November 6, 2009 § 3 Comments
This piece originally appeared in June 2008 on True Crime Weblog, the website of noted crime writer Steve Huff, and appears here with his kind permission. This case remains unsolved.
by Larkin Vonalt
The woman is screaming into the television camera. There are words coming out of her mouth, but all you really hear is rage. Rage, and despair. The pain is writ so large upon her face that even at a distance one cannot help turning away out of respect. The camera pans from the shattered woman back to a twenty-something television reporter. The reporter smiles, embarrassed, and with a tilt of her head, brightly offers her reprise to the night’s top story.
Hours before, Tammy Walker trod the hallways of the city morgue, her own green mile, to identify the body of her daughter. 77 days earlier she and her husband filed a missing person report for Heather Nicole Walker, age 18. The police, by their own admission, never looked for her. Heather’s family and friends ran off flyers of the missing girl, posting them everywhere they could think of. Now it was all for nothing. When they’d turned out the lights the night before, there had still been hope, dangling on a string. There was still a chance that Heather would come banging through the door of the house on Gummer Street. Today, with the rising of the sun, that string snapped.
This evening Tammy Walker has returned to the alley where her daughter was found in a trashcan. Surely screaming can be the only reasonable response.
Dayton, Ohio is a city of 157,000 people. The crime rate falls somewhere between that of Baton Rouge and Rochester though violent crime in Dayton is significantly less than both those cities. Last year the Chief of Police was pleased to tell the media that Dayton had enjoyed its second straight year of diminishing crime.
In the days following the discovery of Heather Walker’s body, the police defended their lack of action.
“Many adults go missing throughout the year,” Sgt. Chris Williams told the Dayton Daily News, adding that “very few” turn out to be victims of foul play. They offer this information without apology. They are just cogs in a slowly grinding machine, one with no capacity to look for the needle in a haystack that is a girl lost in the streets.
Heather wasn’t the high school valedictorian. She wasn’t an accomplished coed at a prestigious university. When the media speaks of her they don’t use words like “gifted” or “promising” or “popular.” As if death wasn’t insult enough, they drop labels on her like stones: Troubled. Habitual. Runaway.
Heather’s parents had reported her missing before, six times in point of fact. But this time, Robert and Tammy Walker had been emphatic with the police: she had not taken her cell phone, or her wallet. In the past she had always called to let them know she was okay. Not this time. It didn’t matter that Heather’s absence was more sinister this February than on past occasions. She had passed that magic age. 18: you can’t buy a beer, but you can be tried as an adult, serve your country and be liable for your own debts. Oh, and the police won’t look for you anymore.
Mary McCarty, a Dayton Daily News columnist, chastised the police in a May 1 editorial for arbitrarily dismissing reports for missing individuals over 18, citing her own son, a 19-year old High School senior, as evidence of how childlike we still can be at that tender age, suggesting that the “cutoff” might be a little later. McCarty quotes Kettering, Ohio Police Sgt. Craig Moore deftly sidestepping the issue: “That’s a societal thing; we’re simply following state law as it is written,” Moore said. “That would be a change for the state of Ohio to make.”
The Walkers’ coltish daughter, half-woman, half-child, had early on seized the privileges usually reserved for adults, and did not bridle easily to the very adult responsibilities of raising her young son. The running away began when she was pregnant and reached epic proportions after Devin was born. The sixth time the police brought Heather home, just over a year ago, she left again ten minutes later. There would not be a seventh time.
Though suburbanites fear the predominantly black west side of Dayton, these blocks—east of Keowee, north of US 35—these are really Dayton’s mean streets. But like the natives of South Boston and the Bronx, the residents of East Dayton take pride in their gritty neighborhood, wearing their survival like a badge of honor.
Largely white, it is an area plagued with vandalism, theft, prostitution, homelessness, drug abuse and murder. The kids here ape black culture, posing on their MySpace pages and YouTube videos with rolls of cash, guns, bottles of Jagermeister. They imitate the speech, the dress, the swagger of the ghetto. It might be comical if it wasn’t so deadly. They’ve got the rims, the grills, they throw up the signs, pose for photos at the gravesites of their friends.
It isn’t just Heather they mourn, but also Andy Rush, who died Easter Sunday last year, accidentally shot in the head by his best friend, Tommy. His “Moms” had died just a few days before that, of cancer. Younger brother Mikey eulogizes all of them on his My Space profile. A few days ago there was a reference there to Heather, he called her his “future wife;” but to look at the profile now you’d never know they were friends. A guy’s got pressures, you know.
Heather wasn’t much of a diarist; she started four or five MySpace pages, but was never a regular presence there. Even so, the media noted that those pages were “laced with obscenities.” On both the pages that she got off the ground, she fusses about Devin’s father, Justin James Holbrook. “And for those bitches who want my baby daddy, go ahead and have him. He may look good to you and everything, but the thing is he has nothing to offer you, he don’t even have anything to offer his own son.”
On one of Heather’s early, abandoned profiles, Justin commented “hey if u ever get on here n check ur shit delete me from ur friends cause i dont want u to know nething bout wat i do so do me a favor n delete me k.” Their son, Devin, was about three months old then, and Heather was out the door as often as not.
It’s the pictures on Heather’s profile that finally provide a real glimpse of the girl behind the pose. Heather, laughing. Heather scowling, and yes, Heather (and a friend) stacking gang signs. Heather vibrant, her arms bare and smooth, a curtain of shiny hair, a wide, wide grin, goofing for the camera. Heather alive.
As a juvenile, Heather Walker had brushes with the law; shoplifting a pair of shoes, joyriding in a stolen car, the details carefully spelled out in the local newspaper days after her body was discovered. There is no record for her as an adult. She had dropped out of Belmont High, but she wasn’t alone in that. Four out of every ten students there don’t make it to graduation. On “academic watch,” the Dayton public high school features a “computer technology theme,” but has no school website. 93 percent of its students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
On Wednesday, February 6, Heather is thought to have been on her way to a birthday party for her older brother, Rob. She is seen about 7:30 in the parking lot of Sam’s Market, a down-at-the-heels corner grocery on East Third Street, two miles from home, three blocks from where her body will be found. By Saturday morning, she has still not come home and her parents turn to the police. The police follow procedure as for any missing adult, other than those considered “endangered.” They issue a 72-hour alert, and when it expires, they forget about her.
Eleven weeks later, on a warm April morning, three passersby wend their way down an alley half a block off East Third. One of them spots a pair of shoes hanging out of a city-issued trash bin. Deciding to take the shoes, they cross thirty feet from the alley to the edge of the abandoned building where the green plastic can rests. Reaching for the shoes, they make a horrible discovery. The shoes are still on Heather’s feet.
Heather’s friends bring balloons to the site. Balloons, and stuffed toys. Letters, poems, photographs of their lost friend. It is raining, the notes run, the photos smear, the candles flicker. In the rain, in an alley in a gin-soaked neighborhood, her friends weep, stunned with grief. A photograph of Devin visiting Heather’s shrine shows a beautiful and bewildered little boy.
Heather’s father has mapped his grief upon his chest, an image of Heather; peaceful, contemplative, is newly tattooed there. Two dozen of his Mixed Martial Arts students file past, their heads bowed. Bushi Combat, where he teaches, honors Heather on their website. All that combat training, and no one to save her. Robert Walker does not rage into the television camera as his wife does, but it is clear that the death of his baby girl has broken him.
The coroner issues a statement that Heather Nicole Walker had been dead “for a while,” yet her parents identify her in the hours immediately following her discovery. While her father concedes there was decomposition, he ventures that “her head hadn’t been bashed in or anything.” It’s unlikely Heather spent eleven weeks in the trash can, as the mild Ohio spring would have rendered her to state that no one would ask a parent to contemplate.
On the box that houses her ashes, the date of death is March 1, 2008; an estimate arrived at with the help of the medical examiner. It begs the question. Where was Heather for the 23 nights between February 6 and March 1? Was she captive? Was she frightened? Was she cold?
No cause or manner of death has been established. There were no signs of trauma on her body. She was not stabbed or shot or strangled. There was no blunt force trauma. Determining asphyxiation after a certain point of decomposition is very difficult. Life isn’t like CSI: lab tests take weeks, sometimes longer, to complete. Sometimes the answers never come.
