by Helene Baron-Murdock
It was something Mary Fisher, the crime scene tech, had said. “Old Gus has got more barks than a three headed dog.” She was right. The mastiff, part Rhodesian ridgeback by the looks, had a head the size of a backhoe shovel and bit off its yaps as regular and precise as a stamping mill. That had been five months ago. The case now belonged to the Feds, at their insistence, and was no longer the County Sheriff’s problem. Except that it was.
Jim Donovan, detective with the Weston County Sheriff’s Violent Crimes Unit, watched from the break room window as a rare June rain wet the parking lot and those scrambling to and from their cars who still couldn’t believe that it rained at this time of year. He was avoiding the paperwork that awaited him at his desk. The report was due by eight the following morning for a news conference to be held shortly thereafter.
Weston County Sheriff Tim Collins would be meeting the press to explain to the public, and the County Board of Supervisors, why there had not been any progress in the multiple execution style murders at a remote farmhouse up on the tribal lands. And that he was not part of the cover-up. The fact that his Department been shut out of the case by the FBI had been really hard to swallow. And now the blowback over the cover-up was threatening to call into question his carefully erected reputation as a straight shooter. The “lands”, as the Sage Valley Rancheria was called, sat in his jurisdiction. However, it was also a section in the northeast of the county administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that meant that his authority was trumped by Washington. Sheriff Collins was a politician as well and he knew when to shift the blame. He hated the FBI and so was not the least averse to showing them in a bad light. Lawyers with guns, he called them.
Donovan sat in his chair and set the coffee cup on the stained notepad as the phone rang. “Donovan.” He stared at the ceiling. The big boss. “Yeah, Tim, I’m working on it now. I have your notes right here.” He lifted the coffee cup as if he were unveiling them. “I fit everything onto the timeline. Right up to when we were pulled off the investigation.”
He’d asked it before and he knew the answer, but he asked again anyway, reflexively, as a dig or complaint about the constraint on doing their job, however broadly that was defined. “I thought we signed a Joint Powers Agreement that gave us jurisdiction over the lands within the county. What good is it if the State or Feds can muscle us out of the way any time they want?”
Anything to get Tim going. But apparently not today. The Sheriff was focused and went over in detail once again the points he wanted emphasized.
“Jesus, Tim, think this is my first rodeo? What are you going to do when I retire?” Donovan listened and scoffed. “Good luck with that.” And “Are we done? I have to put the final touches to this report.” He stared at the screen and the document page that was titled Timeline for MCI on Feb 14th Sage Valley Weston County and the blank space below it. “You’ll have it by the start of work tomorrow. Have I ever failed you?” He took exception to the reply. “That was different.”
Hanging up, he focused on the blank screen, the pulsing cursor, again. He knew what he had to do. Fill in the blanks. Easy enough. He had his pocket notebook. Most of the younger guys used their smart phones or digital recorders. He was old school, admittedly, but writing something down was that extra step that would help trigger a chain of associations.
Shooting, possibly drug related, way out on the lands, at the far eastern end of Weston County, multiple victims, the way it was called in. The big man had wanted him out there for an overview, and to help the new guy, Nelson, who would be the lead investigator. Seemed like more and more the Department was using him to train the rookies. The brass liked to use the word ‘mentor.’ Well, he could have just as easily been driving a desk after the ‘incident’, so he had to consider himself lucky to be out in the field even if it was just hand-holding and nose-wiping.
He remembered the day well, Valentine’s Day. He was on a domestic violence call on the west side of Santa Lena, in an unincorporated neighborhood on High Creek Rd. A rundown two story Queen Anne knockoff in need of some TLC fronted the High Creek address. Just inside the door a shaggy white haired unshaven older gent lay in a heap at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Accident, at first glance, yet the man was naked below the waist, his pants and briefs wrapped around his ankles. That appeared to have been the cause of his fall. At the top of the stairs sat a woman in a wheelchair, close in age to the dead man. With her was a social worker from Adult Protective Services or Apes, as they were sometimes called, a young woman in her thirties with shiny caramel colored hair and a bright green overcoat. She had a pretty face, but it was marred by a frown and severe expression. She was the one who had found the body and called it in. First responders had arrived about the same time as the deputy. They’d both agreed, a coroner’s case. Something the Ape said to the deputy had made him request a detective from Violent Crimes.
The social worker, her id badge hanging from a blue lanyard around her neck displaying a none too flattering photo and her name, Shirley Holmes, explained that there had been previous incidents of domestic violence at this address. When Donovan suggested that maybe the woman had fought back this time, he was informed that the old woman, Ida Karanov, had been the instigator of the previous incidents.
He was just about to begin with some preliminary questions of the woman when Tim called to have him head out to the MCI on the lands. At the suggestion of the social worker, he arranged to have the woman taken to General and placed in one of the holding rooms at the hospital where she could be cared for by the medical staff if need be. She wasn’t going anywhere in that wheelchair.
