Originally published in Over My Dead Body! The Mystery Magazine Online
D. V. Bennett
Standing in the hallway outside of the box, Judy Altmeyer told herself that she had no choice but to suck it up and take the hit. Perhaps the press wouldn’t notice this kind of screw up by a young ADA. Maybe their collective minds would be focused on something else. That would be hard to imagine, because the trial had been a media event for six months.
She looked through her side of the two-way and saw Jarod Piper sitting at the table, shackled for her protection. Two hours earlier, she had been presented with new evidence which shed heavy doubt on the State of New Mexico’s case against him. It began to look like the wrong man had been arrested, that in fact Mr. Piper wasn’t the ‘Cul-de-sac Killer’, but her friend Chuck Bertoli from the FBI’s BRIU didn’t buy it.
A personal interview with Piper had been blocked by the court, and Chuck had flatly rejected reading any independent psychological evaluations, but he had reviewed all of the original crime scene reports and photos. Seating himself in the gallery every day of the trial, he watched carefully, and he remained convinced that Piper completely fit the profile of the man who had murdered the Smith and Briones families one month apart, nearly two years ago.
She was early, and after talking with Chuck twenty-five minutes before, Judy had begun hearing the melody of that damn song, the voice of Diana Ross replaying on a loop in her brain. She drew in a breath and held it for a moment before the officer opened the door for her.
Jarod Piper looked up at her as she entered and stood across from him, “Counselor.”
“I think it’s time we called one another by first names, don’t you, Ms. Altmeyer?”
He was just as congenial now as he always was, even before knowing that he was stepping off of the path toward a lethal injection.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. Where’s your attorney, Ms. Colson?”
“She insisted on being present. I insisted that she wait outside. No matter. She will be listening in.”
Judy glanced at the two-way mirror. She hadn’t seen Maxine when she had walked in.
“Perhaps we’ll wait until she gets here, then.”
There were four slow knocks on the glass, followed by two quick taps. He smiled at her, “Speak of the devil, and just as instructed. I guess we can begin. Maxine tells me that you have some extremely good news for me.”
She avoided direct eye-contact at first, frequently glancing away as she spoke, “Mr. Piper, I’ve come here to tell you that new evidence has surfaced that should serve to exonerate you. I would like to apologize on behalf of the State of New Mexico for any inconvenience you have endured. All charges against you are to be summarily dropped. You’re to be released into your own custody, very shortly.”
Piper sat quietly for a few moments, resting his chin on his extended fingertips, “I’m a little curious. Why did you come here yourself? You didn’t have to. I mean, this is pretty unusual isn’t it? You coming down here to do something like this?”
“I submitted the order for your arrest, I thought it only fitting that I be the person to release you from custody.”
“Well then, thank you for doing this personally. It means a great deal to me. I appreciate it.” Piper looked from his shackled hands, and to the guard, twice.
“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Piper,” Judy said, “We still have strict legal protocols in effect that we’re bound to follow. I can’t officially release you until the paper is inked by Judge Hendricks. It shouldn’t take very long. They were sent up a short time ago, and she will be signing them as soon as she returns to her office. I should remind you that your rights are still protected. That includes your right to an attorney, as well as your right to remain silent.”
“Of course, thank you.” He smiled, waving at the two-way, and folded his hands on the table in front of himself. “May I ask what new evidence you have?”
“Certainly,” Judy said. “The Bureau of Prisons alerted us about a federal prisoner, housed at Florence ADMAX.”
“Admax?” Piper said, “What’s that?”
“It’s a maximum security facility. The prisoner has signed a full confession to the murders, Mr. Piper.”
“Please…” he raised his hands as far up as the chains would allow, turning his palms up, “Jarod.”
“Jarod,” Judy permitted herself a slight smile.
‘Guys like this don’t really relax in an interview,’ Chuck Bertoli had said. ‘They seek control. They bury their rage.’
“Such a terrible thing, Judy,” Piper said. “Those poor families, and I really do feel very sorry for their loved ones. It must be so difficult for them to be on such an emotional roller coaster. First they’re told that they can focus their attention on me to have their questions answered, but now their sensibilities in this matter will be thrown into confusion, as they’re told to look elsewhere for someone to pin their sorrows on.” He dipped his chin when he said the word ‘sorrows’.
