Bill Johnson, the manager and head of the Chula Vista PD crime lab, has collected 20 or so crime scenes in what he calls “The Red Book,” each scene represented by a few, and sometimes only one, photograph. Bill (and his colleagues) get there after the deeds are done. He’s worked as a crime-scene investigator and forensic specialist for 25 years, so this collection is a fraction of what he’s seen in his career. Some of the pictures are grisly, some are sad, some even funny, and some just nutty-tragic.
When I looked through “The Red Book,” it struck me as a montage, a musical suite, a poem cycle, describing in images the essence of a man’s life work. It’s a distillation, with a rhythm and implicit narrative, of the cruelties and foibles, the numbness, the bent passions, the selfishness, and the breathtaking violence we humans do to ourselves and/or to each other. The things these men and women who work here see, with some regularity, can tear your soul from your body.
Johnson’s first passion was flying, but an ear problem kept him from a military career or commercial piloting. He considered working as a crop duster — that badly he wanted to fly. But reminded that a crop duster eats a lot of crop dust in his life, he turned to other things: photography and police work. Born in Luverne, Minnesota, a few miles from the South Dakota border, Bill graduated from nearby South Dakota State College. He also has two MA degrees and a bfa in photography. His father was a dentist, a part-time rancher, and a WWII vet who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Bill said he never talked about it. When Bill was 21, his mother died. Captain of the pistol team in college, he was and still is a crack shot. He married his high school sweetheart, Sandy, a public-school teacher, and they have a son in his 20s who is also a teacher.
They moved to California in the late ’60s, and Bill entered one of the country’s top schools of photography, the Brooks Institute of Photography, in Santa Barbara. After a stint as a sheriff’s deputy, a tip from a friend led him to a job at the Chula Vista PD as crime-scene photographer. He’d had a taste of this as a deputy when someone tossed him a roll of film and told him to develop it. As he stood over the pan in the darkroom and watched the image emerge, he realized it was a young man whose face was split down the middle with an ax or machete, his eyes looking and leaning in opposite directions. “Kind of an abrupt introduction to forensic photography,” Bill said. The boy was one of two killed while sleeping on the beach. A third boy was badly mutilated. Bill said, “At that moment I realized I had the opportunity to make a difference.”
From “The Red Book”: Guy with his chin on the seat of a chair, an ordinary vinyl chair, part of a cheap dinette set. The rest of his body slumps in a loose banana-shape behind him, about half of it on the floor and the rest hanging by his chin from the chair seat. I should say: hanging by what is left of his chin. The man is dead. Dead people, people shot or stabbed or battered, always lie skewed, twisted in positions the most advanced yoga master could not duplicate. A good chunk of this man’s chin is missing, and in another photograph you can see much of his throat is also gone to pulp, rended by slugs or buckshot, at close range, from a sawed-off shotgun. Here’s the scene: one set of bad guys busts into the apartment of another set of bad guys to rip off drugs and money. The invaded bad guys are all on the floor with guns aimed at their brains. The drop, as they say, was gotten on them. One of the guys on the floor, however, not happy with this arrangement, is mouthing off, not a smart thing to do when men wired on meth point guns at your head. The boss of the invading bad guys orders one of his boys to silence the excessively verbal and negative bad guy on the floor — shut him up with the butt of the sawed-off shotgun. The boss was not yet ready to murder, or order a murder — and now the boss is dead: shotgun banging head of bad guy on floor goes off and kills bad guy who ordered his beating. And there he lies, a pile of dirty laundry rising behind him.
Bill took me on a tour of the Chula Vista PD before we got to the crime lab in the basement. We ran into a couple of swat guys outside. A very large officer, Scott Arsenault, who looked like he could bench-press one of the new Volkswagens, was modifying the swat team’s truck. He was recently appointed “first man in,” meaning if they make a forced entry, say into a building where hostages are held, he goes first. Others on the team follow quickly behind, each with a role. Another swat officer, Bruce Thiesen, joined us. He’s of average height but ripped — huge pecs and cannonball deltoids. Is it my imagination that cops are bigger, stronger, tougher than they used to be? I didn’t see many around here about whom one would make doughnut jokes. The Chula Vista swat team, founded in 1972, has never fired a shot in anger, never lost a man, a hostage, or a hostage-taker. Their record is 100 percent. I don’t know how that measures up with swat teams in other similar-sized cities around the country, but it doesn’t take a statistical genius to figure out none are better.
