Frustration, puzzlement after acid attack ruled hoax

Woman admits Vancouver acid attack was self-inflicted

By John Branton and Laura McVicker

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Video

Acid hoax story press conference

The complete press conference of the Vancouver Police Department as they announce that Bethany Storro admitted to causing her own injuries in an alleged acid attack.

The complete press conference of the Vancouver Police Department as they announce that Bethany Storro admitted to causing her own injuries in an alleged acid attack.

Bethany Storro’s story about having acid thrown in her face was compelling — so shocking that it made news worldwide and touched people’s hearts, and even sparked an invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Except it was a lie, Vancouver police said Thursday.

Police say the 28-year-old woman who was found screaming in pain last month — and who staged a press conference at a hospital three nights later, with her burned face in bandages — fabricated her story that a black woman threw acid in her face.

Vancouver police detectives, after more than two weeks of methodically chasing down tips that totaled about 100, raided the Vancouver home where Storro is staying with her parents on Thursday morning and seized items of evidence.

“We presented her with some of the discrepancies that have come up in this investigation,” Detective Sgt. Scott Creager told news reporters Thursday afternoon.

Questioned later at the police west precinct office, Storro admitted her burns were self-inflicted, officials said.

“She is extremely upset,” said Cmdr. Marla Schuman. “She is very remorseful. In many ways this is something that just got bigger than what she expected.”

Schuman added: “It seems clear to everyone that we have a person here who is in a fragile mental state.”

And if Storro is upset, many others likely are, too:

• The Major Crimes Unit detectives, typically two to six on a given day, who spent hundreds of hours methodically chasing those leads when they could have been, say, catching a murderer.

• The well-meaning folks who raised so much money to help pay Storro’s medical bills.

• Vancouver’s African Americans, who are troubled that Storro described the woman who supposedly attacked her as black.

• City officials, who now know that the safety of Esther Short Park, near where Storro said she was attacked, was unfairly maligned.

• And even residents of the little-known city that made nationwide news, which soon flopped into a big “Never mind,” are a little peeved too.

“I want to assure the citizens of Vancouver that Esther Short Park and the surrounding area is a safe area of our community,” Police Chief Clifford Cook said Thursday.

Cook praised his detectives for their diligent work in cracking the case.

There’s also reason to be relieved, Creager told news crews.

“I’m glad that it did end this way, and there isn’t somebody out there perpetrating this kind of attack on citizens,” he said. “As tragic as this could be in many ways, there is a happy ending in some ways, too.”

Now that the police announcement wraps up part of the story, Storro’s troubles may be just beginning.

Deputy prosecutors are reviewing whether to file criminal charges such as false reporting, and sources say Storro also could face charges of felony theft by deception, because of the slew of money the community donated to cover her medical costs.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Vancouver Police Department officials said their investigation uncovered several discrepancies in Storro’s tale, and those led like falling dominos to Thursday’s search warrant at her parents’ home — and Storro’s confession that she lied.

For instance, investigators looked at the splash pattern of the acid, Schuman said. And the time of day when Storro said the attack happened, 7:15 p.m., raised the question of why she would be wearing sunglasses — something she said she rarely wore anyway — on the shady side of a building on Columbia Street.

“As we went along, it started to become more evident that there were problems with her story and that the dots were not connecting,” said Creager.

Police officials said the interviews with Storro are ongoing and declined to reveal her alleged motive. They couldn’t say where and when she threw the acid on her face.

Storro had claimed that on Aug. 30, a woman approached her on Columbia Street, just north of Esther Short Park, and said, “Hey, pretty girl, want something to drink?” When she declined, Storro said the woman hurled a cup of caustic liquid at her.

Police said Thursday that detectives found no witnesses who saw Storro being attacked, although some saw her after she was burned. Nor did they find any cup that could have been used in an attack at the scene.

“I have no reason to believe it didn’t happen where she said,” Schuman said. “It just didn’t happen in the way she said it happened.”

