Warren D. Holmes, 1927-2013

Warren D. Holmes, polygraph expert on famous cases, dies

 
 
Warren Holmes
Warren Holmes

ebrecher@miamiherald.com

For nearly 60 years, Warren Holmes sought the truth with a Keeler Polygraph machine, a beat cop’s street smarts, and intuition that bordered on the clairvoyant.

Police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and reporters knew that when the former Miami Police detective, who became founding president of the Florida Polygraph Association, said someone was lying, that person was lying.

Longtime friend John Tiffany, a former corporate security expert, said that Holmes was a pioneer in modern polygraphy who conducted 70,377 examinations as a private practitioner, and “thousands’’ for the police department.

“His whole focus was on trying to understand human nature as it related to lying,’’ Tiffany said.

Holmes’ findings in some of the country’s most sensational murder cases helped free wrongly-convicted men who’d spent years behind bars.

He and the late Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller proved that Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts, two black men sent to Florida’s Death Row for the 1963 murder of two whites, were innocent, despite confessions that police beat out of them.

Miller won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for reporting on the case, which persuaded then-Gov. Reubin Askew to pardon the men.

An expert in exposing false confessions, Holmes relied on his instincts as much as on his device.

Miami criminal defense lawyer Willian Tunkey, a former prosecutor, said Holmes used two tests: the machine and “the ‘Warren test.’ If you don’t pass the ‘Warren test,’ I don’t care what the machine says, he’s not going to call you as truthful.

“I can’t even tell you how many times he exonerated people because of his opinion alone, and many more times he confirmed my suspicion that a client wasn’t telling me the truth...I must have taken 100 people to him, and I can’t think of a single one where he was wrong,’’ Tunkey recalled.

Warren DeWitt Holmes, who lived and worked in a frozen-in-time Little Havana duplex — where he banged out reports with one finger on a 20-year-old word processor — died of congestive heart failure Thursday at Metropolitan Hospital of Miami. Born in St. Petersburg on Oct. 30, 1927, he was 85.

Daughter Debra Holmes, of Atlanta, said he fell April 15, which weakened his already damaged heart. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

She said her dad spent the winters of his youth in Hallandale Beach, where his parents ran a seasonal hotel. They ran another in New York during the summers. He left the University of Miami a couple of credits short of a bachelor’s degree, despite having led the UM debate team to a national championship.

He never retired, and was about to send off a report in the case of 65-year-old candy heiress Helen Brach, who disappeared in 1977 and was declared dead in 1984.

No one was convicted of her murder, but in the mid-1990s, a younger love interest, Richard Bailey, was sentenced to 30 years for conspiring to kill her.

After questioning Bailey, Holmes told his daughter: “They’ve got the wrong man in jail.’’

Holmes, a giant of a man who stood 6-foot-5 in his prime, carried his 1950s-era police revolver in his pants pocket, drove a rust bucket 1983 Lincoln Continental, and recently asked his daughter: “What the hell is a debit card?’’

But he never scrimped on fine cigars or custom golf clubs, and was part of a regular foursome at Granada Golf Club in Coral Gables.

He said that instead of a funeral, he wanted friends to gather at Burger Bob’s, the course-side lunch joint, for what his daughter called “an Irish wake.’’

That will happen later this spring, she said.

Holmes joined the Miami Police Department as a beat cop in 1951.

“I befriended the whores and pimps and they became my informants,’’ he told his daughter, who recorded his memories. “I got a reputation for having information for the detectives and for solving crimes. As a result, Chief [Walter] Headley asked me to become the [department’s] first polygraph examiner. I didn’t have any formal training, so I practiced using the polygraph on my wife...then I was sent to the Keeler Polygraph Institute.’’

Six years later, he took over the new Lie Detection Bureau. He started his own agency after leaving the department in 1963, but frequently tested suspects for former colleagues.

“The phone would ring at midnight and police showed up at the door with a guy in handcuffs,’’ Debra Holmes recalled.

As teenagers, she and her brother Steve, who died of melanoma in 2006, knew better than to lie to their dad.

“I never even tried, because there was no point,’’ she said. “Neither one of us tried to pull anything.’’

Holmes was a past-president of the Academy for Scientific Interrogation, which became the American Polygraph Association. He conducted background and pre-employment checks for law enforcement agencies and corporations, lectured worldwide on polygraph techniques, and authored the book Criminal Interrogation: A Modern Format for Interrogating Criminal Suspects Based on the Intellectual Approach, in 2002.

Holmes helped train FBI and CIA personnel. He tested figures in the President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King assassination cases, and the Watergate scandal, including crooked financier Robert Vesco.

He was special consultant to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Assassinations, caught Philadelphia’s scandal-plagued Mayor Frank Rizzo lying in the 1970s, and in 1968, cleared Dade County State Attorney Richard E. Gerstein of corruption allegations.

And he saved Freddie Pitts’ and Wilbert Lee’s lives.

Holmes was “a brilliant man,’’ said Lee. “He stood for the right thing, and not only because he helped me, but others. He didn’t take no foolishness or play no games. I liked that.’’

Pitts said Holmes “broke everything open’’ in the case after testing him and getting the real killer to confess.

“The first time we met, in prison, he came to interview us, I was kind of in wonderment of what it was all about,’’ recalled Pitts, a Miami shuttle-bus driver. “He really didn’t say exactly what it was that he was looking for. He had the general investigative mentality of police officers...He wasn’t revealing anything until he got the results and was convinced I was telling the truth.’’

Holmes then brought Miller into the case. They’d worked together on a previous case, which won Miller his first Pulitzer in 1967.

As Holmes described that case: “The mayor’s secretary was murdered. Emmitt Spencer made 47 confessions of murder and was duping the police department. He said his girlfriend had killed two [people] in New Orleans to get even with her. I went to Louisiana to test Mary Catherine Hampton and found she was innocent.

“F. Lee Bailey and Gene Miller worked together to get her out of prison.’’

When awarded the prize, Miller said: “My good fortune is directly attributable to my partner, Warren D. Holmes, an honest man.’’

Phillip A. Hubbard, Pitts’ and Lee’s public defender, recalled Holmes telling him that Curtis Adams confessed to actually committing the murders.

“I was just stunned,” Hubbard recalled. “I knew these guys were not treated right but it was really shocking that someone else did it. Warren got permission from the local judge and the sheriff to see Adams, and it was the most dramatic confession I’ve ever heard.’’

Holmes “got very little money — if any — for these efforts,’’ said Hubbart, to whom Holmes gave his Pitts/Lee files.

Recently, Holmes worked pro bono to exonerate one of the “West Memphis Three,’’ Jessie Misskelley Jr. He and friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were convicted as teenagers in the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark.

Misskelley got life plus two 20-year sentences. Holmes’ worked help free them in 2011.

Holmes believed that if an examiner stayed with it long enough, “he becomes a master at determining guilt or innocence...After 56 years of giving polygraph examinations, I believe I became the lie detector.’’

Holmes had been married since 1950 to Gloria Gjertsen Holmes, now of Conyers, Ga. Long separated, they remained close. Holmes’ sister, Virginia Sobek, of Conyers, also survives.

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