It was a Saturday morning, a day when the temperature had already reached the mid 80s and the southern air with was packed with enough humidity to make it appear as if a quick rain shower had passed through. Condensation on the windows of the county jail, the red brick building that also housed our offices, was dense enough to obscure the view outside. Even our brown patrol cars appeared to be perspiring. Moisture dripped from the leaves of the tall oaks that had lived on the courthouse lawn since the days of the Civil War. In fact, one of those trees served as the “hanging tree” back in the day. Jail inmates sat in their cells wearing nothing but sweat-soaked boxer shorts and white socks. The day was indeed on track to be a real scorcher.
I know, never start a story with the weather, but this is real life, not fiction. I’m not writing that first line, the hook, to grab your attention.
This day, the one mentioned above, was brutally hot. I mentioned the temperature because, as is with most instances involving police, it’s important that you know that temperatures and weather conditions often play a huge role in their profession.
It’s also important that each and every word in your tales has meaning and that each one has a purpose. For me, based on personal experience, weather can be “a character” in a story and it’s sometimes as important as the hero, the villain, or the victim. I say this because …
Words Melt Everyone
“Man it’s a hot one
Like seven inches from the midday sun
Well I hear you whisper and the words melt everyone
But you stay so cool” ~ “Smooth” by Santana, featuring Rob Thomas
Weather conditions are part of the equation, just as are criminals, courts, judges, and guns, including being a part of the smallest of details of a murder scene. Winter, spring, summer, fall, snow, sun, rain, and wind all play a role in the real world of cops and robbers. It has purpose and it has meaning.
Such as the mid August day in Savannah, Ga. when heat and humidity make you practically gasp for every breath like it could be your last, and when bending over to have a look at a victim’s body at the precise moment when that lone drop of sweat reaches the tip of your nose and you absolutely must prevent its fall to stop your DNA from commingling with that of the killer.
Or when preparing to enter an abandoned warehouse to search for the armed robber who was last seen going inside. It’s 10 degrees outside and the grip of your gun is ice-cold to the touch. Your hands are nearly numb and you can’t feel your toes because you’re standing in three feet of freshly-fallen Boston snow. The combination of fear, frigid temperatures, and freezing digits cause your hands to tremble ever so slightly. Will you be able to shoot straight and accurately if the time comes and if your very life depends upon that first shot?
The wind howls outside, concealing the sounds of a bad guy’s movements. Is he in front of you, to the side or to the rear? You don’t know because the only thing you hear is the sound of your own heart thumping wildly against the inside of your chest wall. That and the limbs of the old hackberry tree scratching and scraping across the weathered clapboard siding with each gust of swirling air.
So yes, weather is an important aspect of police work.
Saturdays are for Fishing, Not Killing
There were only two of us assigned to patrol the county that hot day, which was not a big deal because Saturdays were typically slow. Weekend nights were the times when the action jumped off. I suppose that most trouble-makers’ daytimes were reserved for rest, fishing, lawn mowing, recuperating from hangovers, and driving out to the back forty to plink a few rounds at tin cans and discarded refrigerators and rusty clothes washers. Fun times.
Some folks visited community swimming pools and a few teens would head out to the old gravel pit to swill cheap beer and to smoke weed and for dip in the water. It’a place where at least one kid drowned each summer and usually within the next day or two we’d find the bloated body tangled in the branches of fallen trees, if a state police diver wasn’t able to immediately locate the victim in the incredibly deep water.
Sometimes we’d interview a sobbing 15- or 16-year-old girl who reeked of stale beer and pot smoke, a doe-eyed kid who’d stand on the ledge and weep and point to where she last saw him, right after she’d begged him to not leap of into the water from the rocky cliff. He’s a good swimmer, she’d say, but we’d been drinking and his buddies dared him to do it. So he did. Of course, she wouldn’t mention the weed or that her top was on backward or that her shorts were on inside out.
The 911 Call
My fellow deputy and I began our shift at 0800 that Saturday and we’d decided to catch up on a bit of paperwork at the office before going our separate ways, making ourselves seen throughout the county. Nothing much happened before noon on Saturdays anyway.
It was 9:30 when a man called the dispatcher to say he’d just killed his sister-in-law and that the “911 lady” should send “the Po-leece” right away. Then he hung up.
