THE CURRENT edition of Notebook, newsletter of the San
Francisco Police Officers Association, includes what it
calls a "true story from the Associated Press" about the
bizarre death of Ronald Opus on March 23, 1994.
According to the POA Notebook report, Dr. Don Harper
Mills, president of the American Academy of Forensic
Sciences, told the story at a 1994 gathering of the AAFS.
Here is a short version:
Ronald Opus left a suicide note. But when he leaped from
the 10th floor (not knowing he would land in a
window-washer's safety net on the eighth floor) he was
killed in mid-air by a shotgun blast from a window on the
ninth floor. In that apartment, an elderly man habitually
pretended during quarrels to shoot at his wife with an
unloaded shotgun. But it was loaded. Should the case be
declared an accident?
Police then learned the gun had been loaded by the old
man's son, hoping his father would kill his mother. Should
the son be charged with second-degree murder?
Finally it was discovered that the son was none other than
Ronald Opus, despondent at the failure of his plot.
Because the jumper had, in effect, murdered himself, the
coroner finally listed the death as suicide.
We hated to check it out. But uncritical acceptance of the
Ronald Opus report illustrates 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
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. 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, is to get into the Guinness Book of Records for most
The deluge of fake news and mean frauds is far too heavy
for the Internet's volunteer watchdogs and the U.S.
Department of Energy's Computer Incident Advisory
Capability (www.ciac.llnl.gov / CIACHoaxes.html).
It's up to the Web surfer to develop a healthy skepticism.
Let's start with the Ronald Opus story. It's a creature of
the Internet, where it is told, and commented on, in
thousands of web pages and chat rooms.
The reprint in the POA newsletter is but one example of its
appeal. It inspired a 1998 episode of the "Homicide" TV
series. A version was mentioned in another TV show, "Law
and Order," and it inspired another plot twist in an
Australian TV show, "Murder Call."
When a reporter intrigued by the Ronald Opus story finally
reached Dr. Mills, he said it had an element of truth. Yes,
he told the story to his fellow forensic scientists - but
it was in 1987, not 1994. No, there never was an AP story or
a Ronald Opus or a dad with a shotgun.
Mills said he concocted the hypothetical anecdote to show
how different legal consequences can follow each twist in
a homicide inquiry.
When a story is too good to be true, it probably is.<
This article appeared on page A - of the Examiner