Book Excerpt: Call Me Trooper
A series of compelling, first-person essays from the career of a Michigan State Trooper
The following three essays are excerpted from “Call Me Trooper.” Purchase the book here.
IT’S LIKE GOING TO CONFESSION
I don’t really know what it’s like to go to confession, I’m not Catholic. That said, I do know a thing or two about the nature of confessions.
My shift had barely started, and I was sent to the scene of an overdose. A thirty-ish adult male, who had still been living with his parents had been found dead in their home with a heroin needle near his arm. The parents of the deceased had seen him entering the bathroom. They noticed when he didn’t come out, then they found him and called 911.
Usually, such an obvious case of a self-induced drug overdose wouldn’t get much attention. Why should it? In cases where the victims clearly caused their own death, there is no need to look into the matter any further. This case was as transparent as it could be. Had I documented the basic details of the case in a report, and marked it as closed, it never would have gotten a second thought. No supervisor I ever encountered would advise a trooper to investigate such a case further.
Usually officers don’t lose sleep over drug users who died using illegal drugs. In a few of my cases, my subconscious continued to analyse, and investigate while I slept. But this wasn’t one of those cases.
It was more the fact that the parents were so distraught over the matter that motivated me to look into it. They were good people, compassionate people, and they had suffered the loss of a beloved family member.
One conspicuous fact stood out. Heroin isn’t indigenous to America. Somebody had supplied the illegal substance to the now deceased subject. So, how does one find the suspect(s) who provided the illicit drugs to a dead guy? As my compadre would often say to his assistant, Watson, the answer is elementary. Investigation.
One thing is certain, the dealer wasn’t going to stroll into the state police post wearing a sign saying he was the one who had sold heroin to the now deceased subject.
Before video surveillance and camera phones, before GPS tracking devices and remote-controlled drones, there was good old-fashioned verbal communication. By the way, don’t eat ham and eggs on St. Patrick’s Day; strange things happen. Rivers, beer, and chicken ovum turn green. Even Dr. Seuss could have passed Criminal Investigation 101. The point of which is that interviews of witnesses and suspects are standard components of investigation. This is not without reason; the wheel of criminal investigation was invented long before the 21st century.
An officer who doesn’t carefully and purposefully interview potential witnesses, will not solve many crimes. Officers who don’t know how to interview and interrogate witnesses and suspects, handicap themselves as investigators.
Proficiency in nearly any task is generally accomplished by two means: the training and experience of others, and practice. Criminal investigation is no exception to this rule. Every case is an opportunity to develop, and fine-tune investigation aptitude.
The parents of the deceased subject knew his girlfriend. Said girlfriend, knew some of the people that the deceased (and she) occasionally used drugs with. There were several. But a few lived closer than others. Suspects #1 and #2 developed. These two were a nice couple, who also lived with their parents. This was a common practice among drug users; apparently, cash is tight when you have such habits.
I located the strung-out lovebirds and interviewed them. The father of one of them tried to intervene. But he was unaware that being well over the age of seventeen they were old enough for an officer not to need dad’s permission. Both suspects were in their twenties.
They were separated and interviewed. Unbeknownst to the duo, I recorded the conversations. Neither subject would initially admit to anything. First things first, get them onto the field. After circling a bit, I walked them into the ballpark. Each reluctantly admitted to being involved with heroin. Strike one. They admitted they were friends with the deceased. Strike two.
The pitcher warmed his arm up with the first couple of pitches. They weren’t being forced to play ball, but voluntarily swung at the pitches anyway.
The knuckleball was tricky. Not many people want to admit they’re a heroin user. Even fewer would admit that they sold heroin, let alone that they recently sold heroin to a friend, who died with their heroin in his arm.
Rule number one: separate the witnesses and/or suspects. Rule number two; creativity in the interview process is not illegal. Using their words against them to aid them in admitting to their own involvement can be helpful. I spoke to each a few times, alternating between them. They didn’t have the opportunity to hear what the other one had said. The information which one may or may not have been provided to me, was holding the door open for the other to walk through.
