As she voluntarily entered the police interrogation room in Moline, Illinois, four years ago, Dorothy Varallo-Speckeen thought she was there to help solve a child-abuse case.
She soon realized, however, Detective Marcella O’Brien thought she, a then-22-year-old babysitter with no criminal record, had abused the child, a felony punishable by up to 30 years imprisonment.
“I’m not trying to point fingers, but I know for a fact that the injury occurred during the time when you guys were watching Brylee,” O’Brien said, referring to Varallo-Speckeen and her girlfriend and, by name, the baby they were watching.
That statement came early in a video-recorded interrogation obtained by IowaWatch. In the video, O’Brien subjected Varallo-Speckeen to an interrogation that sought to extract a confession. Her tactics are common in law enforcement, but many experts say they can coerce false confessions and should be abandoned.
O’Brien talked over Varallo-Speckeen, interrupted and rejected or cut off denials and repeatedly pushed O’Brien’s theory – that Varallo-Speckeen had broken the legs of the 15-month-old toddler.
Maybe she was too rough changing a diaper, or maybe she accidentally hurt the child, O’Brien suggested time and again. Despite Varallo-Speckeen’s insistence that she wasn’t too rough, that she didn’t hurt the toddler, that she had not changed the baby’s diaper during the hours in question, O’Brien held to the theory that Varallo-Speckeen was to blame.
After nearly two hours in the interrogation room and after O’Brien once more insisted that Varallo-Speckeen must have caused the injuries, Varallo-Speckeen relented. It happened when Varallo-Speckeen recalled the moment her girlfriend first said the child’s legs were broken.
Varallo-Speckeen: And so then she was like well, her legs are broke, and then I was confused like how, how did that happen. That was my reaction.
O’Brien: OK. So what do you think now?
Varallo-Speckeen: I think it was because I was changing her diaper.
Looking back on that day, July 24, 2013, Varallo-Speckeen, now 26, said she believes O’Brien coerced that confession.
The detective and Moline police officials declined several requests for interviews over several months about the case and interrogation practices.
O’Brien’s tactics mirrored the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation, which researchers describe as the gold standard for interrogating suspects. A majority of law enforcement officials are being trained to use it or another method based on it.
Critics relate the technique to the fact that more than a fourth of wrongfully convicted suspects later exonerated with DNA evidence had given a false confession or incriminating statement, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted.
Some critics point to policies used in the United Kingdom as an effective and fair alternative. Andy Griffiths, a retired United Kingdom detective superintendent with a doctorate in major crime interviewing, said his country no longer sees cases going to the UK’s appeals court because of false confessions.
But, Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates, stands by the technique, saying it is an ethical and efficient way to obtain justice, and he denies false confessions and the Reid Technique are related.
To understand police interrogation techniques, IowaWatch interviewed experts, read police records of the case, analyzed the video and transcript of Varralo-Speckeen’s interrogation and compared it to Reid methods. The video was provided by Sharon Varallo, Varralo-Speckeen’s mother.
Statements heard in the interrogation video indicate that two others and possibly a third were alone with the child during the time in which she was injured.
Series of Events
Varallo-Speckeen had moved from Rock Island to Moline after being adopted at age 11 by Sharon Varallo, a college professor. She had been abused as a child. She and Sharon moved to Iowa City, where she graduated from Iowa City High School, before they returned to the Moline area. She often worked as a babysitter for different families but rarely held a stable, long-term job.
The events in July 2013 that put Varallo-Speckeen in an interrogation room began about two months earlier when she and her girlfriend, Jennifer Schafer, 30, moved into a basement apartment in the home of Schaefer’s friend, Jami Kepple. Kepple’s mother, Kim Linhart, and cousin, Brad Hessell, lived in the apartment upstairs.
On Monday, July 22 at 5 a.m., Kepple took her daughters to the apartment of her mother, Linhart, before leaving for work. Normally Linhart watched her grandchildren, but Hessell, the cousin, said he watched the girls because Linhart was ill.
