Ron Freeman: Bringing Light to a Dark Science

The remarkable career of an expert interrogator
Photo by Jack Wolf Ron Freeman: Bringing Light to a Dark Science
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Somewhere between Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, sometime between assertions that America does not torture and insistence that the end justified the means, I remembered what a Pittsburgh police officer once told me about the head of the city’s Major Crimes Division: “Everybody confesses to Ron Freeman.”

I first met Freeman almost a decade ago. The Post-​Gazette was assembling dossiers on the city’s 50 most notable persons of a certain age. The undertaking, dubbed Project Legacy, was the brainchild of editor John Craig, who assigned me to oversee it.

A critical component of an advance obituary is an interview with the subject. So P-​G reporters began fanning out. Their marching orders: Explain Project Legacy and promise that nothing the subject said would be revealed during his or her lifetime — at least not without the person’s consent.

The young reporter assigned to interview Commander Ron Freeman either was not paying attention or had a panic attack at Freeman’s office door. He blurted, “My editor assigned me to write your obituary.”

Freeman, who was battling leukemia at the time, was not amused and said, “Have your editor call me.”

So I called Freeman and told him about Project Legacy and why I thought he should be included among the exalted expired-​in-​waiting. Mollified, he agreed.

Years later, I took an adult education course in homicide investigation at the University of Pittsburgh, partly because the subject interested me and partly because Freeman was the instructor. But this spring and summer, in the wake of revelations about the “enhanced” methods used by military and para-​military interrogators in the war on terrorism, I wanted to know more. I got in touch with Freeman again. This story is the result.

Just back from a two-​year hitch in the Army, Ron Freeman settled in Pittsburgh to be with his parents, who had moved here from Baltimore while he was away. A high-​school dropout at 16, he had worked menial jobs at a box-​manufacturing plant and a heating and air conditioning company before being drafted. No one in his family ever had been a policeman. Freeman did not aspire to be the first.

The day he showed up at the City-​County Building early in 1961, it was to register to vote. The Civil Service office was and is immediately adjacent to the Voter Registration office. Freeman accidentally went in the wrong door. It was kismet. The woman behind the desk engaged him in pleasant conversation. The city is looking for police officers, she said finally. Since you’re here anyway, why not apply? “No thanks,” he said. “I don’t think I’d make a good policeman.”

But after a little cajoling, he agreed to devote the next 45 minutes to filling out an application and taking the test. Then he went next door, filled out his voter registration card, and forgot the whole thing.

A month later, the city notified him that he had been selected to attend the police academy and gave him a date and time to report and be sworn in.

He was working as an orderly at St. Francis Hospital. One of the perks was free tuition for night-​school classes at Pitt. He liked the job and the classes. His reporting date at the police academy came and went. He didn’t show up.

The police department surprised him by dispatching a detective to pick him up. “We need good people,” the detective said. “You need to come with me.”

He was a good guy, but I felt intimidated,” Freeman recalled. “He took me home to change into a suit, then took me to get sworn in.” Thus began one of the most distinguished careers in Pittsburgh police history.

His first assignment after graduating from the academy in the fall of 1964 was walking a beat in the lower Hill District. The first time someone yelled for the cops, it took him a split second to realize he was the cops.

Foot patrolmen did not carry walkie-​talkies in those days. Once every hour, they went to a call box and phoned in their whereabouts. One night, Freeman was making such a call when a theater performance across the street was letting out. From behind him, Freeman heard a man screaming vile insults at him.

He was a big, tough-​looking man, toting two bags. Freeman recalled being “frightened to death… but the guy was shouting and cursing at a policeman, and something had to be done.”

Freeman, at six feet tall and 160 pounds, advanced on the wild man, fumbling for his night stick. The big man put down his bags and put up his fists. But as the young cop drew closer, the wild man said quietly, “‘Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. I just need a place to sleep for the night.”

I hate to do this,” Freeman said, “but I’m going to have to handcuff you before I can call for a wagon.”

This is your first arrest, isn’t it?” the big man asked.

