Keys

Chapter 19

Things really started to move fast as the afternoon began. Baker and Haseejian called in from Mrs. Vandonigan’s to report that she had ‘sort of’ recognized one of the black teenagers from an Oakland High yearbook photo, one Jermaine Johnson, known as “J-Boy”. Healey and Trafford, in the Oakland High office with the principal and his staff, then reported back that the vice principal had identified a second black youth that “J-Boy” palled around with: Robert Sampson, or “B-Bob”.

Within a half hour, a patrol unit brought “B-Bob” in, and Steve was on his way with Stewart to the viewing area outside an OPD interrogation room. Oakland homicide sergeants Dan Romero and Gil Rountree were sitting on one side of a steel grey metal table; a skinny, Afro-haired, terrified “B-Bob” on the other.

While the Oakland detectives began their interrogation, Stewart introduced Steve to OPD gang expert Sergeant Jerry Coleman. Coleman explained that though there was no one big gang in Oakland after the demise of the notorious Ward Brothers, a lot of smaller factions had been warring over the prostitution and ever-increasingly profitable drug trades.

“We do have a couple of gangs that are more violent that we’d like, into turf wars and that kinda thing, but no one’s heard of any group that would go so far as to use cop-killing as an initiation. That’s is, we’re hoping so.

“Look,” he continued, looking to Stewart, “Alex and I are meeting up with one of our gang CI’s in about half an hour, ask him what’s the word on the street. This guy is pretty far in with one of the more violent gangs, so if there’s word out there, he’ll know about it. If we get anything from him, we should have it in about an hour and we can run with that and anything we get from this little shit.” He crooked a thumb towards the two-way mirror.

Stewart turned to Steve. “You wanna stay here or you wanna go with Jerry? Your choice.”

Steve glanced through the two-way, then back at Stewart. “I’ll get Jack in here to watch the interrogation and I’ll go with you and your partner, Sergeant, if that’s okay?”

“Of course. Let’s go.”

# # # # #

The four men were crowded around a small table in the back of a dark, airless, smoke-filled bar, the three cops drinking bad coffee, the other man a Budweiser. Hasty introductions had been made and they had gotten right down to business.

“Hey, man,” said Drew “Beenie” Benedict, “that was rough what went on over there in ‘Frisco. Even our bad selves thought that was way over the top.” He looked at Steve. “You, like, close to those guys that got popped?”

Steve nodded. “I knew all three that died, and my partner was shot.”

“Wow, sorry man. Really.”

“So, Beenie,” Coleman interjected, hoping to move this along, “what’s the word, man?”

“Okay, I’ll tell you what I know. It ain’t much, but it might help. An’ right off, I’m telling ya, I don’ know no names or nothin’ like that, but I have some information might help with one of your ‘in-ter-ro-gations’,” he said with deliberate sarcasm.

“Yeah, what’s that?” asked Sergeant Alex Cawthorne.

“You guys know ‘Papa’ Jones?”

Both Coleman and Cawthorne nodded, Coleman cutting a quick glance to Steve that told the San Francisco cop that he would be filled in on the details later.

“The day after all that shit went down in ‘Frisco, I was having a beer and a lid with ol’ Papa and he said he thought he might know who did it, but he wasn’t gonna do nothin’ about it. ‘Let them cops figure it out themselves if they’re so smart,’ he says to me. Which is one a the reasons I didn’t come to you with this earlier,” Beenie added quickly, noting the angry glare in the eyes of the three cops opposite him.

“What, you don’ remember?” he asked accusingly. “I tol’ the ‘po-leece’ about that jerk-off that beat an’ raped that ol’ woman, and ‘somehow’ someone found out about it and I got the shit beat outa me? Remember?”

Cawthorne nodded almost sheepishly and Coleman just grunted.

“But he told you, right? Papa told you?” Coleman prompted.

Beenie sat back, grinning. “Sure he tol’ me,” he said slowly, enjoying the power, however fleeting it would be. Then he laughed and leaned over the table again, conspiratorially.

