Along with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” another opening line, “Once upon a time,” is a long-favored-beginning to a tale. Since both are so inherently popular, why not start this blog article with both? Here goes.

One upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, I was on patrol in the county and had ventured out to one of the far corners of our jurisdiction, a place where the police weren’t often seen due to the fact that the area was sparely populated and that crime basically didn’t exist there. Well, if we’re to exclude, that is, the occasional liquor still that a hunter stumbled across while trekking to a tree stand where he’d sit for hours—shoes dowsed with store-bought fox or deer urine to help mask a human scent—in the numbing cold to wait for an unsuspecting deer to pass by.

There was only one business out there in “Johnsontown,” as it was called due to nearly each resident in the area belonging to the same family. Johnson’s Country Store, a small clapboard-sided building, sat at the junction of Johnson Road and State Road 614.

The outside of the store was ten years past needing a coat of paint and its tin roof a few years more overdue for replacing. Even the hand-painted advertisements on the store’s facade were badly faded—Coca-Cola, Marlboro Cigarettes, and some sort of motor oil—were practically nothing more than a memory.

A rusted RC Cola thermometer dangled by a bent nail beside the front screen door. A couple of feral cats lived beneath the building and came out once in a while to raid the garbage cans or to aggravate the old black lab that slept in the sunshine at the base of the cinderblock steps.

The owner of the establishment, old man Jim Johnson, wore bibbed overalls and flannel shirts. He chain-smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, even while pumping kerosene from the blue metal tank nestled against the front of the building. His father ran the store before Jim took charge and his grandfather before him.

During the warm months, farmers and their help visited the establishment to purchase pork and beans, Vienna Sausages, Saltine Crackers, and an ice cold Coke from a cold box inside the store. Sometimes they bought bologna sliced from a fat tube encased in red waxy paper, and a chunk of “country” cheese sectioned from a hoop that was kept covered in a round wooden container.

The workers settled on the two homemade wooden benches out front where they ate their lunches with their fingers or by using a Buck knife to spear the canned tubular chunks of processed meat. They’d use the same knife to scoop the beans from the can directly into their mouths, tilting their heads back to get the last drop of reddish bean juice from the small cans.

In the wintertime, the dirt and gravel lot would be filled with mud-caked four-wheel-drive trucks. Their drivers—deer hunters—stood telling tall tales and comparing the animal carcasses strapped to the top of aluminum boxes that contained a knot of antsy yipping and yapping hounds who were anxious to get back to spooking deer from their hiding spots and then chasing them until a hunter, dressed in bright orange, could draw a bead on one to bring it down.

The hunters hunted for meat. Nothing wasted. What little scraps were left, after butchering and, of course, sharing with the elderly neighbors who were unable to hunt, was fed to the hunting dogs. The hides and bones were transported to a local business that processed the remains, turning them into a by-product to include into factory processed animal feed. The same was so when the farmers killed hogs in the fall. As they told it, the only thing left after butchering, processing, and sharing, was the squeal. Waste not, want not.

Inside the Johnson Country Store was a large potbelly stove that, on extremely cold days, glowed cherry red from the flames and hot coals inside. The man seated closest to it, well, it was his job to keep the firebox filled with hunks of axe-split hickory and oak. He did so between hands of gin rummy … a penny a point.

The plank countertop ran over half the length of the narrow store. Behind it were worn wooden shells stocked with canned goods, laundry and body soaps, aspirin and other medicines, toilet tissue, and the usual essentials that included bottle openers, blue enamel pots and cast iron pans, aprons, and box matches.

On the counter sat three one-gallon glass jars. One containing pickled eggs that floated in a pink briny liquid. Another with pickled hot sausages. The third, the favorite of the hunters and card players, contained pickled pigs feet that were also surrounded by that pink pickling liquid.

I arrived at the Johnson Road junction at a bit past 3 A.M. and was a bit surprised to see a car in the lot. Totally out of the ordinary at that time of the morning. Actually, it would been unusual to see a car there at any time after the store closed at 8 P.M., on the dot, without fail.

I aimed my spotlight at the vehicle and saw two heads inside, one adult and one child (or a super small man or woman). I pulled closer, called in my location, the car’s license number, description of the vehicles, and that I’d be out of my car speaking with the passengers. I requested registration information as well as if the car, or driver, were wanted. Another deputy working a different part of the county called to ask if I needed backup. I said no. A state trooper working the county overheard the conversation and said he, too, was available if I needed him.

I turned on my emergency lights and walked up to the driver’s window. The driver, a young woman, already had the window down and her license in hand, ready for me to examine. Her tiny passenger, a little girl of four or five, or so, wore a pair of kids pajamas , a thick coat, and had a wool blanket nearby. They were from another state, passing through, the woman said, while escaping a husband (and father to the little girl) who was extremely abusive. The swelling on the woman’s face face and the child’s arms were evidence of the alleged issue.

She told me that she was heading down south to stay with family while starting a new life. She’d already made the arrangement for a place to stay and a job lined up working for a cousin’s business. But, while on the way, a thumping noise beneath car had grown louder and was soon accompanied by shaking and bumping and knocking. So she’d taken an exit off the highway, hoping to find a garage or repair shop that could assist. After driving several miles into nowhere, her front right tire went flat. Why she’d continued to drive into the abyss was a mystery, but desperation sometimes causes one to do the unusual.

Not wanting to stop in a dark, foreign area, she drove slowly, pushing her limping car until they stumbled upon the store lot, peering between fat raindrops that hammered her windshield, hoping to find a payphone to call for assistance. Unfortunately, there was no phone at the store, nor was there a house within shouting, seeing, or walking distance. In fact, unbeknownst to her, the closest human dwelling was well over five miles away.

While waiting for daylight to arrive, her car ran out of gas and the temperature inside the automobile quickly equaled the cold outside. The woman and child were freezing, and hungry. I learned they hadn’t eaten in a couple of days. They had no money.

I had them climb inside my patrol car where it was warm and then drove out to a nearby all-night truck stop, a place that served breakfast round-the-clock. After we finished our meal I paid the tab and then I picked up some bottled water and a few snacks. I also bought a pair of pink gloves. Tiny ones. Then I borrowed a gas can from the station manager, filled it, and drove the pair back to their car where I poured the gas into their tank. I took the spare tire from the trunk and exchanged it for the flat. The spare was in not much better shape than the one on the front right, the flat. But it held air and that’s all that mattered at that moment. Fortunately, the rain had stopped.

I asked the woman to follow me back to the truck stop. Once there I filled her gas tank and paid for a new spare tire, out of my pocket, and I asked the attendant to swap it for the wonky spare I’d installed. He placed the spare back into the trunk.

Next, I led them to a nearby hotel and paid the room fee for the night. I gave the woman an envelope containing $80. It was all the cash I had on me at the time.

I wished them well and drove away.

In my rearview mirror I saw the little girl waving with a little kid’s hand covered by a pink glove. Money well spent.

It was 6 A.M. so I drove back to the Johnson County Store where old man Johnson offered me a cup of coffee. The fire in the potbelly stove was just beginning to spread a bit of warmth. Mr. Johnson and I took a seat by the heater in two rickety wooden chairs, where we shot the breeze until his first customers of the day began to roll in.

