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Loved ones' doubts allow truth to be sold

Here are a few of the questions that polygraph examiner Mike Alaiwat asked a 60-something woman during a lie detector test recently:

"Did you leave a razor in Mr. Jones' bathroom?"

"Do you know who put the razor in Mr. Jones' bathroom?

"Are you lying about the shaver?"

The woman had asked for the test because the Mr. Jones in question had accused her of leaving her razor in his shower to make another girlfriend jealous.

The woman denied the accusations but wanted proof.

She paid Alaiwat $350 for the test. She cried with relief upon learning the results, which said she was truthful, and took Alaiwat's report to her boyfriend.

Once the purview of law enforcement officials, attorneys and employers, lie detector tests now are becoming a popular way for the public to resolve personal issues.

Polygraph examiners all report more and more calls to resolve questions of infidelity, theft, cheating on fishing or golf tournaments and just about any other fact that two people can dispute.

Did the 16-year-old throw a hard-boiled egg at his aunt's car?

Did the employee put feces in his co-worker's lunch container?

Did a woman have sex with her boyfriend's best friend?

Polygraph examiners, who now number a dozen in local phone books up from two a decade ago, attribute the newfound popularity of the polygraph to its use on daytime talk shows such as Ricki Lake, Maury Povich and Sally Jessy Raphael.

Meet the Parents, a show in which parents question three prospective mates for their son or daughter while they are hooked up to a polygraph, also has produced a lot of interest in lie detector tests, examiners say.

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There is no state regulation of polygraph examiners, who say measuring certain physiological responses to stress helps determine a subject's truthfulness.

Many of those who have been doing this for a long time grumble that something needs to be done to weed out those who shouldn't be in the business.

"So if you get a hold of a polygraph instrument or a Ouija board or whatever, God bless, you're in business," said Dave Bryant of Custom Polygraph Service in Tampa. "We're begging for this. Please license us."

The Florida Polygraph Association will ask the Legislature to consider a licensing law during the next session, said Randy Dey, president of the group and a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"Unfortunately, as it is now, someone who has never been to polygraph school could say they are a polygraph examiner," Dey said. "We have a convicted felon in this state who is conducting polygraphs. He went to polygraph school, yes, but he was convicted of a very serious crime ... and most of us feel that a convicted felon should not be able to practice."

The state licensed polygraph examiners until 1988, when the Employee Polygraph Protection Act banned commercial businesses from using it to screen job applicants.

Many polygraph examiners, which several longtime examiners said numbered 25 to 30 in the Tampa Bay area at the time, left the business.

By 1992, there were two listed in the St. Petersburg phone book. They handled work for private attorneys, public defenders and public employers who continued to screen job applicants (the federal government, schools and police agencies, among others).

Today, most of those polygraph experts reached for this story said personal issue testing ranges from 10 percent to 30 percent of their business. A few, such as Alaiwat, said it represents 50 percent to 70 percent of their business.

"In no way is it part of a healthy relationship for someone to want to polygraph their significant other on a regular basis," Alaiwat said. "But if there's an incident or an allegation that they're struggling with, and if they want to get over that bump in their relationship and it can be resolved by a polygraph, it can help them get over it."

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Alaiwat crisscrosses Florida's midsection, conducting polygraph house calls in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and any other place that's within about a five-hour drive from Tampa Bay. He does them for parents and their children, husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends.

Those people want answers, but they also want privacy. None of the clients of several polygraph examiners would be interviewed for this story.

A young woman in Boca Raton wants to prove to her boyfriend that she did have sex with his best friend after he fails to believe her confession. The polygraph proves she's telling the truth, Alaiwat said.

A Texas insurance company that had underwritten a $1-million prize for a hole-in-one at a charity golf tournament relies on Bryant's polygraph to verify the feat.

A federal worker in Hillsborough County is accused of depositing feces in a co-worker's lunch container. After a $350 polygraph, Alaiwat produces a report that says the man isn't guilty of the dirty deed.

A woman brings her teenage son in to prove that he didn't throw a hard-boiled egg at his aunt's car and dent it after an argument. The kid apparently threw the egg, but it didn't hit the car. The woman takes the polygraph report to her sister, who had wanted $200 for the damage.

