Detective Novak discovers the unexpected in Church Hill …
Flashing lights from the patrol cars and fire engines made it easy for City of Richmond detective Tobias Novak to find the Church Hill murder scene. He parallel parked at the end of the block, climbed out of his SUV into the bitter cold, and burrowed deeper into his overcoat as he made his way up the brick sidewalk past century-old row houses, some looking every bit their age.
It was his evening off and he was not happy about leaving behind a warm bed and the woman in it. Blame it on the lunar cycle or Halloween week, but the dispatcher had every on-duty detective already committed. He was needed.
A uniformed officer stood by the strip of yellow crime-scene tape tied to a wrought-iron fence encircling the small front yard. A “Rice Renovation” sign was planted in a bed of overgrown weeds. He’d seen the company’s signs around the old Church Hill and Fan District neighborhoods and knew similar companies were buying and remodeling these vacant old homes for empty nesters hungry to move back into the city.
The uniformed police officer was lean, muscular and in his early twenties. “Detective Novak,” the officer said as he raised the tape.
“What do we have?” Novak asked.
The officer shifted his feet and rubbed his hands together to chase away the night chill. “Neighbor across the street spotted a fire on the first floor and called it in. Crews put it out in fifteen minutes. It appears electrical, but they’re calling in the arson investigator. The house’s new owner was alerted. You received the call when they found the body in the basement.”
Novak blew warm air on his cold fingers. “Is the death related to the fire?”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
“How can you tell?”
“You’ll have to see it for yourself, sir.”
Novak stared up at the peeling gray-white paint of the early twentieth-century row house. The wide front porch had rotted in several places, a section of the portico roof had collapsed, and two of the four floor-to-ceiling windows were broken. Six faded “No Trespassing” signs were nailed across the front of the house.
“Who’s inside now?” Novak asked.
“Another uniformed officer and the forensic technician has been on scene for nearly an hour.”
Across the street, a couple of dog walkers huddled close as they stared at the scene. At least there were no television crews yet, so he might have more time before this went public.
Novak climbed the front steps, crossed the rotted porch, and entered the foyer. He’d been in countless city houses like this before. Called shotgun houses, the homes were built with a staircase on the left, a long hallway leading to the back and two rooms on the right.
The front room was dark, filled with trash and several stained pieces of upholstered furniture. The pungent scent of smoke grew stronger as he moved closer to the adjoining room, which was blackened from smoke and flames. Jagged burn marks originated at an outlet and crawled up the wall. Water dripped from already peeling wallpaper.
Under the scent of charred wood lurked hints of mildew, dust and urine, but no sighs of human decay. The cold snap would have slowed decomposition, but there was still generally some smell of death.
Temporary lighting set up in the kitchen illuminated the hallway, which was filled with more rubbish and fallen ceiling plaster. In the kitchen, a set of dark cabinets dating back a half century hung over a filthy porcelain sink filled with trash. The black-and-white linoleum on the floor peeled and buckled in several spots.
Noise echoed up from the basement and pulled him toward the open door that led to a wooden set of rickety stairs. He climbed down into the basement.
The ceiling and ductwork were low and only inches higher than his ix-foot-three frame. In the far right corner, he found the uniformed officer and a forensic technician who was aiming her camera into a small room.
Novak moved toward the tech. In her mid-twenties, Natasha Warner was short and slender with dark hair pulled into a ponytail. He’d worked scenes with her before and knew she was sharp and ambitious and cut no corners. Novak fished latex gloves from his pocket and worked his large hands inside them.
“Officer Warner,” Novak said.
Natasha turned and lowered her camera from her angular face. “Detective Novak.”
Novak nodded before stepping past he rinto the small room. The air was dry, but there was no scent of rotting flesh. “Natasha, what do you have?”
Her gaze sparked with keen curiosity. “A woman who was locked in this room, which was probably a root cellar at one time. By the looks of her clothes, I’d say she’s been here around twenty-five years.”
“Twenty-five years?” Novak pulled dark-rimmed glasses from his pocket and slid them on as he accepted a flashlight from Natasha. “Were you born twenty-five years ago?”
Natasha glanced in her viewfinder. “Barely. You?”
“Very funny,” he said. The forensic technician looked like a kid. Natasha Warner couldn’t have been much older than his daughter. Frequent workouts kept Novak’s body trim but the glasses and the flecks of gray at his temples gave away his approaching forty-second birthday.
