Michael Carey: No honest employee should feel a need to confess

The Sunday New York Times carried a lengthy story headlined "When Employees Confess, Sometimes Falsely." The story detailed how large companies, AutoZone for one, have hired investigators who use coercive tactics to obtain confessions from staffers, including innocent staffers, suspected of stealing from the company.

Research suggests falsely fingered employees confess to escape the pressure of extended questioning under duress.

In 1968, I moved to New York City after spending most of the previous year in Boston. I needed a job and discovered the bookstore chain I worked for in Boston had a branch on Fifth Avenue near the New York Public Library. I dropped by the store to ask the manager if he had an opening. He did and hired me for $125 a week. The same day, he hired a tall, trim, sandy haired man of about 30. Jim said he was from Kansas. That's about all I learned about him; he was exceptionally reserved.

The store was large, requiring two or more employees on duty all the time. One to handle the cash register, at least one other to help customers. You would assume the customers in midtown Manhattan were well-dressed and worked in large offices -- think Mad Men. You would be right. It was a pleasure to help perfumed women in business suits, not that they paid much attention to a skinny young guy with long hair.

Some of our clientele was not so attractive.

Bryant Park, behind the public library, is today an elegant gathering place to enjoy a meal in an cafe or relax on a bench or on the grass. Then it was needle park. Heroin was bought, sold and shot up in public. Junkies frequented the bookstore to support their habit; they stole books and sold them. Expensive art books were especially prized. Jim and I regularly stopped thieves with art books under their coat. The thieves smirked as they surrendered a Van Gogh or Picasso tome, knowing we would not undertake the bother of having them arrested for shoplifting, then walked out the front door into the swirling Fifth Avenue crowd.

One Saturday, Jim and I worked the late shift, which ended at 8 p.m. Our last task, same as every other night, was putting a zippered canvas bag containing the daily take, maybe $500 on a good day, in the corner bank's night deposit box. This Saturday, I was in a hurry to catch a train and Jim said "I'll take care of the money." I gave him the key to the night deposit box, and he took care of the money. He stole it.

When I arrived for work Monday, my boss, Ed, was in a rage. He took me to his office -- a room in the back cluttered with books and boxes -- and railed at me about the missing deposit. When he demanded an account of Friday night's closing, I provided it. "So Jim did it himself?", he challenged me. "I'm here, Jim isn't," I mustered. "Would I come back if I stole the money?"

My response fueled the boss' anger. He began to explore crazy conspiracy theories involving Jim and I splitting the money. It never occurred to me to confess. The only thing to confess was I made the mistake of trusting Jim. I finally told Ed "Call my old boss in Boston. Call Ric Finnegan. He will tell you I wouldn't steal the money."

"I will," said Ed, and while he called, I wandered across Fifth Avenue for coffee at Chock Full of Nuts. When I returned, a subdued Ed said "Ric vouched for you. Said you were an honest guy. Go back to work."

I never heard Jim's name -- if that was his name -- again. But I wondered about him. Did he make a regular practice of stealing from employers and disappearing? Was he as cold as his behavior suggested? After all, he left me, his co-worker, with the messy consequences of his theft.

This incident exposed me for a greenhorn. I never imagined a man who sold books -- sacred objects I had been taught -- would be a thief.

The incident also provides a reminder of how different the country was in the Sixties. Jim and I were hired on our word and how we presented ourselves. Ed never asked me to show him identification proving I was Michael Carey. He didn't call my references. No professional investigator was brought in from corporate headquarters to unravel the truth about the theft. The unemployment rate was so low I could have quit and gone to another store if Ed became too ugly with me. This was a time of turnover when people came and went -- not like now, when if you have a job, you better keep it. The Times story on false confessions demonstrates how determined -- if not desperate -- today's workers are to keep their jobs.

I didn't work long at this bookstore. But I got something out of the experience more valuable than a few paychecks. I learned my former boss was willing to tell the world "Mike Carey is an honest man." I have been grateful to Ric Finnegan for more than 40 years.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.