Sunday, 11 September 2011

Faking It

Two fairly dated pieces of television sprang to mind recently when discussing the thread that linked them. One was the 'Superfakes' programme concerning Alessandro Zarelli, a man who blagged his way into a series of football clubs with fake documents from the Italian FA. The story goes as follows:- Zarelli was being placed on loan at a series of clubs in the Uk under a 'collaboration' scheme that was being managed at the player's end by his agent, Matteo Colobase (naturally, the 'representative' was able to verify every word of the scam since it was actually Zarelli himself).

One of the questions that stems from this programme concerns exactly why Lisburn Distillery and Bangor City, not exactly powers of European football but reputable clubs nonetheless, welcomed the self-styled next Roberto Baggio into their fold without first checking out the fine details of the narrative that had brought him there - after all, if Zarelli was this great talent that he made himself out to be then surely this level of football was wholly unsuitable for his development? As it was, Zarelli was 'unveiled' as the star who was going to single-handedly fire Distillery into Europe and managed an appearance on local television in Northern Ireland - he was sent packing after displaying all the talent of your average man in the street during a friendly against Finn Harps. Next stop was the League of Wales, where Bangor put the player up in the city's Regency Hotel while he recovered from the broken nose he had suffered before his arrival.

After running up a £700 hotel bill and blagging a few quid from one or two supporters, manager Peter Davenport becomes the first individual in the story to take the sensible step of verifying Zarelli's story. The ex-Manchester United forward is fortunate to have a friend at Sheffield Wednesday, the club to whom the player was apparently contracted. It was confirmed that Zarelli had never been on the books with the Owls - either with the first team or the club's academy. Thus began the rumbling of a serial football hoaxer, as Davenport tipped off the coaching staff at Connah's Quay when the Italian 'star' arrived there to start the process all over again. People began to talk and this prompted Sky to first explore and explain the story, then set Zarelli up on camera, under the guise of an agent wishing to meet him and thrash out a deal.

The 'showdown scene' if you will, where the player rattles off his story (interestingly enough, he misses out Distillery and Bangor City altogether), then is confronted on camera and 'fesses up, appears here:-

I was unable to trace this programme in order to view it again in its entirety - if anyone can (legally) pull this particular rabbit out of their box of tricks then this bunny would be most grateful. However, watching 'Crime Scene Conman' once again did not prove so elusive - this was the story of phoney forensic scientist and private investigator 'Doctor' Gene Morrison, who hailed from Hyde in Greater Manchester and was well-known as something of a character in the area by his real name of Rocky. It appears that Morrison started out at the tail end of the 1970s, making himself available for hire as a private eye, then moving into the area of forensic sciences, inspired in part by television programmes on the subject, then the much later phenomenon of Crime Scene Investigation (CSI).

Like the all-singing, all-dancing experts of American television, Morrison set himself up as a one-man band qualified to carry out any given task in the multitude of specialist areas that fall under the umbrella of Forensic Investigation. His 'Criminal and Forensic Investigations Bureau' carried the moniker 'the Fifth Emergency Service' (which undeniably beats the hell out of 'Conventional Wisdom is No Wisdom'). If this one-stop shop actually existed, where facial mapping, handwriting examination, lie detector tests, and work with DNA could be carried out under one roof, then such a tag would probably be justified. In reality, Morrison started out quite legally by outsourcing what gainful employment came his way from the courts to trained professionals (then passing the work off as his own, which may be another issue entirely).

However, he then 'crossed the line', to quote one of the programme's key contributors, making himself available as an expert witness in court and single-handedly carrying out 'forensic work'. A 'poison pen letter' case proves to be the start of his undoing, as his lousy and unfounded 'evidence' was shredded in court by the qualified expert opposing him. One of the issues that comes out of this documentary is the way in which the adversarial system enables the likes of Morrison to thrive by telling their clients precisely what they wish to hear. He had concluded by comparing hate mail to a sample of handwriting from the victim's husband that the same individual had been responsible for both. There was clearly no scientific basis upon which such a conclusion could be reached, but hey, it was what one side was waiting to be told, so any 'expert' prepared to say as much in court, even a bogus and unqualified one, immediately becomes of immense value in an adversarial setting.

Eventually the net starts to close in on a man who had gone undetected in the legal system for over two decades, giving 'evidence' in over 700 cases during this period. Morrison's qualifications were either figments of his imagination or degrees downloaded from online universities of Dudsville. His knowledge of subjects in which he claimed to be an expert was no greater than that of a man in the street with a passing interest in any of them. Indeed, the attainment of sufficient expertise to master each of the detailed areas in which Morrison had offered his services would itself take more than a single lifetime. At his own trial, the 'doctor' caused great hilarity in attempting to convince the court of his 'talents' before being sent down for five years for perjury, perverting the course of justice and obtaining money by deception.

Another, altogether darker side of the 'scientist', involving a fondness for underage girls, came to light some three years later, for which he is currently serving a minimum of seven and a half years -

Leaving that (albeit serious, but separate business) aside, what is one to make of Morrison and his phoney forays into the arts of forensic investigation, or Zarelli's web of deceit that played on the greed of clubs looking for the next rough diamond? Is this unrefined delusion, Walter Mitty sydrome at work to devastating effect, or something more simple and sinister? I ask these questions because like many, this bunny is fascinated by such characters, the fictitious narratives that they memorise and repeat to the point where they become plausible, and the very real stories that develop as a result of someone, somewhere falling for the scam.