Lying on the floor were skeletal remains of a body appearing to be lying on its back, arm and leg bones outstretched. The mandible, or lower jaw, was slightly agape. The clothing was intact and amounted to what remained of a faded pair of jeans with yellow and white flowers embroidered on the pockets and a pale-blue blouse with a wide collar and cuffs. What had been the victim’s long red hair remained partially intact and still knotted into a braid that draped over her shoulder.
“You said female,” he said.
“Clothing is one clue, but the deciding factor is her brow ridge. It’s thin, indicating female.”
“She’s only bones.”
“In Virginia’s hot and humid climate, this kind of decomposition is expected. And she’s intact because she was in a sealed room. Animals would have scattered her bones if she had been outside.”
Novak studied the position of the arms and legs. “She looks posed.”
“Or she did it herself,” Natasha said. “I worked a suicide once that was like this. The woman took a couple handfuls of pills and then laid herself out on her bed.”
“Presenting herself to the Almighty?” Novak asked.
Natasha shrugged. “Her husband said they’d argued that morning an she promised to ‘show him.’ he said the suicide was an f-you message to him.”
The summary struck a sharp nerve. His late wife had killed herself. But she’d not chosen pills. That was too passive for Stephanie. No, she’d driven her car into a lake. The kicker had been that she’d strapped Bella, their one-year-old, into her car seat. Fortunately, someone had seen Stephanie’s car plunge into the water. Bella had been pulled out as Stephanie screamed and fought to be left alone. The lake had quickly sucked the car under, and by the time Stephanie had been pulled from the water, she was dead.
Two days later, a letter from Stephanie posted the day she died had arrived at their home. In it, she blamed him for her dark moods and miserable life. At the time, he’d been too damn angry to care why. She’d tried to kill Bella and that was unforgivable.
His father had moved in with them, helping with child care while Novak worked. From then on, his priorities had been simple. Raise Bella and catch bad guys. She’d been an easy kid. Smart. Funny. Strong. His father had passed two years ago, and when Bella had left for the University of Virginia last year, he’d thought he’d finally get a chance to enjoy a bachelor’s life. Instead, the house remained too empty. Too quiet. Until a few weeks ago, he’d pacified the restless silence with work.
Novak thought again about the woman he’d left in her warm bed. For the first time in a long while, he resented the job.
Across from her bed was a large gilded mirror; it’s streaked and faded silver backing hinted to its decades in an old hotel lobby. Below it, her secondhand dresser, painted a bright indigo, was covered with perfume bottles, makeup, and earrings. A rocking chair in the corner was draped with yesterday’s jeans and a white T-shirt. Beside it were ankle books kicked off midstep in her rush to get to a hot shower and wash away yesterday’s homicide scene.
Controlled chaos. Just as she’d left it when she went to bed.
Julia hustled to her closet and yanked on slim dark pants and a black T-shirt. She threaded a worn leather belt through the loops. The belt buckle had been her father’s and doubled as a knife. Fastening it, she shrugged on a jacket.
Her black hair curled around her face as she tugged it up into a ponytail. High-heel boots and a collection of beaded bracelets around her wrists made he look more like a rocker than a cop. She secured her service weapon, badge, and handcuffs to her belt. She tucked the cigarette pack in her pocket for good measure.
Julia had been with the Virginia State Police for eight years. As all agents did, she’d started as a trooper and worked the highway for six years before she landed an undercover gig in Virginia Beach. Turned out she had a knack for slipping into pretend lives and found working back alleys and smoky bars preferable to a cruiser. Six months ago, her arrest record had landed her a promotion to the criminal investigation team in Richmond.
Her single-cup coffee machine spat out a strong blend and, with travel mug in hand, she made her way down a back staircase leading to the alley where she’d parked her unmarked car. She drove east on Cary Street and then up Church Hill. She turned north toward Broad and spotted the blue lights flashing atop three city cruisers. She parked in front of the smoldering old town house. Rolling her head from side to side, she drained the last of her coffee. She stepped into the cold night air. Cursed.
Julia spotted Novak’s tall, broad-shouldered frame. He stood by his unmarked vehicle, feet braced and a cell phone pressed to his ear. He was one hell of a cop. One of the good guys. One day he’d figure out she hauled too much emotional baggage around and leave, and their late-night encounters would end. Too bad. Because if she could have liked a guy, it might have been him.
