Kendrick Johnson (5)

I’ve written before about this story, where a black high school football player from Valdosta, the largest city in very rural south Georgia, was found dead wrapped in a mat in his high school’s gym. There are layers and layers of small-town corruption happening here: missing video files, a misleading autopsy, an exhumation.

Johnson’s parents are suing the local authorities and local FBI agent Rick Bell, claiming Bell’s two sons Brian and Branden murdered Johnson, or had something to do with his death, and then had their crimes covered up by sympathetic law enforcement. The DOJ is investigating the local sheriff’s office and the Bells, and has repeatedly asked the courts to block discovery in the civil lawsuit on the premise that this would interfere with the criminal investigation.

Today, CNN reports that the civil court has released some of the details of the DOJ filing, which claims that there are obstruction and witness tampering issues involved. This is the clearest indication yet that the Johnsons have real merit to their case. The circumstantial evidence was already there, but reading the tea leaves here implies real physical or documentary evidence. This could be an effort to Bleak House the entire thing: drawing it out endlessly until somebody runs out of money. But it’s much more likely there’s a noose closing around the local sheriff or the Bells, and the criminal hammer will fall before the civil one does.

A Different Kind of Murder by Cop

Here’s a story from Douglas County, the western exurbs of Atlanta.

Shawn Clark, 29, who served with the Atlanta police from March 4, 2010 to Jan. 7, 2013, was arrested Nov. 14 in Union City in connection with the fatal shooting that afternoon of Antonio Ellison, 27, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Glenn Daniel said.

Kind of lame journalism here, because the salient fact isn’t that he was an Atlanta cop, but rather that this ended almost three years ago. It’s impossible to make a proper snap judgment (and this is the AJC, so snap judgments are usually the point) without knowing what he’s done since then. Clearly, he’s not a cop, because the article would/should tell us where he serves now; but then why isn’t he a cop? Because he opened his own Dippin’ Dots franchise? Because he’s living the dream working as a bookkeeper? (No more wrestling with drunks!) Because he’s a semi-employed ne’er-d0-well who resigned in disgrace?

Clark and a woman had gone to a residence in the 2500 block of Winding Creek Drive in Lithia Springs to get her children and personal belongings, Daniel said.

Clark and Ellison argued and began fighting, and Clark shot Ellison with a handgun and left the scene, Daniel said.

Lt. Glenn Daniel is getting a lot of airtime here. But we don’t have anything like enough information here to have any idea what might have happened. The classic story would be that Ellison is the now-ex of the woman Clark was with, but does this mean Clark was her boyfriend or just a friendly ex-cop neighbor? But that’s just guesswork: we’re also missing the central piece of information, which is whether Ellison was even a residence of the house.

If this were to be turned into one of my stories, and the real people replaced by characters, neither man would have anything to do with the woman: they’re both just random neighbors who happen to get into a fight that becomes a homicide. I’d do a little misdirection and lead Diana and Mustapha down the path of “oh, of course, old boyfriend, new boyfriend, custody battle…” before bringing out the fact that neither of them had any real contact with her.

The next biggest cliché would be the two men knew each other from before: the detective would unearth some buried piece of evidence that showed the two men had a previous conflict. Maybe misdirect with that, too. Because the real reveal in the story would be that there’s a third man, the actual now-ex of the woman (she’d be an actual character in the story, too) who in some way causes or escalates the conflict that leaves one guy dead and another charged with his murder. The story would have the third man in the way background, and then with each scene, others’ testimony would bring him in a little closer to the actual scene. And therein lies drama, because how can the detectives arrest him for just using words to provoke a gunfight?

Edit: Twelve hours later, 11Alive comes through: Clark was investigated and disciplined before leaving the force, and Ellison is the father of the children. This doesn’t seem like the sort of information that would be difficult to find or to update the article with—they could have phoned Glenn Daniel—but there’s the AJC for you. Again, this is a crime fiction blog, so we’re not here to criticize Ellison, but rather to take real-life crimes and explore how their structure or some of their details might work in the context of a fictional crime story.


Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1c

TOC page here.

So the first two parts of this scene have shown time passing, and Diana’s character, and a brief look at the moon. A little lull, but an informative one. Now we move to action in this longer excerpt:

She must have fallen asleep: the lights were on, and the book on her chest. The phone ringing made her mind shift straight to Andrew: she groaned and reached to turn it off. Then it struck her that the phone was making a triple beep. She took a deep breath, answered. “Siddall.”

“Hey, there,” said Marlene from Dispatch.

“I was dreaming of…” Diana heard herself say. “Never mind.” She slid her legs from around the sleeping cat. “What’s up?”