We stopped in the office that handles child-abuse cases. No one was in at the moment except dozens of stuffed animals — elephants, bears, monkeys, and ducks, reds and yellows and blues. I didn’t go back to that room.
I met one of the department’s captains, Ken Dyke, saw a few other officers I’d talk to in depth later, looked in on two women transcribing crime reports — cops tape-record them now: less time at the typewriter, more time on the street. Then Bill took me down to his turf: the crime lab, which includes two large evidence rooms. Designed by Bill — offices, labs, a small meeting room. It’s, at first, like walking into any one of thousands of business environments in America: computers with Post-its on them, soft rock playing over speakers, a phone ringing, pictures of children and graduations.
Bill’s office, small and neat, is off the main hallway, at the hub of the lab. The first thing I noticed was a huge silver lunch box. Bill, in his mid-50s, rail thin (his wife told me later he weighs one and one-quarter pounds more than he did in high school) and impeccably dressed, wouldn’t need a lunch box that big, I thought. Turns out it’s an instrument called an omnichrome, which uses ultraviolet light to pick up trace fingerprints and blood stains. On a bookshelf, “The Red Book” stands out from the dark blue and black binders. Several of Bill’s nonwork photographs are on the wall: forest and mountain wilderness shots; a stark picture, taken in Death Valley, of salt plains risen into razor-sharp crags. One photograph is a close-up of paint cracking on the door of an old barn. Each fragment of paint curling up at its edges but hanging on, still hanging on. Later, I noticed an almost identical pattern in shattered windshield glass — irregular squares or rectangles, like mud cracking in a dried lake bed.
The windshield glass was laid out on a table in one of the two main lab rooms. It was an experiment Nancy Vonasek-Farrar, one of the newest crime-scene investigators on Bill Johnson’s team, works on in her own time. The glass was smithereened by several bullets, and Nancy is trying to reconstruct it enough so she can find the bullet holes and, from each one, the bullet’s trajectory into the car. It looked like a giant, impossible jigsaw puzzle. Even though Nancy had pieced together large chunks, no image of a lake or country lane began to appear. Instead, what I saw, when Nancy pointed them out to me, were three or four bullet holes. Around the edges of a hole, the shards of glass are longer and thinner top to bottom than the other shards. They frame the hole like the petals of a flower. Nancy, blond and slightly tan, was a pilot in the Air Force, flying huge refueling planes, before she became a crime-scene analyst. She showed me around the lab. Rodriego Viesca, a latent-print examiner, whom I’d talk to much more later, dusted a gun for prints. I noticed something that looked like the pants presser you see at a cleaners. It serves a similar purpose: hot pressing a fingerprint helps bring it up faster. Before this device, police labs used standard steam irons to do the job. Most labs have charts on the wall and so does this one: of bullets. There are a lot of bullet types in the world, and here you see them all in rows, in lines — line after line — fat ones, thin ones, shortest to tallest, pointy and round-headed, dumdums and bang-bang-you’re-deads. Nancy opened a cabinet and I saw a box marked “particle and putrefaction mask.” Another box was marked “thief detection kit.” I thought for a moment I might be in a Twilight Zone joke shop. The thief-detection kit contains a kind of powder, nearly invisible, that a store owner might use, with police assistance, if he suspects a certain employee is stealing. Spread it where the thievery allegedly takes place and, if it gets on the hands of the thief, it’ll show up under a special light.
There’s another evidence-examination room down here too. It’s a sterile environment, so we looked in through a window. An examination table, just like at your doctor’s, with a large roll of paper at its head, stands in the middle of the room. Nobody sits on this table, however, getting his knees knocked with a little rubber hammer. This room is used for major cases, cases where they might spread out a great deal of evidence, cases where they need to keep evidence absolutely uncontaminated.
The photo lab down here’s not used much because crime-scene pictures are now jobbed out to a carefully selected and secure commercial developer. I guess we all wonder if someone at Fotomat looks at the pictures from our family barbecue or of old Aunt Elsie caught with her undies accidentally showing, but whoever develops crime-scene photos gets a real eyeful of grim reality as opposed to quotidian reality.