Soon the store was filled with men wearing orange hats and vests who were chattering away, planning their first drives of the day. Outside I saw the metal dog boxes in the beds of the pickups. Bursts of steam spewed from the slatted openings—the animals’ hot breath meeting the cold outside air.

My shift was over and it was time to go home. The night had been long and the next would bring a new memory. In the meantime, I’d decided to put together an emergency kit to keep in the trunk of my car.

One of the first items I purchased for the kit was, of course, a pair of tiny pink gloves.


The abandoned factory sat just across the county line. Its towering and crumbling red brick smokestacks stood like fingers pointing to the sky. Portions of the building’s red brick facade and stacks appeared as if they’d been devoured by mounds of deep green kudzu.

A vast asphalt parking lot and an array of driveways surrounded the enormous building, a place where hundreds of employees once buzzed about like bees in a hive.

During its heyday, rows upon rows of workers sat side-by-side at long metal tables, operating industrial sewing machines. Others were charged with dying operations, driving forklifts, and pushing the buttons and dialing the knobs of machinery that clicked and clacked and whirred as they transformed tiny threads into enormous rolls of various types of cloth. Floor sweepers maneuvered back and forth in the corridors and spaces between equipment. Their nonstop to-and-fro movements were much like the mechanical and mindless ducks in a shooting gallery.

An in-house machine shop contained every tool imaginable for the repair of equipment from the smallest of contraptions to the hulking and huffing and puffing metal machinery, some the size of buses. There, highly skilled professionals wore heavily soiled overalls and displayed a shift’s worth of jet-black grease stains on their faces and hands. They went about the business of fixing and mending and fabricating at a never-ending pace, round the clock, seven days per week. Likewise, the factory workers tended to their never-ending tasks that, too, were divided into three round the clock shifts.

A constant flow of tractor trailers arrived empty and left filled with goods, heading to other factories where the materials would be transformed into an assortment of consumer goods.

Then, without notice, came the layoff notices and one by one workers were let go, machinery slowed, lights ceased to flash, motors stopped turning, and the factory quickly began to die. Paint peeled, roofing sagged, and pipes leaked. Weeds sprouted through cracks in the parking lot and driveways. With the end of truck traffic the wild plants and stalks flourished and propagated and spread and grew and grew and grew.

Rats and roaches replaced workers. Raccoons and opossums took over office spaces.

Vandals arrived to break windows and leave behind painted symbols and signs. Teenagers held spooky nighttime seances. Others smoked pot and drank beer and cheap wine and told stories of ghosts who roamed the empty hallways and cavernous spaces.

We received a call from a concerned citizen who’d reported seeing what appeared to be a person inside the factory, using a flashlight to find their way. It was just after midnight and the caller said “something just didn’t seem right.” She was absolutely correct.

Inside the factory, using our bright Maglights to help find our own way, we stepped into a room big enough to contain two high school gymnasiums. Inside the sprawling space we waded through an assortment of monstrous machinery and rows of metal racks. The roof sagged and  dripped oily water. Rust coated the steel supports that crisscrossed the upper spaces. Field mice scurried along tabletops and among the broken glass that littered the floors. Roaches as big as my thumb scattered and slid into cracks and crevices when the powerful beams of our flashlights illuminated them.

And that, in that huge room among the mice droppings, dripping water, massive insects, and eerie echoes, is where we found the boy. His body hung from a thick and long, black extension cord that connected his neck to a steel beam that supported an upper floor. Two loops of cord around the neck were held in place by a granny knot.

The boy, barely a teenager, wore a dark t-shirt, shorts a bit too big for his narrow frame, dirty white socks, and one black Converse tennis shoe. Its mate, the left one, was on the floor beneath the body. Also under the boy’s body was old office chair. The seat was on its side with its wheels two or three inches from the left shoe, which was also on its side.

His eyes and mouth were open, as if locked in a silent, terror-induced scream. His skin was cool and firm to the touch. There was no flashlight and without it there was no way the boy could’ve found his way through the pitch black darkness to find the room, find a chair and cord, attach the cord to a rafter, and so on. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face inside that place without the assistance of a light of some kind.

The knot that held the cord closed and tightly to the boy’s flesh was positioned on the right side of the neck. According to his mother, the boy was left-handed and to use his right would have been extremely awkward, unlike many left-handers who are fairly fluid with the use of both. Still, a knot on either side of the neck is not a particularly strong indication of left- or right-handedness. A point to consider if all else failed.

The victim’s friends said he’d been hanging out with a group of older teens who sold drugs They said the boy was not a user, not even pot. However, an autopsy indicated the presence of cocaine and pot. The examination also showed bruising in various spots on the body, including the areas around the wrists and forearms, as if someone had held him there, tightly. The signs pointed to a beating and a murder.

Still, the medical examiner ruled the death as a suicide. I knew better. Remember, the call came in as a report of someone seeing a light inside the factory. There was no flashlight to be found and common sense told me that flashlights don’t grow legs and flee crime scenes. So, in spite of the official ruling and based solely on the witnesses claim of seeing a light, and common sense, I continued to investigate and it didn’t take long to learn the truth.

The boy sold drugs for a known dealer. While selling those drugs he caved to peer pressure and began using. Then he became hooked. His habit grew to a point greater than he could afford so he started using the drugs he was given to sell. Then, as is often a problem, he was quickly unable to pay his dealer and went deeper and deeper into debt.

So they killed him. And they left his body swaying in an abandoned warehouse among rats and mice and roaches and raccoons and opossums and rust and broken glass, dripping oily water, and eerie echoes.

A few days after the boy’s funeral, teenagers, those who went to the factory at night to drink and to smoke pot and to tell tall and spooky tales, had a new ghost story to tell, one of a new spirit roaming the factory corridors. Many claimed to have seen the dead boy hanging from the rafters, especially on Halloween nights. Passersby sometimes said the boy appeared at the windows, peering out from behind cracked glass.

As a result of those vivid imaginations we’d sometime receive calls of people seeing what appeared to be a person inside the factory using a bright flashlight to find their way. And we’d investigate. Of course, we never found a single ghost, but each time I went, even though it was just a memory, I did indeed see that poor boy hanging from the rafters. It’s one of those things you never forget.

The cause of death, by the way, was changed to Murder, a fact I never doubted, not even for a second. So remember, writers, sometimes it’s “the thing” that isn’t there, such as a the flashlight in this case, that’s the key to solving a crime.


It was a Christmas Eve when Denene, my wife for those of you who don’t know her, decided she’d like to ride along with me during my shift so we could at least spend a part of the night together. It would be her first and last in-person experience of what I did for a living.

I was the officer in charge of operations, the OIC, that night so it wasn’t as if I’d be responding to calls, meaning I thought the danger level for her would be extremely low. And I was right, the evening shift was fairly quiet with a few of the typical pushing and shoving drunks, a couple of thefts, a drunk driver or two, a peeping Tom, a disorderly customer at a convenience store, etc. Nothing major.