“Yes, it will be very difficult for them, but we’ll do our best to walk them through it, if we can.”
“And who is this prisoner you’re speaking of?”
“The prisoner claims to have been working in Albuquerque that August. He insists that he committed the last murders on the evening of the seventeenth and moved on shortly thereafter.”
“And you and your team are willing to accept this confession?”
“There’s evidence to prove that he was in Albaquerque during the time of the murders, and Judge Hendricks is expected to sign the order.”
“May I ask what the evidence is?”
“A detailed dossier will be given to Ms. Colson with all of the particulars as soon as possible.”
“Surely we can speak a little of it here, being that I’m about to be released.”
Into the arms of a loving, supportive family, Judy thought, none of whom she believed, knew what they would be getting back in the bargain.
She began to curse silently to herself. The song was threatening to become a serious distraction. She couldn’t wait to get to a radio so that she could listen to something else.
“He knew about the blood.”
“What about it?” “
“This prisoner knew all about the atomized blood.”
“I don’t understand. All of that has been in the news media.”
Two walls in each of the living rooms in both the Briones and Smith homes had been freshly painted. The killer had used a forty-year-old air-atomized paint gun to do the job, coating the walls with the blood of his victims. If it hadn’t been for the flies, the crime scene investigators might not have discovered it so quickly, the macabre work having been done so cleanly. The paint gun had been left on the back patio of the Briones home. A calling card.
“Yes, it was discussed at length at trial and in the media, but this person new the brand name of the paint gun that was used, a Jet Air Model 390. He also told other inmates and eventually a guard about this before the model was spoken of during the trial. No one in the prison system realized the significance of that until very recently.”
“This person, what is his name?”
“Protocols, Jarod. It will all be in the dossier. Would you like some coffee?”
Piper ignored the offer, disappointed, “I wouldn’t mind hearing you say the name of this man, Judy.”
“May I ask why it matters so much to you?”
“I guess you’ve never imagined what it must be like to have been in my position,” he said, “to hear you speak my own name so often, completely without mirth or compassion.”
“That’s true,” she said, “I haven’t given much thought to your side of it, but I believed you to be a cold-hearted, remorseless killer.”
“But now you know that isn’t true,” he said. “The name please, Judy. Would you tell me the name?”
“Alright, his name is Frederick Deacon.” She waited for any sign of recognition, but Piper’s face remained completely passive.
“The poor soul.”
“The poor soul?”
“Why yes, Judy. In your opening remarks at the trial, you said that the jury would come to understand that I am, ‘devoid of any normal and decent feelings regarding the value of human life’.”
“I did say that, yes.”
“You went into great detail about my education and upbringing, about my relationships with my cold, alcoholic mother and my philandering father, and how all of that pushed me toward my sociopathic tendencies and formed my murderous ethos…or something like that.”
“But in a little while,” she looked at her watch for emphasis, “you’ll be free, so what I may have said in court will be irrelevant.”
“It will be very relevant,” he shifted in his chair, “because I’ve changed.”
“Yes. Over the course of this trial, I’ve had to examine my life…evaluate my heart. You see, there isn’t anything I was accused of that I’m not completely capable of doing.”
“Oh yes, and having been accused of such heinous acts, especially by an esteemed officer of the court…let’s just say that I had to take a good, long look at myself. I’m guilty of enough sins, I’m afraid, but Mr. Deacon must truly be in a very dark place, don’t you think? I don’t envy the man for what he will be going through.”
“He won’t be going through much of anything for very long.”
“Oh?” Piper crossed his legs, “And why is that?”
“Part of the reason he confessed is that he’s been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, and he’s not been responding to treatment. He hasn’t long to live. Apparently he wanted to clear his conscience.”
“Do you believe in forgiveness, Judy?”
A loud tap and the turn of a bolt drew Judy’s eyes to the door. It swung open and the uniformed officer in the hallway motioned for her to come out.
