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Authors: Michael Connelly

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BOOK: The Scarecrow
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We walked single file down a hall that had been narrowed because of a row of file cabinets pushed against the right wall and extending its entire length. I was sure it was a fire code violation. This was the kind of detail I would normally put in my back pocket for a rainy day.
Public Defenders Work in Fire Trap
. But I was no longer worried about headlines or coming up with stories for the slow days. I had one last story to write and that was it.

“In here,” Meyer said.

I followed him into a communal office, a twenty-by-twelve room with desks in every corner and sound partitions between them.

“Home sweet home,” he said. “Pull over one of those chairs.”

There was another lawyer, sitting at the desk catty-corner to Meyer’s. I pulled the chair over from the empty desk next to his and we sat down.

“Alonzo Winslow,” Meyer said. “His grandmother is an interesting lady, isn’t she?”

“Especially in her own environment.”

“Did she tell you how proud she was to have a Jew lawyer?”

“Yeah, actually she did.”

“Turns out I’m Irish, but I didn’t want to spoil it for her. What are you looking to do for Alonzo?”

I pulled a microrecorder out of my pocket and turned it on. It was about the size of a disposable cigarette lighter. I reached over and placed it on his desk between us.

“You mind if I record this?”

“Not at all. I would like there to be a record myself.”

“Well, like I told you on the phone, Zo’s grandmother is pretty convinced the cops picked up the wrong guy. I said I would look into it because I wrote the story in which the cops said he did it. Mrs. Sessums, who is Zo’s legal guardian, has given me full access to him and his case.”

“She might be his legal guardian, and I would have to check on that, but her granting you full access means nothing in legal terms and therefore means nothing to me. You understand that, right?”

This was not what he had said on the phone when I’d had Wanda Sessums speak to him. I was about to call him on that and his promise of cooperation when I saw him throw a quick glance over his shoulder and realized he might be talking for the benefit of the other lawyer in the room.

“Sure,” I said instead. “And I know you have rules in regard to what you can tell me.”

“As long as we understand that, I can try to work with you. I can answer your questions to a point but I am not at liberty at this stage of the case to turn over any of the discovery to you.”

As he said this he swiveled in his seat to check that the other lawyer’s back was still to us and then quickly handed me a flash drive, a data-storage stick with a USB-port connection.

“You will have to get that sort of stuff from the prosecutor or the police,” he said.

“Who is the prosecutor assigned to the case?”

“Well, it has been Rosa Fernandez but she handles juvenile cases. They’re saying they want to try this kid as an adult, so that will probably mean a change in prosecutors.”

“Are you objecting to them moving this out of juvenile court?”

“Of course. My client is sixteen and hasn’t been going to school with any kind of regularity since he was ten or twelve. Not only is he not an adult by any legal standards but his mental capacity and acuity is not even that of a sixteen-year-old.”

“But the police said this crime had a degree of sophistication and a sexual component. The victim had been raped and sodomized with foreign objects. Tortured.”

“You are assuming my client committed the crime.”

“The police said he confessed.”

Meyer pointed to the flash drive in my hand.

“Exactly,” he said. “The
police
said he confessed. I have two things to say about that. My experience is that if you put a sixteen-year-old kid in a closet for nine hours, don’t feed or hydrate him properly, lie to him about evidence that does not exist and refuse to let him talk to anybody—no grandmother, no lawyer, nobody—well, then, eventually he’s going to give you what you want if he thinks it will finally get him out of the closet. And secondly, it’s a question of what exactly he confessed to that concerns me. The police point of view is definitely different from mine on that.”

I stared at him a moment. The conversation was intriguing but too cryptic. I needed to get Meyer to a place where he could speak freely.

“Do you want to go get a cup of coffee?”

