Many in the deaf community were left scratching their heads last week after a phony sign language interpreter crashed a news conference on the recent Seminole Heights killings in Tampa, Fla. this month.
Officials said local woman Derlyn Roberts showed up to the Tampa Police precinct on Nov. 28, and proceeded to make unintelligible hand signs to the audience as Chief Brian Dugan delivered details on the arrest of Howell Donaldson III. Donaldson is accused of murdering four people in string of attacks that put the Seminole Heights community on edge.
“She was standing there twisting her hands back and forth,” Betti Bonni, a certified deaf interpreter, told ABC Action News. “I could tell automatically that interpreters do not do that.”
Roberts stood before the packed crowd of locals and news reporters that evening, playing the part of a seasoned ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter as she made quicksilver hand motions and finger spellings. To the untrained eye, her movements appeared to be legitimate sign language, but members in the deaf community quickly picked up on the gimmick.
“Most of the time it just looked like she was signing but not using actual signs,” University of South Florida professor Rachelle Settambrino told the news station. ” … When she was spelling words out, she wasn’t spelling anything at all. They were just gibberish more than anything.”
The mother of one of Donaldson’s victims, who is deaf, attended the news conference and was relying on Roberts to relay important information on the arrest of her daughter’s killer. She got nonsensical talk instead.
To make matters worse, it turns out Roberts is a seasoned con-woman who served jail time for a fraud conviction, according to ABC Action News. In fact, she has several fraud arrests on her record.
So how did Roberts wind up the sign language interpreter at the newser in the first place? A spokesman for the police department ultimately took the fall for the mishap, saying he didn’t do his due diligence in checking the woman’s credentials. He explained that the city relies on a pre-paid contractor for ASL interpreters and that police assumed she was sent over.
“We have so many interpreting agencies and proficient skilled interpreters here; where did this person come from and why did they not vet her appropriately?” Settambrino asked.
“Really, the trust there is destroyed at that point,” she added. “So who can we rely on?”
While what Roberts did wasn’t a crime, officials said her behavior was an ethical violation.