As if rushing to pre-empt the media’s speculation, Robert Walker muses to a Dayton Daily News reporter that his daughter might have died of a drug overdose. Without the toxicology reports, the Montgomery County Coroner is not willing to make that leap yet.
The Coroner’s office director Ken Betz told the paper that he “cannot support that, because pathologists have not officially determined when and how Heather Walker died.”
If the cause of death is revealed in the toxicology report, it may well put an end to any homicide investigation. Without evidence of having been dosed against her will, the best the D.A. can offer her parents in that circumstance is the possible charge of “abuse of a corpse.” That is, if they ever find anyone to charge.
Drug overdose or not, no one is buying that Heather climbed into a trashcan on her own. Why would someone go to such lengths to conceal an accidental death? Or was their means of disposing of the body some kind of cruel joke? Though the house near the site is empty, the grass is kept mowed. Heather’s father said he talked to the people who had cut the grass just a few weeks before his daughter’s body was found. “They said that trash can was not there when they mowed,” he told the Dayton paper. “Someone killed Heather. I am staying on this.”
Heather Walker: daughter, mother, sister, friend. Not just lost, but stolen.
May 22, 2009 § 4 Comments
How a Boy Lay Nameless for 35 Years
This week, a new monument was laid at the grave of “Boy X.” It is a modest stone of red granite, matching the one that has marked this spot in the Dayton Memorial Park since May of 1974.
The old one reads “On Behalf of Those Who Cared Boy X Died May 20, 1974.” The new one has a name, and a date of birth and finally answers a mystery nearly three times as old as the boy whose bones lie below.
He was James “Jimmy” Dean Johnson, a handsome sandy-haired boy with a wide smile and big ears that stuck out just a bit. He was born on the 3rd of September 1960, to a woman named Cora Walls.
Jimmy must have been among the last of her eight children (six boys, two girls) as when he was just a baby, his mother is said to have stepped out a window during an epileptic seizure. She didn’t die. In fact, she remains alive today, though her mind is clouded with dementia.
In the 1960s epilepsy was considered a non-remitting, progressive disease. Treatments were rudimentary and often not effective. By the time her baby boy was two years old, Mrs. Walls’ children had been placed in foster care.
For a period in the early seventies, three of the siblings, Rosie, Wayne and Jimmy, were reunited in the care of their mother’s sister Sarah in Cincinnati. But in 1973, Sarah Zuern left her husband, took her children and moved to Dayton. Her niece and nephews returned to foster care.
This week, little Jimmy’s cousin, Esther Zuern told the Dayton Daily News that she remembered the boy as “sweet; not rowdy or mean like most kids in foster care.” More than one relative recalled that he was small for his age. Nonetheless, Jimmy apparently became something of a “behavior problem” and in a matter of months found himself a resident of the gothic campus at Longview State Hospital. He was just 13.
In March 1974, all hell was breaking loose over Watergate. We were in the clutches of an oil embargo. Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” was the number one song. And little Jimmy Dean Johnson walked away from the Longview State Hospital and disappeared into the Ohio streets. His absence was not reported to any authority, and apparently no one ever looked for him.
The incidents of Monday, May 20, 1974 are not precisely recounted anymore. The coroner’s report is reported as stating that the body of a male child was found at 1853 Stanley St, on a railroad embankment, behind a warehouse.
The news media has alternatively reported the body found on the banks of the Great Miami River near Leo and Stanley Streets, at 1383 Stanley; still others say the body lay up against the railroad tracks. Whoever had the unhappy discovery is long forgotten (though no doubt it is etched irrevocably in their own memory.) Perhaps it was a dockworker clocking in on Monday morning. Perhaps it was a brakeman on a passing train, or a beat cop patrolling the area late at night. It doesn’t matter anymore.
What was found was the body of a male child, somewhere between 11 and 14 years old. With sandy hair and ears that stuck out a bit. He had a homemade tattoo on his arm depicting a cross with three teardrops. His skinny little broken body was naked to the elements. He had been beaten and strangled; he was still bound when they found him.
There were no active missing persons cases matching the boy’s description. Ken Betz, the director of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office told reporters during a February 2009 press conference that records show five different families came to see if the child belonged to them, but none of them could positively identify him. For their sakes, one hopes that some were able to positively say that he was not theirs.
Among those families was Sarah Zuern, who is said to have arrived with a photograph of her nephew, missing from the state hospital in Cincinnati. Sarah’s family claimed she never heard back from the Coroner’s office. Even in the seventies a forensic anthropologist could have made a positive identification, a reasonably good medical examiner could have made an almost certain one. Of course, none of the Coroner’s office personnel are the same now as they were thirty-five years ago.
These cases weigh on the men and women that work them. The death of a child is not something easily forgotten, and an unidentified child even more so. No one would have carelessly lost a photograph of a potential match, or overlooked calling the presumed next of kin. But the boy remained nameless, and finally, through the generosity of the community, his small body was buried in Dayton Memorial Gardens under a red granite stone that read “Boy X.”
Rosie Johnson, Jimmy’s older sister, lives in Alabama now. Last year she saw Jim DeBrosse’s retrospective story in the Dayton Daily News about the mysterious “Boy X” and she wondered, again, if that boy could be her long lost brother. This time she contacted the Montgomery County Coroner’s office.
Jim DeBrosse is owed a great debt in the work he did to help Boy X regain his identity, his history, his belonging. In remembering Boy X and making his readers remember Boy X, he helped to nudge Rosie Johnson to find the answer for her decades-long question about her little brother. His thorough research into who that child was in life is very touching, and his coverage of the family’s memorial to that boy has been remarkable. Every community should have someone like DeBrosse who so eloquently keeps the unidentified lost from being forgotten.
The Coroner’s office took the photograph that Rosie Johnson supplied them, and they took a DNA sample from her. They visited Cora Walls in a nursing home and took a DNA sample there too. They exhumed the body of Boy X, and on January 28, 2009, they had a match.
Ruby Simpkins is the daughter of Sarah Zuern, and the cousin to little Jimmy. She became the focus of media attention during the memorial held in Dayton this week, as it seems she is the most readily approachable family member for sound bites and quotes.
She told Jim DeBrosse that the family had held out hope that they’d run into Jimmy somewhere, all grown up, a handsome young man.
“But,” she said brightly, “We’ll see him again in heaven.” The television media coverage was upbeat, the anchor pursing her mouth in a little moue at the bittersweet nature of this resolution. A child is murdered, and yet he is at long last returned to his family. Comments to online print stories and websites devoted to missing persons were equally simple-minded. Even the biddies at websleuths.com didn’t seem to get it.
But the Dayton Police Department certainly seems to get it, and Detective Patty Tackett made a statement to the press that the investigation into James Dean Johnson’s murder has been reopened. She urged the public to get in touch if they have any information that may be useful. She added that they are particularly interested in “a situation of sexual assault that may have occurred on a boy of 13—we’d like to have them come forward.” The original autopsy showed no evidence of sexual assault per se, but when a body is found nude, it certainly isn’t ruled out.
The local NBC affiliate carried an interview with Ruby Simpkins in which she offered up a graphic vision of her cousin’s death. She imagines him “lying there crying as they beat him,” but “as his spirit slipped away he saw Jesus coming toward him with arms outstretched. Finally, he found the love he’d searched for so long. At last Jimmy’s home!”
Rosie Johnson didn’t make it to Ohio for her brother’s memorial. Sarah Zuern was planning to read a poem at the service, but she slipped away on April 26th.
Her obituary lists her age as 73, and notes among her survivors her daughters Esther and Ruby, her sister Cora. It quotes the words spoken with her last breath: “Before she passed on, she said ‘I hope to see you all again someday, in Heaven. I’ll be waiting.’”
There is a list of those she expected to find waiting for her in heaven, having been pre-deceased by her ex-husband, three of her special friends, Jesus Christ, (way predeceased by him) and her three sons, James, Johnny and William. Her recently identified, long dead nephew does not merit a mention. Something about the names in Sarah Zuern’s obituary stands out though, something no one seems to have noticed.