She stepped into his peripheral vision, and he turned, holding up a finger. She shifted from foot to foot, folding her arms over her chest, telling herself she wasn’t really that tired or cold.
He quickly finished his call.
“Julia.” His tone wrapped an unwanted familiarity around her name.
“Novak, this better be good.”
He tucked his phone into his breast pocket. “Nothing excites me more than meeting you at a crime scene in the middle of the night.”
The dry humor tempered some of her irritation. “So seduce me with sweet talk. Make me glad I’m not at home asleep in a warm bed.”
Propofol took center stage in the news several years ago when Michael Jackson died following an injection of it from physician Conrad Murray. Murray was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Nonetheless, propofol is rarely an instrument of death, let alone murder, though several cases have been brought to trial.
Anesthesia Medications Propofol is at top.
While abuse of the drug is spreading, propofol itself is not easily accessible to the general public as its primary use is with anesthesia. A respiratory depressant, it can affect both respiration and the heart. Since an overdose can cause death, it is also a weapon.
Used without intent to kill, effects last only a short time and the last evidence of it leaves deep tissue in about six days. It’s not illegal. It’s felt by users in just seconds and is somewhat easily obtainable by many in the medical community.
Here’s a scene from THE SHARK in which Dr. Kincaid, the Medical Examiner, Joshua Shield, head of Shield Security, former FBI agent Clay Bowman and Virginia state trooper Riley Tatum look for leads in a murder—and suspect propofol as the means.
He released the button and the elevator descended, the doors opening to the cool antiseptic air of the medical examiner’s offices and Joshua Shield.
Shield was dressed in his trademark dark suit with his shock of white hair combed off his angled face. He strode straight to them, his attention riveted on Riley. Dark eyes collected and inventoried details quickly. “Trooper Tatum. I’m Joshua Shield.”
“I recognize you from your press pictures.”
Bowman noticed that most people were intimidated by Shield. They dropped gazes, shuffled feet, or fidgeted in some way. Not Riley. She glared at him as if he were a rookie intern late for his first briefing.
Shield extended his hand to her. “Nice to finally meet you,” he said. “Mr. Bowman speaks well of you.”
Clasping hard, she held his gaze.
“Solving this case is a team effort,” Shield said.
Smiling, she shook her head. “We’ll see.”
Bowman gave her props for not pulling punches.
“Consider the advantages of my expertise,” Shield said. “My company resources helped you in the past.”
“You were an uninvited guest that I could have managed without.”
He grinned as if enjoying the sparring.
Before he could respond, Dr. Kincaid appeared. She wore a lab coat and glasses that covered slightly bloodshot eyes.
“Dr. Kincaid,” Bowman said. “We appreciate you meeting us. Sorry to get you out of bed so early on a Saturday morning.”
“Mr. Bowman, Mr. Shield, you gentlemen have friends in powerful places.” Calm and unruffled, she extended her hand to both.
Shield shook her hand. “We help each other out when we can.”
Dr. Kincaid glanced at Riley. “I’m assuming Agent Sharp called you.”
“No, it was Mr. Bowman. But I contacted Agent Sharp.”
“Good,” Dr. Kincaid said. “Follow me.” She led them down the long hallway and pushed through a set of double doors. “I understand you also want to see Vicky Gilbert’s body.”
“Correct,” Shield said.
“Your timing is fortuitous. The funeral home is picking up her remains in a couple of hours. Her mother opted for cremation.”
“And you’ve done a complete exam?” Shield asked.
“I have. I’ve collected enough samples so that we can run any kind of test conceivable in the future if necessary. The Gilbert family is anxious to have a memorial service.”
“Their daughter ran away from home over a month ago and they didn’t call the police or try to find her,” Riley said. “What’s the big rush now?”
A slight shift in Riley’s tone could have made her sound bitter. But she kept her voice monotone, effectively hiding any potential anger or resentment.
Bowman reached in his breast pocket and removed a slip of paper. “Dr. Kincaid, I’d like you to test for this sedative.”
“Propofol? That’s a very powerful narcotic and I don’t see it often.”
“If we’re dealing with the man we suspect is the killer, this is likely the drug he used on his first four victims. This killer is a creature of habit. The sedative is one of his signatures.”
