Hell found me.
It seeped into my skin and flowed through my veins as I held the hand of a killer.
“You’re not a bad girl, Valerie,” I told her, staring into the hollow eyes that shifted from me to the floor.
I saw no remorse, no emotion. She seemed to be thinking, plotting a way out.
“This thing was out of your control,” I continued.
“Yeah?” she said, her voice lilting with the possibility.
“But, you know, Valerie, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve investigated a lot of murders, talked to plenty of killers. I know when someone’s being deceitful.”
“Lying. Lying about your involvement, your knowledge. You know more than you’re telling me, and you need to start telling the truth.”
“You have to do better than try, Valerie. I want to hear your side of the story, and you’d be wise to give it to me before someone else cuts a deal.”
“I don’t know anything.”
A Fresh Start
I held my hand up to stop her when the tape recorder clicked off. I inserted the third, ninety-minute cassette, figuring if it didn’t come soon, it wouldn’t come at all; confessions of murder never came easy.
“We’ll forget everything you’ve said until now,” I told her, “and I’m going to let you in on a little secret.”
“One of the boys has given us a statement. He gave up it all up. I don’t need your statement, but I think you have something to say. I don’t think you’re the monster he made you out to be.”
Her brows crowded her eyes. “Who? Not Ray-Ray.”
“I can’t say.”
“Whoever, he’s lying. I didn’t have nothin’ to do with what happened to my boyfriend.”
“I think you did.”
Hiding behind stringy blonde hair covering her face, she seemed to be focused on her shoes. “What?”
“You’re making it worse with the lies.”
Without looking up, she shook her head. “I’m not lying.”
“You’re not telling me the truth. I can prove you made the call, sent your boyfriend to pick up your son.”
“I had no idea . . . I didn’t think they’d kill him.” She let out a heavy sigh that carried with it the stench of cigarette breath.
It was a Heinous Crime
Valerie was the one who had set it up; I knew this from the confession of a co-conspirator. She needed the money for drugs and wanted her pain-in-the-ass, straight-laced boyfriend out of her face. She planned the robbery. She told her kid to get the ATM card from his wallet because she knew the code. She called her boyfriend just before midnight when he was due to get off work, and she asked him to give her son a ride. She directed him to a trailer court out on Desert View Drive.
Valerie’s son, “Ray-Ray,” a sixteen-year-old skinhead recently released from juvenile hall, had waited with two other thugs and jumped the man when he arrived. They beat him, tossed him in the trunk, and took him out to the desert where they finished the job.
You didn’t know they’d kill him? What the hell would you say to him the next morning over breakfast? Sorry that my son beat and robbed you last night? You ought to see a doctor for that head?
“I’m sure you didn’t know they’d kill him, Valerie. You’re too good a person to be a part of that.”
She lifted her slouched shoulders, pushed her chest out and sucked in her stomach. “I am.”
“You have a lot going for you.”
She tugged at the collar of her shirt and ran a finger down the center of her chest. Her eyes softened as she raised her brows. “I do.”
“You didn’t need this shit, these youngsters out of control.”
“That’s what it was.”
“But you set up the robbery, Valerie. We can prove it.”
It was all we needed. Prove her knowledge and involvement in the planning of the robbery, and she goes down for murder. The conspiracy makes her culpable regardless of whether or not she was there.
She looked down and away, forced the sounds of crying, then returned her gaze to me. Her eyes were dry. “What’s going to happen to me? You know, if I knew they were going to rob him, but that’s all?”
She was on the Hook
“I’m not going to lie to you.” I was lying my ass off. “You’re going to do some time.” Like twenty years while you’re awaiting death penalty appeals.
“I didn’t want him to get hurt.”
“Of course you didn’t,” I told her. “You really got wrapped up in a bad deal. It was beyond your control.”
You’re an evil, conniving bitch and I only hope you’re stupid enough to keep talking.
I stroked her forearm with my hand. It repulsed me to do so, but a simple touch can destroy barriers.
“You didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“No, I didn’t. What about Ray-Ray? What’s going to happen to him?”
“Your boy’s no damn good, Valerie; you know that. It’s not your fault, the way he turned out. You wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for him. Write him off, he’s going down hard for this.”
I put my hand over hers. It was large, like a man’s, damp with perspiration. “He deserves what he gets, Valerie. William didn’t deserve to die like this. He was a good man, a hard worker who never hurt a soul.”
I detected the first hint of real emotion. She knew it was true; William was a good man. A Native American who didn’t deserve to be beaten and burned to death in the trunk of his car. She knew it too, possibly even regretted it. Maybe she only regretted being caught, or perhaps she regretted not planning it better. The few hundred dollars they pulled from several ATM’s after the murder was likely not worth it, in retrospect.
