Gut Feelings, what are they?
A lot has been written about human intuition and its power to communicate, even I have covered this topic here. Stories of people acting on their gut feelings are out there for good reason. Simply put, these are the unexplained feelings we get about something being wrong but have no evidence to prove it. Expanding further, its the subliminal processing of information that goes beyond our rational thought. I’ve explained it before in comparing the difference between conscious and subconscious brain operations. Our frontal lobe is the thinking brain and our midbrain is the primitive component where fight or flight lives.
Its also believed that this powerful part of our brains is like an antenna-farm that is constantly picking up transmissions in our immediate environment and then sending signals or alarms so that we can take appropriate action.
I’ve got a hunch Captain!
While this superpower was once in its prime during days of old when threats were left, right and center. Now, modern society and its civilized ways can lure many into a false sense of security and dismiss these notifications, or altogether ignore them. One place this tool is traditionally embraced is police work. We’ve all heard the line in TV cop shows, “I’ve got a hunch on this one Captain!”
Like with anything, working in an environment where you practice something often results in that tool becoming honed. I believe intuition is that way for cops. They get to practice it daily in the field, especially if they are working in a fast-paced environment full of danger. They become reliant on it and often seek its counsel. When an alarm bell goes off, you better believe it gets attention. It wasn’t until I was a cop that I started to really embrace intuition and tried to use it in real-time. Probably the most poignant example occurred on a traffic stop when listening to it saved my life. Without acting on that gut feeling, I would have walked unsuspectingly into a situation where the driver pulled a gun on me. While I can’t outline specific evidence as to why alarm bells were ringing as I exited my patrol car, I quickly acted on the unexplained feelings and was able to get the jump on the suspect. But, I will save that story for another time.
A Rookie Cop with Aspirations
In 1997, this intuition reached out to me in a place I would have never expected, a grocery store. I only had a few years on the job as a police officer. I had been around long enough to have some good street sense and had just reached enough time in service to take the detective’s test. My immediate goal was to make detective and get assigned to the Robbery-Homicide Unit. It was not usual for rookie detectives to go straight to this unit without getting some initial investigative experience in a precinct theft unit, burglary squad or other team. The Major Felony Unit (Robbery-Homicide) was considered elite. They had a reputation as hi-caliber detectives who cleared cases and worked crazy overtime to keep in step with a near triple-digit homicide rate (now triple-digits), endless violent assaults and an insane robbery count.
I was working hard to make good cases on the street and hoping that I would get noticed by detectives in that unit. Meanwhile, like most officers, I kept grinding away on the street and worked a number of extra-jobs to earn additional income. This came in the form of businesses hiring police officers off-duty to provide security. I had spent the last 3 years working an additional 8 hours a week on extra jobs, usually at night clubs, convenience stores, or other businesses that requested a fixed police presence.
A Visit to the Grocery Store
On one particular afternoon, I was working at a shopping center on Memorial Drive. It was your standard shopping center design found in everyday American, this one anchored by a national chain Grocery Store. I think this was the second or third time I had worked this location. I spent hours walking back and forth outside, and in and out of all the stores. On this day I walked into the supermarket and strolled around the inside for a few minutes. An employee approached me and asked to speak with me. She began to tell me that she was very concerned about a co-worker who had not shown up to work in two days and could not be reached by phone. This was long before the age of smartphones and the trend of never being out of touch. This could have easily been one of many contacts with police that start out as a missing person report and result in a logical explanation where the person was never is any harm. That said, something was bothering me immediately and I have no explanation as to what it was. I listened carefully to her concerns and how she mentioned that the missing co-worker was distraught over trying to raise her 15-year-old delinquent son.