It is the name of her son, William Zuern. William Zuern who was executed by the State of Ohio on June 8, 2004 for the murder of a Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy, Philip Pence.
The deputy was killed while Zuern was incarcerated awaiting trial for the murder of Gregory Earls, an informant who had testified against Zuern’s father. Zuern was angry with prison officials because he didn’t get his full five minutes of telephone time.
Authorities had been tipped off that he had a weapon and three of them had gone to search his cell. Zuern got off his bunk naked, and lunged at Deputy Pence, stabbing the officer to death with a 7” shank he’d fashioned from a bucket handle.
William Zuern’s life of crime officially began when he was 13, with the “malicious destruction of property.” He’d gone on a tire-slashing spree in Cincinnati. His 2004 request for clemency details his many brushes with the law, including his juvenile record: burglary, drugs, delinquency, and as adult: theft, felonious assault, murder, murder, murder. On the cover of the Request for Clemency Report, a notation is written neatly, by hand, in the upper right hand corner: EXECUTED 6/8/04
In December of 1973 William Zuern had been released to the care of his mother in Dayton, Ohio. In September 1975, he was remanded to Ohio Youth Services. A photograph displayed by Ken Betz at a press conference shows Jimmy Dean Johnson among the Zuerns: a slight blond boy surrounded by enormous people. William Zuern, at 15, had a significant height and weight advantage over his younger cousin.
Real life homicide is not so much like fictional murder mysteries. Rarely found are those clever twists, those surprising endings where the villain turns out to be the last person you’d suspect. Most of the time the answer to the mystery is the most depressingly obvious one.
Rosie Johnson speculated that perhaps her little brother had headed for Dayton looking for his aunt and cousins.
It appears that he may have found them.
March 31, 2009 § 6 Comments
Mysteries in the Washoe County Coroner’s Office
The first person on the list is a fisherman. Perhaps his name was Don, it was tattooed on his left arm. He was still wearing his waders when they pulled him out of the Truckee River thirty years ago this July. You think someone would have missed him. You know, at work, near the vending machines. “You know Don went fishing up near Reno, but he still isn’t back yet. I wonder what’s up with that.” You think that somewhere there would be a house where the newspapers were piling up, or a car found abandoned along the river, with the billfold locked in the glove compartment. You would think in all this time that someone would have come looking for Don.
Instead, as the oldest case, he heads the list of 42 sets of unidentified remains in the care of the Washoe County Coroner’s office in Reno, Nevada. Sometimes there isn’t much to a set of remains: the upper part of a skull, maybe a complete skull and tibia. Still, those were enough for a forensic anthropologist to determine that the former was a young man, somewhere between 16 and 24; and the latter a Caucasian man less than 35, who stood about five foot nine. Sometimes the remains are considerably more than a skeleton. Sometimes it’s the body of someone so recently deceased you can almost hear their soul departing. Sometimes there are plenty of answers, just not the most profound one: Who?
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
Northern Nevada is God-forsaken. Interstate 80 arcs across the top half of the state, passing through one of the emptiest places there is. This is not to say there isn’t beauty there, because the Sierras can be breath-taking, and there is certain poetry to the wide, wide expanse of the great basin. But on the whole it is mile after mile after mile of nothing. Most of Nevada is owned by the Federal government (don’t ask why), and it has long been known as the state of easy divorce and even easier weddings. Gambling is legal throughout the state; and in half of the 16 counties, so is prostitution. There are 2.6 million residents, and all but fifteen percent of them live in Reno or Las Vegas. The rest of the state is the sort of place where someone might go to be lost.
Perhaps that’s what happened to the thin young man with long black hair who rode his bicycle to a quiet industrial neighborhood in Sparks, and died there of a morphine overdose sometime in September of 2001, while the rest of the country could not stop thinking about the World Trade Center, could not stop talking about their grief.
Or perhaps the middle-aged man, who a few days after Christmas shot himself out in the desolation of rural Washoe County, his 9mm pistol in the sand beside him. Or the little old man, “elderly,” the report says, whose bones were found a few miles outside of Goldfield, once a boom town, now just another tiny place in the desert, somewhere between Death Valley and the Nevada Test Site. Where was he going? Where did he come from?
The Washoe County Coroner’s office has examined each of these 42 sets of unidentified remains, but they didn’t all come from the one county. They came from all across the northern half of the state, and even across the border, over the Donner Pass and into Truckee, California. They are under the jurisdiction of 19 separate agencies, including county sheriffs, city police departments, the Nevada Department of Investigation, the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The remains have come from as far south as Tonopah, as far east as just this side of the Utah border. It would seem fair to say that if you die in Nevada, suddenly or mysteriously, and you are not in Las Vegas that you may well end up on the table of Dr. Ellen Clark, or Dr. Katherine Raven the Washoe County medical examiners.
Of the 42 unnamed decedents, 35 of them are male. Thirty-three are white. 15 died in a manner that has been undetermined, seven died accidentally, ten were murdered, nine killed themselves and two died of heart disease; one of those a 50-year old toothless white man crossing the street in Reno. The other was young man, in his twenties. Nearly six feet tall, he weighed only 111 pounds and wore his brown hair close cropped. His body was found near the railroad tracks outside of Wendover, where he’d been observed wandering the day before. When he was found, on September 4, 2001 he was wearing only soiled briefs. Somewhere, somebody is wondering what happened to him.
Some of the circumstances of these deaths are depressingly commonplace: the body of a newborn baby girl found in February 1982 at a dam at Lake Tahoe; young men murdered and buried in shallow graves; a black man near Floriston, CA (January 1984); a man of undetermined race one mile west of Gyser Ranch (July 1988); a white man two miles north of the Interstate 80 Jessup exit, Nevada (April 1996). In March 1992, the Nevada Highway Patrol got an anonymous tip that led them to a grave east of Highway 338 in Lyon County, Nevada. There they found the body of a man with reddish hair, somewhere between 35 and 50, six feet tall. Rural Lyon county is something beyond rural. Without the telephone call, the body never would have been found. If only the caller had thought to leave the victim’s name, too.
Three of the deaths involved cars. You’d think that authorities would be able to find out something by tracing the cars. Even without valid tags, there are VIN numbers. Even if the one on the dash is gone or melted or crushed, there is usually one on the engine block as well. (It’s also surprising that so little is said about the make and models of the cars involved.) Nevertheless, these three gentlemen remain unnamed.
In July 1980, a short black man in his late twenties held up the Nevada Savings and Loan in Sparks. He fled the scene pursued by the police, and while traveling eastbound on the interstate, lost control of his car and struck a “fixed object.” He died from blunt force trauma.
Another holiday-time suicide was revealed in January 1984, when the remains of a white man were found inside a parked automobile, 45 miles east of Ely. A hose ran from the exhaust into the car’s interior.
The sadly comic and strangest of the deaths involving cars is another suicide. On November 9, 1986, in Reno, a man was witnessed sitting in the rear seat of a white Ford Pinto, “fanning” flames as the car became engulfed. He made no attempt to exit the Pinto, and his body was consumed in the fire, leaving his size and race undetermined. He must have been so frustrated. Remember that the Pinto had real problems with leaking gas tanks and explosions. Surely he thought, “Well, this will explode and that will be that.” Then he could hardly get the thing to burn.
The suicides carry with them an extra sense of poignancy. Perhaps these people were right, perhaps they had no one who cared about them. Does someone miss the tall thin man who hanged himself in an abandoned building behind the Maverick Gas station in McGill, NV back in 1984? He was found wearing a blue Air Force jacket.
Or the middle-aged man who decided while sitting on the banks of the Truckee River one summer day in 1987 that he couldn’t take anymore? He had to go to some lengths, use some ingenuity to kill himself with a shotgun.
One February morning in 1992, the employees of Summit Envirosolutions came to work at their office in a light industrial complex in Carson City, and found an old man sitting against the wall of the building. Why there, one wonders, did he decide he could go on no more, and put a bullet in his head.
Pity the poor railroad engineer who was the unwitting accomplice in the death of a very short middle aged fat man whose last decision was to step in front of an eastbound passenger train. Or the housekeeper at the Colonial Motel in Reno, who one hot August morning, opened the door to one of the rooms, finding the guest had used an elaborate IV device to end his life.
