Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fighting fair hurts! By Lt. Pata

In 1986, I was a rookie and not-so street smart. I lived in Marin County, California so I was not exposed to the kind of stuff I would later be exposed to as a cop. While I grew up in a lower middle class area, our version of trouble was speeding, maybe stealing a car or two, breaking into a building to party and maybe participating in some unlawful botany. Not me, of course, my pals.

I learned to fight in junior high school and I was terrible at it, but even that was kid stuff, and those girls were really kind of mean. Fighting as a cop is nothing like it. Adults who fight are usually moron’s, but fighting a cop, with a gun, who has lots of friends who dress like him…well, that is kind of insane.

In the police academy they teach you how to fight fair. Its funny how much of our job has to do with perception of what should be acceptable. So fighting fair looks better on TV or to the public, but often is more painful than street fighting. I used to love the TV shows COPS or CSI Miami, now, they are the bane any cop’s existence. It used to be that when you testified to a jury, you were the expert. Now they are. They watch these TV shows and feel like they know how to do the job. I remember having to tell a jury once, for 20 minutes, that the science on CSI was not necessarily practical and how we really did things.

I am waiting to sit in judgment on a jury for a brain surgery gone wrong. I have watched enough episodes of “House” that I think, given an Exacto-knife and maybe a drill, I could pull it off. (Said with unbelievable sarcasm)

I have had similar heart-wrenching conversations with parents of murder victims. One wonderful woman once stated in desperation that she did not understand why we could not solve her child’s case like they do on reality cop shows. I felt like a jerk, but reminded her that for every one case you see on “The First 48” there are a number that never make it on TV because they are unsolved.

TV has had a huge impact on our job and depending on the video point of view and its context, seeing is not necessarily believing. But let’s face it, cop shows sell. They are interesting – which is why there are lots of shows about the job and not so many about librarians or accountants. I’d like Di Nero or Pacino to play me. Maybe Dennis Farina.

OK – Funny story time. Many years ago I worked a pretty significant case. The case was profiled on one of those reenacted detective shows. I knew the date and time it was going to be on, so, of course, I told everyone that they had this guy who was going to play me on TV. What I did not know, was that he was a nice bald man, about-oh, lets be charitable and say 300lbs. You know the kind of guy that has sweat spots under his chest and food stains on the top of his belly. Ya. I was a hero the next day

This police thing we do is violent at times. If you are smart, ending the fight as soon as possible, even doing stuff that seems shocking, like punching a guy in the chops, while not pretty, works. Trust me, the “5 from the sky” (a real police move) doesn’t work for me. I tried it once. I lost. The fist sandwich to the jaw sometimes works. But only if you don’t have access or time to get to some pepper spray or a Taser.
Oh and TV writers and cop book fiction writers - punching a guy in the chops hurts. So the multiple tenderizing of a crooks jaw on TV is kind of dishonest. One good one delivered briskly and with some profundity might break your hand.

Pepper spray works if you are a good Christian and go to church every Sunday but not if you are too close or in a room deploying it. You always know when the satanic fluid directly from the infernal region got everyone in the room too – just look for the 4 or 5 cops leaning against the house or building with that slime stuff from an alien movie falling out of their nose as they ball their brains out and wretch. It works, but it is a hazmat experience. Yuck.

The Taser or Electronic Control Device as we call it – works. Usually. I’d like to meet the guys that dream up these things just to see what makes them tick. I would have liked to be in the lab when they came up with this idea. “Hey lets make this gun that shoots darts into people, and THEN, let’s send a current through their body!” Cool! Well, I have to tell you, an ECD being deployed is kind of a religious experience for these tough ex-con’s who would otherwise need 700 pounds of cops to keep them on the ground.

The problem- if you want to call it that -with the job is that it is easy to have a complaint filed against you for just about anything and especially for using all this stuff they give us to end the fight.

Let me serve up an example of how not to do it… in the late 80’s I was crossing the street, in uniform to help out a guy who was sick. Halfway across the street an old Ford pickup with three men inside the cab became acquainted with me, er - actually the hood of their truck became acquainted with me. I flew over the hood and landed in the beautifully landscaped city planter box.

Of course I landed first onto the concrete portion of the box on my back and then rolled into the soft dirt inside. I was not happy. I was hurt. When I got up, I walked up to the driver and opened his door, this time for a proper introduction. An open can of beer fell out from the floorboards. And for those of you who care…it was domestic beer, a Marin County felony.

