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Not As It First Appeared

Not As It First Appeared Posted on May 19, 2021

The call out came by email.  That was typical.  I would get an email from a detective trying to get more evidence and needing video found that would possibly show the crime as it happened or at least something related to it.  In this case, the crime had happened outside a local diner. It was a sex assault and apparently the three men who’d done it seemed not to like women very much.  Maybe they were weak, maybe they were unsure of who they were when it came to women, or maybe they were just junkyard dogs.  Mean and dark inside, deciding that night to take it out on someone…anyone…as long as it was a woman.

I hopped in the Tahoe and headed over to the diner.  When I got there, it was fairly empty, a few people were in booths here and there having lunch or a late breakfast or just feeling like some pancakes.  But not much was happening and as I walked up to the lectern where the hostess stood, a man came out of the back area and introduced himself.

“I’m James Peterson, the manager here.  Can I help you?” the man walking toward me says.

     “I’m Craig Janson from the Logan Police Department, I’m here to pull some video of an incident that happened here a few nights ago.”  A variation on this is what I use with only slight modifications depending on what I am at a location to get and even sometimes who I am talking to.  I always want to be clear and concise.   All business.  But I could tell he knew who I was before I even said anything.  It usually happens that way.

I don’t carry a gun; I am not a sworn officer which means all I have to defend myself is a pen and a laptop bag.  The radio is kind of heavy so I guess I could use that.  I usually don’t feel threatened when I go on call outs and when there is a particularly nasty place, or at least one with a reputation of hostility toward law enforcement, I always call for “back”.  Backup. Always. I like what I do but I’m not being paid enough to put myself in dangerous situations (at least mostly.)  Not even close.

What I wear and drive usually tips people off.  If the truck with its tinted windows and pill bottle antenna on the roof doesn’t look po-po enough, my cargo pants and nylon jacket give it away.  The jacket is cropped at the waist with zippers up the side to make room at my belt if I did carry a gun.  There are epaulets and if they aren’t enough, they are festooned with shiny gold buttons as are the pockets on the front.  Topping it off is the radio on my hip (I use the zipper on the side of my jacket for that) which squawks from time to time with conversations between dispatch and real police officers.  A dead giveaway.  In the summer, it’s easier.  On my polo shirt is Logan PD Crime Lab embroidered over the left side of my chest.  That would do it.

Most times, I call dispatch and let them know who I am, where I am, and what I’m doing there.  That’s kind of a thing with radio work.   Who you are, where you are, and what you want to do.  Aviation, fire, police; It’s standard procedure.  Some of the people in the lab follow that procedure, some don’t.  I like calling in.  I like talking on the police radio.

     “Two victor ten,” I say.

     “Two victor ten,” dispatch returns acknowledging my call.

     “Two victor ten at 4553 South Shortline Place, Max’s Diner, for video acquisition.”

     “Thirteen twenty-eight.”  To acknowledge a call, dispatch finishes with the current time.  I sometimes imagine someone going through the dispatch recordings, looking for a specific time when an incident happened.   That acknowledgement of the time from dispatch is a really simple way to create a timeline on all radio conversations.  I just hoped they would never have to play through some audio recording I’m on, looking for the time I’d last been heard from and where I might have been before I disappeared.

No one is ever obligated to allow me to acquire video from their system, but it is easier to ask them for the favor than to have to go through the process necessary to get a warrant. I get it and never get bothered if they refuse. The Fourth Amendment is an important one.  It’s just easier when there’s less friction to getting something done.  And people are generally willing to help, want to help even, because they are involved in something outside the normal day to day routine.  Like on a cop show…but real.

The manager of the diner takes me to the back office where the DVR system is.   Then he turns and says, “we’ve been having issues with this thing lately and I have a call in to my IT folks so I’m not sure if it’s working.”

I can already see it isn’t.   The cameras are showing video but there is no indication in the timeline on the screen that there is any history being maintained.   It appears that a signal is present from each camera, I can see the patrons I’d seen when I came in, but the part of the system that records to hard disk didn’t appear to be working.  Only real-time video meant getting anything from a few nights ago was a bust.

This would have been the best option because apparently the victim had been in this diner and so had the three men who had assaulted her.   So there went the best evidence.  The next option would be to find a place in the surrounding area that might have something.  I had seen a camera mounted on a wall at an office building next door to the diner on my way in; I thought perhaps there was something there. 

I thank the manager of the diner and walk out, heading over to the office building next door, into the lobby, and over to the security desk.

