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Taking a Beating

Jim Schepker

“You kids quiet down up there or I’m gonna come up there and tear your arms off and beat you with the bloody ends of ‘em,” Aunt Clara yelled up the stairwell.

I was seven years old, visiting distant relatives in the foothills of the Ozarks for a family wedding the next morning.

Aunt Clara’s threat was enough to quiet the eight of us, cousins and siblings ringing the room’s walls on sleeping bags on the pine floorboards of an upstairs room.

At least it was for the next nine or ten minutes, until cousin Frankie again produced yet another muffled fart that ignited one more explosion of giggles and moans.

“OK, I’m comin’ up there to tear your legs off and beat you with the bloody ends of ‘em, if that’s what you kids want,” Aunt Clara yelled again, this time her words a bit more slurred.

So now she had upped the ante from bloody arms to legs, further alarming us city cousins who did not know Aunt Clara well…and did not, therefore, know just how serious she might be, and if she might already be sharpening butcher knives in the smoke-filled kitchen below.

Years later I was reminded of this memory as I stood near a victim’s body, a blood-spattered mess that had left crimson streaks on the walls, the bed, and the pine flooring beside her as, I guessed, she had thrashed about during her final grasping gasps.

As a homicide detective I had learned that I often distracted myself at the job’s horrific moments with flashbacks to my past, like the Aunt Clara episode. That context of past terrifying moments, now recalled, always seemed to deliver a balance and calm for me in the present. The trigger now: that pine flooring.

And over my years of service with the homicide squad, the terrors of my childhood, I realized, had been many.

They had included rather innocent moments, like the first time I watched Uncle Leo casually hack the heads off chickens and then toss their writhing, blood-spurting bodies into a boiling black cauldron in the middle of our circle. Once he even tossed a squirming, beheaded bird into the clay dust at my feet so that I could watch it “run like a chicken with its head cut off,” which it did, for ten yards, until it ran headlong into a fence post…without its head, of course.

Or the time I watched Uncle Albert deftly glide a gleaming, hooked blade from the throat to the tail of a suspended, still-twitching calf, letting its entrails gently unfold against his chest to keep those intestines from splitting open and contaminating the animal’s much-prized heart and liver organs.

I learned to live with those early unsettling moments because they were – well, they were part of life.

But there were also other terrors, the not-so-innocent kind.

Like the time when I was about 6 years old, when I came into my Mom’s bedroom on a boiling summer afternoon and found her there, sprawled on her bed, my twin baby sisters napping in their cribs in the corner. Next to Mom lay Dad’s pistol. Red stains soaked her hair, forehead and temples. After agonizing minutes of “Mommy, Mommy, please, please wake up!” cries and tugs, she moaned, slowly raised herself, and then brushed the stained hair from her eyes. She was herself again! She was saved! Then she told me to go back outside to play, and not to tell Dad about this. As I scampered through the kitchen heading for the back porch door, I remember seeing a ketchup bottle at the edge of the sink counter and wondering which one of my brothers had left it there, hours after lunch. One of them would surely catch trouble for that!

Or the time when I was in a neighborhood park, with two fifth-grade friends. It was a weekday, the day of President Kennedy’s burial. Our unexpected free day from school took a bad turn when we were surrounded by a gang of seven or eight boys, all older than us, and all strangers. The leader of the pack stood before me, dramatically pulling on tight, black leather gloves, slowly, one finger at a time. “Well, boys, looks like we’re gonna have us some fun today,” was all he said. Then someone behind me tapped my right shoulder. When I looked back, the shoulder-tapping stranger simply waved and grinned, a mighty friendly gesture, I thought. When I turned back to face kid with the gloves, I saw only blackness streaked by shooting stars, and then found myself sprawled on the ground, unable to find my legs or remember who or where I was. That’s when a cop pulled up, and the gang scattered. The cop yelled at me and my friends to pick ourselves up, “shake it off,” and go home. He cruised along beside us for three blocks to make sure there was no more trouble.

“Now go home, and stay there,” he said as he rolled away.

And there were more. Watching a teenage friend slip, or jump, from a Chattahoochee River bridge into the racing, swollen waters below on a full-moon night during one of our bourbon-imbibing binges. Or standing at an open casket, hugging a sobbing sister whose best friend had died from a botched abortion - an appendicitis, the family called it. Or watching my uncle, just back from lunch and wobbling drunk again, slice off the top halves of two fingers on his left hand on the shop’s rusty table saw, and then, with blood spurting, slumping unconscious to the floor.

I was never encouraged to let these moments affect me too much. Heck, after that beating in the park I wore a puffy, deeply purple, left-eye shiner for more than a week. But not once during that week did my parents ask me about it. Or after my uncle had slumped to the floor and I cinched his arm tight with a piece of rope, and then dragged him into the front office where one of the secretaries called for an ambulance, no one ever asked if I was okay.

These things happened to everybody, all the time. That’s just the way life worked.

I know that most parents try desperately to spare their kids frightening moments like these as they grow up. And the thought of exposing their tykes to such moments is absolutely abhorrent.

