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Missing Daughter Hoaxer Turns Herself In

Aired July 31, 2003 - 19:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to get right to some breaking news happening right now, concerning the woman accused of perpetrating a hoax in the Indiana missing girl story.
For the latest, we go to David Mattingly, who is in Indianapolis, where the story originated -- David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, just a little over an hour ago Donna Walker, the 35-year-old from Topeka, Kansas, turned herself in to authorities in Kansas. She drove in and turned herself into the Shawnee County Adult Detention Center in Topeka, Kansas, ending a manhunt that essentially started a little over 24 hours ago.

Police here issued a warrant for her arrest because they felt that she had perpetrated deception against the Sherrill family here, passing herself off as possibly their long-lost daughter, Shannon Sherrill. But now she has turned herself in, ending that 24-hour manhunt.

I spoke to Mike Sherrill, Shannon's father. He is only just now getting the word that it has come down. He was watching the reports on the local television stations here. He said only that it was great that she was arrested and said the only thing positive that might have come out of this was that this whole experience has generated a lot more national attention for finding Shannon.

When I asked him, there was a report out -- there are reports out of Kansas right now that the woman did issue an apology, saying she was sorry for whatever she might have done to the family. And he said that very simply, Anderson, that sorry wasn't good enough in this case.

COOPER: I can certainly understand why he would say that.

David, have police talked at all about a possible motive in this case? I ask this question because in the last 24 hours or so we were starting to hear more about this woman, some reports of multiple personalities, other past indents she's been involved with. Have they said anything now about a motive?

MATTINGLY: The motive is a complete mystery right now. That's been the question on everyone's mind since this was revealed, of the question of why she was doing this.

Police here speculated that she has multiple personalities. And they have been able to find out from authorities, FBI sources in California and authorities in Virginia Beach, Virginia, that she has had a history of deception, of being able to do things like this before, passing herself over the phone with other identities, taking on other voices, including a male voice at times, which is exactly what she did -- is accused of doing in this case.

COOPER: All right. David Mattingly, thanks for the update. And we'll continue to follow this story throughout the hour.

Now when the family yesterday found out this was a hoax they were obviously devastated. Why would somebody do this? That's the question everyone still wants to know.

I'm joined now by Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at NYU Medical Center. He joins me here in New York.

Welcome. Thanks for being with us.


COOPER: That was question on everybody's mind: why would somebody do this?

WELNER: Well, it's unusual to have a hoax situation to begin with. Most people are accustomed to hoaxes coming up when there's a financial motive, a scam, a fraud.

Occasionally, we hear of stories of people who have what we recognize as pseudologa fantastica. Sounds like a very obscure jargon. What it really is is lie upon lie upon lie.

These are people who typically have fragile identities, who are drifters, and who have no problem between fact and fantasy and sheltering themselves in fantasy, even to the end of wanting to take on another identity to get attention, to get nurturance.

COOPER: Someone who has this -- and again, we don't know if this is the case with this woman -- but do they care about the devastation they leave in their wake?

WELNER: Well, that's not really a priority. The priority is attention and nurturance.

COOPER: That's what they want? They want attention?

WELNER: Well, it's an unconscious need. What we see here is a lie about an identity, a lie for attention. Engaging the press, engaging these parents.

A brazen lie. I mean, the chutzpa to do this something is really something. And also a lie that's completely inconsiderate of the emotional effects.

Her emotional needs and her ability to manage them are so limited, so immature. We're seeing something by an adult who has the maturity of a child, and that's why she resorts to this type of very unusual behavior. Typically someone who does this, it's not so much a syndrome as a way of lying upon lying. Shifting between a fantasy life and a reality that's very grounded.

Don't be surprised if this is a woman who has very little support system, who goes from city to city and whose background, at the very least, has neglect and at the very most may have a terrible background of abuse, even torture.

COOPER: All right. Well, obviously her story going to come out in the next couple days. Dr. Welner, thanks for being with us.