So each of us sprinted to our patrol cars and left the front of the jail with red and blue lights winking, spinning, and blinking. Throughout the city streets we blasted our sirens at intersections and when we drove up behind the Saturday morning Q-tips who were in town to do their weekly shopping—the older ladies of a certain age to get their hair styled and molded into those blueish helmet shapes, and the men who stopped in the barbershops for a snip here and there and to have the barber apply enough tonic to keep the combover in place while they visited the feed store to browse through the rows of shiny red or green mowers and tractors. Then, when enough time passed the tractor-lookers would toss their canes into the backseats of their Ramblers or Buicks and head back over to Betty’s Cut and Curl to pick up the wife so together they could do their grocery shopping and perhaps have a bite to eat at the diner before traveling at a snail’s pace back to the farm.
They were slow drivers who never, not ever, looked into their rearview mirrors. So we’d follow behind with full lights and sirens until we caught a break in traffic so we could pass.
This day, though, we pushed the limit, zipping through town until we reached the main county road that led us in the direction of the alleged murder. The location was 30-40 minutes away when driving the speed limit. We reached scene in less than 20. As the truckers’ used to say, it was pedal to the metal all the way. We straightened curves by taking advantage of “the racing line” of the roadway.
For those of you who don’t know, a driver who follows a racing line greatly reduces the angle of a curve by entering it at a the far outside edge of the roadway and then crosses over to the inside edge, the apex. The apex is the point at which you are closest to the inside of the corner. The turn/curve is then completed by moving back to far outside edge of the roadway. This maneuver is sometimes called “hitting the apexes.” It reduces braking and “straightens the curve” which allows the officer to drive safely through curves at a much faster speed. However, it is a must to constantly remain alert for oncoming traffic since some of the officers’ curve-straightening involves driving on the opposite side of the road.
Standing beside a mailbox at the end of a long dirt drive was a man dressed in a red and white striped shirt, white pants, and brown work boots. As we turned into the driveway I noticed what appeared to be a significant amount of blood spatter on his clothing and shoes, so I stopped. He was obviously agitated, excited, and he rambled on incessantly about that fact that he’d just arrived to earth from Mars. I handcuffed him, placed him in the seat beside me (we didn’t have rear cages), and hurried to the house.
My coworker and I raced to the door and went inside, yelling “Sheriff’s Department!”
What we found in the home, in the master bedroom, was nothing short of the stuff horror movies are made of.
Blood ran down the painted drywall in narrow but rapidly drying convoluted trails. Spatter of various sizes and shapes was everywhere—ceiling, walls, the floor. A severed human hand lay next to one wall. I’d later count 13 chop marks in the hardwood next to it. Pools of rusty-red blood separated by drag marks of the same color and substance led to the body of a dead woman, a female who died a brutal death caused by the repeated blows of an ax.
The woman’s forearms were badly cut, signs that she’d attempted to stop dozens of strikes of the ax. A large gash to the right side of her head revealed the white of her skull, bone that had been hacked and chipped away, revealing brain matter. Some of it was found stuck to the ceiling.
Small bits of splintered bone were scattered across the floor.
Blood spatter was also on the furniture, including a king-size bed. It’s dull brownish-red hue was in sharp contrast to the crisp white sheets. More spatter was on the faces, hands, legs, feet, and kids’ pajamas worn by the woman’s four small children who sat huddled together on the center of the mattress. They’d witnessed the entire act, a murder that occurred for the simple reason that the killer had asked his sister-in-law for enough money to purchase a pack of cigarettes. She didn’t have it so the man walked outside to the woodpile where he picked up the ax and went back inside to kill her.
The first blow was from behind, to the head. We pieced together that at that point the woman went down but turned and held up her arms and hands to fend off the onslaught that followed.
When I questioned the killer, he claimed to have come to earth from Mars and that voices from a tower told him to kill the woman. He also said he’d cut off her hand because it kept pointing at him.
He’d been tucked away in a psychiatric care hospital until two weeks prior to the murder. His release came when a sympathetic judge found him competent to return to life outside, placing him in the care of his brother. Fourteen days later the brother’s wife was dead and his four kids were scarred for life.
The killer was found to be not competent to stand trial for the murder and has remained in an air-conditioned psychiatric facility since.