Wednesday, August 25, 2004

A sick remembrance

In 1986 I was working as a reporter in a small city in northwest Oklahoma, covering the police beat. Most of the time the most serious thing I had to worry about was collecting the public records from the court clerk, police station and fire department. Usually routine stuff that only interested the people involved, and usually only because it meant their name was in the paper.

That innocent, lazy routine changed abruptly in mid-May. When I arrived at the office that afternoon for my usual night shift, the publisher and two managing editors were huddled in a corner office and called me in as soon as I walked through the door.

They were discussing whether I was tough enough to cover the day's horrible story -- the rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl. I gasped, covered my face and swallowed hard. Once the initial shock had passed through my body, I assured them I could do whatever needed to be done, no matter how much I disliked what had happened.

We made a plan outlining how I'd work this story. First, I would go to the apartment complex where the girl had lived with her mother and siblings. It was a Section 8 complex and there had been plenty of rumors spreading among the residents.

Investigators determined later that the girl's mother had put her children to bed and then went to another apartment about 1:30 a.m. to party. When the party started winding down at 4:30 a.m., she invited three men to come back to her place.

About 7:15, witnesses reported seeing one of the three men carrying the little girl away from the apartment. A woman in her 80s identified a suspect from photographs -- one of the men who had been partying with the mother.

A little later that morning, the mother didn't find the girl in her bed when she went to wake her for school. Apparently she assumed the girl had already left for school. It was a couple of hours later when she called the school and was told the girl never arrived; at 10 a.m. she filed a missing persons report with the local police. She had no idea police had already found her daughter, dead.

I talked to neighbors, asking them if they had seen anything or heard anything, whether they noticed anything out of the ordinary. Lots of people wanted to talk, but it was the kind of talk that had no credibility. Mostly talk about how "that woman" never took care of her kids and was always running around. They talked about how late the party had gone in the other apartment. I made note of names and phone numbers, thanked everyone for their help with this horrible story, and moved on.

Next I went to the address where the girl's body had been found in a detached garage. Black fingerprint powder covered the outside of the garage -- the overhead door as well as the side door, which apparently was never kept locked. It was a couple of blocks from the girl's apartment.

The owner of the house was an elderly woman who had dementia. Her caretaker met me at the door and asked that we outside to talk, explaining the woman had no idea what had happened in her garage. There was no sense in upsetting her with questions or information because she obviously had not been outside a few rooms of her house for years. I told the older woman I was really happy to meet her and wished her a good afternoon. She was thrilled to have had the company.

Outside, the caretaker showed me around the back yard and explained what she had seen and what the police did. While we talked, the photographer from the paper joined us and shot photos of the blackened garage door, then rushed back to the office.

The caretaker said she had found the girl's body about 9:30 that morning (30 minutes before the mother reported her missing). The caretaker had noticed the side door was ajar when she arrived, and she saw the girl's battered body when she checked the garage. Some of her clothes had been removed.

My next stop was the girl's school. I had been asked to get a copy of her school photo, but I was stonewalled by every teacher and office worker in the building. I was careful not to ask any question in front of the few students still waiting for their parents to pick them up, but several of the girl's classmates came up to tell me about what had happened. Their versions were at least as lurid as the truth.

My final stop before going back to the office was the police station. The police in this city got great pleasure out of withholding public records and even greater pride in refusing to answer any questions. They also enjoyed making up lies to tell reporters. Today was their day, to be sure. They should have been given some special award for withholding truth.

I asked to see the public records and to talk to the investigating officers. What they gave me was the day's traffic tickets. And of course the officers weren't in the building anywhere. I asked if the girl's mother had been found and talked to. The desk sergeant mumbled something to the effect of "bitch, we know how to do our job. If you want any information, park your ass in that chair." He said he'd let me know as soon as he could tell me something, so I sat.

And I sat. The local reporter for a competing newspaper showed up. He was treated only slightly better, and I attribute that to the fact that he was male. He was engaged to another woman in my office and we had become friends in the few months I'd been there.

