Hunters canvassing a swampy, low-lying area in the woods beside the highway reported a suspicious item. They discovered what they thought was a partially decomposed body. Being aware of the need to preserve the integrity of crime scenes, they waded out within a few yards of it and then remained nearby until we arrived. I had my team cordon off the perimeter and we went in slowly to confirm the details. As it turns out, it was a false alarm.
The ‘body’ was in fact, just a department store mannequin. The hunters could be forgiven for their reasonable mistake. From a distance it really did look like a human form, and we had a number of missing persons cases in the area. They were just trying to help. We need more concerned citizens like them doing their civic duty. I gathered up the lifelike debris and removed the crime scene tape from the bog. The other hunters had a good laugh at the one who spotted the ‘corpse’. He seemed to take it good naturedly. Frankly it was going to be a relief to turn in the official code for ‘false alarm’. Those missing persons were hopefully still alive somewhere.
I returned back to the office and filed my report. My supervisor asked about the call. We had a good laugh at the thought of my pants and shoes getting muddy to retrieve a plastic dummy. It was “all in the line of duty”, I shrugged; but then I told him I was going to turn in a cleaning bill on my ‘expense report’. That elicited an even greater laugh. We don’t receive any compensation for damaged clothing in performing our work duties. Carrying a scantily-clad, waterlogged store mannequin out of the swamp must have been hilarious to witness.
Even though I was glad it wasn’t a real corpse, it did mean that some family remained in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved one. I vowed to keep searching for them. There were a number of leads that trickled in but after working them to their natural conclusion, I wasn’t any closer to finding the missing folks. A few days later we received another call about a suspected body floating in the bog. It was apparently at the same location, just off the highway.
At first I thought it was only a delayed report of the original incident but the eyewitness insisted he’d saw it earlier that morning. I wanted to be skeptical but knew the caller. He wasn’t the sort of guy to be confused about what day it was. He was as sharp as a tack so I knew he’d definitely witnessed something suspicious. I figured I’d just accidentally left some pieces of the damned dummy in the water. I stopped by a sporting goods store to buy waterproof waders. I didn’t want to ruin another pair of shoes and pants retrieving it from the swamp.
This time was different. There was a strong decomposition odor present. Even from the road, I smelled it. The object was in almost the exact same location as before but this one wasn’t plastic or fiberglass. It was definitely human remains. I called headquarters. My investigation team brought their forensic tools and cordoned off the investigation grid. The corpse was an adult female in a fairly advanced state of decay. There were no obvious signs of trauma but I’d leave the deeper analysis to the medical examiner. It was my job to preserve the scene and retrieve her body.
By my estimation, the body had been there for quite some time. It was waterlogged and had possibly been weighed down by something to expedite the process. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize it was weighed down by the mannequin. Besides underscoring my admittedly subpar earlier investigative work, it also suggested a clever culprit. They had to have realize that eventually the real corpse would rise to the surface. What better place to hide a real body than underneath a fake one? It was bound to make the investigator dismiss it as a false alarm. The idea was as clever as it was daring.
That afternoon I mulled over what we knew. The victim was a young adult caucasian female, previously in good health; and her cause of death was definitely a homicide. Her fingers were badly degraded from submersion in the murky swamp water but the medical examiner did his best to get usable prints using a few advanced forensic techniques he knew. We’d hopefully get results back from the state crime lab soon. Her general features matched one of our missing persons cases but the prints and dental records would conclusively verify what we suspected. Then would come the difficult task of informing the relatives, figuring out what happened, and who was responsible. She deserved justice.
I was troubled over the bizarre method of disposing the body. The killer had hundreds of square miles of inconspicuous places to hide his violent deed, yet the culprit choose to almost ‘flag’ her corpse for us to find. It was an incredibly risky decision. Why draw our attention to her rural dumping spot? An old log or nearby river stones placed atop the body would’ve possibly held it down, indefinitely. Honestly, the odds of finding a well-hidden victim are pretty slim but we don’t advertise that to the public. Crime shows and movies imply that no crime goes unpunished and that misnomer hopefully serves to discourage some premeditated crimes. Usually though, most murders are solved by hard work of the investigator, dumb luck, and accidentally incriminating behavior by the culprit. Strangely, this murderer actually took deliberate steps to help us find her body. On the surface it didn’t make sense.
Once the victim’s identity was determined, we’d interview her known associates. It’s almost always someone they knew, but in this case it seemed like the killer was daring us to catch them. Either that or they were so cocksure of their mental superiority that they hoped the plastic marker was so distinctive we’d never look there again. It was clever, ironic, AND cocky. I admit my first instinct was to discount there being a real body at the crime scene, after retrieving the mannequin earlier. The killer may have also realized escaping decomposition gasses would eventually cause it to rise. They may have hoped we’d assume it was just another false alarm and leave it there, unmolested. Those theories and others even more bizarre floated in my head as I awaited to final lab report.
