After San Bernardino attack, third shooter claims are just ‘human nature’ – Los Angeles Times

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Moments after armed assailants stormed the Inland Regional Center, a San Bernardino police officer broadcast an urgent message.

“We have two witnesses who watched the whole thing start,” the officer said. “They said there are three shooters with rifles without a doubt. They said definitely three.”

Hours later, police Chief Jarrod Burguan repeated the number during a news conference that was broadcast nationwide, telling reporters that there may have been as many as three shooters involved in the Dec. 2 attack.

In the months since, FBI and police say they have found no evidence that the attack was carried out by anyone other than Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.

But the early reports of a possible third shooter — a source of worry for first-responders racing to the scene — continue to bedevil authorities.

A handful of victims interviewed by police still maintain they saw a third attacker. The father of one victim raised the possibility this week while weighing in on the legal dispute over investigators’ attempts to gain access to Farook’s work iPhone. And Burguan said residents still ask him about an additional assailant when he attends public forums.

“The questions about this third shooter have persisted, and I understand why,” Burguan said. “Our dispatch radios have been recorded, they have been played live. We know there was information that went out over the air. That was all fog of war.”

The lingering concerns about a third shooter underscore a key challenge police face when trying to make sense of conflicting witness accounts in rapidly unfolding, violent crimes.

Studies have found that witnesses who experience a highly stressful or traumatic event are less likely to accurately recall details. An exhausting news cycle that helps spread early information that is often wrong also serves to feed false narratives even after a better picture of what happened emerges, according to police and forensic psychologists.

“Once the misinformation is embedded, it becomes a part of their memory,” said Deryn Strange, a professor of psychology at John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York. “It is exceptionally difficult to get rid of that information because we don’t really take on corrections particularly easily.”

Federal investigators have said that none of the evidence they have so far collected — including weapons used in the attack — indicate the involvement of a third shooter.

Burguan said ballistics evidence shows only two weapons were used in the Inland Regional Center. Police have interviewed several hundred people in connection with the investigation, and the vast majority reported that they saw two shooters, he said. There were no surveillance cameras in the room where the shooting occurred.

“In the absence of video, you rely on forensics and witness accounts,” said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman.

As the probe continues, FBI officials said they won’t rule out the possibility of a third shooter — or any other potential scenario. Last month, the federal government called on Apple Inc. to help FBI agents unlock an iPhone used by Farook, as part of the bureau’s effort to figure out if he communicated with anyone else about the terror plot.

The ongoing investigation into the shooting can help fuel public concerns that another person might have helped in the attack, said Strange, whose research focuses on false memories held by witnesses to traumatic events.

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Relatives of those killed in the terrorist attack and law enforcement leaders also threw their weight behind the FBI in court filings this week, arguing that information on Farook’s phone could lead to information about possible co-conspirators or a third shooter.

Mark Sandefur, whose son was killed in the massacre, said in a letter to Apple’s chief executive that several survivors recounted “bone-chilling stories” involving a third attacker.

“Recovery of information from the iPhone in question may not lead to anything new,” Sandefur wrote in the letter. “But, what if there is evidence pointing to a third shooter?”

San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos filed a brief backing the FBI that cited two 911 calls that reported a third shooter.

“Although the reports of three individuals were not corroborated, and may ultimately be incorrect, the fact remains that the information contained solely on the seized iPhone could provide evidence to identify as of yet unknown co-conspirators,” Ramos wrote.

Other major disasters or violent crimes have produced witness accounts that were later discounted by authorities but nonetheless helped spur enduring concerns or alternative theories about what occurred.

During the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery that left two gunmen dead and several police officers and witnesses injured, early reports surfaced of a third heavily-armed suspect. Police responded by knocking down doors, even a shed, to search the residential area around the bank, and an ambulance racing to the bloody scene was also delayed out of fear that a third assailant was nearby.

Over the next few days, police said the reports had been wrong. Even so, years later, a woman who lived nearby came forward to insist she had seen a heavily armed man run from the area of the shootout into a shed near her apartment.

Nearly two decades after TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New York in 1996, some witnesses remain insistent that a U.S. Navy missile brought down the airliner. The National Transportation Safety Board spent four years investigating the crash, and in 2000 ruled that a fuel tank explosion probably caused the jet to break apart, killing all 230 people on board.

In 2013, a group that included investigators from the original NTSB probe urged the agency to reconsider its earlier findings, arguing that radar and other evidence supported witness accounts that “a detonation or high-velocity explosion” caused the crash.

The NTSB denied the request, saying that the group’s analysis was flawed. “None of the physical evidence supports the theory that the streak of light observed by some witnesses was a missile,” the agency declared.

During the 2013 manhunt for Christopher Dorner, an ex-LAPD officer who killed four people and wounded three others, the military veteran’s ability to elude authorities for days sparked concerns among investigators that he was being helped by others, said San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon.

After San Bernardino attack, third shooter claims are just ‘human nature’ – Los Angeles Times