Veterans Day

 

Veterans Day

by Kevin Leese

Three weeks ago, I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey. The network that hired me to shoot a reality TV show was nice enough to find me a place right on the Hudson River, sort of in the heart of where all those “Wall Street banker types” that we have been hearing about lately seem to live. 

I have to admit I knew absolutely nothing about Hoboken before I arrived, and what I have learned since comes mostly from walking my dog.

Every time Princess and I head out along the river, we pass an area that was all fenced off and shrouded in mystery –– until this morning.

Today the fences were down and workmen were putting the final touches on a memorial to the 159 men of Hoboken who died while serving in World War II. The monument featured two life-size figures that we all recognize as GI standing in front of a dozen rifles bayoneted into white sand with helmets resting on their upended stocks. 

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This part of Hoboken used to be a rough one, filled with piers, warehouses and longshoreman –– the inspiration for “On the Waterfront” –– and today lined with swanky bars, hi-rise condos and astroturf soccer fields.

I watched a handful of guys put out folding plastic chairs. They fumbled around with the public address system, set up some coffee and doughnuts, and looked anxiously at the threatening skies.

It was pouring down rain when the ceremony started, but every seat was filled. The WWII re-enactors marched in and presented the colors. The PA crackled with feedback and cut out about 40 times during the long speeches that characterize this sort of event. Even though the rain showed no sign of letting up, spirits were high. There was a lot of handshaking and hugs. The Boy Scouts were there to dry off seats so the women could sit, and quite a few vets were in the audience, as well as cops, firefighters, daughters, wives, and kids.

Lost Comrades

I stood for a while next to an old man wearing a USS New Jersey Cap. He held his umbrella loosely and the water poured off it down onto his soaked back.  He paced around looking hard for someone, maybe one of his old buddies.

 

Another vet from either Korea or Vietnam rolled up on a folding bike, no umbrella, soaked to the bone. His blurred and blued tattoos covered him from his knuckles to his neck. When the “Liberty Belles” sang the Marine Hymn, he popped up off of his bike seat and stood at attention. I could see by the lost look in his eyes and the deep lines on his face that he had seen the sort of things that most of us only hear about. It made me cringe of the thought of what three and four tours of Iraq-istan will inevitably do to today’s young soldiers.

 

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Kindled Memories

Had I come across this scene five years ago I probably would have walked right past it to get to the nearest Starbucks for my venti latte. I never really paid that much attention to the veterans of WWII when I was growing up. Then I met my wife’s grandfather Vernon Miller.

He was living in Youngstown Ohio, married with a baby daughter when the war broke out. He shipped out on his 30th birthday and served in the 7th armored Division 31st tank battalion. More than once he faced death. First when his tank rolled over in an artillery battle, and again while hot on the heels of the retreating Nazi’s.

 

His tank was leading the battalion when the Americans rolled into Wissman, Germany, on March 27, 1945. A German bazooka hit them from the rear. Vernon clamored out of the flaming shell and ran through the streets armed with a submachine and carrying a chunk of German ordnance that was just lodged in his back. German civilians hid him and his crew mates in a basement while our guys shelled the crap out of the town until a hundred or so German soldiers surrendered, and he was saved.

The 31st Tank Battalion rolled West into Grossen-Buseck, one day after Verns Tank was destroyed, photo dated 3-28-45

The 31st Tank Battalion rolled West into Grossen-Buseck, one day after Verns Tank was destroyed, photo dated 3-28-45

Earlier this year Vernon’s wife Veronica passed away.  Since then, the house that Vernon and Vern have lived in for the past 50 years has become Vernon’s memory box. Without Veronica interrupting with “oh for crying out loud Vernon, they don’t want to here that dumb story again!”  we have all gotten to hear a few more tales from his past.

I guess that Veronica thought we were all bored with her husband’s ramblings. Now, perhaps as his form of coping with the loss, more stories come out each time we visit.  They aren’t the typical “cannon fire and bullets flying” stuff you expect from such a horrific campaign.

One of his favorites is the tale of a box of holiday cookies that made its way from an uncle in Ohio all the way across Europe to finally meet Vern in a blown out train depot in Cologne.  Four months of travel had rendered the cookies, like the city he was standing, into rubble. But the starving war-torn children in town devoured these crumbs with delight.

When we moved Vern out of his house we found a version of this poster,

Many members of the 31st Tank Battalion signed his.

Many members of the 31st Tank Battalion signed his.

On the Banks of the Hudson

        I stood there dripping wet on the banks of the Hudson, Princess chomping at her leash, and listened to the speeches, but my mind drifted through some of the incredible stories that Vern told. He delivered them with such subtlety it was easy to forget how a stupid piece of metal just a few inches to the left or right might have obliterated all the happy things I inherited from him.

 

When the last speaker came to the podium, he made a plea for everyone to write their Congressmen to get our boys in Iraq the body armor they need. The dedication ended with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” blasting out of the PA system until it suddenly cut out, like someone might have tripped over the cable.

A Living Memorial

The crowd quickly dispersed as anyone who has stood in the rain for an hour and 40 minutes would.  I walked my dripping dog into the adjacent park across the block and noticed a wreath placed on one of those big old trees, the kind that has no bark.  At its base was a simple brass plaque that was now rusted and overgrown by tree flesh in a morbid yet appropriate tribute to one young American’s life.

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    It was a simple memorial to one Private Duffy, one of Hoboken’s fallen soldiers in The Great War (what we now call World War I.) Private Duffy was 17 when he went into the infantry, and 18 when his body left France in a box. 