Or sometimes something just odd. From “The Red Book”: on a carpet lies the corner of a piece of processed sandwich cheese. It’s an inch and a quarter long. I knew this because in the photo a small ruler lies beneath it. In many photos the crime analyst places a ruler next to a piece of evidence: to judge exactly the width of a throat’s gash, the distance between three holes in the skull to match them to a three-pronged garden tool, etc. This cheese was from a sandwich belonging to a store manager. He didn’t eat the sandwich, a thief who’d broken into the store did, thereby, I think it fair to say, adding insult to injury. Bill calls this case “The Rat Who Got Away.” He took an impression of the teeth marks to one of the pioneers in forensic ondontology, Dr. Skip Sperber, and got an identifiable bite mark. When Sperber compared it with their prime suspect, it didn’t fit. He was there, they felt confident, but didn’t eat the sandwich. The guy with him, who ate the sandwich, the cops never caught, thus: “The Rat Who Got Away.”
Two expert latent-print examiners work in the crime lab: Rodriego Viesca, 46, and Marykay Hunt, in her mid-30s. Bill, Rodriego, and Marykay can boast well over 50 years’ experience among them. Take-your-breath-away beautiful, blond, and blue-eyed, Marykay is a permanent member of the staff but now works half-time — she has three small children. She told me she “rolled” her youngest child when he was one month old, meaning she took his fingerprints, and that she rolls him at regular intervals. I asked if that is a latent-print examiner’s equivalent to standing one’s kids against a door frame and marking their heights as they grow. She said yes, and she does the door-frame growth chart too. Rodriego is a born-and-raised Chula Vistan. He pointed out his grammar school, at G and Fifth, not far from the police station. His wife is a cell scientist, a cytotechnologist, and they have two teenage daughters. I asked Rodriego, who is also a crime-scene photographer and analyst, what’s the hardest thing to see on the job. Like everyone else here, and every cop I’ve ever spoken to, he said “murdered children.” On one assignment, photographing a murdered child, he saw, for a few seconds through the viewfinder, the face of his own daughter. He said that when his daughters were young, the one thing that comforted him while working on cases like this was when they would climb on his knees — they’d lean back against his chest, three hearts beating, and watch a movie or a TV show.
Rodriego Viesca and Bill Johnson were the primary crime-scene analysts on the Jenny Rojas murder case. Most San Diegans are familiar with it — over 60 articles appeared in the Union-Tribune alone. Jenny, three and a half, was scalded to death by her aunt and uncle, with whom she was living (along with several cousins) while her mother was in drug rehab and her father in prison. She was abused, burned. Bill and Rodriego, again with the assistance of Dr. Sperber, were able to help prove she was tortured with a hair dryer. The water was so hot in which she died that, Bill Johnson told me, they found her toenails and strips of skin from the bottoms of her feet in the tub, scalded from her body. The aunt and uncle, convicted of murder, are only the second married couple in the country on death row for the same crime. Rodriego showed me a file, several inches thick. This was just a written-evidence file, though it did contain innumerable sketches and diagrams. Jenny is often represented as a stick figure lying on the floor. What I didn’t see were hundreds of photographs. Rodriego took dozens of measurements on the heat of the hair dryer at different settings (low, medium, and high) and at different distances from the skin to establish she was tortured before she died. During the trial the DA had a chair for Jenny on which he placed a picture of her, dressed for a party, wearing angel’s wings. On hundreds of pages, again and again: Victim: Jenny Rojas Age: 3.5. Over and over again. Other phrases jumped out at me like a snake-strike: Jenny was 3'3" tall. Hair, pulled in patches, from the back of her neck. “Inside lower lip trauma.” There’s a note written by Rodriego: “I left for coroner’s office to witness autopsy.” Jenny’s mother, out of rehab, had another baby, which she also named Jenny. Bill begins a note with “On 7/12/95 at 2240 hours I got a call from the cvpd dispatcher, working a dead infant report and wanted me to go to the crime scene…” The stench at the scene was overpowering, Bill said. He wished aloud at one point that he could “bottle this smell” and use it too as evidence at the trial. The DA investigator said, “Can you do that?” State money was given to Jenny’s grandmother to buy a headstone for her. For some reason, she never did. Private donations eventually provided one. Page after page: Victim: Jenny Rojas Age: 3.5.