She asked if I could also speak to the store manager. I agreed and we walked into a private office and she invited the store manager to join us. Soon, both were outlining their worries. They mentioned that the woman’s son had threatened his single-mother in the past when trying to enforce house rules. It seems the boy was very disrespectful, unruly and came and went as he pleased. The two concerned complainants told me that the woman relayed to them that she was scared of her 15-year-old son and decided to lock him out of the house. The manager confirmed the woman had not reported to work and was unreachable, all of which was out of character. As I listened to their worries, I began to feel a sense of urgency come over me.
Some Cries are Louder than Others
I could have written a report and requested dispatch to have a uniform officer go by for a safety check. Essentially, where an officer knocks on the door in hopes of speaking to someone at the residence. However, the woman’s apartment was only a few minutes away and something was really eating at me. I told the two that I would personally go check it out. I decided to drive over to the nearby apartment complex and used my police radio to request a uniform officer to meet me there. Even upon my arrival, my senses seemed to be screaming at me. I did not work in this precinct so I was not familiar with the apartment complex and I did not recognize the officer that arrived.
Arriving in full uniform and the senior of the two of us, I told him the backstory and we approached the front door. I knocked and announced that we were the police. We waited but no one answered. I checked the front door and confirmed it was locked. I advised the other officer that I would check around the side of the first-floor apartment. As I inspected the exterior wall, I noticed one of the windows had a pane of glass missing and had been replaced with a small piece of cardboard. My heartbeat started to increase and the feeling that something was wrong clawed at me even more. I told the officer I was going to enter the house based on the totality of the circumstances, noting the woman changed the front lock and the son possibly broke the window and entered. I felt that there was enough evidence to believe the woman was in grave danger and that I was within my rights to make a warrantless entry.
I easily pushed the cardboard in and lifted the window. I told the other officer to cover me and I would let him in through the front door. I unholstered my gun and crawled through the window while yelling “police officers, were coming in!” I slowly lifted my leg through the window and crouched through. The other officer lowered his weapon once I was in and moved to the front door. I did not see any movement once I was inside. I slowly moved to the front door, methodically clearing the area with my weapon and eyes while continuing to announce my presence. I unlocked and opened the door, allowing the other officer to enter. We split up to finish checking the apartment. I could feel the dread pulling at me as I approached the master bedroom. I entered and once again announced “police!”. The room was empty. As I scanned the room, my attention focused on the closet door that was shut. I’ve tactically cleared hundreds of buildings, structures and rooms before under dangerous circumstances, but I’ve never had my gut instincts signaling this strong. It was as if the closet door was alive, pulsating like something out of a horror film.
I moved toward the door and I knew something was waiting behind it. With my Beretta 9mm in my right hand, I turned the doorknob with my left and swung the door open. It was a small walk-in closet with women’s clothing hung from the racks and shoes on the shelves. What was out-of-place was the large cocoon-shaped object on the floor, wrapped in bedding. I knew it was her, the mother. I tried to confirm it was a body without altering any evidence. Once I was sure, I yelled to the other officer. I notified dispatch, then switched my radio frequency over to the detective’s channel. I requested a Major Felony detective and advised them of the discovery. Before long, the apartment complex was full of emergency lights, detectives and crime scene technicians. After I gave my statement to homicide detectives, I returned to the grocery store to deliver the tragic news. It was soon discovered that the 15-year-old son broke into the apartment and murdered his own mother. He then wrapped her in the bedding and stowed her in the closet. He spent the next couple of days like nothing had happened, having friends over and playing video games.
Gut Instincts…an Edge in a High-Stakes Game
This was one of those cases that taught me that evil can find a home at any age, and isn’t hampered by familial bonds. Moreover, it reinforced the necessity of heeding my own gut feelings. This was a case that has never been more than a few degrees from my frequent recollections. Cops can get a bit sentimental and in many ways, I feel a permanent connection to the woman in the closet.
Soon afterward, I would leave the uniform division to join the ranks alongside those same homicide detectives who responded that day. It would be the start of many highs and lows; it would be the most profound duty I had ever had. Additionally, it would not be the last time I felt the dead cry out from beyond the grave.