In the year following the carnage under the Aurora bridge, both Rodney Peters and Tom Barnes were found guilty of multiple counts of kidnapping, human trafficking, child endangerment, and manslaughter. Peters faced murder charges, but his lawyers put up a good fight, pinning the dirtiest work on officer Leonard Hutchinson, who couldn’t testify to the contrary from the grave. Winnie and Cliff both testified on video rather than appear as witnesses on the stand in court. Cliff’s watch served as an exhibit for the prosecution.
Cliff and Winona attended parts of the trial with Kipp as spectators in the back, listening to Kumi and Danny offer eye-witness accounts of the events from that harrowing week, starting with Cliff’s botched suicide attempt and ending with, what was generally considered Hutch’s successful suicide leap from the top of the bridge.
Neither Alex, Summer, Kipp nor Winona discussed much of what happened atop the bridge.
“That wasn’t no suicide,” Alex said, quietly to Cliff the morning after the reading of the verdict.
But Cliff never asked Winona or Alex to elaborate, and they left the real story to Cliff’s imagination. In Kumi’s final report, a distraught officer Hutchinson, faced with imminent capture and likely life in jail, proactively hopped the fence and careened to his death on the side of Fremont Ave. in front of the famous troll sculpture.
“If the report says that’s what happened,” Kumi told Cliff. “Then that’s what happened. Nothing more or less. Suicide. Open and closed case.”
Alex just smiled and walked away.
Barnes cut a deal and received a slightly lighter sentence of 15 years. With good behavior, Danny estimated he could return to freedom in as few as five years. In light of star witness for the prosecution, Amaya Naito, who bravely recounted her violent abduction by Officers Hutchson and Peters, the prosecution held all the cards. Peters earned 25 years in maximum security without chance for parole. Evidence from the reexamined burner phones cemented his role in the kidnapping operation and robbed him of the ability to cut a plea deal.
Rulon Jones walked away with a light, one-year deal, having cooperated with the prosecution and helped secure key dates, times and details to lock up Edeyo on conspiracy charges. Edeyo received a 20-year sentence.
The press hounded the 33-year-old officer Peters, who would be nearly 60 by the time he regained his freedom from the maximum-security prison that would serve as his home for the next quarter-century. Barnes, confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life with a lower body that would never again function, managed to secure a cushier assignment at a minimum-security facility in Connecticut.
Totally contrite, Barnes apologized to the victims, three more of whom Latoya Benson was able to locate and reunite with their families. Peters never spoke a word at his trial and kept his head down as they escorted him to the armored van outside the courthouse.
Neither Cliff nor Winona attended the reading of the verdict. Cliff had to work a morning shift at the Earthly Eatery in downtown Seattle that day and Winona had to clean their trailer to prepare for their housewarming gathering.
At word of their video-taped testimony and the realization of their status as downtrodden homeless people who played such heroic roles in breaking the case, donations rolled into the police precinct earmarked to help them get off the streets.
Kipp Collina helped set up a gift fund and bank account for them. He worked with them to relearn to use a computer, work a smartphone and establish a budget. He paid for an accountant to square any tax implications of their donated windfall. Doctor Kushnick offered free medical check-ups and advice around healthy diet and exercise. The money and assistance from the community around them helped them establish their residency.
Cliff’s steady employment at both the restaurant and the community market, where he cleaned the floors, scrubbed the bathrooms and gathered the carts from the parking lot, helped maintain enough cash flow to cover their rent and provide three small meals a day for him and Winona. They didn’t have a car or a television, but they managed to fill their run-down rented trailer with a couple pieces of furniture, some used kitchen appliances and curtains for the windows.
In keeping with their plan, Cliff worked two jobs for about 10 hours a day and Winona worked just under half the hours he did. She handled their paperwork, the bank statements, the healthcare provided by the restaurant and the payment of their recurring utility bills. She also used the time to be with her 16-year-old son, Alex, who moved in with Summer at Mandy’s apartment. Mandy even started teaching them all to cook.
When Alex started working a second job – above and beyond the pizza restaurant - as a body artist at the tattoo parlor next to his old apartment, he convinced his new boss to offer Winona a second part-time job as a cashier and general office manager. Like Cliff, she cleaned bathrooms, took payments and conducted odd jobs for the owner.
Alex designed and delivered his first tattoo, a fat elephant, just above Summer’s left breast over her heart.
Prior to the gathering at their home, Winona walked five miles north of the city to the cemetery, where she visited the graves of Duff and Jackson. Kipp’s neighborhood watch group raised a collection to pay for a respectable burial. Their two-foot by three-foot inlaid stone markers lay in the grass next to each other with their full names; “Byron Duffy” and “Jackson Greene” engraved neatly into the grey and silver marble slabs.
Alex and Summer joined her. All three held hands as they quietly remembered the two cheerful friends that lived under the Aurora bridge with Winona for so many years. Winona guided Alex to a far corner of the cemetery. Summer followed, somberly behind, giving Alex and his mother space.
