“Ah, home sweet home” I said to Herbie as he helped me with my luggage.
“Isn’t it the truth, always good to be home even when you are on vacation? Hopefully things will be a little quieter around town. Don’t want too many weeks like last week” he said and my truth-o-meter, as I sometimes liked to call it, dinged true.
We grabbed the dog crates and headed to the parking lot. I was relieved to see Kathleen’s mini van and not his police cruiser. I took in the familiar sights and smells of home. One end of the airport runway ends at the water, and the other at the base of Barometer Mountain, so I enjoyed the salt air while my eyes traveled up the mountains noticing that they were now green almost all the way to the top. Only a month ago they were still brown from winter temperatures.
As we settled ourselves in the vehicle I began to dread the conversation we were about to have. While Herbie is a nice guy, he didn’t drive six miles to the airport just to pick me up just to be helpful.
“The suspense has been making me anxious. Do you think we could just jump right into whatever it is that has brought you here to meet me?” I surprised myself with my bluntness.
“Fair enough. Plus, it’s only ten minutes to town so we don’t have a lot of time before I get you home and you’ll probably want me to leave so you can settle back in.” He flashed a brilliant smile and winked before his tone turned serious. “I need your help Brinkley.”
I know I should have spoken, should have offered up “of course” or “what can I do” after his help with freeing Guy but the dread in my stomach was so strong that I couldn’t open my mouth.
“You know about the girl who was found dead at Ft. Abercrombie. There are folks who have it in their head that she was killed by a family member.”
“Isn’t that what usually happens? A relative, boyfriend, or someone close like that?”
“Yes, but a good investigator needs to keep an open mind and continue collecting evidence until you have no doubt the evidence will support a conviction. I believe that we need to expand the investigation and when the department leaders aren’t open to the idea then the overall feeling at the department isn’t conducive to an open investigation.”
I was confused. How could I help? “Are you saying that people in your department have already tried and convicted the family?”
“Pretty much sums it up. Her parents aren’t exactly pillars of the community. Both parents have been arrested throughout the years for selling marijuana. They are what I consider left-over hippies. They and probably selling a little weed on the side to pay for their own use. Whatever, it certainly does not make them guilty of murdering their daughter.”
My role was becoming clearer with each word. “So, you want me to help you determine if they are involved so you can either focus on the family or move on?”
“Exactly!” Herbie seemed relieved he didn’t have to spell it out for me.
“How am I going to do that?” I asked. “I can’t just walk up to them and ask them if they had any part of their daughter’s murder.”
“That’s true. Have you heard of citizen ride alongs?” he asked.
“I remember when the issue was a controversy but no one I know has done it so I’m really not familiar with exactly what happens.”
Herbie handed me a form and said, “it starts with you filling this out.” He then proceeded to explain that every citizen has a right to see how their tax dollars are spent and citizens can sign up to ride along with law enforcement officers for four-hour shifts.
“Do many people do this?”
“No, mostly just people who are considering law enforcement or military careers. My only ride alongs have been nineteen year olds. Occasionally we get someone upset with the department and it usually helps them understand what we do and why. Even with low participation, the program is considered a success.” I felt relief as Herbie pulled into my driveway.
Luckily everything looked normal at home. I was concerned that my unwelcomed visitor may have returned but everything looked exactly as I left it. I let the dogs into the back yard and watched them from the kitchen window as I read and signed the ride-along form. My few minutes of happiness were interrupted by a sign from Herbie that it was time to go. My stomach turned with dread as we headed up Rezanof Drive toward the primary residential area of town with sidewalks, school, parks, and street lights.
Herbie pulled into a solidly middle-class neighborhood across from a city park and jogging track. In a town like Kodiak you tend to know where a lot of people live, even if you don’t know the person well, but I had no idea where this family resided. I was a little surprised that these folks, who were described as unlucky pot dealers, lived in a traditional neighborhood and on the upper side of middle class. But then again, I, too, lived in a house that would appear to be way above my means.
