Homicide detectives tell stories

Remember that time…? When Homicide Cops Reminisce

“The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces”

I’ve heard it said that sometimes you don’t know the value of a moment until it actually becomes a memory. As I hit my 50th Birthday this week, pay tribute to my father’s next week and near the anniversary of his death, I find myself comforted in the thought of those old moments, even the ones that involved tragedy. I carefully sift through my thoughts like a desperate miner searching for gold, hoping to maybe reveal a forgotten nugget. I always liked the baseball movie, “Field of Dreams”. For me, it was one of those movies you discover years after it’s premiere, probably watching it for the first time on TBS where it is re-run hourly. Strangely enough, I’m not a big baseball fan. So, why the draw to it? Yes, Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones are both great actors, but for me, it was the essence of the film (spoiler alert to follow), memories and yearning for a chance to reconcile the past. Costner plays a conflicted man named Ray Kinsella, who secretly carries regret and pain for never being able to reconcile with his deceased father, who was an aspiring baseball player. While walking through his cornfield one day, a mysterious voice whispers, “If you build it, he will come”, as he simultaneously has a vision of a baseball diamond where his cornfields are. Throughout the film, the voice returns, and a strong force is pulling him for some unknown purpose. Once he plows over his only cash resource and constructs the baseball field, ghosts suddenly appear in the form of famous players of years gone by. They begin to assemble on the new field daily and participate in that old American pastime.

Ray meets the ghost of his father

In the end, he finally realizes who would come if he built it; his dad. Costner frustrated by his financial predicament and still unsure of what this is all about is suddenly confronted by a younger version of his father, who reveals himself as the ghost who’d been playing catcher, hidden behind his protective mask. For me, its an extremely powerful and emotional moment when they begin to speak, stumbling for the right words, and ultimately playing a game of catch, evoking memories of child-like innocence. To answer my earlier question of why I like this movie, its mostly because I yearn to have that same moment with my own father, just one more talk…one more hug. At the movie’s core, it’s about recognizing the cherished memories that we have and doing things to keep them alive. At one point before his father reveals himself, Ray Kinsella’s friend, played by James Earl Jones, finally begins to see the ghosts too and attempts to convince a conflicted Ray to continue down this path, that his financial concerns can be solved when others come to visit his new special field in search of similar memories. “Ray. People will come, Ray…They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past…..And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” This is the way I feel when I connect and reminisce with old cop buddies.

Connective Tissue; Our Fathers

Last week I caught up with two different former homicide partners on the phone, Tim and Chris. They are both close friends that I have stayed in touch with for the last 20-plus years since working with them.  Chris lost his father last week, so I gave him a call to see how he was coping.  He was there for me 9-years-ago when my own dad died.  Like two proud sons, we talked about our fathers and the influence they had on our lives.  Both he and his father were graduates of the Citadel, an impressive accomplishment and testament to their character. The somber tone soon turned to laughter as we reminisced about our time working together as detectives in the Major Felony Unit, aka Robbery-Homicide.  Like a typical cop-movie backstory, Chris and I were in the police academy together but went to different precincts as uniform officers.  However, we both met up again as detectives assigned to the unit responsible for taking down robbing crews and solving murders in metropolitan Atlanta, DeKalb County.  

Homicide Detectives DeKalb County Police
Some of DeKalb’s “Murder Police” – Chris, C.K. and Tim

The next day, I called Tim, my other former partner from the same unit. Again, the conversation had some navigation back to our fathers, all war veterans, then transitioned to memories of the profound duty we both shared. Tim and I first worked as Major Felony detectives back in the late-1990s. He was promoted to sergeant and therefore required to return to the uniform division to lead uniform officers. After a short time on the street, he returned to our unit as one of the homicide sergeants. I remember being in seventh heaven that he was returning to the unit, like Chris, we had a strong bond and shared a similar drive and philosophy for the task at hand. In discussions with both former partners last week, we poked a lot of fun at each other, shared some stories of close calls, talked about family, caught up on other unit members, and laughed about some of the outrageous things we experienced. However, there were also moments during both conversations that became very sentimental and quite reverent. There is no getting around the fact that on a very deep level we are connected through these shared experiences, the kind created from facing horrific sights and doing dangerous work. Maybe only in these later years we really recognize the tenderness and respect for one another heard only in each other’s aged voices.

