commuterchroniclesdbh

Driving and Biking in the Big City

Cub reporter raised by wolves

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As a police reporter in the 1970s and 1980s, I was treated just like a partner by the cops I covered. I saw them daily, sometimes twice a day and became as much a part of the cop shop as I was the newsroom. It was an era of respect by both sides for the other. I earned the trust of the officers I covered by showing objectivity and thoroughness, and they were given my highest consideration about when and what I reported for the good and safety of the community. Sometimes we disagreed, and I went to print anyway. Then, I’d have to earn my way back into their good graces.

Really early in my career and before I’d finished college, the police chief of Port Arthur wanted me to become a cop on his police force at a time when they were trying to recruit more female officers. This was the ’70s and equality was at its height in Texas where Roe vs Wade had just been passed, Barbara Jordan, a black woman from the Fifth Ward of Houston, had been elected to the Texas Senate, and we’d had a viable modern-day female candidate for governor, Sissy Farenthold.

I declined the change in careers but  did a story based on running the police department’s obstacle course myself – a test that was popular at the time as police departments tried to figure out how to be indiscriminate and yet hire officers who could stand up to the physical conditions of the job. Climbing the six-foot fence was the toughest part for me at 5-feet-7, and a bit of a trick that I had to learn from other officers before I could successfully pass the test – even at age 19 or so. The best way to get over the flat face of a high wall is to make your initial jump as high as possible, plant a foot at a diagonal so it will hold for a few seconds and scramble the rest of the way while you still have momentum. It took me several tries before I could hurdle up the wall and throw my body to the other side. Then, I had to rest up so that I could make good time on the other obstacles — crawling in the mud, jumping into tires, rungs on the monkey bars, simple running for time.)

One senior detective in those early days wanted to bring me along on the job to show what now is called a six-pack, a group of pictures for the eye-witness to pick out the suspect. The officer said he needed a woman’s touch to help calm this particularly distraught rape victim in an era when cops were just beginning to take rape victims’ needs seriously. And remember, female officers were few and far between.

He gave me a quick up and down and suggested, “Put your hands in your pockets,” and I put my hands in the pockets of my skirt. “Take your pencil out from behind your ear.” I always had a well sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil on me somewhere – usually behind my ear for easy access.

“There,” he said, nodding his acceptance. “Just never say you’re a cop. Stand quietly with your hands in your pockets. You’ll be fine . . .  Don’t take notes.” As if he had to say.

As I remember, the assignment went well; the correct suspect was chosen. I then was granted privileges to go with the primary detectives on stakeouts and often helped in rape cases. I also helped searched through dumpsters and canvas neighborhoods. I was good at it. After all, interviewing was becoming my super power.

Often I was a sounding board in a room full of detectives for ideas and scenarios for crime-solving. We once tried to figure out how to get the photo off the backing of a Polaroid that was left behind. It wasn’t the picture itself that was left at the scene but the negative-like other side. When we finally got an image, using my newspaper’s photographers, we realized the angle was toward a certain body part and not at all a body part that would be visible on the street. The clue we got from this experience was the realization that the victim knew his assailant pretty well and at least went to his heavenly reward after a night that started with fun.

Then came my biggest conflict with the officers I covered. I wanted to report the disappearance of a diamond salesman. The cops I covered daily objected. They said it was not a story. It was merely a man who had gotten tired of his life and took a hike, perhaps to Mexico. A pretty common occurrence for folks in Texas who were ready for a change. If I wrote about the missing man, as a diamond salesman, everyone would go bananas and blow the story out of proportion, the officers said.

The missing man’s wife called me off and on all that week after his disappearance. She was desperate, scared and crying. I went over and talked to her. She said their son was about to get married. He may have left her but he wouldn’t leave his son, she said. Then, his twin brother came to my office. Wow. That was weird. I talked to him, of course, and it made quite an impact. They had always been terribly close, like twins can be. They talked or saw each other every day of their lives.

Finally, I wrote the story. And yes, it was a banner headline across my newspaper’s front page. My city desk ate it up. “Diamond Salesman Goes Missing.” Then, all hell broke loose among my competitors who already believed I was getting special treatment. I argued that I worked harder, and I did. I always ran my traps, even at the smaller police stations that seldom had anything to report.

My cop sources were livid. They thought I’d blown out of proportion the story of a consenting adult who decided to leave his life and wife. Then, to make matters worse, they were forced to hold a press conference for the rest of the media and especially the television cameras to discuss a case they didn’t believe was worthy of a story much less a Page 1 headline.

And, it seemed like they were right for a few months. Time passed. Everyone was cranky with me. No one loosened up. I sweated like a workhorse for every inch of newsprint I got out of the cop shop.

Then one day, a couple of men walked into a bar with a briefcase where the bartender was not your average guy. He noticed that the briefcase matched the description of the missing man’s case where the diamonds were kept.  A detail published in my story. He quietly called the cops and served them up a couple more beers, delaying them until the officers could arrive.

A couple of confessions later, and the diamond salesman’s body was found. He’d been dead since the day he went missing. Yes, he was seeing another women who’d set him up. He was driving her and “her brother” when the man in the back seat of his vehicle hit him over the head. They buried his body on a lonely street and covered it in lime to delay the odor. Without a confession, the body probably never would have been found.

Interestingly, the officer in charge of the case apologized to me and began to trust my instincts more and more. If you called him up today, he’d say that I solved that crime. Of course, I was just a reporter of the facts and not an investigator nor anyone who helped dig up the body or present the evidence. And, at the time, I’d never have considered my instincts to be on target because I was always doubting myself. But, in the end, I had a really good nose for news and mostly called a story correctly and got the right interview out of the right person. Mostly.

The wife of the dead diamond salesman called me after her husband’s body had been recovered. She wanted me to sit with the family that night and listen to old stories about his life. I had never met him but I sat with his wife, his son, his twin, neighbors, their pastor and others. I listened to stories of his kindnesses when his child was young and the pranks he and his twin pulled. I soaked up all the details and joined in the mourning, but I never printed a word in the newspaper about the personal evening I spent with the family.

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Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 15, 2014 at 8:18 am

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