“She didn’t go easily…”
A heavy mist hovered over the dreary scene like a dark harbinger of the grim events unfolding. It was only drizzling now, but it had been raining hard for half of the night. Detective John O’Leary quietly surveyed the murky scene. The young woman’s corpse lay mired in the mud and muck, unceremoniously discarded by some foul predator. The heavy rains had likely washed away any evidence the killer may have left behind. It would be up to the forensics team to find and preserve any traces that were still left. Now began the arduous take of piecing together what had taken place; to recreate the events leading up this young lady’s tragic and unfortunate demise in order to determine how it had happened and by whom. And the surest way to accomplish this was to figure out why.
Of course, this was not how O’Leary planned to spend his evening. He had just settled down in front of the fireplace, glass of bourbon in hand, awaiting the arrival of a lady friend, when he got the call to come in. He was scheduled to be off for the next three days and he was planning on making the most of it. But fate, it seemed, had made other plans. It was his second murder in the past month, which was unusual for the small town of Railwood. While commonplace in the big cities, murders were rare in the sleepy suburb. Regardless of this fact, however, he had a job to do and so do it he would. It was going to be a long night.
“Evening, Mike.” O’Leary said to the uniformed officer assigned to watch the body.
“What do we have here?” O’Leary pulled out his pen and pad.
“White female, mid- to late- thirties, blond hair, blue eyes. It appears that she was beaten, stabbed, strangled, the works. Her photo ID identifies her as Joanne Tunney. She was found by some hikers a couple of kids hiking. They’re over in the patrol vehicle.”
“Cause of death?” O’Leary asked as he scribbled away on his pad.
“No official word from the coroner yet, but preliminary assessment points to strangulation. She’s got ligature marks around her neck.”
“Time of death?”
“Nothing firm yet, detective,” replied the officer, “but the M.E. initially places it somewhere between yesterday afternoon and last night based upon lividity and liver temp.”
Still buried in his notepad, O’Leary asked, “Has the family been notified?”
“Not yet, detective. We are still trying to find her next of kin.”
O’Leary stopped writing and looked up at the officer. “What do you mean still trying? Didn’t you say her driver’s license was found on her? Motor vehicles should have her emergency contact info. They can pull it up in five minutes.”
“No, detective, I did not say she had her driver’s license on her, I said a she had a photo ID.”
“Huh?” O’Leary shot the officer a quizzical look.
“You see, this is where it gets a little strange detective,” the officer continued. “The photo ID we found on her was her juror ID from five years ago.
Putting his pen down briefly, O’Leary looked up from his notepad and said “That’s odd.” Looking back down at his pad, O’Leary continued scribbling. “Anything else I should be aware of?”
“That’s basically it, detective,” the officer said. “Although the coroner did say that the murder probably occurred somewhere else. Looks like the body was dumped here. I checked with the desk sergeant and there have been no reports of recent suspicious activity in the area so I guess you’ll be working this one from scratch.”
O’Leary looked up smiling. “How very thorough of you, Officer Mike.”
The officer winked at O’Leary. “I wanna be like you some day, detective.” Both men laughed.
“Well,” O’Leary said, putting his pen and pad away, “Keep up the good work and some day you will.”
“Thanks, detective,” the officer said. “Now, if it’s okay with you, I’m gonna leave now. The wife is waiting.”
“By all means, please get home to the family.” O’Leary replied. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind given me the heads up when get the victim’s contact information.”
“Will do, detective.” The officer disappeared into the night.
A command tent had been set up several yards from the crime scene, where the usual ‘bigwigs’ all huddled beneath. As O’Leary headed over to greet them, digesting and absorbing the information he had learned so far, his mind focused in on the curious fact that the only piece of identification she had was an old juror’s badge. Was that significant or merely circumstance? Did it mean anything? Nothing? Everything?
Huddled beneath the Medical Examiner’s mobile unit tent stood the County Coroner Frank Haynes, Assistant District Attorney Marlena Vandercroft and the Chief of Detectives Lou Galgari. Standing over a table looking at various pieces of evidence, they all looked up as O’Leary came in.
“Evening gentlemen…and lady.” O’Leary nodded his head toward the assistant DA.
“Evening, detective,” Chief Galgari replied. “Counselor,” Galgari turned toward the assistant D.A., “I’d like you to meet Railwood P.D.’s finest, detective John O’Leary. He will be taking the lead in this investigation.”
