The 176 Stupidest Things Ever Done.
    New York: Doubleday, 1996.   ISBN 0-385-48341-4   (p. 35).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 195).