I spend several hours every day practicing what I call “My Morning Reading.” I search for stories I think will be of interest to a what has become a large group of followers because I love to share stories on just about any subject and, if they are funny, have the ability to inspire, or pass along wisdom that’s all the better. Sometimes, however there is a price to pay. About 20 years ago the San Francisco Chronicle, in a Page One editorial, recognized: “Fiction is stranger than truth -- The Internet and e-mail have created a gullible village,” and, boy, I’ll say.
In the past three or four months I’ve taken the bait of faux news several times and admit sometimes it is hard to avoid. The Chronicle article read, “one of the unintended consequences of the World Wide Web: Its ‘netizens’ are confronted daily with a phenomenal outburst of hoaxes, frauds, myths and urban legends in a medium without safety checks.”
The bigger problem is that a tall tale can worm its way into my writings and the next thing I know, there is somebody out there who is saying, “I know it’s true … I even read it in Roy Exum’s story … “ and that’s when I want to go outside and hide behind some big rocks.
I get lots of emails about lots of stuff. Total strangers will send me stories that really interest me but a funny occurrence is when the same stories hibernate for seven or eight years before they resurface, updated and attributed to a reputable source. The public loves it – they want it to be true – and the more complex, with new particulars, is when I fall the hardest after taking the bait.
Here’s a great example of a story “that is so good it can’t be true.” Oh, yes, the president of The American Academy of Forensic Sciences most definitely told this word-for-word in 1994 but he also said he himself made it up about 10 years earlier and used it as a joke of sorts. It is also true this story, or others eerily similar, has emerged as the plot in ‘Law and Order,’ ‘CSI-Miami,’ the movie ‘Magnolia and in a number of other screen appearances. It was also voted as ‘The Most Bizarre Crime” in 1994 and only until they began to search for the winning law enforcement office was it learned there wasn’t one!
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THE STRANGE MURDER-SUICIDE OF MR. RONALD OPUS
Do you like to read a good murder mystery? Not even Law and Order would attempt to capture this mess (although several years the producers did exactly that.) This is an unbelievable twist of fate! At the 1994 annual awards dinner given for forensic science professionals, President, Dr. Don Harper Mills astounded his audience with the legal complications of a bizarre death.
Here is the story: On March 23, 1994, the medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus, and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound to the head. Mr. Opus had jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending to commit suicide. He left a note to the effect indicating his despondency. As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast passing through a window, which killed him instantly.
Neither the shooter nor the deceased was aware that a safety net had been installed just below the eighth-floor level to protect some building workers, and that Ronald Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide the way he had planned.
The room on the ninth floor, where the shotgun blast emanated, was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing vigorously, and he was threatening her with a shotgun! The man was so upset that when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife, and the pellets went through the window, striking Mr. Opus.
When one intends to kill subject 'A' but kills subject 'B' in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject 'B.'
When confronted with the murder charge, the old man and his wife were both adamant, and both said that they thought the shotgun was not loaded. The old man said it was a long-standing habit to threaten his wife with the unloaded shotgun. He had no intention of murdering her. Therefore, the killing of Mr. Opus appeared to be an accident; that is, assuming the gun had been accidentally loaded.
The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old couple's son loading the shotgun about six weeks prior to the fatal accident. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son's financial support and the son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother.
Since the loader of the gun was aware of this, he was guilty of the murder even though he didn't actually pull the trigger. The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.
Now comes the exquisite twist ...
Further investigation revealed that the son was, in fact, Ronald Opus. He had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother's murder. This led him to jump off the ten-story building on March 23rd, only to be killed by a shotgun blast passing through the ninth story window.
The son, Ronald Opus, had actually murdered himself. So, the medical examiner closed the case as a suicide. (This is a true story from Associated Press.)
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Confession time: Five years ago, I would not have hesitated to have used this story to delight my readers, in hopes they would get as much enjoyment from it as I did. Today, however, there are too many red flags for even gullible me. With Snopes, TruthOrFiction.co, Google, Wikipedia, and other avenues I would have tried to check.
In the story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, again this 20 years ago, it read, “Told with specific detail, horror or humor, traditional storytelling devices and surprise endings, the classic urban legends are no longer limited to campfire stories (alligators in sewers, the jet-assisted Chevy Impala) or college dorms (the unsuspecting co-ed hooker's unsuspecting client, her dad) or the corner tavern (the bricklayer's mistake, the lawn-chair balloonist, the concrete-filled Cadillac convertible).
“But the Internet also throbs with hundreds of hoaxes that rely on send-along e-mail and chat rooms to warn of imaginary computer viruses (Good Times, Irina, Deeyenda, Death Ray, Internet Cleanup Day, etc.) E-mail chain letters falsely offer everything from free Microsoft Windows software (the "Bill Gates Hoax") to cases of beer ( "Free Miller Beer Hoax" ).
“Internet myths are typified by the oft-repeated rumor that Walt Disney's corpse is soaking in liquid nitrogen, awaiting revival technology,” the opinion piece added. “And 33 million get-well cards were reportedly sent to the alleged little boy whose dying wish, although he is still alive several years later, was to get into the Guinness Book of Records for most get-well cards.”
A news reporter tracked down Dr. Mills several years after the story had circulated far and wide and he laughed over how many inquiries he had gotten, explaining he was very specific in telling his audience it was totally made up -- a hypothetical anecdote to show how different legal consequences can follow each twist in a homicide inquiry.
No, there never was any Ronald Opus, no shotgun blasting through a hotel window, or an Associated Press story but he did add one clarification. The story, still a dazzling yarn, was born at a lecture in 1987, not in 1994.