“Excuse me Jarod,” she said, stepping out.
The officer closed the door behind her, whispering something to Judy, who squeezed in next to the three other people gathered in the tight hallway.
Detective Sergeant Tom Burns tipped his head to her as she stood next to him. He had been the arresting officer in the case. “We really gonna cut this freak loose?”
He took a step back to allow Judy to see Maxine Colson, standing to his left.
“Maxine,” Judy said.
“I hope you know that I object strenuously to this, Judy,” she said.
“You object to your client being exonerated?”
“You know what I mean,” Colson said, “I should be in there, and I’ll be filing a motion to suppress.”
“Your client made the request himself, Maxine. Anyway, we should be receiving word soon, and this will all be over.”
The escort officer leaned her head toward Judy, whispering to her again.
“Thank you, Officer,” Judy said, “Judge Hendricks is on her way back from the airport, and the release paperwork should be on its way here shortly after she arrives.” She excused herself and stepped back into the box, taking her seat across from Piper once more.
“Well, has my reprieve come through?”
“Not yet,” she said. “We’re no different than any other branch of the government. I’m afraid our wheels grind rather slowly.”
“I guess we can chat a little while longer then. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Where were we then…oh yes. Do you believe in forgiveness, Judy?”
“I believe in truth.”
“I believe truth itself.”
“Ah. ‘Et quid est veritas?”
She thought about it, “The truth is what…is.”
“Or perhaps you believe in the truth as you perceive it?”
“Truth is truth, regardless of what I think I see or believe. I can’t change it.”
“Back to my question then, do you believe in forgiveness?”
“Everyone needs some forgiveness.”
“Someone once told me that if you don’t live something, you don’t believe it. Do you think that’s an accurate statement?”
“In most cases I’d say that’s a fair assessment.”
“To that point then, in the courtroom, these past months, you haven’t believed that I’m innocent, because you haven’t lived to prove my innocence. You’ve lived to prove my guilt. Is that not true?”
“It’s what I’ve been trained for.”
“My life has been drastically changed since I was arrested seventeen months ago, particularly because of what you’ve tried to prove true. I would just like to know what you perceive as true now, regarding me.”
“There’s a man who says that he’s responsible for committing the crimes which you’ve been charged with. I see others saying that his confession is legitimate.”
“But you don’t believe that.”
“My job is to prove my case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“I’ve never thought you to be just another mindless legal automaton, and now you would have me believe otherwise.”
“Charges are based on evidence. I have to go where that evidence leads. The trail ended at your doorstep.”
“You’re speaking of the little girl.”
Eight-year-old Cindy Briones had suffered the same vicious assault that her family had endured. The crime scene investigators had initially thought her deceased when they had walked into the home.
Cindy’s mother and father, three sisters and two brothers had all bled out before the killer had removed their ligatures, and their bodies had all been positioned by him on sofas and chairs in the living room, the television left on, as if they were all still watching together.
Only Cindy’s tiny body had moved. After the killer had gone, she had fallen from her chair to the floor, and miraculously, she had survived.
“She identified you.”
“Obviously not very reliably.”
“She was seven. She was clearly a traumatized child.”
“She was the traumatized child who told us that the killer was the ‘rich man from TV, the one who sells all of the fancy cars with his father’. She’s an incredible little girl. She’s unbelievably strong.”
“Yes, she would have to be, bless her heart.”
“You sold her father a car, and you sold one to Mr. and Mrs. Smith too.”
“I’ve sold cars to many people who are still alive, too.” He clasped his hands together, leaning on them, “Tell me, this Frederick Deacon in Colorado, does he bear some resemblance to me?”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“Well then, you see? Eyewitness accounts, they just aren’t dependable, are they?”
“Cindy’s account seems to be. The distinctive mole on your chest? That didn’t appear in any of your car commercials. Only someone who had seen you without your shirt on would have known about that.”
“But as my lawyer Ms. Colson so ably demonstrated, the child was led to identify it. The videos of her talking with the child psychologist make that clear.”
“Clear to some,” Judy said, “but not to me. I’m not sure that the testimony from your expert witness was compelling enough to convince the jury, either.”
