No pressure here. Plugged into a live polygraph, Don Hennick listens to questions whose wrong answers could merely mean the end of his career, livelihood, and freedom.

"On July 31, 1997," says polygraphist Terry Ball, watching an impulse chart scroll from the lie-detecting machine in his Edmonds office last September, "did you steal that lady's purse at the Pike Place Market?"

"No," Hennick, a Seattle sculptor, says softly. Ball checks the body language: Hennick is pleasant, cooperative. No squirming, no telltale physical or emotional reactions.

"Are you the man who stole that lady's purse at the Pike Place Market on July 31, 1997?" he asks again.

"No," Hennick repeats.

Later that day, Ball would type up a letter that said: "Based upon a numerical evaluation of the polygrams produced, it is the opinion of this examiner that [Hennick] was not attempting deception to these questions."

At last, Hennick thought, it's over. Two months earlier, the respected 43-year-old artist had been arrested for snatching a woman's purse, which he denied. Hennick had just installed his latest artwork in the King County Elections Office, when he arrived for lunch in the Market. He was in the grungy attire he usually wears when he installs his eclectic metalworks, which adorn the Miller Community Center, Trattoria Mitchelli, and the Federal Reserve Building. He had a $4,000 check for the elections-office sculpture waiting for him.

Hennick reported he was buying a burrito when he heard a commotion—a woman yelling something about a stolen purse, " . . . stop him!" A white man in his thirties, wearing all black, darted past carrying a purse, he said. It apparently was the purse, containing $1,500 in cash and checks, that had just been stolen from a tourist off the floor at the nearby First Class Chili restaurant. Hennick, also white, said he instinctively gave chase, up First Avenue. The fleet-footed thief swerved down into the Market, then back up another street, said Hennick. The sculptor eventually ran of steam, he said, and watched the thief disappear into the distance.

That's when he noticed, Hennick said, he'd lost his sunglasses during the chase. He went to a Market info kiosk and explained what happened, he said. He left his business card and was directed to the Market security office. He repeated his story there and left another card. Minutes later, after he'd gotten a burrito and was strolling to his car, a Market security officer spotted Hennick and asked him if he'd lost something. His sunglasses, Hennick said. He was escorted to the security office. Seattle police arrived.

Within minutes, Hennick was arrested.

The purse-snatch victim had fingered him as the thief. She had followed the suspect, then found Hennick's glasses. The victim's sister, also identified Hennick.

Hennick protested. Someone's mistaken —he was running after the real criminal. Why would he steal a purse then immediately return to the crime scene, go to the security office, leave his business card? He even allowed police to search him and his car. They weren't convinced—he'd been identified—and they clamped on the cuffs. Hennick was booked on suspicion of felony purse snatch, and spent two nights in jail. When no charges were filed, he was released.

But now, five months later as police continued to press for an indictment, he had voluntarily taken and passed the polygraph test. He was still confused as to why the victim accused him. Maybe, he'd say later, "she really, really wanted to nail somebody, and . . . she saw me running away."

Police and prosecutors mulled over Hennick's lie-detector test results. Sorry, inconclusive. Ball, though a certified, independent examiner with all the necessary credentials, including membership in the American Association of Police Polygraphists, was hired by Hennick's attorney. Prosecutors said that compromised the tests.

Hennick readily agreed to take another exam—this time administered by their polygraph expert.

In December, he was wired up at police headquarters. Detective Walt Maning, a certified polygraphist and old hand at detecting liars, did the questioning.

"Did you take the purse from the floor of the First Class Chili restaurant?"

"No," Hennick said.

"On July 31, 1997, did you take the purse from the floor of the First Class Chili restaurant?"

"No," Hennick said again.

The questions were almost identical to the first tests. So were the answers. So was Maning's conclusion. "I ran three charts," Maning says in his report, "and in evaluating the charts after the exam, it is my opinion that Hennick is being truthful in his answers." The detector seemed to have done its intended job—cleared an innocent man.

Then, on Wednesday, August 19, Don Hennick was charged in King County District Court with perpetrating the crime that a police detective eight months earlier said, in essence, he didn't do. The decision came just weeks after Hennick's attorney wrote King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, asking for resolution of the investigation. Prosecutors now claimed Hennick had admitted that he'd taken the purse and handed it off to an accomplice. Hennick denies that, and his attorney, Brady Johnson, says that allegation was added to a police report six months after the theft. Hennick's actions—seeking his glasses and leaving his business card—in the prosecutors' view were merely a thief's bravado charade. In their scenario, the well-known Hennick didn't just leave the county building and drive to the Market for lunch, he was there as half of a pre-arranged two-man, grab-and-pass purse-theft scheme. An artist, indeed.

Both Maning and West Precinct burglary Detective Bob Gilson, who ordered the polygraph, say they can't comment due to department policy regarding charged cases. Thus neither could explain why the case went forward after Hennick aced a test "to determine whether or not Mr. Hennick took a woman's purse from the floor of a restaurant on 07-31-97."

Ball, the private polygraphist, was "surprised" by the indictment, particularly in light of the successful police test. "It's not uncommon for prosecutors to reject the results of a private test," he says, "but it's unusual for them to ignore the results of their own police tests. If they're not going to accept them, then why give them?"

Though heavily relied upon by investigators, lie-detector test results usually are not admissible in court due to lack of absolute credibility. Prosecutors are relying mainly on eyewitnesses in this case, even though such witnesses, especially in blink-of-the-eye crimes, have often been shown to be unreliable. Prosecutors dismiss contentions by Hennick's friends, supporters, and employers that he lacked the need or the mind set to commit the crime.

Facing three months in jail, Hennick has pleaded not guilty to the charge and faces a trial. His attorney says his client refuses to plea-bargain. Hennick stands by the authorities' lie-detector test—even though they don't.

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