“Your partner’s in the old Medical Arts Building downtown on Peachtree. He said to come quickly.”

“Oh.” She blinked twice. “Oh. Don’t tell me–”

“He didn’t tell me. But he sounded worried. Which, the Inspector?”

“Yeah. Thanks. I’ll take it from here.” She hung up, looked at Frey and wondered, not for the first time, what life would be like if she were the sort of person who only lived for contemplation. But she knew too well that she thrived off the action, too. She didn’t even need coffee, but Mustapha would, so she put on a pot while she got changed.

Twenty minutes later, she pulled to a stop in front of the Medical Arts Building, a once-beautiful Art Deco tower abandoned long ago, and now for so long given over to squatters. It would be far too expensive to renovate, even given its prime location just across the freeway canyon from where Alex Dawson was found.

Officer Slaughter and Sergeant Brown were standing at parade rest at the building’s main entrance, which was usually boarded up, but now yawned open, with one of the plywood planks laid over the threshold. “Evening, ma’am,” said Brown. “Your partner’s with the body. Fourth floor. Watch out for stray needles.”

Diana got out her tablet. “Y’all were first responders?”

“Yes, ma’am. One of the other squatters called in to Dispatch. Good thing the weather’s been cold: he’s been there for days. We cleared the floor, called Major Crimes, got your partner.”

“Any ID? Cause of death?”

“Didn’t check: left it for your partner. Not a civilian; one of the vagrants. If he didn’t drink or freeze himself to death, it’s your basic public service homicide.”

Slaughter groaned aloud; Diane looked down to hide her own grin. Brown didn’t miss a beat: “Here, Slaughter, turn toward me so I can say that into your brand-new body camera.” Diana looked back up to see Brown crouch down and stare into the camera mounted on Slaughter’s shirt pocket. “Each of these parasites will cost the city, county and state hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of his short and miserable life. If you call it life.”

Diana said, “Your opinion is duly noted, Sergeant. Make sure everyone stays out.” She walked over the plywood into the building, then realized she’d botched the dramatic exit. She went back and got the thermos of coffee out of the car. She had time for a quick wink at Slaughter, whose body camera Diana herself had arranged, before ducking back inside.

Four floors up, Mustapha stood in the glow of streetlights, an unlit cigarette in his mouth.He pointed his Maglite at a heap of clothing in one corner. “Get ready for the circus,” he said. “Oh, good, you brought coffee.”

Brown’s a dick and Slaughter has a body camera now. There’s a corpse in an abandoned building, a few days after Diana saw the tiny sliver of old moon right before dawn. Mustapha has coffee. Murder number two: here we go.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1b

TOC page here.

Second part of the first scene of the new act: now we reënter the A plot with a link back to the murders.

Two weeks into the year, Diana was in front of a downscale strip club in southwest Atlanta in the glow of dawn, where a man’s body lay cooling on the cold ground. The witness talking to him would have been largely incoherent even when sober, so Diana’s mind wandered. She saw the tiniest fingernail paring of a waning crescent moon just above the eastern horizon: the oldest of old moons, it was no real crescent but a black circle cut out of the pink dawn, with just its lower edge aglow. This seemed important rather than merely beautiful, but she couldn’t think why.

The witness reached out and touched her arm. “We tried to tell him, you know? But he ain’t listen. Bitches don’t care about nothing but money.”

Five days later, she was home unexpectedly early, with no open cases but Alex Dawson’s. The house was empty but for Frey the cat, the fridge was empty but for a heel of fruitcake even she wouldn’t touch, the lights were out, the curtains drawn against the darkened winter sky. The perfect evening.

She sat in the bathtub with House of Leaves for an hour. She lay on the couch to cool off and read until she decided she needed a blanket, then crawled into bed. Frey reappeared and crawled between her knees to give himself a bath, then fell asleep. She kept reading. At some point, her phone rang. Later, when she got up to pee, she checked the screen, saw Andrew’s name, snorted out loud.

So we see the moon, which of course Islam is a lunar religion. But Diana is too caught up in the moment to link the moon to anything else. She’s there at the scene of a banal murder, the sort of thing that will be solved in half an hour, so she’s half asleep while she’s investigating. Look at that throwaway line, right there at the end of the second paragraph. Do you really think that’s unimportant in the larger scheme of things?

Then we get to see the real Diana, the introvert who just wants to nap with the cat and read her book. This is the person she would be if it weren’t for police work and Grace. This is the person she can be because of money. This is the person she was before Andrew and Grace. She’s something of a wish-fulfillment for the typical reader of genre fiction: what if I could just nap and read all day? Dreamy. But this is still just a pause.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1a

TOC page here.