“When you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

At one point in my conversation with Tim, we talked about which cases out of the hundreds of murders still haunt our memories.  I think it’s different from what most citizens might expect.  I’m sometimes asked by non-law enforcement folks, “What was the worst thing you ever saw?”  Usually, the person is surprised by my answer, always expecting something over-the-top, like a gang-land killing with multiple bodies or something grotesque like a crime scene out of the movie “Seven”.  However, like with Tim, “worse” does not equal “sensational”. For us, “worse” usually equals something else. It’s usually the less sensational ones that follow you through life, its the ones that assault and rob you of elements of innocence from your own soul.  Like the little girl murdered in her Sunday dress, the small boy we found decaying in the woods, the college student raped then burned alive in the trunk of her car after being abandoned in a high school parking lot, or a beloved Vietnam-veteran father who was robbed and killed at a gas pump over some pocket cash.  

DeKalb Police Badge Homicide Detectives Beretta Pistol

I think it’s the ones that symbolize something relatable to our own lives that truly digs into our subconscious and puts down roots.  Maybe they’re the true symbols of child-like innocence that we desperately want to preserve and protect, the reason we were drawn to the task in the first place. But, upon witnessing their demise and destruction first-hand, seers a lasting impression into your very being, like a silent version of them, casting a shadow that’s always right alongside you. The shadow that wants nothing from you, only to travel as a life-long companion.  If you fixate on it, into the rabbit hole you go. I choose to acknowledge it, respect it, then leave it be. It reminds me of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote, “When you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Despite this tragic effect, I also hold close a quote from an NYPD Homicide Commander about working murders, “Remember, we work for God.” That phrase always stuck with me and solidified the importance of what I was doing during those years.  Towards the end of our long talk, Tim said something that caught me off guard, “CK, you were a good cop”.  In this context, the word “good” does not refer to the quality of your work, its more about your morality and essence.  You see, Tim spent more than a decade working homicides as both a detective and a supervisor, that’s thousands upon thousands of wicked deeds witnessed.  I’m fortunate to know some real legends like him that I worked for in that unit. Coming from someone like him, those simple words are very impactful.  He was not feeding my ego, he was giving me a dose of compassion and validation, a reminder that despite what I carry in my memories, I was the right guy for such a special and profound responsibility.  So were he and Chris, other members of the Major Felony Unit and so many more that did that duty for the right reason.  That very characteristic is at the heart of my take on the buddy cop duo. 

The Anatomy of the Buddy Cop Duo

Homicide Detectives
Tim and CK pursue a killer to Miami Beach

I’m proud to say that I have been one-half of a buddy cop duo on a number of occasions.  This unique and celebrated bond was most pronounced while I was a detective in the Robbery-Homicide Unit.  You spend so much time together, on crime scenes, in hospitals, in interview rooms, riding in the same car, in the office, serving search and arrest warrants, in court, on stakeouts, eating meals, and so on.  Before long you know what makes each other tick.  If the chemistry is there, you soon meld into a symbiotic relationship.  The force multiplication that results is reflected in everything from suspect confessions, revealing new leads, and creativity in solving cases.  Talk about a relationship that is celebrated, the buddy cop duo has been imitated in film and television since they both came into existence.  Some of the most hilarious and memorable entertainment moments were produced from these depictions.  We can probably all name a number of famous crime-fighting duos easier than we can the names of old school mates.  The ones that instantly come to my mind are Riggs and Murtaugh, Starsky and Hutch, Crockett and Tubbs, Hammond and Cates, Callahan and fill-in-the-blank, White and Exley, Turner and Hooch, Batman and Robin, Cagney and Lacey, The Lone Ranger and Tanto, Angel and Butterman, Gamble and Hoitz, and finally, Tango and Cash.  In the movies, it’s all about wise-cracking exchanges and outlandish gunfights.  But what makes the real-deal work?  From my experience, it’s a mixture of chemistry, shared character traits, philosophies, and most of all…personality (both knowing the same movie quotes doesn’t hurt).  Like in movies and television, my favorite partners were all bold, compassionate, wise-cracking, sarcastic smart-asses who shared my passion for the mission.  This ensured countless practical jokes, plenty of teasing and constant quick-witted remarks. I thoroughly enjoyed the give and take, back and forth banter that was always present in our squad room, in the field, and off-duty. If you had all of that, the rest, as they say, was gravy.