Nearly a half century later, Freeman recalled, “He was really a nice guy. He was just down on his luck.’’

Freeman never requested a promotion. But new assignments kept finding him. He went from walking a beat to riding one, then to the Youth Crimes Division. “We did rapes, robberies, stolen cars — everything but homicides. That’s where I really got to know criminals,” he said. “We grew up together.’’

It was also where he first took an interest in interrogation. In a polygraph operator’s office, he happened upon a book, “Criminal Interrogations and Confessions,” edited by Fred Inbau. “Is it any good?’’ he asked the lie-​detector specialist. “Don’t know,” the man said. “Never read it.”

Freeman borrowed it and found it fascinating. He met veteran homicide detective Steve Tercsak. “The best detective they had at that time; very approachable, very friendly. I asked him if I could sit in on one of his [interrogations].” One interview became a series of tutorials — the wizard practicing his sorcery, the apprentice taking mental notes. Interrogation fast became Freeman’s passion.

He went from youth crimes to homicide, first on a 30-​day loan, then for keeps. He went from reading a book about interrogation to reading many.

The first thing I learned about is the room,” Freeman recalled. “You don’t want a room that’s too big or too small. It can’t have mirrors or bright-​colored paint. You don’t want windows or flags or police memorabilia. You should have a stationary chair for the suspect and a chair for yourself that you can move around easily. You should not have a table; that creates a barrier that they’re protected by.

You have to go in without a gun or badge or uniform, nothing that shows you’re the police. You look professional. You read them their Miranda rights. They sign them. You put them away.

You find out as much about the person as you can before you go in the room with him. You don’t use words like ‘rape,’ ‘kill’ or ‘stab.’ You use other language. ‘That thing that happened…’ You put aside your personal feelings about someone who might have killed a woman or child. It sounds hard, but I had to do it in order to do my job, so for me it was easy.

You want it to be one suspect, one cop. It gives them a sense of privacy. You don’t want to carry a tape recorder or write notes as the subject speaks. You have to record it all in your mind. Once you can get them to confess, it’s easier for them to accept that you want to record it.

I liked to do my interviews in the evening if possible, because I’d read two different research papers that reached the same conclusion: People tend to confess more readily then.”

None of this was common practice at the time Steve taught it to me. Some detectives just didn’t take the time to learn to interrogate, and some never got confessions. Outside of Pittsburgh, a lot of detectives went to jail for using physical force in interrogations. I didn’t use physical aggression.

Steve Tercsak was my mentor and hero in all these things.” And Freeman, in turn, would become the mentor and hero to many. Ron Paul Freeman, the commander’s son, recollects clearly the day he decided to become a police officer. He was 6.

My dad would bring the [unmarked squad car] home with him,” Ron Paul said. “I was coming home with him from the grocery store, and he monitored the radio whenever he went out. We were in Squirrel Hill. A call came over about a burglary in progress a few blocks away, and my dad answered it. By the time we got home, there was no doubt in my mind I wanted to be a policeman.”

Ron Paul, now 31 and a patrol officer in Zone 2, was 9 years old, maybe less, when he began accompanying his father to work on weekends and school holidays. The boy sometimes went with his father to crime scenes. Sometimes the crime was murder.

It was not your typical father-​son bonding experience. But in talking about it with them, it was hard to discern which one liked it better. Dennis Logan, now the lead investigator for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, was a homicide detective when he started working for Freeman in 1988. It was Freeman who taught him the art of interrogation, and Logan became his prize pupil.

I learned from him to be patient, to keep the conversation going, to break down the barriers,” Logan said. “He would never ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do, and usually he was right there doing it with you. I remember thinking once that, if they had been paying him on an hourly basis, it would have come to about $2 an hour.

You know, bosses come and bosses go. Some are better than others. But he was more than a commander. He was an instructor. He taught everyone who was willing to be taught.”

Logan and his former partner, Rich McDonald, teach classes in interrogation now. “We’ve had detectives tell us that what we taught them enabled them to obtain a confession,” Logan said. “That’s a great feeling, and it all goes back to Commander Freeman.”

