Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Trey R. Barker: BOTH BARRELS

                                                            Looking For Mr. Good Boy
                                                        By Trey R. Barker

I heard the murmurs in the hallway, the half-uttered statements at the water cooler. 
“…election fraud….”
“…dirty sheriff….”
Eleven years ago, I moved to north central Illinois and got a job at the local newspaper.  The Sheriff’s resignation and guilty pleas had ended just a few months earlier so tongues still wagged with the white-hot intensity of a blow torch.
Because I grew up in Texas, where we grow dirty sheriffs the size of skyscrapers, where corruption is not just embedded in our DNA…it is our DNA, where election fraud and retaliation ain’t nothing but another day.
A corrupt sheriff?  Boooorrring….
That entire story was yesterday’s headlines, baby.  Yeah, The New Yorker had done stories and the AP had been all over it; the Chicago Tribune had had reporters trolling north central Illinois for months and the Illinois Attorney General had investigated everyone that sheriff had ever talked to, ever arrested, ever slept with, ever even breathed on for crap’s sake.
Besides, I was chasing down the details of a different cop story. ( ). 
In that one, a young officer had tried to serve an arrest warrant on a two-bit bully in a tiny town just outside’a Nowheresville.  The officer ended up dead and the murderer killed another couple in front of their young daughter before blasting it out with cops in a shoot-out that left the murderer with a bullet in his face but somehow alive.
With the exception of trial, the mechanics of that story had played out, but I was tracking down details.  I had a friend who’s fiancée was law enforcement.  The fiancée thought maybe, if I showed the right kind of interest, the cops involved might talk to me.  Not about the shots and the deaths, but about the adrenaline, about the thoughts and pounding hearts.  About what it was like to taste death.
So while my newspaper colleagues were talking about the local sheriff, my interest was miles and miles away.
Up until the water cooler talk shifted.
“…what about the broken gloves…?”
“…and the letter….”
“…no way you can prove intent….”
            “…doesn’t matter…murder is murder….”
            Whoa…hang on.  Murder is a whole different thang, baby. 
            This wasn’t the sheriff’s re-election campaign trying to raffle off a $12,000 Harley Davidson but not selling enough tickets to pay for it so choosing a ‘winner’ who didn’t actually exist (and said winner’s name might have been…might have been…the name the dirty sheriff used when he was undercover on the drug task force) before destroying all the remaining tickets and most of the records.  This wasn’t billing the county for more than 200 cell phone calls made from Illinois to his girlfriend in Texas (Lubbock, in fact, where at the time the sheriff was calling her, I was attending Texas Tech University…how is that for some fucked up synchronicity?).  This wasn’t lying to a grand jury.
            This was murder; Cain and Abel stuff.
            That caught my attention.
            From Estate of Sims v. County of Bureau (7th Cir. #01-2884)
            “In 1999 TMS suffered a fatal heart attack in her home in Tiskilwa, Illinois.   The only person present at the time was Bureau County Sheriff, whose alleged campaign fraud was the subject of a story S was investigating for the local newspaper.”  
            Not the paper I worked for, but one in another county.  And why was another county covering election fraud rather than the local boys?  Because the local boys were scared of retaliation…from the sheriff.
            Then again, so was she.     
            “She had expressed concern to others that [the sheriff] might retaliate against her for writing the story.” (7th Cir.)
            So the sheriff types up a letter and takes it to the post office for bulk mailing to the reporter’s entire hometown.  That letter accused the reporter’s husband of “…past and current felonious criminal conduct.” (7th Cir.)
            I never knew exactly what bullshit the letter was slinging, but there were rumors….
            Whatever it was, it was harsh enough and horrible enough to give the reporter a heart attack.  She was a big woman with a well-known heart condition and when the family sued, they said the sheriff knew the letter would give her a fatal heart attack.  That part is bullshit.  The sheriff didn’t know what the reaction would be.  Yeah, the odds played in his favor, but he didn’t know for sure.
            “At approximately 12:30 p.m., S did suffer a fatal heart attack. [The sheriff] radioed for an ambulance at 12:47 p.m., but by the time the paramedics arrived at 12:54 p.m., S was not breathing and did not have a pulse.” (7th Cir.)
            Now let’s take a look at that right there.  Heart attack at 12:30, he radioed for help at 12:47.  Seventeen minutes, roughly, of watching her gasp and wheeze and clutch her chest and arm.  Did she beg for help?  Was she even able to talk? 
            Before he radioed for help, he called the post office to ask about possible criminal penalties for bulk-mailing defamatory letters and whether or not those letters could be traced back to the person who mailed them.
            Dude was worried about the Feds sniffing around on his post office beef and while he sorted that out, she lay at his feet fucking dying.
            When the inevitable investigation got rolling, when the questions came fast and furious at this sheriff who suddenly found himself under siege, he told everyone he’d wanted to save her by performing CPR…but his rubber gloves kept breaking.
            Not that one broke and he didn’t have any others, but that they kept breaking.  In other words, he replaced them and they broke and he replaced them again and they broke…and again and again.
            (As a quick aside, I now work in law enforcement and I’ve got an entire box of latex gloves in my squad car.  Probably 200 gloves in that box.  The thing is?  I’ve never broken a single glove.  I’ve searched houses and cars, people and even animals wearing bandannas and sweaters.  Never broken a glove.)
            So this was the story, and not even all of the story, there are lots more incidents that came to light during the investigation.  But ultimately, in a deal with the Attorney General’s office, the sheriff pleaded to felony campaign fraud.
Honestly, I’m not sure causation could ever be proven between him and her fatal heart attack, but circumstantially it was fairly straight up.
So the why a man would – allegedly – go to these lengths to head off a story about low-rent campaign fraud rolled around in my head for ten years.  I never really thought about doing anything with it literarily, but I did study on it from time to time.
Then along came Ron Earl.  Sent me an email saying, roughly, write me a story or I’ll blow your balls off with a really small gun so that it doesn’t actually kill you but takes you a while to bleed to death.
How can I turn down an invite like that?
So I started a story.  And it blew.  And I started another.  And it blew worse.  For whatever reason, I couldn’t write squat.
In frustration, I decided to tell Ron Earl to eat my shorts.  I couldn’t get anything working for him so he should move on.  I put the project outta my head and kept working on the new novel (Exit Blood, available next March from Down and Out Books, if you can dig it!).
But while I worked the novel, my brain percolated around the sheriff and the next damn thing I knew, the story “A Good Son” was done.  Obviously some of the details are different, but I did follow out the rumors of what I’d heard was in the letter.
Other than the sheriff showing a letter to a large woman and standing by while she died, nothing in my story happened.
As far as you know, anyway.  And I won’t tell you any different unless you buy really good whiskey…
…and lots of it.


Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Thanks for posting this.

Trey - Very powerful! Interesting how those 'little scandals' can lead to something so much bigger...

Charles Gramlich said...

Anywhere humans gather, they will tell stories, and most of the time they are about scandals. There may actually be an adaptive reason for that. Cool piece!

Kieran Shea said...


Love that dude.

Katherine Tomlinson said...

Wow...forget the fiction, this factual account is riveing. Must go buy anthology. Thanks for sharing Patti.

Naomi Johnson said...

I just read Trey's story this evening, so I'm glad to read how it came about. And it's nice to see that contrary to Hollywood-think, sheriffs like this aren't confined to the rural South.