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Head Strong: Believability is key in crime-hoax villains

It's not racism that drives pretend victims, a profiler says; it's cooking up the best story.

Memo to hoaxers: You've overplayed the race card. Better to blame the Vietnamese than the blacks. Maybe the Mexicans. Perhaps be daring and say your attacker looked like a guy from the Main Line. Whatever your story, come up with a new rap because the old tale about a couple of black guys just isn't working. Ask Bonnie Sweeten, the Bucks County woman whose abduction hoax ended when she was found in Disney World with her daughter Julia Rakoczy, 9, on Wednesday.

The first of many red flags came when Sweeten said she'd been rear-ended by a black duo who threw her into the trunk of their Caddy with her daughter Tuesday afternoon on Street Road. Anyone who has ever driven through Upper Southampton knows that four such disparate individuals could never have an interaction in broad daylight without being noticed.

And so her name gets added to a list that includes Charles Stuart, Samuel Asbell, Susan Smith, Jennifer Wilbanks, and Ashley Todd.

Remember Stuart? In October 1989, he claimed that a black man shot and killed his pregnant wife (Charles also sustained a gunshot wound) in an apparent robbery gone wrong. A man named Willie Bennett became a prime suspect, though he was later cleared after Stuart's brother implicated Stuart himself, who committed suicide in January 1990.

Days later, and closer to home, Samuel Asbell, the gaudy former New Jersey prosecutor, resigned after holding a news conference to describe a high-speed chase through Camden during which he exchanged gunshots with two black assailants he suspected were drug dealers, terrorists, or Ku Klux Klan members. Within days, investigators had debunked the account - including Asbell's assertion that his shotgun blast made one assailant's head "explode."

Susan Smith claimed an African American man carjacked her and abducted her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons in October 1994. Nine days later, Smith confessed to strapping them into their car seats and rolling the car into a South Carolina lake.

And in 2005, Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called Runaway Bride, skipped town just days before her wedding. On the morning she was to be married, she called her husband and claimed she'd been abducted by a Hispanic man and a white woman. Turns out she'd planned the trip on her own.

Then there's Ashley Todd, the woman who reported last year that an African American supporter of Barack Obama robbed her, and - when he saw a John McCain bumper sticker on her car - beat her and carved a "B" onto her cheek. The problem? The "B" was in reverse - like she'd drawn it herself while looking in a mirror. Todd later admitted her wounds were self-inflicted.

Why in each of these cases did the real perpetrator conjure up a racially tinged alibi?

That's a question for criminal profiler Pat Brown, author of Killing for Sport: Inside the Minds of Serial Killers. Brown told me that racism isn't a factor in implicating a nonexistent black perpetrator. Rather, it's a question of believability. "When people stage crimes, they often try to come up with what they think is a plausible scenario, the most believable scenario, the most sympathetic scenario," she explained.

The perception they cultivate, Brown said, can be driven by prevailing news storylines of the day. Brown noted that Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted in 1979 of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters in Fort Bragg, N.C., has claimed for years that drugged hippies broke into his home, slaughtered his family, and left him unconscious and bleeding.

Behind that story, Brown surmised, was the fact that "Charles Manson and his hippie gang made their way into the minds of the public" before the MacDonald family murders in 1970. Indeed, an issue of Esquire magazine detailing murders perpetrated by Manson followers - just six months beforehand - was found in MacDonald's home after the killings.

Brown continued: "Then, violent inner-city African American crime became a popular news item and so those staging crimes moved to claiming black men were responsible for what happened. As the Hispanic population grows in the United States as an underclass, they will become the new 'offenders' in fabricated scenarios."

Whatever the window of believability, Brown told me that a common trait among these imaginative perpetrators is psychopathy. Many are "manipulative, arrogant, tend toward grandiose thinking, and refuse to take responsibility for their actions," she said.

Brown suggested that in some cases, the true perpetrators are looking to eliminate the people or parts of their lives preventing them from moving on to something newer or more exciting. Others are attempting to extricate themselves from trouble. Or it could be a way of seeking notoriety - a way of making the desire to "be someone special" a reality.

In Sweeten's bid to make herself the victim of black abductors, she actually undercut her own credibility. Forget the undamaged car, parking ticket, and cell phone tower. Two black guys in an altercation with a 38-year-old white woman and her 9-year-old daughter would attract attention in lower Bucks County. So where were the 911 calls from rubbernecking drivers? Maybe Sweeten was too busy booking the Grand Floridian to plan that.

Perps like Charles Stuart and Susan Smith think they can dupe the multitudes of investigators, reporters, and onlookers their fantastic cases will surely attract. "They are arrogant and think they are smarter than everyone else," Brown told me.

Not smart enough, apparently.