Remember that time…?

It seemed to proceed practically every several minutes.  Remember that time we interrupted that armed robbery?  Remember that time we got a confession on that triple homicide after 8-hours in the interview room?  Remember that time we chased that killer down to Miami Beach?  Remember that time we worked 36-hours-straight on the ________ murder?  These stories are retold over-and-over and have become a form of communicating subtleties to each other.  Buried in those stories are the appreciation, affection, and respect that we have for one another.  One of my favorite stories to tell involved Chris and I.  I have told it so many times because it has all the elements of a good story; a buddy cop duo, an interesting caper with plenty of conflicts,  good dialog, and a bizarre twist.  Plus, it gives me a chance to tease Chris.

It all happened on a Sunday night in August 1998.  The U.S. President was Bill Clinton and Brandy and Monica were ripping the charts with their hit single, “The Boy is Mine”. (Chris’ favorite…just kidding).  What led us to that specific night was an armed robbery crew that was targeting popular casual-dining restaurant chains (like the Bennigans sort) northeast of Atlanta, along the La Vista Road corridor.  For weeks, witnesses reported three armed men wearing masks charging violently into these locations and escaping with cash.  The trend that developed over a number of weeks seemed to indicate they preferred robbing these businesses on Sunday evenings.  

The serial-robbery case had no strong leads, so the detectives in our unit followed a standing order to drive around the La Vista Road corridor on Sunday nights when not pursuing leads on other cases.  Chris and I started the shift no differently than usual.  At some point, we headed out to grab some dinner.  Chris was on a mission to scrape and save every dime to put his kids through private school. So, if I wanted to pull him away from his packed lunch, I would often need to bribe him with a free meal (just call me Chris’ benefactor).  We both had our own take-home detective cars, but when we ventured out I always preferred to drive.  We jumped in my assigned 1994 Light Evergreen Metallic (the actual name of the color) Ford Taurus and navigated to one of our favorite restaurants in the county.  I always questioned this color choice by the department’s procurement officer. Like my astrology sign, the Taurus lived up to its negative traits of being stubborn and uncompromising. Before entering the restaurant, Chris realized he left his blazer back at the office and had no way to conceal his badge, gun, magazines, radio, and cuffs he wore on his waist.  I happened to have an additional sports coat/blazer in my car, so he slipped it over his dress shirt and tie and we headed inside for a bite.  I have to add, it was my favorite jacket.  

As the sun dropped and darkness set in, we finished our meal and headed North toward La Vista Road.  A short time later, a dispatcher’s voice came over the radio on our detective’s channel and asked for a Major Felony detective.  We acknowledged the request.  The female voice advised that uniform officers had responded to the O’Charleys’ restaurant in the same area on a suspicious activity call.  She continued to advise that a witness had observed some male suspects cutting a hole in the fence behind the restaurant and then left the scene.  Chris and I immediately knew this had to be the same crew and were probably prepping the target.  We responded on the radio for the operator to clear out all marked patrol cars and that we were en route to the location.  Only a few minutes away, we quickly arrived and circled the area.  We noticed that the fence in question separated the restaurant from a Firestone Service Center that was closed.  It was now full-on darkness and we slipped into the Firestone parking lot and backed into a spot where we could stake-out the scene.  

The dark parking lot was completely empty of vehicles or people. Additionally, the side road that fed the business was absent of traffic.  Chris and I prepared to reap zero results, knowing there was a chance the armed robbers may have seen the marked police cars and aborted.  So, we half-way felt it was a long-shot.  Only a few minutes into a trivial conversation, we were interrupted by a car turning into the Firestone parking lot.  Once its headlights swung around and revealed our vehicle posted by the back fence, it quickly diverted and sped back onto the street.  Chris and I simultaneously knew this was it.  As I threw the car in drive and punched the accelerator to catch up, he was switching over to the precinct radio frequency and advising dispatch and patrol officers that we were trying to catch up to a vehicle with possible “44 suspects”, the department’s code for armed robbers.  Its one of those codes that gets everyone’s attention on the radio.