The tree was planted as a “living memorial” to a dead teenager, and it continues to grow, consuming as it does the iron and brass attached to its base, but never able to eradicate the memory.

November 11th is Veterans Day, chosen because it falls on the day World War I ended. The last American to fight in that war died this year. But the brand new monument unveiled just a few yards away reminds us there are other wars to be remembered, other lives sacrificed in the cause, and more futures that never will be so we can have ours.

 

Learning Spanish the hard way, in Logan Square Chicago

Saturday, September 01, 2007

 

In my family, you had a choice when you entered junior high school, to play an instrument or to learn a language. I picked the trumpet, probably a mistake because by the time I made it to high school I had been demoted to baritone, a larger and strangely enough, louder version of the horn that I was apparently not meant to play. The shear amount of months that I spent playing the wrong notes at the wrong time could have easily been spent learning 2 or 3 languages, a choice I came to regret years later when I moved into Logan Square in Chicago.

Logan Square hinges the northwest corner of a series of grand boulevards designed in 1870 by William Le Baron Jenney to connect the close-in neighborhoods and city parks around Chicago's Loop. Century old mansions along the leafy boulevards have always attracted the well-to-do, but most of the residents are immigrant Poles, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans living in simple three flats and bungalows on the side streets.

At the center of Logan Square is a large spire capped with a big eagle erected in 1918 to honor 100 years of Illinois statehood. By day, art school students and retirees lounge around on the grass underneath taking in the sun. But at night, the square gives way (or did at the time) to junkies and street dealers, and a steady stream of kids from the suburbs popping off the nearby I-94 expressway exit to buy drugs.

In some odd mix of urban planning and community policing during the 90's, Chicago began dead-ending the streets leading to the square, and it was on one of these (Schubert Street) that I found an apartment in 2000 whose main entrance was off an alley behind Milwaukee Avenue.

Milwaukee Avenue slices diagonally through Logan Square as the main artery headed downtown. It was, and still is, a colorful array of storefronts from Nelson Algren's City on the Make: Dollar Stores mixed with creepy medical supply places, Mexican bakeries, groceries showcasing cow heads in their freezers and storefront butcher shops where you could pick out your own live chicken for slaughter. From the narrow porch of my back staircase, I could watch the roving bands of street punks move from the Laundromat to the liquor stores to my favorite restaurant "Best Sub 2", which served beef sandwiches through a revolving cash window made of bulletproof glass.

The drizzle of graffiti on the garage doors and alleyways in my little corner of paradise – a large circle with an "A" inside -- said my turf belonged to the OA's, or, more formally, Orchestra Albany. Local legend has it that the gang started as a mariachi band on nearby Albany Street. But when the leader and another member were shot on the way to a party, the band found it had too few members to play the gig, but plenty enough rage to start a gang. Their rivals were the Latin Kings, a consortium of other gangs who thrived just south in Humboldt Park but often spilled over into the square to handle the drug traffic.

One of my first friends in the neighborhood was Peanut, a little guy, only 17, who lived with his extended Mexican family in the same apartment building. On any given day, Peanut would show up at my doorstep with a black eye or fat lip. He was working hard to be a hood but, from all appearances, not doing too well at it. In a place that valued toughness, Peanut was just too nice a guy.

When some aunt wasn't kicking him out of the house, he was grinning through his wounds and trying unsuccessfully to find great deals on weed. One day, tapped out after a trip to Spain, I gave Peanut my car stereo to see what he could get for it. He returned three hours later still carrying the stereo. Nobody took him seriously enough to make an offer. Watching Peanut and his buddies negotiate the streets all seemed like innocent fun until one spring weekend when the bullets started flying.

It was a Friday night. I must have had my stereo down low because I distinctly remember the shots. Not one or two, but eight or nine, then the sound of a vehicle speeding away. And then – nothing. No sirens, no screams, no nothing.

The next day, I walked across Milwaukee to get churros and coffee. Next to the Dollar Store, at the top of the escalator leading down to the Logan Square el station, a kid was doing some sort of rap song in Spanish. I didn't recognize him as one of the kids from the neighborhood; and I would have, because he had a very distinctive wandering eye. When I got close, he stopped singing, shifted into his "hey man" tone and offered me some "mota." We had a new dealer in the neighborhood, I surmised.

Only a couple hours later, I heard more gunshots, six or seven this time. Like a moron, I raced to the back window to see what the deal was. My little drug dealer was running away down the sidewalk, one arm cupped inside his shirt like Napoleon heading out of Moscow. Two shootings in one 24-hour period was enough to prompt me to call 911. The operator must have thought I was a reporter or something because she said "We don't have any information on that shooting yet."

"Well I do," I said. "I think I saw a suspicious character running away from the scene a few minutes ago." This got her attention and she transferred me to a homicide detective who took my name and number and said he'd be in touch.

Once I felt enough time had passed, I walked down to Milwaukee Avenue where several police cars and a black Lexus were parked in front of the little Cuban coffee shop. The sidewalk was roped off with crime tape. The Lexus was getting the CSI treatment and, from what the neighbors were saying, the victim had been the driver.

I went home and wondered if this was the best way to learn Spanish. That evening, the homicide detective and his partner came by to take a look at what I saw. They wore long raincoats with that boozy stench of cigarettes and carried little notebooks that they occasionally made notes in. I pointed out my window at what I saw earlier that day. One took a look. Then the other one. Neither said much about the case, and they left me a pair of business cards and the general idea they could not have cared less.

A few days later, I was leaving my apartment and there, in the middle of the sidewalk, was the little cross-eyed kid hanging out with his homies. It was all I could do not to freak out and scream, "What the hell are you still doing hanging around here clown-boy!?" But I kept my mouth shut and kept walking. We made eye contact for longer than normal. If he thought there was anything unusual about this, he didn't show it.

