Crime Fighter or Fraud? Richard Walter Exposed by New York MagazineApr 22, 2023
Season 1, Episode 50 of my podcast, The Unlovely Truth, dropped on December 15, 2020. That week’s true crime book, “The Murder Room” by Michael Capuzzo, centered on three friends who worked together to create a crack crime solving team – a group of professionals who brought expertise from all disciplines in criminal investigation. They named their group after Eugene Francois Vidocq, a French criminal turned crimefighter from the 18th century.
The founders were inspired to act on this simple premise: someone had to do something to alleviate the suffering that the bad guys (and girls) were causing. Why not them? The book focuses on three cases that the society worked on and also highlighted the personal lives of the three men who formed and led the team. One has since been discounted as a fraud.
Psychologist Richard Walter claimed to use cutting-edge criminal profiling techniques to re-examine unsolved murders to help police bring closure to the families of victims. He bragged about cases he had played a crucial role in solving. Most of his claims were exaggerated at best, and outright fabrications at worst.
Even after he’d been caught in multiple fabrications, Walter still managed to serve as an expert witness in multiple trials that led to convictions and lengthy prison sentences. According to an article in New York magazine, “Convictions in at least three murder cases in which he testified have since been overturned. In 2003, a federal judge declared him a ‘charlatan.’“ (Read the entire article here.) How did Walter manage to do this?
I think, in part, Walter simply knew how to game the system. He knew that juries want to know why someone would do something as horrible as take another person’s life. He stepped up with bizarre yet fascinating “motives” that prosecutors and juries just couldn’t get enough of. When you are thin on actual evidence, a juicy motive can seal the deal.
The media couldn’t get enough of him either. 48 Hours and 20/20 both profiled his work. Numerous publications ran articles about him. And of course, there was the book I shared with my listeners. How could so many people miss the red flags?
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that we didn’t. We just rationalized them away. Walter was often described as being eccentric rather than unprofessional. He loved to make bold statements for the attention they got him. Today, we simply call that click-bait and shrug it off as being the way things are. What galls me the most about this story is to see how he preyed upon the families of victims and desperate police investigators so he could take their money and inflate his own ego.
Some people who could have exposed him decided it was in their own best interests not to. Walter was a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The wife of a man he helped convict shared information she’d found about instances where Walter had lied in his work. She was told that most of her information did not indicate that Walter had run afoul of the group’s code of ethics. That is simply mind-boggling to me, but he was a very high profile member of their group. Apparently, they didn’t want their group to look bad by association if people knew that Walter wasn’t the expert he pretended to be. I doubt that the people he helped convict appreciated their reasoning.
Victim’s families loved him, and I can’t blame them one bit. He was dangling justice, finality, and answers in front of them. How could they not want to believe he was what he claimed to be? His over-the-top personality matched their sense of outrage, and made them feel like he cared.
So why do we fall for the lies of people like Richard Walter? We all have our unique vulnerabilities, but let’s investigate five that I think apply to all of us.
- Bad information: We rarely know all the facts about a person's professional or personal life. The problems come from the fact that we tend to assume that we know the most important things about people. We don’t factor in that often what we know about a person is what that person told us. We should adopt a saying from the late former president Ronald Regan in our own lives - trust but verify.
- Confirmation bias: If someone tells us something that confirms what we already believe, it’s easy to get fooled into believing anything else they say. Confirmation bias can be a powerful influence on our beliefs and decision-making, so we need to be aware of it and honestly evaluate evidence that at first glance doesn’t fit our narrative about someone.
- The charm factor: People who are full of charisma can be very persuasive and very persistent. They are larger than life and can overwhelm our ability to step back and check them out with a clear headed perspective. If someone blitzes you with a charm offensive, it might just be a clue that they aren’t as honest as they are claiming to be.
- Fear of confrontation: I don’t like to tell someone I think they are being dishonest, do you? Even just thinking that someone is lying is so uncomfortable! It’s easier to avoid a confrontation and hope for the best, like ostriches, right? Actually, ostriches are putting their heads in the sand to check on their eggs and keep them safe from predators. We can keep it low key as long as we are checking out what we are being told.
- Unwarranted Trust: We like to give others the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are telling the truth. This can be especially true when dealing with someone we know well or someone who seems trustworthy because they hold an impressive title. For our own safety and the safety of others, we must learn to trust actions over titles. Unless people have proven that they have good character, we can’t just assume that they do.
The book of James is well known for its wisdom and its author’s love for quoting from Proverbs and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Its teachings are meant to challenge us, not just intellectually, but in how we live our lives on a daily basis. He knows that pride and ego are harmful for us, and leads us into actions that hurt others.
“But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
James 4:6-7 NIV
We can see that being humble is aligned with being more like God and being proud is acting more like…well, you get the picture. That not only applies to us checking our own behavior, but that of others. We need to be wary of people who are habitually proud, boastful, and arrogant. That will help us not fall for the frauds we encounter in our lives.
Developing skills that help you give your trust only to trustworthy people can feel overwhelming. That’s why I’m getting ready to release my newest book, “In God We Trust, Everybody Else Gets a Background Check” soon. Be on the lookout for it! While you wait, you can grab a copy of my first book, “How to Kick Fear to the Curb: Private Investigator Approved Personal Safety Tips with Biblical Evidence to ‘Fear Not’”. Both are written with my unique blend of faith and true crime. You can also get more of that by listening to my podcast, The Unlovely Truth. You’ll get great information on how to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community just a little bit safer.
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