Police do not believe her parents knew from the outset the attack was faked. Schuman said Nancy and Joe Neuwelt, Storro’s parents, grew suspicious as the investigation dragged on.

“They’ve been fully cooperative with us today,” Schuman said.

In Thursday’s raid at the Neuwelt home, detectives said they did not find the substance that burned Storro’s face.

Police have not yet responded to The Columbian’s question about whether Storro had used cosmetic chemical face peeling substances, available on the Internet to treat skin irregularties, that might have caused her burns.

Asked if Storro had been dealing with a plastic surgeon, Schuman said she’d heard no reports of that.

Repeated phone calls to the Neuwelts went unreturned Thursday.

Review forthcoming

Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve said Thursday that once detectives finish their investigation, the report will be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for consideration of criminal charges.

“This event had a lot of public interest, and I think it’s appropriate that we review the investigation,” Fairgrieve said.

He said potential charges could include making a false or misleading statement to a police officer, a gross misdemeanor that’s punishable by a maximum of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Sources said other charges, including felony theft by deception, are possible.

Storro’s mental health will be taken into consideration, Fairgrieve said.

“I think we really need to see what the specific nature of the evidence is,” he said.

Fairgrieve, who has been prosecuting felony crimes in Clark County for 13 years, said stranger attacks are rare.

A stranger might steal your identity, steal your car or break into your house, he said.

But horribly disfigure you?

“It’s a safe thing to say that an assault with a caustic liquid, in my experience, is that it’s not going to be a stranger,” Fairgrieve said.

“It’s a pretty unusual type of crime to begin with, and that type of an assault against a stranger is even more rare. The (assaults) I’ve been familiar with are targeted,” he said.

Schuman said she has been aware of other cases involving self-inflicted injuries, adding, “It’s not unusual to have someone act out in this way.”

There was no timeline on when charges might be filed, although sources say the case could reach the prosecutor’s office by next week.

The case bled precious time from the thinly staffed police department.

“Between the detectives and the chief and (spokeswoman) Kim Kapp, it’s been hundreds of hours,” Schuman said. “It really took a toll on department resources.”

“It has had an impact on our community; it’s brought negative attention that’s undeserved,” said Cook. “It was a disturbing report to me.”

The Columbian was first to report that the incident was a hoax, an hour and 15 minutes before the police department announced it at a press conference. And one week ago, The Columbian ran a controversial story questioning if the attack could have been self-inflicted.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said the revelation is too fresh for him to judge whether the city should seek to recoup the cost of the investigation from Storro.

“If our legal department feels there is justification to recoup the costs incurred to the taxpayers because of this hoax, the legal department of the city will evaluate that and come back to the city manager and the city council with a recommendation,” he said.

Leavitt said he was not privy to the details of the investigation, but said he believed some aspects of Storro’s story didn’t add up to him.

“It’s an unfortunate incident for this young lady,” he said. “Clearly, there are some other issues at play here.”

Pat Guard of Columbia Litho made signs that went inside the Safeway in Washougal, where Storro worked.

They read, “Help one of our own. Donate at checkout or any Riverview Branch to help defray Bethany’s medical expenses.”

“We still have to have feelings for her,” Guard said. “There’s obviously something wrong. As a human race, we’ve got to have compassion for people that are hurting. She’s hurting, obviously.

“We just really need to pray for her. Those of us that have gotten involved and done what we should have done to help the situation, you really can’t look backward.”

At the same time, he said, “I’ve done a lot of charitable acts in my life, and this is the only one I can say I truly regret doing.”

On Sept. 10, people participated in a self-defense class at Anytime Fitness to raise money for Storro, a club member.

“We’re just saddened about what happened,” John Pax, one of the club’s owners, said Thursday. “And we want to make sure that hopefully she gets the help she needs and the family can have some privacy.”

Schuman said Thursday that detectives are in contact with banks that opened contribution accounts for Storro, to see how much was collected and how it could be returned to donors.

Bob Albrecht, Tom Vogt, Stephanie Rice and Mark Bowder of The Columbian contributed to this report.