The Strange Life Of An 'Unsolved Mysteries' Phone Operator
Long before half of the world's podcasts and basic cable channels were devoted to true crime and UFOs, there was Unsolved Mysteries. Hosted by professional creepy monotone guy Robert Stack, with each episode introduced by a skin-crawling theme, it was a weekly reminder that there are a lot of unknowns out there, along with a bunch of murderers who were never caught and could be standing behind you right this second.
From 1987 until 2002, Stack would flash a phone number on the screen, inviting viewers to call in with any tips about that night's brutal double murder and/or Sasquatch. If you're wondering what it was like to have to answer the thousands of calls that poured in, well, here's some good news: We talked to Delilah, who worked as a phone operator for the show.
An Anonymous Tip About A UFO Turned Out To Be Totally Real
In any given episode, the title of Unsolved Mysteries could refer to a dangerous sex offender who was still at large or a giant bat-monster which the citizens of one small town believed might be an alien. So when they'd flash the phone number on screen to solicit tips, a very large number of calls were from bored trolls or conspiracy nuts. And Delilah would have to patiently listen to them all.
She would get the callers insisting they knew who was really behind the Oklahoma City bombing, or asking for a segment on the conspiracy behind water fluoridation. UFO callers were the strangest (in a very competitive field), but still, it was her job to listen. When one call came in about Kecksburg (a famous UFO crash in Pennsylvania) ...
"At first, it sounded convincing. He was from around there as a kid, and had been told by a passing soldier that it was a secret satellite that fell. It seemed legit, and I began taking the info down. But he slowly began adding a detail here and there. About the certain project it might have been. About what it was there for. About mysterious happenings. When my supervisor came around, I was writing about how it was a program to destroy aliens. He said, 'Why are you writing this down?' [The caller] had so slowly built up to it I didn't notice."
But then in 2002, they did an episode about the Phoenix UFOs. Among all of the many calls declaring it the beginning of an alien invasion, Delilah got one from a guy claiming, in a rather convincing way, that it was a secret military project.
"I thought, 'Here we go,' but he introduced himself as someone from the military and explained that they were flares dropped during an exercise ... and told us to look into what the Maryland Air National Guard was up to that night."
It turned out that he was telling the truth. The mysterious lights were flares attached to balloons.
"It turns out it was an amazing tip, because it completely debunked the UFO, but we couldn't use it." Because the military had made no announcement to that effect, that caller got lumped in with the cranks. That's an example of the kind of signal-to-noise ratio you get with a show like this. But we should be clear: When it came to the actual criminals, they were way more effective than you'd think. Unsolved Mysteries tips caught about half the featured criminals, plus reunited over 100 families and released seven people who were falsely imprisoned. Though even they couldn't keep up with America's Most Wanted, which helped catch over 1,000 criminals during its run.
Ah, reality TV. You once had such promise for positive social change.
Creepy Episodes Meant A Flood Of Calls From Terrified Viewers
While the phone lines were there to take tips about real cases, lots of times, it was just viewers who needed someone to talk to. This meant that operators like Delilah had to field calls from freaked-out viewers after the Mothman episode, worried that they would get mothed to death by a monster with a 15-foot wingspan and glowing red eyes. "We needed to comfort them about it. They literally had no one else they could call about this."
It was just as much a problem with the real cases, such as one in which police suspected the KKK was behind the crime. "I got a call from a five-year-old boy, who was white, who was now deathly afraid of them. He watched the show without his parents, and I had to talk him through what I could ... He couldn't grasp the complex world of race relations and hate groups, and I couldn't say, 'You're probably fine because you're white.'"
Segments about ghost stories would draw tearful calls from viewers who'd recently lost someone. As we've mentioned before, if you operate a public phone line, you're going to become a part-time therapist. People need to pour their hearts out without repercussion in a culture that rarely gives them a chance. Other callers, though, exorcised their demons in a different way ...
Some Of The Calls Were Creepier Than The Episodes
Delilah said she never got used to the guys who'd just call and breathe heavily into the phone for 20 seconds before hanging up. Then there were the creeps who'd try to take it further.
Delilah recalls an unlucky operator who seemed to always get the threatening calls, and had to learn how to deal with them. "The first few times she was justifiably scared, but after a few years ... if they said they were in her home, she'd ask, 'Can you turn off my stove?'"
For Delilah, the call that kept her up at night came from an older caller after a segment on the Robert Kennedy assassination. He claimed to have seen a second shooter. "He kept repeating, 'I could have stopped him. I could have stopped him ...' There was this pain and anguish in his voice that sounded authentic enough that I thought it was worth a few questions. But then I heard sobbing and a hang-up."