I took Denene on a tour of parts of the city she’d never seen and to a few she had, but only in the daytime. Believe me, some typically normal neighborhoods totally transform once the sun is down and all the “creepies” come out to play. It’s the time when neon lights replace sunshine and alleyways come alive with feral animals and people who pay for quickie sex behind dented dumpsters overflowing with restaurant waste and wet, slimy butcher shop cardboard and paper.

These are the streets and neighborhoods where wispy tendrils of sewer steam rise from storm drains to twist and writhe their way toward the night sky, floating and undulating until they melt into nothingness. Potholes are deep and overturned garbage cans are scattered about. Front yards are bare dirt and sofas and used kitchen chairs sit on front porches with leaning posts and broken railings. At the curb laying at either side of the streets are empty beer cans and bottles and used needles and condoms mixed with dry, crispy fall leaves.

In the area sometimes called “The Bottom, prostitutes display their wares in barely-there outfits while local businessmen, average Joes and sometimes Janes, and a few city officials cruise along the dark streets comparing the “merchandise.”

Winos and drug addicts begin their aimless marches, stumbling along cold concrete walks and streets until they finally decide upon a random landing spot in a storefront entrance where they smoke, drink rotgut liquor, or shoot poison into their arms or legs. Then they’ll sleep awhile before setting off on another quest for another high.

Drug runners, the low-level, bottom of the drug-selling chain, sellers of crack, meth, heroin, and weed, are at nearly every corner in the “hot” neighborhoods. Many times they damage the corner street lamps by throwing rocks at the bulbs, or by shooting them out, so they can operate in darkness to make it more difficult for cops to see them.

Runners stand alone or in small groups of three or so with each holding only a small amount of dope so not much will be lost should a cop bust them. Users cruise the areas in their cars, driving slowly. When the runner spots a customer he approaches the vehicle. The driver hands over cash ($20 for a single crack rock) and the runner offers the drug. Sometimes he keeps the foil or plastic-wrapped rock in his mouth so he could easily swallow it in case the “customer” is a cop. He’ll spit the wrapped rock into his hand to exchange for the cash.

When the runners sell out they head back to the dealers to “re-up.” The process repeats night after night after night. The runners are always at ready to take off should an officer approach. It’s a cat and mouse game that’s played again and again—we get out of our cars and they run. We chase. They drop the dope and an occasional gun. We pick up the stuff and maybe catch the guy or maybe not.

So after seeing enough of the rot of the city, I drove to areas where officers were on the scenes of various calls/complaints, making sure all was well. Then the radio crackled with an “officer needs assistance” call. She’d stopped a car for drunk driving and the driver refused to get out of his vehicle. She’d struggled with him a bit, through the car window, but had no luck. In fact, he’d spit at her and attempted to bite her. He’d struck her arms with his fist and tried to punch her face.

So off I went to see the trouble for myself. Other officers were on the way to assist. When Denene and I arrived two officers were at the driver’s window grabbing at the man and striking at his arms with batons. A third officer was standing at the passenger window preparing to break the glass. I told Denene I’d be right back (the equivalent to “Hold my beer”) and stepped out of my car.

Since I’d trained each of the on-scene” officers in defensive tactics during their time at the academy, and the fact that I owned my own gym and martial arts school, they assumed, correctly, that I’d handle this situation. So they parted to allow me access to the driver.

I told the wild and drunken and very large man that he had two immediate choices. One, remove his seat belt and get out of the car on his on. Two, I’d cause him intense pain while removing him from the car, through the window. When he spit at me it was my conclusion that he’d opted for choice number two.

A few seconds later, after inflicting quite a bit of pain (I knew this because he was squealing and squawking like a wounded animal), I pulled his fat rear end through the seatbelt and through the window (with his helpful assistance since he wanted the pain to stop sooner than asap), pulled him to the ground, spun him around and over using a wrist turn-out, and cuffed his hands behind his back.

I told the female officer who’d initially stopped the car to place my handcuffs in the box outside my office door when she’d cleared from processing the man. I then turned and walked back to my car where I nonchalantly asked Denene if she’d like to grab a cup of coffee. Only a minute or two had passed since I first stepped out.

She said, “How can you be so calm after such a violent event? And how in the world did you get that big man to fit through that window and all so quickly?”

I, like every officer out there, didn’t think twice about it. It’s what we/they do. It’s part of the job, like editing is to a writer.

Yes, it was Christmas Eve and we were together. But she never again rode with me.

She eventually stopped listening the police scanner I had at the house. She did so one night after hearing me tell other officers that “I’d go in first.”

Yeah, she’s much happier since writing about this stuff is a WHOLE lot safer …


Aikido uses the attacker’s own force against him.

A wrist turnout applies intense pressure to the joint in the wrist, forcing the suspect off balance.

Proper grasp to begin the wrist turnout (Kotegaeshi Nage) technique. To complete the technique the officer maintains his grasp, rotates the suspect’s hand up and to the rear in a counter-clockwise motion while simultaneously stepping back with his (the officer) left leg. The suspect ends up on the floor on his back (see picture below). Any resistance inflcts excrutiating pain in the wrist, elbow, and shoulder.

Combative suspects are normally forced the ground for handcuffing. From this position, a quick turn of the suspect’s wrist and arm will force him to roll over on his stomach. Any resistance causes extreme pain and could severely injure the controlled wrist, elbow, and shoulder.

To effectively control the wrist, the elbow must be stationary. From this position, the suspect is easily handcuffed.

This wrist lock can cause intense pain in the wrist, the elbow, and the shoulder. Forward and downward pressure forces the suspect to the ground.


It’s 9:00 p.m., the evening after Christmas and you’re at a neighbor’s house drinking leftover eggnog and discussing the cool gifts you’d received from friends and family. Meanwhile, a man jimmies open your bedroom window, climbs inside, and then steals your jewelry, a TV, and your signed copy of Police Procedure and Investigation, a very valuable book. This crime is a burglary, not a robbery.

A burglary is normally defined as the breaking and entering into a building, (usually during the nighttime) for the purpose of committing a crime, such as larceny. A robbery, by the way, is the taking of property by violence, force, and/or intimidation, such as being held up at gunpoint.

If a guy steals a car from someone’s driveway while the owner is in bed asleep, the crime committed is larceny, not robbery. If someone breaks a car window to steal a backpack left on the rear seat while the driver dashed inside the Piggly Wiggly to pick up a pig’s head for the New Year’s day family dinner, that, too, is a larceny, not robbery. Of course, damaging the car is also crime, but it’s still not a robbery because the thief didn’t take the backpack directly from a person.

Whole pig’s head for sale in the meat department at a southern Piggly Wiggly. Price – $14.65

Robberies require a face-to-face taking of property from one person by another, by force, threat, or intimidation

Okay, now that that huge difference between a robbery and a burglary are finally laid to rest (one more time), let’s discuss investigating a burglary.

First, many burglaries, or B&E’s (breaking and enterings), are committed by low level criminals who are seeking items they can sell quickly for twenty dollars each—TV, DVD player, video game console, etc.— in order to purchase a hit/rock or two of crack cocaine, or other drug (each crack rock typically sells for$20).

Crack cocaine is often broken into and sold as $20 pieces that are approximately the size of an aspirin.