Now we transition away and show the passage of time, from mid-December to mid-January in four paragraphs:

Diana and Mustapha spent hours per day, days on end, tracking all the white delivery vans in the city, but came up with no connection to Alex Dawson’s death. People on the Internet spent a lot of time and energy attacking and defending Sergeant Brown, but Diana kept Melody Slaughter’s secret for the sake of Slaughter’s career. Public outcry over the death of Abdelraziq Ben Hamid al-Haddad lasted exactly two days, until a trio of youths carjacked a young mother in the underground garage of the Edgewood Retail District and killed her for the trunkload of Christmas presents she had bought for the disadvantaged children she worked with. Diana and Mustapha had all three youths in custody within twenty-four hours, because they were exactly as bright as the average carjacker, but Alex Dawson and Abdelraziq al-Haddad were off the local newsfeeds and out of the public’s mind.

Diana shared the family tradition of Christmas Eve Eve dinner with Fiona, Grace, Severin and her own father, former Fulton County District Attorney Malcolm Siddall, now eighty but still hearty. Andrew and his cow remained unmentioned; but Malcolm took Diana aside as he left and said, “You’re free, now. Well, you always were.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” She shrugged it off; but half an hour after they left, she was booking plane tickets and taking advantage of nine weeks’ accumulated lost time to take herself off rotation for the holiday. The next night, she had Christmas Eve dinner and much merriment with her friends in Chicago.

She and Mustapha had their traditional New Year’s date three stories underground in a parking garage, where the bullets fired up in the air by celebrants all over Atlanta could not come down upon them. The city made it all the way to thirty-nine minutes after midnight this year before recording a homicide, but at least it was deliberate—the classic argument over a parking space—instead of accidental from a falling bullet.

The case disappears, replaced by something more shiny and lurid. Diana has a family she spends time with; she has nebulous friends she prefers to spend time with. She and Mustapha have their own holiday tradition: staying safe. Atlanta is a violent and foolish place.

Next we move straight into another crime in the very short (only three chapters) Act 2. If this novel were purely about the A plot, we’d begin in medias res with another murder. But this novel is really about Diana’s character, so we have to contextualize the crimes.

Acworth Teen Stabbing

Lurid story of the day here in Atlanta: cute white teen stabbed to death:

A 17-year-old Cobb County girl was stabbed to death Saturday morning by a fellow teenager, police said.

Cobb County police Officer Alicia Chilton said officers responded to a home on the 3100 block of Blowing Wind Court near Acworth at about 8:50 a.m. They found the victim, identified as Abbey Hebert, dead in the front yard.

The suspect in Hebert’s death, 18-year-old Olivia Smith, was taken into custody at the scene and has been charged with felony murder, Chilton said. Smith is being held at the Cobb County jail without bond.

Acworth is exurban white flight Atlanta. Smith is Hebert’s cousin, and the two girls were reportedly close. Very sad.

Let’s imagine a crime story with a similar structure. The trite way to do it would have the girls be good girl and mirror image: a somewhat more creative approach would be to have the good one be the killer. What does victim do in all innocence that triggers killer’s murderous rage—or, more plausibly, incipient mental illness? Trite would make it a sexual thing: it’s the exurbs and everyone goes to megachurches, so have them put on promise rings way back when and when one becomes sexually active, the other can’t believe how her friend has changed. Or the active one kills the other to hide her transgressions.

But that kind of sexual jealousy, while powerful, is an awfully stereotypical way to externalize the rage. Better still, make it an accident. Some absolutely Rube Goldberg chain of events that leaves one with a knife in her chest and the other unable to adequately explain how it happened. Or a suicide: what if victim throws themself on the knife as a way of holding the killer accountable for something else?

It’s too lurid to be that great of a structure: it needs to have a parallel or intersection with a different narrative. There are two other people involved, but the killer only knows about one of them. So the detectives ultimately have to infer the existence of the fourth person. Put it together with what had been thought to be an accidental killing the previous year: something that has to be revisited once the fourth person is inferred.

I Can’t Top This

Sometimes, writing fiction is a real challenge:

A pregnant mother and her 17-year-old boyfriend, arrested along with three juveniles accused in a series of car break-ins in Cobb County on Wednesday, are now facing other charges for allegedly ambushing a man who they lured to a vacant house using a dating app, Channel 2 Action News reported.

Stephanie Hogan, 26, and Dontavious Harris, both of Marietta, are charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault and other charges in connection with a Oct. 14 incident in which a man was shot multiple times on Lakemont Drive in Marietta, Cobb County police spokeswoman Officer Alicia Chilton said.

The man, who was not identified, thought he was meeting a woman who he’d connected with via Tinder, but instead was attacked by three men, Channel 2 said, adding that the activity is considered gang-related.

