Excerpt: Left Hanging

KWMT-TV colleagues Elizabeth “E.M.” Danniher and Mike Paycik, with assistance from local residents, are looking into the shocking death of Keith Landry, the contractor for the Sherman, Wyoming Fourth of July Rodeo – apparently trampled by his own bulls.

Elizabeth and Mike are just returning from asking questions at the rodeo grounds when they get word from one of their sources that a trip to the sheriff’s department might be worthwhile …

 

 

 “OH, GOD.”

“Now, is that nice, Deputy Alvaro?”

“I should have known. If you’re . . .” He looked around, saw other deputies in earshot. Instead of finishing, he sighed. “In here.”

“Is this an interrogation room?” I asked as the door closed us in.

“No. Observation room. You think I want anybody to hear this? Listen, what happened this spring, that was only because of extraordinary circumstances. You can’t think I’ll tell you things all the time. And Mike, you’ve got to tell your aunt to watch her step.”

Mike was unmoved. “You were promoted to working here in Sherman based on what happened this spring. Besides, if you want to keep things quiet, don’t put hints over the radio. Aunt Gee says she’s already had calls from two scanner regulars asking about tomorrow morning’s news conference. If you think she was happy to hear about it that way, you are wrong.”

“All it said was—oh, hell.” He dropped his butt onto the table. “This has been one hell of a day. I don’t suppose you two would go away and come back in the morning?”

Mike and I shook our heads.

“C’mon, Richard,” I said. “We can’t get anything on the air until tomorrow, but we need background now to start working.”

“Fine probably won’t let anybody else come to the news conference,” Mike added gloomily.

“Fine?” Alvaro appeared heartened by that prospect.

“Les Haeburn is out of town, and Thurston Fine’s running the show. As in the nutjob’s running the insane asylum.”

Alvaro blew out his breath. “Tell me about it. Acting sheriff’s out of town, too. The number two guy’s wife went into labor last night. I added his overnight to my dayshift from yesterday, then right into today’s dayshift. And the wife still hasn’t had the kid, so in this case, I’m the nutjob running the insane asylum. At least on Keith Landry’s death.”

“It wasn’t an accidental death?”

Mike’s head whipped around to me at that question. He needed to work on his poker face. Alvaro regarded me steadily for a moment before he went to the door and opened it.

Really? He meant to throw us out?

“Lloyd, come in here, will you?”

Or have his colleague throw us out? After we’d kept his role in the Redus case strictly confidential and—

“What’s this about, Richard?” Mike asked.

“I want somebody else to know what I’ve told you. No, don’t get huffy. I trust you. I guess I have to after . . . But I need to be sure the people here know what I’ve told you.”

The deputy we’d seen earlier appeared in the doorway. Alvaro waved him in. “Deputy Sampson, this is Ms. Danniher and Mike Paycik from KWMT.”

I received a hello. Mike got a big grin, an extended hand, and “Mike Paycik? I saw you play ball. You were really something. Course we all hoped you’d play pro at Denver after UW instead of going off to Chicago.”

Mike returned the handshake and a few practiced words of humble appreciation cut short by Alvaro saying, “Sit.” He gestured to chairs for Mike and me on the far side of the table. He and Deputy Sampson took the ones opposite us.

“To be clear, I’m giving you a preview of the morning’s news conference, and you won’t use this material until after the news conference. Agreed?”

He spoke with authority. He’d picked up a lot of confidence since we’d met the young deputy only weeks ago. I was impressed. That wouldn’t have stopped me from refusing his restrictions if there’d been a way to get the news on before the morning conference. But since there wasn’t . . . “Agreed.”

“I caught the call this morning, proceeded to the rodeo grounds, where I found the deceased, Keith Landry. After a preliminary investigation, including initial collection of evidence and statements, I was not entirely satisfied with the scene. After consulting with local officials, and in consultation with sheriff’s department colleagues, it was determined that the investigation will continue in consultation with other investigatory professionals.”

It took a moment after absorbing all that consulting to realize he thought he’d finished. “What does that mean?” I asked.

He turned mulish. “Just what I said.”

“Why weren’t you satisfied?” Mike asked.

Alvaro shook his head.

“Why call in other people? What are you going to have them look at?” Mike pursued.

Alvaro shook his head again.

“It wasn’t an accident, was it?” I asked.

He started to shake his head a third time, then caught himself. “I’ve given you my statement.”

“You’re not sure it’s Keith Landry, yet you gave his name—”

“What?” My barb rattled him. “We’re sure. We wouldn’t have released the name if—”

“How do you know? Did next of kin identify him?”

“No. No next of kin to—”

“You assumed—”

“I did not. We had ID and his phone.”