“Nice to meet you detective,” the assistant D.A. said, extending her hand. “I’m Marlena Vandercroft.”
“Ms. Vandercroft will be handling this matter for the District Attorney’s office,” the Galgari said.
“John O’Leary and the pleasure is all mine, counselor.” O’Leary smiled cordially. This would be a first for him. The first time he would take lead in a homicide investigation. The first time he would be working with a female prosecutor.
“How long have you been working homicide, detective?” asked Vandercroft. He could tell that she was sizing him up.
“Three years,” O’Leary’s replied shortly. He was used to being the one asking the questions.
“Is this your first time as lead?” she pressed.
“Yes it is,” O’Leary replied somewhat sheepishly.
“How many homicides have you worked before this one, detective?”
“Around fifteen, maybe sixteen.” He felt himself becoming slightly annoyed.
It was, of course, standard procedure for the D.A.’s office to have an assistant on-call for homicide duty. The rationale there, from the D.A.’s perspective at least, was that having an assistant on-hand to advise the investigators from the outset minimizes the possibility of legal errors down the line. Of course, some prosecutors chose to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach (or more of a ‘meddling approach, ‘as the Chief liked to put it) than others, but O’Leary did not mind that so long as they did not hamper his ability to do his job. What he did mind, though, was being interrogated about his credentials.
“And do you-?”
“Well, counselor,” O’Leary interrupted “While I would love to sit here and trade stories with you, I have a dead body and a crime scene to attend to. I will submit my findings to you in the initial report and can talk more then.”
With a smile, O’Leary turned to the coroner and said, “So what can you tell me about the cause of death, Frank?”
Looking as though her credit card had just been rejected, Vandercroft swallowed softly and attempted to regain her composure. Chief Galgari noticed this and stifled a laugh. On the inside, his head was shaking with approval. He had taught O’Leary well.
Frank Haynes had been the Wilson County coroner for nearly twenty years, a fact perhaps belied by his light countenance and pleasant demeanor belied this fact. Now in his late fifties, he had started with the Medical Examiner’s office straight out of his medical residency. By and large, he enjoyed his work and was exceptionally skilled at it. He had worked with O’Leary’s father (William O’Leary) when he was on the job and John had known him since he was a kid. Now as a homicide detective, he worked well with Haynes.
“Well, John,” Haynes began, “the preliminaries on the victim’s body indicate that she was beaten with a blunt object, stabbed several times in the torso area and then asphyxiated with some sort of wire or possibly a rope, as the indicated by the ligature marks around her neck. The cause of death, at this point, appears to be strangulation.”
O’Leary had once again whipped out his pen and notepad and began furiously taking notes. “Do you have an estimated time of death, Frank?”
Looking down at his own notes, Haynes replied, “Based on her liver temperature, my initial assumption would be that she was killed sometime between yesterday afternoon and last night. However, given the fact that the outside temperature has risen above fifty degrees since this morning, time of death could be as late as early this morning, give or take.”
“In either event, she didn’t do easily,” Haynes continued, “The attacker took his time. First, he delivered a brutal beating to her face, chest and torso, as the fractures and bruising to her facial bones and chest area denote. These injuries are consistent with blows from a blunt instrument, such as a club or a lead pipe – possibly even a fist.”
Continuing, Haynes said, “Next, the attacker must have used either a knife or some other sharp instrument to inflict numerous stab wounds to the victim’s torso. The majority of the stab wounds were concentrated in the center of her chest and upper abdomen area. The direction of the stab wounds seems to also indicate that the killer was either standing or kneeling over the victim while stabbing her.”
O’Leary scribbled fiercely in his notepad, not once looking up from the page. As his brain absorbed the coroner’s information like a sponge and he began forming a mental image of the gruesome scene, a portrait of the twisted killer slowly came into focus.
“While he was doing all this,” the coroner continued, “he must have had her restrained with rope or perhaps some type of nylon product like pantyhose or something. This is indicated by the ligature marks found around her ankles, wrists and neck.”
“Any signs of sexual assault?” O’Leary queried.
“The preliminary assessment does not indicate any sexual trauma,” Haynes replied. “There were no obvious signs of bruising in the vaginal area. However, a rape kit was performed and has been sent to the lab for testing. We’ll know more when we get the results.”