At one point, Rodriego “rolled” me — took me upstairs to the holding cells where they fingerprint the just-arrested. This process hasn’t changed much: alleged felon’s fingers held by the print examiner, pressed on an ink pad, and rolled, from left to right, on a 7H-by-7H-inch card — right hand, including whole palm print, on front of card, left hand on back. Another example of discrimination against left-handed people. Rodriego explained how prints are taken from someone who doesn’t want his prints taken. He tries psychology first, he appeals to reason; he’ll be the good cop in “good cop, bad cop” by saying he’s not a cop, which is true; he’ll be patient, but when these methods fail, this is what happens. Three or four cops drag mattresses into the room. The arrestee, handcuffed behind his back, and likely with his legs shackled by now, is assisted into a facedown position on the mattresses. It is not too difficult to pry open even a tightly closed fist one finger at a time. Rodriego then uses an instrument called a “morgue spoon,” which looks somewhat like a shoehorn. A strip of paper is fitted inside it, the finger is inked and slipped into the morgue spoon, which Rodriego rolls on the finger rather than rolling the finger on it. The point is: they have a right to take fingerprints and they will. I don’t know about you, but if I were feeling recalcitrant and Rodriego wanted to fingerprint me, the mere word-coupling of “morgue” and “spoon” would very quickly get me in a cooperating mood.
Marykay told me our fingerprints are crafted in the womb, inimitable by the fourth month of pregnancy. A fetus’s tiny hands and fingers move — touch this, press that, do the amniotic aquabatics, and these actions form the three basic characteristics of fingerprints: loops; whorls, “which look like bull’s-eyes”; and arches, which look like “bumps in the road.” It’s the variations, the differences in these characteristics, that make each print unique. What leaves a print are the oils and amino acids in our skin released through sweat pores at the tops of the ridges. Until recent developments in DNA analysis, fingerprints had been the main foolproof method in criminal identification for many decades. Although a great deal of lifting prints is still done the old-fashioned way — dusting a surface with graphite, placing a piece of tape over the area where a print is evident, peeling the tape away, then pressing the tape on a piece of card stock — there are newer technologies all the time and ways of getting prints from difficult surfaces. Nancy recently pulled some prints from the inside of a rubber glove used in a robbery. Computers and systems called calid and afis (automated fingerprint ID system) — which, as the story goes, the first time it was used nailed Richard Ramirez, the infamous “Night Stalker” murderer and rapist — have advanced fingerprint technology. Still, Marykay said, a lot of it is old-fashioned eyeball comparison, and “the longer I’ve been doing this, the longer it takes.” This reminded me of the writer — Flaubert? — who apologized at the end of a long letter by saying he was sorry that he didn’t have time to write a shorter one. The analogy may seem a stretch, but the point is: craft, experience, skill, attention, informed and furnished instincts.
There’s no way to escape our fingerprints. An oft-told story, possibly apocalyptic, says John Dillinger tried to alter his via plastic surgery, a procedure that required grafting each of his fingers to his side for weeks. It didn’t work and one assumes this particular period of hiding out was not his most pleasant. I can’t help wondering: was it the woman in the red dress who fed him every meal and performed other tasks (I will leave them to your imagination) for him during his convalescence? Is this perhaps why she agreed to set him up outside the movie theater?
From “The Red Book”: Death by “infernal contraption,” an infernal contraption being an unusual device used in committing suicide. Simply shooting oneself, jumping off a bridge, hanging don’t count. The boy — he looks 18 or 19 — in this picture sits on a narrow bed in a corner of a dingy room. I doubt a study exists, but let me posit this: most indoor suicides take place in rooms with orange-brown carpeting. The boy slumps to his right. He’s shot dead through the heart, but there’s not a drop of blood in the picture. He’s shirtless, barefoot, wearing jeans. Next to the bed is a large RCA TV box. On top of the box is a radio and a hardback book called A Dream Out of the Body. There’s also a Polaroid picture, face up, on the book. No amount of magnification I used looking at this photo in a photo revealed its image. On the book’s cover is a picture of a shirtless, shoeless boy wearing jeans and sitting on a bed — with a vapory spirit rising from his body. On the floor by the bed: a single wrapper from a piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, a green pack of matches, and another book, a paperback, entitled A Perfect City. In the forefront of the picture is a chair, across the arms of which a rifle, upside-down, is tied. The rifle points at the boy’s heart. Using cord, a candle, and some brass weights, he contrived an infernal contraption. He tied the cord around the trigger and rigged it so that when he placed a lit candle beneath the cord it burned through, which dropped the weights, which pulled the trigger. The candle gave him time to pose himself like the boy on the book cover and place his heart precisely where the bullet would strike. I’ve heard of literature (even poetry!) changing people’s lives, but it’s unfortunate no one checked this young man’s reading habits and reminded him about the difference between fiction and reality.