On the forty minute drive to the Rancheria he’d had a chance to mull over the potential crime scene. Older guy, Jay Karanov, the woman’s husband, falls down a flight of stairs, about fifteen feet, breaks his neck. He has his trousers and briefs wrapped around his ankles. Well, it was Valentine’s Day, after all, maybe he got a little frisky and the old woman didn’t appreciate it. So she pushes him away. He loses his balance and takes the tumble. But why at the head of the stairs? Head at the head, he thought but dismissed it as cynical, the result of his experience over the years with the finer specimens of humanity.
Weston County in February was awash in yellow mustard and acacia blooms. A political compromise in the early 20th Century had created Weston County as a trapezoidal wedge between the conservatives of the Anderson County timberlands to the north, and the well to-do liberals in the agri-burbs of Tolay County to the south. Weston was a sampler of both of those ideologies and equally representative in its topography. To the West, Weston was bound by the rugged coast and the wide blue yonder of the Pacific. Consisting mostly of sparsely inhabited timberland vacation destinations and upscale enclaves notched into and around sheer granite oceanside cliffs, it stretched north to the county line as a continuation of the coastal range. The south and east of the county were taken up by arable lands, home to vineyards, orchards, and truck farms encroached on, steadily and year after year, by housing developments and the attendant paving.
Almost equidistant from the wave tumbled coast and the rolling grass and oak foothills at the Harbin County line to the east sat Santa Lena, the largest population center and the county seat. The heavily traveled north-south State four lane thoroughfare bisected the town and the main east-west artery, known as the Santa Lena Highway, cut across the northeast corner at the city limits.
At one point dispatch had requested his 10-20 and his ETA to the shooting scene. He informed the dispatcher that he’d just cleared the outskirts and was heading east on the Santa Lena Highway, figuring to arrive in about half an hour. He imagined Tim Collins listening to his answer in his office over the monitor speaker because it was his question that had prompted the radio traffic. Sometime later he’d heard the Crime Scene van check in as having arrived at the site.
—The arrival had been acknowledged by dispatch, and he noted it on the timeline.—
The tributary road off the highway was designated by a government number and had been freshly graded down to granite hard pack. He followed it until he came upon a pale green Forest Service pickup and the Ranger in the driver’s seat who pointed him through the cattle gate and the deeply rutted dirt road beyond. His Crown Vic was just not built for that kind of terrain and he banged his head not a few times as the vehicle jolted, bounced, and balked at the rough going. Things got a little better as he approached a large two story white farmhouse and outbuildings set in among a grove of ancient valley oaks. There were a handful of patrol units and Forest Service pick-ups gathered at the entrance to the fenced-in property. He parked off to the side of the road and checked in with dispatch. Overhead the leaden slab of clouds that stretched without end to the west threatened to mist as a fine drizzle.
—The dispatch log put him there at 10 AM.—
He walked into the yard noting the battered blue Explorer and rust red lightweight pick-up astride a set of extra-large wheels parked in front of the farmhouse. Nelson strode out to meet him, explaining “We’re still waiting on the medical examiner.” The Crime Scene van was parked off to one side and the tech had deployed the field lab from the side compartment. A large dog penned in near the outbuildings punctuated the air with its aggressive barks.
“Yeah, five of them, male, non-white. We can go in as soon as the tech gives us the nod. I did a prelim walk through. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“No, that’s not it. All head shots. They never knew what hit them.”
Nelson indicated the Crime Scene van and the elderly woman seated on the passenger’s side with the door open. “Mrs. Elma Snyder. Lives in the granny unit out back. Didn’t hear a thing. She found the bodies.” And as an afterthought, “The tech, Fisher, knows her.”
Almost on cue, Mary Fisher, in her blue crime scene coveralls, strode up and handed them each a pair of baby blue rubber gloves and booties to match. “We can go in and do the video walk through any time you’re ready.” She nodded acknowledging Donovan and smiled self-effacingly that was the way of her people.
“You know the old woman? Who is she?”
“That’s Grandmother Snyder though everyone calls her Grandmother Spider. She’s related to just about all the families here on the lands. My great aunt’s cousin. She comes with the place. We can talk to her once you’re done inside. I don’t think she knows anything, you know, about where Penny might have got off to.”
“Penny, who is Penny?”
Penny Dessy was Oliver Dessy’s wife, and she was missing. The ranch was her home, and her husband’s, when Chief Warrant Officer Oliver Dessy wasn’t off with the Army somewhere in the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, The Horn of Africa, he’d been to them all. He was regarded a hero to the people of the lands, his decorations and tales of his exploits, though ostensibly classified, were known to all and relished with the pride of kinship. Penny, his wife was not among the carnage inside the house. That Penny Dessy was missing made her a person of interest.