“Please, let me know as soon as they come in.” O’Leary requested.
“Sure thing,” said Haynes before continuing. “Now, I’m listing the cause of death as asphyxiation. More specifically, she was strangled by whatever her attacker used to restrain her. This is evidenced by the petechial hemorrhaging around the pupils or her eyes.” The coroner paused briefly. “And finally, there is one last dark twist to this story.”
For the first time, O’Leary looked up from his notepad.
“In most of the cases I have seen where a victim was beaten and stabbed the way this poor young girl had been, strangulation almost always occurs by hand. Here, however, the evidence suggests that after tying the ligature around the victim’s neck, the killer then hoisted her off the ground, perhaps by throwing it over a tree branch or a metal bar of some sort, and let her hang until she died, some twenty to thirty minutes later.”
O’Leary stood there quietly, momentarily reflecting on this information, before looking back down at his note pad. Continuing to write and without looking up, O’Leary asked the coroner, “Can you tell me whether she was killed here or are we looking for another crime scene, Frank?”
“I would say,” Haynes replied, “that based on the lack of any blood evidence or signs of a struggle in the immediate vicinity, she was probably killed somewhere else and then dumped here. But the tech guys can fill you in on those details.”
“Ok, thanks, Frank.” O’Leary said, once again sheathing his pen and pad. “Give my regards to the Mrs., will ya?”
“I will, John,” Haynes replied. “She keeps asking me when you’re coming by for dinner…” the coroner said expectantly.
“Tell her, soon!” O’Leary replied as he turned to address Galgari. “Chief, I’ll have my initial report on your desk as soon as I finish interviewing the witnesses and the trace evidence team. I’d also like the opportunity to get first crack at any of the victim’s relatives as soon as they are located, if you don’t mind?”
“That’s fine, John.” Galgari responded in typically taciturn fashion. “Just make sure you get me that report by noon tomorrow, as I’ll need it for the press briefing. And make sure you track the family down before the press gets wind of her identity – I don’t need this poor woman’s family learning about her death from the evening news. And I don’t need the public thinking the media is already two steps ahead of us in this investigation!”
In an effort to assure Galgari that he was on top of things, O’Leary replied in his most convincing tone, “Understood, Chief. I will have my report to you before noon tomorrow”
“You’ll be reporting directly to Lieutenant Bosley on this.” Galgari continued.
O’Leary winced at those words.
“I want him debriefed on this case first thing tomorrow morning.” Galgari stated.
“Yes sir, Chief.” O’Leary said.
“Now I know this is your first time as lead on a case, John. But if you’re anything like your old man, and I believe that you are, God rest his soul, then you’re gonna do just fine.” Galgari smiled, but then cautioned, “But understand that I am responsible for the overall tenor of this investigation. I am also the public face of this department. And this means that you have to do everything by the book. And this also means that there will be no talking to the press unless I authorize it directly. Are we clear, detective?”
“Yes sir, Chief. We are crystal clear on that,” O’Leary affirmed, recalling the last time he had an ‘off-the-record’ conversation with a local news reporter, without departmental authorization, and the fiasco that turned into.
“You look so much like him, ya know?” Galgari suddenly reminisced. “Your father was a fine man and a great detective. What I wouldn’t do to have another cop like Bill O’Leary on my squad. Now run along, John, and don’t disappoint me.”
“I won’t sir.” O’Leary replied. “And thank you for your words. My father always looked up to you.”
“Very well then, detective. You have your work cut out for you so get to it.” Glancing aside at the assistant D.A., Galgari said, “Vandercroft here will be your contact with the D.A.’s office. And she has assured me that she will make herself and the resources of her office available to us for use in our investigation as much as possible. And I have assured her that we will do the same.”
“Very well, Chief.” O’Leary said, “And again, thank you for this opportunity.”
The chief nodded in return.
Turning away, O’Leary thrust his pen and his pad back into his jacket. Although it was still early fall, the temperature had made its usual dip into the rather unseasonable pre-winter cold. It had been raining earlier that night and so a dank chill hung in the air. The scene was dark and foreboding as the early morning mist began to gather around the body.