Around 7:30 a.m., Hessell took the girls downstairs for Varallo-Speckeen and Schafer to watch while he went to work. Hessell told Schafer that Brylee was not feeling well and to give her Tylenol. She slept until 11 a.m., when Schafer changed her diaper.
“When I picked her up to change her diaper, she was real fussy,” Schafer told IowaWatch. “Like every time you moved her, like when I picked up her legs to slide the diaper in and out, she just kind of screamed a little at me; I thought maybe her belly hurt, thought maybe when I pulled her legs up it squished on her belly.”
Later, Schafer took Jasmine, Kepple’s eldest daughter, outside to play, while Brylee and Varallo-Speckeen napped on the couch. When Schafer returned about 45 minutes later, Varallo-Speckeen was awake, but Brylee was still sleeping on Varallo-Speckeen’s chest.
When Kepple returned from work at 1:30, she drove Brylee to Illini Hospital in Silvis, Illinois.
“There was clearly something wrong, but nobody knew what,” Schafer said. “She just wasn’t acting herself.”
Schafer told O’Brien that Kepple said the hospital found nothing seriously wrong with Brylee.
The next day, Tuesday, July 23, both of Brylee’s legs were swollen, and Kepple took her to Trinity East Hospital in Moline, where staff discovered the child’s legs were broken.
Police were called, and Detective O’Brien soon focused on Varallo-Speckeen.
When the Reid Technique was introduced in 1974, it was meant to replace interrogation tactics that involved threats, beatings and even torture. The creator of the technique was a former Chicago detective, John E. Reid, and he had elicited his first confession using it in 1955.
Whether O’Brien had received Reid training could not be determined, because she refused repeated interview requests. However, her tactics followed its technique.
Starting with a “behavioral analysis interview”, investigators are taught to ask non-threatening questions to understand the individual’s demeanor, then decide whether he/she is lying based on verbal and non-verbal cues.
But Reid’s opponents say it is impossible to detect deception accurately.
“You simply cannot tell whether a person is lying or telling the truth based on those cues,” said Stephanie Madon, an Iowa State University psychology professor who researches why individuals confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
The Reid Technique tells interrogators there is not any one cue or response that can determine deception, and that all behavioral cues need to be analyzed.
“But in the course of a high pressure investigation, these are snap judgments being made by detectives, and they’re often wrong,” said Steve Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the justice system.
Some trained in the technique say the behavioral analysis interview causes tunnel vision.
“You’ve already decided a person is guilty, so now you’re looking for confirmation,” said James Trainum, author of How the Police Generate False Confessions and a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective.
Trainum said he realized this after eliciting the confession of a woman he was sure was guilty in 1994. When evidence proved she could not have committed the murder to which she had admitted, he began to wonder what had gone wrong.
“The truth you are trying to get is the truth you believe in,” Trainum said. Reid, he says, focuses too much on confessions and not enough on gathering information.
“That confession is the most powerful piece of evidence in the court of law, and it ends up corrupting the quest for truth,” Drizin said.
However, Buckley, the Reid and Associates’ president, said the Reid Technique’s core principles are in place to prevent false confessions. To safeguard against false confessions, interrogators should get corroborating details in the suspect’s written statement.
In the interrogation stage, investigators can move through nine steps, starting with directly accusing the suspect of the crime or of knowing something about it.
“So obviously something happened in your care,” O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen. “Now, do I think it was on purpose? Absolutely not. I don’t think that you guys, or most people are the type of person who intentionally hurt a baby. I think that type of thing would be an evil person who would do that – I mean if you’re going to hurt a baby, you would have to be a very mean, evil person and plan that. I don’t think that was the case. I think what happened was an accident.”
Throughout the interrogation in Varallo-Speckeen’s case, O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen she was guilty or knew what happened to Brylee 36 times.
The second step of Reid teaches investigators to develop a theme giving the suspect justification or excuses for committing the crime. Investigators deflect denials by talking over and using gestures to cut the suspect off.
They may try to convince suspects a victim provoked the suspects or try to minimize blame by suggesting the crime was an accident or that the behavior was an anomaly for the suspect.
