Baptism by Fire
Before I had a chance to grab a cup of coffee or discover the location of my desk, I was given my first assignment as a homicide detective.
A 16-year-old boy had been killed by a train in the City of Industry.
It was a chilly fall morning, and I made the mistake of arriving at the office at seven o’clock. Other than one detective handling phones at the front desk, the place was empty.
I came from Special Investigations Bureau (SPI) where we started early; six o’clock was the norm. When told by the operations lieutenant to report to Homicide at about nine, I had to assume he was mistaken, or I misunderstood him. No matter, I had no intention to show up for my first day at Homicide at nine o’clock.
L.A. Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau
As it turns out, most homicide detectives arrive at the office between eight and nine. There are many reasons, the main one being that you never knew when you might be out all night. That extra hour or two in the morning can make a difference with the fatigue factor.
But I walked into the bureau on the first day of my new assignment, and the detective on the desk said, “Are you assigned here now?” I told him I was, and that it was my first day. “Good,” he said, “I need you to roll out to Industry on a train versus ped.”
I had been a deputy sheriff for fourteen years, a detective for seven. I had worked as a station detective where I investigated hundreds of crimes, including rape, robbery, assault, kidnapping, and attempted murder. I had investigated several “no-hit” officer-involved shootings. I had assisted with numerous murders in our jurisdiction, working hand in hand with seasoned homicide detectives and learning the ropes. I had been assigned to the night car and the Crime Impact Team, where we worked both plainclothes and undercover assignments and operations. I was then assigned to the Special Investigations Bureau, Metro Detail, where we investigated murder for hire, kidnap for ransom, life-threatening extortion, pattern and series robberies, threats on public officials, and escapes from custody. Not to mention “specials.” Anyone in the business knows what that means, but for those who don’t, think secret squirrel, usually with political overtones.
The point is, I knew how to investigate crimes by the time I walked through the back door of the Homicide Bureau; it’s why I was there. Yet, I was apprehensive about the idea of going out on my first case as a homicide detective without my training officer.
No Greater Honor
There is a creed by which every homicide detective should live that states, in part, “No greater honor will ever be bestowed on an officer, or a more profound duty imposed on him, than when he is entrusted with the investigation of the death of a human being.”
Truer words were never spoken.
“Paul, I don’t have a clue how to handle something like that. I just drove up, man. I don’t expect my partner to be here for a couple of hours.”
I knew Paul from previous assignments. He smiled and said, “It’s no big deal, you can handle it. And it would be a big help because I have nobody else to send. I’d have to call someone out. My partner’s out on another suicide.”
“Is that what this is, a suicide?”
“I don’t know. That’s why you’re going out there, to figure it out.”
Up for the Challenge
But I was never one to shy from a challenge, and I wasn’t about to say, “I can’t.” In fact, I had long before stricken those two words from my vocabulary. So, I wrote down the address and headed that direction, careful to write in my brand new Homicide notebook every word Paul told me about the case, along with the time I received the information and the time I departed the office.
When I arrived, the deputy who handled the call briefed me on his actions and observations preceding my arrival. I took copious notes as he told me he had received the call, responded, arrived and observed parts of the decedent’s body and his belongings strewn for a quarter-mile. He turned and pointed down the tracks and said, “There’s a shoe with his foot down there; that’s the furthest piece of evidence we’ve located.”
There were several witnesses including the train’s conductor, all from whom the deputy had obtained brief statements. The witnesses said the deceased teen had exited a city bus wearing his backpack and walked directly from the bus across the tracks. A train had arrived at the intersection. The boy had ignored, disregarded, or somehow been oblivious to the warnings of the crossing gates with their flashing signals and loud bells, and the train’s ear-piercing whistle.
Suicide or Accidental Death?
It was either a fatal, tragic mistake or a desperate means to an end.
I met with the conductor and played it straight, telling him I’d been a homicide detective for about—I glanced at my watch—forty minutes, and that I knew less about trains than I did about investigating death. So, I told him, “You’re going to need to tell me everything about this machine you drive. I need to know what it weighs, the number of cars and overall length, the speed you were traveling, and the distance it took to stop. You’ll need to give me an overview of protocols and procedures for approaching intersections, and details of your experience, time behind the wheel today, the amount of sleep you had last night, and everything you saw and did here this morning. Then I’ll want to speak with the co-pilot.”
First off, there is no wheel. Secondly, the “copilot” is called the engineer. After we got that out of the way, I learned more about trains than I ever needed to know. The conductor was a bundle of shattered nerves, and it seemed that talking about his beloved train helped him through the moment. I wrote everything he said in my notebook, in excruciating detail.
Profound Duty Imposed
Later, I had the somber duty to notify the parents. As a patrol deputy, I had borne this burden on several occasions. But this was the first as a homicide detective. The first of many more to come, more than I can count now, where I stood in someone’s living room with a blue notebook in my hand to first deliver the horrible news and then to ask questions. It was a difficult part of the job, the profound duty, and it never got any easier.
This case was ruled an accident. There was no information or evidence to suggest it was suicide. That always seemed to somehow make it easier for loved ones.
But I always wondered how much could be going on in a teen’s life that the entire outside world could be tuned out. And with that thought, a small question about that morning has always remained. That’s the burden.
If you enjoy my blog, please feel free to share it with your friends through email or social media. My debut novel, A Good Bunch of Men, is available in paperback on Amazon, or you can download it at Kindle, iBooks, Smashwords, and other ebook outlets. Its sequel, Door to a Dark Room, will be published August 2018.