The group of men was drunk. Unhappy Ralph lost his cool, picked up the can of beer and threw it into the cab of the truck. I didn’t hit anyone and all I did was get my new friends foamy with the suds in the can, it still felt good to do my part to pick up the littered can. I told ya, I was mad. Well that little delivery of aluminum, hops and barley justice landed me a citizen’s complaint. No one complained about me getting run over, but I can understand that I did waste a beer, so, I get it. Guilty.

The merchants in my town were very cool after the accident. After my little circus act, one business brought me out a towel to clean my uniform and another brought me a cup of coffee, exactly how I like it. It made me smile and took the sting out of my back for a few moments.

In the academy you get all of this tactical purposeful movement stuff. How to walk, talk and use the restroom with authority. They teach you enough to be able to swim to the center of the pool, but not necessarily how to get back. As a cop, you do carry in the back of your mind a little fear that your actions might cause a complaint. I used to think it was just me and Catholic guilt.

In the old days, it used to be a citizen who thought your behavior was not acceptable called in your name and you got yelled at. Now it’s YouTube or video and it can look very bad. It kind of explains the high-blood pressure and heart attack thing with cops. But isn’t it true that integrity is doing the right thing when you think no one is looking? So many more times than not, our people do the right thing.

Think about it, maybe guys on the most wanted list have an equally stressful job wondering who is looking over their shoulder, and when the next car stop will put you back in prison. Well our guys and gals know that and try to prepare for the next stop to be the last stop. Apply that scenario every time you drive, or get out of the car to handle a call. Multiply that over 35 years, add a pinch of fast-food and an alcoholic beverage, maybe a cigarette and viola! Heart attack. Now, in my 40’s I understand the mechanism.

I fought fair once. I lost. Getting your behind kicked is an education. As a cop you quickly learn you are: 1. Not that invincible, 2. There is always someone bigger than you. 3. You should do your best to stay in shape and 4. Turning left away from trouble is Eve offering you a bite from a tasty apple, and an intoxicating trance but one you have to fight off because it is part of our job jumping into the deep end.

If you had to get your behind handed to you, I guess its better to graduate from this little painful experience at age 21 than 41. It is easier to bounce back, and if you are seriously injured, at least you have some time to heal and find another type of work, rather than be an unemployed and a lame candidate for a job at 41 years old.

I have told others, and I really believe that doing 20 years at this job is like being in the NFL for a couple of years. All of the bouncing around, getting in and out of your car with all the stuff on, going from seated to jumping out of your car and running full speed for maybe 20 yards then tackling a bad guy or getting your head whacked adds up.

Police work is not like the stuff on TV. Each night you don’t meet the woman or man of your dreams, have a shootout or a cathartic experience. But each night, if you are a good cop, you visualize the shootout before you arrive at a call that is sketchy. Cops know, the 911 hang-up call with people screaming in the background, or the robbery alarm-call at the bank, where no one answers the phone. It is a pressure valve check on the old human body, but one that is so transforming, that you would not have it any other way. (For the record -I also visualize the girl sometimes. She is usually crazy about me and a member of the Swedish Bikini Team. She is also sight impaired and has a pizza in her hands.)

The wear and tear of this work does mess with you but, like any good drug, after you sleep it off you are ready for another dose of adrenaline-induced insanity. Next thing you know you are 20 years into it and some damage is done. After all of my years of being spit in the face, that little truck thing, falling down stairways, burned by crack pipes and most thoroughly getting my butt kicked, it has been a great career, one I would recommend to the right person and an honorable way to participate with your community.
But it hurts sometimes and thankfully there is this little thing called “worker’s comp” that pays the doctor’s bills.

I think more of my pals have ended up on the receiving end of the scalpel and with fused necks and backs, than guys I have grown up with on the job who have gone out on time. The quality of life after getting a wired neck is not so great. Someone should consider a barcode tattoo on your behind for all the times you end up in the hospital answering the same questions.

An example of how fighting fair doesn’t work is the time I was knocked out by an ex-convict. You don’t forget about these things. It’s like your law enforcement first kiss. It was around 3AM and it was right in the middle of our city on a busy night. I had just given this guy a break and asked him to pour out his beer. (Ya I know, me and beer.) When I walked away from him, he walked up behind me and hit me so hard in the back of the head that I’d swear it knocked the fillings out of my teeth.

The momentum of that smack turned the earth back a rotation. The cartoon stars over my head and the coo-coo clock sound were there! I remember it. Ralphy took a dive in the first! Those are the days I wondered – did I really check the police box? I should have checked the firefighter box on my application.

I got up and took him on- fighting fair. I was not happy. This guy messed up my hair, my uniform – 100% wool and my $100.00 shirt was dirty. When I looked down I noticed I had a hole in the knee of my pants. That was it! An Italian felony. Game on pal! Its one thing to knock me out, but my pants? Are you kidding?