It’s like an intersection of sorts. One road is dark and rather unpleasant while the other road is brighter, and more appealing. It’s easier for the suspect to confess if it appears to be a better route than not confessing. But I was hard-pressed to come up with a worse scenario to use as an example. I couldn’t tell them, well at least you're not the ones who sold heroin to somebody who died as a result. That may be about as bad as it gets in the whole drug dealing arena.
How would I make this easier for them to admit to? This was the question warming up on my back burner as I was slinging other questions at them. Slowly, we were headed towards the finale. The back burner finally boiled over. I remembered hearing a few stories in the national news about some tainted narcotics which resulted in a string of dead addicts. That was the road I needed to direct them to. After all, they weren’t the type of nasty people who would want to perpetuate the delivery of a potentially fatal batch of heroin, right? Lives were at stake.
They knocked the dirt off their shoes and took a few practice swings, trying to delay the inevitable. Each of the batters was unable to deal with the unexpected knuckleball. One by one they confessed to delivering the heroin to their deceased friend. It’s much easier to say that you really want to save lives, than it is to say you're a heroin dealer who just contributed to a fatality.
“No, trooper, I don’t want other people to die.”
“Yes, trooper, we were together in the same car when we delivered the heroin to our friend who died.”
Strike three, you're out. One right after the other succumbed to the same tricky pitch. Each chose the road that painted them in a better light. They weren’t just heroin dealers they were heroes trying to save their fellow users from potentially fatal drugs.
The case was closed within one shift. I didn’t take them to jail that night. I had told them I wouldn’t. A few days wouldn’t matter anyway. The report and warrant requests were sent to the prosecutor, and felony warrants were authorized. The heroin dealing couple were locked up shortly thereafter.
My insightful training officer would have been proud to see his protégé, following in his footsteps. But he had probably never heard about the case. He was plenty busy solving homicides halfway across the state.
In the academy all of the recruits were required to run through a cloud of tear gas. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. The stories of soldiers experiencing this are occasionally told over a cold beer, but words cannot do it justice.
A canister of tear gas was released on a windy day. There was a large white smoky cloud blowing downwind. We were all on one side of the cloud and instructed to run through it to the other side: “It can’t be that bad, just run…” I thought.
We entered the blinding fog, which caused a unique burning sensation to our eyes, as we tried to find our way through to the other side. The particles in the air entered our lungs. The whole experience was disorientating. People in the cloud began to stop, suffering from lack of vision, trouble breathing, and panic.
Some pushed the stalled recruits through, some pulled. We were a blinded, gagging, discombobulated mess. Some recruits couldn’t even make it through to the other side. They entered the cloud, and were so overcome by the experience that they turned back. The gas is designed to disorient, temporarily blind, inhibit breathing, and induces a panic inducing effect. The human body reacts to the nasty substance by immediately summoning all mucus reserves to the mouth and nose.
No sinus infection or bronchitis could ever compare with the fountain of snot the body pours out, trying to cleanse itself from that gas. I have never watched snot pour from my nose and mouth like that. It wasn’t thin, but gaggingly thick and voluminous. I didn’t know the body could produce that much mucus, nor that it could do so instantly.
I made my way through the cloud, maybe twenty or thirty feet. I thought it was over. No, it was just beginning. I looked around and saw snot hanging from the faces of recruits, bending over instinctively to allow the mucus to run its choking route. I coughed and gagged. My eyes burned, and my lungs hacked. My stomach would have emptied itself through my mouth as well, except that my superhero power is the ability not to vomit. Several people around me were puking. Some were lying on the ground, simply overcome.
The faucet of snot had been turned all the way open. I gagged and half-panicked as I choked on the gluey mess clogging my throat. All I could do, all we could do, was let the body do its thing. If we were not all in the same position, we were all in the same physical condition; trying not to die by choking on snot.
It was a learning experience for sure. But I didn’t think I would ever be around when it was used. At that point I hadn’t encountered situations or events which would require tear gas to be launched into marauding crowds.
The instructors weren’t introducing us to the experience for nothing. The department had reasons for providing us with gas masks and repetitive training in how to use them.
It was years later when the time came to use the mask. The order was given and the gas mask was on within a minute. I was breathing through my filter, and glad that I wasn’t one of the rioters without it.