“No, I don’t have time. And as I said, I can’t get into specifics of the case. We have our rules here and we are dealing with a juvenile—despite the state’s efforts to the contrary. And, ironically, the same District Attorney’s Office that wants to prosecute this child as an adult will happily come down on me and on my boss if I give you any case documents relating to a juvenile. This is not in adult court yet, so rules of privacy designed to protect the juvenile are still in place. But I’m sure you have sources in the police department who can give you what you need.”

“I do.”

“Good. Then, if you want a statement from me, I would say that I believe that my client—and, by the way, I am not at liberty to identify him by name—is almost as much a victim here as Denise Babbit. It is true that she is the ultimate victim because she lost her life in a horrible manner. But my client’s freedom has been taken from him and he is not guilty of this crime. I will be able to prove that once we get into court. Whether that will be in adult or juvenile court doesn’t really matter. I will vigorously defend my client because he is not guilty of this crime.”

It had been a carefully worded statement and nothing short of what I expected. But, still, it gave me pause. Meyer was crossing a line in giving me the flash drive and I had to ask myself why. I didn’t know Meyer. I had never written a story involving him and there was none of the trust that builds between reporter and source as stories are written and published. So if Meyer wasn’t crossing the line for me, who was he doing it for? Alonzo Winslow? Could this public defender with the briefcase bursting with his guilty clients’ files actually believe his own statement? Did he really think Alonzo was a victim here, that he was actually innocent?

It dawned on me that I was wasting time. I had to get back to the office and see what was on the stick. From the digital information I held hidden in my hand I would find my direction.

I reached over and turned my digital recorder off.

“Thanks for your help.”

I said it sarcastically for the benefit of the other lawyer in the room. I nodded and winked at Meyer, then I left.

 

A
s soon as I got to the newsroom I went to my cubicle without checking in at the raft or with Angela Cook. I plugged the data stick into the slot on my laptop computer and opened its contents. There were three files on it. They were labeled summary.doc, arrest.doc and confess.doc. The third file was largest by far. I briefly opened it to find that the transcript of Alonzo Winslow’s confession was 928 pages long. I closed it, saving it for last, and suspected that because it was labeled confess instead of, say, interrogation, it was a file that had been transmitted to Meyer from the prosecutor. It was a digital world and it was not surprising to me that the transcript from nine hours of questioning a murder suspect would be transmitted from police to prosecutor and from prosecutor to defense in electronic format. With a page count of 928 the costs of printing and reprinting such a document would be high, especially considering it was the product of just one case in a system that carries thousands of cases on any given day. If Meyer wanted to print it out on the public defender’s budget, then that was up to him.

After loading the files onto my computer, I e-mailed them to the in-house copy center so that I would have hard copies of everything. Just as I prefer a newspaper you can hold in your hand to a digital version, I like hard copies of the materials I base my stories on.

I decided to take the documents in order even though I was familiar with the charges and the arrest of Alonzo Winslow. The first two documents would set the stage for the confession that followed. The confession would then set the stage for my story.

I opened the summary report on my screen. I assumed this would be a minimalist account of the movements of the investigation leading to the arrest of Winslow. The author of the document was my pal Gilbert Walker, who had so kindly hung up on me the day before. I was not expecting much. The summary was four pages long and had been typed on specific forms and then scanned into a computer to create the digital document I now had. Walker knew as he typed it that his document would be studied for weaknesses and procedural mistakes by lawyers on both sides of the case. The best defense against that was to make the target smaller—to put as little into the report as possible—and from the looks of it Walker had succeeded.

The surprise in the file, however, was not the short summary but the complete autopsy and crime scene reports as well as a set of crime scene photographs. These would be hugely helpful to me when I wrote the description of the crime in my story.

Every reporter has at least a splice of the voyeur gene. Before going to the words I went to the photos. There were forty-eight color photographs taken at the crime scene that depicted the body of Denise Babbit as it had been found in the trunk of her 1999 Mazda Millenia and as it was removed, examined on scene and then finally bagged before being taken away. There were also photographs that showed the interior of the car and the trunk after the removal of the body.