Working for Freeman was a privilege with a price — as Logan learned on his first Christmas in homicide. Working the holiday didn’t bother him. Murderers don’t all take Christmas off, so detectives don’t, either.

Then his wife called. Freeman happened to answer. After pleasant chit-​chat, Freeman asked her how she liked the earrings. There was a moment of silence before she asked what earrings he was referring to. “The ones he got you for Christmas,” Freeman chirped.

More silence.

Oh, my” the seemingly contrite commander said. “Did I spoil the surprise?” He summoned his rookie detective to the phone. Whereupon Logan learned what it was like to be on the wrong side of a hostile interrogation.

Freeman, in short, is a practical joker. Take, for example, the Curious Case of Balloons Over Pennsylvania.

They were helium balloons, left over from a detective’s birthday party. Waste not, want not, Freeman figured. He released more than a dozen of them, each with a note promising to pay the person who found it a $50 reward if they would notify a “Mr. O’Neill,” whose telephone number was included.

The number was for Lt. Leo O’Neill, who had the misfortune to occupy an office adjacent to Freeman’s.

I happened to be in my office when the first call came in,” Freeman said. “He had a booming voice, and I could hear every word he said.” The operative phrase being, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The final call came from near Harrisburg. “Mr. O’Neill,” the caller said, “I found your balloon, and it’s a godsend. I’m out of work, my little boy is very ill, and we sure can use that $50.”

O’Neill sent him a check. He grouses to this day that Freeman owes him $25.

Neither TV nor print reporters were immune. When Channel 11 made the miscalculation of assigning a rookie news woman to interview him, Freeman prepared by tying an assortment of fresh pears to a bonsai bush with sheer nylon thread and placing the bush on the cabinet behind him. Each of the fruits weighed almost as much as the plant itself, pot and all.

Do you mind if I ask what that is?” she inquired at interview’s end.

Not at all. That’s my miniature pear tree.”

I’ve never seen anything like it. Can you buy them in Pittsburgh?”

So he told her, quite truthfully, where he had bought the plant. He heard from her later that week, when she called to complain that the shopkeeper had stonewalled her, insisting he never had heard of, much less carried, the tree in question.

William Marimow, then a city hall reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now its executive editor, won a 1978 Pulitzer Prize for an investigation into the Inquisition-​style interrogation methods employed by that city’s homicide detectives. Marimow learned that the cops routinely used blackjacks, brass knuckles and lead pipes to bludgeon reticent suspects until they confessed.

Marimow suspected, but did not know for a certainty until years after his series was printed, that one or more of the cops used a Halloween costume as a disguise. Suspects were handcuffed to a steel table in a sound-​proof room. Moments later, a giant pink rabbit would enter and beat them with a rubber truncheon painted to look like a carrot.

When the case reached the courts, of course, defense counsel would attempt to have the confession suppressed on grounds of coercion, but who would believe an ex-​con or junkie who claimed that a big, pink bunny had put words in his mouth and a lump on his head?

Freeman used neither bunny costumes nor blackjacks. Empathy was his carrot, psychology his stick.

You don’t just sit down and ask them if they did it,” he said. “You say, ‘Tell me something about yourself.’ You ask them about their family and where they live. You watch their arm and head movements, the way they react to memories that are painful to them, like losing a parent. Then you bring up something pleasurable and watch how they react to that, so you get a baseline for that individual.

You spend 15 minutes to an hour just talking about them. You’re looking for weakness, but at the same time you’re showing an interest in them. One of my favorite questions was, ‘If you could have any job, what would it be?’ The most common answer was ‘truck driver.’ But if they said ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ or ‘teacher’ or something like that, I’d say, ‘You could do that. I know you have it in you.’

I’d say, ‘You could go to college and have a future to look forward to.’ I’d have books in the room, and I’d give them a book and say, ‘I want you to read this.’

As you’re talking to them, you’re gradually sliding your chair closer to them. When I could touch them, reach out and put a hand on their shoulder, I knew I had them.’’