And that view, I believe, is a terrible mistake.

Terror always begets two, and only two, potential outcomes: Trauma. Or triumph.

If experienced early and often, traumas and triumphs are critical building blocks in the foundation of a stable adult life. Parents need to recognize that kids are incredibly resilient. They can cope with terror’s impact, if given room. And since terror is inevitable in life, it’s your call, parents: You can invite for your kids a life of therapy and pills, or equanimity and engagement.

This was all frequently confirmed for me because I often noticed the blanched, wide-eyed stares of the younger squad members when they first entered a bloody scene like the one now splayed before them. The way they paused, stepped back, and raised their hands to their mouths to stifle the vomit impulse threatening their gullets said it all.

So, where colleagues saw blood droplets spattered on a wall, I saw direction and proximity. Where they saw a mass of thickening blood, I saw the approximate hour of its initial pooling. And where they saw gaping bullet wounds, I saw calibers, distances and, yes, sometimes even intentions.

So, yes, I guess my upbringing had been different, and had prepared me, if not to relish my job, at least to be very good at it.

And now, to the matter at hand. We had been notified by a caller, a neighbor who wanted to remain anonymous, that she had seen some strange goings-on across the street that night and she thought we should look into it.

Turns out the caller was the elderly, insomniac neighbor across the street, a Mrs. O’Rourke. She didn’t know that we could easily trace cell phone calls, and so she was shocked when we banged on her door at 2:37 a.m.

“I hate these darn things,” she exclaimed when we explained our arrival. “My daughter makes me have one. She even canceled my real phone. Now I have one more reason to hate this dang thing,” she added as she pinched the phone between her thumb and index finger, as if it might bite her. “Telling people I don’t even know who and where I am….”

“So Mrs. O’Rourke, what made you call us? Did you see something we should know about?” I asked.

“Well what happened over there?” she countered.

“Sorry, Mam, we cannot share any information right now since this matter is now an open investigation. But I’m sure you’ll get a chance to read all about it soon in the local papers. So, once again, what did you see or hear earlier tonight, but especially – what did you see that concerned you?”

“I heard some music, there were some lights, and it’s usually a pretty quiet place over there, especially at night. She’s one of those computer people, I think, working from home. But what alarmed me were those screeching tires of a big black car that backed out of the driveway and then drove across a corner of the front lawn and scraped that mailbox,” she said, pointing to the damages. “That was all just about midnight. That’s when I called,” she explained.

“And very importantly, Mrs. O’Rourke, did you get a chance to see the car’s driver?” I asked.

“No, just that black car and nothing else,” she said. “Then everything got quiet, so I called, and then you folks started arriving. And that’s all I know,” she concluded.

At first observation it appeared that this was a simple suicide, if that can ever describe a suicide. The pistol would likely bear the victim’s fingerprints – it was her registered weapon. And it appeared that the crime lab guys weren’t finding any other fingerprints throughout the home – not on door knobs or chairs or cabinet handles, and not even on the several scotch tumblers sitting at the kitchen sink.

“It’s a simple suicide, Jack. Looks like no one else was in here,” a colleague quickly concluded. “Let’s wrap this one.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I replied, “but let’s look at the lab reports in a couple of days when they come in.”

The apparent absence of other fingerprints was troubling, especially since a visitor had been reported. And the trajectory of the blood spray on the bedroom wall was also problematic. When the weapon was fired, the victim had stood several feet from where the body had slumped. And while some may believe in dead men, or women, walking, I did not.

(Sorry, but I just had to add that….)

The victim seemed to have no contacts who could provide more information. Several aunts and cousins lived a few states away. An estranged sister living on the West Coast was no help. And the victim, a customer service tech specialist, worked remotely. Her colleagues knew little about her, except that she had recently lost a very dear cat, Fritters.

But could the loss of a cat really lead someone to fritter one’s life away?

(Apologies once again, but that sort of wry musing is my way of coping and keeping my focus. That’s why I include it here, as evidence.)

Something else bothered me. The victim’s only social outlet seemed to be her membership with a local gun club where she periodically visited its firing range. That’s why the .38 caliber wound, in the center of the victim’s forehead, was another problem. Experienced shooters might hold a pistol below the chin or at the temple, pulling the trigger with help from a practiced index finger. A weapon held at the forehead, however, would more likely require the use of a thumb – an awkward accommodation for someone with experience. And the weapon in this incident had been held, by my estimate from powder and entry diameter details, about 20-22 inches from the forehead, even more awkward for a petite, short-armed shooter.

There was also no note. That is sometimes the case with suicide victims -- but always the case when the shooter is a party other than the victim.

As it turns out, after looking at first like it would become a dead case file, it soon became an impossible – and at the same time, an easy one – to solve.

