Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Final Story

Burden of Proof By Eric Anicich
"It's just not right. The boy needs to be studying," he grumbled in between the intermittent squashes of yesterday's deli sandwich. "I don't see what the big deal is. He's having fun you know," she responded over her shoulder while balancing a can of soup in one hand against a measuring cup in the other. A mother can never bring herself to condemn her own child's legitimate passion, regardless of the dismal moneymaking potential it offers. "How many of those damn archaeologists you think actually make a living for themselves?" he argued topping the sandwich off with the remaining four ounces of Milwaukee's Best sitting in front of him. "I don't know, but if our son wants to go digging around outside for who knows what, then just let him, ok?" This was nothing new. They had had this argument a number of times; the severity of which was determined by the quantity of beer consumed and the time of day; early evenings being the worst for his arthritis.
"Come quick! Come quick!" The dank evening shouted from the other side of the screen door. Soon a small figure could be seen following up the initial outburst with another enthusiastic appeal, "I found something. I'm not kidding. I think I got something out here." The tiny brown and white Jack Russell Terrier in toe energetically barked his approval as if to cast away any lingering skepticism the boy's parents may still have. "Alright alright. What is it this time?" his mother inquired. "Come, I'll show you." Quietly removing her apron and turning the stove down she followed her son as he ran ahead outside looking back to encourage his mother to move at a more youthful pace. He ran the remainder of the seventy-five yards before dropping to his knees and signaling at the ground to prove to his mother he wasn't lying. She was still about ten yards away when she noticed a mysterious gnarled heap partially excavated from the soft earth. She made up the rest of the distance almost immediately and before she could take in all of what she was seeing a sick reactionary noise bubbled up in the back of her throat and erupted out of her mouth. She too fell to her knees, but not in the way her son had done just moments before. She fell to her knees because, for the first time in her life, she saw a dead body.
By daybreak the quiet Orange County suburb of Fullerton was crawling with local police officers, investigators, and coroners. The area surrounding the body had been roped off as best it could with bright yellow caution tape secured around four nearby trees. It was a woman. That was the conclusion the arriving officers had come to. She was dressed in an expensive designer suit, partially torn and completely dirty. Her blonde hair was crusted over with dried blood from a gunshot wound she had sustained just above her right eye. She still had traces of mascara smeared across her cheekbones. A single gold loop hung from her left ear. Her right one was nowhere to be found. When detective Chuck Landry with the Fullerton PD arrived on the scene he knew right away this was going to be a tough case, one that needed to be solved right away if peace and order were ever going to be restored to the city.
One of the things Dennis Slade loved about his fiancé was that she was punctual by nature. Not the kind of promptness that relies on the weather forecast or the flow of the 405, but the kind of promptness that defies logic at times. Over the years Julie Bennet's friends became aware of this quality, often to their own startled amusement, having mistakenly planned dinner parties for seven thirty with hopes of having guests trickle in by eight. It was something she took pride in. Something, when asked about, she would laugh off and claim was no big deal. At this moment, however, it was the biggest deal in the world to her fiancé. She was three minutes late.
Dennis Slade sat nervously praying the twenty-dollar Timex strangling his wrist had recognized its own value and in an act of rebellion ceased to function properly. He kept running through the plans he had made with Julie in his head, visualizing every spoken word and relentlessly searching for something that would banish the thoughts that had begun to creep their way into his mind. He had intentionally made the plans simple and straightforward so as to not add any additional strain to Julie's already hectic life. They had agreed to meet at the Corner Café on Julie's lunch break, which she said would be twelve fifteen. That would give her more than enough time to make the four-story descent down the courthouse building and complete the three-minute walk across the street to the café by twelve thirty. What if she forgot where we were meeting? No no, couldn't be. The Corner Café was like a second office to Julie; a place where she sought refuge from the formalities of her profession often indulging in a cup of hot chocolate while mulling over minor details of upcoming cases. There would be no mistake over where to meet. He was sure of that. The suppressed fear boiled deep inside of him now, patiently waiting to rear its ugly head at the first glimpse of vulnerability. Stay calm. Stay calm. Plans change. Things come up unexpectedly. She'll be here. He waited ten more minutes before asking around her office if anyone had seen her. The last time anyone had seen her in the building was five o'clock the night before. By ten o'clock the following morning the bulletin was out. Julie Bennet was a missing person.