I got up to take him into custody after calling out my location. Worst thing I could have done. I should have taken a nap on the sidewalk. He proceeded to beat me like a rug. I was busy doing all the cool move stuff my instructors in the academy taught me and none of it worked. I remember rolling around in the center of the street with this guy, as my back-up was coming from miles away. I fought this guy for 9 minutes. I remember seeing sky and street, over and over as we rolled around. Then came my chance. I thought this guy was going to eventually kill me. I resorted to caveman stuff and simply strangled him in the gutter of the street. This was all I had left.

My stick was gone, my mace was gone, my uniform was in tatters, my hair, was a mess the only thing I had left was my gun and for some reason, I felt like I could not kill this guy for a fist-fight. Although, after glancing at my pants, the thought did cross my mind. Barbarian!

Some weird thing overcame me. As I was watching this guy get sleepy – actually the life leave this guy, I let up. I relaxed my grip on his throat because in my head I thought he was done fighting. It was almost like he gave up. Well, he did but only because of the motivating, if not liberal application of my hands, to his neck.

My plan was to roll him over and handcuff him. Those, of course, were not his plans. Instead, he sharply applied his knee to my intimate parts rendering me a lump on the side of road – retching. At this point I was thinking that nothing was working and now, in front of God and maybe another future Mrs. Pata I was going to barf my brains out from the pain. I remember wondering where was the love? Why were none of these big, strong, bar patrons not giving a brother a hand. It’s like I was the dinner show or something. Not one of them stepped in or even tossed a lit cigarette or maybe a bottle at this guy. I needed an AFL CIO guy or Teamster to pull this guy off of me.

I look back and I guess I understand that if this guy was doing me in, perhaps it would not have been advisable to jump in. I would have killed for a stake and a bottle of holy water. This guy was all over me. Right now I’d kill for a steak! Writing makes me hungry.

I later learned that my sparring partner was insane. He was released from the Marines for being too crazy and, was placed in a state run mental institution. His probation report read that he was “imminently dangerous to society.” Well, if that’s the case, I can understand releasing him! It’s like leaving the henhouse door open for Christ sake!
I’d like to take whoever decided it would be a good idea to let the Tasmanian Devil out of his quiet and medicated world for a ride.

After the brisk application of the felon’s patella to my privates, I fell over and he got on top of me. Right as that happened I heard sirens and the next thing I remember was someone trying to take my gun from me. I was scared to death and did everything in my power to not let this happen.

I remember rolling over on my gun so whoever was trying to take it would have to roll me over and work a little to get it. I had nothing else. I was exhausted, scared and hurt. For some reason, probably the idea that I was going to witness my execution, I could not open my eyes to see that it was one of my partners trying to take my stuff, so I could be treated by paramedics. I ended up getting a second wind and started to fight off my partner. They actually had to subdue me a little to get me on the gurney for treatment. As it turned out, I was just scared and beat up. No lasting damage, except, of course for my freaking uniform and my pride.

I do remember fighting this guy again in my dreams for a while. I used to wake up exhausted. I’m sure I was a fun date. The nightly boxing match eventually went away. He was sent to prison for 3 years. When he returned, it was business as usual. I actually had coffee with him a couple of times at the downtown 7-11. We never talked about it. I learned to get over this, that it was not personal. It was just business. Of course I never turned my back on him again. He would go on to stab a person – at the same 7-11, a year later, and go back to the joint a couple of times before he too was summoned to the infernal region. I can’t remember how he beamed up, but I had an alibi.

Stay safe and don’t turn your back on psychopaths. K? Oh – and don’t come near me with a beer. Ralph.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On your mark. Get set…. By Lt. Pata

Alrighty, so I get it. My blogs are not blogs at all…they are short stories. Guilty. Since I started on this little adventure, I was not sure what I was doing, so I called my little contributions -blogs. Um, they clearly are not. To give you an example of my technological shortcomings, when I started police work I used to write everything in pencil. Now, it is the computer. So it’s not hard to imagine that I am “challenged” in a computer way. I have cyber envy. I am digitally vacant.

My versions of the “blogs” are small morsels of my past, comingled with some of the present. Next thing ya know POOF! they go on a little longer than desired. It’s a curse. Its funny but the only time my trap is shut is when I am typing this thing. Also- remember that I can’t type and talk at the same time. To fall head first into the stereotype, I am Italian and, well, ya know the whole talk with your hands thing…for me its true.