These crooks are often addicts who target friends and family members. They do so because the property is familiar to them, and because there’s a chance that family and friends won’t prosecute.

Crack addicts often spend $1,000 – $3,000 per week to feed their addiction.

Some addicts shoplift meats from grocery store. A $15 pig’s head sells for $5 – $10 on the street.

Crooks who commit B&E’s are often still on the property when homeowners return, therefore, burglaries are sometimes “in-progress” calls. Also, many B&E calls are reported by neighbors who witness the bad guy climbing in or out of a neighbor’s window. This means that officers have a greater chance of encountering the thief during the act of committing the crime, a dangerous scenario for everyone involved.

All burglary calls should be treated as if the crime has just taken place, or is still in-progress, because the crook may still be in the area. Officers should use caution and not fall into the tunnel-vision trap by focusing only on reaching the crime scene. After all, they could pass by the thief on the way.

Evidence collection at burglary scenes is important, of course, but potential or actual evidence is often compromised/contaminated before officers set the first foot on the scene. Victims feel violated and sometimes experience the urge to clean and straighten up the area. They do so hoping to eliminate the “dirty” sensation that often accompanies the knowledge that a stranger has pawed through your personal property and intimate belongings. This cleaning can, and does, destroy vital evidence.

In addition to searching the interior rooms of a burgled home, important evidence is also found at the point of entry. This is where the thief may have left fingerprints (on the glass or doorknob), tool marks, footwear impressions, and/or blood (he may have cut himself while climbing through broken glass). The crook may also have left behind other trace evidence, such as fibers from his clothing, and DNA.

Sometimes, a burglary suspect leaves a clear trail. I’ve worked cases where the crooks dropped pieces of evidence all the way to their home just a few doors away. I also investigated a case where the dumb bad guy dropped his wallet inside the home he’d just burgled.

Important B&E facts to remember are:

1) Always activate your security system.

2) Lock your doors and windows.

3. Lock all car doors.

4) Place your signed copy of Police Procedure and Investigation in a locked safe (when you’re not reading it, of course). Hiding this priceless item reduces the unbearable temptation to break in.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

A general rule of thumb is to not begin a tale with the weather. I know this and humbly apologize for violating protocol. It’s just that the elements are such a crucial part of this story and, well, please bear with me for a moment as I take you back to an honest-to-goodness dark and stormy Christmas Eve.

I was working for a sheriff’s office at the time, patrolling a county that sits smack-dab in the middle of the north-south I-95 drug corridor. Needless to say, crime, especially violent crime, was quite commonplace.

In those days, I drove a hand-me-down Crown Vic with a light bar that had a mind of its own. Sometimes the rotating beacons turned and sometimes they didn’t, with the latter occurring more frequently during cold weather. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for me to respond to an emergency with the gas pedal mashed to the floorboard, the siren screaming like a cat with its tail caught in the ringer of grandma’s antique washer, and me with my arm out the window banging my fist on the side of the light bar hoping to set it in motion. It often took a good two miles and ten whacks with the heel of my fist before the initial barely-turning speed of the lights caught up with the seriousness of the situation at hand.

Believe me, there’s nothing more frustrating than driving at warp speed while your emergency lights rotate at the speed of drying paint. But, if the call was far enough away the lights eventually caught up with the direness of what could be and often was.

Christmas Eve calls, for the most part, were an eclectic mix of complaints and incidents, ranging from window peepers to drunk uncles high on too much eggnog, to crooks who preferred to do their last minute shopping after the stores were closed and tightly locked until the day after Christmas. And, of course, there were murders and robberies, calls that necessitated the use of those darn lights.

Blowing Wind and Freezing Temps

It was this one particular Christmas Eve that comes to mind, though. The one when the wind blew so hard that traffic lights hung horizontally instead of their typical right angles to the streets. Gusty breezes toppled garbage cans and sent them clanging and banging and rolling and tumbling across asphalt and concrete. Dried leaves clicked and ticked and swirled in masses as they made their way down avenues and boulevards and through intersections without regard for red lights or stop signs, continuing on through alleys and across lawns and driveways. The lighted sign at the bank on the corner of Broad and 14th blinked between the current time and a steady temperature of five degrees. Believe me, it was cold enough to make a snowman shiver.

Homeless people camping under the overpasses and down by the river burned scraps of broken pallets and whatever twigs, branches, and tree limbs they could find. Many of them had no real winter clothing—no coats, parkas, gloves, or wool caps. Instead, they added extra layers of filthy, soiled clothing over their already grimy attire. They used socks to cover their hands and they draped old army blankets or blue furniture movers’ pads over their heads and shivering bodies.

Ridley Perkins

And then there was Ridley Perkins, a homeless man who’d been around the city for so long that his name and/or face was quite well-known by many of the locals. He was also a regular visitor to the city jail. Corrections officers, men who’d “seen it all,” shied away from Ridley when it came time for him to be strip searched. No one wanted the job of watching him peel off layer after layer of grunge-caked clothing. After all, Perkins’ body odor alone was enough to gag anyone, and it was not unusual to find live maggots squirming around in his soiled underwear or on his skin.

Ridley never committed any real crimes—he didn’t steal, rob, or burgle. He was a beggar by trade and a darn good one too. And he knew how to successfully transform a dollar into alcohol. Not the kind consumed by most drinkers, though. Ridley preferred to strain his alcohol from canned heat (Sterno), or to drink mouthwash or shaving lotion. And, when the last drop was gone he’d do something to annoy a business owner or scare a woman or child by lunging at them from behind a bush—his way of going to jail where he’d get a hot meal and warm bed.

The Christmas Present

Okay, I know, I strayed from the story. Let’s see, where was I? Oh, yeah … Christmas Eve. I’d made a pass around my section of the county and had returned to the office to warm my bones with a cup of jailhouse coffee (so thick you could almost stand a spoon upright in the center of the mug) and to back my hind-end against a hot radiator. Even my long-johns, Kevlar, and jacket were no match against the cold that night.

After I’d thawed out, I’d settled into a seat and was skimming through newspaper headlines when someone pressed the buzzer out at the main gate. One of the on-duty jailers pushed the “talk” button on the intercom and said, “Whadda you want, Perkins?” I glanced over at the monitor and saw Ridley holding a round object up toward the camera. It appeared to be a ball of some sort. He pushed the outside talk button and said, “I brung you something. A Christmas present.”

The jailer, a soft-hearted older man, slipped on his jacket and said he was going out to try and talk Ridley into going to a shelter for the night, something Ridley rarely ever did. He despised their “no tolerance for alcohol rule.” Before going out, the jailer poured some hot coffee into a Styrofoam cup and took it with him to give to his visitor.

A few minutes later the jailer returned with an orange, saying Ridley told him that he’d used some of his begging proceeds to buy it for him as a Christmas present. He claimed to have done so because the jailer had always been kind to him and treated him like a man and not as a criminal, or a drunk. We both knew that chances were good that he’d either stolen the orange from a local grocer or that someone had given it to him. But that he’d brought it to the jailer was still a kind gesture.

Ridley accepted the coffee from the jailer, and the advice about the shelter, and then headed off into the cold. He ambled past the reach of the camera, and that was the last time anyone saw him alive.