About a week later, another Chicago detective left a message on my answering machine telling me that the Logan Square shooter had struck again, and that this time he was in custody. They needed me to identify him in a lineup.

The cops picked me up in an unmarked brown Crown Vic just as I was finishing teaching a class at Columbia College. Introductions were brief then we were off to the Cook County Jail. The back seat of a cop car is never an easy place to relax and these guys did little to help calm my sense that I was in for something dreadful.

On the way to the jail I got the lowdown one the shootings from the guys in front, which really didn't help. Apparently, the first shooting Friday night was directly related to the second shooting the next afternoon. The singing kid's boss, upset that some product had gone missing, drove by the first night to scare a little sense into the boy.

More scared than sensible, the kid then got his own gun and shot the boss in his Lexus six times the next day. Both crimes might have slipped under the police radar. But only a week later the kid took the same gun to a Laundromat/party store on Diversey where, in broad daylight, he started shooting it off again in the parking lot. No one was hurt, but others at the scene helped the police apprehend him. Following the arrest, he confessed to both shootings. My testimony, the cops said, was just part of wrapping up the case.

The Crown Vic pulled into a gated area in back of the county jail. Several large white guys in black jumpsuits -- guards I presumed -- were walking around and one was dispatched to go get some bad guys from the cells for me to look at.

The waiting took forever. It gave me a chance to check the place out. There wasn't much to the station house. Thick coats of pealing paint covered the walls. There was a locker to one side filled with weapons and a steel door with a small piece of glass leading to a back room on the other. That's where they held the line-up.

I was positioned in front of this window and the suspects were led in. They stood against a bare wall with lines denoting height. My first instinct, of course, was to wonder whether this was even one-way glass I was peering through. Five guys stood about four feet from my nose, and one of them was the kid who only a couple of weeks ago had been rapping on my street corner.

For me the whole thing was done. There was no doubt in my mind that he was the dude I saw running. But the detectives made each suspect run through a standard routine of stepping forward, turning from side to side, etc. Someone came in and had me sign something. I asked if I could have a copy, or a phone number, or a name -- or anything. But I guess that's not really standard procedure.

The same detectives who picked me up dropped me back at school. I stepped out of the car reeling in confusion. What the hell did I just do? What if that kid was just selling weed and wanted to run away from some whack job that was shooting some dude that he knew? I would run! So why did he confess? And what the hell was his name? And what's going to happen to him? And why is this all just standard procedure? Is this my role in this community? To finger the bad guys and get the hell back to school?

I don't live in Logan Square anymore. I learned a lot of Spanish in my time there – and I learned a lot about life in the big city. But I've been looking in my attic lately for my old baritone. At least when I play a wrong note on my baritone, nobody gets hurt.

 

Cop Shooter…

The storys of a law enforcement cameraman.   Embedded with the police for the sake of reality television.

Chapter 3… Homocide.

Part 1: Perp Walk

I am what I known in the television industry as a “predator”. Its not a title that I would have chosen to describe what I do, but I didn’t get to pick, it was probably someone in Los Angeles. As a Predator I am a one-man production team, given a camera and a microphone, and expected to deliver a story, which I have to admit, is an incredible and challenging way to make a living, sometimes.

I usually think that the shows I am working on are going to be really cool, and groundbreaking- something I really want to tell my friends and family to tune into so they can think, “hey, I know the guy who worked on this”. This notion is proof that I live in fantasy land, because the reality is that the show’s get so mangled during post production that by the time it makes it to air I either want to cry or apply to some grad school, towards a degree I’m not even interested in.   It’s a lot of fun to watch a show premiere while getting wasted in a bar full of drunk cops who are yapping it up so loudly that you can only hear the theme music and the ads. It’s a much sadder experience when you are sitting around the TV with some friends in an actual house, watching your show like normal people do. I’ve done it a couple of times, and its gets downright embarrassing watching the looks on their faces as they slowly start looking at the bottoms of their drinks and pretending that their Tivo is acting weird as they skip past the 3rd and 4th acts of the show.  Most crew that I work with say “shit man, I don’t watch the stuff I shoot” and I used to think they were just being cool. But I learned the hard way, that hoping some half baked 23 year old who’s locked in a dark edit bay in Santa Monica is actually going to sift through the footage that I so painfully crafted in the field is pretty futile.  Before I was a cameraman I was an editor, so I am allowed that bitch.

            But every once and a while I will have an experience that makes me think, “No, this isn’t the most ridiculously needless thing I could be doing with my life.” Like once when I was having lunch at a retirement village outside of Jacksonville Florida, with my wife’s grand-aunt.  She is easily the oldest person I have ever sat down to eat with, and still firing on all cylinders, very sharp, and somehow we got talking about TV. She said one of her favorite shows, “is that 48 hours show, with the detectives and the murders, I really like that one, I feel like I am right in the room with them.” My wife perked up with pride and told her Aunty that I actually work on that show from time to time.  This kind old southern belle raised her eyebrows for a moment, just as our plates of soggy peach cobbler arrived, and that was the end of that 9 seconds of fame, but it was a nice quaint nine seconds.

            My First experience shooting for The First 48 was short, I played a tiny part in the eventual show that aired, but it was still a pretty nutty way to spend the day.  Apparently a murderer was going to be moved from one jail to another. The production company called me to get as much footage of this asshole as I could, because, while the show that they had put together was both incredible and nearly finished, what they were lacking was any footage whatsoever of this creep. He shot a Viet Nam vet and his wife before driving off with their car, which he later crashed into a telephone pole. I was sent that snippet of info, a camera, and a phone number, I was told to meet a Homicide detective by the name of Shea over at Detroit Police Headquarters.

