Time is the fire in which we burn. – Delmore Schwartz
The guy was actually hanging half out the car window yelling “hey!” and throwing me the finger. Not really a major thing, except that I was on duty, and in a police car. What a dumbass.
I swung around and lit up the car as it pulled into a convenience store and parked by the gas pumps. The store was right across the street from the police station and by the time I pulled in behind the car another police car pulled up with me as backup.
There were three people in the car. The driver stepped out and asked what the problem was. I gave that look I give people when they are asking stupid questions. He offered, “Okay officer, I’m sorry. I was just taking my friends home. They have had a little bit too much to drink and I am going to get them home. I don’t drink.”
I checked the driver out and he was sober. I then shown my flashlight into the backseat and made contact with the guy who was nice enough to throw me the finger moments earlier. I didn’t have to take him out of the car and give him a sobriety test to tell he was drunk. I was going to let him have it, but he seemed too drunk and would probably not remember any of the colorful words I had in mind for him anyway. He just kept saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry”. I then checked out the guy next to him. He wasn’t drunk, but he was high. He could barely maintain eye contact with me. He didn’t say a word. His eyes were cold, dead even, like a shark. I thought to myself I should get this guy off the street.
Just then my backup, who was also my supervisor, spoke up. He said, “Hey it’s your lunch break and you need to take it. The driver is sober and he is going to take them home. Let’s get out of here.” He then spoke to the driver and the driver assured us he was taking the dumbass and his friend home. My supervisor had 3 years experience and I had been with the department for 9 months. As I spoke to the driver some more my supervisor ran a criminal check on the two guys in the back seat and they came back with no warrants. I told the driver to take the guys straight home.
As they drove off I looked at Mr. Shark Eyes in the back seat and he looked at me.
This was a moment there where I felt a knot in my gut. It was just for a split second. It was the first time I ever felt that as a cop. I didn’t recognize it for what it was then so I didn’t say a word. I went to lunch.
That was on a Friday night.
Sunday morning I was at home reading the newspaper. There was a front page story about a young girl found dead in a canal north of town just outside our jurisdiction. There was a picture of fire department personnel scaling down the side of a canal to get the body. The girl’s identity was not announced because department in charge had not notified the next of kin. They were signs of strangulation and the case was described as a homicide.
I was off for a couple of days and then went back to work on Tuesday. I was still on the grave-yard shift and it was a routine night. I had made a couple of arrests and decided to take my lunch break at that same convenience store close to the department. I bought a cup of coffee, picked up the newspaper, and sat down on one of the small tables in the store.
On the front page of the paper was a headline that read “Suspects arrested in rape/murder of young girl”. I started reading the article. The police had determined that two men had taken the 16 year old girl from her home on Saturday morning. One of them was her cousin and they enticed her to leave her house through a window to go party with them. They later raped her and then strangled her. They then dumped her body into the canal where a passerby saw her body on the embankment the next day. I read the names of the suspects and did not recognize the names. I remember thinking when I read the details of the crime that these assholes needed to be taken off the streets. I turned the next page that had a picture of both suspects in handcuffs.
It was Dumbass and Mr. Shark Eyes.
My world spun. I looked over the details of the case again and I determined that the girl was taken 3 or 4 hours after I let them go. I had them. I had them in my hands and I let them go. How fuck did that happen?
Later I made contact with the investigators on the case and let them know what I knew. I had to know what my actions could have stopped. The investigator let me know that there was no plan to commit the crime. He determined that after I let the guys go the driver did take them to his house like he said. The two suspects took a nap and got up later and decided that they wanted to party more and stole the keys to the car and took off. There was no plan. They drove around and happened to go by the girls house and decided to try and get her to go with them. There was no plan to rape or kill until those things happened. It was a crime of opportunity.
None of that mattered to me. The hard truth was that I could have arrested them. I could have taken them off the street. I could have spoken up. I could have listened to the voice in my head. I didn’t and now a girl was dead. I could have made a different call. I could have told the supervisor no. No, these guys need to be arrested. But I didn’t. I would have to live with that.
The truth is if I had arrested them I would never know about the life I saved. That is the reality about police work. We save lives every day that we will never know about. We also lose lives that we didn’t know we could have saved if we had just been more vigilant. I didn’t have that luxury this time. I would know about the life I lost.
A year and half later I would testify in court. My testimony was important because I could put the suspects in the suspect vehicle within hours of the crime. Both suspects plead not guilty, went to trial, and lost. They both received the death penalty.
Several years later I would receive a call from a new appeals attorney for one of the suspects. They were in charge of the final appeal for one of the suspects on death row. They had learned from someone of my recent change of heart about the death penalty. They asked if I would provide an affidavit on behalf of his client as part of a plea for clemency that was being offered to the parole board. I remember sitting in my office with the phone in my hand and my world spinning around me all over again. I hung up the phone without saying a word and punched a hole in the wall of my office.
Six months later that suspect was strapped to a table in Huntsville, Texas and he went to sleep forever. I often wonder if his world was spinning around him at the moment of his death.
Now that I am retired I look back at this one single moment, frozen in my memory unlike any other moment since. I want to go back there and slap the shit out of that young cop. I scream at him from here sometimes. I want to make him listen. I want him to save her.
Fucking asshole! Wake up! Listen to your gut! Stupid asshole! Wake up! Wake up!
The words echo in my mind. But it’s no use. He doesn’t listen. He can’t. That moment is a moment out of time now, and beyond his reach.
He is not there anymore.
He’s here, spinning.