The people I met in the crime lab go about their work with a quiet intensity, a scientific focus. Billy Cox, an officer with detective status and a part-time crime-scene analyst, shows those traits turned up a notch or two. He speaks rapidly, keeping the lid on his emotions but unafraid of showing them. He sat across from me at a table and before him were two or three large envelopes stuffed with photographs. It’s not unusual to take two or three hundred photos of a crime scene. There are three basic types. The first, called establishing photos, might be of the outside, the entrance, the places approaching a crime scene. Gives a bigger picture. Then relationship shots — a body, for example, lying next to a coffee table, can give a sense of a room’s proportions, angles, some hints of what happened — is the coffee table overturned? Finally: close-ups. For the terrible specifics.
Billy says he is always “an advocate for the evidence — not only for those who are guilty but also for those who are innocent.” He showed me a few of the photos. They were of a mutilated young woman with wounds made in a black rage. As he talked, I got the feeling the viciousness of the murder added just a little more fire to his mission, which, he told me, is “To help a person who didn’t get any justice in life get some justice in death.” He’s never gotten used to going to homicide scenes, but when he gets to one he switches into his “scientific mode” in order to do his job with the concentration and attention to detail that it takes. This often means careful maneuvering over huge pools of blood — “the movies usually leave that part out,” he said. Billy’s from a cop family — his father is retired from this same department. He’s been a cop for 25 years, 21 of them here. A motorcycle accident some years ago slowed him down a bit. He’s suffered a greater tragedy as well, the greatest tragedy one can face: the death of a child. About 6 years ago his teenage son was killed by a drunk driver while walking across the street in front of his high school. Billy speaks to dui offenders as a member of impact panels — families trying to articulate how drunk drivers shatter lives. He said that the families of crime victims often want to know the “mechanics of death”: how exactly did their loved one die, did he suffer, and so on. Some of his fellow impact panelists describe the accidents that killed or maimed their loved ones by saying how far the body was thrown upon impact, how she lived on life support for a certain number of hours. Billy recommends that victims’ families not concentrate on these mechanics and he doesn’t talk about them when he speaks of his son’s death. He said he just tells the dui offenders “what a great kid I had and what a great hole in me his death has caused.”
He sat across the table with an almost military posture, his back straight and his hands clasped in front of him. He’s never read the accident report on his son’s death; those are the mechanics that he, in fact, knows all too well.
Before we parted, he told me something about the murdered woman whose pictures he held in his hands. She was a big fan of a certain cartoon character and had many things — pillowcases, knickknacks, etc. — displaying this character. He made sure that these images were in the pictures: they would tell us — the judge and jury — something about her, something specific, to make her life, and therefore her death, more real, more individual. No arrests had been made yet in this case.
“Red Book” photo: Sometimes, in art, in many things, less is more. And there is artistry in Bill Johnson’s “Red Book” — not only in the composition of the individual photographs but also in the distillation of each scene, how each picture tells, with economy as well as a metaphorical expansiveness, a big story, a sad and deeply human story that reaches beyond the edges of the photograph. This case, which needs no title, is represented by two black-and-white pictures. Neither shows a victim. In the middle of a road is a chalk outline of a child. The child is gone. Inside the outline is an upside-down skateboard. A little to the right is one sneaker with a chalk outline. Below the sneaker is another overturned skateboard with its wheels broken off, also outlined in chalk. In the background a pretty young woman in a miniskirt walks by the scene, her face suggesting she’s trying not to look but can’t prevent herself from doing so.
Greg Pickett is the kind of guy that drove me nuts in high school, i.e., the kid who understood things like algebra, physics, trigonometry, calculus, but also actually liked them! He’s tall, wears large-lensed glasses, is a former San Diego beat cop, and now has found his calling by combining his two passions: police work and computers. He spoke about and showed me examples of some of the ways computers are changing law enforcement. He talked animatedly, with a kind of glee. I thought of one kid just dying to show another kid a new science project or something equally thrilling.