As we passed the park and entered the neighborhood proper, I immediately knew which house was the Wilsons. The black ribbon on the door, a florist delivery van, lights on in every window which illuminated a mass of people in the home, and cars doubled parked in the driveway and lawn.
“Herbie, it looks to me like they are having her wake” I said but my meaning was that we should keep driving.
“Yes, the timing is awful but I need to do this now. I can’t waste any more time on a bad lead.” His words made me feel guilty because my trip to Anchorage likely delayed his plan but, then again, it was his idea that I leave town for a few days.
As we entered the house I was impressed by the amount of people who were there to pay their respects. Hope may have lived for only nineteen years but apparently her short life had impacted many people. Herbie skillfully made his way through the crowd to her parents and, with equal skill, convinced them to leave their guests for a few minutes. They escorted us to Hope’s room. It seemed like an odd, yet appropriate, choice.
He introduced me to the Wilsons as his ride-along before he began the subtle interrogation process. They seemed eager to help with the investigation even with a house full of mourners. He deftly and proficiently put the couple at ease by asking a benign question unrelated to the death of their daughter. I later learned that starting with a question where there was no likelihood of a lie, would establish a base-line response from which to judge the next answers. After all, it would have been easy to misinterpret nervousness for guiltiness,
Next Herbie asked the couple to recount the events of the day leading up to the girl’s disappearance. They did so in detail and everything they said was the truth. Next, the police officer asked pointed questions. That is when I detected the first untruth and I gave our predetermined sign to Herbie to let him know this question elicited a degree of concealment of the truth – a small yawn for neutral lie, cracking of knuckles for an outright lie.
Mr. Wilson’s response was not an outright lie; however, he told Herbie that he had no idea who could have done this to his daughter but his brain told me that was not the complete truth. The lie was weak so it was likely that had suspicions as opposed to actual knowledge of the crime. For some reason, he did not want to share his suspicions.
Herbie concluded the interview by asking the couple to retell the events but this time by starting at the end and working forward. The account was long and detailed and my eyes and attention wandered in the comfort of truth. Hope’s room was neat, warm, and an eclectic mix of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. An old, dulled small floral wallpaper appeared to be leftover from childhood and with it a single shelf of old but enduring dolls. Two music posters hung neatly and symmetrically on the wall. A corkboard was covered with photos, ticket stubs, invitations, cards, and the remnants of a corsage and reminded me that Hope had once been a vibrant teenager.
The girl’s transition to adulthood was apparent at her computer work station. It was orderly with computer paraphernalia, a cup of writing utensils, and a stapler. An Ansel Adams calendar hung above the desk next to a small fur-cube storage unit. The bins were filled with colored boxes each labeled with its contents. On the desk, and under a Plexiglas protector was a handwritten timeline of dates and drawings along a line that ended with the simple word “Seattle”.
I was mesmerized by the girl’s objects and her life in the room. The closet door stared at me and I could no longer resist. I walked across the room and opened the door to the most organized closet I had ever seen outside of a magazine or home maker over television show. This neat and orderly girl had been trapped in what appeared to be a chaotic house. I closed the door and turned when my trance was broken by the silence and stares of Herbie and the Wilsons. Herbie asked me to sit down and I did so with a red face after having realized I was snooping in plain sight.
“What the heck were you doing?” Herbie asked as he turned the key of the mini van.
“I’m so sorry and embarrassed. It was like I was pulled to her possessions and the order in that room. Her essence was there, if you know what I mean.”
“Of course, I do. I am a police officer. We are trained to use a person’s possession and residence to learn all we can about them. But you were supposed to be a ride-along Brinkley.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Please just get me home.”
On the drive to my house I told him that the Wilsons didn’t kill Hope nor did they know who did; however, I explained that I believed her father had a suspicion although it was likely a weak one. He committed to further research on that point. I left Herbie with the zinger “I believe she was looking for someone or someway to leave Kodiak. Look for someone who could help her with that plan” and I shut the car door.