‘No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you can never escape your own memories…’
I stand quietly ahead of a small, industrial lake. It is a cold January morning in Washington D.C. Beside me stands a man I have spent merely a day with, a man who has driven me around his city to show me scenes of some of the worst killings he has ever investigated. His name is Brad Garrett. He is known by his colleagues in the Federal Bureau of Investigation as ‘Doctor Death’. During his twenty-five year career in the DC area, no homicide has taken place that has not engaged his professional attention. He has no children. He and his wife do not share a surname. Very few people know where they live, and his neighbours are not aware of what he does for a living. This is the way his life has to be.
The remark he made, the comment regarding never being able to escape his own memories was in reference to a case that still wakes him on the cool, semi-darkness of early morning, a case that still haunts him without respite or relief.
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I do not think about it,” he adds quietly.
The case of which he speaks is very disturbing.
A fisherman, casting lines out into that small, industrial lake, saw a thirty-gallon trash can float to the surface of the water. The lid, once wired to the can itself, had come loose, and in the can he could see two heads. The Police were called, and once the can was dragged onto land it was discovered that a Vietnamese woman and her two year-old child, both kidnapped some five months earlier, were inside the can. From all appearances it seemed that they had been tied together and put into the can alive, face-to-face. No-one was ever arrested for the crime. No-one has ever been questioned. No-one knows what happened, and – more than likely – no-one ever will.
Earlier that day Brad had taken me to a branch of Starbuck’s where three young and innocent workers were murdered in a failed late-night robbery. There is a memorial to the three dead kids, and part of that memorial is a series of three boxes, within which can be found small mementoes placed there by family members. That case was Brad’s first active DC murder investigation after an earlier, lengthy case which had seen him tracking a known terrorist and murderer out of the US into the Middle East, arresting that terrorist, smuggling him back into the US under the very noses of that Middle Eastern government, securing his charge, arraignment, trial, conviction and execution. That terrorist had assassinated three active CIA operatives on US soil and then fled justice.
Before even that we had spoken of his work on the infamous Washington Sniper case.
Brad Garrett was a quiet and methodical man. He talked, but he did not talk easily. His responses to my questions were measured and precise, as if he was always aware of what he was saying, careful to say enough, but never too much. But it seemed he enjoyed speaking of his career, his life, his ‘passion for the truth’. He knew that his career had become an addiction, a word he used himself, and he knew that he would never escape the need to know what was behind the scenes, what was on the other side of the crime scene tape. He had seen the worst that the world had to offer, and yet kept coming back for more.
I left Brad Garrett by the side of that lake in Washington, D.C., and I drove up into Virginia. I entered a town called Fallschurch in Fairfax County, and here I met a woman called June Boyle. June was a thirteen-year veteran Homicide detective, her years before Homicide having been spent in Robbery, Sex-Crimes, and many other areas, and alongside Brad Garrett she had been one of the lead investigators in that very same Washington Sniper case. June was immediately charming, very warm, very human, and she drove us to a park where we sat on benches near a snow-covered playground and spoke of her life in the Police Department. The surroundings were surreal, but the conversation was very real indeed.
The Washington or ‘Beltway Sniper’ case was the most important investigation on the east coast for as many years as anyone could remember. Events transpired during three weeks in October of 2002 which resulted in the deaths of ten people, the critical injury of three others, and the collective inhabitants of Washington, Maryland and Virginia enduring a reign of fear the like of which they had never been experienced before, and would be unlikely to ever experience again.
Without any understandable rationale or motive, John Allen Muhammad (41) and Lee Boyd Malvo (17) went on a killing spree, travelling in a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice Sedan, into the trunk of which a hole had been bored, and through that hole – employing a stolen Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic .223-caliber rifle – they had fired upon innocent citizens. A landscape gardener, a retired carpenter, a babysitter, a woman vacuuming her car in a gas station, a thirteen year-old on the way to school. Muhammad and Malvo shot these people from a range of fifty to one hundred yards. At such a short distance, a .223 caliber bullet does a remarkable amount of damage to the human body.
