by Peter Hyatt
"When the mother of a missing child speaks of her child in the past tense, it is often a linguistic signal that the mother knows or believes that the child is deceased. "
Sadly, you've read or heard this from me too many times here or on radio. It is a reality that I have often wished I hadn't heard.
Recently an astute reader asked how much time must pass in order to hear an innocent person use a past tense reference to a missing person, without guilty knowledge of the person's death.
It is a good question.
The past tense verb is something we listen carefully for in missing persons cases, especially when it is not expected. The "expected" is that the subject believes the person missing is alive and should speak in the present tense.
This is something that has caused confusion for some. One expert guest on the Nancy Grace Show said that a husband of a missing woman referenced her in the "present tense" thus "proving" his innocence. She was wrong.
This is an example of not understanding a principle, and reading analysis far too quickly without absorbing the principle correctly.
Yesterday I interviewed a teenager who spoke about overcoming some personal difficulties when his dog died. He referenced the dog in the past tense, appropriately, until at one point, he 'slipped' into the present tense, and corrected himself. He did so because the loss of the dog hurt a great deal, and the pain was coming back to him as he spoke about his dog. He missed his canine friend terribly, and it impacted his life so much so, that the present tense verb found its way into his language.
When a child goes missing, the parent will have natural, parental denial. Solomonic wisdom notwithstanding, a parent will have hope and believe the child is alive, especially early on.
The Guilty Knowledge Parent.
Susan Smith stands as a good example of a guilty parent deceptively reporting her child as "missing" as she had killed her two sons, but reported them missing instead. As she spoke, she spoke in the present tense, just as she should have, while still trying to deceive her audience.
As she entered the "Free Editing Process" (LSI) she was choosing words for herself, freely speaking, and using present tense verbs when suddenly, she slipped up, just once, and said, "my boys needed me."
This was all it took.
She had just reported them missing and the police had not told her of anything found that would have led her to believe that they were dead.
She was showing knowledge that they were dead, by this verb tense slip, because she had drowned them both.
A mother of a missing child who slips up, even once, and references the child in the past tense, may either know, or believe, her child is dead. We must then find out why this mother believes her child is dead. Did police tell her something awful? Or, did she kill the child? Why would she speak of the child, particularly against natural parental denial, as if deceased? The analyst seeks the truth.
Justin DiPietro did this early on when he spoke about Ayla being in his custody. "Ayla was in my custody when she went missing." It is very difficult for a parent to reference a missing child in the past tense. This one slip immediately cast suspicion on him. His behavior that immediately followed, showed avoidance of assisting police in finding her.
Deborah Bradley did it repeatedly about Baby Lisa (who's name she quickly learned to avoid using). This is why defense attorneys do not let clients talk. Deborah Bradley was a blabber mouth and told us a great deal about the case in spite of an expensive lawyer.
Mark Redwine, through his multitude of words and false bravado of taking a polygraph test on television, revealed to us that Dylan had died at his hands, and that a domestic dispute took place, perhaps as Dylan defended the honor of his mother.
Billie Jean Dunn did it in the first few minutes of her first appearance on the Nancy Grace Show when she was asked "How far did (Hailey) have to go?" and Dunn said, "4 or 5 blocks. She wasn't allowed to..."
Next, Grace asked, "What happened?" to which Dunn said, "She went missing while I was at work" which actually addresses two principles.
In these two short answers, Billie Jean Dunn told the audience that her daughter was dead, not missing, and that she, Billie Jean, needed an alibi.
Grace did not ask her, "When did Hailey go missing?" but in a deflection of the question, Dunn spoke of her own free editing process that which was her biggest concern as if to say:
"She went missing while I was at work, so don't go blaming me! I wasn't even home" Obviously, this is not a quote, but a display of her priority. Justin DiPietro's 911 call shows his priority was to make nice-nice with police and let them believe he had just woken up. Oh, and by the way, a child is missing, coming second in his priority. His over-polite wording was inconsistent with the street bully that he is.
So: when is it appropriate for a family member to speak of the missing person in the past tense?
This was the question posted that we now look at.
To the expert on Nancy Grace: The deceptive person will try to always, without fail, speak in the present tense. It is not an indication of innocence, it is merely the "expected."
"Caylee loved the park", Casey Anthony said, but quickly corrected herself with "loves the park."