“I haven’t visited them in a long time,” Winona said, approaching a stone that extended four feet high from the grass. “My parents… Your grandparents.”
Alex slipped his arm around his mother. A breeze whisked by and he pulled her in to warm her bare arms.
“They’d be proud of you,” she smiled at her son. “Hard working. An artist. A good girl by your side. Your own place. I didn’t do much for you. But you still turned out good anyway.”
“You were always there for me, Momma,” Alex replied. “Even when you weren’t.”
Kipp Collina made sandwiches. Kumi brought wine and Danny brought beer. Cliff brought day-old bread from the restaurant and a bottle of fancy olive oil that the manager let him take. Latoya Benson brought a tray of fruit and vegetables. Captain Gonsalves and his wife stopped by for an hour with a cake and a tray of cookies. Winona, Alex and Summer showed up last with bottles of soda.
The group sat around a picnic table in the common area of the trailer park. They reminisced about their brush with danger, their experience with dirty cops and their triumph over murderous gang leaders as if the distant memory were some television program they had all watched together a year earlier.
“I did some research,” Latoya said to Cliff and Winona, with a broad smile and a wink. “I found someone.”
“What research?” Cliff asked.
“You know what?” she said. “I’m going to keep it a surprise.”
An hour into the gathering, Shinjiro Naito, Haya and their daughter, Amaya, stopped by with a bag of Japanese candies.
“Is this the surprise?” Winona asked Latoya.
“One of them,” she replied. “Hopefully one of many.”
“Hopefully them Crips don’t come shoot the place up,” Alex joked to an audience that failed to see the humor.
“Don’t worry about that,” Kumi said. “Nichols has been cleaning house down there. He turned out to be a decent cop after all.”
“I was just kidding,” Alex said. “I didn’t mean to bring up old worries. Sorry about that.”
“Like Kumi said,” Danny jumped in. “Anyone connected to you and what went down is either dead or in prison. There’s nothing to worry about anymore.”
Cliff observed the cheerful Naito family greet each of the people in their apartment. He watched Amaya pick the cucumbers from the vegetable platter and slowly sip her glass of coke.
She hugged everyone in the room and produced drawings of each person. In a year, both her drawing skills and her command of the English language had grown and matured. She described her school and the many friends she had made in great detail.
“She is quite happy,” Shin explained to Cliff, Winona, Danny, Kumi and Latoya. “I’m sure she remembers, but she does not seem bothered or scared. She speaks with the school counselor, but more about her friends and her schoolwork than any other topic. She is doing well and we have you to thank.”
“She’s an inspiration,” Latoya said, hugging the girl, who had grown three inches over the year. “We’re all so proud that she was brave enough to testify.”
“She owes all of you her life,” Shin replied.
As the last guests filtered into their cars and drove off, and Winona dumped the empty bottles into a black plastic bag, she turned to Cliff with a seductive look.
“Jesus,” he said. “Again?”
“You told me you’d help me with my little, uh, problem,” she said. “You promised. Anytime I need a little stress release, you’d drop everything for me. Doctor Kushnick even proscribed you as my – uh -medicine.”
“I did promise you and him,” Cliff said, tugging her by the side of her hoodie into the doorway to the trailer. “And, it’s not a problem. It’s a gift.”
“I just couldn’t wait,” she laughed as she followed Cliff into the tiny trailer bedroom. “I was dying. I love them all, but I just wanted them to leave. I thought I’d have to hide in the bathroom and take care of myself.”
“That’s my job,” he said, kissing her and then shoving her playfully, but forcefully, onto the bed. “Whenever you feel you need it, I’m your medicine.”
“My cure,” she laughed as she slid her skirt to the ground, revealing her hot pink panties.
As he landed on top of her and started peeling her shirt off her body, he heard a knock on the door. They froze. Everyone had left at least a half hour earlier. The knock echoed again through their tin home, this time a little louder.
Cliff looked at Winona. A flash of insecurity crossed her eyes.
“Ignore it,” she said, pawing at his face.
Cliff looked out the bedroom door at the shadow that stood outside their trailer door. He saw the movement through the dirty glass porthole.
“Stay here,” Cliff said, closing the bedroom door behind him.
He walked slowly through the trailer. He heard the bedroom door creak. He knew Winona would follow behind him.
As Cliff reached the door, they heard the knock again.
He turned the knob and opened the door. The light from the afternoon sun shined in his eyes. He didn’t recognize the face. Even as his eyes adjusted, his mind whirled to process the figure that stood in his doorway.
A large black Land Rover idled across the grass in the visitor parking area. The sun glinted off the freshly waxed hood.
The young woman had his eyes. Her reddish hair glistened in the sunlight. She spoke a single word, her distinctive voice instantly recognizable. And when she did, the freckles above her nose wiggled and danced like he remembered from twelve years earlier.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Greg McLaughlinWrite a Review