This was his secret weapon: While he was doing the interview, he could find something to like (or at least to relate to) in even the worst of the worst, the most fiendish of murderers.

Clayton may be the best — or worst — example. Clayton had strangled a 5-​year-​old girl. “She fought him and fought him,” Freeman recalled. She bit his hands. She wouldn’t die.

He’d been convicted of molesting little girls seven times. We chit-​chatted about his life. He confessed to me, and after we did the paperwork that had to be done, I said, ‘Clayton, let’s talk about you. How did you get to this point in your life?’ He’d grown up in the projects in Philadelphia. He had no dad. Starting at age 7, he’d been molested numerous times by his older sister, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s 36-​year-​old sister. And I thought to myself, ‘If I’d grown up that way, I might have wound up like he did.’ When you talk to the monster, you see not only the monster but bits of humanity.”

For all the cases he cracked, for all the culprits he caught, for all the guilty secrets unearthed in his confessional, Freeman likely made his greatest contribution to law enforcement after he left it.

A three-​part 2007 series by veteran Post-​Gazette reporter Mike Fuoco chronicled a project undertaken by Duquesne University law and forensic science students. At the behest of their instructor, Freeman, they contacted Keith Jesperson, Oregon’s infamous Happy Face Killer. Jesperson had turned down requests for interviews with CBS and CNN, among others, but he eventually conducted two with the Duquesne students.

The following year, the genesis of that year’s class project was a question posed by a homicide detective still with the force: Why had modern forensic science, for all its advances, failed to find a way to recover DNA from spent bullet casings?

It wasn’t from lack of trying. Forensic scientists from the FBI crime lab at Quantico, Va., among many others, had tried — and failed. Freeman contacted that facility, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms lab, the U.S. Army crime lab, and metropolitan facilities in New York, Dallas-​Fort Worth, Miami, Los Angeles and New York City seeking answers. No one had any. Firing a bullet removes DNA from the cartridge, they said.

He approached Dr. Lisa Ludvico, a professor at Duquesne’s Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. She told him DNA burns at 207 degrees. So he called the labs back to ask how hot a cartridge gets when the bullet inside it is fired. They didn’t know, so he got his students involved.

The Internet gave no answers. But Freeman was not about to give up. He knew that the person who loaded the bullet into the gun was nearly always the same person who pulled the trigger. And shell casings were often recovered at the scene of the crime.

So he went to the police academy’s firearms section and got permission to have his students fire test rounds. He borrowed an instrument used by firefighters to determine the temperature of a burning building and whether their ladders can withstand the heat.

We knew that a state crime lab down in Virginia had fired 30 rounds and been unsuccessful,” Freeman said. “We fired over 1,000 rounds.” They put the thermometer in a vat of ice water, measured the temperature, then fired a bullet. They took the expended cartridge and immediately placed it in the vat of water. They controlled for 38 variables. They measured the change and determined that the act of firing a bullet heated the cartridge to anywhere from 106 to 109 degrees, depending upon the number of shots you fired in succession.

They placed the cartridges in sterile containers and returned to their lab to seek a method to recover the DNA. And with Professor Ludvico’s help, they found one.

They submitted the resulting research paper to the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, which accepted. They presented at the academy’s annual meeting in Denver. ATF agents approached them after the presentation and said the bureau intended to publish the work.

Why don’t you try this with explosive devices?” one of them asked.

So Freeman’s class now is in a joint venture with the city’s bomb squad, attempting to recover more DNA evidence where none existed before. If they find a solution, they will, of course, share it with the U.S. military for use in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It would be Freeman’s first contribution to battling international terrorism. Not that he wanted it to be the first.

I always wondered why they didn’t ask people like me and Dennis Logan for our advice on interrogating prisoners,” he said. “Cops are the people who do it for a living.”

Certain pairings of occupation and avocation are rarely found. Prizefighters rarely are ballet aficionados. Policemen are seldom accomplished artists. Freeman is an exception.

Years before he retired as head of Major Crimes, in January 2001, Freeman began taking wood sculpting classes from Joseph Stachura.

