Tampa police say fake interpreter was signing at Seminole Heights news conference

The night Tampa police announced an arrest in the Seminole Heights killer case, an uninvited sign language interpreter relayed a confusing message to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, a TPD spokesperson said Monday.

The department has periodically used sign language interpreter during this case because the mother of one of the four victims is deaf.

The fake interpreter, identified by police as Derlyn Roberts, showed up to a news conference last Tuesday claiming to be the sign language interpreter. She provided an interpretation during Chief Brian Dugan's remarks about the pending arrest of Howell Donaldson III in connection with the murders of four people in Southeast Seminole Heights.

Public Information Office Steve Hegarty said he now realizes he should have vetted her before letting her into the news conference.

"I have to tell you, my immediate reaction was that I was immediately grateful that somebody showed up," Hegarty said. "I didn't know who would have called her, but we had so many details that we were worried about at that point that I was grateful. Obviously I did not do my due diligence though," he said. 

Hegarty said he received several calls about the mixed messages that Roberts conveyed. By last Wednesday morning, the department had a certified interpreter present for the news conference.

"From what I understand, she knows enough about sign language that she was able to fake it. But it was not accurate and it was not clear," Hegarty told FOX 13, adding he has not been able to get a hold of Roberts since he realized what happened.

FOX 13 News tried to contact Roberts on a phone number listed to her, but was unsuccessful.

This kind of issue has made local and international headlines in recent months and years.

As Hurricane Irma approached, an interpreter in Manatee County signed nonsense during a news conference. During Nelson Mandela's funeral in 2013, a fake interpreter famously signed gibberish.

Advocates for the deaf and hard-of-hearing hope this doesn't become a trend.

"It's confusing. It can be very dangerous. It can be very upsetting," said Chris Littlewood, who lost his hearing when he was in his 20's. "If somebody were providing information and leaving pieces out of the information that's needed to get across, that would be very problematic for anyone."

Littlewood works at St. Petersburg College and is an instructional designer and educator and an inclusive emergency planner, teaching people who want to work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. 

"If somebody is put in a situation where right away they're expected to bring in a sign language interpreter and the time you think about doing that is when the press conference is about to happen and things are likely to go wrong," he said.

Roberts has been arrested five times in Hillsborough County including three times for fraud. Hegarty said he's not sure if Roberts did anything illegal in this instance.