One photo showed her face behind a clear plastic bag pulled over her head and tied tightly around her neck with what looked like common clothesline. Denise Babbit had died with her eyes open in a look of fear. I had seen a fair number of dead people in my time, both in person and in photographs like these. I never got used to the eyes. I had known a homicide detective—my brother, in fact—who told me not to spend too much time with the eyes because they stayed with you long after you turned yours away.

Denise had that kind of eyes. The kind that made you think about her last moments, about what she saw and thought and felt.

I went back to the investigative summary and read it through, highlighting the paragraphs with information I thought was important and useful and moving them onto a new document I had created. I called this file
POLICESTORY.DOC
and I took each paragraph I had moved from the official report and rewrote it. The language of the police report was stilted and overloaded with abbreviations and acronyms. I wanted to make the story my own.

When I was finished I reviewed my work, looking to make sure it was accurate but still had narrative momentum. I knew that when I finally wrote the story for publication, many of these paragraphs and nuggets of information would be included. If I made a mistake at this early stage it could very well be carried wrong into publication.

Denise Babbit was found in the trunk of her 1999 Mazda Millenia at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, April 25, 2009, by SMPD patrol officers Richard Cleady and Roberto Jiminez. Detectives Gilbert Walker and William Grady responded as lead investigators of the crime.
The patrol officers had been called by Santa Monica parking enforcement, who found the car in the public beach lot next to the Casa Del Mar hotel. While access to the lot is open overnight, it becomes a pay lot from 9 to 5 every day and any cars still remaining are ticketed if a parking pass is not purchased and displayed on the dashboard. When parking enforcement officer Willy Cortez approached the Mazda to check for a pass he found the car’s windows open and the key in the ignition. A woman’s purse was in plain view on the passenger seat and its contents were dumped beside it. Sensing that something wasn’t right, he called the SMPD and officers Cleady and Jiminez arrived. In the course of checking the license plate in order to determine ownership of the car they noticed that the trunk had been closed on what appeared to be part of a woman’s silk-patterned dress. They reached into the car and popped the trunk.
The body of a woman later identified as Denise Babbit, owner of the car, was in the trunk. She was naked and her clothing—undergarments, dress and shoes—were found on top of the body.
Denise Babbit was 23 years old. She worked as a dancer at a Hollywood strip bar called
Club Snake Pit
. She lived in an apartment on Orchid Street in Hollywood. She had an arrest record for possession of heroin dating back to a year before. The case was still pending, the conclusion delayed because of a pretrial intervention program that placed her in an outpatient drug treatment program. She had been arrested during an LAPD sting operation in Rodia Gardens in which suspects were observed by undercover police making drug buys and then stopped after leaving the drive-through drug market.
Hair and fiber evidence collected from inside the car included multiple exemplars of canine hair from an unknown but short-haired dog breed. Denise Babbit did not own a dog.
The victim had been asphyxiated with a length of commonly purchased clothesline used to tie the plastic bag around her neck. There were also ligature marks on her wrists and legs from when she had been bound during her abduction. Autopsy would show that she had been repeatedly raped with a foreign object. Minute splinters found in the vagina and anus indicated this object was possibly a wooden broom or tool handle. No semen or hair evidence was collected from the body. Time of death was set at 12 to 18 hours before the discovery of the body.
The victim had worked her normally scheduled night shift at the Snake Pit, leaving work at 2:15 a.m. on Friday, April 24. Her roommate, Lori Rodgers, 27, a fellow dancer at the Snake Pit, told police that Babbit did not come home after work and never returned to the Orchid Street apartment during the day on Friday. She did not show up for her shift at the Snake Pit that evening and her car and body were found the following morning.
It was estimated that during the previous evening the victim made in excess of $300 in tips while dancing at the Snake Pit. No cash was found in her purse, which had been dumped out in her car.
BOOK: The Scarecrow
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