The response to all of this blog stuff has been pretty amazing. Who would know that people were interested in this stuff? I mean after all me and my pals are not some big-city cops doing the shootout a night thing. (In reality – even they don’t do it each night. And thank God for that.) But their stories I’m sure are just as interesting. Actually, the way I look at it, they are really lessons in some ways. But I have been blessed – and at times cursed – with a great career surrounded by huge personalities in a very interesting community. I have to take a few lines and thank Beth Spotswood from CBS5 eye on blogs and Phil Bronstein at the Chronicle for giving us a little time and recognition on their own blogs and for seeing what we are really trying to do, which is chip away at some stereotypes and let you look over the wall to see there are really no big surprises.

I am a regular Joe, or Giuseppe, I guess. I just happen to come from a cop heritage that rubbed off on me, my brother Nick, my sister Diana (an ex-FBI employee and probably a spy) and maybe someday my boy. But he is kind of leaning towards being a paleontologist. I don’t care what he does. Really. I want my little guy to just love his job as much as I love mine. And, of course, buy daddy a nice Harley or Indian motorcycle someday. I just hope he does not do what his Cousin Dave did and join the freaking fire department. Holiday dinners are tense at our house. I guess every family has a black sheep. Ours is more like mutton. Thanks Dave.

I goof on myself, my family and “others.” It is a flaw, a weakness in my construction. I keep names out of it and try to be sneaky with some details that – if disclosed might make things a little too specific. It’s all true and in most cases there was a witness. Of course I have paid off the witnesses or they had an accident and are no longer with us. (wink)

Police departments are supposed to be a microcosm of society. And our little slice of heaven is just that. We have a nice variety of employees with piercings, tattoos, and people of all walks of life, color, religious beliefs, cultures, gender preference and political affliction.

It makes our world interesting and provides our customers some balance and absolutely some empathy and flexibility. It also keeps the old guys like me young and a devotee of the urban dictionary. All of the divorces, deaths, kids, births, marriages, financial issues-all the stuff our community suffers or celebrates, we do too, both at work and at home.

Suiting-up at work is not unlike getting ready for war, a paintball match or maybe for a few rounds in the ring. For those really sensitive types that saw the word war…yes, I know, we are not at war with our community. Trust me; someone will bristle at that little word. But take a look at what we wear. Bullet resistant vests, guns, bullets, tasers all of it wrapped in a nice 100% wool package. Oh and leather. Lots of leather.

The transformation is kind of cool to watch. A variety of fresh faces, like Officers Anthony Augustyn – usually on his way in from law school, Geoff Bowker, maybe Kim Larkey or Rob Cleland casually make their way across the parking lot and into our back door in their jeans, shorts, flip-flops with their iPods blaring and sometimes dragging behind them their suitcase, yes suitcase, with their work stuff in tow. All smiles until they hit the locker room.

The sardine can we call a locker room is small, cramped and the lockers – relics of WWII submarines -I suspect, are small. We shuffle things all over this little compound, kind of like a kid in high school with lockers in all of the buildings storing our things all over because we ran out of space in 1964. Closet poles are all over the place with jackets and rain gear hanging in long forgot corner’s of our police basement. The former briefing room is now the patrol officer equipment, helmet and gas mask storage room. Our guys and gals keep their suitcases there which contain report forms, gloves -maybe a snack or two and of course the obligatory Penal or Vehicle code. For those of you dying to know…the ladies have their own locker room. For those of you that thought otherwise, go to church. Now.

Not that I watch, but having been through the ritual of getting suited up for work is kind of a work in progress. First all of any sense of your past world is removed. You take off the shirt with the questionable graphic logo, or maybe the peace sign or whatever might actually indicate your bias.

The switch is almost religious in a weird way. The officers, me included, keep their religious medallions on or in the front pocket of their vest. Some have special tokens or mementos tucked in the front pocket where the Kevlar plate designed to slow down if not stop a higher caliber bullet resides. I keep a laminated photo of my son and a star with my girlfriends badge number in here. Some officers have painted in white on their black colored vests their blood type and donor status on the vest, a grim reminder of what this job can become in a moment. It is a desperate and polite message to the trauma center about what they might need quickly and what their wish would be in the event of the unthinkable. While we are on this happy subject, we also have locker letters and final arrangement documents for our peer support team to access in the event of that day.

Before the vest, you put on the black T-shirt. On hot days you use the material that wicks away the moisture. Doesn’t really help because on a hot day you could easily sweat off a couple of pounds of water. Where does it go? To your bullet resistant vest, of course. Now repeat this throughout the year and VIOLA! You have a lab experiment strapped to your body. A seasoned veteran officer could be found on the hottest of days – maybe in the walk-in cooler at the local 7-11 sitting on a stack of comfortable cases of beer.