The couple's house was tucked away in a little community on the outskirts of Fullerton at 1426 Acacia Blvd. This time of year the trees surrounding the house were beautiful with autumn leaves a full eight inches in diameter. Shades of amber floated gently to the ground before the gusty Santa Ana winds denied them a safe landing. As he watched and waited he observed the leaves dancing around the base of the tree like young children around their mothers. Perhaps he would have enjoyed the scenery a little more under any other circumstances, but today his thoughts were consumed with his missing fiancé and the detective who should be arriving at his door any moment. The knock came about ten minutes later. Slade hurriedly made his way to the door and looked through the peephole out of habit before unlatching the lock. Even through the tiny hole Slade could tell this was one of the most imposing figures he had ever seen. As soon as the door was half way open the tall detective asked, "Are you Dennis Slade?" "Yes, yes I am." "Good, I'm detective Chuck Landry, Fullerton PD," a visible badge clinging to his shirt pocket. He removed a pair of aviator sunglasses to get a better look at Slade and tucked them just above the top button of his white dress shirt. Landry looked the part. He appeared to be in his mid-forties but his body apparently didn't get the memo. There was a controlled spring to his step complimented nicely by his solid, toned body. A depth of experience could be seen in his dark eyes not to be outdone by the distinguished hint of gray hair resting above. It was not the depth you see in a dying man's eyes, but the depth you see in someone at the pinnacle of their career.
Landry sensed all too well that Slade's missing fiancé was the woman he had seen just hours ago protruding from the ground with a bullet hole in her head. "Do you mind if I have a look around while you tell me a little more about your fiancé and when you last saw her?" He shuffled past Slade and paused in the entry hall observing a re-creation of the Birth of Venus hanging on the wall. "Sure, go ahead. I don't know what you're going to find though. I mean she was here yesterday morning before she left for work. Everything seemed normal until she didn't return home." Landry continued around the corner and into the family room. This was nothing like his own condo. The furniture was plush and light colored like everything else in the house. It didn't look like it had been used much, if at all. Sensing Landry's observation Slade commented, "Neither of us are really here much. I work at a big firm downtown and she is a lawyer. That's why I was so excited when we had agreed to meet for lunch." His eyes sunk at the realization that he may never see her again. "What kind of lawyer is she?" Landry asked, quickly changing the subject. "She's a prosecutor for the district. Deals mostly with high profile violent crimes." "Had she been busy with cases recently?" "Oh yeah, she is always busy. She liked it that way." Landry caught sight of a picture propped up on the mantle above the fireplace. This was the picture he was afraid he was going to find. It appeared to be a recent photo of the couple getting off a cruise ship. Julie's soft blonde hair was flowing to the tune of the sea breeze and exposing the most genuine of smiles. She looked to be about 5'7", slim, and naturally tanned. So this is what a living Julie Bennet looked like. Landry forced himself to look away, trying not to expose his secret prematurely. He continued on into the kitchen trying to pick out anything that looked to be out of place. The connecting door led into the living room. Against the back wall an oak cabinet sat holding a set of fine china next to an elegant dining table. On the other side of the room sat a stationary bicycle and an assortment of rubber-coated dumbbells that had begun to accumulate dust. "Did Julie exercise often?" Landry asked peering over his shoulder back at Slade. "Yeah, all the time. She used to do it here until we got a membership at the place down the street," he responded flashing Landry the little membership card hanging from his key chain. Slade began fumbling through his shirt pocket for a cigarette and motioned for Landry to follow him into the garage.
There was no point putting it off any longer Landry thought to himself. "Mr. Slade there is something you need to know." Their eyes met as Slade exhaled his first breath of nicotine. "Last night the department received a call about a body that was found about two and a half miles from here. I'm not saying there's a connection just yet, but would you be willing to at least look at a couple of the pictures from the crime scene so we can rule it out as being related to your case?" Landry felt like a coward for letting the pictures speak for themselves when he knew full well that the dead woman was this man's fiancé. The cigarette clenched between Slade's upper and lower lip mimicked the trembling of his mouth as he choked down the fear in the back of his throat. He couldn't speak. He only slightly nodded to let the detective know he could pull out the pictures he was referring to. Without breaking eye contact detective Landry removed a small manila envelope from inside his coat. He knew which picture was the clearest and went straight for it; pulling it out for himself to see first, and then turning it around and ruining Dennis Slade's life. He maintained a firm grip on the picture as he slowly rotated the image of Julie's lifeless body into Slade's view. Two things happened almost simultaneously. First, a moaning noise burst out of Slade's mouth as if he had been punched in the stomach by a heavyweight boxer. Then the cigarette fell from his lips extinguishing itself on the cold concrete floor. He stood there motionless for a few seconds before collapsing to the ground in a ball of tears. Landry had never been trained to handle situations like this. He usually wasn't the one to have to tell people their loved ones had just been murdered. The only thing to do now was to give Mr. Slade some time to recover before any further questioning. On the way back to his unmarked car Landry caught sight of the mailman who had just pulled up to Slade's mailbox. As he passed, the stout man inquired, "Is everything ok?" noticing the grown man in the fetal position silently shaking on the floor. "He'll be ok. He just got some bad news," Landry said looking the man in the face.