A man wants to know if his wife is really just "clearing her head" when she goes on those late-night drives.

The woman denies she's cavorting with other men, and Alaiwat's polygraph deems her truthful.

Alaiwat, 34, declined to say how much he makes a year or how many polygraph exams he gives in a year, but he said he makes a decent living at it. He charges anywhere from $200 (if there are two people coming in for the test) to $650 (if he must drive a distance for the test).

The Tampa examiner graduated from a polygraph school in Largo and has conducted tests for three years. And he's filling a niche that some polygraph examiners won't touch.

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Many polygraph examiners are ex-cops and -detectives who don't believe the tests should be used for personal relationships.

"Those, as far as I'm concerned, are parlor games," said Mark V. Euiler, a polygraph examiner in Winter Park. "I'm highly suspect of the validity of those types of tests. Think about it. If you and your (significant other) are at that level, you need a marriage counselor. You don't need a polygraph."

Some polygraph examiners will conduct some tests, but not all.

One woman had told her husband that a certain part of his anatomy was the largest she'd ever seen. He wanted proof. She wanted Bryant to put her claim to the test. He refused.

"If it's something real specific, where I can restore trust in the issue, I can help," said Bryant, who calls such requests his "Jerry Springer calls." "But if it's one of those things, "Will he always love me?' . . . I'm not Ms. Cleo. I can't help with that. It has to be scientifically valid."

Bryant, who also tests a lot of sex offenders on probation, said he takes personal issue testing seriously.

"This woman would have divorced her husband if he hadn't passed this test," he said, referring to one infidelity test he did. "I hate being in that position. This is important stuff and people are making decisions based on this, so I better be right."

Studies have estimated the validity of the polygraph at between 70 percent and 95 percent. The tests are inadmissible in court in all states except New Mexico. Most practicing polygraph examiners say it is 90 percent to 99 percent effective.

But some question the legitimacy of using the polygraph in making decisions that can alter lives.

"I think it's a waste of these people's money because the results of the polygraph are unreliable," said George W. Maschke, co-author of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector and a founder of www.antipolygraph.org. "Why? Because the whole procedure has no scientific basis at all. It's pseudoscience. The public needs to know about this, especially people making major life decisions about marriage and relationships _ or, God forbid, children _ based on lie detector tests."

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But there are signs the public is embracing the polygraph more and more, despite questions about its validity.

A Web site for all things polygraph, www.polygraphplace.com, has seen its hits go from 7,000 a month last year to 13,000 a month this year, said Ralph Hilliard, owner of the site.

The online company Lie Busters offers an affordable line of lie detection equipment, including the $24.95 Handy Truster, which supposedly exposes liars by detecting tremors in their voice.

Frank Horvath, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and a past president of the American Polygraph Association, said the growth in polygraph use probably will prompt the industry to create some new standards. For example, some examiners are scornful of polygraph house calls.

"There will probably be an attempt to determine when tests should be carried out, what matters are worthy of investigation," said Horvath, who said there are probably 7,000 to 12,000 polygraph examiners in the United States today. "I think there is some momentum here that's probably unstoppable and primarily because there's no alternative. You may not be happy with the polygraph, but what's the alternative?"

One need only look at the schedule of traveling polygraph examiner John Ross, 49, of New York City, to see that some will go to great extremes to at least try to find some version of the truth.

Ross charges anywhere from $300 to $500 for the exam, plus airfare if he has to travel.

A woman in California wanted him to test her fiance before their wedding to see if whether he had cheated on her. A man in Texas wanted to prove to his ex-wife that he hadn't endangered their child.

And a 16-year-old and his father drove all the way from Ohio to New York City to take the test and prove to his grandparents that he hadn't stolen $12,000 from their home. The teenager passed the test. Later, the maid came forward and confessed she'd done it.

_ Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

(TEXT ACCOMPANYING DRAWINGS NOT PROVIDED FOR THE ELECTRONIC LIBRARY. PLEASE SEE MICROFILM.)

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