            What they had arranged for me is what’s called a “perp walk”. You’ve seen it on the nightly news a million times, when the bad guy gets caught and hides his face while he gets hustled from one building to a car, or vice versa? Well that’s a perp walk, and while usually a lot of the media gets invited when a prisoner of note gets moved, today I was going to be the only camera shooting, because apparently catching one murderer in Detroit is not a real show stopper.  You’re probably thinking that would be one of the easiest things in the world to shoot, a bad guy walking by, and being led into a car, well throw in the fact that your not really allowed to bring cameras into jails in Detroit, and the limited amount of time in which I had to get the shot, and the situation got sticky, and smelly.

            I learned a lot of things that day, not only about myself but about cops and  murderers. I found out quickly that its pretty typical for a guy to avoid bathing while he is in lockup, and that is sort of a self-defense move, if you catch my drift.  I also learned that I was afraid of murderers, even when they are handcuffed and escorted around by a couple of seasoned cops.  It might have been just how nasty this guy looked, or that I knew he really without a shadow of a doubt pulled the trigger on his next door neighbors, or his putrid smell, but it was probably the combination of all three that made me a lot less tough than I though I was.

            My assignment was pretty simple: get a shot of this guy walking into, or out of a building, that would play for the hospital, and get him walking into a cop car or police station, that would play for his arrest.  I am probably not the first person to mention this, but a lot of reality TV is not very real. So the garage of Detroit’s Police Headquarters looked just like the hospital that my bosses were looking for, now I just had to wait for the prisoner to be released from his holding cel, which I was not allowed to shoot.

After walking the perp out an old decrepit stairwell that looked like it was straight off of the set of Hill Street Blues, Officer Shea walked him over to his car and led him into the backseat and closed the door. Bam, “perp walk done, check that off the list” I thought, then Shea turned to me and said “Is that all you want? You wanna do it again?” Given the opportunity to get a second take was something I hadn’t even considered, so I said, “sure, if you have the time”.

            At this point our perp started getting concerned about my camera, and me as he mumbled, “Whats he doin’ with that camera, man?”

            “Shut the fuck up and get out of the car” Shea muttered.  I was a bit alarmed at the tone of his voice, and I shuttered. But they went all the way back over to the stairwell and repeated the exact same thing, so I shot it a bit differently than the first. We got a second take, and I was thinking to myself “yay, the editors can pick and choose, I get a gold star!” But before I could reach around to pat myself on the back, we were loading up and heading to the real jail for his final processing.

            I was sort of under the impression that we would be in a squad car, you know a big Crown Vic, the kind with the bulletproof glass between the front seats and the back? Well the homicide detectives in Detroit get assigned these little old Chrylser sedans, it was a Sebring or something very small and pathetic. My point is, for the next 30 minutes, I was going to be a lot closer to this killer than I was expecting, and let me reiterate something about the smell, it was bad, this guy looked like pure evil, but he was apparently oozing it out of his pores too, and he was really, really close to me.

            All that my bosses asked for was “as much footage of this perp as you can get” so I attempted to get some shots as we drove, he was sitting directly behind my seat, but every time I pulled up the camera he would sheepishly pull his shirt collar up over his face.  I was sort of terrified, but also intrigued by this strange game I was playing with this jerk.  He would immediately drop his shirt when I would put the camera down, or shoot a bit of an interview with the Detective, but the minute I would spin the camera back into his face, he would go back into hiding. This went on for the entire trip, all the while Officer Shea and I discussed all sorts of things completely unrelated to the fact that there was a big strong murderer in the back seat of our little Sebring. Whenever I hear the phrase “There is an elephant in the room”, I tend to think “Stinky murderer in the family car”.

            People always talk about the mental state of cops, like they are assholes, on powertrips, usually negative stuff, and who knows, I’m no shrink, and I have no idea why anyone would be driven to investigate murders professionally. I do know that part of their coping method is to remove themselves from what they are doing, and who can blame them? Officer Shea was really good at it, we might as well have been on our way to Baby’s R Us to pick up a three pack of bippos for his niece, the way he was carrying himself. I on the other hand, was having a hard time comprehending how someone could actually walk over to his neighbor’s house, break in and attempt to execute both of them.

            Eventually we got to the homicide base, where the prisoner was led into a cell and processed. I was running out of time, and still hadn’t gotten the shot I knew that my producers where looking for, and my head was spinning. Luckily for me he was placed  where I could sneak around and get a lot of good angles of this jerk sitting there, taking the laces out of his shoes, looking like a criminal who knew exactly what he had done.   Their were plenty of  those stereotypical jail bars in the shot and my framing really screamed “bad dude, locked up” and months later, when I finally saw the completed show, I saw that the editors actually did looked through that entire tape, because they saw the same thing I did,  my last shot was used as the last scene of the show. 

            A few months later I was called back to shoot again for the show. The call from New York made me feel like I must be getting pretty good at covering this hard boiled crime stuff. But my second experience shooting for The First 48 would only prove that I had a lot more to learn about the world of Detroit homicide, and in this case, a straight-up cold blooded hit man.

           

Part 2: Arrest Warrant.      