Landry phoned the station and told his superior of the situation. He suggested arrangements be made for Mr. Slade to come down to the medical examiner's office to confirm the identification of the body. He told him to give Slade a few hours to calm down before making the call. From the residence Landry went straight to the courthouse where Julie Bennet worked in downtown Fullerton. He had been to the courthouse many times in the past; sometimes testifying and sometimes watching fellow officers testify. Never had he gone there under these circumstances. After passing through the metal detectors he approached a reader board with the names and offices of different attorneys. He found Bennet, Fourth Floor, Room 3B. There was a bailiff waiting outside her door as he approached the office. The department must have called ahead and arranged for a security detail to prevent any unwanted visitors. After being let in Landry put on a pair of gloves so he would not disturb any existing fingerprints since he was the first one in the office since Julie's murder. There was a huge wooden bookshelf that wrapped around two sides of the wall in a U shape. On it were countless penal code volumes, case studies, and journals. Landry approached the end of one of the shelves and pulled out a book titled The History of American Jurisprudence. He flipped through the pages casually, briefly skimming over different precedents set in the early twentieth century. He returned the book back to its original position on the shelf and began searching for more relevant clues. On her desk sat piles of folders and papers. Despite the volume of information, everything appeared to be neatly arranged and labeled. Reading through the files Landry was able to distinguish between which cases were closed and which ones were still pending as well as which ones Julie had won and which ones Julie had lost. In a matter of minutes he had in front of him all of the cases that were closed and that she had won. He figured if someone was seeking retaliation they would not be dumb enough to do anything while the trial was still pending and they still had a chance to win. He also reasoned that nobody would bother Julie if they had won their case. That left him with six names over the past couple of months. Those convicted were in prison and therefore not capable of harming Julie. Their spouses, on the other hand, were still at large and may be harboring resentful feelings towards Julie. Landry had his work cut out for him and he knew it. He quickly scribbled the names of the spouses on a yellow legal pad at the edge of the desk, replaced all the files, and left the office.
One of Mozart's classical symphonies accompanied Landry on the way back to his one bedroom condominium in La Habra. He had heard on multiple occasions in the past that listening to classical music stimulates the mind and promotes intelligence. Landry knew this was wishful thinking on his part. At worst he would be accused of being an intellectual with a fine taste in music. He could live with that. Once inside his second-story condo he draped his coat over one of the high barstools in the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. He took the folded list of names out of his pants pocket and scanned them up and down waiting for something to jump out at him. After a brief minute or two he gave up for the night, dimmed the lights, and sprawled himself out on the dark leather sofa that he practically stole from an amateur seller on Ebay. Lying there under the cream colored ceiling Landry remembered a friend in LA that may be able to help. In the morning he would give him a call.
"Webb?" "Who is this?" "It's your old pal Chuck Landry" "Chuck! How the hell have you been?" "I've been good, but listen I need another favor from you. I have six names. This time I need current addresses, credit card information, and anything else you can dig up." There was a pause at the other end. "I'll make it worth your time," Landry interjected. "Alright, let me have the names and I'll give you a call in a couple hours." Landry ran through the names making sure his friend got the correct spelling. "Webb, this is why you're the best." They hung up. Webb was the go-between for Landry and some high level FBI agent who was always looking to make some extra money. Landry sat back down on the sofa and began going through Julies's files that were emailed to him from the district. All six of the people Julie put away were still in prison and would be for a long time. Four of the six that had lost their cases were men and two were women. The charges read: homicide, homicide, kidnap and homicide, homicide, double homicide, and homicide. Dennis Slade was right, Landry thought, when he said Julie dealt with violent crimes. Some of the details of the cases didn't seem to fit together beyond a reasonable doubt. Julie Bennet must have been one tough prosecutor to get some of these convictions. His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the vibrating dance his cell phone began to do on the glass surface of the table in front of him. "This is detective Landry." "Chuck, it's me, Webb." "Geeze, that was fast, buddy. Tell me you got something for me." Landry began furiously writing down all that Webb had dug up. When it was all said and done two of the six had credit card charges from out of state during the time of the murder, one had been arrested on drug charges and was serving time, and one had been killed in a car accident four weeks ago. The remaining two didn't have any alibis and were still considered suspects in Landry's opinion. He took down their addresses and license plate numbers and thanked Webb a final time.
