On Wednesday, 11 December 2019, Anca Pennington, 30, of Omaha, Nebraska purchased three bottles of Tylenol, each containing 24 pills, after passing through security at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey. She then proceeded to a restroom stall, swallowed all of the pills, and laid down to die.
Earlier that day Pennington, a single mother of four, had appeared on the set of the Comcast-owned, NBCUniversal Television Distribution-produced Steve Wilkos Show in Stamford, Connecticut, where host Steve Wilkos had announced that she had miserably failed a polygraph test regarding whether she had burned her infant daughter with cigarettes. The show’s in-house polygraph operator, Daniel D. Ribacoff, had come on stage to support his polygraph results.
Ribacoff, a member of the American Polygraph Association, has previously claimed on the show, “We have tests that are 99.4% accurate, which is way more accurate than most medical tests, and way more accurate than any jury trial.”
And in a 2016 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread, in response to a question Steve Wilkos averred, “The lie detector tests are like 99% accurate.”
In fact, however, polygraph “testing” has not been shown through peer-reviewed research to reliably work at better-than-chance levels of accuracy under field conditions. Alan P. Zelicoff and Steven E. Rigdon have conducted a peer-reviewed statistical analysis of the best available field studies of polygraphy. Based on that analysis, Dr. Zelicoff opines that “if a subject fails a polygraph, the probability that she is, in fact, being deceptive is little more than chance alone; that is, one could flip a coin and get virtually the same result for a positive test based on the published data.”
As Pennington recalls, Wilkos told her on stage that she was disgusting, that she was never going to see her kids again, and that she was going to go to jail. The audience booed her.
Pennington recounts that she had looked up to Steve Wilkos as a father figure and had never questioned polygraphs. Afraid that no one would believe her and that she would lose her children, Pennington made the decision to end her life during the ride to the airport for her flight home, writing a suicide note on the sheet of paper with her flight information that was given to her by the show’s producers.
Lying on the airport restroom stall floor after consuming the Tylenol, whose active ingredient, acetaminophen, can cause fatal liver damage in sufficiently large doses, Pennington began to feel warm, and her heart started racing. She became scared, thought of her children, and called 911. An ambulance came. After nearly a week of hospitalization, she was released and returned home to Omaha, having escaped any permanent liver damage.
While in hospital, Pennington showed nurses pictures of lesions on her infant daughter’s leg: lesions that she had suspected were pinch marks or cigarette burns inflicted by the daughter’s father, who had left them, or by the father’s new girlfriend, both of whom also appeared as guests on The Steve Wilkos Show and passed polygraphs. As Pennington recalls, the nurses immediately recognized the lesions as ringworm, a common fungal infection that is easily treated.
Later in December 2019, lesions reappeared on the infant’s leg, and a medical examination confirmed a ringworm infection, for which clotrimazole, an antifungal medication, was prescribed.
Before contacting The Steve Wilkos Show, Pennington had also contacted the Nebraska Division of Family Services regarding her suspicion that her daughter had been abused. In a letter dated 3 December 2019, a full week before her appearance on the show, but which Pennington states she received only after her return to Omaha, Children and Family Services specialist Nicole Powers reported, “Based on the information obtained during this investigation, it has been determined that the allegation will be listed as ‘Unfounded.'”
Pennington reports that on Wednesday, 22 January 2020, The Steve Wilkos Show contacted her and told her that the episode in which she appeared will air in February. Pennington stated that she was “devastated and traumatized.”
AntiPolygraph.org has written to Steve Wilkos Show producer Jillian Calandra, who coordinated Pennington’s appearance on the show, and polygraph operator Daniel Ribacoff seeking comment. At the time of writing, no replies have been received.
In May 2019, the long-running British tabloid television program The Jeremy Kyle Show, which bears similarities to The Steve Wilkos Show, was abruptly canceled after Steve Dymond, who “failed” a polygraph “test” conducted for the show, committed suicide.
In December 2019, Pennington shared her story in a series of video clips that AntiPolygraph.org has assembled as a YouTube playlist:
Update (28 January 2020): On 26 January 2020, The Steve Wilkos Show released a 30-second video clip titled “THE COLD HARD TRUTH…ALL NEW…ALL FEBRUARY LONG!” with snippets of episodes to be aired in February 2020:
At 22 seconds into the video, a few seconds of the as-yet-unaired episode in which Anca Pennington appeared are shown. Steve Wilkos is seen gesticulating at her and shouting, “You’re the one burning your children!”
Pennington replies, “I did not do that!”
The Steve Wilkos Show‘s apparent decision to air this episode, despite compelling evidence that no one burned her child, may be explained by the fact that February 2020 is a Nielsen “sweeps” period during which audience measurements are taken.
AntiPolygraph.org’s inquiries to Steve Wilkos Show producer Jillian Calandra and polygraph operator Daniel D. Ribacoff remain unanswered.
Correction: This article originally stated that Ms. Pennington’s appearance with Steve Wilkos and attempted suicide took place on Tuesday, 10 December 2019. This is incorrect. Her polygraph examination with Daniel Ribacoff was conducted on that date, and her studio appearance and attempted suicide took place the following day, Wednesday, 11 December 2021.