That would have been weird, enough, but ...
"My supervisor said to call back. The woman who answered said that a man didn't live there, and sounded pretty surprised. It may have been a prank call, or maybe he had a mental illness she was covering. But it sounded so real, up there with every legitimate tip I got. I still think about that call, because even though in my heart I know it's probably not real, that voice and how he just disappeared afterwards, it can keep you up at night."
Then there were the calls that would go to a dark place out of nowhere:
"Some guy once tried to get me to tell the producers that someone had been stealing his newspaper and magazines for three years, and that we needed an episode focusing on that. When I explained the type of things we focus on, he asked if a major crime of some sort would help it go on the show ... He actually asked if committing a bigger crime could get the case on TV."
Remember, these operators didn't have background in law enforcement or emergency dispatch. At best, they maybe had some call center experience. As Delilah says, "It's quite a jump from reserving camera lens rentals to needing to record details about a person witnessing a dead person being hastily buried."
The Prank Calls Stop Being Funny When They're Interfering With A Real Investigation
Delilah estimates that only about 10 percent of calls had some sort of semblance of validity. Since there's no way the cops could handle the sheer volume, the operators had to screen them. They'd be given details about the crime that weren't part of the broadcast, things a genuine witness would know. Still, some of the callers were very persistent.
"I had a woman who swore that her neighbor was a murderer ... For this guy, we needed to ask, 'Does he sound American?'" The suspect the cops were looking for had an accent, but that hadn't been mentioned in the show. "She said, 'Yes!' and when I told her the suspect had another accent, she spent about ten minutes trying to convince me that I was wrong, and that we should really arrest [the neighbor]. She made such a big deal about it that the police did follow up (mostly because not many tips were coming in), and it turned out he was a quiet guy who didn't really get out of his apartment much."
Most frustrating were the pranksters who'd choke the lines that, let us remind you, were there to stop real killers before they killed again. It's easy to roll your eyes at the UFO stuff, but police were using the show to jump-start cold cases.
"You wouldn't believe how many 'Bill Clinton killed Chandra Levy' calls we got. Some gave a Ghostface voice and said, 'I'm the killer.'" Some even did their homework to sell the prank, including digging up those details they knew were used to weed out the fakes, purely to lead cops on a wild goose chase.
You also have to consider how quickly police have to move on genuine tips. Remember, the bad guys have televisions too, as do their friends. There was a ticking clock before they'd take off again. A fake tip that the cops actually followed up could mean a delay in following up with the real one -- a delay long enough for the bad guy to change his appearance and take off to another city.
"There was at least one segment, which was trying to reunite a long-lost family member, where the family member tried to call for a few days but never got through because we had a higher than usual volume of prank tips." It really is hard to overstate the corrosive effects of boredom on the human brain.
Robert Stack Cared About The Real Crimes, And Was Often Annoyed By The Ghost Stuff
Robert Stack would come by the call center on certain days (they shot update segments there, with the operators in the background). Delilah said he'd get "giddy" over narrating updates about how a killer was caught (an AMA with the shows creators corroborates this), but was often annoyed by the UFO and ghost segments, with Stack even interrupting filming sometimes with a "Come on!"
The problem with getting invested in the real stories is that, well, they were real. That meant there were no guaranteed happy endings.
"During one episode, [a story] was updated with new details, including a gruesome murder. It was pretty senseless, and it happened near a place where one of [Stack's] kids lived. We didn't know that until a few other operators got concerned at how he looked, and one of the crew told us. It was after that episode finished filming and we got out to our cars that we saw Stack sitting in his car looking out at the road. He wasn't sleeping, he was just staring, like he was in thought. I asked a few others if we should say anything, but we were all a little afraid to approach him, so we left."
They actually weren't supposed to talk to Stack (Delilah says he was a little "distant"), but one day, she was on the phone explaining to her son that she couldn't pick him up because work was running late:
"Mr. Stack overheard this, picked up the phone, and asked, 'What's your son's name?' I told him 'Chris,' and he went into his Unsolved Mysteries voice and said, 'Chris, your mother cannot come and get you. Eyewitnesses say that she will need to be here until approximately 11 tonight. But one thing is for certain: She may help us solve a mystery tonight on Unsolved Mysteries,' and gave me back the phone."
Yeah, we should remind everyone this is also the guy who deadpanned his way through Airplane!:
Evan V. Symon is a writer, interview finder and journalist for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see up here? Then hit us up in the forums.
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