I give them my standard line and they take me to their video system.  Reviewing the video at the reported time of the incident, I can see the victim go into the diner, I can see a large crew cab pickup come into the parking lot, and I can see three men get out and head into the diner as well.   I also see them come out.  I pull the video from the camera I’d seen and two other cameras around the side of the building. 

My field work completed, I return to the lab to review the video and determine if I can make heads or tails of it.  It’s important to understand what the video is depicting and to determine if the white pickup truck I see and the three men who get out are, indeed, the suspects in the case.   The pickup passes pretty close to the two cameras along the side of the office building.  My hope is that I can get a license plate.

During the acquisition, I am left with a series of video files that, when put together, show what the cameras saw that night.  But I can’t really understand what is going on.  I’m watching the video and it seems like the pickup leaves and that’s the end of it, no contact with the victim.   Then I realize that the video from the cameras is all interlaced together and there are parts of each camera sprinkled throughout the video files I’m reviewing.  I break apart related video clips, then put each video together for each of the three cameras.  As the truck passes out of view in one camera, I splice the video from the next camera it passes, creating a sequence of events that show the movement of the truck and the people involved.  In a more formal aspect, this process is called a demonstrative but I’m not going so far as to add titling, overlays, and context clues that augment the video itself.  I just want to find out if I can see cohesive movement from when the people and the truck arrive, and then go from point A to point B, without them jumping from one to the other and causing confusion about what is really going on.

With the video properly sequenced, the story becomes clear.  They do make contact with the victim.  She gets into the truck.   Then the truck drives around the side of the office building and into a business’ parking lot next door.  The truck drives far across the parking lot next to another building, in a less lit area.  It turns off its lights.  I can’t see it anymore because it’s three AM and the camera doesn’t “see” that far.  I fast forward, watching for the truck’s lights to go on again.   They stay dark…for a while.  Based on the time stamp on the video, I determine the truck is parked in that spot for nearly an hour.

The lights come on and it pulls away, heading back toward the office building where the camera is mounted.   I can see the front and back plates on the truck as it passes one camera pointing west and then the other camera pointing east.   But the running lights of the truck that illuminate the plate are blowing out the video and there’s no detail; just a white blob where the license place should be.  I can’t get a plate.  This happens more than I would like and it always bothers me. 

They come back around to the front of the office building to the shared parking lot with the diner.  They pull next to the victim’s car and someone gets out of the driver’s side door which is on the other side of the truck from the camera. 

Another person gets out and walks around the front of the truck.  Something is happening but I can’t see it.  If only they hadn’t pulled up so far that the victim’s car is obscured.  They linger.  It takes longer than it would if they were just dropping her off.  Not too long.  But longer.  I can’t really understand what I’m looking at.  And then the men get into the truck and it drives off.   The victim’s car starts and she drives off.   And that’s it.  No crime can be seen.  But a crime was committed.  And my frustration lingers.

Maybe she went with them willingly at first and things went sideways in the parking lot after they parked, maybe she was threatened so went with them, or there was a lie told that convinced her she should go with them.  I will never know.

In nursing they say there’s always one thing that gets to someone. It’s different for everyone.  Maybe it’s blood, maybe loose skin, maybe some other fluid or thing that just strikes them and give them the heebie jeebies.  No one knows what it will be but they most always run up against it if they’re in the job long enough.  A guy in the lab hates adipose tissue and so doesn’t really care for the call outs to an autopsy.  Another gets freaked out when the coroner has to draw the aqueous fluid from an eye.  And yet another can’t stand seeing wounds or stitches on people who are still alive and OK. Dead people are fine, but you better not show her the stitches you got after taking a hockey stick to the face.  I’ve found in talking to various people that it seems there’s always something.

For me, it’s assaults on women (that’s one of them anyway.)  It does not matter who the woman is, what she looks like, her background, or anything else.  I immediately get emotionally invested and am easily frustrated when I can’t do more.  It takes effort to remain at a remove and do my job without bias or preconceived notions.  I play a very small part in anything I do on a case, and that doesn’t help.  There are always those short Charles Bronson or John Wick daydreams of finding the people who perpetrate such crimes and meting out some vigilante justice;  Making sure they know that I know what they did and the next few minutes will be the cashing of the check they wrote.  Of course, that would never happen for a variety of reasons, but sometimes just imagining these horrible people getting what they truly deserve, in the most appropriate way possible, is enough to help me move on to the next case.  It brings a conclusion to something I will never get closure on…if even just in my head.

Photo by Raluca Seceleanu