True Crime Tuesdays: Pervert – Hunting the Strip Search Caller
Helen Archer | On 22, Nov 2022
When Craig Zobel’s 2012 film Compliance was first released, it was deemed so outrageous that people refused to believe it was based on a true story. Depicting an hours-long hoax call to a Mount Washington fast food outlet by a man pertaining to be law enforcement investigating a theft, viewers were left gobsmacked as the boyfriend of the restaurant’s manager was directed to strip search and sexually assault an 18-year-old employee. And yet not only was the story true, the same crime had been attempted up and down the US for over a decade, with varying degrees of “success”. This three-part documentary focuses, for the most part, on the hunt for the perpetrator.
After showing us some of the real footage of the 2004 incident on which Compliance was based, we are introduced to Detective Buddy Stump, who was a rookie cop at the time. He was called out to the fast food restaurant, only to find he knew the victim personally, and thus began his mission to track down the hoax caller. A simple Google search uncovered 73 other such incidents across 32 states, dating back to 1994. What the 2004 case had that most others didn’t was undeniable video evidence rather than just statements and reports – of which there were many, though it is thought many other incidents were left unreported.
Yet no one, apparently, was investigating the identity of the caller – it was much easier to concentrate on those he instructed to commit the crimes. Detective Stump teamed up with detective Victor Flaherty in Massachusetts, where a flurry of similar incidents had taken place, and both are interviewed extensively here, describing the way they hunted down phone cards, pinpointed Walmart CCTV where the specific cards were bought, and identified a suspect.
Their narrative is intercut with the testimony of those directly affected by the caller, who tell of the impact it made on their lives. Victims were able to reach out to each other, and took comfort in the fact that they were not alone. Allan Mathis, a former assistant manager at Hardee’s – who was charged but ultimately acquitted of kidnapping and second-degree rape after following the orders of the hoax caller – is also interviewed, voicing his ongoing shame over the life-altering incident. A psychologist, meanwhile, gives us a brief rundown of the Milgram Experiment, which showed how willing people are to follow orders, even at the expense of their own morals.
And yet these interviews are too brief and cursory to really dig deep into the psychology of it all. The guilt and shame was felt not only by those who had acted on instruction, but also by the victims, and by the workers who were present but unaware of what was happening in the various back offices until it was too late. Much is made of the fact that the caller targeted small towns, where, it is felt, people are more receptive to notions of authority, and less questioning of direct orders, but the real answers to questions of susceptibility and resistance are more difficult to both ask and answer.
What the three-part documentary does well is highlight the scale of the crime, the corporate negligence that allowed it to continue for so long and the many lives the caller touched – be it the victims, the employees who “complied”, or their friends, families and coworkers. But it remains both unnerving and unsatisfying, shedding very little light on what still seems like an unbelievable truth.
Pervert – Hunting the Strip Search Caller is available on Paramount+ UK, as part of a £6.99 monthly subscription.