The surrounding terrain was a marshy mix of woodlands, deep ravines and swampy lowlands. The vast countryside extended for miles into rolling hills covered with a mix of dense forest and sporadic clearings. It was truly a hiker’s paradise for as far as the eye could see. A person could disappear into the wooded regions for days without encountering anything remotely resembling civilization. Of course, it was that very same feature of this natural paradise that appealed to the occasional miscreant endeavoring to conceal a wrongdoing or the evidence thereof. In this case, that evidence was in the form of the body of Joanne Tunney.
Arguably, Ms. Tunney’s killer, while going to some lengths to conceal her body, did not go to any great lengths to do so. She was found barely twenty-five feet from a public roadway and only ten feet from the footpath that the hikers who found her were traversing. This fact in it itself raised considerable questions about the personality of the killer, his motivation, his knowledge of the area and how the body might have gotten there. These questions were the starting point for O’Leary’s investigation and he needed answers – fast! Well aware that the statistical likelihood of apprehending a murder suspect dropped exponentially after the first forty-eight hours of the investigation, he was up against the clock and time was not on his side. He already knew, based on the coroner’s report, that she had been dead for at least twelve hours, possible as many as twenty-four. This left O’Leary with a day and a half at best, and the clock was not going to stop ticking.
Producing a cigar from within the folds of his overcoat, O’Leary bit off the end and lit the fine-smelling stogie. Finally locating one of the evidence techs, one whom he did not recognize, O’Leary pulled him aside and said, “Hi, I’m Detective John O’Leary, pleasure to meet you.” Always cordial at first blush, O’Leary smiled and extended his hand, the glow from his cherry-tipped cigar casting a dim, rosy pallor on his face.
The tech looked up from the notepad he had been scribbling on and shoved his pen behind his ear. “Pleased to meet you as well.” said the tech, smiling “I’m Vincent Gorman. I just transferred here from Metro PD last month.”
“Oh,” O’Leary responded. “Well, welcome to Railwood. What made you decide to leave the big city and come all the way out here?”
“Well, you see,” Gorman began. “My wife and I had just had our second baby and we thought it best to move out of the city and into the ‘burbs. I heard about the vacancy here in Railwood P.D. through a friend and so I applied. I have to admit, I do appreciate the easier pace out here. And it’s nice to see my family more often, as well.”
“Sounds like it was a good move, then.” O’Leary responded. “I did a stint in Metro P.D. myself when I first got on the job. After a few years, though, I came back here.”
“Yearning for the peace and quiet for the suburbs?” Gorman asked.
“Yeah, I suppose that was part of it. I got hurt on the job and the wife wanted me to quit police work altogether. We compromised — I came here.” Although not usually this open with strangers, O’Leary found himself oddly at ease with the tech.
“I suppose that made the Mrs. happy enough, eh?” Gorman asked. “I mean, after all, marriage really is about compromise, right detective?”
At any other time and place, such a question would not have given O’Leary a moment’s pause. Yet, for some reason he could not put his finger on, Gorman’s question pierced his soul like an arrow. He was suddenly trapped in a moment of perplexity and reflection. A thousand blurry images of a life, long since passed, that became undone before his very eyes, a dismantling which he was powerless to prevent, pulsed feverishly through his brain. As it turned out, the move to the suburbs did not save O’Leary’s marriage, but rather hastened its demise. His new found free time, and the new found ‘opportunities’ that it afforded, proved to be more harmful to the relationship than the mean city streets ever could have.
Awaking from this melancholy reflection, O’Leary managed to mutter, “Yes, I suppose it is now, isn’t it?” However, he did not wish to discuss this subject further.
Sensing this, Gorman shifted back to the matter at hand. “At any rate, detective, I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you, but from what I’ve been able to determine so far, our victim was not killed here.”
“Yeah, that seems to be the consensus.” O’Leary said. “What else can you tell me?”
“Well,” continued Gorman, “because of the rain, we have been unable so far to find any usable fingerprints on the victim, but that may change when we examine the body back at headquarters. We did collect two hair samples that appear to be different from the victim’s hair. Those samples have been packaged and sent to the lab for DNA testing. We found minimal scrapings from beneath the victim’s fingernails and have sent those for testing as well. Other than that, the crime scene is pretty clean. There were no vehicle tracks leading to or from the crime scene, other than those of the emergency vehicles. And the lack of any drag marks means she was likely carried to the location from a vehicle nearby. Additionally, the combination of last night’s rain and the semi-rugged terrain out here makes finding any shoe or footprint evidence virtually impossible. Thus, from an evidentiary standpoint, detective, there just isn’t much here.”