As my ill-performing and homely-looking 4-speed-automatic Ford Taurus struggled to catch up to the suspect’s powerful full-sized land-yacht, the radio came alive with activity.  Patrol officers and their shift sergeants began to acknowledge the call and advise their intent to head in our direction.  I eventually closed the distance on the car and we were able to see three males inside.  The one in the backseat turned around to look at us and we could see the desperation and panic in his eyes, the chase was on.  Now the license plate in view, Chris held the radio to his mouth, “We are southbound on Northlake Boulevard approaching Lawrenceville Hwy.”  He relayed the tag number to dispatch using the phonetic alphabet and described the occupants as best as he could.  Seconds later, the radio operator replied, “ That vehicle is coming back stolen… All units in the area of Northlake and Lawrenceville Hwy be advised that Major Felony detectives are pursuing signal 44 suspects in a stolen vehicle”.  The suspect vehicle picked up speed as it was evident we were following them.  They made an erratic turn west onto Lawrenceville Hwy toward Interstate 285, the famous perimeter that circles Atlanta.  Individual patrol units began to compete for radio time, all advising how close they were and where they were coming from.  Frustrated, we were also competing for that precious radio time to give updated directions of travel.  Before the days of LED lights in every orifice of a police car, my little Ford Taurus only had a rectangular blue strobe light that flipped down with the visor and did not include a siren.  Now on I-285 traveling north and still alone, we actuated the emergency lights to help responding patrol cars find us.  Unlike back at the Firestone, there were plenty of cars on the interstate, and without the blue light, we would have been tough to locate.  Finally, we found ourselves surrounded by police vehicles.

C.K. and Chris

The stakes ever higher now, the suspect vehicle accelerated and recklessly weaved in and out of traffic.   I heard a patrol sergeant on the radio advise dispatch to inform surrounding police agencies of the situation as we would be entering and exiting various smaller municipalities in our current direction of travel.  Chris and I remained in a pole position close to the front of the pack and soon found ourselves back directly behind the suspects. They made an evasive swerve toward the exit ramp at Buford Hwy, resulting in the police car right behind them to overshoot the exit.  The suspects soon learned of their mistake as they found a police roadblock at the bottom of the exit ramp consisting of patrol cars from the neighboring agency of Doraville Police.  The suspect’s vehicle screeched to a halt with us right on its tail.  Doors from their car started to swing open before coming to a complete stop, indicating that the suspects would flee on foot.  As I readied to open my own door, I found myself in the frequent dilemma of trying to put the car in park and unholster my firearm as quickly as possible.  Chris was doing the same over in the passenger seat as we both watched the suspect in the front passenger seat bolt-out of the car and run between the woodline and Buford Hwy.  Chris was quick out the car and soon chasing that suspect on foot.  I was able to get to the back seat passenger before he could exit and held him at gunpoint while uniform officers blocked the driver’s escape.  As soon as the two suspects in the car were pulled out and cuffed, I could see guns, masks, and a pair of wire cutters inside the car.  

We soon learned that the third suspect Chris was chasing was now in custody.  I thought to my self, “nice work Chris”.  However, Chris soon returned to the scene rubbing his head as if nursing an injury.  I asked, “What’s wrong with you?”.  Chris began to explain that he was right behind the suspect when he heard an officer’s voice from behind yell, “I’ll get the first guy, you get the second one!”  Chris was confused as the math did not add up. Seconds later, Chris was tackled to the ground by a Doraville police officer.  As he told me the punchline, I burst out laughing until I realized he was wearing my favorite jacket!  Stained and scuffed from whatever surface he was slammed on, the jacket would never be the same again.  However, moments later as all the officers on scene rendezvoused around us, the atmosphere became full of high-fives and pats on the back.  I couldn’t help myself to not seize the opportunity to tease the neighboring agency.  I raised my hand for everyone’s attention and said, “Hey!… Good work fellas! Looks like the County Police have 3 felony arrests on armed robbers and Doraville has 1 arrest/release on a police officer.”  The group erupted into laughter, including the Doraville officers, who additionally threw varying degrees of face scowls.  

Back at the squad room, we got a confession, putting the case to bed.  While this didn’t put a dent in DeKalb County’s spectacular robbery rate, that particular string of armed robberies did end.  I like to think that there is always a lesson to be learned from something like this.  For me, it would be to never again lend another clothing garment to a friend.  For Chris, it probably had to do with choosing better footwear, so he can outrun the police.

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