We’ve all heard talk about CSI Effect—people watch crime shows and movies and read mystery and suspense novels and start expecting all sorts of cutting edge forensic technology is available at crime scenes and to analyze evidence. Some think that test results can happen in hours or days, instead of weeks. When a case goes to trial, it may be that some jurors are anticipating lots more forensic evidence than is possible or they’re putting less emphasis on circumstantial evidence.
Also discussed is another element of CSI Effect—criminals knowing more than ever before about police and forensic procedure and behaving accordingly.
Vernon J. Geberth is the Former Commander of Bronx Homicide, New York City Police Department and author of Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques, which is used by the FBI, homicide departments, lawyers and investigators across the country. He addresses the criminal side of C.S.I. Effect in his article for PI Magazine: Journal of Professional Investigators in which he refers to “staging” the scene of a crime.
He defines the process saying “staging a scene occurs when the perpetrator purposely alters the crime scene to mislead the authorities and/or redirect the investigation. Staging is a conscious criminal action on the part of an offender to thwart an investigation.”
He also points out the perpetrator’s side of C.S.I. Effect. “The problem is that criminals read the same books and watch the same TV shows as everybody else, so they are gaining insight into the investigative process as well as the value of trace evidence and have become more savvy. These ‘CSI Criminals’ attempt to prevent leaving evidence at crime scenes. Offenders are now ultra-careful not to leave any blood, fingerprints, body hair or anything else that may identify them in the crime scene.”
Here’s an excerpt from VULNERABLE showing just that—names and some narrative have been changed to avoid spoilers.
“He pressed his finger on the back doorbell. As bell chimes echoed in the house, he pulled a clean handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped the doorbell button clean. Lights clicked on inside. Fast, determined footsteps approached. By the sound of it, the old man wasn’t happy about the interruption . . . the door jerked open to Jim Simmons’s frowning face. An instant passed as the old man stood and stared . . .
Ken grinned. “Mr. S. How’s it going?”
Mr. Simmons blinked. The anger that always buzzed behind his gaze softened. “Ken. What are you doing here?”
He removed a silver flask from his pocket. “I thought we could drink a toast . . .”
They moved down a carpeted hallway into the brightly lit kitchen . . . “Can I get you something to eat? . . . Let me make you a sandwich.”
“I’d like that.”
Ken took another drink from the flask, replaced the cap, and stuck it back in his pocket. He settled on a bar stool . . . Mr. Simmons carefully made the sandwich, set it on a plate, and pushed it toward him before turning back to the refrigerator to dig out a couple of beers . . .
The old man twisted the top off his beer and carefully set the top on the counter . . . “You spent time in Texas, didn’t you?”
“Sure.” Ken balled up his napkin and tossed it on his plate.
“The cops showed me a picture of a guy in Austin. I didn’t recognize him at first.”
Simmons looked at him, his gaze hardening as if pieces of a puzzle clicked into place.
Ken smiled and reached in his pocket for latex gloves . . . He tugged on the gloves . . . “She told me what you made her do . . . if the cops find out what you did . . . you’ll be ruined.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“I can crush you without breaking a sweat, kid. Don’t ever think you can threaten me.”
Ken shifted his grip around the neck of the beer bottle as if it were a club. Moving with swiftness he’d learned on the football field, he raised the bottle and lunged across the kitchen island, cracking the glass against the side of the old man’s skull . . .
Ken’s brain morphed from thinking to primal as he moved fast, scrambling around the island and landing hard blows with the bottle on the old man’s face. Simmons staggered and fell back to the floor. A look of panic and disbelief swept over the old man’s gray eyes.
Ken reached in his pocket and pulled out a clear plastic bag. With a snap he opened it and straddled Mr. Simmons. He pulled it over the man’s head and twisted the ends shut, cutting off his air flow. Ken settled his weight on Simmons’s chest and held the bag in place as his victim struggled for air. Several minutes passed until finally, Simmons’s eyes rolled back in his head and Ken was certain he was dead.
Ken removed the bag and checked for a pulse. There was none. Satisfied, he poured out the remaining beer in the sink. He dumped both bottles in his plastic bag as well as the remains of the sandwich. He turned on the hot water tap and when steam rose from the now hot water, he washed the plate and dried it with a paper towel, which he used to wipe down the counter.
As he backed away, his heart still thundered in his chest.