Tuesday, August 09, 2005

8/9/05 WARNING: GRAPHIC/DISTURBING

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.

16 comments:

Higgy said...

OY! Why WOULD you have your kids staring at the giant BBQ?

Time to go smack some sense into Bubba...

Polly P.I. said...

Or Bubba's wife, Ruth Ann.

Brat said...

Polly and higgy ... Tell me where you get enough "sense" to smack in to people like that. I have a long list I'd smack if I thought it would do any good.

Personally, I think they are immune. Or their "walls" are just so dense you can't get through.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

"Or their "walls" are just so dense you can't get through."

That's just because you're not hitting them hard enough.

MOTW said...

How old were the kids and mama?

Polly P.I. said...

Kids looked to be about 3 and 6 yeas. Momma was probably 25.

MOTW said...

I also wonder why, in olden times, people would flock to witness a hanging or beheading. No television, radio, computer, cellphone, videogames ... boredom?

Polly P.I. said...

MOTW,

I saw this a lot. I have had people hanging out the windows of condemned buildings to get a glimpse of a murder victim. I've had whole families lining the road like they were waiting for a parade when a motorcyclist crashed and got smeared across a residential street.

And I suppose I can understand it, in a sense. Curiosity. But when people let their kids see that stuff I think it's crossing a line.

Susan said...

Yick. I've never had a desire to see things like that. Car accidents, I want to get far away. If I had an accident, I would not want people watching.

The problem is, as a news person, if I see an accident I should stop and get info if it is newsworthy. I'd rather check with the police/highway patrol later...rather than at the scene.

MOTW said...

Wow. I'd almost wanna do a little two-step to get their attention and ask 'em, "Is this what you wanted to see today?"

Yeah, good call on your part, checking mama out for signs of abuse. Sorry to hear the kids looked like they'd seen it before. At the risk of sounding redundant - wow.

You are becoming more skilled at your blogging. Thanks again.

Olga said...

My nephew, Ben, has a friend his age (9) whose parents let him play "Grand Theft Auto" on PS2. My sister won't even let Ben play inside his friend's house.
I can't imagine allowing your children to watch burned bodies being brought out of a house.
Good thinking, getting her to go someplace else.

Brat said...

motw - "do a little two step" The visual that pops into my head is the scene in Young Frankenstein where the "monster" and the Doctor are dancing on stage. That's about how graceful I am. I'd be the monster..... clump, clump, clump "Putting on the Ritz"

Leetie said...

"UTTIN ONNA ITTTTZZZZ!"
-The Monster

B-Dubbs said...

It's amazing how fasinated people are with injury and death. Think of all the rubber necking (and yes... sometimes I am shamefully guilty as charged). During my Spring Break this year my boyfriend and I went to the Canadian side of Niagra Falls. While we were there a kid committed suicide off the pedestrian bridge. People FLOCKED to the bridge to see the body on the frozen river below them. Sadly, suicide like this is all too familiar to people up there. The police officer blocking the bridge said it happened every few weeks! According to him it was only a "big deal" this time because the river couldn't wash the body away. We were so disgusted at people's attitude. We spent the 2 1/2 hrs. or so we were stuck in Canada to go to a Starbucks. LOL...guess some people would say that's just as bad...

Thor said...

gawking is one of my biggest pet peeves. whenever i go by an auto accident, i get so disturbed by how many people slow down to stare at the accident, putting others at risk. part of my anger is because i was an emt for a while and was called to a scene of a truck-car accident where a 16-year-old girl was killed. there were people who heard about the call on their scanners and drove by the scene of the accident literally 5 times before traffic was diverted... just wanted to yell, "what the hell is your problem? don't you realize what happened here? is your nosiness really going to make the situation better? or are you just glad it's someone else and not you..."

sorry for the rant. i just get really emotional about this topic...

Susan said...

Amazing timing. I posted my comment yesterday.

I got a call last night that yesterday afternoon a body was found here in town. I had to call the police for information, and they were still working with the state law enforcement division on the case, on the scene.

I stayed far away, making sure I didn't go anywhere near the site on my way home.