“I’m not a man given to outbursts of emotion, but your honesty is really touching,” he placed his right hand over his heart, “and I have hopes that if we can just get beyond this, that we might actually become friends.”
“And that’s important to you?”
“If my life is to have proper meaning after I leave here, yes.”
“I don’t associate with the people that I’ve worked to convict. Never have.”
“There’s a first time for everything, and you’re no longer trying to convict me. You’ve offered me the olive branch that will save my life. I can’t think of a better gesture upon which to base a new friendship.”
“Like I said, I follow the evidence. I’m just doing my job.”
“Tell me Judy, do you have a large family?”
His constant use of her first name was annoying, “That’s not something that I prefer to share with you.”
“I’m sorry. I’m trying too hard. Let me ask you this, will your family think less of you for having tried to send an innocent man to his death? Do you think that the press will forget about that? What about your boss? Will your career suffer now, for public opinion?”
“Time will tell.”
“I asked you if you believed in forgiveness before. I’m willing to extend mine to you.”
“I don’t need your forgiveness.”
“I think you do. I think you’ll need it to for your career to survive this failure.”
“What about Cindy Briones’ forgiveness?” She asked, standing, “Will you need that to survive, Jarod?”
He looked up at her, laying his hands palms-down on the table, “What do you mean? Why should I care about what an emotionally broken child thinks of me?”
Chuck Bertoli’s voice came to her mind in a whisper, ‘We don’t have any time for me to coach you, Judy. Don’t let him walk on you, but keep him talking. Wait until the right moment, when he believes he’s in control. Reach out and place your hand on his. I think you’ll get a reaction.’
‘How will I know that moment?’
‘You’ll know it Judy. You’ll know it.’
“You should care what Cindy thinks of you, Jarod.” She carefully placed her right hand on his, “I never mentioned that Frederick Deacon was incarcerated in Colorado, you did. What did you do? Did you tell him that you’d take care of his family after he died?”
Piper slowly slipped his hand from under hers, his face flushing a deep red, “Lots of people k-know that Florence is in Colorado. That means n-nothing.”
“Oh, I think it does, Jarod,” she leaned in across the table, getting in his face, staring into his eyes, “Did you know that Cindy Briones told us that when you were enraged, when you were killing her family, that you s-s-stuttered, just like you’re doing now?” She reached out and touched his other hand.
Jarod Piper exploded backward, slamming his chair into the wall, “I will k-kill her. I w-w-will kill you and your family,” he turned, screaming at the two way, “I will k-k-kill all of you.”
A secondary door opened and a trio of guards entered the room to restrain Piper, who was now yanking at his shackles and chains like a wild animal caught in a snare.
She left the officers to their work, glancing up to see the glow of the red light on the video camera above her head before she walked back out into the narrow hallway.
“This is entrapment, Counselor,” Maxine Colson tried to appear confident, her arms crossed, “It will never hold up.”
“You keep telling yourself that Maxine. I think the jury will see things differently. You’re dreaming if you think this video won’t be admissible once Hendricks reviews it. You’ll get your dossier on Frederick Deacon, but the release is off the table.”
Maxine’s arms dropped to her sides. She could hear her client raging from the other side of the two-way, still stuttering, “What about the death penalty? Is that off the table now too?”
“Alright Maxine, minimum—life for each murder without possibility of parole,” Judy said, “just as long as this man is out of society forever.”
Maxine looked through the window. Her client wailed, straining against the officers, “I’ll fax everything over by eight this evening.”
“I’ll see you in Judge Hendrick’s office.”
Walking with a two-officer escort, Judy could feel some stares as she stepped out of the holding area of the county jail facility, and across the complex.
A small contingent of the local press were already there, trying to get the jump on the national media.
They charged her escort, but Judy put her head down and walked out of the building. The press stayed on her heels, shouting the same questions over and over. Her escort intervened, preventing them from blocking her car.
As she pushed the ignition button, the radio began to pump music through the speakers. She turned it off and began to sing, “Reach out and touch, somebody’s hand, make this world a better place….”
'Gotta love Diana Ross,' she thought.