Lincoln, NE Monday, May 13, 2002
University Place Disciples of Christ Church
Linda Turner had been a homicide detective over 10 years, but this crime scene was still a shock. “Half a dozen murders was considered a bad year,” she mused carrying a steaming Starbucks latte toward the scene. She remembered that the last time three dead bodies had turned up in the city, the deaths had been ruled a murder-suicide. But this was no murder-suicide. These bodies had been discovered through an innocent act: an inquisitive dog burrowing deep into the flower garden behind his new home and bringing its master a gruesome prize.
“Morning, John,” she said as the cop guarding the area raised the yellow plastic “Police Line - Do Not Cross” crime tape as she slipped through. “I hear the dog of the owner found the bodies.”
“Yeah, he’s new in town, the pastor of University Disciples of Christ Church,” John offered. “He made the 9-1-1 call.”
“Oh, the poor guy. What a welcome.”
This was all the information Detective Linda Turner had on this breezy May morning, the smell of freshly turned soil and blooming flowers mixed with a stench she knew all too well. Behind the neat, limestone house, the flower garden had been cordoned off, evidence flags and numbered photo markers dotted the soil with yellow. A crime scene photographer finished documenting the shocking scene, and the coroner directed forensic experts gingerly extracting human remains from beneath the black earth. Fragile from decomposition, body parts lay on blue plastic tarps spread over the grass, human jigsaw puzzles waiting to be solved. Even in their fetid state, Det. Turner recognized that two of the bodies were that of small children.
Linda turned away, her free hand covering her mouth. “They’re practically babies. Oh my God.”
It had happened before, but the horror of innocent children being murdered always had the same effect - Linda couldn’t stop until the depraved killer was found and convicted. She didn’t have any of her own – investing 110% into her police career, but was a favorite aunt. Linda saw the faces of her nieces and nephews, all under the age of ten.
The back door swung shut with a loud bang, snapping Linda into the here and now. A familiar figure strode towards her. Tall and lean, Captain Clyde Dale was a 30-year veteran of the force. In his gray felt Stetson with its bull rider brim and high crown, hand-tooled cowboy boots, fitted suit and tie, Clyde might have stepped out of another, more genteel era.
“Three bodies discovered so far. I was just about to you call you,” Clyde offered, meeting her just off the cement patio.
“Came as soon as I got the message,” Det. Turner replied with the slightest smile. Laconic was one of Clyde’s most endearing traits – there was never any doubt he’d get right to the point. “I see two of the bodies are small children. You can’t get much more heinous than this.”
“True. If it weren’t for the Rev. Martin’s very big and curious dog named Kris Kringle, it might have gone undetected. According to the Reverend, Kris is always dragging home road kill or what have you. This morning Kris took to digging in the flower garden and brought his master a human leg.” Clyde turned toward the house. “Rev. Martin followed his dog out here,” tracing the pastor’s path in one smooth motion ending at the garden, “where he discovered more human remains. At which point, he called 9-1-1.”
A strand had come loose from the ponytail securing her blonde hair and Linda casually brushed it aside. “Any idea yet who they might be?”
“That’s where it gets interesting or sickening,” Clyde replied. “Rev. Martin moved into the parsonage about eight weeks ago, replacing the former pastor named Gregory Hansen, who’d left to pursue missionary work in Africa. Rev. Hansen was married and had two children. After the Hansen family moved, the missionary national office contacted the church concerned the Hansens had never arrived.”
Linda glanced toward the skeletal remains and the growing mounds of dirt from the excavated garden. “Did the church contact us or file a missing person’s report?”
“I’ll know that when I get back to the station,” Clyde replied, following her gaze. “In the meantime, we can start interviewing persons of interest, and I’ve already got two for you. Rev. Martin is very willing to cooperate and has agreed to have our people search the house and take prints. It’s a long-shot, but we need every possible piece of evidence. Besides talking with him, I’d like you to speak with the church secretary. Her name’s Darlene Jordan, and she has asked to speak with investigators.”
Linda removed a small pad of paper and pen from her jacket pocket, scribbling notes as Clyde spoke. “What about the neighbors and church members?”
“Let’s start with Rev. Martin and the church staff, then move onto the neighbors and parishioners. Anyone from those groups that contact us will also be of interest.”
“Captain Dale? Sir, there’s a reporter from the Journal Star asking to speak with you.” It was John, the strapping young uniformed officer keeping bystanders away from the scene.
“I probably need to provide the press with a preliminary statement,” Clyde told Linda. “We haven’t seen a case involving the murder of children in quite a while, so it’ll merit extra attention. I’ll see you back at the station.” Always the gentleman, Clyde tipped his hat and with John at his heels, striding towards the front yard to meet the press.
Cases like this were one reason Linda Turner loved her job. Sifting through the clues of a tangled mystery, discovering which pieces fit and which led to a dead end, then assembling that evidence into a case to catch the perpetrator and bring them to justice were what had made law enforcement so enticing. The fact that two of three bodies buried in the backyard of an unsuspecting resident were little kids made Linda think this case might be one of the most intriguing, but heartbreaking journeys of her career.