He’d checked in under a false name, Carlos F. Otero, using an address in the Bronx that wasn’t his. He intended to slip away under the radar, perhaps to protect the person who aided him in sliding across that threshold.
“Carlos” died from a dose of Thiopental. The drug is used in small doses to help induce anesthesia, and in some instances as “truth serum.” It also is the drug of choice for euthanasia, and in 35 states is used for execution by lethal injection. Someone helped “Carlos,” and someone knows who he was.
Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.
Out in the middle of the Black Desert is a little tiny town called Gerlach. It’s north of the interstate by 80 miles or so, train tracks run through there. In 1991 the desert outside of town became the site of the Burning Man festival, which brings upwards of 40,000 people into the desert the last week of every August.
The bodies found along the road to Gerlach predate the Burning Man, (with one exception, and he was actually found south of the interstate, near Wadsworth) but it is a strange thing that of 42 cases of unidentified remains, five of them would turn up, out of the vastness of northern Nevada, along the road to Gerlach. One was just a partial skull of a teenager, another the scattered skeleton of a young woman, possibly white or Native American. She had distinctive dental work. Another skeleton, this of a young man not yet 30 was found with a .22 caliber revolver nearby. The body of a petite young woman was found in a shallow grave 11 miles north of Gerlach. She was wearing an unusual gold bracelet.
It can be something as small as that left to distinguishes this human from another human. An unusual gold bracelet, or a pile of bones and a silver ring with stones, blue and red. Charred bones found after a range fire, indicate men dead long before the summer fires. The skull of a Native American man found on the road to the Winnemucca airport. Another skull, one with a hole, not from a bullet, but from a craniotomy.
The Homeless live among us virtually unseen, and die that way too. In Los Angeles County there are 800 unidentified remains. Many of them were homeless people; when you consider that the average homeless population in Los Angeles is around 60,000, a remarkable number come to the end of their earthly life with their identities firmly held.
In death, though, it isn’t so easy to tell whether or not someone was homeless. A man wandering the tracks in his underwear may well have been; who can say about a set of charred bones? Perhaps the older man with a full white beard found at the bottom of a ravine in his cowboy boots and fleece-lined jacket, perhaps he was homeless. Maybe he was just a rancher. In any case, no one has stepped forward in the last twenty years to claim him as one of their own. A man in his sixties found dead in a homeless encampment probably was indeed homeless, but what about the man found one summer morning under a mattress and sheet of metal roofing off an unpaved street in Sun Valley?
The police report notes that the area was known for “illegal dumping.” They describe the man as between 40 and 50, wearing full dentures (“Hang on a second, let me put my teeth in”) clad in brown corduroy trousers and a white t-shirt. He was barefoot. The report notes, wryly “No cause of death was determined. However the body and scene indicate the man did not walk there and cover himself with the mattress prior to his death.”
In Washoe County, “death by misadventure” often arrives via the Truckee River, which has given up three of the nameless dead. Each of them around 30, all men, one was said to be “fully clad in casual style clothing,” as opposed to, say, formal wear. The most recent, a decade ago, was a tall man (6’2”) with long brown hair, found wearing only white undershorts and black shoes, and described, curiously, as “found entwined in an orange traffic cone.”
Twenty years ago this week, a young man was found under five feet of snow near the Heavenly Valley Ski Resort. He was white, just shy of six feet tall, with a 30-inch waist, no more than 35 years old. He had all 32 teeth, in excellent condition. They don’t know how he died, perhaps exposure. Has someone been wondering for two decades what became of their adventurous son, their daredevil brother, their best friend from high school?
The women, though, six women and a baby girl, they all were murdered.
The baby left at the Lake Tahoe dam 27 years ago, does her mother still think of her? Is someone looking for the 60-year-old woman who was found in 1990, mummified in the sagebrush two miles south of Wendover? The woman with the distinctive dental work, her skeleton scattered in the desert on the road to Gerlach, surely someone wonders what happened to her.
Coming up out of the Truckee Meadows, the Mount Rose Highway comes up over the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevadas and summits at a beautiful alpine meadow the locals call Sheep Flats, before descending down to Incline Village on the north edge of Lake Tahoe. Sheep Flats is a favorite recreation spot for tourists and residents alike. On July 17, 1982, the body of a young woman was discovered there. She had been shot to death.
No doubt the Washoe County Sheriff’s office thought it wouldn’t be long before she was identified. She was in her late twenties, maybe thirty. The report reads, “The victim had not been there long and was clothed. She wore a bathing suit on under her clothing. She also wore a blue top, blue jeans and yellow tennis shoes . . . the victim is believe to be of European descent based upon an inoculation scar and unique dental work. Although many leads have been pursued, her identity and whereabouts prior to her death are still a mystery.”
The bulletin issued by the Sheriff’s office includes both a color photograph from the morgue and an artist’s interpretation of what she might have looked like imbued with life. Hazel eyes and sandy hair, a fair complexion, well-arched brow, the kind of forehead people used to call “intelligent.” Isn’t somebody looking for her? Was she so all alone in the world, in her blue jeans and yellow tennis shoes? Perhaps she is not just of European descent, but maybe a European tourist, her stuff left behind in a hotel room, or carried back to Europe by her killer with a story: she ran off, she married an American, she doesn’t want us anymore.
Eleven years later, another woman, this one found on the other side of the state, seventy miles east of Elko, on the north side of I-80, in a place described in the police report as “a vast and desolate desert bisected by one of the nation’s busiest highways.” She too, was white, between twenty and thirty, of average size and weight, blonde with brown eyes.
Under clothing the report reads: pink nail polish. She was naked in the desert, her arms extended to each side, legs slightly parted, posed as if crucified. They think perhaps she’d had a baby. There was a scar on her right calf, an assortment of moles and marks like most of us have. The medical examiner noted them with great care, measuring and describing each one. Her teeth were in excellent condition, though it was noted that she was midway through having a root canal. Did the dentist’s receptionist sigh with disgust when the girl didn’t turn up for her appointment? It is believed she was killed elsewhere and dumped at the site, toxicology reports show the use of alcohol and evidence of smoking pot. She was shot twice with a small caliber bullet, one bullet pierced her heart.
It seems so strange that no one would come looking for this particular young woman, so much so that she has her own MySpace page “JD 93 Elko Nevada”, and I CARE, a website devoted to missing person cold cases, carries scans of every newspaper story about her.
There’s not been so much attention paid to the woman whose body children found in a rock pile in Reno in June 1997. In her early to mid-thirties, she was white or maybe part Native American. She wasn’t very tall, about five-two and the most distinctive thing noted about her was a metal plate in her jaw. Her cause of death was not determined, but to borrow from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, it’s unlikely she buried herself in a pile of rocks.
She was certainly into western culture, found wearing dream catcher earrings, a black bolo tie with an arrowhead, a yellow metal and copper bracelet, a silver ring with a red stone. She was dressed in a western-style multi-colored shirt, blue jeans (size 10); white socks and gray tennis shoes, and wearing a black long sleeved jacket. Around her neck there was also a silver necklace with a silver whistle: many women have worn them for safety. It’s too bad it didn’t work for her.
The most recently found unidentified woman was black. She was dumped naked from a car along a dirt road off the interstate, near Mogul, Nevada, west of Reno. She was wearing just a silver ring on her right hand. About 30 years old, she’d seen some hard times. The medical examiner noted that the woman’s toenails were very long and were thickened and irregular. Her teeth were in poor condition and she was missing literally half of them. Her face showed healed fractures of the nose and jaw, on the right side. It may have caused her face to seem lopsided. Her body was found July 25, 2003.
When we mourn as a country, we often read out the names of the dead. We did this at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan; the names of the Vietnam War dead are poignantly carved into a field of black granite. We see these names and those people become more real to us. That these 42 people in Washoe County, these 800 people in Los Angeles county, these 4,797 people across the country, dead and unidentified and claimed by no one, that they are stripped of their names does not make them any less real.
