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A True Story

In 1980 I had a talented student at the University of Washington. Let's call him Neville. He miserably failed one of my classes, and came to me with a great sob story.

"I'm really sorry," he said almost crying. "I flunked your class because I was just too emotionally troubled to study. Please give me another chance. I'll do better. Honestly."

I asked the obvious question as compassionately as I could. "I'm so sorry Neville. Could you tell me why you are emotionally troubled?"

"Well," he said sniffing. "It's because the Russians invaded Afghanistan."

Well, so far so good. The Soviet War in Afghanistan was a nine-year conflict of the Afghans with the invading Soviet Union. (For details, see Sylvester Stalone in Rambo III.)

I waited for elaboration from Neville why this made him emotionally troubled. None came. Neville just sobbed. He knew I had to ask.

"How does this make you emotionally troubled?"

"Well," he said wiping his drippy nose. "President Carter canceled America's participation in the Olympics."

This was also true. The Olympics in 1980 were held in Moscow and the US led a boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion. Jimmy Carter, in one of the most aggressive moves of his presidency, said he would now not let his children come out and play with the Russians.

"And," Neville continued in a broken voice, "I've been working out my whole life to participate in the Olympics."

Wow, I thought. This was just too crazy to be made up. The guy was really telling the truth. His demeanor and sincerely were obvious. I had no choice. I told Neville I would give him an incomplete and he could take my class over next year. Whatever grade he got then would be used to replace his incomplete.

"Couldn't you jest give me a D?"

I said no. I had a policy to never give a grade that wasn't earned. Neville's performance in class was just to miserable to warrant that.

So Neville thanked me, shook my hand, and left. I heard his sobbing fade as he walked down the hall.

Chapter 2 of the story begins a year later. Neville had retaken the course and had, again, miserably failed again. He came to my office to talk. It was a carbon copy of his performance the previous year. Could it be the Russians again?

Neville came to office with a long sad fate.

"My little brother was murdered!" he spurted out. "He was a victim tem of the Atlanta serial killer. How can I study when my little brother has been savagely killed?"

The Atlanta Child Killer was, indeed, in the news. He killed mostly young children. He had 29 notches before he was finally caught. [Here is Winkled's account.] Wayne Bertrand Williams was arrested on May 22, 1981, and later convicted of the murders. But this was March and the murderer was still at large.

What should I do? Taking a class a third time was a stretch. Besides, something didn't seem right. This was too much to happen to one man. But what if he was telling the truth?

I told Neville I was really sorry his brother was murdered and I would give him extra consideration. But I would need some sort of proof. Some sort of documentation. This was way before the internet. Today I would Google the news and find out the truth at the speed of the web. CNN was just launched in 1980, so all we had was the three broadcast news networks and newspapers. But I still required proof from Neville. We were learning from our new president, Ronald Reagan, to "trust but verify."

The next day a photo copy of the front page of the Atlanta Constitution was slipped under my office door. Wow. The latest 9 year old victim of the Atlanta killer had the same last as Neville's. This was to much to be a coincidence. Neville was telling the truth! Who would have guessed?

Here is a scan of the front page.

I shared the story with my colleagues one of whom asked to see the paper. Rubens Sigelmann came to my office after examining the photocopy closely.

"Look real close at the article," he said. He pointed to a passage. I've blown it up from the image above. It still shows lines drawn on the copy by Rubens.

"If you look closely," he said, "you can see there is some misalignment and the spacings aren't regular."

Wow. Had Neville cut and pasted the article before xeroxing it?

There was only one way to find out. I called the Atlanta Constitution and purchased a copy of the paper. Here is a copy of the original front page.

Here is a blow up of the passage of interest.

The names were completely different. Wow. Neville had cut and taped the name changes. And he did so well. Neville was a talented cheat.

I reported the matter and would like to tell you Neville was kicked out of school. But I can't. He was propped up by affirmative action and eventually graduated.