Detective June Boyle was the detective who finally interviewed and secured a confession from Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger of the assassins. She spent six and a half hours with him. She secured his confidence and his trust. She arranged his food, she sent out for veggie burgers, for boxes of raisins, at one point sitting with a handful of raisins as he took them one by one and ate them. She got him to open up, to really start talking, and with that information the case had a foundation and a grounding that would never have been possible without her. Despite the fact that the Attorney General authorised Malvo’s trial to take place in Virginia, and thus gave the jury the opportunity to execute him, the jury decided not to. They gave Malvo life in prison. I asked June how she felt about this, and in a split second the warm and forgiving appearance vanished, within a heartbeat the humour and humanity was gone, and she said, matter-of-factly, that Malvo should be dead.
“There are some people in this world that should be dead,” she continued, “Lee Boyd Malvo is one of them.”
It was a glimpse behind the face that she wore for the world. In that moment I realised that despite her generosity of spirit, despite the fact that she was a tremendously big-hearted person, she was also a police detective, and had been witness to some of the very worst kind of people the world had to offer.
“This is a lifestyle, a vocation, something that you can never leave behind,” she told me. “When I am away from it, even though it is terrible, I still miss the rush, the excitement, the buzz of a new case, a new lead, the feeling that it was going somewhere…”
At one point towards the end of our discussion she showed me two cellphones, one from her left coat pocket, one from her right.
“This one,” she said, holding out the phone in her right hand, ‘is my personal phone. I might as well leave it at home. It never rings. No-one ever calls me.”
She paused and smiled wryly.
“But this one,” she said, holding out her left hand, “is my work phone. It rings all the time, and every time it rings there’s a dead person at the other end. It could be a domestic abuse case where the wife has finally tied of her husband’s cheating and put a kitchen knife through his heart. It could be a gangland killing. It could be a hit and run. It could be a twelve year-old girl in pieces in a dumpster behind a derelict hotel. I never know what I will find, but it is always bad. Just when you think people have done the very worst that they can to one another, you find someone has gone and done something even more terrible. There is no limit to the imaginative ideas applied to the destruction of other human beings.”
This is a reality that is hard to face, and yet is a profound and disturbing truth. With Brad, with June, there is an intensity, a passion, a need to see what further darkness lies behind the façade of society. Where any ‘normal’ person would shy away from looking, such people as these look harder. But who is the more ‘normal’ – those who seek the truth, or those who evade it? I believe, perhaps, that Brad and June are at the very least fully apprised of what men and women are capable of doing to one another, and thus are not overwhelmed by it. They also appreciate and accept that such individuals – the ones who shoot and stab, those who strangle and mutilate others – are in the tiny minority. It has been said that that which you can face will never become your master. Perhaps, in seeking the most fear-inducing realities of existence, they have become – to some degree – fearless.
But both of them speak of their lives like there was no choice for them. This was something they had to do. Never a matter of if, but when.
Later, interviews complete, alone in a hotel room in a strange city three and a half thousand miles from home, I contemplate my own place in all of this. I am the journalist, the spectator, the voyeur, the eyewitness to all of this. This a country I was not born in, and yet choose to write about. I will always be a tourist, nothing more nor less. I am a stranger in a strange land, and yet I am also compelled to dig deeper, to look beyond the façade, to find what lies beneath.
Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’. You didn’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days. I concur with his viewpoint. I am compelled to do this, incomparable perhaps to the work of people like Brad Garrett and June Boyle, but still a compulsion. I have no choice. I have to ask. I have to step closer. I have to look, and then look again. I have to remember what I asked, what was said in response, what I felt, what I perceived, and from this I have to create my own realities, my own universe, my own cast of characters who will walk in those spaces where people fear to go.
Sometimes my wife stops me working, if only for a little while.
“You are too intense, too involved,” she says. “I know you have to be, I know that this is the way you are, but every once in a while you need to let go. Take a walk, come spend some time with the family. Have a rest from the terrible, terrible people you seem so devoted to spending your time with…”
And she is right. Of course she is right.