I found Ridley’s body the next night, inside an old abandoned car. He’d apparently gone there to get away from the wind and the blowing snowfall that had started up in the early morning hours. Hypothermia had claimed his life. He’d frozen to death.

On the floorboard near Ridley’s hand were an empty Styrofoam cup and a small pile of orange peelings.

*This is a true story, however, the name Ridley Perkins is fictitious.


Sometimes it’s the tiniest detail that makes a setting pop, zing, and sizzle. They’re the little things that cause readers to sit up and take notice. They evoke emotion and stir memories of real life experiences. They’re the things that make readers leave everything behind and step into the worlds you’ve created. After all, a well-written and well-crafted setting can be a character in its own right, and it’s equally as important as the fictional people who live within the covers of your books.

A great example of a writer who’s mastered the art of setting is superstar author James Lee Burke. Burke, whose settings are incredibly detailed, are written from the heart and the details he creates shine through in every letter of every word. His scenes and characters are deeply layered and this is so because he often relies on personal life experiences.

Burke often talks about having worked in the Texas oilfields, and as a surveyor. He taught school and was employed once as a social worker. As a reporter, he wrote for a  newspaper. Like many of us in our early years, and even later in life, money was tight back in the day for Burke and his family. They’d lived in a garage, motels, and a trailer. Thirty years ago, Burke was an alcoholic.

It is the combination of Burke’s experiences that offers inspiration for his writings. He’s also adamant that writers should be aware of the people around them.

During a 2015 interview with Publishers Weekly, Burke said, “A good writer is a good listener. The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we’ll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday, just as the great heroes, the real gladiators, are usually standing next to us in the grocery checkout.”

I’vr often heard writers speaking about adding to their next book a bit of information they heard while at a writers conference. Last year, for example, at the Writers’ Poilce Academy,  Tod and Lee Goldberg saw a sign featuring a unique business name. Both authors claimed “dibs” at using the name in a future book.

Lee Child once asked me about the typical items stored in the trunk of a patrol car. He needed a speck of detail for a Reacher book. J.A. Jance once asked me about driving and skidding on icy roads. The scant bit of information was vital to an opening scene of a book that, as usual with Judy, quickly turned into a bestseller.

Donald and Renee Bain used to contact me often when they needed information for their Murder She Wrote series. Stuart Kaminsky called on both Denene and me for material. Lee Golderg … more of the same—tiny details for a Monk book. James Lee Burke asked about fingerprints, a very specific but small detail and, like the others who contact various experts, much of the information was needed to “perk-up’ a scene, paragraph, sentence, or dialog. Sometimes all that’s needed is a single word … proper terminology.

So … when writing about cops and when you really want to insert something special into your twisted and thrilling tales of mystery, suspense, and/or romance, ask an expert for unique behind the scenes details that will surprise the reader.  Show your fans that you’ve done your homework. After all, your goal is to entertain and please the people who spend their hard-earned money to purchase the books you’ve labored over for the past nine months, creating something special just for them.

Unique Cop Stuff

To help out, here are a few tiny specks of information you might find intriguing.

  1. A kevlar vest typically doesn’t quite reach the waistband of the wearer, which leaves a gap of a couple of inches between the bottom of the vest and the belt area of the pants. Nothing there but shirt material and flesh. Therefore, when sliding in and out of a police car, the hard and dense material of the vest sometimes catches and pinches a bit of “love handle,” and it feels like you’d imagine. It hurts and causes the officer to wince. Although, if people are around at the time, the officer will suck it up and pretend it didn’t happen. Still, that tiny tear in the corner of the eye is a dead giveaway. OUCH!
  2. While wearing a Kevlar vest, officers typically wear an undershirt of some type. The problem, though, is that the undershirt often “rides up” with all of the climbing in-and-out of patrol cars and scuffling with bad guys that officers do all shift long. So, to avoid the uncomfortable bunching-up of material that you can’t get to without stripping down, some officers tuck the tail of their undershirt into their underwear. The elastic band of the “Fruit of the Looms” holds the t-shirt firmly in place.
  3. Officers sometimes store an extra set of cuffs on the spotlight control arm.

    While driving along, especially on bumpy and curvy roads, etc., there’s a constant “click” of metal tapping metal as the handcuffs hanging from the spotlight arm sway with the motions of the car. After a while, though, the noise is “tuned out” and simply becomes a part of the cacophony of sounds inside the patrol vehicle—constant police radio chatter, FM radio station, the drunk yelling and singing from the backseat, and even a partner going on and on about his kids or the big fish he caught, or the mangled dead body they’d discovered at a crash scene earlier in the night.

4. Police departments use many symbols of rank designation. Some department supervisors wear white shirts (some departments issue white shirts to all officers), while others issue gold badges to their higher-ranking officers. But the easiest way to tell an officer’s rank is to look at their collar insignia. Each pin is a representation of the officer’s rank.

Collar insignias, beginning with the top ranking officer (chief)

Colonel, or Chief (some chiefs prefer to be addressed as Colonel) – An eagle (birds) on each collar

Sheriffs and chiefs may also wear a series of stars to indicate their rank.

Major – Oak leaf on each collar

Captain – Two bars on each collar (the two bars are often called “railroad tracks,” a great detail to include in a story)

Lieutenant – One bar on each collar

Sergeant hree stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve (photo below)

Sometimes rank is indicated on the badge.

Corporal – Two stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve

Officer – Chevron, or single stripe


Hash marks on the sleeve indicate length of service.

For example, each hash mark normally represents five years on the job. Sometimes, to avoid a sleeve fully-covered in long row of hash marks, stars are often used to represent each five years served. In the case of the officer/police chief above, each star in the circle represents five years of service, plus four hash marks, each of which, in this case, indicate a single year. So, 5 stars and 4 hash marks = a total of 29 years on the job.

Other pins and medals worn by officers may include …

Copy (2) of 20150713_092344

Here’s a closer look at the bling.

(from top to bottom):

– Name tag.

– Award ribbons – Community service award, length of service, expert marksman, lifesaving award, medal of valor.

– Pistol expert (to earn this award the officer must consistently shoot an average of 95% or better on the range).

– FTO pin worn by field training officers.

– K9 pin worn by K9 officers.

– Indicates outstanding service, above and beyond.

*Remember, ribbons and pins and other do-dads will vary by individual departments and agencies.


Pins on the back of name tags, ribbons, etc. are used to attach the insignias to an officer’s uniform. A small clasp (similar to an ear ring backing) is pressed over the pin tips to hold them in place.

Unfortunately, the clasps often fall off during scuffles with rowdy bad guys and, if the officer is not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, which was typical “back in the day,” could result in the pin tips puncturing the officer’s skin.

For a quick fix in the field, lost clasps can be temporarily replaced with pencil erasers.

Okay, that’s the tip of the detail iceberg. Questions?

“The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand.” ~ Robert Lewis Stevenson

It was a cold January night back in 1975, a night when the temperatures dipped to the mid 20s. There were no clouds in the coal-black sky, but the overhead inky nothingness was peppered with thousands of tiny off-white dots—winking and flickering wintertime stars.

