Like a fish out of water, I watched this dead body sag in the hands of those who hauled it out of Lake Michigan. The deceased had on black pants, a red-and-black-checkered jacket with big flap pockets. In those pockets were bricks soaked clean from being in the water.
Had this man figured that he could weigh himself down with a few bricks, hoping that their weight and the weight of his desire for death would be enough to sink him?
If the dude was going for suicide, he rang the bell and won the prize.
If a killer was trying to hide the deed, the mark was badly missed.
This body had found its way near shore. The who and the how of it was a puzzle for cops and journalists to figure out. I was struck by the man's hands: green, next to frigid blue, next to bruised red. Without question I was eyeballing the combination quilt work of death and water. The damage those two bad boys can do together on the human flesh is more than a notion.
And this stiff wasn't a young cat either; he had gray hair, cut close, and brown age spots speckled his thick neck and sloping chin. His white skin was stained a sickly yellow. The skin, that's the first thing that takes a major hit when you die. The skin. Gives up the ghost like it ain't nothing. Turning flat. Stiff. Hardly showing signs that there was ever any life at all.
My favorite cameraman, Zeke Rouster, was standing behind me getting a pan shot from the victim's head to his toes. Zeke then did a squat and grunted so loud I almost laughed. His jelly stomach went from three months pregnant to six; a sistah wouldah cracked on him if the situation wasn't so doggone grave.
One of the detectives rolled the victim on his side and water sloshed out of his ear. Zeke was a film fiend, panning and zooming, catching close-ups and cutaway shots of the club members still huddled together in awe of the tragedy playing out before them.
"It's not pretty is it, Zeke?"
"Never is, Georgia," he said, flipping on the camera's overhead light. Zeke grunted again as he stood up, then took a swing at a stubborn section of white hair that kept falling into his face. "I'm getting too old for this shit."
"Not a chance, Zeke. Old cameramen never retire, they just fade to black. You're still the best shooter in town."
"Edit text. You mean the planet."
Zeke is about as modest as a nude baby on a bear rug. He loves to be stroked. I don't mind stroking him either, because he deserves it. Zeke is a news cowboy ready to go anywhere and do whatever it takes to get the story right. He has paid a stack of dues too over his many years and always has my back. Like now...
"Yo, Georgia," Zeke said, giving me one of his mischievous green-eyed winks, "here comes Detective Love Jones!"
Zeke was a teasing somebody. I didn't want to smile but, doggone it, I did. Before I even looked up, I knew Zeke was talking about Detective Doug Eckart. Obviously he'd caught this case. We hadn't worked the same incident since a little girl named Butter disappeared in late summer. On that case we initially bumped heads, then put our heads together, and eventually our hearts.
Doug glanced in my direction but played it cool. We didn't want our business in the street. The top cops Doug needed to impress to move up the ranks might not like our relationship, and my rival colleagues might cry foul thinking I'm gleaning inside info between the sheets.
"Clear that camera back," Doug said to the police support crew. "This is a crime scene, not a movie."
Zeke sarcastically sucked his teeth.
"Suck 'em any harder and you'll need braces!" Doug barked.
The cops all laughed.
Zeke rolled his eyes at Doug. Then he hunched his shoulders at me as if to say, Get your boy in check.
But I had no issue with Doug. It was mandatory that he take charge. And he wasn't hurting us a smidgen. We'd already done three live updates. We were also assured the lead story spot at six.
"Don't fret," I said lightly patting Zeke's back. "We're beating everybody on this story."
I moved to get an interview with Erin, one of the swimmers who had dived in and made the grisly discovery. Erin was badly shaken up, so much so that after she got out of the water her voice vanished.
Speechless and trembling like a dry leaf, Erin was comforted by her friends. I made sure the paramedic gave her a good looking-over. Now Erin stood off to the side with a grave marker on her shoulders -- face stony, eyes hard, lips engraved in a frown.
"Erin, we're about to go live, can you please just give us a minute?" It took several seconds for what I'd said to register. Girlfriend was shaken up for real! It'd be more than a minute before Erin would feel good about sleeping with the lights off again. Her electric bill would be mighty high.
"Yes, sure, I can talk...a little." Erin forced the corners of her mouth to turn up ever so slightly. Then she ran a nervous hand over her shiny brown hair, slick with lake water.
Zeke set up behind me, balanced the camera on his knees, framed the shot up, giving her depth, adding more intensity to her words.
"Turn your body left." Zeke made two backhanded swipes with his hand. "Good. That's perfect."