“It turns out a couple a weeks back, about, oh, eight, ten days before the ‘Frisco shootin’, these three punks come walkin’ into J.C.’s place and walk right up to him at that back-room table he has – you know the one?” There were more nods. “And these little jack-shits have the cajones to demand he let ‘em ‘join his gang’, as they put it. J.C. don’t have time for no wet-behind-the-ears babies, so he decided to have some fun with ‘em.

“He gets all serious and all that, and in front of some of his lieutenants, who’re trying so hard not to laugh they’re peeing their pants, he says to ‘em, ‘Well now, the only way you can get into my gang is, you gotta shoot yourself a cop.’”

All three detectives started slightly, shifting uneasily in their seats. Beenie’s grin wavered. “He was joking, man, he weren’t serious. He thought if he said that, those pussies would get out of there and leave him alone… But, an’ J.C. tol’ Papa that this is what really scared him, two of the punks actually looked sick and backed off, but the first one, the one that did all the talkin’, he just got this look in his eye, like he liked the sound of that. J.C. said he got all quiet like, and smiled and nodded, and then he just walked away and didn’t say another word.”

Beenie took a second for his words to sink in. “Papa told me that the day after the shootin’, J.C. comes to him all scared like, saying he thought he knew who did it and why and it wasn’t his fault, he was jokin’, that punk wasn’t supposed to take him serious. J.C. knew he could be charged with conspiracy ‘cause it was cops that was killed. He was scared.”

Coleman and Cawthorne exchanged a look then Cawthorne turned his attention back to Beenie. “If it is these kids that did it, did they ever come back to J.C., demanding to be allowed into the gang because they did what he told them to?”

Beenie shook his head, laughing slightly. “No, sir, J.C.’s been in hiding since he talked to Papa. No one knows where he is. Some people think he’s left town. He don’ wanna run into that psycho, an’ go to prison as a cop killer. He figures he wouldn’t even make it to trial, and he’s probably right.”

Coleman took a deep breath. “Well, this is all very interesting, Beenie, but, did J.C. or Papa happen to tell you, or anybody, what these kids names are or what they looked like?”

Beenie looked around the room then leaned even further across the table. “Ain’ got no names like I said before, but I can tell you this – two of ‘em they go to Oakland High, and that first one, that psycho – he’s a rich white boy.”

Beenie leaned back with a wide satisfied smile and sipped his beer.

# # # # #

Steve and Cawthorne sat in the car, waiting on Coleman, who was on a payphone relaying all this new information into Stewart. Cawthorne had been bringing the inspector up to speed on the Oakland gang hierarchy.

Steve found himself glancing from his watch to an empty payphone next to the one Coleman was using. Interrupting Cawthorne and excusing himself, he got out of the car and approached the phone, fishing a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket.

Cawthorne watched as Steve fed in some coins, dialed a number and waited for the call to connect. Less then two minutes later, the San Francisco cop slammed the receiver down angrily and stood there for several seconds, as if trying to get himself under control.

While Coleman continued to report, Steve returned to the unmarked sedan and into the back seat, closing the door a lot harder than was necessary. Cawthorne gave him a couple of seconds, looking at him in the rearview mirror, then asked cautiously, “Everything okay?”

Steve almost seemed startled that there was someone else in the car. “Ah, yeah, ah, sorry, personal matter.” He cleared his throat.

Cawthorne nodded, letting the subject drop.

# # # # #

When the trio walking into the Oakland homicide office, things were already well in hand. Captain Stewart brought them up to speed. “B-Bob” Sampson had collapsed like a house of cards when Rountree and Romero had told that they “knew” about he and J-Boy being involved in the cop killing in San Francisco. Even though he was 17, he turned out to be a scared little kid in way over his head.

He had ‘confessed’ to being with J-Boy when the shooting went down, and at first said it was just the two of them, and that J-Boy was the only one that fired the shots. But when confronted with the ballistics reports that four guns had been used, and therefore two shooters, he quickly back-pedaled and confirmed that there was another member of their little gang, although he refused to reveal a name.