O’Leary continued to quietly jot his notes as he mulled over the new details. He was already frustrated by the lack of physical evidence. How is it that the perpetrator was able to get in and out of here without a trace? And how did he transport the body to this location? As at the start of any investigation, there were many unanswered questions. This was par for the course. But something about this particular homicide seemed different. And although he couldn’t yet put his finger on it, his gut was telling him that something was off.
Putting his pen and pad away, O’Leary thanked Gorman for his time while reminding the tech, “I will reach out to you later to follow up on those test results.”
“Sure thing, detective,” said Gorman. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
Having gleaned all the forensic information that he could (for now, at least), O’Leary set out on the next phase of the investigations: talking to the witnesses. It was statistical fact that reporters of crimes often have information vital to the investigation as they are usually the ones first one the scene before the police and emergency personnel have had a chance to contaminate it (try as they may to preserve the scene’s integrity). And in the age of digital cameras and smart phones, witnesses oftentimes have recorded audio-visual evidence of crimes and crime scenes that prove extremely valuable in the ensuing investigation. Unfortunately, that was not the case in this instance.
The hikers who found the body Ms. Tunney were college students simply out for a fun day of hiking and exploring the forested countryside. According to their account, they had entered the woods at that location at approximately ten o’clock that morning and noticed nothing unusual at that time. After spending all day and some of the evening hiking, they exited the woods at the same spot. That’s when they saw the young woman’s body, partially covered in brush, laying about ten or so feet off to the side of the well-worn footpath.
The pair was still visibly shaken when O’Leary approached them. “Good evening, my name is detective John O’Leary and I’m with the Railwood PD. How are you doing this evening?”
The two nodded and smiled in return. They were both about nineteen or twenty years of age. The male stood approximately five feet, six inches tall and the female several inches shorter. Based on their size, O’Leary did not consider them likely to have been involved in the crime. Still, he made no assumptions. It would not be the first time that the one reporting the crime was also the perpetrator.
“So, can I get your names, just for my records?” O’Leary asked, whipping out his pen and pad.
“Brian Scott,” the young man said.
“Debbie Wood,” the despondent young woman replied.
“And you two are both students at the University?” O’Leary asked.
“Yes, sir,” Brian replied. “We are both sophomores.”
“Okay,” O’Leary said, continuing to take notes. “Now, you told the other officer that the body wasn’t there when you first entered the woods this morning, is that correct?”
“Yes sir,” Brian replied again.
“And you’re positive about that?” O’Leary asked.
Again Brian replied, “Yes, detective, I’m positive.” The young woman was clearly still too upset to respond.
Continuing to press them on the point, O’Leary asked, “Is it possible that her body was there this morning and you just didn’t see it? That maybe you just missed it?”
“No, detective, I’m sure that it, er…she…” The young man cast a forlorn gaze in the direction of the body before continuing. “I’m sure she wasn’t there when we first got here this morning.”
“How can you be so sure?” O’Leary asked.
“Because she would have been impossible to miss,” Brian responded, his frustration mounting. “When we first got here, we parked in that grass clearing over there, not far from where the body is. Before we hit the trails, I remember that I sat on the hood of my car to make sure my boot laces were secure. I was facing in the direction of where we later found her body. I would have seen her if she was there. Believe me, she wasn’t there!”
O’Leary sighed in frustration. It had been a long night and a chill was beginning to set in. The young hikers had apparently given all the information that they could for now. It was pointless to press them. Besides, they looked like they were on the verge of collapsing themselves, so O’Leary let them go on their way. He could always contact them later if needed, for although there appeared to be no obvious connection between them and the victim, it was far too early in the investigation to rule out the possibility.
“Well, I thank you both for your time.” O’Leary said. “You’ve been very helpful. Here’s my card. If you think of anything further, don’t hesitate to contact me.”
As Debbie buried her sobbing eyes into her companion’s chest, Brian’s parting words to O’Leary were simply, “Who could do such a thing detective?” It would be quite some time before the two young college students got over the shock of what they witnessed that evening. The image of a dead woman, cut down in the prime of her promising young life, was now permanently etched in their minds.