We got set for a live update. The director cued me in my earpiece and I was on. I gave a quick intro recapping the charity event that led to the grisly discovery. Then I did TV news like it should be done. I let Erin tell the story just as she'd experienced it -- up close and personal.
"I was in the water, you know? It stung, the coldness of it. I was a championship diver in college, so I know how to get control of my body under water. I went a bit deep, then I began to float up. I pulled away from the rest of the swimmers. As I got closer to the buoy, that's when I saw it...."
Like metal to a magnet, Erin's fingertips were drawn to her lips. She gulped twice before continuing her story.
"I looked and there he...was...this man...his hair floating like seaweed or something, helpless-looking, arms out, dead as
"Erin, can you remember your first reaction and what you were thinking at that moment?"
"I screamed and swallowed a little bit of water. It took every fiber of my being to stay calm. I kept thinking, I gotta get out of this water, back to shore, get help. Then everyone was yelling. It was chaotic. I can't tell you how upsetting...how -- how..."
Then Erin began to cry. I gently put my arm around her shoulder and closed off my live shot.
"The police are here on the scene trying to determine if this is an accident, a suicide, or a homicide. Right now it is classified as a death investigation. The identity of the victim remains a mystery. We will update the story as more information becomes available. Georgia Barnett, live at Manning Pier. Back to you in the newsroom."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Doug examining the body. The boy has skills. A few times Doug has talked to me about some of his old cases. Intent and deliberate, he had explained to me how the investigations went -- how something minute captured his attention and just wouldn't let go. Those kinds of things were always the prologue to the case, Doug told me. The beginning. The beginning that started you on the path to the end.
I worked on my long story, or package as we call it, adding more interviews from the swim club members.
I also interviewed Doug. By then other television reporters were there, some scowling and others smiling, giving me my props, not for catching a story that fell right into my lap, as it most certainly had, but for knowing how to run and score with that bad boy once I had it.
Doug was keeper of the info. All of the reporters surrounded him, a gang-bang as we call it in the business. The questions hit him rapidly. Doug deflected and dodged those questions like a championship boxer, only unleashing powerful tips when he was ready. I let my colleagues lead.
"Whatcha got, Detective Eckart?"
"A short time ago this case changed from a death investigation to a murder investigation."
"You ruled out an accident or suicide pretty quickly."
"Well, it's pretty hard to shoot yourself in the back."
"Multiple gunshot wounds?"
Then I began asking more pointed questions as I stood in the crowd, thinking, remembering what the dead man looked like fresh out of the water. The front of the torso remained clean, besides, of course, the water damage. There were no exit wounds in the front.
"Detective," I asked, "were the shots fired from a great distance or from a small-caliber gun? There were no exit wounds on the body."
Doug's eyes smiled. Yeah, baby, you've been listening to me and the boys chatter.
"The weapon in this case appears to be a small-caliber. Yes."
"Was this a robbery?"
"That is a possible motive. The victim did not have a wallet or anything containing identification on his body."
So it was very likely a robbery. But why go to all the trouble of moving the body? This pier is pretty secluded in the winter, so whoever brought the body down to Manning Pier had a good chance of not being seen. True. But why would a regular old stickup ace do that?
Doug began giving a description of the victim -- white male, sixty to sixty-five years old, five nine, muscular build, 170 pounds, gray hair, brown eyes, wearing a red-and-black jacket, black pants and shoes -- all before wrapping up the gang-bang.
"Right now the investigation is moving forward, the body is in the capable hands of the coroner. As we get new information that we can pass on to you, we will do so."
That was cop slang for, Get out my face now 'cause I got work to do.
We gave Detective Ace some space. Reporting crime stories is easy in the beginning. Clues are few. There's not a lot to sift through yet. Every reporter there -- from NBC, ABC, WGN, and FOX on down -- ended their live shots the same. And that was with a physical description of the victim and a plea to the public for help; if anyone thought they knew the victim or if they'd seen something strange in the area around Manning Pier, they should call the police.
I waited for Zeke to give me a ride back to WJIV after our last live shot. Usually I tried to grab a cab or drive my own car if I could instead of hanging around until Zeke finished meticulously packing up all the equipment.
But I was in no rush tonight. You see, Doug and I had an after-work date, but by now our after-work plans were out of whack. We both had expected a light workday. We both got our heads bumped by reality.
I was truly an unhappy sister. Had tickets to the Symphony Center to see the dynamic diva Leontyne Price. Now our work was jamming us up like a fender-bender during rush hour. Don't you just hate it when a funky workday interferes with your personal life?
So Doug and I ended up skipping dinner and the performance. Instead we would hook up late and kick back at my twin sister's place, the Blues Box.
Copyright © 2002 by Yolanda Joe