It was dark and the streets were covered with angry people. Numerous canisters of the gas were shot into the mob. People tried to cover their faces with their clothes, but it was pointless. They scattered like birdshot from a shotgun. One minute they were all crowded together and feeding off of the energy from each other. The next minute they were running for their lives, trying to escape the asphyxiating fog.
Our academy class got to experience one canister, in the daylight. The rioters experienced the intensity of maybe a dozen cans of the gas at night. The streets were cleared. Problem solved.
ONE OF THE DAYS I WISH I COULD FORGET
It was a sunny day with very few clouds, and I had loaded my patrol car and got out of the post quick that day. It was at shift change and the squad room was full. My shift started at 2:00pm or 3:00pm that day.
I headed out onto the freeway, which had three lanes each way. Traffic was so thick that running radar would be pointless. Traffic enforcement was fairly enjoyable during pleasant weather. But that day the freeway tickets were gonna have to wait until later. I exited the freeway. Then the emergency tones rang out over the radio.
The dispatcher advised that a semi-truck had crossed the median and collided with oncoming traffic. I was only a few miles away, and screamed back onto the freeway, pushing the patrol car to the level it was designed for. I was there within a minute or two, the first officer on the scene.
It was carnage.
The westbound semi-truck had blasted through the narrow median and crossed all three of the eastbound lanes, ending up well off of the freeway. Traffic was already stopped. Two eastbound cars had been involved in the crash.
As soon as I exited my patrol car, I saw her. It took only a split second to see that the child was dead. I turned my head away because of the gruesome trauma. Someone on scene had the presence of mind to quickly cover her body with an emergency blanket. It was probably a truck driver. They often carried some emergency equipment with them. I was grateful that the parents would not have to see her in that condition.
I called out on the portable radio hanging from my hip, “Send everyone.” It may have been the only time I ever uttered that phrase over the radio. Other officers and emergency personnel arrived on scene. Traffic had come to a standstill.
I’ll never forget hearing the voices screaming out, “Where is my daughter?” “Where is my little girl?”
I saw an adult male and female walking around the freeway searching, scanning, and yelling for her. The dispatchers later reported being able to hear those screams during some of my radio conversations. I saw their van and knew. Some crash sites quickly reveal what happened, and this was one of those. Their van had been sliced in half, from the driver’s door, diagonally back through to the center of the rear hatch.
Despite already knowing, I asked them if that was their van, and they confirmed that it was. They were frantic. I looked at one of my respected friends, who wore the same uniform as me. We communicated without words. We knew someone had to tell them.
I knelt in the middle of the highway, and reached for the mother’s hand. She held my hand, placing her other hand over her mouth. Tears flowed down her face. I could see the father a few feet back, in obvious shock. I told them. “She’s gone. Your little girl is dead.” She fell to her knees weeping. How do you comfort someone in such a moment? She wrapped her arms around me, and wept.
Another vehicle was involved in the wreckage, and it had not hit by the semi, but had unique damage. There was a hole in the windshield about the size of a football, and another similar hole in the back window. Human remains were spread across the front and inside of the vehicle. The occupants of that vehicle were unharmed, but traumatized. Later, while speaking to another officer who had helped investigate the details of the accident scene, I was told that the second vehicle had been declared to be totalled by the insurance company simply because of the amount of biohazard.
I contacted the semi driver. He was still seated in his truck, which was well beyond the freeway, and into the ditch. He was either in shock himself, or did not care what he had just done. I was livid, and headed to the hospital with the truck driver for a blood sample. Just before I drove away, a senior trooper looked at me and offered to take the report himself. He was serious, and I knew it. But I couldn’t put this burden on someone else’s shoulders. I thanked him and told him I’d take it.
While at the hospital, after I had completed what needed to be done. I saw the family of the deceased, in one of the hospital rooms. I needed to give them a business card and report number. Several people were in the room as I walked in. The agony was tangible. I briefly conveyed my condolences and fought back tears with all my strength. I choked out a few words and gave someone the business card. What else could I do? Nothing, and I knew it. If I had stayed to offer some level of support, I would have begun crying myself, and only added to their pain.
Days later, it occurred to me that because of how thick the traffic was that day, it could have been a dozen cars which were hit. If it’s possible to find any solace in that catastrophic event; it was the fact that there were not a multitude of fatalities. There very well could have been.
Grace in the midst of devastation.