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.