That tactic leaves suspects with two options: admit to the crime using the given justification or confess without it, leaving the suspect to appear like a monster, Drizin said.
Either way, “innocence is off the table,” he said.
O’Brien presented Varallo-Speckeen with a variety of accidental ways the injuries could have occurred. It was O’Brien’s suggestion that it could have happened during a diaper change, although Schafer and Varallo-Speckeen told O’Brien Schafer was the only one to change Brylee’s diaper while watching the baby July 22.
When Varallo-Speckeen said she didn’t remember doing anything that could have hurt Brylee, O’Brien cut her off. In the two-hour interrogation, split between Schafer and Varallo-Speckeen, O’Brien interrupted her 71 times.
Reid methodology teaches investigators to share stories about others who have made similar mistakes, a tactic that either minimizes or maximizes the severity of the crime. O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen about past cases where children had fractured skulls and bleeding on the brain.
“On a scale of things, this is not that severe,” O’Brien said. “Bones heal. Bruises go away. It’s not going to be something that’s going to be a horrible impact for the rest of their life. Unlike when I have babies who are shaken or thrown into walls and they have brain damage. That’s never going to get fixed.”
O’Brien told her repeatedly that Varallo-Speckeen was the only person who had been alone with Brylee, although statements given to O’Brien by Hessell, Schafer and Varallo-Speckeen and viewed by IowaWatch show that is not true. Presenting false evidence is another Reid tactic, made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court case of Frazier v. Cupp.
Interrogation scholars have pushed to change this law, and in other countries it is illegal to lie to a suspect about evidence.
O’Brien told Varallo-Speckeen the two of them could plan a way to tell Schafer and Kepple that would put Varallo-Speckeen in a favorable light, that O’Brien wouldn’t throw Varallo-Specken “out to the wolves.”
“I can do that for you,” O’Brien said. “But we can’t help you if you don’t help us. And that’s what I need. I need you to help me, so I can help you with this. Because you don’t want me going back and putting you in unfavorable light to them, do you?”
As the interrogation continued, O’Brien repeatedly insisted that Varallo-Speckeen must have broken Brylee’s legs while changing her diaper.
At one point, O’Brien handed her a baby doll, instructing her to demonstrate how she changed diapers. O’Brien watched as Varallo-Speckeen put a diaper on the doll. But O’Brien didn’t accept her demonstration.
‘That wouldn’t be enough force,” O’Brien said.
“Well, that’s how I change diapers,” Varallo-Speckeen responded.
Nevertheless, the detective continued pressing her theory, and Varallo-Speckeen began to waiver. If O’Brien believed Varallo-Speckeen was guilty, that must be what happened, she told O’Brien, adding she was willing to take the consequences.
Still, the detective was not satisfied; why would Varallo-Speckeen take responsibility for something she didn’t do, O’Brien asked her.
“I just want it over,” Varallo-Speckeen told O’Brien.
In an IowaWatch interview, Varallo-Speckeen said: “I feel like I admitted to a story that I was told.”
“I didn’t think I had, but the way she kept telling me that obviously I had done it, I was like maybe I turned wrong” and rolled over Brylee during their nap. But Varallo-Speckeen said she doubts that, because the child never woke up crying.
“I feel like I just agreed to get it off the table, to just get it out of there, to just get it done,” Varallo-Speckeen said. She said she still doesn’t think she changed Brylee’s diaper.
Varallo-Speckeen was charged with felony aggravated battery against a child. Two years later, she accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery causing bodily harm.
“I’d rather be guilty of the lesser charge and only have to have one to two years of consequences versus going to trial and chancing six to 30 years, where my life is gone for something I know I didn’t do,” she said.
The month she spent in jail in 2013 was counted toward her sentence, and she remained under court supervision for 12 months.
Varallo-Speckeen says media coverage of the case ruined her reputation, ending her babysitting work and costing her lots of friends.
Following the charges, Brylee’s mother, Kepple, told Schafer in a Facebook message that she didn’t know who hurt her daughter, that she didn’t trust the police and that she just wanted Brylee to be okay. Kepple declined talking to the press then and declined to comment on this story.