The victim, a fragile 88-year-old retired school teacher, Eva Jones, was in her modest home located less than a hundred yards, just short of a football field’s distance, from the local police department. She was at home alone, typical of most evenings, when the stranger forced his way through the front door.

Minutes later the elderly woman had been choked, raped, and robbed of $40 cash, all the money she had in her possession. Her attacker then slipped away as quickly as he’d arrived.

The old woman managed to get to her phone and dialed the number to summon police. When the dispatcher answered the call she heard a female voice gasping for breathe as she pleaded for help. Since the station was within sight of her home, officers arrived right away and found the partially-clad victim of the brutal assault.

Two hours later, after being transported to the hospital, Eva Jones was dead. Before she died, though, she told police that “a negro man had torn her clothes off and had choked her.” No further details. Just the man’s race. And then she was gone, leaving police with little—practically nothing—to help with their investigation.

During the next few days police questioned several men who’d been seen in the area, nearly two dozen, or so, but they were each cleared and sent on their way. Eventually, officers set their sights on a 32-year-old man, Curtis Jasper Moore, who’d been recently released from a psychiatric hospital.

Investigators interrogated the man for approximately six hours, nonstop, but Moore never, not once, admitted involvement in the murder of the woman. During the taped questioning, the man repeatedly hummed the theme song of a popular western television show. His mind and thoughts strayed from the matters at hand, and his statements were inconsistent. Some of his words, though, were taken as incriminatory.

So police took the man to the woman’s house—the scene of the murder—hoping the visit would illicit a confession. Again, some of his words, while confusing, were thought to be incriminating, including a couple of statements that seemed to indicate that he’d been inside the woman’s home on the night of the killing. That scant bit of “evidence” was enough for police officers who desperately wanted to close the case. Public and political pressure to do so, of course, was great. They arrested Moore for the murder and rape of the former educator.

A little over three years later, Curtis Moore, the severely mentally-challenged man, was convicted of murder, rape, and robbery and was sentenced to serve life in prison. His guilt was based almost entirely on the statements he’d made to police. There was no physical evidence that connected him to the murder scene. Due to his diminished mental capacity Moore was sent to a psychiatric hospital.

Court appointed attorneys filed state appeals on his behalf but all were denied. Next, a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed. It was only then when a U.S.  District Judge ordered the confession suppressed and set aside the conviction.

The judge ruled that the interrogation was improper because the man had not been offered the Miranda warning until after at least four hours of interrogation had passed. The judge also determined that the state was unable to prove that the man understood his rights after investigators finally got around to advising him.

It took a year and half after the judge’s ruling for the appeals court to affirm his decision, and when they did, finally, the man was released from prison pending a new trial. It was three years after his conviction that he was able to set foot outside of institutional walls.

Prosectors, with no evidence on which to rely, elected to not pursue the case and dismissed it..

Twenty-four years later, the governor of Virginia ordered testing of biological evidence that was found contained in the files of a recently deceased state crime analyst, Mary Jane Burton. Burton, for whatever reason, secretly taped small swatches of biological evidence—samples she used for blood typing—to her test sheets and then placed those sheets in her permanent hard-copy files.

The Burton evidence was discovered in 2001 when The Innocence Project requested all files on behalf of Marvin Anderson, a man convicted of rape. He fought and continued fighting to prove his innocence after his release from prison based on Burton’s saved/hidden evidence..

But saving bits of biological evidence was not the norm. Actually, by preserving the samples the examiner violated the lab protocol that all evidence was to be returned to the submitting agencies/investigators. However, by breaking department rules, the saved evidence samples were indeed tested per the order of the governor and the results produced were nothing short of stunning.

The rule-breaking, highly-meticulous Mary Jane Burton and I have a couple of loosely-based connections.

  • It was Mary Jane Burton who determined the identifying characteristics of biological evidence that would later convict Timothy Spencer, the serial killer known as The Southside Strangler. Spencer was the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death based on DNA evidence. I witnessed Spencer’s execution via electric chair.

Author Patricia Cornwell worked in the state lab at the same time as Burton. Dr. Marcella Fierro, the state’s chief medical examiner, a colleague of Burton was the inspiration for Cornwell’s character Kay Scarpetta. Dr. Fierro’s office conducted the autopsy on the bank robber I was forced to shoot and kill during a shootout beside a major interstate highway. Dr. Fierro and her assistant had dinner with Denene and me at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond, Va. the night Denene received her PhD.

  • In 2008, the evidence in the Jones murder case that was found in Burton’s file was submitted to the lab for DNA testing. The DNA tests proved that, without a doubt, the murder of Eva Jones could not have been committed by Curtis Jasper Moore.


Instead, the DNA was a solid match to a man named Thomas Pope Jr. Pope’s DNA was in the system because he’d been convicted of abduction and forcible sodomy in 1991. He was paroled in 2003.


My connection to Thomas Pope, Jr.? I’ve had the “pleasure” of investigating and arresting him a couple of times over the years, including for sexual assault (not in the same area as the Eva Jones murder, though). Unfortunately, at the time I arrested Pope his DNA had not yet been entered into CODIS. Somewhere in my files, I still have a copy of one of the Pope’s arrest warrants.


Curtis Jasper Moore didn’t live long enough to learn  that he’d been totally exonerated. He died in California in 2006.


The two officers who interrogated Moore have since passed away, as well. One committed suicide in the mid nineties. The other died of natural causes. Both were elected and served many years as sheriffs in Virginia.


On March 24, 2010, Thomas Pope,Jr., 55, was finally convicted of the rape and murder of Eva Jones, the retired, elderly school teacher. He was sentenced to life in prison.

I imagine Pope is currently residing in a state-run prison somewhere in Virginia after nearly and literally getting away with murder because two cops flirted with disaster by allowing tunnel vision and political pressure take over their investigation. And for taking advantage of an obviously mentally ill man.


Officers must be on high alert at every moment during each and every traffic stop. Actually, they must remain in that heightened state of “ready for anything” from the moment they activate their blue lights until the stop is complete and they’re back in the safety of their patrol cars and the stopped vehicle is on its way..

After all, officers never know what to expect. A driver could be wanted for a serious crime, such as murder or rape or threats against the lives of police officers. Is he carrying dangerous drugs or other contraband? Is he armed? Are there explosives in the car? Is this an ambush? Suicide by cop? The list goes on and on.

Police academy instructors teach recruits how to be safe. They set up mock exercises simulating scenarios that officers could encounter once they hit the streets. Role-playing is a big part of academy training. Still, all the training in the world cannot cover every real-life situation. No two traffic stops are the same, nor are any two calls.

In spite of the intense training, traffic stops are one of the most dangerous duties of police work. There are many unknowns. Too many. And the danger level is amplified many times when stopping a car at night.

Imagine that it’s 2 a.m. and you’re patrolling a lonely stretch of highway when you spot a black SUV parked on the shoulder of the road. Headlights and brake lights are both on. The driver, of course, has his foot on the pedal, meaning at least one person is inside the vehicle.

You pull in behind the car and flip the toggle switches to activate your blue strobes and takedown lights (to let them know you’re a police officer and to illuminate as much of the area as possible). *See bottom of page for more takedown lights.