Well, many of you saw the emotional press conference yesterday when a father learned that the woman who claimed to be a daughter he'd been seeking for nearly two decades was a fake. There it is again.

Marc Klaas understands all too well the emotions that father was feeling. He felt them himself. He joins me now from San Francisco.

Marc, first your reaction to the fact that this woman is now in custody?

MARC KLAAS, PRESIDENT, BEYONDMISSING.COM: Well, I'm glad she is, Anderson. Quite frankly, we had a call into our foundation about within the last year of a woman saying, "I have reason to believe I may be Polly Klaas," and we were able to debunk her and send her on her way very quickly.

So I don't know if it's the same gal or there are others perpetrating these kinds of crimes, but they have to be taken off the street and there has to be a stop put to it.

And there's no better explanation as to why than to look at the face of Mr. Sherrill yesterday when he broke down in that press conference. It was unbelievable.

COOPER: So I mean, you have received these kind of calls in the past? I mean, this is remarkable.

KLAAS: Absolutely. And, in fact, the day after my daughter was kidnapped we received a call from a girl who said that she was Polly, that she had had a few moments to make a phone call and that the kidnapper was on her way back, cut the call off and we thought for a week that we were going to get our daughter back very quickly.

And just as an illustration, after two days of not hearing from her again, at about 4 a.m. one morning after not sleeping at all, went into the parking lot of a supermarket and just started howling at the moon at the top of my lungs. I was so distraught and I was so emotionally overwrought.

So these are things that create emotional upheavals that, unless you have experienced this kind of loss, I think you are really unable to understand. And again, the best way to understand that would be to look at Mr. Sherrill yesterday.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, I spoke with him yesterday and he said to me it was like losing his daughter all over again. Do you have any words of advice for him or for other family members who are out there? KLAAS: There's really not much you can say. But you have to remember that there's an underbelly of predators out there that are sort of a second wave. They will find ways to exploit situations, whether it's for monetary gain or whether it's to gain attention, as Dr. Welner had just mentioned, and that we have to be very skeptical of any of these kinds of situations, any of these kinds of claims, until there can be proof put on the table.

And I think that we also have to warn law enforcement that they should not put an individual in harm's way, as they did Mr. Welner (sic) in yesterday. He should be hearing this stuff from them well in advance and not at the last minute and then have to go over and let these things overwhelm him.

Listen, he received that information right before he went onto this press conference yesterday. Intellectually, he understood that, but emotionally and intellect are two things. And it took him a while to realize exactly what had been said and exactly how it was going to sink in.

And we saw him come to terms with that on screen. We saw the most personal thing a person should ever have to go through become public and worldwide. And there's really no excuse for that, either. It's totally insensitive.

COOPER: In your opinion, does the law know how to handle these kind of cases? I ask this question because I talked to the prosecutor. And right now this woman is in custody. She's been charged with being a fugitive of justice.

I talked to the prosecutor in Indianapolis. He said that he can charge her with a felony, possibly a misdemeanor, as well. But we're only talking three or four years that she would actually do.

Do you think the law needs to change to take these kind of cases into account?

KLAAS: Well, I think law enforcement needs to have a better understanding of victimization and in fact, society as a whole does. Until we get some kind of equal representation in the United States' Constitution, we will be considered second-class citizens. We will be considered nothing more than the currency that drives a criminal justice system.

We were lucky in our situation because law enforcement told us up front, you will hear the truth from us before you hear it on the media. And that offered us great consolation as things went on, because we were hearing thing in the media that we knew weren't true. And I think that all law enforcement has to take a page from that lesson and act accordingly and make sure that they tell the victims before they hear it on the media or before they have to go on the media and come to the realizations themselves.

COOPER: All right. Marc Klaas, appreciate you joining us today for this breaking story.

KLAAS: Sure.

COOPER: Thanks very much.


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