Reid critics say other interrogation methods would prevent false confessions and that police need more training in interviewing and interrogating. But Reid’s proponents don’t believe the techniques cause false confessions, nor that other options would help close cases.
Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, an Illinois consulting firm that has trained thousands of law enforcement officials nationwide, stopped offering Reid training in 2017.
Shane Sturman, chief executive officer, said Wicklander-Zulawski officials listened to academics, police interrogation researchers and law enforcement officials and decided the non-confrontational methods they have offered since 1983 work just as well.
“It’s not the Reid method that’s the problem as much as the misuse of the Reid Technique,” Sturman said.
“I do not believe that Reid or anyone else teaching intends to elicit a false confession,” Sturman said, but that the confrontational nature of Reid could explain missteps.
Buckley, Reid & Associates’ president, said if a false confession occurs, it is not a matter of misusing the Reid Technique but rather not using it at all.
“When you research false confessions, the majority of them come when officers participate in inappropriate behavior,” Buckley said.
Reid methods say interrogators should treat subjects with respect, not make promises of leniency, threaten physical harm or inevitable consequences, deny their rights or the opportunity to satisfy physical needs.
Former detective Trainum said a three-day seminar typically offered to law enforcement to be certified in the Reid Technique doesn’t fully cover Reid’s textbook. He said it spends considerable time on core principles and false confessions, but the seminars don’t cover the different issues a detective might encounter.
At Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, officers get six hours of interviewing and interrogation training, instructor Molly Jansen said. Any further training would be at local departments, she said.
Davenport Police Chief Brent Biggs said in the past many officers attended Reid seminars, but recently more go to Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers. There, they learn about eliciting admissions, how to address and mitigate denials, countering interviewee questions, and advanced evidence and theme presentation.
Buckley said the Reid textbook can’t be covered in the three-day seminar because it is more than 400 pages long, but that the safeguards and principles are. He said police get on-the-job training by spending more time talking to people than anything else they do.
Reid critics recommend a technique used by officers in the United Kingdom called PEACE, which is similar to the “Participatory Method” that Wicklander-Zulawski uses, Sturman said. It focuses more on gathering information rather than getting confessions.
The PEACE method was developed in the early 1990s through a collaboration of law enforcement experts and psychologists in England and Wales and implemented in response to the UK’s Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984.
Before this, Griffiths, the former UK detective, said officers weren’t trained in interviewing and interrogation methods. He said the courts threw out several confessions in the 1970’s because officers were misbehaving and forcing people to confess. The act gave interviewees more rights, including requiring that all interviews of suspects be recorded.
PEACE follows a five-step approach that focuses on asking interviewees for their version of events and determining if that information is reliable. Interrogators do not accuse suspects of guilt.
Now every officer learns PEACE in a five-day seminar, and others take another three-week advanced course. A national standard says only advanced interviewers should interview suspects and victims of rape, murder or kidnapping.
In contrast to PEACE, the Reid interrogator “does all the talking, not the suspect,” Trainum said. “How do you get information if the suspect isn’t talking?”
Buckley, however, contended that PEACE cannot accomplish the goal of solving cases. “They have fewer false confessions, but they also have fewer cases they solve, because they have fewer cases where the deceptive person tells them what they did.”
When asked for supporting data, Buckley did not provide it.
Griffiths rejected Buckley’s contention. Confession rates before and after PEACE are roughly the same, he said, adding that the United Kingdom always has had a smaller case resolution number because plea-bargaining doesn’t exist.
Regardless what causes false confessions, many agree something needs to be done to prevent imprisonment of innocent people.
“We need to have a major change in the culture in law enforcement, unfortunately,” Trainum said. “Our problem is we are so focused on closing cases and locking up criminals, we kind of lost our perspective that our real goal is to gather information that is admissible and reliable and unbiased. Let the evidence take us where it may.”
Varallo-Specken said she has several regrets:
“Agreeing to pretend that everyone is a good guy, and it’s all going to work out. I regret talking at all, now.”
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.
In an earlier version of this story, Dorothy Varallo-Speckeen’s name was misspelled.