I walk away, just for a little while, a few hours perhaps, but I can never really let go. I want to hear from Brad Garrett’s own lips how it was to find the dead woman and her child in the trash can. I want to hear June Boyle tell me again what it felt like to look into the eyes of a man who had just woken on the morning of his own execution. I want to see what they saw. I want to feel what they felt. I want to know so I can write about it, share it with others, evoke emotions, capture attention. Why, I do not know. Why do any of us do the things we do. Because we have to? Perhaps. I am not concerned with the answer to that question. My interest lies elsewhere.
I spent a week in Washington, D.C., capital of one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. But the criminals here are just the same as everywhere else. The killings are just as pointless. The lives wasted are no more valuable than anywhere else on the planet.
I spend a few of my final hours in this city in the company of Alyce. Alyce is thirty-one, a mother of two. Her son is nine and lives with his grandma. Alyce’s daughter, getting on for three years of age, lives with Alyce. I am not going to give you Alyce’s surname or the names of her children for obvious reasons. Alyce, for ten years, was a heroin addict. She was homeless, destitute, broke, and a junkie. At one moment I asked after the whereabouts of her daughter’s father. ‘Well, he lives in the same doorway where I used to live…’
Alyce has just finished the third year of her medical studies. She has been off heroin for a little longer than that. She has another two years to go, and when she graduates as a nurse she wants to specialise in helping those who are adversely affected by drugs. She has recovered her relationship with her parents and her siblings. She has secured low-income housing and lives in a really nice house (because she has made it so), and she is testament to the fact that people can survive.
Alyce is generous, warm, friendly, talkative, very open about her life and her personal experiences, and she has an optimistic outlook for the future. I ask her about Obama, the possible changes, the political and cultural future of America, and she smiles wryly. She says, ‘Race doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what color the President is. He seems to be a smart man. The last one wasn’t smart. That’s the thing that will make a difference.’ A very astute observation. While the rest of the world is talking about what colour the President is, someone right there in the middle of it sees it for what it is. Is he smart, or is he dumb? That’s the thing that will make a difference.
It is my last full day in the US capital, and though I had accomplished what I set out to do, I also felt that I had looked through a window into something that would have ordinarily been unattainable. Tourists don’t get into the Washington Post, they don’t talk to FBI agents or homicide detectives, they don’t walk through low-income housing complexes and speak with recovered heroin addicts about the trials and tribulations of being sick and poor and a parent, and yet somehow possessing a strength of spirit sufficient not only to survive those experiences, but to then dedicate the rest of their lives to helping people escape from the same terrible circumstances.
On Sunday morning I went out to Columbia Street. I stood on the street where Catherine Sheridan was murdered at the start of A Simple Act of Violence.
In a strange way this was more sobering than anything else.
I write fiction. I create characters and put them in fabricated circumstances, and whether I write for the sake of entertainment, or I write to evoke an emotion, or I write simply for pleasure, I am still writing fiction.
Standing there on Columbia Street and thinking about Catherine Sheridan, so soon after having spoken to Brad Garrett about the Vietnamese woman and her baby, after having spent time with June Boyle and listened to her talk of the Washington Sniper case, the arrest and interrogation of Lee Boyd Malvo, the fact that the jury saw pictures of his victims, innocent people with their heads blown apart, and then were confronted with pictures of Malvo as a baby and were sufficiently influenced on a sympathetic level to overturn the death penalty…standing on that street and talking about a fictional character made me so much more aware of the real people. The ones that do die. The ones that are murdered. Sobering, to say the least.
I took a great deal of memories away from Washington. I think they are things that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and will certainly inform and influence my writing.
I am so often asked why I write about America. I am often challenged, accused of trying to be something I am not.
I disagree. I tell stories. That’s what I do. I have always done this, and I believe I always will. I feel I have a duty and a responsibility to engage and inform and educate and entertain. I believe that there are things I can show people that they otherwise would never see. I believe this is a privilege, and it is something that I feel very fortunate to do.
I am one of life’s travellers. I go there, I look, I see, I report back. I try to bring home the emotion, at least that if nothing else.
I am trying to live as many lives as I can within a single lifetime, and some of those lives are filled with darkness, and some are not.
Each is important as the next.
This is something I cannot escape, just like Brad Garrett cannot escape his memories.