The morning after the incident I had happened to be visiting my brother Timmy for some kitchen demolition work at his new home a few miles outside of town. The youngest in our long line, Timmy had been a distant caboose in the family, and so, as we older siblings raced

ahead in our lives, he had pretty much gone his own lonely way from the start. And so, it seemed, he had grown up an angry, resentful kid, feeling lost and left behind. More than once my Dad was greeted at the door in the middle of the night by the local cops with Timmy in tow.

Along the way, Timmy never seemed to fit in anywhere. So when he got out of high school the old man convinced Timmy to join the Marines, hoping he’d find an outlet for his youthful anger and angst. But after a few weeks he was discharged. “I guess I was just too mean even for the Marines,” was his only explanation.

Later he moved from job to job, and woman to woman, with several of those trysts followed by restraining orders. He spent his free time playing the slots at local casinos, drinking too much tequila at downtown watering holes, and shooting the breeze and billiards at Pete’s Pool Hall.

As some of us stepped into adulthood we tried to reach back to make a connection to him, hence the scheduled Saturday morning demolition project. And I had noticed as I walked up Timmy’s driveway that morning a fender scratch and a thin residue of bright orange clay that coated the inside wheel wells of his black Escalade parked there. That was a surprise because Timmy was always meticulous about maintaining his vehicles. I also noted that the tires looked brand new, whitewalls now.

“Yeah, I got a great deal on those tires,” he explained when I asked about the new wheels. “The dealer needed to get rid of some year-end inventory – whitewalls have apparently fallen out of style –and I was ready to do a deal.”

Later, when I went into his garage to retrieve a crowbar, I saw one of his previous tires leaning against a wall, apparently saved as a backup spare. Suspicious guy that I am, I took a close-up photo of the tire’s treads on my cell.

And sure enough, several days later I determined that the treads on Timmy’s spare were an exact match to the plaster cast made by the lab guys of the tire marks on the victim’s lawn. And under that front lawn, typical Georgia clay.

That wouldn’t be enough, of course.

Maybe I could also review surveillance videos of local spots on some recent date nights. Or check the car’s interior, or the girl’s apartment, for DNA matches to establish a connection.

But, like my earlier concerns about declaring this case a suicide, I kept these new brotherly suspicions to myself, too.

And if I had confronted Timmy with my suspicions, I knew what I would hear because I’d already heard it before from so many others.

Like: Yeah, I was there that night. I got there after she had shot herself. And I ran because, well, you know, I’ve had some scrapes with women and your boys in the past.


Or: Yeah, maybe it was my car that was there that night. But all my friends know where I hang the spare keys in my garage. If one of them borrowed the Caddy, I have no idea who it might have been. I went to bed early that night. And my friends are all smart – they wouldn’t leave any clues.

And: Yeah, we dated for a while. She was always complaining about how depressed she was. So I went to see her that night to tell her that it was over between us. We argued, and I left angry. Now I feel very bad about that.

And I had to admit, as I looked for something significant – some outstanding trait – in my little brother, I knew it was this: He was smart, and had learned early to be a good liar.

So there was my dilemma: Did I concede to colleagues’ wishes to call this a suicide so that they could close the books and move on? Or should I push for surveillance films and resource-intensive DNA searches?

If the former, the suicide conclusion, it would be case closed and everyone would be happy – especially the perp, if there was one.

If the latter, the murder charge, would I be sentencing my own brother to investigations that could either destroy his reputation and innocent life – or possibly condemn him to life in prison, or even a lethal injection?

Either decision, I knew, whatever it was, would be singularly terrible.

Either one would haunt me with worries and regrets: For worries, a brother who, despite my lifelong vigilance, might err again at any time. For regrets, a possible injustice served.

As painful as this dilemma might be for me, good cop that I am, I knew that I could accommodate it, as I have with so many past terrors.

And so, while I’d think about it for a few more days, I knew my superiors would likely declare the case a suicide if I did not aggressively intervene: Case closed, resources saved.

But it turns out I learned that the case was very publicly opened one morning when I stared at the daily rag’s above-the-fold headline: Cop’s Brother Named Murder Suspect. I put the paper down and checked my emails, and there it was, from late last night: Jack, when I learned that you were the lead detective on Sally’s case, I knew I had to talk to reporters and turn myself in. Your earlier question about my new tires told me all I needed to know. So, good brother that I am, I’m sparing you the agony of having to decide what to do about me. It was a suicide, just so you know, committed right in front of me, so I have that to live with – and you can understand why I panicked and didn’t hang around waiting for you and your guys to show up. I’m just hoping now a jury sees it that way, too. So, I’ll see ya’, big brother, when I see ya’. Tim

Yes, Tim is a very smart guy. He knew the email above, declaring his innocence, would become trial evidence. He also knew, given the conflict-of-sibling-interest issue, that I and my suspicions would be taken off the case.

So the case is now to be continued…and I will do what I can, as I am required, to help the lawyers and jurors see things the right way, for the right outcome.

The final verdict, guilty or not guilty, will obviously make a big difference for Timmy.

But not for me. Innocent or guilty, either verdict can only condemn me for either falsely supporting one, or fatally supporting the other.

And I can live with that.

Because I know how.

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