One innovation that’s proving useful includes aerial photography. The city of Chula Vista has been aerially photographed. Greg pulled up a particular neighborhood on his screen. Say they get a call of a robbery in progress at a 7–Eleven on the corner of Such-and-Such Streets. Instead of a unit driving up to the front door and a cop jumping out, gun drawn — which might lead to a shooting or a hostage situation — patrol cars in the area check the aerial photo on their computers. They see that if one squad car approaches the store from one direction and parks behind this fence, it can observe the store from the rear without being seen. Another car waits just around a corner blocking an escape route to a nearby freeway entrance. A third car sits in front but hidden by, for example, a Dumpster. Sometimes, in these positions, they’ll call the store and see if the perp is already gone, if anybody’s hurt. Then they approach, or wait. They make their tactical decisions with more knowledge, therefore more strength, therefore with a better chance to grab the guy while minimizing danger to themselves and citizens. Say there’s a bomb threat in a house: the officers on the scene can tell, using the aerial photos, which houses, exactly, need to be evacuated.
Greg showed me long lists of stolen cars and then, on a map on-screen marked with dots, where the cars were stolen from, times of day, types of car (the kind most favored by car thieves in Chula Vista: Toyotas — trucks, Camrys, Corollas). Looking for patterns, waiting for “a bell to go off,” Greg said. This kind of info tells the cops on the street where things are more likely, statistically, to happen. Then they do what they call “target hardening” — pay more attention at certain times to certain areas, sometimes with undercover officers, sometimes with more frequent patrols. He made it clear, however, that this is still old-fashioned police work. Picking up a huge stack of papers, he said, “A detective might take weeks to go through this. The computer can do it in minutes.” Then the detective applies his savvy, his informed instincts to the distilled information.
I felt like Greg was willing to show me his computer skills all afternoon, saying things like “wait’ll you see this! wait’ll you see this!” One of his colleagues told me earlier he was related to Confederate general George E. Pickett, of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. He didn’t resemble pictures I’ve seen of General Pickett, nor did he wear his hair in heavily perfumed ringlets like the general, and when I asked if they were related he said no but added that his people were from the same part of the South as General Pickett. Related or not, Greg Pickett, computer crime analyst, is making his own charge, steady and methodical as General Pickett and his men (though not under enfilading fire across a mile of open ground) with his computers, his own version of sabers, strategy, grape-shot, and resolve.
From “The Red Book”: A young man, early 20s, long stringy hair, and wearing a striped T-shirt, lies face up on a floor. His arms slightly above his head — as if in mock surprise, as if singing in a charismatic church, as if someone said to him “reach for the sky” and he responded halfheartedly. The entire top of his head, from just above his eyes, is missing. So cleanly blown away that the tops of his eyeballs, the part not normally visible when one looks at another’s eyes, are exposed. The raw red of wounds like these makes you wish you lived in a black-and-white world. One of three or four guys hanging out getting loaded, he and his pals started a heated discussion about suicide. I’d take pills, one guy says. No, that’s for pussies — I’d jump off a cliff, says another. Our friend on the floor, the most macho of his crew, grabs a shotgun belonging to his friend, props its business end against his forehead, and pulls the trigger, or, judging by the damage, both triggers. He was just playing. He didn’t know it was loaded. He looks surprised. He looks as if the last words coming into his mind were “What the…” The words due next carried away with his brain.
Karen Drake and Al Narcario, evidence-control assistants, run the tightest ship inside the tight ship that is the crime lab — they’re in charge of the evidence rooms and ultimately responsible for every piece of property stored here, including large amounts of cash, drugs, and weapons. Accompanied by Officer Don Lumb, a big oak tree of a man, on temporary light duty because of a knee injury, and a young woman intern, Sandra Murillo, I got a tour. After signing me in, Karen unlocked the door to a large room. It was like walking into an arsenal: rack after rack of rifles, shotguns in rows up to the ceiling, and a large pile and several milk crates full of handguns. Also knives, swords, brass knuckles, bayonets, crossbows. I looked around but didn’t notice any medieval siege engines. Nor a flame-thrower. The handguns were getting ready to go on a little trip. A few times a year they “purge” the accumulated handguns — drive a truckload of them to where they’re melted down and turned into rebars for highway construction. At one time they dumped them in the ocean. Karen said she used to like that. It was a day in a boat; they’d go out seven miles and toss them overboard. There is even better metaphorical justice in turning them into rebars, I thought: a weapon once intended for mayhem now helps hold up the bridges and roads that carry me and other citizens over innumerable chasms every day.
