During a news conference about the arrest of a suspected serial killer in Tampa, Florida, individuals who are hearing-impaired were provided with an American Sign Language interpreter who instead provided nonsensical gestures.
During Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan's announcement of the arrest of Howell Donaldson on Wednesday, American Sign Language interpreter Derlyn Roberts was present but was signing unintelligible gestures.
Rachell Settambrino, a deaf individual and American Sign Language instructor at the University of South Florida, communicated to the Tampa Bay Times through an interpreter: "She sat up there and waved her arms like she was singing Jingle Bells,"
According to Settambrino, Roberts signed the following: "Fifty-one hours ago, zero 12 22 (indecipherable) murder three minutes in 14 weeks ago in old (indecipherable) murder four five 55,000 plea 10 arrest murder bush (indecipherable) three age 24."
During the conference, Chief Dugan was outlining a timeline of the four shootings and detailed how the police department had received approximately 5,000 tips before apprehending the 24-year-old suspect.
"I was disappointed, confused, upset, and really want to know why the city of Tampa's chief of police, who is responsible for my safety … did not check her out," Settambrino said.
On Monday, Tampa Police Department spokesman Steve Hegarty stated that Roberts arrived unannounced and informed him that she would be providing American Sign Language interpretation at the November 28th press conference. He believed that another individual in the department had scheduled the interpreter service.
"I allowed her to do it. I didn't ask enough questions," Hegarty said.
It remains unknown how Roberts became aware of the press conference and why she offered to provide American Sign Language interpretation, and Hegarty is seeking to uncover the answers.
"I don't know what motivates her, but she hasn't returned my calls," he said. "I would like to know both professionally, and also personally, how did it occur to you to come down to do that?"
During the follow-up press conference the next day, a different interpreter, Ben Zapata, stood next to Chief Dugan.
Hegarty stated that Roberts will not face any charges. A person with a name and age matching Roberts has an extensive criminal record that includes convictions for fraud over $50,000 and fraudulent use of personal information, but Hegarty could not confirm if they are the same person. A message left at the number listed for Roberts was not immediately returned.
This is the latest instance of an unqualified signer appearing at news conferences. In September, as Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida and officials declared a mandatory evacuation, an interpreter in Manatee County began signing words such as "pizza," "monster" and "bear," along with other nonsensical gestures.
Manatee County officials later acknowledged that they were in a difficult situation and had called on a county employee who had a basic knowledge of sign language because he communicates with his deaf brother. However, it was quickly apparent that he was not qualified. The deaf community demanded an apology, and the video of the news conference went viral.
In 2013, during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, a fraudulent interpreter stood beside former President Barack Obama and other world leaders and signed nonsensical gestures. The interpreter later stated that he is schizophrenic and had seen angels descending in the stadium where the event took place.
Settambrino stated that, unlike some other states, Florida does not mandate American Sign Language interpreters to be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, a national non-profit organization that aims to uphold standards, ethics and professionalism in the field, as per its website.
Florida only requires that American Sign Language interpreters be "qualified," according to Settambrino.