While you can wash the liner of the bullet resistant vest, you can’t really wash the vest. So, the sweat and yuckiness is yours to keep until you get a new vest every 5 years. Nice huh? I like to call it “patina.” Some guys like Cpl. Mike Byers think its bad luck to wash the liner, kind of like a baseball player’s superstition and hang the vest like it is some sacred relic. It’s a nice little olfactory gift as I walk past his locker each day.

On cold days you wear layers of stuff. Maybe long underwear and of course the black T-shirt. About the black T-shirt. It is relatively new to us. We have been wearing it about 10 years now…that’s new. It used to be we wore white T-shirts under our uniform but we felt that it is kind of a give-away to a crook. If you work nights, the white shirt doesn’t work well with the blue uniform. I am a traditional kind of guy, so I like the white T-shirt, but as a safety thing, I get it. We are all about not being seen when we don’t want to be seen.

After strapping on the vest over the T-shirt then comes the 100% wool pants or maybe if you are a contemporary kind of cop you have on the cargo shirt and pants. I like the cargo pants. They are comfortable and they have a material that will stop from ripping in the very likely event of a tear. There is also a large selection of pockets to put your stuff in. The new pants and shirts come with rubber knee pads and elbow pads built in a very Smart idea, but not very official police-like for me. It doesn’t show well, and let’s face it, some of what we do is kind of showy and so it is not what you wear to a funeral or a council meeting…-Same thing.

Gotta have boots! It is the next thing that will cost you a mint and you put on because in reality it is the only thing that looks cool in uniform pants and it does have some utility. You can buy the mortuary boots, you know the cardboard ones that will last you a month or spend the money and get the good ones. The $200.00 brand is made with love and waterproof material. The good ones are also really light, an important feature if you have to run after a crook.

From the boots you put on the gun belt or the “Sam Brown” belt. OK, this should your first clue that this might be a sketchy job. We wear two sets of belts. Yep. There is the regular black belt that keeps the trousers up and then the utility belt, yes like Batman’s belt, that keeps your weapons and adjunct equipment properly stowed. This belt is attached to the other belt by way of mysterious straps of leather adorned with shiny snaps. Seriously, you would think the Marque de Sade was the designer of this uniform – or maybe Michael Jackson’s wardrobe guy.

The belt holds the gun, two sets of handcuffs, gloves, radio, ASP brand “baton” (an impact weapon) Extra bullets? Check! They are there on the belt too. All of it has a purpose and all of it is used virtually every night.

Our “stuff” is loaded up and checked in the locker room. The gun and electronic control device (Taser) are checked outside for obvious reasons.

When I see football players or baseball players in the locker room I think of our team getting ready. Not to play, but to provide our service and to prepare for whatever might come our way. Will tonight be the night we get in a shooting? Will all of my guys and gals come in at the end of the watch, in one piece, much-less alive? The game face goes on when the uniform goes on. It is a state of mind. Don’t get me wrong, it is not like a church here, briefings are very spirited and there is some time to yuck around, but the air seems different in our building than when it did just before you walk in. And not just because Mike won’t wash his vest carrier or because of the dank, musty smell of the dungeon we call a police station.

When these courageous and selfless officers come out of the locker rooms, whether it be the men’s or women’s locker’s they are ready to go. You can see the change in behavior from the moment they passed the backdoor into our little, dark, cramped world.

Some people have said we look mad or maybe mean. OK, sometimes we do. It is part of the game-day ritual. Take a look at the football player on the bench. How about the stare from the bullpen? It is the same mechanism, with just different results. It is state of mind stuff.

The job will sneak up and get you if you pretend to be Deputy Barney Fife. There is some science that the “friendly” or passive kind of cop has a problem getting killed. That is not to say the roulette wheel will not land on your number – no matter who you are. Take a look at officers who are getting killed. They are well trained heroes who were greeted with misfortune. As I write this two officers have been killed in the last two weeks. One last night. It is all about balance, fate, training and luck.

After the uniform and briefing, it’s time to strap on your office, a two-thousand something Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. This is a boring looking, but fast little car. It has been the industry standard for a number of years, both as cop cars and as taxi’s. But that has all come to an end. Ford stopped making them. Soon you will see all kinds of new cars hitting the street. It is actually pretty exciting.