 

            Most of the time I get a call to work on a show while I’m walking my dog, I don’t get a lot of calls to work on shows, and I don’t walk my dog that often, but that’s the way the next job started.  New York called to tell me that homicide had finally gotten the name of a person of interest, and my bosses wanted to get this arrest on tape. Just like my first shoot, they had a hell of a show in the can, but where missing this second shooter, and a crisp conclusion to their story.  The beginnings of these sort of assignments always start with a ridiculous request from some story producer, who has obviously never even gotten a speeding ticket, let alone seen how the police in a cash strapped city like Detroit operate. After telling me what the story is, I am told what to shoot, “you know, get a shot of the house he is in, bad guy in handcuffs, him being led into a police car, flashing lights, hands on guns, danger, etc.” The actuality of what is about to unfold usually doesn’t dawn on these people but that’s okay, I still get paid to spend the day riding around with cops.

            It had been a few months since the camera crews had wrapped out of Detroit, mainly because almost none of their homicides ever get solved, which makes for a weak TV show. But when the detectives saw me and my camera they were like “HEY, First 48 is back, cool!” Which I had to respond, “No, we are just here to clean up this last little story from last winter, with this double homicide” but it was a warm reception, that made walking into a squad bay full of strangers a bit smoother than I was expecting.        

My contact at homicide was Officer Kelly Knox, a really striking woman who was not really happy to see me or the camera back at the base. I could immediately tell she was one of the guys that would rather not be fussed with, but she put up with me, and I tried to stay out of her way. That’s one of the challenges of this predator thing, trying to remain invisible, yet having to hover over your subject with a silly looking camcorder and a set of headphones that make you look like a dorky borg. After a quick introduction, it was onto the awkward job of placing my tiny lavalier microphone on my subject. When doing this I often think “hi, you don’t even know me, but please let me touch the clothing near your breasts, whilst I clip this stupid mic on you” its always a weird way to break the ice. Once that was out of the way, we jumped in her little beige Sebring and we were off to the courthouse.

 We were on the way to get the arrest warrant signed, that is when I learned that this was her case, and she was seriously surprised to finally get a break after nearly a year of silence on the streets.  Even the first shooter they caught, some shit named Lakari Berry, wouldn’t rat on his fellow henchman, even though he was the one sentenced to life for their double murder. The “no-snitch” thing that you hear about on TV, well that’s the real deal on the streets.  While we were driving to the court I got to ask Kelly a lot of questions about the case, technically it was an interview, since I was recording it on tape, but I was really just asking her questions that I was really interested in, I was killing birds with stones.   I asked if she really thinks this

What’s really fascinating is how much a suspects name really does matter to an investigation.  The good guys can have a detailed description, even a photo of the bad guy, but without his name, they simply can’t make any progress on a case.  That’s why this case went cold for as many months as it had, no one was talking, proof this other shooter must be a serious threat. Karsia Rice was one of the victims of the shooting, miraculously survived her gunshots to the head, and she could see who did it.  The catch was, she simply did not know who the hell it was that broke into her apartment and killed her two best friends.  These killings weren’t the messy result of a botched robbery, and there was no sexual assault, there was definitely something more to these murders, and someone was doing a good job keeping it all quiet.

            Almost a year after the killings, something finally happened, someone must have finally had enough, because Kelly got a call about her case, and somebody gave up a name, and that name was Vincent Smothers.  One simple phone call, and the cards began to fall, all Kelly had to do was pull up some files and like most criminals, Smothers indeed had a record, so that led to a photo of him. The artist’s rendering that Karsia Rice helped create looked almost exactly like this old mugshot and his drivers license photo, it was eerie proof that she really did see who shot her.  The next step was to take this photo along with a few other non-related felon mugs over to the surviving victim and have her pick out the right guy. It was just like in the movies, only the lineup was on paper, not along the wall with the one way glass. Without hesitation Rice picked out her attacker, slam dunk, game over… time to get the arrest warrant signed by the prosecutors office.  Kelly left me in the car as she ran into the Frank J Murphy hall of justice to get the paperwork all finalized.

            It all seemed like it was going quite well up to that point. I got a great set of interview questions answered, it was a nice sunny day, and we were about to go out arrest a certified murderer. It was also nice to hang out with Kelly, she was really interesting and pleasant, not what I was expecting from someone who pokes around murdered cadavers every other day. It was one of those rare moments while I was sitting there in her car listening to the chatter on  her police radio in the glove box, thinking to myself, “I have a neat job.” But as soon as Knox got back in the car, her cell phone rang.  It didn’t take long before I could see from her expression that it was not the good sort of call, but I kept my camera trained on her, as we drove away from the courthouse.

            “Shit” She said, as she hung up the phone, and shook her head in disbelief.

            “What?” I said, conjuring up all of my journalistic expertise that I had acquired up to that point.

            “FAST just hit the fuckin’ house, and he wasn’t there.” She said as we headed back to homicide in what seemed like slow motion,  “They thought they saw him coming out of his house and heading for his car, so they picked him up! But it wasn’t Smothers, It was his brother or someone that looked like him, And I have the damned warrant right here! They didn’t even call me before moving on it!”

            “Shit.” I said, as I unsuccessfully tried to get as small as I could.

F.A.S.T. is the Fugitive Apprehension Task Force, and although the Acronym isn’t really accurate, these guys usually are.  Their job is to hunt down a dude until they have him in custody, they may roll full speed all weekend on a manhunt, and most of the time they get their target, except for today. They had a “eye” on Vincent Smother’s house, someone sitting in an unmarked car a block or so away, just to make sure everything stays kosher until the big kids come with the actual paper. Today someone jumped the gun, and that someone was had just destroyed Kelly’s case, so she was justifiably irate.  Not only did they jump the chain of command by moving on a target before the warrant was signed, but they pretty much lit up the neighborhood, and if this Vincent Smothers guy didn’t know that he was about to get got before today’s fiasco, he certainly did now.  Selfishly I was thinking about my faltering assignment, but I was also feeling pretty sorry for Kelly. It didn’t take a genius to know that this dirt-bag was going to be laying low from here on out, but I asked anyway.