The US Department of Justice has recently launched twin databases under the acronym NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons system.) One database is that of missing persons, the other is that of unidentified remains. They are working on developing the software that will cross-reference both sets of data in hopes of finding some matches. They are unwieldy and balky to use. Data hasn’t been entered in a very consistent manner, some records are excellent, some are so vague as to be rendered meaningless. You ought to be able to search via date or hair color or by distinctive gold bracelet, and you cannot. But it is a start.
Some of these people were truly lost. They were the last of their families; perhaps they were friendless in this world. But not all of them. Some of them are probably blamed angrily for their absences. Some of them might be missed every day, longed for by people who wonder whatever happened to their daughter, son, mother, father, brother, sister, friend. They need an answer, as do those who found the remains, whose startling discovery is etched forever in their mind, an endless mystery.
The last entry in the Washoe County Coroner’s list of unidentified remains is from May 8, 2005. A young man, white, slight of stature. He was wearing a black long-sleeved sweatshirt, gray-green slacks, a brown leather belt. His hair, black and wavy, was two centimeters long. He leapt from the roof of Reno parking garage. It was very early in the morning when he stepped out into thin air. Had he lost too much at the gambling table, was there a fight with a girlfriend? Did he have any idea when he was having his last hair cut that in a matter of days it would come to this? When he pulled on his trousers many hours before and fastened his brown leather belt, it probably never occurred to him that he would end up among the lost.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
March 25, 2009 § 10 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
A young woman is standing on the sidewalk in front of a printing business. It is the end of July in Ohio and it is hot, already more than 80 degrees that morning. She is holding a cold glass bottle, a chilled SoBe for her boyfriend. She is seven months pregnant.
The boyfriend arrives, and if he isn’t thrilled to see her, he is very pleased to be met with the ice cold drink. It will turn out to be the highlight of an otherwise wretched day. His paycheck bounced. He’s living with a new girlfriend, who is 22 and demanding. He wants to marry her, he thinks, but he still has some unfinished business.
Heather, 7 months pregnant, has been evicted from the apartment they once shared, and is basically living on the street. He is concerned about her, about his child whom she carries. She’s on a waiting list for Section 8 housing, but until then, she’s sleeping rough. He is hoping to convince the new girlfriend, confusingly also named Heather, to let the pregnant girl come live with them.
We know this because Anthony Shuri, the boyfriend, has written about it in his online blog on OKCupid, a website not so much for dating but for hooking up. In his profile, the 31-year-old refers to himself as Nibbles the Owl, and he says he’s really good at “oral sex, driving, smoking pot and making as ass of himself to impress women.” There is a photograph of a pudgy man of mixed race (“Yes, the fat one is me”) standing next to two women: one skinny as a boy, (“Rachel giver of advice,” he writes) and the other, in shorts and a t-shirt, her hair tucked behind her ears, is “Heather (Momma).” Her name is Heather Skelly and she is 23 years old.
By the end of August, Heather has moved in with Anthony and his girlfriend. Online, the girlfriend rages:
Get you and your pregnant ex girlfriend out of my apartment. The shit is your fault. You CHEATED on me and expect me to be ok with you having her live with me.. You just stare at me when I try to tell you how I am feeling.. You never say ANYTHING to make me believe that you want things to be better. I have been faithful to you since day 1 and I always turned my head when you spent the weekend in batavia.. and then you said you were still in love with her.. but you wanted to see what would happen with me.. Then You got HER pregnant. Just one month after I found out you had been sleeping with her and I thought it had stopped. Jump ahead about 6 mo and you get evicted.. because of her.. and we get a place together.. after a month of being with you, to myself, what I had wanted for so long I come home from work one day and find her shit in the middle of my living room floor, and its still there. All I want, have ever wanted, was to me with you. Why else would I put myself thru all this.. I just want us to be happy together, I keep waiting.
A day or so before Anthony had posted a coy, online apology that his girlfriend initially thought was addressed to her. But upon re-reading it, she realizes it is not about her at all. She thinks (perhaps correctly) that it is a message for yet a third woman, Brooke, a woman consumed with knitting and at some point, anyway, consumed with Anthony. She had used him for a model for a knitted hat she designed and wrote, in reference to that: Beware the obsessive man, though. As I was knitting the navy and white hat (see left), he said, “Ooh! What’s that?”I said, “You don’t need another hat.” He said, “Yes, I do! I only have two! What could I say? It’s his.
The photographs on knitty show Anthony in a blue jacket and a knit cap, reading. It makes you think of someone reading in a prison yard. There’s no doubt that the women in Anthony Shuri’s life would describe him as resembling Adam Duritz, the frontman for Counting Crows. If one can judge from Brooke’s online knitting blog (which puzzles Anthony) she seems to have her life a bit more together. Perhaps the knitting gives her focus, she quotes “knitting calms the drunken monkey of the mind.” Still, though, imagine the incessant click click click of knitting needles as the soundtrack to this story.
Imagine too, Heather Skelly. Hugely pregnant, sleeping in a cramped apartment with the boyfriend who left her and his new girlfriend; all of her worldly goods piled in the middle of the living room floor. She has nowhere else to go. Her suburban life came crashing down when she was a teenager. Her mother died suddenly of a heart attack when Heather was 15, her father two years later from cancer. Heather was left in the care of her older brother, Guy. But now Guy has drifted away too, living in his car, on the streets. Anthony is being self-righteous; he has to be there for his son, he has to put the child’s well being first. As if she is nothing but a vessel. She is grateful to not be on the streets, but it is a small enough gift.
Two weeks later, Anthony’s girlfriend has news for him, presented with a plastic stick on her outstretched hand. She too is in the family way, with a due date in May. On September 13, he writes: Two lines …not one, not none, but TWO lines… uh… whoops. Time to panic.
The next day, he rails about wanting to be a good father: Why is it automatically assumed that I won’t be a good father simply because we aren’t married? This is one of the dreams I’ve had all my life, for fuck’s sake! Some boys want to be firefighters, some boys want to be astronauts, and some boys want to be racecar drivers.. but you know what I want? Huh? I want to be a good father. If that makes me a bad person, then fuck you.
He has his chance soon enough, for five days later, Heather gives birth to Dominic Alexander. He has arrived a few weeks early, weighing in at just over five pounds. It must be a relief to be in the hospital, where at least no one is screaming. Heather’s experience of the birth is described off-handedly by Anthony as “a twelve hour Morphine nap followed by fourteen minutes (his emphasis) of intense pushing.” The very next day he is vilifying her in order to prop himself up, but a day later finds comfort in something his boss says to him, that this is his chance to be a hero. “I don’t have to impress anyone else in the world,” Anthony writes, “because this boy is going to worship me for the rest of my life.”
When the baby is ten days old, Heather tells Anthony about a program she’s found that will shorten her waiting time on the public housing list. It should have made his day. She and the baby would be safe; they would be out of the newly pregnant girlfriend’s apartment. Heather would be on her way to putting her life together for herself and her son. But Anthony’s chief response is concern: will the program allow him to see the baby?
The boy is not even a month old before Anthony is weighing what’s in it for Anthony.
Seriously, aside from all the feel-good crap, what’s the point in my “taking responsibility” here? Pros: someone to get child support from, “male role model”(which seems rather pointless at the proposed 2 or 3 days a week), unconditional love (which is, admittedly, a really big one )and…? Cons: G/F hates the idea, “momma”‘s friends won’t talk to me, I have no legal rights in his care or upbringing, child support is money I can’t afford to spend (right now), Children’s Services wants me to take time off work (that I need to PAY child support) to take parenting classes (for my 2 days a week??), mom wants to switch from breastfeeding (which is by FAR superior to formula), simply so she won’t have to feed him as much (and I can’t say “Don’t do that, it’s bad for him”, because I have no rights)… I just keep running this list through my head over and over, and yet, other than guilt, and Dominic’s need for a “role model”, what’s the point? Tell me that, if you can.
For the next month Heather and her son don’t make enough of an impact on Anthony’s life for him to comment, even though they are still living there with him and his girlfriend. He is caught up instead with having heard from the “girl he lost his virginity to” and her claims (unfounded, says he) that he is the father of a child she gave up to the foster care system. He refers to the woman, Kelly, as “pure evil.” Then, on November 6, a two-line entry: “Dominic and his mother have moved to a shelter in Xenia. God this sucks . . . I miss him already.”