Once you hop in the car, you check out all of the stuff that makes it your office. The mobile data terminal, the first aid kit, the stop-stick, the high-powered rifle and the bean-bag shotgun. The mobile data terminal is what we get our calls on – actually we are dispatched on the radio, but the details, the dirty little details -are on the screen. The MDT’s also give us criminal and contact info with photographs, car info, you name it, and you can get it on our MDT’s. And to those who would feel a little irregular about all this info based stuff, all of it is audited and checked and encrypted. It keeps us honest and totally transparent. The stop-sticks – they are a James Bond like device that will flatten tires of bad guys (And good guys alike who forget they are on the road) who are trying to get away. A car chase with the stop-stick deployed usually will be good for a set of police car tires. It happens.

Here I am trying to make this a simple more bloggy type blog and I am already five pages into it. And I am just getting started. So in order to facilitate the function of the blog, I will stop. Yep, to my critics I say – There ya go!

Stay Safe – Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Ralph.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Skullduggery by Lt. Pata

A couple of years ago I was the Detective Sergeant for our Investigations Bureau. It was a cool job for a couple of reasons. Reason 1: I could wear a suit, the official uniform of Italian men. Reason 2: I have spent about half my career as a detective and found that it was the most cerebral part of police work for me, either in the patrol car or in the bureau, investigating and putting clues together was my juice. It gave me an opportunity to completely investigate things patiently if not loudly...I used to get really vocal with some of my clients, usually after I politely put the phone receiver, gently into the receiver. Reason 3: I was exposed to some of the best cases and I was able to sink my teeth into some major events that changed the lives of our community, our department, other departments and most sincerely, my life oh and of course, coffee was the potion that would transport me to that spiritual Jack Webb place in my brain.

Being a detective and especially a guy with the police art talent exposed me to a new side of crime. The filthy dirty, underhanded side. People who are actually sinister in the manner they conduct their lives. Those rotten people that prey on our children, our elderly our disabled and cowardly take the property of others when they are not looking. My pop’s sense of right vs. wrong coupled with my grandfather’s execution of justice the N’dragngheta way, helped form my foundation for doing the right thing. The N’dragnheta was a “social club” similar to the Gambino’s but in the old country. The really, really, old country and Nonno Ernesto was, um, the Village scorekeeper er, maybe I should say “shot caller.”

The stories from years on the street and in the bureau would get your attention and as the years aggregate they create a protective veneer over the sensitive parts of my soul making me have to reach down a little farther to feel some things. I am invited back to the real world through my non-cop friends, my boy and a healthy application of pasta. All of those quiet moments are what help mold you into what you might be once you retire from this business.

One of the events that changed my attitude was the discovery of the human soccer ball on a neighborhood hillside. The call came out the night before and I received the call at home. “Ralph, the sergeant said, I think we found a skull.” Apparently a local guy was trying to clean up the hillside of a thicket of blackberry bushes and picked up what he thought was a soccer ball buried half way in the hardened dirt. Surprise! It had holes in it and was too light to be a bowling ball. The holes were, of course, for eyeballs. I am guessing for the guy that found this…there was a near incontinent -with a sudden lack of atmospheric pressure moment -as he sucked in a volume of air preparing for the big Holy $#@! that would accompany his ever contracting bladder. The discovery of this bony globe would be the beginning of a week long effort to resolve this case.

My experience with these kinds of finds was that they were usually fake or Native American bones. Marin County is loaded with Native American remains. I had a car sit on the remains all night at the end of the street so we could get on it first thing in the morning, well almost first thing. I had to see my friend Peet for my seductive elixir of roasted legumes. That beautiful, beautiful brown extract from the Arabica beans.

There was no use in going out the night of the call, because if was what I thought it was, it was not going to get any dead-er and hillside excavations suck at night. The only thing you accomplish at night is stepping into deer droppings and fall. Even with my center of gravity enhanced by fettuccini, I still have balance problems on steep hills. Remember, the Pata collections of people are lovers, not Billy goats. I ended the call and returned to my baby-back rib dinner. (Sorry, had to)

Too early the next morning I took Det. Auld with me, after coffee of course, and drove to the hillside where the World-Cup skull was found. I joked with Blair that it was probably some kid’s dirty trick, that I just put an officer on the bones all night for no reason and that I was going to have to explain myself to my boss. My boss was Lt. Al Piombo. Al is one of those brilliant guys who, given enough time would solve world hunger. Seriously, I used to be jealous of how smart this guy was and respected how he trusted me to do my job. Of course, my respect for him did not dissuade my goofing on him by booby-trapping his office when I could.

Blair and I casually walked up to the hillside from the street and saw all of this thick blackberry all over the place. Of course I had a coat on and it was starting to get a little warm, so I wanted to look at the bones and become a hero by telling everyone it was Native American or someone’s science room silent instructor, you know the bones hanging on the wire thing at the back of the class.

