For a time, those in the business of putting child abusers behind bars were wondering if Hannibal Lecter was running loose in Arizona.
Their concerns stemmed from a report issued by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, which is affiliated with Arizona State University.
The 94-page report, titled "Arizona's Child and Adolescent Injury Data Book," included a statistic so startling even Governor Fife Symington had difficulty swallowing it.
The stat came under the macabre heading "Human Bite."
"Fatalities caused by human bite accounted for 25 deaths among children and adolescents aged 0-19 in Arizona from 1989 to 1992," the report states. "More than one in three victims was younger than five years of age."
Arizona Department of Health Services officials held a press conference to discuss the findings in the beautifully packaged report. The state must sharpen its fangs and clamp down on the horrors of child abuse, the DHS honchos concluded. Authorities must put some teeth into their enforcement efforts.
But the human-bite plague didn't come up during the press briefing. That's because DHS public information officer Brad Christensen purposely extracted the mind-boggling factoid from a press release he prepared before the conference.
"I had a feeling there was something a little off about the data," Christensen explains. "It shocked the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. I thought the biting thing needed further confirmation."
DHS director Jack Dillenberg adds this sound bite: "We have an excellent statistician [Chris Mrela], and he interpreted the data to indicate there is this problem in our state. It bothered all of us. Even the governor pointed out that this was a remarkably high number."
Only the Capitol Times reported on the frightening finding, and then as a brief item buried inside. But the news caused some teeth gnashing among those who deal for a living with the horrors of child abuse.
Maricopa County prosecutor Dyanne Greer, for one, has held the very worst of the Valley's baby batterers and killers to account during her tenure. She's prosecuted cases in which kids had been bitten in the course of being assaulted and injured.
But she's never heard of human teeth causing a death.
Neither had her fellow prosecutors in Coconino and Pima counties.
Neither had Maricopa County medical examiner Philip Keen.
Neither had sex-crimes detectives at the Phoenix Police Department.
That raised the specter--only half in jest because of the sick crimes that truly are perpetrated upon children--that a rural serial biter was quietly and effectively chewing up Arizona's young uns.
It also begged the question of whether the cause of death actually was human bite, or infection resulting from the alleged bite.
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Well, folks, not to worry, at least about this particularly gruesome form of child torture. As it turns out, DHS and the Morrison Institute had more bark than bite on this one.
After a New Times inquiry, DHS rechecked vital records of 15 of the 25 alleged death-by-bite cases. (The other ten currently are being studied.) None of those 15 died because of human bite. In fact, none of the 15 had even been bitten.
So what gives?
"It was basically a screw-up," says Christensen, the DHS mouthpiece, "a misunderstanding by our statistician."
Christensen explains that definitions spelled out in the "E Code" classification system--used internationally to categorize injuries--are not as clear as they should be. The category that includes human bites actually is a catch-all "Other" category--entries not easily classified under a broad heading.
"Our guy flat-out didn't realize there's more injuries under this one particular E-Code than 'Human Bite,'" he says. "It's one of those things. We're not happy having to admit a mistake, but we're happy that there's not a cannibal running around out there.