Then, after sizing-up the situation, you step outside and immediately hear loud music blaring from the car’s speakers. The car’s windows are tinted black and you can’t see inside, but the motions of the vehicle tell you people are moving around.

To make things even worse there’s no moonlight or streetlamps. For all you know, the driver and an unknown number of passengers could be pointing machine guns at you. Your nearest backup is a good twenty minutes away. Believe me, it’s unnerving, to say the least.

Each officer has his/her own way of doing things and they often develop routines to help avoid missing details. The officer in the picture above, for example, has positioned her patrol car on an angle to the roadway, with the front tires also angled out toward the street. Any idea why she chose do park her patrol car in such a way?

Patrol car parked on an angle

Patrol car parked on angle with wheels pointed out.

She has her left hand on the trunk of the car. Why not her right hand? She’s looking ahead at the passing car while keeping the driver in her line of vision. She’s standing a certain way. Actually, it appears that she’s doing everything right. Good for her, because she had no idea a photographer was behind her. We were pretty sneaky.

Hand on the trunk

Left hand on trunk lid. Right hand free. Body angled as well.

Wait a minute. If a camera-toting writer and her supervisor could sneak up behind her … well, why couldn’t a cop killer do the same? The answer is yes, and it’s extremely important hat officers remain aware of all surrounding while approaching a car and while dealing with the driver, passengers, traffic, pedestrians, etc.

Okay, enough of my rambling. It’s time to put the shiny shoe on the other foot. I’m asking each of you to tell me why the officer decided to do the things she’d done. And, is there anything else she could have done to ensure her safety?

Remember, she wants to go home at the end of her shift, and she wants to make it there without any bullet holes perforating her body.

Light Bar

The light bar on the vehicle’s top features white takedown lights (front), and side alley lights. These lights are merely white spotlights that’re used to illuminate specific items, or people, during traffic stops and other situations. Alley lights can be switched on to illuminate areas to the side of the patrol car, allowing the officer to see down alleyways, inside store windows and door areas, yards of residences, etc. An excellent tool for patrol officers.

Takedown lights


Alley lights

In addition, they have use of a movable spotlight that’s mounted to the driver’s side between the doorframe and windshield. Officers sometimes store an extra set of cuffs on the spotlight control arm.

Here’s an interesting point to note for writers who’re searching for a bit of flavor to a scene.

While driving along, especially on bumpy and curvy roads, etc., there’s a constant “click” of metal tapping metal as the handcuffs hanging from the spotlight arm sway with the motions of the car. After a while, though, the noise is “tuned out” and simply becomes a part of the cacophony of sounds inside the patrol vehicle—constant police radio chatter, FM radio station, the drunk yelling and singing from the backseat, and even a partner going on and on about his kids or the big fish he caught, or the mangled dead body they’d discovered at a crash scene earlier in the night.

The light bar is also equipped with red and/or blue emergency lights. Some light bars are equipped with speakers for the siren (siren horns are also mounted behind the front grill). Other light bars contain hidden radar antennas. The positioning and style of light bars depend on the individual department policies.

Light colors and the combination thereof may be dictated by state or local law. Such as, in Virginia:

Code of Virginia

§ 46.2-1022. Flashing or steady-burning blue or red, flashing red and blue or blue and white, or red, white, and blue warning lights.

Certain Department of Military Affairs vehicles and certain Virginia National Guard vehicles designated by the Adjutant General, when used in state active duty to perform particular law-enforcement functions, Department of Corrections vehicles designated by the Director of the Department of Corrections, and law-enforcement vehicles may be equipped with flashing, blinking, or alternating blue, blue and red, blue and white, or red, white, and blue combination warning lights of types approved by the Superintendent. Such warning lights may be of types constructed within turn signal housings or motorcycle headlight housings, subject to approval by the Superintendent.Law-enforcement vehicles may also be equipped with steady-burning blue or red warning lights of types approved by the Superintendent.

Please help me

I need your help. I’m desperate. Truly desperate.

Our daughter has been in an exhaustive battle with cancer for just over a year. She’s a real fighter and her last scan showed no signs of the disease. Excellent news, believe me. A miracle, actually, But her troubles didn’t stop there. She’s still very ill and weak and is suffering greatly from the effects of chemo and radiation.

Hospital, doctor, and pharmacy bills are over the moon. She just received two bills totaling over $13,000, her part of the bill after insurance paid theirs. Ellen’s family is experiencing a financial crisis. In addition to the cancer-related expenses, she had surgery on both eyes this week, and their home and property experienced damage during the recent hurricane. Part of that damage caused their septic system to fail. They now must use a port-a-john that’s situated at the end of their drive way. They pump water from their bathtub and sink using a sump pump. Having cancer woes is bad enough, but to have to go outside to an outhouse in the middle of night during the winter is awful.

Paying everyday bills along with the mountain of medical bills and insurance premiums is a juggling act just to keep utilities working and switched on.

Now it’s Christmas time, Ellen’s favorite time of the year. She cherishes it, actually. She missed last Christmas due to treatments. She has no memory of it at all. The same for much of the past year.

This year she’s well enough to enjoy the holidays. However, her husband, who’s the sole wage-earner, has been working reduced hours and, as a result, they often have to supplement his pay so that their health insurance will continue. Yes, he’s actually paying the company because he’s not earning enough to cover insurance. His company had to reduce hours because they make parts for GM vehicles and, as you’ve probably heard, GM is closing plants and laying off workers. Having to pay to work at the company means there’s no money for food, heat, water, gas, etc. Sometimes it’s less than no money.

They have a teenage son who’s trying to help out, but he missed two months of school after the hurricane destroyed much of his school.

Their gym and training area is still closed, meaning he and his teammates have no place to train and to prepare for matches with competing schools.

Tyler’s longterm goal is to earn a wrestling scholarship so he can attend college. He’s aware of the devastating effect that cancer has been on family finances. His sights are also set on the Olympics.

So, like a true champion, he borrowed mats from his coach and rolls them out in his backyard where he and a few of his teammates practice on their own time and as often as they can.

Tyler, a true champion, recently first place at the Swiss Bear Wrestling Classic. He won the 170 title match via a 52-second pin over the final competitor. Last weekend he won the gold in his weight class at the massive Beast of the East wrestling tournament. 178 wrestlers competed with only 14 winning the top spots.

Ellen and her family are true fighters but currently they’re at the bottom of a very large and extremely steep hill. With nowhere else to turn for help I’ve come to you. So if you can, please. No amount is too small or large. Anything to help them at least experience a good Christmas.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Please click here to contribute (it’s Ellen’s GoFundMe page).

Ellen, my sweet little girl. Always.


Experts are often asked what kind of entrance and exit wounds are produced by ammunition. The rounds in the photograph below are hollow point bullets similar to the rounds fired from the Thompson sub-machine gun I’m holding in the top and quite ancient photo. I pulled the picture from the buried crypt where I keep my old cop stuff..


The .45 caliber rounds above are about the diameter of the Sharpie pens authors use to sign books. That’s pretty close to the size of most entrance wounds—very close to the size of the bullet.