Clubs for whom Zarelli signed invariably experienced the 'bounce' and feelgood factor that comes with the recruitment of a player who will massively improve the team, at least until the truth emerged. Morrison gained experience in the legal system and credibility as a witness by hiring in outside expertise, before 'going solo' so to speak. Both men played on the confidence and faith of others, misplaced or otherwise, in their pursuit of a personal dream - that of being a 'somebody', an individual worth taking seriously, with the doors that opened as a result, be they occupational, financial or social.

On one level, this is totally understandable - very few people are truly content being a nobody and yet this, at least in the everyday and occupational sense, is precisely what most us are, this bunny included. A great many of us reflect on occasion that, to coin a phrase, "I could have been a contender", that we perhaps didn't get the breaks or opportunities that our talents merited - of course such claims tend to hold wildly varying degrees of validity. Something that I can remember vividly from my younger and more stupid days was an inability to acknowledge that there were some things I just wasn't very good at. Like Zarelli, I could never play football to any serious level, although admitting to oneself that they are pretty useless at something they enjoy doing can be quite difficult.

Perhaps the gap in Alessandro's head between perception and reality was just that bit wider than that of someone who might be seen as 'a bit of a dreamer' by conventional standard?. Did he believe that once he had blagged his way into a football club somewhere that a hitherto undiscovered talent would unleash itself on defences unable to cope with his ball-playing skill and prowess in front of goal? In the same fashion, was Morrison merely seeking to illustrate that a series of qualifications achieved by years of studying were not the only basis on which someone could become an expert?

After all, as I'm sure many of you will have done, this bunny has encountered individuals who have possessed an encyclopedic knowledge, sometimes practical and in other cases by intensive reading, of a given subject without ever gaining a recognised qualification in that area - this does not necessarily make them an 'expert' in the field, but they could certainly be said to 'know their stuff' to the point where you might push your intrigue or curiosity on that subject in their direction. By all accounts, Morrison was an avid watcher of detective shows and collected CSI box sets for fun - maybe he genuinely believed that a few fake certificates and the use of genuine expertise as his own represented a means by which he could 'get his foot in the door' before going to work with his own craft?

From a 'faith in humanity' point of view, I'd love to believe it was this simple - but it clearly isn't when one looks at what actually took place. Flashing lights must have appeared that signalled the unsuitability of both men for their chosen occupation - Zarelli actually appeared for Distillery's reserve team and was painfully out of his depth, while the manner in which Morrison's evidence in the poison pen case was utterly shredded hinted at his clear ineptitude. In summing up, the judge stated that the 'expert' had "been discredited not only by the greater expertise of the witness called by the defence, but by common sense". Yet the fake footballer and the phoney scientist continued to tout themselves for work, suggesting that these were not cases of men who truly believed they could do the business, if only they were given the opportunity.

Interestingly, having read a few forum threads on Zarelli, it appears that there are many people out there quite willing to overlook the episodes of petty theft and fraud, while extending a sense of genuine admiration for a man who 'lived out his dream'. If it really was that straightforward, then one must think about those supporters in particular, whose hopes were raised by the prospect of an exciting new signing, and in some cases were tapped for money that would never be returned to them. Though the clubs themselves operate at a level where word of mouth is an accepted part of signing players, and trialists can just turn up for a training session to see how they get on, a story as far-fetched as that spun by Zarelli should of course have been thoroughly checked out before a single photograph was taken for the press, or hotel room booked in his name. One of the characteristics of such a scam is the fact that it plays on greed - so it can be difficult to feel too much sympathy for those taken in.

Morrison played on something else - the dynamics of an adversarial legal system that gives undue credibility to 'experts' who are able to deliver judgements with certainty. Such testimony is naturally more likely to sway the decision of a jury than that of a truthful and bona fide scientist who, in practising due care, may express a degree of doubt in his findings. One can imagine the fallout of a phoney who played a leading role in hundreds of cases, frequently delivering 'expert' interpretation and anlysis of evidence which the general population has been led to believe as fool-proof. £250,000 of legal aid found its way into the Criminal and Forensic Investigation Bureau over two decades, along with the monies of numerous private citizens who paid for the benefit of his dubious work.

Anyone familiar with the work of 'Professor' Roy Meadow will also understand its consequences - multiple miscarriages of justice, with lengthy jail terms for innocent people usually the end result. How many people have wound up inside for crimes they did not commit, because Morrison either presented believable testimony for the prosecution, or a discredited one while working on behalf of the defence? That he is a walking, bullshitting reason why reform of the adversarial system is needed is probably for another day, but while you may feel some form of admiration for such individuals and the 'dreams' they 'live out', this bunny finds it impossible to upon weighing up the bigger picture.

One of the optimistic strands of thinking that this bunny has not (yet) had knocked out of him is a firm belief that 'we are all good at something'. There are no young 'no-hopers' and nor is anyone utterly talentless (perhaps I continue to believe this solely for my own benefit, who knows?). Both Alessandro Zarelli and Gene Morrison are no doubt excellent in one area of life or another, although the sad fact may be that conning, blagging and deceiving people is in fact their niche or area of expertise, so to speak? I sincerely hope I'm wrong, and that the man upstairs does not bestow such 'talents' upon mankind. Take care and I'll catch you soon.

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