I walked up to the officer who directed Blair and me up to the scene. When I got close I saw the skull in the position it was found. I’m not sure what soccer league our reporting party was in, but this was not big enough to be a soccer ball, oh and the squiggly lines on top, where the three bones meet, gave it away to me that it was not suitable for making a goal. Well, not in its current configuration.

When the Officer rolled the skull over exposing the bowling ball holes, the two eye sockets and nose, I immediately felt everything from my a stomach down lock down tight. I’d swear I heard God start laughing at me. My heart started to beat faster and suddenly it became really, really hot out. The patron saints of nausea were also visiting me to enhance the moment of discovery that would rock my little world.

Of course I still didn’t put my coffee down or take my coat off; doing so would be a violation of the Dragnet code of conduct. I turned around and then told Blair, “Uh, we’ve got problems.” He asked me why, “Bull, they didn’t have dentists that back then.” My skull had fillings. In our business that was a clue. The Native American’s did not have access to 1-800-Dentist in the 1800’s. Problem number two…it appeared to be a child. The skull was tiny in size. Big-Big problems for us. Problem #3. I had to use the little detective’s room.

I had our patrol guy’s seal off the area and I contacted my boss. It’s like the horn for a cruise ship went off, notifying everyone around that we had problems. Of course all good cops are voyeurs in a way and dayshift showed up to see what the big deal was. And where there are cops…there are administrators, neighbors, ghouls, and yes, the media.

When you find a skull, it is likely that you will find bones nearby. We treated this like it was a crime scene and put up the tents and ordered the pizza. We also moved into the neighborhood with our Mobile Command trailer.

The next call was to the Coroner. Two investigators that I have so much respect for, Dave Froehner and Daryl Harris, showed up to give us a hand. This was going to be an archeological dig and we needed the pros to help. The Coroner called on two scientists from an archeological firm in Sonoma County to come and help us. Suddenly this was an Indiana Jones moment. The only thing missing was the hat and whip.

One of the first things we needed to do was discover from our archeologist if we were dealing with a Bona-Lisa or a Napoleon Bone-apart (Boy or girl.) One challenge we have, always, is keeping the lookie loo’s from contaminating the scene. This was not so hard because it was at the end of a road. Then there was the media air-force above. That was not so bad, but if you needed a moment to stretch out the elastic in your boxers or something, it would be on the tube. Not really a flattering moment, ya know?

We did all the background work on this we could. We pulled reports from the area, set up a hotline, made a media splash to see if we could get some callers to share their thoughts with us. We do this pretty often, not just for leads, but it is pretty cool to hear the stories, conspiracy theorists, and yes, angry ex-wives who snitch off their husband as the killer. The psychic’s are also an interesting group. They like to call too. I am not that closed minded to discard the thoughts of the psychic, but of course it is fun to poke at them a little. I’m a little psychic too… you see I knew they would call. See. Psychic. I rest my case.

As it turned out this was not a murder. But what happened? Days of sifting and digging dirt gave us most of our dearly departed. Some of the parts that were departed were yum-yums for the wildlife in the area, but we recovered most of the victim. Our CSI team of Peggy Ruge, Lynette Keller, Andorra Lee, Marc LaPlante, TJ Collins (yes a cool name) and others sifted yards and yards of dirt. The dirt was screened, and then taken to smaller and smaller screens. Finger bones in the dirt for years look a lot like little twigs. This find was in a grove of trees under a huge blackberry bush. To make matters worse, nice people over the years deposited their trash and steak bones in the area we were digging. So we had a few porterhouse false alarms.

We learned that a load of blackberry cuttings were picked up by the city and taken away. I called and found that the cuttings were still in the back of a truck at our corporation yard. A city dump truck containing the chipped remains of blackberry bushes and brush was sent back to the scene for us to shovel and sift through for any other clues. Our city Public Works crew’s dropped what they were doing and sifted the 5 yards of brush to make sure we had the entire victim and did not miss a clue. It just occurred to me, are we recyclable?

As our CSI team worked with the archeologists, using paint brushes to brush back inch after inch of dirt, we found bones dressed in what was left of denim jeans. At first it looked like the bones were tied up in a non-consensual way…but upon closer inspection, it was just the elastic part of the denim material left behind. The fabric appearing to be a ligature- was God having a little fun with me at the expense of my blood pressure. At the top of what used to be pants we found a button for LEE brand jeans and a cloth tag with some numbers on it. Our friends at the coroner’s office in Marin took the button and tag and did a little digging around (sorry) to find out what they could of the jeans. OK, ready for this?