When it came in, I had the unpleasant task of informing the young lady’s parents. It wasn’t the news they wanted to hear but it hopefully offered them closure. Not knowing can lead to a false sense of hope. I vowed to uncover the truth and bring her killer to justice. Then I asked if they could give me a list of her known friends and associates. Up until that point, they had been appreciative, and forthright. As soon as I asked whom she hung around with, they grew immediately silent. It wasn’t just my investigator paranoia thinking that either. My partner noticed their reaction too. Normally when people clam up like that, it suggests a greater awareness of the truth, or outright culpability. I wasn’t sure what the case was, but they were definitely hiding something.
He went on a fact-finding mission and spoke with several of her friends. They projected an air of conspiracy or suspicion too. A little background digging unveiled something we were not ready for. The details of which possibly explained their mutual lack of transparency. The deceased had an intimate relationship with my supervisor’s college-age son. He hadn’t come forward to speak with us about finding her, and a number of their social media posts had been deleted since her disappearance. It looked very bad. Worse, I didn’t know how to approach the situation. It wasn’t easy to question family members of law enforcement.
Officially they was just ordinary citizens like anyone else but the unspoken truth was often different. They were sometimes insulated from equal justice by their family ties. As a paramilitary organization, we had a rank-and-file system of doing things that protects our own. It was deemed ‘professional courtesy’ to extend them extra ‘consideration’; and that always stuck in my craw. My partner was thinking the same thing I was. We had to bring him in for questioning ASAP but that wasn’t going to be easy. His father was fiercely loyal to those he cared about. He would definitely try to obstruct our investigation if given the opportunity.
I though back to our conversation about wrangling the mannequin out of the swamp and ruining my shoes. He and I went days without taking about any of my cases. It was pretty unusual for him to take interest in them so early on, but I knew that alone wasn’t proof of wrongdoing. Obviously I couldn’t yet connect his son to the crime, nor did it suggest he knew anything about the murder, but my suspicions were growing. I started to share my hypothetical idea with my partner but he just shook his head. We were both thinking the same thing but were afraid to express it out loud. That was the very definition of dangerous.
Strategically I knew I had to plan out my next course of action carefully. One wrong step could be disastrous. If I brought in the state police as a backup and his son turned out to be innocent, I’d burn my career and my relationship with him. If I confided my ugly suspicions to him discreetly and they were actually true, he might bury the evidence, or worse. Much worse. I didn’t want to believe he would cover up a crime or commit one himself but parental love is a powerful thing. I couldn’t afford to be blindsided by assumptions or coworker loyalty.
Later that afternoon, Frank stopped me in the hallway to ask if there had been any further advancements in the case. I wanted to stonewall him until I could decide how to handle the issue but it was too hard to ignore. I decided to just come right out, man-to-man and confront him directly.
“We spoke to Miss Yates friends and family. Among other things, they mentioned that she had an intimate relationship with …Joey. I’m going to need to talk to him ASAP, Frank; and I’ll need you to fully recuse yourself from any further involvement in my investigation, going forward. Do you understand? It’s the only way this can go down and maintain the necessary level of impartiality.”
I studied his face but there was no hint of surprise or shock. There was none. He definitely knew Joey had been involved with the victim, and he already realized he would be a prime suspect in the murder case. The only question was, did he realize his son’s freedom was on the line AFTER she was positively identified, or BEFORE. I didn’t really want to know at that point. It was definitely becoming uncomfortable. Frank sighed. He was obviously relieved that the truth about their connection came out but I still couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t try to run interference to save his son. I’d revealed my hand for the benefit of seeing how he would react. The gamble paid off but it also changed how I needed to conduct the investigation from that point on. He would surely inform Joey of my intentions. That could make things go sideways rapidly.
“I’ll have him in your office first thing tomorrow morning. You have my word, Mike.”
One thing he didn’t do, was proclaim his innocence. It was a very telling reaction; and as an officer himself, he had to realize I’d notice. That certainly didn’t help me feel like I was overreacting to my suspicions. An innocent man would want to step forward immediately and clear his name once reasonable suspicions arose. Instead his; ‘I was unaware but I’ll fully cooperate’ act, was unbecoming for a highly-competent law-enforcement veteran. I nodded and thanked Frank for the promise and understanding. Afterward I advised my partner of the sudden development. It was going to be an interesting few days.