While the grilling of Sampson continued, “J-Boy” Johnson had been apprehended and dragged in, and was now in another interrogation room facing the wrath of two more Oakland detectives and SFPD’s Lieutenant Yu. While Johnson studied them with a smug, menacing silence, the detectives laid out the information they had gleaned so far, most of it from Sampson; when the possibility of the death penalty, for cop killing, came up, Johnson’s demeanour began to shift, and they pounced on the crack in the teenager’s contemptuous veneer.

Suddenly the information began to come fast and furious. Sampson told Rountree and Romero that J-Boy had been one of the shooters and that he himself had been the lookout and held the stairwell door open so they could make a fast exit after it was over. As a trio, playing around with a basketball, they had walked down the street as casually as they could muster, then had split up when they got several streets away.

Sampson and Johnson had stayed together, made their way down to the Embarcadero near Coit Tower and, when no one was looking, tossed both guns that Johnson had used into the Bay. Almost before the words were out of his mouth, Healey was on the phone to SFPD HQ, and divers were being alerted to start the search.

During all this activity, and remembering his quick exchange with Elliott, Haseejian, who was back in the office, had kept a close eye on his Homicide colleague. Steve was at the centre of the fray, working closely with Stewart in coordinating the OPD’s and SFPD’s efforts in keeping track of and following up on all the rapidly incoming information.

Though sharp and on-the-ball, Steve still seemed, to the Armenian detective who knew him so well, slightly preoccupied. Haseejian was pretty sure he knew why, and when he noticed a slight lull in the intensity in the room, he sidled up to his confederate, who was bent over a table reading a report, and asked quietly, “Hey, kiddo, is everything okay?”

Startled, Steve looked up. “What? What do you mean?”

“Well, you just look, I don’t know, a little distracted. Look,” he continued quickly, holding up his hands, “I don’t want to pry, but if you need to talk to someone… Is it Mike?” he asked quietly.

Steve straightened up quickly, almost angrily. But looking deeply into his friend’s sympathetic eyes, he deflated. “Norm, you can’t say anything to anybody, okay?” he said sotto voce. Haseejian nodded. Steve glanced around the room to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “Mike’s back in the hospital.”

“Why? What happened?”

“He’s got pneumonia. They put him in as a precaution.”

“A precaution? Okay, that makes sense,” Haseejian mulled this over. “Do you think it’s because of…?”

“The other day? Coming over here? Yeah, I’m pretty sure of that.”

“So, if he’s in the hospital, where he should be, of course, why are you so worried?”

Steve glanced around again. “It’s been almost 24 hours since I saw him, and I haven’t heard from his doctor. I left word where to find me, but so far, nothing. I –“

“Well, no news is good news, right?” Haseejian interrupted, trying to sound optimistic.

Steve‘s quick nod was conceding, but his voice was laced with worry as he continued. “But this is Mike, remember? I have this really bad feeling that he told the doctor not to get in touch with me until all of this,” he gestured vaguely around the room, “is over, one way or the other.”

“Well, have you tried calling the hospital?”

Steve nodded. “Yeah, I did, just after we met with the CI. A payphone on the street.” Haseejian could see the young inspector’s anger quotient begin to rise. “They told me they couldn’t give out any patient information over the phone, but especially not to anyone who was not an immediate family member.” He sounded bitter and sad.

Haseejian clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Well, I wouldn’t worry right now; he’s probably doing just fine. I’m sure the doctor would find a way to get through to you if there was an emergency.” He thought for a second. “Look, things are moving at a breakneck pace right now, thank god, but it’s gonna slow down at some point, I’m sure; waiting on a warrant or something like that. When that happens – and I know you’re gonna want to be here when we wrap this up – but you can probably slip away for an hour to two and give Mike a visit for all of us, okay? I think he needs to know how all this,” he gestured at the activity around the room, “is happening because of him.” He finished with a smile.

Steve stared at his colleague with warm appreciation. “Thanks, Norm,” he said quietly, slapping Haseejian’s back fondly.

In a gesture so reminiscent of his partner, Steve felt Haseejian grab the back of his neck and he was shaken gently. “Don’t worry about Mike, he’s a fighter, right?”

Steve nodded and smiled affectionately. “Right, right,” he agreed, but to himself he whispered, “I hope so.”


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