That little tag told us a month and year of manufacture. The location of the tag on the zipper was changed in the early 1980’s from zipper to the back of the pant. This was definitely found near the zipper, so our friends at the coroner’s officer were able to date the pants. The coroner actually talked to the artist that designed the jean who was still alive living in the Midwest. The jean company was also able to tell us the year they switched from snap buttons to regular buttons. The number of belt loops was also a clue for us. All of this info was so interesting and gave us a time frame of how long the body may have been there. Pretty cool eh?

I noticed that the body had some thick blackberry roots growing through some of the bones. So here was my, or should I say Blair’s problem…why was this body under a thick blackberry bush? Was it dumped? By now everyone was calling us wanting to talk to members of our team about their missing cousin from Arkansas. Was this a murder victim?

I took the blackberry root from the victim and drove it to the genius’ at the UC Davis school of botany. These guys rocked! I felt like I was in the movie Silence of the Lambs when Clarisse met the bug guys at the university.
Two PhD’s met with me and looked at the root. These guys were not as creepy as the bug dudes in the Silence of the Lambs, but it was a very cool moment much like the movie. They were smart, and had a good sense of humor.

These two collaborated and told me the origin of the blackberry bush. “This is a Himalayan blackberry bush.” Really? “You can tell by the gray on the back of the leaves. “Ya, I said, I figured it was that” (I am such a liar.) The doc’s then took out a razor blade and sliced a sliver from the root. They put it under an electron microscope and told me how long the root had been in the ground. That data would give us a time frame of how long this victim had been there. The docs gave me a number around 18 years. They then said, “I think this part grew through your victim’s bones in the spring.” I looked around for the candid camera again, and then looked for the marijuana bong. “How can you tell that, doc?” They explained that the rings on this plant showed fall and summer. The dark represented slow growth, interpreted to these guys as fall. My sample showed some light growth just past the dark ring; therefore, my sample indicated the victim was in her spot in the springtime.

I drove home with a headache. This was all to smarty pants stuff for me and I felt like I needed a beer and a bar to dumb me back down. (Sorry but, lets face it; the local gin joint is not the Library of Congress.) On the way in I spoke to our park ranger, Mark Hedeen who told me that he recalled a number of years looking for a missing person, a woman on the hillside. He told me that SRPD even used tracking dogs but could not find a thing. Hmmmm. I was becoming really interested in this case.

On the last day at the site, we were preparing to remove the body of the person in the ground. I called for our police chaplains to respond so we could give this person a little official send off from what would be her almost final resting place. A couple tough-guys thought this was over the top, but I believe in Karma and decided she deserved it as much as anyone. The police staff at the scene, Coroner and archeologists stood around Lynn, (We named her) and said a little prayer for her as we were able to finally take her from her cold and undignified resting place. Blair and I along with our CSI staff personally carried her in casket box to the coroner’s van. It was important for both of us to do this and deliver her the willing and responsible hands of the coroner’s office. It is kind of like we had a relationship with her and after all of the time and effort, not to mention a few sleepless nights, we felt connected. It was a respectable handoff. I still remain proud of our team.

When we went back to the office we checked our messages. I had a call from a woman who lived directly up the hill from our find. I drove to her home and met with her the next day and asked her what she knew. She pointed out the house next door and told me that there was a woman who lived in that home, a small framed woman who had some pretty significant alcohol problems.

I would later learn that she had good reason. Five members of her family were lost at sea when the 1964 Tsunami from the Alaskan earthquake hit Washington State. Her husband,mother in law, and two children would later die in a car accident years later. Her cousin died of suicide and his adult child would also kill himself. This family, now all but wiped out was about to lose one more. Lynn, as we called her wrote a suicide note and was heard late one night by the neighbor saying “They will never find me this time.” SRPD responded to her home in the early 1980’s and found a ladder from her back yard to the blackberry infested forest behind her home.

I raced back to the police station and found the report now filed on microfilm. The automated record check we conducted did not go back far enough; this case never hit our radar screen.

The report had the name and suicide notes. The woman would never be found. Did we just identify “Lynn?” I gave the info the Coroner’s Investigators. Our coroner’s team found a last living distant relative in another state. That person submitted to a DNA test and after a month of waiting, we were able to identify Lynn and give her a proper burial. Lynn would no longer be missing. She was found, less than 200 yards from her fence. We never knew how she died, but an estimated opinion would suggest that she drank some alcohol, took pills then crawled under a blackberry bush to sleep. Sleep she did, for 20 years.

Stay Safe. Ralph.