Pictured below is an entrance wound caused by 9mm round at point blank range, a close contact gunshot wound. Obviously, this was a fatal wound since I took this picture during the autopsy of the victim. Note the post-autopsy stitching of the “Y” incision (above right of the photo).

Also notice the charred flesh around the wound. This was caused by the heat of the round as it contacted the victim’s skin. The bruising around the wound was, of course, caused by the impact.


9mm bullet wound to the chest—close range.

Next is one of the .45  rounds after it was fired from the Thompson machine gun.

Firing the Thompson at a sheriff’s office indoor range in Ohio. Notice the piece of ejected brass to the right of the major’s arm. I took the photo and was lucky enough to capture the shot of the brass casing during its fall to the floor.

The round passed through the paper target, through several feet of thick foam rubber, through the self-healing wall tiles of the firing range, and then struck the concrete and steel wall behind the foam. The deformed bullet finally came to rest on the floor. Remember, though, that this all occurred in the blink of an eye, or quicker.

The above image shows a .45 round (above left between the 3″ and 4″ mark on the ruler) after a head-on strike with concrete and steel. The other distorting of bullets occurred when striking various surfaces from a variety of angles—ricochet rounds.

Remember yesterday’s article where I detailed the parts of a cartridge? The bullet is the projectile portion of a cartridge, not the entire round.

Hitting the hard solid surface head-on caused the .45 bullet to expand and fracture which creates the often larger exit wounds we see in shooting victims.

Many times, those bullet slivers break off inside the body causing further internal damage.

The size of an exit wound also depends on what the bullet hits inside the body. If the bullet only hits soft tissue the wound will be less traumatic. If it hits bone, expect much more damage. Easy rule of thumb—the larger the caliber (bullet size), the bigger the hole.

Bullets that hit something other than their intended target, such as a brick wall or metal lamp post, can break apart sending pieces of flying copper and lead fragments (shrapnel) into crowds of innocent bystanders. Those flying ricochet fragments are just as lethal as as any intact, full-sized bullet.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Bullets don’t always stop people. I’ve seen shooting victims get up and run after they’ve been shot several times. And for goodness sake, people don’t fly twenty feet backward after they’ve been struck by a bullet. They just fall down and bleed. They may even moan a lot, or curse. That’s if they don’t get back up and start shooting again. Simply because a suspect has been shot once or twice does not mean his ability, or desire, to kill the officer is over, and that, writers, is why police officers are taught to shoot until the threat is over.

The bank robber I shot and killed during a shootout fell after each of the five rounds hit him. But he also stood and began firing again after each of my bullets struck—one to the head and four to the center of his chest area. After the fifth round he stood and charged officers. Four of the five rounds caused fatal wounds. In another instance, a man engaged in a gun battle with several officers. He was shot 33 times and still continued walking toward officers.

Always keep Sir Isaac Newton and his Third Law of Motion in mind when writing shooting scenes. The size of the force on the first object must equal the size of the force on the second object–forces always come in pairs.

Here’s Professor Dave to explain …


So, if your scene shows the shooting victim flying that twenty feet away from the person firing the rounds, the shooter would also fly twenty feet in the opposite direction. Ah, sounds silly, right? So toss this one in the trash can along with the use of cordite. No, no, and NO!

Equal and Opposite Reaction—Newton’s Cradle

Using fired bullets and casing examinations to solve murders is not a new thing. Not at all. In fact, I recall a case I worked back in the 80s where a man was murdered/executed by a drug dealer and a couple of his “employees.”

They’d kidnapped the fellow, a crack addict, because he’d ripped off the dealer by pinching cocaine from the supply he was supposed to sell, replacing it with pieces of soap which he peddled as the real thing. Customers quickly grew angry and, well, that’s when life grew short for the addict.

The trio of drug dealers took the addict to a secluded spot down a long and rarely used country road where they forced him to get on his knees. One of the men then fired a .32 round into addict’s head. They then pulled the body into the woods and left it for animals and weather to dispose of it.

One of the three couldn’t live with what they’d done so he contacted me. But he said right then and there that he’d never in a million years testify against the gang leader. I understood.

Without his testimony or further assistance, I knew I had find evidence that would connect the men to the crime. So I tailed the dealer day-in and day-out until he got careless and gave me a reason to search him. Long story short, the gun I found tucked in his waistband matched the one used to kill the kidnapped man.

Lab scientists at the Virginia Department of Forensic Science used a variety of methods to determine the match. Some of what they do when these things are presented to them for testing and comparison are:

Measure the base diameter of the evidence bullet and compare this measurement with known measurements published in reference material.

Determine the number and widths of the lands and grooves and compare to those in the current edition of the AFTE glossary.

Determine the widths of one land and groove impression. Then multiply by the number of total land and groove impressions. Use the mathematical formula C=πd to determine the circumference of the bullet.

Spiral grooves are cut into a gun barrel to produce rifling. Lands are the raised portions between the grooves.

Rifling – spiral grooves cut into a gun barrel in order to produce spin on the projectile. The spin/spiraling stabilizes it while in flight.

The categories of rifling characteristics are:

  • caliber (bore diameter),
  • number of land and grooves
  • direction of twist (the cut grooves produce the bullet’s spin which, in turn, improves accuracy and distance).
  • land and groove impression dimensions.


Physical characteristics of the evidence bullet—weight, shape, composition, nose design, and number and placement of cannelures, may help to determine the caliber of the fired round.


If a suspect firearm is submitted, a direct microscopic comparison is done between test-fired bullets and the submitted questioned bullet. ~ FBI

The FBI’s General Rifling Characteristics File (GRC) is often utilized when attempting to determine possible firearm types that could have fired an evidence bullet. This extensive file is particularly useful when the firearm used has not been located.

  • Comparison Microscope
  • Caliper/Micrometer/Ruler
  • Scale/Balance
  • Ammunition references
  • Stereo Microscope
  • Stereomicroscope (provides three dimensional viewing of a bullet).

When examining fired bullets, and when comparing them to known samples (bullets test-fired from suspect’s weapon and compared to round found at the scene or inside a body), investigators and/or scientists should record the following information

  • Caliber/gauge
  • Bullet/slug weight
  • The number of land and grooves
  • Direction of twist
  • Width of  lands
  • Width of grooves
  • Bullet diameter.
  • Composition of bullet.
  • Style.
  • Manufacturer/marketer of bullet/projectile. If applicable, use reference materials such as an ammunition database.
  • Detailed description  of the bullet.
  • Note type and position of cannelures.
  • Note any foreign/extraneous markings—shave marks, flared base, etc.
  • If possible, compare marks on bullets with tests from a firearm or with other bullets.

For nearly two decades, ATF has maintained a database of ballistic evidence (since 1999). The database—National Integrated Ballistic Information Network—contains well over 3 million bits of evidence and information that’s available to all law enforcement agencies.

Remember, writers, modern ammunition uses “smokeless” powder. It’s fairly stable, the quality is uniform, and it leaves little residue and a less offensive odor. IT IS NOT CORDITE!!!! Cordite manufacturing ceased at the end of WWII.

The characters in your stories CANNOT smell cordite, unless, of course, you’re writing historical fiction.