The reports from the lab had come back on Julie Bennet's body and didn't reveal anything useful. No foreign hair or blood was found. No skin cells were found under her fingernails and no rare thread samples that would lead directly to the killer had turned up. The cause of death, as if it wasn't abundantly obvious from looking at the body, was a single gunshot wound to the head. The police didn't have much to go on at this point in the investigation. Landry knew that if his remaining two suspects didn't turn up anything the case might not ever be solved. The best thing to do, Landry thought, was to go down to the station and inform the rest of the department what he had found.
On his way downtown to the station Landry caught sight of the giant Meridian Sports Club sign and matched it with the small logo he remembered seeing on Dennis Slade's key chain. He decided to stop by and see if he could find out anything more about Julie from the employees at the front desk. He pulled into the secluded parking structure and found a spot about halfway down the second row. The customers streaming in and out of the automatic entrance doors seemed to be about twenty years older than the average clients at the local 24 Hour Fitness. Landry followed a man wearing high blue shorts and a tank top in through the doors. The man handed the employee at the front desk his key chain who swiped it across the infrared scanner in front of him. "Thank you Mr. Goldstein. Enjoy your workout," the employee said handing back the key chain. Landry froze in mid-stride and pulled out the yellow legal paper from his pocket. Below the four crossed out names remained Heather Donaldson and Leroy Goldstein. As Landry approached the desk Mr. Goldstein turned his head slightly as he made his way towards the men's locker room. It was just enough for Landry to catch a profile view of the man. Landry had seen this profile before. He had seen those tiny blue shorts before too. Landry now realized this was the mailman he had seen outside Dennis Slade's house.
Trying to act nonchalant, Landry waited for the man to disappear into the locker room before he flashed his badge to the employee and asked if he'd be willing to answer a couple of questions. The employee agreed. "I'm investigating a murder but other than that I can't tell you much about the case. I noticed the man who came in just before me was named Goldstein. Is that correct?" "Yes that's what the screen said," the employee responded a bit shaken up. "Well can you tell me what the screen says his first name is?" The employee prodded at the keyboard for a moment and then responded, "Leroy, his first name's Leroy." Landry tried not to show any reaction. "I see," he said. "And do you know if his wife has a membership with you as well?" "Umm, let's see here. It looks like she did until last month when her account was closed." Landry nodded his head in approval realizing that the account must have been closed after his wife had been sent to prison. "Did you know of a Julie Bennet that used to exercise here?" "Yeah sure, Ms. Bennet comes in here all the time. Everything's ok with Ms. Bennet right?" the employee asked worriedly. "Don't worry about it. Just do me a favor and don't mention you talked to me when Mr. Goldstein leaves, ok?" "Ok sir, don't worry about it. I won't say anything." Landry tucked the yellow paper back into his shirt pocket and went back to his car to wait for Goldstein. He knew what he was going to do in his head but he wasn't sure if it was going to work.