Karen showed me an ordinary-looking lipstick tube. When she turned it, instead of a creamy red arising, what appeared was pointy and double-edged. She showed me a comb — separate the handle from the teeth and there appears a long thin blade. Officer Lumb showed me a cane. The old sword-cane, I figured. Nope: a single-shot, large-caliber rifle-cane. Many sawed-off shotguns (in California a shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches or 26 inches overall length is illegal) were on the shelves and poking out of boxes — ugly, stumpy, bullying things. Leaning against the wall and mostly wrapped in paper: a tree branch. No one knew why it was impounded, but a consensus guess was someone bludgeoned someone else with it.
I asked Karen what was the strangest piece of evidence she’d cataloged and stored (this process is thorough and virtually tamperproof) and one thing that came to mind was a man’s finger, blown off while he tried to wrestle a gun away from his wife. Perhaps he’s lucky his finger was the only thing he lost. Somehow, the case was settled, and Karen recently wrote the man asking if he wanted the finger back. He had yet to respond, possibly because his typing skills are diminished.
Then they escorted me to the front evidence room. The first thing I noticed was a dummy lying on top of a high rack of shelves. When I asked how a dummy got to be a piece of evidence, I was told it wasn’t. It does wear a robber’s mask. It’s a teaching tool. Bill Johnson uses it to create theoretical crime scenes to teach budding crime analysts. Both Bill and Rodriego not only teach their younger colleagues here but both also teach classes at local colleges. I asked Bill if he could tell if forensics just wasn’t right for a student. He said yes, “The ones who are too timid and the ones who are too interested.”
When we entered this evidence room, an olfactory memory struck me: marijuana. Actually, I’d gotten faint whiffs of it when I’d walked by before. Unlikely anyone is smoking it, I thought. They also “purge” the drugs stored here a few times a year. In case it even crosses a nutburger’s mind: the swat team, several other officers, squad cars, don’t bet against a helicopter, and who knows what else, insure that these substances get where they’re going and turn into ash. All this marijuana is sealed (again thorough and tamperproof) in boxes, but there are so many there’s no suppressing the smell. I asked if they had drug-sniffing dogs working out of this PD. They said, Sure, Customs people. I said I hope you never bring those dogs down here — they’d go nuts! The dogs, in fact, never come in the station at all — they stay in the patrol cars when on duty and live at home with their cop partners when off duty.
We walked up and down the aisles. I saw a baby stroller: a shoplifter’s trick — it has a hidden compartment. I noticed a wrapped Christmas present: false bottom, another shoplifter’s trick. A large box was labeled “Caution: bloody clothing.” They showed me big freezers and refrigerators too — not for ice cream or vegetables, not for storing one’s lunch.
Then Karen showed me one even deeper level of security: a walk-in vault, opened only by a palm-print scanner that responds to Karen and two others. This is where the cash and the less bulky drugs (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine) are kept. I was allowed to peek in but not get a close look: certainly the first, and most likely the last, chance in my life to see stacks of $100 bills!
As we left the evidence room I lifted my arms and asked if anyone wanted to frisk me to make sure I hadn’t snatched something. They all laughed, half at my joke and half at my idiocy: Blackstone the Magician couldn’t palm a dust ball out of this place, the gold in Fort Knox would sleep more comfortably here.
From“The Red Book”: The Lipstick Bandit. Everyone dreams of breaking new ground, furthering the art form a little, making the next scientific discovery, the next design advancement. Fairly early in his career — in the late ’70s — Bill had one of those breakthroughs. He was the first American forensic specialist (it had been done in England a few times) to prove that lip prints are as reliable an identification technique as fingerprints. Granted, most of us don’t leave our lip prints in as many places as our fingerprints, but sometimes, sometimes… There’s one photo, in black and white, illustrating this case: a smudge on some glass. A very large — six-foot-six — man in full drag: wig, makeup, dress, and blue fuzzy slippers, robs a bank. He loses one of the slippers in the parking lot during his getaway. A pretty good clue. But Bill found a better one: the bandit, while running out of the bank, bumped into the front door with his face, leaving a smudge of pink lipstick on the glass. Bill took scrapings of the lipstick, photos, lifted the print. When the fbi showed up (the feds always show up at bank robberies), they’d never heard of this technique. Sometime later the bank robber was busted in Washington but broke out of jail before they could make a match. Still later, he’s nabbed again, and this time the lipstick print is irrevocably matched to his lips. In a lot of fields this might have led to a big pay raise or promotion. Instead, Bill, a modest man, got a letter from the fbi, which he’s hung on the wall of his office, thanking him for his contribution to the science of evidence analysis. Bill calls this case the “Cinderella Bank Robber” — because of the lost slipper. But when I inadvertently referred to it as “The Lipstick Bandit,” he liked that. hbo recently called him about including it in a show on unusual crimes. He was nonplussed about this: his job was done, on this case, a long time ago.