He sat too, and we talked about how horrible this story was. I think I remember him waiting about an hour, and then telling the desk sergeant he would check back to see if anything new developed.

I sat and waited a little longer. Finally, I heard the back metal door of the station close with a loud thud, then heard an inside door shut. The desk sergeant's face turned red and I was sure I saw him trying to hold back tears. His eyes met mine for a moment and he let his head drop slightly.

It was 5:15 p.m. Only a few moments had passed since the two doors had shut. The time on the clock was permanently seared into my mind as a loud, gutteral, primal scream came from the direction of the closed door. It was a monsterous sound I hope never to hear again, a cry of anguish straight from the doors of hell.

Instantly I looked at the desk sergeant as I rose to cross the lobby to his window. He wouldn't look at me. When I reached him, I whispered "Is that her mother? Tell me!" He shook his head yes. I asked "Is this the first she's been told about what happened?" Again, yes.

"You should leave for now," he said. "There won't be anything else I can tell you tonight. You've got what you can get for now."

I told him I'd be back at 10 for my regular late-night check. He nodded and turned away.

I drove two blocks back to the office, reported to the managing editors who then called the publisher with an update. I saw the photos that had been shot, wrote the cutlines and sat down to write my story.

Post script: This story was brought back to the front of my brain today as the police in that small city announced they had reopened the case, 18 years later. It seems some of those neighbors finally remembered key information that will help the police make a solid case against the man who was arrested as a suspect in the little girl's murder. He had been arrested at the police station just a couple of hours after that horrible, heart-shattering wailing that came when her mother found out the girl had been sexually assaulted, then beaten and strangled to death.

Tests of blood stains on the suspect's boots were declared inadmissible by the judge in the trial that started 15 months after the girl's death. The same judge then denied the District Attorney's petition to delay the start of the trial for one more month after additional evidence was discovered. The DA had wanted the new evidence to be tested by the state bureau of investigation to make sure the local investigators' results were correct.

Within the week, his bail was cut in half and he was released from jail. Prosecutors later amended the charges and a new preliminary hearing was set, nearly two years after the murder.

Charges were dropped in November 1988 before the case made it to trial after heated arguments between the defense attorneys and the state medical examiner. The now-83-year-old witness was unable to identify the suspect in court, after identifying him at the time of the girl's death.

It was a month later when the FBI started testing DNA evidence for law enforcement agencies.

It took until May 2004 for police investigators to send the suspect's bloody boots to the FBI headquarters for testing, a few days shy of the 18th anniversary of the girl's murder. While they were preparing the boots for shipping to the FBI, they also discovered a knife inside the evidence box. It had been found in the suspect's home. It was shipped for testing as well, since it had been determined she also was stabbed multiple times.

Today, the suspect is in jail in a neighboring state for violating parole on unrelated charges. He's had numerous other arrests on his record in the ensuing years.

The suspect was 22 years old at the time of the girl's death. Had she lived, she would now be 24.

She is still remembered as the 6-year-old girl who took care of her younger brother and talked to other children about Jesus. Those who remember her wonder how her life would have been today.

Many people have failed you, Amber. May you finally get your justice, sweet one.


Erudite Redneck said...

Well, that gave me chills. There should be an ex-cop reporter support group for times like that. My big ol' redneck heart goes out to you. There's a mama and baby who died in Ryan, OK, a mother and grown daughter from Iowa Park, Texas, an elderly Sunday school teacher from Mabelle, Texas, a young woman from Jacksboro, Texas, a railroad tramp who met his maker while passing through Wichita Falls, Texas, and some other murder victims I got to "know" through detectives and public records, that I intend to inquire about on The Other Side. They don't haunt me, exactly, but I'll never forget them.

TECH said...

I hope they fry the guy. There is no reason that such a mad dog should be allowed to breathe the same air that the little girl once did. I know God wants us to forgive, but I'm not God. Let him burn.