The next three chapters of my memoirs (titled True Witness, False Witness and Eye Witness) all take place during the scorching hot summer of 2013, when the department was faced with an unprecedented number of murders and other brutal crimes, all of which were unique and fascinating in their own right. It started with the murder of two working, middle-class women, and the suspicion that a serial killer may be on the loose. When a third woman disappeared, her case was handled as a suspected homicide. The investigation of her disappearance led us to a local mob boss, who was assassinated in a spectacular fashion before we had an opportunity to speak with him.
I have decided to publish these cases together because they beautifully illustrate the problem police forces encounter in dealing with witnesses: what did they see, and what did they believe that they saw? What do they want us to believe that they saw? And most importantly, are they telling the truth? – ALFONSO SWANSON
TRUE WITNESS – PART ONE
If you take a stroll through downtown New Grace on a sunny Monday morning, you better remember to smile. During an hour’s walk, you will have your picture taken on average thirty-five times by cameras installed all around you. From traffic surveillance cameras put up by the government to security cameras installed by businesses or in private residences to the tourists snapping photos with their camera phones, you are constantly being watched and recorded. So when you take that Monday morning stroll, smile at the thought that old-fashioned notions such as privacy and anonymity are a thing of the past; an anachronism in a world filled with digital recording devices.
But to those of us in law enforcement, there is a silver lining. These ubiquitous cameras serve as an important investigative tool to police officers everywhere. Not only do they sometime capture the commission of a crime; they can also be used to identify a suspect or provide an alibi. In a few recent, high-profile cases, cameras have also captured unspeakable acts of violence committed by police officers against the people they were sworn to protect. That has led many police districts to require that officers wear body cameras to record their interactions with the public.
In 2013, during the excruciatingly hot month of July, we were investigating two murders that had occurred within a week of each other; the victims were women in their early thirties who had been called away in the middle of the day from their places of employment, and who had been killed in almost identical manners. We were convinced that we were looking for a single perpetrator for the two crimes, but had absolutely no leads to follow. The women had disappeared after receiving telephone calls at work, and had been found in Hennesey Park the following morning, miles from their respective homes and places of employment.
We were down to the final desperate and time-consuming effort of watching security footage from businesses around the park, in the hope that one of the security cameras had captured the perpetrator dumping one of the victims. Usually that meant that the person responsible for security handed me the tape, disc or flash drive containing the recordings from the night in question, and left me to my own devices trying to figure out how to view and fast forward the recording. But today I was in the company of a pro; someone who watched security footage for a living and was eager to show his skills with the equipment.
Howard Flink, or Howie to his friends, was employed by a firm that provided security to many public parking lots throughout the city. Howie was the designated security cam guy, who reviewed and stored recordings of incidents, and created backups. He was short and stout, and his uniform shirt was straining in all the wrong places. But he was incredibly skillful with the controls, and within a couple of hours we had reviewed security footage from all the public parking lots around the park for the two nights in question.
As expected we came up blank, and I was getting ready to move on to the next business when I noticed that Howie was acting somewhat agitated. It seemed there was something he wanted to tell me, but he was intimidated or hesitant to do so. I told him to spit it out; after all he had been very helpful and saved me a lot of time that morning.
Howie then started to tell me a story of a woman he had been watching on the security cameras. She came running every morning down 15th Street, and stopped at the corner of 15th and Park to wait for the traffic light, regular as clockwork at 8:42 every weekday morning. She used to stand and stretch right underneath one of the security cameras, and it was part of Howie’s morning routine to watch her stop by. Howie then told me that a few days ago she suddenly stopped appearing, and she hadn’t shown up since.
I looked at Howie and told him not to worry, that very likely she had just changed her schedule or her running route, or she may simply have moved. Howie shook his head and motioned me back to the control table. He was fidgeting and looking somewhat uncomfortable, as if I was judging him for his voyeuristic propensities. For the record, I was.
Howie brought up a video he had prepared, and told me that the segments of the video were recorded the day after the last day the woman showed up at the intersection of 15 and Park. They was recorded in a different part of the city, much closer to downtown, by cameras outside a parking garage. It showed a woman running up Island Avenue after having crossed 8th Street. Howie told me that if she continued along Island she would eventually cross 15th Street, which would take her to Park Avenue if she turned right. He said the time stamp was consistent with her reaching the intersection at her normal time, if she kept roughly a 10 minute per mile pace.
The woman disappeared from sight and the video switched to a different camera. According to Howie this camera was installed on 9th Street, halfway between Island and Juniper Avenues. To get there, the woman must have turned left on Island, away from her normal route. She was running faster, and every few seconds she turned around and looked behind her. As she approached the camera the video slowed down, and when she ran right up to it the video froze. She looked straight ahead, her face a mask of anxiety and fear.
Howie told me this was the last recording showing the woman, and that he had looked through every recording from every camera in the following days, to no avail. I believed him. But even though the video from her last run had sent shivers up my spine, there was not much I could do until the woman was reported missing or found dead.
But I was also investigating the killing of a couple of women in their thirties, women who looked a little like the runner. Although the circumstances of their disappearances were different from the runner’s, there was still a small chance she could be a victim of the same perpetrator. I decided to keep in contact with Howie, in case he saw something interesting on his video screens. But the summer of 2013 was as busy as it was hot, and there was simply not enough time to investigate a crime that might never have happened.
Less than 24 hours later, a woman meeting the runner’s description was reported missing by her friends and coworkers.