Stachura was an internationally admired artist,” said Pat Pristera, who was Freeman’s classmate until Stachura died. Pristera, the proprietor of a hairstyling salon in Squirrel Hill, inherited the mantle of teacher and, along with it, Stachura’s studio, a carriage house in Edgewood. “I wanted to share it with another artist who admired Stachura,” Pristera explained. So he and Freeman now work side by side, finding and liberating the beauty in branches and blocks of wood. “You have to get the judges out of your mind to be an artist,” Pristera said. “Ron and I are helping each other with that.”

Freeman also does beadwork and combines it with semi-​precious stones to make jewelry. But his crowning artistic achievement is a voluptuous, 18-​inch-​high statuette sculpted from South Carolina cedar and polished to a gleaming finish to accentuate the wood’s natural beauty. It is named for his sweetheart and muse, Evelyn Levine, a retired North Hills High School teacher. He calls it Evie Revealed.

Finally, a Rashomon tale that begins over lunch with Kim Stanley, a good friend of mine who happens to be a Pittsburgh policewoman. “What are you up to these days?” she inquired. I told her about this story. With a wry smile, she said, “The most embarrassing moment of my career involved Ron Freeman.”

She was working alone, driving a cruiser near the border of Squirrel Hill and Greenfield. “Dispatch asked me to check the well-​being of an elderly woman who lived close by. Neighbors were worried. They hadn’t seen her in more than a day.”

Another officer replied by radio. “I know her,” he said. “She was the target of a home invasion a few years ago. She testified, and the guy was convicted and sent away. He threatened to get even when he got out. I’m in the area, and I’ll back you up, just in case.”

They arrived almost simultaneously. They knocked, then tried the front and back doors. Both were locked. They asked the dispatcher whether the bosses wanted them to force their way inside. “Under the circumstances,” they were told, “Yes.”

They argued about who would enter and open the front door for the other. “You’re primary,” he said. “I’m just the backup.”

You’re the guy,” she replied. “I’m just a girl, and just in case she’s in there dead, I’m not going in first. I don’t do death.”

They settled the matter by playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. He lost and made his way in through a window. When he opened the door, he said, “This is not good.” She smelled a foul, almost overpowering stench.

A chair and end table were overturned. Dishes, a cup and silverware lay where they had fallen.

There’s a stain on the carpet,” he said. “It might be blood.”

No sign of the possible victim. They debated who would enter the bedroom first. Rock, Paper, Scissors again. Again she won.

He walked to the back of the house and pushed open the bedroom door, already ajar. He groaned and said again, “This isn’t good.” There on the carpet, motionless, lay the home’s occupant. Naked. They checked for signs of life but couldn’t find any. They called it in.

Back out of there right now,” they were instructed. “We’re treating it as a possible crime scene. Don’t touch anything. Commander Freeman lives very close by. Stand by; he’ll be there shortly.”

Excellent,” Stanley said to herself. “Three years on the job and I’m getting to work a case with the legendary Ron Freeman.”

He showed up in moments and began to examine the body. He grasped a shoulder and turned her slightly to look for a wound, since none was visible. Then the “corpse” shrieked, “What are you doing to me?”

His hair stood on end,” Stanley recalled.

Freeman remembered the incident.

You mean Irene (not her real name),” he said.

She had suffered a sudden, violent attack of gastritis, while eating dinner in the parlor, which accounted for the stench, the stain and the debris strewn on the floor. She had raced for the bathroom and almost made it in time, but not quite. She was naked because she had torn off her nightgown and tossed it into the toilet before she collapsed on the bedroom floor.

Officer Stanley should not be embarrassed,” Freeman said. “I thought she was dead, too, and I’d seen a lot more corpses than she had. But I’ll tell you something she didn’t tell you because she doesn’t know: “When Irene cried out, I told her who I was and said, “You’re going to be OK now. I’m going to get a blanket and cover you up, all right?’”

Irene, who was well into her eighties, raised a bony hand and tugged him closer. “Not just yet,” she whispered. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been naked in this room with a man.”

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