The 911 operator took the call at 3:34 a.m. on April 29, 1991.
"Did he cut you with the knife?" she asked a frantic-sounding woman.
"Always. He puts it up in my face."

The operator dispatched police to the northeast Phoenix apartment of Ann and Dennis Roper, then returned to the line.

"Ann, where is he in the house right now?"
"He's sitting here yelling at me."
"It sounds like she put the phone down," the operator told a colleague. "This might be all in her imagination. I haven't heard a thing other than her talking. . .Ann, are you there?"
Ann's husband, Dennis, picked up the telephone.
"She stabbed me," he moaned. "She stabbed me twice. Please help me. She stabbed me. She wants to kill me. I'm bleeding."
Seconds later, Phoenix police officers James Wagner and Toby Dunn arrived at the apartment. Bleeding badly from his midsection and right arm, Dennis Roper opened the door. His wife of almost five years was sitting in the bedroom, holding a five-inch-long kitchen knife in her right hand.

Fire department paramedics rushed Dennis to a hospital as police arrested 53-year-old Ann Roper. Officer Wagner recalled Ann as being "intoxicated and uncooperative" during the ride to jail. He remembered her blurting out, "If I get ahold of another knife, I'll kill another man. That's all they deserve. I want to be in jail all my life."

It was touch-and-go for Dennis for a time, but the 39-year-old former psychiatric nurse survived a collapsed lung and a major loss of blood. Prosecutors at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office filed a complaint against Ann Roper on a charge of aggravated assault. She remained incarcerated for six months at the Maricopa County Jail, until a judge ordered her released pending trial. She faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

But the case isn't the garden-variety tragedy it may have seemed at first. Ann Roper is claiming mental illness as the basis of her defense--her husband's mental illness.

Dennis Roper has been diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality disorder, a mysterious illness in which an individual can possess two or more distinct personalities. Dennis Roper says he may have had as many as 18. The personality dominant at any particular time determines how the individual behaves, like "Sybil" of movie and book fame.

Ann Roper's defense is that she stabbed Dennis in self-defense when one of Dennis' violent personalities--a tough guy named Warren with a New York accent--threatened her life. Prosecutors don't buy that. "There is no evidence that the defendant is a battered woman," deputy county attorney Jo Ann Garcia contended in a pretrial memo. "On the contrary, she appears to be the batterer in this case."

Public records in Arizona and Florida do reveal a history of mutual violence that landed both wife and husband in jail several times for assault in the years before the April 1991 knifing. The outcome of the case still is in doubt 16 months after the stabbing. That's because of an unresolved issue that the Arizona Supreme Court is scheduled to consider in a few weeks.

Prosecutors contend that Arizona's Victims' Bill of Rights keeps Ann Roper's lawyer from seeing Dennis' psychiatric records. Her lawyer, however, says those records are crucial to Ann's defense--which would dissect Dennis' unhealthy mental state and prove the existence of the violent "Warren" against whom she defended herself.

Dennis Roper expresses great anxiety as he awaits the next step. (Ann Roper declined an interview for this story.) He raises his shirt and shows the spot on his painfully thin torso where his now ex-wife allegedly stabbed him. "I don't want to see her in prison for this," he says, "but she's gonna have to live with it for the rest of her life." @rule:

@body:Experts believe multiple personality disorder is a survival mechanism that often stems from severe childhood trauma and abuse. But few illnesses are more frequently greeted with skepticism in clinical and legal circles.

Many inside the criminal justice system view MPD as a trendy excuse by desperate defendants who claim, "I didn't kill all those people; one of my 'personalities' did."

Californians Alfred French and Bryan Shechmeister--a psychiatrist and a defense attorney, respectively--wrote of MPD last year in a law journal: "The very notion of multiple individuals inhabiting one body violates our sense of person and smacks of the crudest sort of demonology."

The American Psychiatric Association didn't sanction MPD as a distinct psychotic disorder until 1980, around the time doctors diagnosed Dennis Roper as a "multiple." These days the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 7,000 Americans suffer from MPD, though no one knows for sure.

MPD found a niche in the nation's courts in 1977, when Billy Milligan became the first defendant to be acquitted of a major crime--the rapes of three Ohio State University co-eds--by reason of insanity. Milligan allegedly exhibited 24 separate and uncontrollable personalities.

Trial judges typically rely on mental-health professionals to say whether someone genuinely is suffering from MPD. Sometimes, however, the pros get fooled. In the early 1980s, Los Angeles' infamous "Hillside Strangler," Kenneth Bianchi, convinced several shrinks for a time that he had multiple personalities. He didn't.

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