Donovan walked up the steps carefully appraising what he saw, impressed by the order and cleanliness of the front porch with its well-watered potted plants, white-painted wicker chairs and bright cushions, the worn boards of the deck swept clean of yard sand or tree debris, it could have given a pin lessons in neatness. Someone had devoted a lot of time to presenting a welcoming, thoughtful approach.
Mary Fisher had related the backstory on Penny Dessy, an outsider brought home from Oliver Dessy’s tour as a combat field instructor at West Point. She was the adopted daughter of Brigadier General Otto Likhaus, a native woman from the lands of upstate New York. Her ways were different, and her forthrightness struck some of the Sage Valley residents as snooty and rude. She was a tall woman as well, and slender. Her looks attracted many of the men’s eyes and desires which further alienated the close families on the lands. They had one son, Markus, who ran a telemarketing company based in Tolay County.
The sitting room immediately inside the front door was just as immaculate and well cared for as the verandah. Had it not been for the bodies. The tech had placed yellow A-frame number placards by each of the corpses. Donovan stood in the middle of the room and observed the position of each of the dead men. Number one and two, caught sitting, right between the eyes, mouths still open in surprise. Number three, not quite a center shot and may have been standing by the way he had fallen over the arm of the chair. Four looked like he had a defensive wound on his right hand, but the bullet tore right through it and entered just below the right eye. Number five caught a slug just below the laryngeal prominence and then another at the hairline. The efficiency of the killing was chilling.
—Appeared to be the work of a professional he noted on the timeline—.
The on-scene deputies had searched the grounds but there was no sign of Penny. “The only place we haven’t looked is in the shed.” Nelson pointed to the weathered outbuilding inside the enclosure guarded by the dog. “We can’t get past the dog.” He shrugged. “Might have to shoot it.”
Mary Fisher overheard them and shook her head. “No need to do that. Old Gus has got more barks than a three headed dog, but there’s no call to kill him for being who he is and what he does. Besides, I put in a call to Woody over at Animal Control. He’s on his way. And I’ve got ID’s on the victims if you’re interested.”
She led them down to the field lab where she had placed the wallets and various photo identifications laid out to be photographed. Donovan looked over her shoulder as she pointed to each. “Number one and two, Jacob Wiley and Jason Wiley, same Harbin County addresses, probably related, brothers.”
“You know them, don’t you,” he interjected.
With a slight movement of her chin down she caught a breath. “Yes, I have heard of them. Wild, into bad things, associated with white men. They were distant cousins of the Dessy’s, too”
He understood what she was saying. “What about number three?”
“Aaron Wiley, an older cousin of these two, played high school football with Oliver Dessy. Drugs, gambling, extortion. Number four, Thomas Bull.” She pointed to the driver license photo of a man whose head filled the square of photo. “A mean drunk. He’s my husband’s third cousin and we’ve seen his antics at family gatherings. My husband calls him a ‘wannabe badass’.”
Donavan picked up the photo id of number five. “I know this guy, Eric Badger, we had him for a gang related murder, but the witness conveniently disappeared.”
—Animal Control arrived at the scene and checked in. He noted the time on the timeline.—
Woodrow Ames, also known as Woody, was an animal behavior vet who deprecatingly called himself a glorified dog-catcher. A green County issue mesh ballcap held down the explosion of curly red hair that topped his skinny frame. And anyone one who knew Woody would agree with the assessment that he was fastidious about his uniform attire. A neat freak as the not-so polite would say. His new assistant, a young woman, retrieved the wire lasso at the end of a length of pole and he directed her to walk parallel to the fence in plain view of the large mastiff, attracting its attention. In the meantime, he retrieved a long dark case, the kind a pool shark might carry his professional cue in and extracted two long hollow tubes that he fit together to form an even longer tube. One end was fitted with a round rubber mouthpiece. He propped the blowgun on the open window of the driver’s side door of his truck, inserted the dart in the opening of the tube, and positioned himself to aim. His assistant, glancing back over her shoulder once, moved closer to the fence and the dog on the other side that had by then worked itself into a froth of rage.
The dog gave a little yelp and then tried to bite its own neck before its back legs buckled followed by its head and front paws, it’s heaving ribs slowly breathing shallower.
As soon as Woody gave the nod that it was safe to go in, they entered the shed to learn that it also served as a workshop of some kind though the saws and various other tools hung on the backboard over the bench appeared not to have been used in a while. Dust and cobwebs had taken over the corners and surfaces.
Shining his flashlight in a corner of the shed taken up by rusted farm equipment, Donovan noticed where the ground had been displaced, a mound of dirt next to an olive green wooden military footlocker. He scanned the faded black stenciling of the name O. Dessy US Army on the dust free surface. He lifted the lid. Empty, but he recognized the faint scent of gun oil.
“Somebody’s been in here, working at this bench, recently,” Nelson proclaimed as if he’d just had a Goldilocks moment. A deputy stepped into the shed. “Sheriff’s on the radio for you, Donovan.”