I hoped he knew better than to ask me to go easy on Joey. It was highly deceptive and unethical. Frank had stood beside me a hundred times when we pressed other suspects for answers over the years. Sometimes we pressed them hard. That’s how detectives bring the truth to light. The fact that it would be his own son sweating in the interview chair this time shouldn’t make any difference. Regardless, he probably hoped I would extend some ambiguous ‘professional courtesy’. Human nature being what it is in most people, devotion to justice takes a back seat to protecting our loved ones.
I understood the sentiment on principle but I had an official job to do. Even if Joey was innocent of the crime and coverup, Frank knew he would be a prime suspect once we connected him directly to the victim. Only after I made a formal request to talk with him did Frank acknowledge what we both already knew. He was using his authority to glean details of my ongoing investigation, in order to shield his son from suspicion.
I put my partner on stakeout duty that night to make sure ‘Little Joey’ didn’t run. We no longer had the element of surprise. If he fled, we’d unfortunately have to work against our own organization to bring him in because some of our fellow officers would help him out of misguided loyalty. I also reminded Jessie that Frank knew we’d stake out his son’s home. As a highly-experienced veteran, he was familiar with every trick in the book to evade detection. Ordinary fugitives blindly react. The as-yet uncharged son of a high ranking police captain would be able to plan out an effective escape, using the vicarious knowledge he possessed by being so connected to the law-enforcement world. Jesse would have to keep his eyes peeled.
To my surprise, Joey arrived at my office door right on time the next morning. On one hand, it was a big relief to get on with the process and avoid dealing with drama and complications. Almost immediately however I got the impression he’d been coached on exactly what to say, and what not to say. That part wasn’t so surprising. It didn’t take having a chief detective for a father to realize that being interviewed in a murder investigation was going to be intense. Even innocent people sweat during the prolonged heat of interrogations.
I wasn’t so jaded that I believed it was impossible for the innocent to look guilty when they were not. Plenty of innocent folks fall apart because they are nervous and it makes sense to organize what they plan to say, but that also makes it more difficult for investigators like me to determine their culpability. There’s an ebb and flow to these things and appearances matter. Joey was way too well-coached for ordinary techniques to be effective. Up until that point, he’d passed ‘the sniff test’ of my run-of-the-mill questions with flying colors.
I could feel his father’s eyes monitoring the proceedings through the one-way mirror. Clearly Frank was making sure his son followed the script the’d rehearsed the night before. So much so that his answers came off the tongue too quickly. I knew I had to switch gears if I was going to have any success but that would be tricky too. It had to be quick and highly convincing. Ordinarily having Frank witness the interrogation wasn’t a big detail at all. He would observe the suspect’s reaction and behavior while my partner and I hammered them with questions. In this case however, I knew it was me he was watching. If I rattled Joey too much, he’d swoop in and put a stop to the interrogation. I wasn’t sure what pretext Frank would use to silence him, but Joey would clam up and any reasonable hope of a confession would go out the window.
After three predictable ‘softball’ questions in a row, I did a dramatic about-face to throw him off-guard. Previously my questions were not accusatory at all. They just dealt with verifying his whereabouts from the time period of her last known eyewitness appearance, up until her body was discovered submerged in the swamp. I came out and asked Joey point-blank if it was his idea to use a mannequin on top of her real body, as a ‘false flag’ to confuse us. He actually grinned. He was visibly proud of how clever he’d been to use it to weigh her body down and delay the investigation. It was the first natural reaction I’d witnessed from him all morning. I knew his father was just about to end things. I had to dangle one more tempting hook in front of him before it was over.
“Neither of you thought I’d go back into that nasty ol’ bog water, did you? You thought I was so particular about my clothes and shoes that I’d just ignore it if her real body ever floated to the surface. While the idea is both clever and daring, I’m insulted you thought I wouldn’t follow up on ‘another mannequin’ sighting. I might grumble a little bit about it but I’d go back into that swamp a dozen more times if it was necessary to do my job. Your father owes me a dry cleaning bill!”
“Oh man, you wouldn’t believe it! He and I had a bet. He didn’t think you’d go back in after it, but I did. I swear! I knew you’re a hard ass. I told Dad that drawing attention to the scene was a huge mistake. I…”
Frank angrily burst into the room and yelled at Joey to shut his mouth. Then he raced over to the interview camera and erased the video. Not to be foiled by the ‘undo’ feature, he permanently deleted to file in the trash folder so there was no way it could be recovered. That seemed to greatly satisfied him. He sneered and warned me that it would be my word against theirs; and that it would also amount to professional suicide to accuse them without any proof. They both left the station in a self-important huff.
Meanwhile I went back to my office to review something of paramount importance. Anticipating a similar scenario to what actually transpired, I’d set up a backup camera in the interrogation room to document everything and capture evidence. I decided to let the FBI know I had not extended my colleague with the ‘professional courtesy’ he wanted. Instead I’d let them be the ones to inform him about the extra video camera at their trial.