Heather and Dominic find refuge through the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greene County, part of national network formed to provide assistance to homeless families. As part of the program, the network runs a “Day Center” where clients can make phone calls, and receive training in job and life skills, like budgeting, nutrition and parenting. Local churches on rotation provide overnight shelter. It’s only temporary, two months, and Heather is still living out of a suitcase, but it is surely a blessed relief after the apartment.
Very quickly, Heather finds a job. She meets Nina Ivy through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and is hired to work at Custom Care Cleaning in Xenia, a housecleaning company providing services to the elderly. Nina Ivy describes Heather as a “real hard worker,” “very determined,” and “very sweet.” Heather must feel the best she’s felt in a long time, she’s finally starting to get her feet under her.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Anthony Shuri posts his second-to-last entry on his blog.
Okay.. I tried. I tried not to be bitter about this, but I can’t help it. Dominic’s mom get cash assistance from the state of Ohio (thanks, taxpayers), foodstamps from the federal government (thanks again), free clothes from various churches, and on top of all that, she should start getting child support soon… but the funny thing is, if I complain about it, I’m a horrible father, and of course, as pointed out earlier, just the fact that I got her pregnant means that I, and I alone, have ruined her life, and made Dominic’s worthless… but that’s okay, because I’m being “responsible”. Did I mention that I haven’t worked this week because my paycheck from Friday still hasn’t cleared? No, I guess I didn’t. I work all week for a sack of shit who can’t even make sure there’s enough money in the account for me to cash my check, but if I complain, I’m being irresponsible. Well, you know what? Fuck you. Tell me why the hell she is a more worthwhile parent than I am, or shut the fuck up.
The last entry of “Nibbles the Owl” is in January 2007 and consists only of the lyrics of “Bliss,” by the band Hinder, the theme of which is “I don’t wanna know it’s over.”
In May, when his girlfriend gives birth to “Nathan,” Anthony is a father again. Anthony takes Dominic a few days a week. Heather must still find him charming, as sometime during the heat of July, she finds that she is pregnant again. DNA tests will show that he is the father. Anthony, still, is trying to make a go of it with the girl he lives with, Nathan’s mother. In October, he travels to Everett, Washington with the girlfriend, and both boys, Dominic, age 11 months and Nathan, five months, to visit his adoptive mother, Vivian. Vivian Shuri has photos made of the occasion, of her assembled family. In the pictures Anthony posts on his MySpace page, they look like a jolly, overfed family.
Did the girlfriend hear the echoes of Brooke, though, who had made this trip to Everett before her? Click click click. The only comment on the pictures is from “Kelly,” who muses that she wishes that her long lost daughter might have been included also. (Kelly continues to be a constant, lonely presence on the social networking page.)
On Friday, November 17, 2007 Nina Ivy calls the police. Her usually reliable employee, Heather Skelly, hasn’t shown up for work for four days. Ivy is concerned. When police arrive at the apartment on Superior Avenue in Fairborn, they find Heather naked on the bathroom floor. She has been strangled. She has been dead since Tuesday.
Dominic is found safe at the apartment of his father’s girlfriend. It takes the police four months to come for Anthony Shuri. First, they had been sent looking for a red herring, that “suspect” turns out to have been in the county jail at the time of Heather’s death. The autopsy reveals that Heather is four months pregnant, and we know what the DNA tests show. The autopsy also reveals semen in the vaginal vault; tests will show it is Anthony Shuri’s. On March 6, he is arrested without incident.
The red file jacket in the Greene County courthouse tells the story in one word, writ large in magic-marker: Murder.
At last there is news coverage of Heather’s death. Until reporters find the charge on the Greene County court docket, the end of a young woman’s life on the bathroom floor of a Fairborn apartment didn’t merit their attention. The only photograph they can come with for her is the one on her Driver’s License.
Fairborn Police believe they have a pretty good idea of what happened in the apartment. Detective Lee Cyr tells a reporter from the Dayton Daily News that they believe that Anthony Shuri killed Heather Skelly to stop her from telling his girlfriend that she was pregnant by him for the second time.
Shuri’s friends will say this isn’t true, that Anthony loves children, that Heather and the girlfriend are “acquaintances,” and probably it is true that Anthony didn’t care if his girlfriend knew or not. But did he want all that grief all over again? We know how well it went down the first time, because he told us. Click, click, click, click, can’t you hear those needles making fabric of the yarn?
In the four months Anthony has to dream up a story to tell the prosecutor he comes up with a doozy: Erotic Asphyxiation. Some like to call it asphyxiophilia. In either case, participants seek to enhance their sexual experience by being deprived of oxygen in the moments leading up to orgasm. (For a while there seem to be a rash of young men accidentally killing themselves masturbating in nooses. That’s auto-erotic asphyxiation, a term that was mistakenly used more than once in the reporting of Heather Skelly’s death.)
It’s a dangerous practice and people do die. Asphyxia is achieved by a number of methods, but most frequently the partner performing the asphyxia puts significant pressure on the carotid artery. This is an important detail, as the manner of most accidental deaths that occur in during erotic asphyxia are from ventricular fibrillation, caused by the interruption of the electrical impulse to the heart, which in turn was caused by the interruption of the blood supply via the carotid artery. Heather Skelly was strangled. Strangulation, during mutually agreeable erotic asphyxia is almost unheard of.
There is one other inconsistency. Generally when someone dies during intercourse, the partner calls 911. Perhaps they try to revive their partner. They don’t drag the naked body of their partner to the bathroom, put on their pants and go home. In Seattle, Anthony Shuri’s mother, Vivian confirms that erotic asphyxiation is a practice that her adopted son engages in. While one readily expects that a mother might say any number of things to protect her son, who would think that the son would discuss such unusual sexual habits with his mother, especially when he was struggling just to find a way to tell his Mom that his girlfriend was pregnant.
He went away and left her body cooling on the floor.
Anthony Shuri was charged with murder, reckless homicide, involuntary manslaughter and illegal termination of a pregnancy. His attorney told reporters that he felt the prosecutors had a weak case, given that they had added the reduced charges and that it had taken them four months to bring any charges at all. Additionally he felt that the fact that Shuri was having intercourse with Skelly when he murdered her clouded the issue. “Apparently we have a sexual component to it, which instantly gives a defense to it, opposed to normal murders which are usually more black and white.”
The defense attorney also admitted that he’d never even heard of erotic asphyxiation, let alone been involved in a case that centered on it. Nonetheless he is convinced of his client’s innocence, telling the Greene County News that the Fairborn police were mistaken in their theories. “Clearly, he did not have any anger toward her about the child, otherwise he wouldn’t have been having sex with her.”
Anthony Shuri left her on the bathroom floor. Walked away. Told no one.
Who knows why Greene County prosecutor Stephen K. Haller offered the deal he did. Repeated phone calls and an in-person visit to his office in Xenia failed to gain an audience with the man. The deal was if Anthony Shuri pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless homicide, which would result in reduced prison time, the other charges would go away.
Could Haller have won a guilty verdict from the jury? You bet.
Was there motive? By the boatload.
Evidence? Enough to make Horatio Caine smile.
Are there holes in Anthony Shuri’s story? Holes big enough to drive a truck through.
Half an hour on the Internet would have given Stephen Haller enough information about erotic asphyxiation to show that Anthony Shuri was lying. He just couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps the good people of Greene County will remember this when he stands for reelection, but it’s doubtful.
Heather Skelly’s friends turned out to see Anthony Shuri plead guilty to two counts of reckless homicide. Nina Ivy was there. Gale French was there. She told the Dayton Daily News that the relationship between Heather and Anthony was “never good,” and described Anthony as “overbearing, demanding and abusive” towards Heather. She came to court on May 15, 2008 hoping to see justice for her friend. She went away disappointed.
Reading the trial notes in the red-jacketed folder in the Greene County courthouse reveals Common Pleas Court Judge Stephen Wolaver seemed frustrated at the few options presented to him by the prosecutor’s deal. He invited Anthony Shuri to make a comment, but for once Anthony Shuri had nothing to say. Judge Wolaver sentenced him to the absolute maximum sentence the charge of reckless homicide allows: five years for the death of a 20-week fetus, five years for the death of Heather Skelly.
