4:16 a.m. Today is my last day on this central Wisconsin case. Nothing at all happened yesterday. There was no vehicle in the drive. No lights on. Not even a dog running around. I'm wondering if the guy is on vacation, but I can't call because my client is forbidding phone and physical contact.
I take a sip of my tea and watch the sun rising through my rearview mirror. I consider how long I should hang around this morning if there is still no activity. Probably until 10am. I am very much looking forward to getting home. I really hope I remembered to take out the garbage before I left this time...
Well, I thought I'd talk about fire deaths today. There were always a lot of them in the short winter months of north Florida. People brought out old space heaters that would fall over in the night or have frayed cords from rodents chewing on them all summer. Or they would place them right next to the bed and the blankets would start on fire.
To compound the problem many of the old houses downtown had been converted from large homes to several small apartments with bars on the windows to keep criminals out. Unfortunately, those bars would also succeed in keeping people in during a house fire. And those dry wood-frame structures, after a century or more of the hot Florida sun, would go up in a fury of flames that left precious little time for those inside to get out.
The first housefire case I went on was an old mobile home that somebody had placed on a small parcel of land near a dirty little stream. There were a few neighbors who had the same idea so that a make-shift trailer park was the result. I drive down the long dirt road that leads to the site and before it even comes into view I smell the acrid tang of burnt paint and metal.
As I approach, I note that, for the most part, the roof and walls of the trailer no longer exist. Everything is soaking wet. Forensically speaking, a housefire is a very difficult case. What evidence isn't destroyed by the fire is destroyed or altered in the firefighting effort.
I step out of the Explorer, cross the police line and walk toward the house. I slosh through puddles of standing water and curse as I feel the mud sneaking in through the laces of my shoes. Smoke is still rises from beneath the remaining floorboards and I note melted insulation pooled in random blobs among the rubble. Portions of framework poke up in jagged points like broken bone, intimating the basic floorplan of the interior. A bedroom. A kitchen. Another bedroom. A family room.
I join Det. Grizzly near and the chief from the fire department. There are two vics inside. Fire appears to have started in the kitchen. The fireman shows us the v-shaped burn pattern above the stove and the scaly texture of the remaining wood that indicate the point of origin. We speculate that the owner of the trailer was cold and had no heater so he turned on the oven and left the door open. This is a popular (and extremely dangerous) way of heating a residence in north Florida, unfortunately.
Sometime in the middle of the night the fire broke out. The owner's body is still lying in the hallway, facedown. I can barely tell there's a person there. He just blends in with the rest of the black, burnt surroundings. I hope he wasn't burned alive and that he died of smoke inhalation, but I suspect that was not the case. He didn't jump out the window, so I think that he must have been trying ot get to the second victim, his brother. The brother is still in the bed of the second bedroom. Evidence suggests that this was the last area the fire reached. I wonder to myself how he could have slept through the rucus that must have been going on around him until I note the empty liter jug of vodka next to the bed.
Dwight shows up and for once, he is not expected to bring out the bodies. The structure is too dangerous and the firefighters will have to go in. The first body is brought out. It is a truly macabre sight. Fabric from his jeans is burned into the blackened flesh of his legs. Muscles have contract under the heat of the fire so that his hands are curled back into claws and his mouth is agape. His lips have been burned off so that he appears to be snarling. And his eyelids are gone so that his shriveled eyeballs stare out blankly at the sky. His ears are charred nubs and most of the skin on his head is gone except for a patch that was protected by his arm...there a tuft of brown hair and scalp still remain. The suture lines in the skull have opened somewhat as the bone shrank under the intense heat. It smells like barbecue and burned hair and I almost wretch.
As the second body is pulled from the ashes on a stretcher, I notice that a woman and her two children are standing at the fence in the next yard, watching silently. My blood boils. Why would somebody let their kids see such a horrible thing?
I direct two patrol officers to hold up a sheet to block the view while an evidence technician and I walk over to the fence. The tech is as angry as I am and she says, "Could you please take your children inside, ma'am? This is not something kids should be seeing." The woman is heavy. She's got red hair and pale, pale skin. She looks at us contemptuously and replies, "But my husband sent us outside so he could sleep." Images of abuse fill my mind and I immediately start searching her exposed skin for bruises. "Just take them away from here, please." I say more kindly.
The kids stare up at us silently. They look bored, if you can imagine. Like they'd been around the block a few times and this was just another day. The woman heads to the front of the house and yells at her children to follow her. The kids silently turn and walk away.