“Down here” — that’s how everyone refers to the crime lab, evidence rooms, and offices. To get a sense of where the crimes take place, the bloody, sad remnants of which end up “down here,” I rode along with Sgt. David Inumerable, married and with two young teenage sons. He’s 38, looks much younger, with thick jet-black hair combed straight back. He was born and raised in Chula Vista and has worked for the PD for 17 years. He loves the city, his hometown, knows every street. He practically rhapsodized about growing up here, the natural beauty — ocean on one side, mountains on the other — how the town’s grown and changed. The crime rate in Chula Vista is declining, as it seems to be in most places nationally, and I asked Sergeant Inumerable to what he attributed this. He said, as many cops do in California with its three strikes law, that one thing is: more bad guys in jail longer. Community involvement is a big part of it too, he said: “There’s a different feeling out there on the streets — let me put it this way — now people wave with five fingers more often than with one.” He gave a little credit to the popular get-the-bad-guys/real-cops shows on TV but said they don’t capture the true spirit of the job: “This job is about 90 percent bullshit, 10 percent glory — but the 10 percent glory makes up for the bullshit.” He thinks something as simple as sending cops into schools to make it clear from an early age that they’re not the enemy is vitally important, and works.
I asked Sergeant Inumerable if we could drive by the apartment complex where Jenny Rojas was killed. We did. Of course, it didn’t look like a place where a child was tortured, murdered. What place would?
A radio call came in about a fight. Glancing at his watch and noting the address, he knew what was up. School had just let out, some junior high kids were tossing rights and lefts. He drove to a corner where he thought the kids would run to when they heard the cops were coming: sure enough, as we pulled up, three out-of-breath kids came around the corner. They wore school uniforms — ties and jackets, ties askew, white shirts flapping. Trying to keep a straight face, he gave them a little lecture on not running from the cops. While we were there, another cruiser pulled up. Sergeant Inumerable conferred with its driver, and then this officer, Tom Biondo, a friend of Sergeant Inumerable’s, said, “Wait a second, I want to show you something.” He got an envelope out of his patrol car. He was beaming the unmistakable grin of a new father — they were recent pictures of his baby daughter. He and his wife had wanted a child for 14 years, he told me. He’s on the department’s swat team, in his late 30s, and arguably the happiest man on the planet. Later, I saw him lead a mini-swat approach, carrying a very large weapon, into a house that had been home-invaded and still held the possibility of the armed intruder. He wasn’t smiling then, but when he came out (the guy with the gun was gone) and put away the weapon, he was grinning again.
This home invasion was across the street and a few doors down from the house of Tom Leonard, an off-duty Chula Vista PD watch commander. He stood at the end of his driveway with his wife, and after Sergeant Inumerable backed up the other officer’s entry into the house (during which he advised me to duck between two squad cars) and everything was secure, we walked over to say hello. Sergeant Inumerable was thinking about buying a guitar for one of his boys. Leonard’s son, who had just arrived with a pal of his, is an avid guitar player. The kid gave him some advice, said he’d be glad to help.
A little later, Sergeant Inumerable told me he’s being considered for a job as an investigator for the San Diego DA’s office: regular hours, weekends off, minimal danger. He seemed torn between taking the offer and staying with regular police work. I don’t know what he ultimately decided, but it is clear to me that he’s served well and given back a great deal to this city of his birth.
Bill Johnson told me about a recurring dream. He gets a call to go to a crime scene in the middle of the night. He goes alone and he’s not familiar with where he’s going. Finally, he arrives at a big old house on a hill. It’s dark, cold. No cops are on the scene as they usually are, no cars, no yellow barrier tape. A winding sidewalk leads him up to a back door slamming in the wind. There’s a dim light on the porch. And then he notices a small river of blood coming out the door, over the stoop, and down “step by step by step.” He says to himself: “This must be the place.” And he goes in.