He left her on the floor.
Heather’s son, Dominic, just 18 months old at the time of his father’s sentencing for the death of his mother, is living in Seattle with his grandmother, Vivian Shuri. He will be just shy of 12 when his father is released. Somehow it seems unlikely that he will worship Anthony in the way that Anthony thought he would.
Anthony’s girlfriend is still in Kettering with her son, waiting for her man. Through MySpaceshe is in regular contact with Kelly, the woman who claims to have borne Anthony Shuri’s first child. Somewhere in Ohio, Brooke is knitting. click click click click.
One of Heather Skelly’s neighbors, Mark Neyman, paid for Heather’s cremation and claimed her ashes. He is trying to find Heather’s brother. “She was a sweet girl,” he told the Greene County News. “I can’t think of a bad thing to say about her. She was never in a bad mood; she would do anything for anybody. Unfortunately, she would do anything for Anthony, too.”
March 19, 2009 § 10 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
It is a beautiful spring afternoon. The leaves are not fully out yet, and I can see through the hedges and hear from their barking that there is a small boy teasing the dogs from the other side of the fence.
So I walk out the front door, and down the block to the cross street that marks the boundary of our large lot. I can hear the boy beating on the fence with a stick and yelling “Get away, stupid dogs” and “I’m gonna get you.” The dogs bark back at him. When I round the corner, he looks up, ready to flee.
“Oh, no,” I say softly. “Let’s talk for a minute.” He nods, yes he understands that holding out the stick to the dogs, retrievers at that, is like someone holding a candy bar in front of his nose. He learns the dog’s names. Does he live over there? No? Oh, is he from down there, with Renee? He says nothing, but his eyes give him away. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I won’t do it no more.” I kind of wish I had a candy bar to give him.
Walking back around the corner and up the block to the front porch, I see the lights of many police cruisers a few blocks further up the street, in the parking lot of the fried chicken place. “Another hold-up,” I think glumly. They seem to get robbed on a regular basis. For a while it was always the same guy, a former employee recognized through the holes in his ski mask. With more people living off credit cards, using bankcards, his take, even in this neighborhood, where fried chicken is very popular, is usually about sixty bucks. He actually made more money working there.
“Looks like Church’s is getting robbed again,” I say, going through the front door.
“What,” asks our son. “Let me see. How do you know?” We step out to the curb and I point out the commotion three blocks up. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Wow.” With that one word assessment, he returns to whatever he is endlessly doing on the computer.
Though we rarely watch the 5 o’clock news: the CBS affiliate anchors have been at those desks since 1970, we turn it on to see if there’s something on about the robbery. They have a story, but it wasn’t a robbery. Instead they are reporting a double homicide on Broadway Street between Riverview Avenue and Negley Place. “We’ll go now to Danielle Elias on the scene.”
“You think they would have sent the other one, whatshername, Brittny McGraw,” I say to my husband. Not because she’s black and in a predominantly black neighborhood, she would have had been more readily accepted on the scene, but because she’s competent. Danielle Elias, a striking young woman of Lebanese descent, couldn’t keep her plummy assignment at CNN because, well, she’s just not good at her job.
And there she is, up the street, wooden as Coppelia, leaning down to interview a strung-out woman in a car, the child in the passenger seat screaming throughout. There is no indication that they have anything to do with the scene other than simply passing through it. “There’s always something goin’ on in the Daytonview,” a young black woman tells Danielle.
Of course, that’s no more true here than anywhere else, and somewhat less so than some other places. Before we bought this house, three blocks from the scene of the murders, I requested and received, from the City of Dayton Police Department, a complete report of all crimes in this section of this district in the last three years. Nothing stood out, except the armed robberies at Church’s Fried Chicken. This is not to say there’s no crime, there’s crime everywhere, but nothing to support the reputation the neighborhood has.
But what this woman had to say—“always something goin’ on in the Daytonview” supports WHIO management’s misinformed opinion of this-side-of-the-river, so they go with it, even though it adds nothing to this story about a double homicide. A double homicide. We hadn’t even heard the sirens.
ABC/FOX must have quite an intrepid reporter, as they come away with a more vivid description of the scene:
When crews arrived at the Broadway address, they found two men badly wounded inside the home. One man had been shot in the head, the other in the torso. One victim was still talking and police were hoping to get some information about the crime, ‘The way he was talking was delirious, said Sgt. Bill Keller, ‘he kept saying let me up, let me up. We asked him what happened, what happened, he said let me up, let me up.’”
NBC doesn’t bother to cover the story at all.
By the eleven o’clock broadcast, the murders are no longer the top story: they’ve been replaced by the death of a (white) motorcyclist, who was hit by a little pickup truck after racing in and out of traffic up on Needmore. Today, the story of the double homicide is gone from all of the broadcast outlets, though all three continue to report on the accidental death of the motorcyclist. He has now been identified as Matthew N. Edwards, 33, of West Carrollton, a lifelong scofflaw with a list of traffic convictions as long as your arm. (The information about the DUI, concealed weapon and reckless driving arrests doesn’t come from the news media, but from a cursory look at the Montgomery County Public Records court databases.)
The reason we didn’t hear the sirens of the Dayton PD rushing to 515 N. Broadway is because they were already practically on the scene. Around three o’clock officers responded to reports of a fight and someone with a gun on Ferguson near Superior. I know where Ferguson near Superior is. It is in a park; the map calls it Dayton View Park, but people in the neighborhood just call it Broadway Park. It’s a long green rectangle with trees and a playground, some hoops, bounded by Broadway on one side, Ferguson on the other and Superior to the north. The south side peters out into a little overgrown section of alleyways. Church’s Fried Chicken is just down the street from the park, close enough that some days you can smell the chicken frying. The house where the murders occurred is next door to the fried chicken place.
Last November, I put two dogs outside for “last call.” They slipped under the fence and disappeared into the winter night. An hour later I found one of them trotting down Superior Avenue, the park behind her. An hour after that, Muscleman Sam, a homeless guy who’d done some yard work for us, flagged me down.
“Are you looking for your dog? I just seen her in Broadway Park up there.” When he said he’d seen her just a few minutes before, I hightailed it back to the park. I didn’t care that it was two in the morning, but she wasn’t there anymore. I kept going back, thinking she might return, posting flyers, canvassing the people who lived in and around the area. I left my sweater and a bowl of food at the edge of the park and checked back there several times a day every day for nine days until she was found, thin but safe, three and a half miles across town. I know the park well. I know it in the cold light of dawn, in the hush of the smallest hours, in the bright sunshine of the afternoon.
On this warm spring afternoon, officers are investigating an altercation at the park, and have taken into custody one man who seems to have been pistol-whipped. They are still there when dispatch alerts them to shots fired at 515 N. Broadway, about two blocks south. When they arrive at the shabby Victorian house they find two men inside, dying on the livingroom floor. Let me up, let me up.
The morning paper carries the story of the afternoon murders on the front page, below the fold. (Front and center is reserved for a story about ten (white) girl scouts who were killed in a car – train collision fifty years ago.) The Dayton Daily News identifies the victims as Dennis Glover, 27 and Gerald Brown, 39; not exactly the profile for gang-bangers killing each other. In fact, Gerald L. Brown, born October 14, 1969; has had a ticket or two – a broken taillight, an expired tag. That kind of traffic stop. Dennis Glover’s one serious brush with the law was an attempt to buy crack in 2005, for which he got probation.
Kyle Nagle, a staff writer with the Dayton Daily News, interviewed the girlfriend of one of the victims, reporting that she had been on the phone with Dennis Glover just before he was shot. She told Nagle that she heard an argument in the background, but that the call ended before any shooting began.
“Tawana James said Glover was a homebody who liked to cook, work on their house on North Paul Laurence Dunbar Street and watch games and movies with her, her four kids and her two sisters,” Nagle wrote. “James said she was on the phone with Glover while he was at the North Broadway Street house but he wasn’t involved in the argument. James said she didn’t know what the argument was about or who was fighting. ‘He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ she said. ‘He was always trying to be there to help somebody. He tried to be a protector.’”