So succinct. So lurid. So irresistable. The three juveniles whose arrest led to these were apparently taking a child in a car seat around with them while breaking into cars.

But I mustn’t be disrespectful because good comedy punches up, not down. Cobb County, whose seat is Marietta, was for many decades the white flight Conservatopia certain segments of our mass media are focused on. As the overall population expanded, Cobb got more crowded and diverse, and eventually crime came even to Marietta. Now another ring of white flight is moving out from Cobb.

So the story needs to be from the perspective of a middle-aged, affluent white longtime Cobb resident. He in some way witnesses some of what happens, but because he is a dickhead racist, he draws a conclusion based on stereotypes, and it’s the wrong conclusion. Only once Diana and Mustapha get him to tell the story behind his judgment, they sort out what really happened.

Too Much Dysfunction

Here’s a lurid story:

An 8-year-old Birmingham boy is charged with murder in the beating death of a toddler girl left in his care, the youngest person in recent memory charged with murder in Jefferson County.

The girl’s mother is charged with manslaughter after police say she left her young daughter in the care of a group of children while she partied at a nightclub.

Read the details, if you like stomach problems. 26yo mom, clearly problems with endemic poverty and lack of education and any other dysfunction you can think of. Eight-year-old is oldest child in house, 18-month-0ld won’t stop crying because she’s 18 months old, oldest person in house beats her to death because he’s eight, has no idea that sometimes you can’t make a kid stop crying, and who knows what other hell he’s been through because he thinks beating a crying child is the right answer.

This kind of crime fiction is basically inaccessible to me as someone who grew up in a stable, middle-class family. I would always be coming at it from outside, portraying the detective who thought they’d seen it all, but this is a series of decisions that even the detective can’t understand. Why do any of these people do what they do? Poverty, dysfunction, PTSD, violence, bad nutrition, and endless children they can’t afford. It’s not my world. The best I could do is come up with some kind of external motive: there’s money involved, somehow, in people treating their children like this. The mom left the daughter there knowing there was an adult in the house after all, and that the daughter was going to be pimped out, but hey, that’s how she herself was raised, and she’s functioning adult…

Or, and better, there’s a functioning adult in the house, but they get called away. Something so compelling happens that they’re willing to cross their fingers and leave six children under nine in a house alone. Make them a decent person, ie, not someone who would be called away by crack or sex or whatever. There’s a real, important reason why they had to leave the house. But what could it be?

Listen to a Story for Free: “Cross Lap Joint”

This is an old story of mine, pretty much the first one I’d let other people read. I wrote it in maybe 2007 or 2008? I should keep better track.

Hear it here.

An Unusual Murder-Suicide

Here’s a sad one from Dawsonville, at the extreme northern end of Atlanta’s exurbs. A divorced father of a disabled son came to pick him up at his mom’s and found both mother and son dead in an apparent murder-suicide. Son murdered, mother suicided, that is:

The boy’s father came to pick him up for regular visitation but when he got there, no one came to the door. And that wasn’t typical.

The sheriff described how the father said those routine visits normally started.

“When he comes to visit, the kid comes to the door and is excited to see him,” Sheriff Tony Wooten said.

So the kid wasn’t so disabled he couldn’t move or speak; but the article doesn’t give a lot of other details about the specifics of his disability. The sheriff continues:

“Basically, his health issues had gotten worse and she didn’t want to be living without him,” Wooten said.

So, we can infer from this that the kid was heading downhill. Usually, in this kind of story, which isn’t common, it’s the parent being unable to take care of the kid instead of the kid’s health getting worse. The standard version of this story would be a parent feeling themselves age, while their adult child is physically mostly okay but mentally a huge pain to manage; or, it could be a parent who simply couldn’t cope with being a caregiver any more. Not everyone can be a caregiver, and some when having it thrust upon them can’t deal with it, especially given our society’s dearth of resources for helping them.

It isn’t, as it stands, all that great a story for crime fiction. It’s tragic, and some hay could be made from the story’s not being in line with the usual versions, but it would be hard to pull off more than a character study. Since I’m dark, and spend my days thinking about murder, I’d want to add another layer to the story. There’s money involved, of course.

What if there were family money from a grandparent, who had set up a trust for the disabled son? The trust would revert to the parents if the son were to pass away. Make it the mother’s parents, so that it passed to her should the son die. Now you’ve got motive to stage a murder-suicide, come back around to the front of the house and “discover” the bodies. Detective confronts oddness of story, decides not to be suspicious just because the story doesn’t fit the usual pattern. Besides, why would the guy kill his own son, even if the son were disabled?

Only much later does the detective find out the wife was pregnant when she met the husband. Grim.



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