            “Yeah, he is long gone by now” Kelly said with a sort of satisfied conviction. “He’s out of town, and we are down on this one.” And she fell silent as she drove, I was done asking stupid questions for the day.

            By the time we arrived at the Homicide base, things were eerily reminiscent of a bad date.  We both got out of her car, looked at each other and she shrugged. “Well, I don’t think there is much for you to shoot now, right? I have to go in here and basically, you know, see what’s what with FAST and find out how much they actually fucked up. But I mean, for your show, we are sort of done for now, right?”  And she looked at me with these beautiful brown eyes that said, “say yes little man, or I will shoot you right here, in the parking lot of my own police department.”

            “Yeah,” I fully agreed “well, sorry about all that, you have my number, call me if you know, this guy is stupid enough to come back to town, okay?” 

            I headed back home thinking that the guys in New York were really going to be displeased, and I would never work for them again.  They wanted bad guys in cuffs and some sort of a closer, and all I had was one tape full of nothing.  A few weeks went by, and I kept in contact with Kelly via email and a few phone calls, but each correspondence went the same way, the word on the street was that Smothers was holed up, maybe in Kansas City, but would call me if she heard anything. The camera was gathering dust in the front room, and I figured it was only a matter of time before New York would pull the plug, and ask me to send their gear back home. Nearly a month had passed when for some strange reason, Vincent Smothers decided to come out from hiding, and Kelly finally called me back.

 

Part 3: The Kidnap Kit

 

            It was late on a gorgeous summer Saturday afternoon when I got the call from Kelly, I was cleaning my gutters, she was heading toward the homicide base.

            “They got Vincent Smothers, today.” She said matter of factly “on a traffic stop up in Shelby Township believe it or not, they are bringing him down to homicide for questioning right now.”

            “Is it cool if I come down?” I asked as I was throwing the camera, batteries and tapes into the back of my car.

            “Yeah, sure, I’ll see you at the base.” And I was off.

           

            Its one thing to walk into a scenario and think to yourself “shit, this is really something else!” But when everyone else that is in that same place is saying the exact same thing, out loud, then you know that you have stumbled into something strange. That’s what was going on in homicide when I arrived at 11 o’clock on that Saturday night.  There were as many officers as I had ever imagined seeing there, and more where filing into the place behind me, as I set up my camera gear. The place was buzzing with energy, and I had yet to figure out what was going on.

            I could not find Kelly, and for the most part, I had no idea who most of these guys were, but they assumed I was with the show, so they left me alone. I quietly drifted from cubicle to cubicle trying to suss out what the hell was going on, and of course trying to be invisible.

            I stumbled into a room where I saw a few friendly detectives that I knew. They were clustered around a computer monitor, listening to a lousy sounding set of speakers that were transmitting what was happening that very minute in the questioning room. For the very first time I saw the pixilated profile of Vincent Smothers on the computer screen. He was sitting on the left side of the screen with a simple table in front of him, on which was what appeared to be some fast food take out. There was a detective that I could not recognize on the right side of the screen, gently asking him questions that he was answering without hesitation.

            What looked on the computer screen like a couple of associates having a general conversation was anything but that. He had only been in interrogation for about 1 hour, and Smothers was already well into his   5th murder confession.  He was sitting there telling these gentlemen everything he knew about a shocking    

number of killings that he had carried out over the past 2 years! As the detectives around me watched the screen in amazement, I tried to cover the scene with my camera, but was also getting a little caught up in what I was seeing.  They all had pens and pads of paper and were feverishly writing down any street names, dates, and addresses that Smothers was rattling off.  They crowded the screen and someone messed with the speakers to try to get more volume as the voice of Smothers could be heard saying, “so I pulled up behind the car, they had the hood up, and I asked them if they needed any help, there was an old man out by the hood and he told me that they were okay, and he was the first one I shot, I shot him twice, then I shot the other guy who was still in the car, I shot him through the window.”

            Remember how I said Cops have a way of separating themselves from their Jobs? Well apparently so did Smothers, because he was talking about these killings like a line cook talks about patty melts.  He was sitting there swimming in a grey sweater, his elbows up on the table. His hands would flick and gesture in front of his face as he spoke, very quietly and specificatlly. Sometimes he would lean back in his chair, but I never for the life of me imagined that this Is what a confession of this magnitude would look like.

            “Holy shit!  Did he just say that was on 75 and Davison? That double with the older guys on the off ramp, in the car, from Chicago? FUCK! That’s mine!” Shouted a Sgt Mike Russell who obviously just closed an unsolved case the easy way. He looked at me with the exuberance of a junior high kid in video arcade in 1983, as he practically screamed at me “Dude! This is like a movie! This doesn’t really happen man! This guy is a straight up fucking HIT MAN!”

These detectives knew that Smothers was not just some crack-pot who might have logged on to some crime-blog webpage because he was giving up details that no one outside of this room knew: Stuff like how many times a dude was shot, in what part of the body, what room, what caliber, what car… that sort of info had everyone convinced that this guy was actually the trigger man. And he was just sitting there sipping his McDonalds Coke while he was reeling it all out.  There was such an enormous amount of information flowing out of that chair that these detectives had to come up with a plan for processing it. 

I was standing next to an older detective named Ernie Wilson, the kind of cop who’s always smiling, but likes to tell stories about the guys he’s shot… He was grinning from ear to ear as he hit my shoulder, wrecking my nicely composed shot “you want some coffee there camera man, this is going to be a long one!” and I obliged, downed some of the worst burnt tar I have ever swallowed and went back to the computer screen with the others. 