That slip was something that a mother of a missing child is not likely to have, especially one who has claimed the child is with the baby sitter (Zanny the Nanny).
Analysis sets up the "expected" and when the "unexpected" is presented, analysis is applied. We expect to hear only present tense. It is the "expected"; and it does not prove anything. The innocent and the guilty both use the present tense. This is why we seek to get people to speak on their own and answer at length. It is why Justin DiPietro barely said much on the 911 call.
When a person goes missing, there are factors to consider:
1. How close is the subject to the person that has gone missing? A mother would be the closest: mother and child relationship is highly personal. A grandmother raising a child would be very close.
2. How much time has passed? If the person just went missing, we would not expect any past tense references from anyone yet. If the child has been missing for months, resistance to accepting death is much less.
3. What circumstances envelop the missing person? For example, if the person is missing at sea, or in sub zero weather, the natural resistance to referring to the missing person in the past tense will be diminished. If the child is supposedly with someone, like a baby sitter, is the babysitter known to be violent? Did the person go missing at the hands of a murderous pedophile?
Generally speaking, mothers have a very powerful instinct over their children and have the highest level of resistance (denial) to accepting that a child is deceased.
I once listened to a mother who's child had been murdered years earlier slip into present tense language. This is how powerful denial can be.
There are no set timelines. This is where the skill of the analyst comes in.
In a case like Baby Ayla, for example, it was so early that there was no expectation of past tense language. The same for Isabel Celis, Baby Lisa, and, as we just covered, Haleigh Cummings, who's step-mother/babysitter said, hours after reporting her missing, "I loved that little girl as if she was my own." Not only was it a past tense reference, but the word "that" is distancing language (we heard this from Patsy Ramsey as well).
Here are some guidelines to follow in analysis. Analysis is built with clay building blocks, not cement. You must remain pliable. Regional dialects, phrases, and so on, are all in play. Education level, intelligence, emotional health...everything is part of an equation.
None of it negates analysis, but the skillful analyst learns to not use a microscope to find deception, but steps back for a big picture. This is how it is seen that Justin DiPietro had scripted his 911 call, practicing it with his sister, Elisha DiPietro, and it can be seen in the transcripts.
*The closer the person is to the missing person, the greater the resistance to using past tense. (This goes for family and friends)
Mothers of missing babies are aflame with instinct, protective capacity, and intuition.
Fathers are to follow. Ask yourself, "How close is this person to the one missing?" Some aunts, for example, raise children as their own, and should be viewed closer to being a "mother" than an aunt.
Fathers will often be a close second.
The age of the child can be a factor, as older children can get into more danger, for example, like falling or drawing, than a baby who cannot yet crawl.
Men will yield to the past tense earlier than females. Women seem to have stronger denial than men.
Mothers are the last to give up hope. Desiree Young, mother of missing Kyron Horman was an example of this.
Have the police given the family any indication of death?
This is important. If police have shared information with a family, it could cause someone to speak in the past tense.
Clint Dunn, in my first conversation with him, went back and forth and actually caught himself and said, "I just said something in the past tense, didn't I?" which hurt him deeply, as he was struggling to accept what Hailey's mother and her boyfriend had done to his little girl. This was long after terrible news of drugs, violence and child pornography had come out.
Time: how much time has passed?
Safely, if the police have revealed nothing and the child has not been missing very long, the past tense reference is very alarming. After months, however, when hope is eroded, the reference may come.
Weather: Did the missing person live in a moderate climate, or an extreme climate? In sub zero temperature, hope will not last as long as it will in warmer climates. Were there terrible storms? Flooding?
Environmental conditions: Does the missing person suffer from adult autism, or has mental retardation?
Did the person go missing in a high crime area? This could weigh upon the subject.
In the case of Leeanne Bearden, she appears to be someone who could survive well, having traveled the world in the past two years.
Personality of the Subject
Someone who suffers from depression will yield earlier in giving up hope and speak in past tense than a person who, for example, has a naturally buoyant personality, always up and always optimistic.
The analyst must take into consideration many factors before concluding:
The subject knows or believes the missing person is deceased. Even deceptive people avoid slipping into the past tense. Josh Powell-like silence, which is how Justin DiPietro conducted himself, limits what we can analyze. In the case of DiPietro, even the little he did say, he still showed his deception. In some cases we find "more sample needed" before we can draw a conclusion as to whether the person speaking (the subject) has guilty knowledge of the missing person's fate.