Commendable are Nagle’s earnest efforts to portray the victims sympathetically, quoting a neighbor who describes Gerald Brown as “a quiet person who got along with everyone” and enjoyed talking about his dogs, the young reporter cannot resist the urge to fulfill the stereotype, to note that Gerald Brown’s dogs were “pit bulls.” He cannot resist condemning the neighborhood, in a paragraph that should have been blue-lined by his editor.
“The neighborhood has seen its share of violence. The two-story white house is across the street from a barbershop where a man was shot in the left shoulder in July. That man’s injury was not life-threatening, according to a police report. Neighbors said a nearby market, on the northeast corner of North Broadway Street and Riverview Avenue, has been the site of multiple robberies.”
As if that’s not true about Dayton’s east side as well. As if that’s not true in Riverside, or Harrison Township. As if that made the deaths of these two men something to be expected.
Law enforcement is looking for two black men in their twenties. There were witnesses to the shooting, but they have fled. You can hardly blame them.
Less than twenty-four hours after the deaths, the crime scene tape is down, blowing from one fence post where it still is tied. A bicycle lies across the steps leading up to the door. Lawn chairs go on rusting in the yard. There is nothing to suggest that two men met a violent end there yesterday. No flowers left on the steps, no teddy bears, no votives flickering. Just the wind whispering “Let me up, let me up.”
March 17, 2009 § 3 Comments
On Things Irish and the Celebration of St. Patrick
by Larkin Vonalt
So many things about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America bother me, and I have not been good company, watching throngs of green-attired Americans from the sidewalks, going from bar to bar in Boston, or Butte or Chicago. My friends used to say, “Lighten up, have another beer.”
The very last night I spent publicly celebrating the wearing of the green culminated in watching drunken young men urinate off the awning of the M&M Restaurant onto the crowd below. That’s it, I thought, there must be a way to mark St. Patrick’s Day that does not involve green wigs, green beer or puking.
The year before last we did return to Butte to watch the beautiful daughters of Sullivan-Daley clan, dear friends all, dance the parade route. I wore a green ribbon in my hair, and my Chinese husband had on a small button that read “Irish, sorta.” They say that on St. Patrick’s Day that everyone is Irish, and for many Americans that is literally as well as figuratively true.
In this country, we celebrate a number of holidays that find their roots in our ancestral cultures: Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Chinese New Year. But Hallmark doesn’t market cards for those occasions, and no city dyes her river, and Americans don’t make such perfect asses of themselves as they do for St. Patrick’s Day. It seems a strange way to pay homage to a complicated people with such a complicated history, who despite or because of the struggles have given us a legacy of literature and music quite apart from any other.
Unlike my friend who sends me excerpts from the Irish Times, and brings me Irish tea and Irish socks and Irish linen and writes an excellent online journal about the Irish diaspora in Montana ( http://montanagael.blogspot.com/ ) I know almost nothing about Ireland. You don’t have to know much to begin to understand how intensely tangled a thing it is to be Irish. Even when I was just 19, and passionately interested in the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA activist (and MP) Bobby Sands in the Long Kesh outside of Belfast, I couldn’t figure out if he was a villain or a hero. Nearly 30 years later, I am still no clearer in my understanding.
This ongoing struggle between Protestant and Catholic, Loyalists and Irish Republicans is found even in what the “wearing of the green” is supposed to stand for. Originally, the color associated with the Catholic Feast Day for St. Patrick was blue. “Wearing of the green” refers to the wearing of a shamrock on your clothing, to show your Irish nationalism or at times, to show your loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. (St. Patrick, who lived 385- 461 A.D., used the three-leafed Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish.)
Some Protestant Irish have taken to wearing Orange on St. Patrick’s Day as a sign of rebellion, drawing from William of Orange (the King of England) who defeated King James II, a Roman Catholic, at the Battle of Boyne in Dublin in 1688, ensuring a Protestant (and English) military dominance in Ireland, and creating tension that has existed ever since. Yes, ever since. 320 years.
I don’t exactly know how it is that I never went to Ireland. I went other places that meant less. Italy, for instance. I could have skipped those months in Italy altogether for a few days on Wicklow Head and been the better for it. I wept on the grave of James Joyce, still in self-imposed exile in Zurich. It was only 600 miles more to Dublin. If James and Nora could manage it in the twenties, well surely, I could have made the effort. I didn’t.
Joyce wasn’t the only Irish writer that stirred my heart. Oscar Wilde had been a favorite since high school. How could you fail to find amusement and encouragement in quips like “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” or “Biography lends to death a new terror,” or “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
William Butler Yeats rounds out a trilogy for me. I named my thoroughbred mare “Pilgrim Soul” for a phrase in his poem “When You Are Old.” This is the stanza:
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
Yeats’ most famous poem is without question “Easter 1916” about the week-long Irish uprising. His ambivalence about the use of violence to achieve home rule is clear in every line. And so too, is his utter grief at the outcome.
And so, I no longer really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so much as I mark it, acknowledge it, carry it in my heart, which if in reality is only a very very small part Irish, is wholly Eireannach for this one day.
In the morning, I will arise and go now (not to Innisfree) but down the stairs, dressed quietly, a dark moss green merino sweater. Breakfast won’t be much, Barry’s tea with milk and sugar in my usual leaf green mug. (No doubt the boy will wear something very green so as not to be pinched at school.) In the kitchen, I’ll choose music with an ear to the day: The Pogues, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, U2.
I interviewed U2 in 1981 when we were all just pups, and they were playing in bars and opening for bands like J. Geils. Bono predicted their phenomenal success, we wished it for them but did not believe it. It disappoints me now how they have squandered it, with missions that are only about Bono’s ego and every record a re-hash of the one before it. Never mind, who knows what any of us would do with that sort of success?
Lunch will be simple. Potato Soup with brown bread and a Guinness. Perhaps in the afternoon, there will be time to peruse the Irish Times or curl in a chair to revisit William Butler Y. Dinner is the more complicated Limerick Ham. You didn’t think Corned beef and cabbage did you? Corned beef is not even Irish, but Irish-American. Immigrants in New York, looking for a cheaper alternative to the traditional bacon or sausage, turned to Jewish butchers, who provided them with the pickled brisket we associate with the 17th day of March.
My husband had an interesting question about the fact that St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, when many Roman Catholics have given up eating meat. Apparently, there is a special dispensation from the Bishop to allow for eating meat on the Feast Day of St. Patrick, and this has worked pretty well except for the very rare occurrence when St. Patrick’s Day actually falls during Holy Week and they have less wiggle room.
Limerick Ham is usually a cured leg of pork, traditionally smoked over Juniper branches. Okay, so no juniper branches and a leg of pork is a bit much for the three of us, so we adapt and cook a small smoked ham, first by boiling in apple cider and then finishing in the oven, and served with an accompaniment of potatoes and cabbage, with burnt oranges to finish.
4 Large oranges
5 ounces sweet white wine
1 tablespoon butter
10 ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons Irish Whiskey (warmed)
Carefully peel the oranges thinly. Then with a sharp knife remove as much of the pith and white skin as possible, keeping the oranges intact. Cut the thin peel into fine strips and cover with sweet white wine. Put the oranges into an ovenproof dish. Put a little butter on top of each one, pressing it down gently, then sprinkle each one with a teaspoon of sugar. Put into a 400F oven for 10 minutes or until the sugar caramelizes.
Meanwhile mix the orange juice with the sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and let it get syrupy, without stirring. Add the orange peel and wine mixture and bring to the boil again, then cook rapidly to reduce and thicken slightly.
Take the oranges from the oven and if not fully browned, put under a moderate broiler for a few minutes. Pour the warmed whisky over them and set it alight, over heat. As the flames die down, add the orange syrup and let it simmer for about 2 minutes. Serve at once.
Perhaps a glass of Bushmill’s while clearing up, listening to the boy practicing the cello in the next room. Settling on the velvet sofa to watch a movie, maybe The Crying Game (exploring the themes of race, gender, sexuality and nationality against the backdrop of the Irish troubles) or Michael Collins, about the Easter 1916 uprising. Perhaps neither, perhaps simply to bed instead, taking the green ribbon from my hair, the words of Yeats running through me like a long deep river.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.