I saw Mo Himenez, a snappy dressing detective from originally from Texas. He was escorting Smother’s shooting victim Karsia Rice past our room. I broke away from what I was covering to follow them.  He recognized me from earlier shoots and gave me a polite yet international sign for “put that fucking camera down, asshole” and I did so immediately. I have no idea why, but I have a lot of respect for Mo, he’s a great storyteller. He filled me in on some more details, “Since we got Smothers we thought it best to bring her in for her own safe keeping. Some one is going to be looking for payback now that he’s is in here, so we’re going to look after her tonight…” So without either of them knowing it, the shooter and the victim were both within about 20 feet of one another, for only a moment, because as soon as Himenez got a few things off of his desk, he wisked her away as quickly as they had come.

            As each moment passed, the sense of bewilderment and intensity seemed to increase, one shoe dropping after another, as yet another closed case would be opened and accounted for.  The audio and the image on the computer monitors were so garbled the words were barely legible, and his voice was purely conversational, it was hard to make out a lot of things that were being said. Information was being passed in and out of the interrogation room by the detectives what were running a tag team on Smothers. There was now quite a cue of Detectives forming to get their time with Smothers, and Kelly Knox was being pushed to the back of the line. Her double homicide was suddenly small potatoes by the time Vincent had gotten to his most recent and notorious shooting.  Smothers said that he was hired by a Detroit Police by the name of Sergeant David Cobb, to kill his wife. Cobb left his wife of 15 years in their car and went into a CVS pharmacy while Smothers approached the vehicle and shot her dead.  This case also went cold, and was just looking like another botched robbery attempt, until tonight.

I overheard a sergeant telling someone that it was about time to “Reach out to S.R.T. now, they gotta be the ones to go bring in Cobb, and lets hope he puts up a fight”  That basically meant that in a few minutes, a bunch of SWAT guys were going to get the dispatch, to go pull a fellow police officer out of his house and arrest him. I hoped none of my pals at SRT were too deep into the sauce right then, seeing as it was a Saturday night, and now “last call” in the rest of the world. I was shocked to find very little sympathy among Sgt. Cobb’s peers that night. The reason they wanted him to “fight” was so they would have an excuse to use lethal force on him. The thin blue line was invisible at this point.

My job of covering the events in the base suddenly got a lot more difficult, because now there was a cop involved.  I was warned that anything having to do with Cobb was off limits, and since half of the detectives were gearing up to go bring him in, my area of coverage was now severally limited.  I was also told, under no circumstances to point the camera at Smothers, since he was on a roll, they didn’t want him getting hinked up by knowing that the press was there. I knew that the camera footage of his confession was being recorded by the DPD, so I didn’t actually need that footage, but I was still hoping for the treasured “bad guy in hand cuffs shot” but that would have to wait for now.

Kelly was getting frustrated by being pushed back, it was now going on 4 am, and she had yet to get in the room with Smothers about her case, and she was really getting tired of me following her around. I don’t know if she was trying to help, or just get me out of her hair, but she passed me off to a the Violent Crimes unit that shared the Homicide base. I was introduced to a big man they called “Mozart” and was told I would be rolling out with them any minute now. 

The Violent Crimes guys were definitely a different version of cop than the officers from Homicide. They were younger, bigger, and eager to go get whatever they were told to find.  Smothers had given up an address on the east side of Detroit, he said he used to stay over there from time to time. We waited for some papers to get signed by the 24 hour judge, and we were off to the Eastern District to brief up. At nearly 5am we met up with a few other cars in the parking lot, guys were pulling on their full raid vests, and loading up long guns. The battering ram and Halligan were assigned to the 2 biggest men who would be in charge of ripping the door off of the residence. Mozart quickly filled everyone in on the scenario, mentioned who we were dealing with and then gave out the address. They circled for a quick prayer and four beat up Crown Vics were loaded up with guns and men and we were off.  I rolled with Mozart and a 2 of his guys and on the way to the target he posed an interesting question to me while I was sticking his mic on.

“This things always transmitting, right?” he asked , “Like, you can hear what I’m saying the whole time I have this on? You need a vest, don’t you? There is one behind this seat, get it on”

“Yeah, well I can hear you, but I’m not always recording, I gotta conserve tape you know.” I responded as I pulled someone elses stinking Kevlar vest over my head.

“Okay, well so say I were to forget this thing is on, and that you are listening to what im saying, you know, like in 3 hours from now, or whatever, you know?”

“oh it happens” I said, realizing that I have pulled this heavy raid vest on backward, and slowly trying to spin it around without looking like too big of an idiot.

He continued, as we quickly wove through some seriously dark streets, “Well say I’m talking to my man over there and I just tell him, you know I think we are alone, right? So I say under my breath, “shit dawg, she just would not shut up last night, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I just shot the bitch, man. She’s dead, no one is gonna find that body” or something to that affect.” he looked back at at me, quite seriously and continued, “Now what would you do with that information?”, I didn’t even know if he was kidding.

“um, let me get back to you on that” I clucked, like the chicken that I was.

“okay you do that,” he then radioed to the other cars in his unit, “target house on left, make um hot, make em hot” and everyone in the car dropped a round into the chamber, while I just looked down to make sure I was recording.

