After the Badge by Danny R. Smith was first published in Mystery Readers Journal: The Journal of Mystery Readers International (Volume 37, Number 4 – Winter 2021).
Unsolved murders can haunt those who’ve been tasked with solving them. Though I retired from L.A. Sheriff’s Homicide seventeen years ago, many of my unsolved cases trouble me to this day, and I will likely obsess over some of them for the rest of my life.
Case in point: In May of 2000, my partner and I investigated the death of a man who had been shot through his head in the front yard of his rural property in Santa Clarita. It was a murder that I always felt should have been solved, one that was always close to breaking wide open but never did. One in which I am confident that my partner and I had snared the killer in our net, but we could never quite put the pieces together.
The Crime Scene
Shortly before he was killed, the victim had left a mower on his half-mown lawn, walked over to the open tailgate of his pickup that was parked in his driveway, and removed his right glove. At some point, he stepped away from the truck and turned back toward his lawn—presumably to finish his work—and that is when he was shot from behind at close range.
We were never able to determine whom he had visited at the tailgate nor why he had removed the glove. Had it been for the purpose of dexterity? He was, after all, right-handed. Or had he taken it off to shake the killer’s hand?
Confident that the victim knew his killer, we homed in on the usual suspects: relatives, friends, associates, and neighbors. The last to see him alive and the first to find him dead. There are certain protocols of death investigation, and the probability of a person being killed by one of these usual suspects is very high in cases where other risk factors aren’t part of the equation (gang membership, drug use, prostitution, et cetera).
The victim’s roommate fit many of the categories that made him our Number One suspect: roommate, friend, last to see the victim alive, and the one to find him dead.
The roommate’s wife, interestingly, was yet another.
She appeared at the local sheriff’s station shortly after the murder while I was there trying to interview her husband. She demanded that he be “released,” and that we stop speaking with him immediately. Though he certainly wasn’t in custody, and she had no grounds to demand we not speak with him, the pressure she applied at the front counter worked its way to me, and I was left with two choices: arrest him or end our interview. There was no probable cause to charge him, so he walked out of the station that night, and that is my greatest regret of this case. I always felt that if I had had another hour or two with him, and only him—without his wife or an attorney to keep him centered—I would have learned things that might have solved the case.
The roommate and his lovely bride had been separated for several months, but we never knew the reason. After the murder, the two of them suddenly bonded, and each became the other’s alibi. (They somehow miraculously noticed one another traveling in opposite directions of an always-congested freeway at the time of the murder.) They obtained an attorney, and neither of them would ever speak with us again. Curiously, they reconciled and started a new and exciting life at a faraway beach community.
What could the motive have been?
Could it have been reconciliation, and our victim somehow stood in the way of that? Or was there something strange or sexual happening among the three of them, something that pushed one of them into a murderous frenzy? Why had they separated to begin with?
The victim certainly had a peculiar love life. His last known relationship had been with a transvestite sex worker whom he had first patronized, then fell in love with, and eventually funded her anatomic transformation into a woman. Then he broke up with her, and that had left the former sex worker in a state of rage. Of course, she, too, had to be considered as a suspect, but she had the rock-solid alibi of undergoing back surgery at the exact moment the victim was shot, and we were able to cross her off our list.
As far as any other motives, the victim had done well with his investments, and two people stood to prosper from his death: a daughter who lived far away and was never considered a suspect, and a son who lived across town, was a wannabe gangster, and who had had several brushes with the law. He remains a suspect, though more so for my partner than for me.
Later that evening, my partner and I knocked on his door and notified him of his father’s death. I believe he was truly shocked. He gave us consent to search his apartment, and we did, finding a gun that had not been recently fired nor cleaned. With no firearms evidence found at the scene nor recovered from the victim’s body—the bullet entered the back of the victim’s head and exited through the front—we could not scientifically conclude that the son’s gun was not the murder weapon. The son later submitted to a polygraph examination, and the results were inconclusive.
A Detective’s Hunch
Oftentimes it is the hunch of a detective that leads him in the right direction, and I do not believe the victim’s son killed his father. However, my partner has never been comfortable eliminating the kid as a suspect. It wasn’t often that he and I weren’t on the same page, but this time we weren’t, and that has always given me pause with discounting the son.
Across the dirt road from his property lived three men, all biker types, two of whom were Vietnam veterans. “I hated the asshole,” one of them said to me and my partner during an interview shortly after the murder, “but I didn’t kill him.” The other two had solid alibies, but this one, the one who hated our victim, could only say he must’ve been in the shower because he never heard a gunshot. He agreed to take a polygraph and was cooperative and forthcoming throughout our investigation, and neither my partner nor I ever believed the neighbor committed the murder.
But we were never able to determine who did, either.
Carrying a Burden
My partners and I still discuss old cases occasionally—especially the unsolved ones. Because those are the ones where someone got away with murder on our watch, and that is a weight that only the detectives carry.
As the Homicide Investigators Creed goes (in part): “No greater honor nor burden has ever been bestowed on an officer than being entrusted to investigate the death of a human being.”
This burden becomes part of us, taking residency in our hearts and souls and tormented minds. Many cops carry it with them until, like cancer, it eats them from the inside and sends them to an early grave. Others take a more direct approach to ending the pain, drinking themselves to death or sucking a hollow-point from the business end of their service pistol.
After the Badge
In my years after the badge, I’ve managed to calm the demons through my stories. Following a diagnosis of chronic PTSD, my shrink suggested that I write. He said I had a talent for it, and that writing can be very therapeutic. It is.
In the beginning, I only wrote fiction where I had complete control of the stories, and I didn’t have to (voluntarily) revisit those things that haunt me. Eventually—fifteen years later—I was able to open some of the doors I had tried to keep closed, and I finally started putting my personal story to paper. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.
My memoir, Nothing Left to Prove, lays bare the violence I encountered on the job and the many horrific crimes I investigated. It tells how I dealt with those things then, and how I managed to pick up the pieces later. (It also happens to have on its cover an actual crime scene photograph from the homicide case featured in this article.)
It is my hope that by reading my memoir, more cops (and other first responders) who suffer will be encouraged to admit they hurt, and to get help before it kills them. I want them to know that it’s okay to say, “I’m broken.” In fact, it’s more than okay; it’s the beginning of a healing process. It’s the beginning of life after the badge.
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