Time to give it Up
I placed a second hand on hers and said, “I know you took the gas out to the boys.”
Her expression meant to express shock. “I did what!”
“You took the gas. Ray-Ray called you, the cell phone records show it. You drove out to the desert and brought the gas with you.”
“We have surveillance video from the gas station,” I said, hoping to God she bought the gas that night. Hoping the bluff wouldn’t backfire. Once they catch a bluff, the momentum turns.
“Video?” she said, her bloodshot eyes darting side to side, recalling the night. I wondered if she was seeing the gas station in her mind.
I pushed it. “You’re on tape, buying the gas.”
“Ray-Ray said they needed gas.”
“Like they ran out?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“So you bought some gas.”
“You put it in the gas can I found in your car?”
“Took it out to them?”
“They told you where to go?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You were there when the car was torched.”
“No . . . I didn’t—”
“You were there, Valerie. We can prove it. Don’t make this worse by lying about something as insignificant as driving out there with the gas.”
Insignificant. Burning your boyfriend to death in the trunk of his car.
Her eyes darted as she processed the information. “I remember going out there . . .”
“But I don’t remember the fire.”
“You were there when they torched it.”
“I didn’t see—”
“You saw the whole thing, Valerie.”
“I left before—”
“You drove the boys home, remember? You need to think before you lie.”
She paused. “Okay.”
“You were there.”
“But I didn’t watch.”
“How could you not?”
Small beads of sweat formed over her upper lip. “This is messed up. I get confused. You’re making me confused.”
A Gruesome Detail Revealed
She was close to giving it up. I could feel it. It was time to push her over the edge.
“Did you hear him scream?”
Her head jerked up. Her hazel eyes drilled me, studying me the way I’d studied her, trying to read my thoughts through my eyes, looking for something that said I was bluffing. I just realized she had no idea her boyfriend was still alive when the boys set the car on fire. She must have assumed he was dead, that the fire was just a way to destroy evidence.
Her breathing was now labored; I could see her pulse beating in her throat.
“Oh, my God!” she said.
“Yeah, they burned him to death.”
The tears came, showing me I had found it, the small piece of her heart that hadn’t been destroyed by drugs, greed, and a lifetime of bad turns and hard knocks. It was what I needed to finish the job.
“He felt it, every bit of it. A slow, torturous death he never deserved,” I continued. “Your kid, him and his buddies, they beat him with sticks and a bat, stuffed him in the trunk after cracking his skull. Then they torched the car while he was fighting for his life. Thinking of you and your son.”
Tears now streamed down her cheeks. “Oh, God!”
“You took the gas out there so they could finish him off.”
“No. Oh God, please, no! I didn’t know . . .”
“The least you could do is tell me the truth. You owe him that. If you believe in anything at all—God, Buddha, karma—you’ll tell me the truth now. Tell me who doused the car with gas and who torched it.”
“I never meant for that.”
“I know, you’re not a bad person,” I lied.
Her shoulders rocked back and forth, her eyes staring past me, likely recalling the night, the way it went down, the horror, the flames, the death . . . the point of no return. She bit at her lower lip, tearing the skin. A trickle of blood oozed from a small crack.
“Christopher poured the gas. Then Ray-Ray tossed the lighter into the car before he was ready. He was still pouring the gas and the flames got him, burned his arm and leg. He yelled, called Ray-Ray a dumbass or something. Ray-Ray started laughing. He was high. They were all high.”
“You saw it?”
“Yeah,” she said, her words now barely audible.
I slowly pulled my hands back, straightened in my chair, satisfied with her statement. It was mostly self-serving but more than enough to nail her. “Thank you, Valerie. You did the right thing, being honest here.”
“I’ve told you the truth.”
“That will count for something?”
“Yeah, it will count for a lot. I’ll make sure the D.A. knows you cooperated.”
“Do you feel better? Getting it off your chest?” I asked, needing the knowledge for future interrogations.
She swept the hair from her face with the back of a hand, and through a few sniffles said, “Yeah, I think.”
“You did the right thing, proving you’re not a bad person.”
“Am I charged now?”
“You’ll be arrested,” I told her, “it’ll be up to the D.A. whether you’re charged.”
“What happens next?”
“You’ll be booked.”
She pursed her lips, folded her arms over her chest. “Can I have a cigarette?”
“Sure,” I told her. “Come on, we’ll step out on the patio before I walk you over to the jail.”
She stood and smiled, seeming to accept her journey to Hell.
For me, it was time to turn back; I’d been as close to Hell as I cared to be during this dance with a demon.
* * *
A GOOD BUNCH OF MEN
DOOR TO A DARK ROOM