All four vehicles slowly stopped in front of a two story home, everyone jumped out of their vehicles and the unit formed a loose stack that flowed toward the home with the ram and halligan men in the front. I made a move to get near the home but not directly in the front. I was told once by a senior SWAT member that “if a perp is going to shoot it out, he is going to mainly shoot out the front windows of his house, so avoid standing the front yard” something I find very easy to remember during moments like this. I found a good vantage point behind a tree just as they cracked the door open.  I could tell from the sound of the raid, and Mozart’s calm voice, that this was immediately not much of a threat to our guys. There was no one awake and the residents were a couple of very surprised women and two small children.  I’m legally not allowed to step foot on the property with my camera, so I had to spent the next 45 minutes shooting through the windows of the house and listening to Mozart’s audio, as they searched every room, and questioned the adult residents.  Although the women did not deny knowing Smothers, they vehemently denied that he would stash anything in their house. I could see the name “NEMO” spray painted across a few doors inside the house, and there was another tag like that in the back yard, I for one was curious about who this Nemo guy was.

They found a door upstairs, with a huge padlock across the latch. The ram and halligan were quickly called up from the first floor and the door was eagerly smashed open. “Get on the ground! GET ON THE FUCKING GROUND NOW!” then some silence, some rustling, and then laugher. Inside the search party found nothing but candy bars and soda, they didn’t know what to make of it, so they had to ask the women residents.

“I keep telling you there is nothing here officer! That’s just the room we hide the food from the kids in!” After about an hour of searching what looked to be a dry hole someone finally found a duffle bag of interest, only it wasn’t under lock and key, it was simply under one of the children’s beds. “oh my god! Oh my god”, was all the women could say, when they were shown what the police had found.

The sun was just rising as one of the guys walked out of the house with the big black bag, and tossed it in the trunk of Mozart’s car.  Inside the bag was a set of nice handcuffs, a tattered old bullet proof vest, two .40 cal semi automatic pistols, a length of rope, and an awful lot of bullets.  As the cop who was giving my camera the tour of the bag, I noticed that there were strands of human hair twisted in the rope. “I have never seen anything like this man, this is a full on kidnap kit, bro…. Fuck! Look at that Glock”  He was referring to the condition of one of the pistols, because both weapons and their holsters were very well taken care of, these were the coveted tools of a real craftsman.

Neither women were arrested, although Mozart made it quite clear to them that hiding loaded guns under a 5 year old’s bed is not the greatest child rearing technique.  We were just about ready to head out, when he heard over his radio that SRT had gotten Sgt Cobb into custody, he surrendered without a fight.  I needed to get a wrap-up soundbite from Mozart before we left the scene, and the morning light was perfect. I approached him with my camera

“So can you tell me what you found in there” as I raised my camera.

He smiled at me and laughed “have you thought about my question? You still haven’t told me what you would do, if you caught me saying that?” There was an awkward amount of silence between the two of us, and then he gave me a nice summary of events, and then he drove me back to homicide.  The bag was taken over to evidence, where I got to shoot all of the items being processed by an evidence tech.

Kelly was finally in the room with Smothers when I walked in the squad bay.  This was the 7th homicide he was confessing to, and he still had the same calm expression on his face.  Their conversation really looked as if it were a couple at Dennys, talking about lousy car insurance over a Sunday breakfast, Knox was smiling and patient, and Smothers seemed almost bashful.  She wrapped up her time with him by getting a statement in his own words, it seemed to take an eternity, but it was a written confession, well worth the wait.  When it was all over I heard her ask him “who do people tell you that you look like?” 

He smiled at her and said “I get Tayshaun Prince a lot, that forward for The Detroit Pistons?”

“No, I was thinking DeBarge, you know, the singer, El Debarge? You never get that?” she smiled, and then walked out of interrogation. She was right, he is a dead ringer.

            I met Kelly near her desk as she was shutting down her computer, and packing up her things for the day. She filed away that old artist’s rendering of Smothers, that was ancient history now. We were both exhausted, everyone was, it was almost noon, and the place was thinning out. As we headed to our cars I asked her a few more questions for the camera, and I let her go home, then I called my boss in New York to fill them in. They said they could not wait to see the footage, and I could not wait to see my bed, I had now been on my feet for about 28 hours.

            A few months later I got my DVD of the show.  Hardly anything that I shot was used, and I wasn’t surprised or upset because it was all such a tangent to the original case.  The story of Vincent Smothers though, has twisted grown and has threatened to get so large to ensnare the former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick.  The court proceedings that eventually led to his infamous perjury case could in fact one day be led back to Smothers, and the murder of a stripper named “Strawberry” who was assaulted by the Mayors own wife. 

Sgt David Cobb was released, almost as soon as he was arrested, because the prosecution needed more than just Smothers’ testimony to keep him locked up. 10 months later Cobb was found hanged in a suburban park north of Detroit, an apparent suicide. Smothers defense attorneys were hoping that his confessions could be thrown out, they claimed he was coerced into confessing.  I was ready to call Kelly Knox back, to see if she needed my testimony to prove that on that night, that murdering asshole was anything but coerced, but I never did get that supoena I was hoping for.

As for Smothers, he’s bound for celebrity.  Even though the network only used 20 seconds of what I shot that night, I’m quite sure that’s not the last chunk of prime time that his story is going to receive.  But then again television producers always want a good story, one that has an end, and with this case, the end remains a mystery. While we are just beginning to learn about this father of one, an east side kid who’s sister was gunned down at 15, there is mountains more that we don’t know.  We still don’t know who hired him to carry out most of the killings, or who dropped him off at each location, and then returned to pick him up after the shots were fired.  The current state of the Detroit Police Department, with is third Chief inside of one year is in the throws of total upheaval and decay, perhaps assuring that the rest of the questions about Vincent Smothers will remain unasked.