About an hour and fifteen minutes had passed when Landry noticed Mr. Goldstein appear from behind the sliding double doors. He hid in the shadows of the parking structure as Goldstein located his car. If there was any lingering doubt that this was the correct Leroy Goldstein it was quickly dashed away as he opened the door to a 2001 white Camry with license plate 3XCV194. This was the same license plate number and description given to him by Webb. Landry knew he needed to search this man's car but he didn't have a shot at a warrant with the little information he had. He needed another way. Landry followed Goldstein's car as he made his way out of the parking structure. He was familiar enough with the area to know that there was a series of three stop signs just ahead. This might be his only legitimate shot. As they approached the first stop sign Goldstein slowed and made a complete stop. At the second stop sign he did the same, this time waiting a couple of counts before accelerating again. The final stop sign was now in sight and Landry knew this was his last hope. Goldstein pressed the brakes but this time rolled through the sign at a low speed. This was all Landry needed. He hit the siren from inside his undercover car and motioned for Goldstein to pull over. Landry unhooked his badge from his belt and hung it from his shirt pocket in plain view for Goldstein to see. He put his sunglasses on hoping Goldstein would not recognize him from the previous day. When he approached the car he tried to sound as professional as he could even though he hadn't done a traffic stop in fifteen years. "License and registration please." That was good Landry thought to himself. After he received both from Goldstein he retreated to his car where he pretended to run it through the system. The funny thing was his unmarked car didn't have the in-dash computer system that normal squad cars have, but Goldstein would never notice. Sometimes Landry took pleasure in citizens' unquestioning adherence to the rule of law. He knew that regardless of what he told Goldstein he would never have enough probable cause to search his car on the spot. Landry's car, however, didn't have the standard dash mounted camera to record abusive police activity either. Nobody would ever know if Landry unjustifiably searched Goldstein's car. If it came down to it, it would be his word versus mine and I would win every time Landry thought. He marched back to Goldstein's car. "Sir I'm going to need you to step out of the vehicle for a moment and wait at the rear of the car." "What's wrong officer? What did I do?" Goldstein squirmed. "We just had a call come through about a car matching this description. I'll need to look inside." Landry lied. Goldstein nervously got out and watched from the trunk of the car. Landry began shuffling through the glove compartment and center console hoping to find anything related to Julie Bennet. He had just about exhausted all options inside the car when he caught something out of the corner of his eye, a small flash of metal wedged between the door jam and the side of the passenger seat. Upon closer inspection the golden luster of a small earring shone back at him. This is what he was looking for. Julie Bennet's dead body was missing an earring. Landry calmly placed the small earring into an evidence bag and continued searching the car. The car was littered with clothes, empty coffee cups, and letters. Landry dug through the storage area under the radio and grabbed a few scraps of paper. The first was a grocery list, the second had an unfamiliar name and phone number on it, and the third simply had the address 1426 Acacia Blvd. written on it. That was Julie Bennet's address. Landry placed the scrap of paper in another evidence bag and retreated from the car.
"Place your hands on the hood of the car Mr. Goldstein. You're under arrest for the murder of Julie Bennet." Landry had already removed his handcuffs and was resting his other hand on the butt of his standard issue Glock 22 at his side. "What are you talking about. I don't even know who Julie Bennet is. You're insane!" he exclaimed. Almost as soon as Goldstein finished speaking he lunged and Landry was prepared for it. As Goldstein made his move Landry slid his free hand away from the gun and towards his 21" collapsible baton hidden behind his dress coat. With the first swoop the stainless steel baton was fully opened and with the second swoop Goldstein's tibia was shattered. That was the first time Landry had used the baton out of necessity. The other three times he had used it were by preference. Soon after an ambulance and four squad cars were on the scene. After being taken to the hospital Goldstein was escorted to the police station for questioning.
Thorough interrogation revealed that Leroy Goldstein was disgruntled after his wife had been convicted of murder under dubious circumstances. Julie Bennet was the lead prosecutor in the case. There was a shadow of doubt surrounding his wife's guilt that the local newspapers touched on during the jury's weeklong deliberation. With any other lawyer representing the victim's family Goldstein's wife would have likely gotten off. This did not sit well with Leroy Goldstein. Just days after the verdict was read he had noticed Julie Bennet's address as one of the houses on his mail route. He had studied her movements for two weeks and knew of her membership at the gym as well as what time she normally arrived for a workout. His job lacked supervision and therefore allowed him to stray from his route and observe Julie for brief periods of time. On one of Goldstein's days off he staked out a spot next to Julie's car and waited for her to come out of the gym. As she approached, Goldstein attacked using a chloroform soaked towel to render Julie unconscious. He then tossed her into the passenger seat of his white Camry carelessly enough to loosen one of Julie's earrings. Goldstein took her to an open field where he shot her in the head before she regained consciousness. He tore her clothes slightly and messed up her hair hoping it would come off as a mugging. The premeditated and violent nature of Goldstein's crime landed him in prison for life. His leg never fully recovered and to this day he walks around with a slight limp as a constant reminder of his encounter with detective Landry.
Detective Landry personally delivered the news to Dennis Slade who took it all in without the slightest reaction. Despite the horrendous nature of the crime, Slade was glad justice had been done and that Goldstein was off the streets. He eventually sold their house in Fullerton and relocated to northern California where he attempted to date again. Detective Landry was ordered to take a month long paid leave from the force while details of the arrest and alteration were worked out. The department came to the conclusion that Landry had not done anything inappropriate and he was reinstated with full pay and benefits.

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