“Pieces of it, just like him,” mumbled Deputy Sampson. He looked up, apparently startled by a belated realization that he’d spoken aloud.

“I’ve given you my statement,” Alvaro said.

“Deputy Alvaro, may I speak to you alone?” I asked.

“I don’t see what purpose—”

“It’s a follow-up on the Redus case. If you’d prefer—”

“Okay. Lloyd, you can accompany Mr. Paycik out. Leave the front doors unlocked. Ms. Danniher will be there in a moment.”

I kicked Mike under the table. He flinched, but said nothing. At the door, he looked back and rolled his eyes without either deputy seeing. Message received.

“Richard—may I call you Richard?”

“It depends,” he said warily, not as authoritative as before.

“You are a smart, dedicated and honest law enforcement officer. I respect you for that. And we worked well together on the Redus case.” His lips parted. No doubt to repeat what extraordinary circumstances that had been. “That’s why I want to give you a little advice for dealing with the media.”

“I don’t need—”

“Oh, yes, you do. If you think that statement will fly at a news conference, you desperately need my advice. I don’t know if even Thurston Fine would be satisfied with that example of doublespeak, and I guarantee Needham Bender of the Independence would make you feel as if a buzz saw had just had its way with you.”

“It’s early in the investigation, and—”

“And you want to keep everything to yourself. That’s the instinct of every law enforcement type on this planet. It never works. Never. Even in the most repressive countries, there’s always leakage. Where there’s a free press and emphasis on individual freedoms—sound like anyplace you know?—it’s just asking for aggravation. And suspicion. How many people will think you’re trying to protect something other than the investigation? Your own mishandling of it, maybe? Or a big shot who’s involved?”

He winced and didn’t argue. Progress.

“With the recent history of top law enforcement officials in Cottonwood County, people will be suspicious. There’s no getting around that. You have to be even more open and aboveboard than usual. Lay it all out on the table. At least as much as you possibly can. You need to think through what’s absolutely essential to keep away from the public. But there’ll also be aspects you would rather keep quiet that will get out despite your best efforts. You’re far better off being open with the media about those aspects than trying to pretend the public doesn’t already know.”

“The public doesn’t know—”

“Everything a civilian saw, heard, or told you will be out to the public by morning, if it’s not already.”

“We instructed them not to talk about their statements or the situation.”

“Richard.” I shook my head again. “I’ve only been in this county a few months, and you’ve lived here all your life, and I already know that half the county knew Keith Landry had been found dead in the bull pen before you reached the rodeo grounds. If you think anybody you’ve talked to today won’t share the juicy details, you are not half as smart as I think you are.”

He opened his mouth to stonewall me. I saw the realization and the weariness hit him, and he slumped. “Oh, crap.”

“Exactly.” I gave him half a minute before asking, “What bothered you about the scene?”

He heaved a sigh. “You know what shape the deceased was found in?”

“I heard.” No point in reminding him I’d also seen, along with every TV viewer of Jenks’ video on tonight’s news.

“It was real hard to tell exactly what happened. The new deputy coroner didn’t tell me anything I couldn’t see with my own eyes, either. Seemed awfully nervous.”

I could imagine. A young deputy and a new deputy coroner handling the death of a well-known figure. “Why wasn’t the coroner there?”

A shutter came down. “Don’t know.”

Something started ticking at the back of my brain, but the immediate concern was to keep him talking, keep him occupied.

“The coroner wasn’t there, and it was you and this new deputy coroner, acting nervous and not telling you anything. Your instincts were telling you something wasn’t right. Where did that—” I almost said feeling. That would have been a mistake. Less experienced law enforcement types seldom acknowledge having feelings. “—instinct focus.”

“The body didn’t seem . . . right.”

“How not right?”

“For one thing, there wasn’t as much blood as I’d’ve expected. But that’s off the record,” he said hurriedly.

I raised innocent hands. Also empty hands, reminding him I had no video. And unless it’s on video, it didn’t happen as far as TV news goes.

“I don’t know that it wasn’t an accident, Elizabeth. I just didn’t want to take a chance of fu—screwing it up when I was in charge.”

It was rather sweet the way he reddened after catching himself and softening his language. He’d probably blanch if he heard half of what was said in a newsroom every day.

“A very sensible reaction. What did you do?”

“That’s not something the public knows. There’s no reason to tell you.”

“Will it hurt your investigation if I know?”

He considered. “I wouldn’t want it reported.”

“Here’s how we’ll work it. If you tell me something off the record, I won’t report it unless I get it from another source.” I preferred two other sources, one to say it, one to confirm it, but the population of Cottonwood County was small enough to keep the potential pool of sources a tad shallow. I left myself wiggle room.

“So what I’m about to tell you is off the record?”

“Off the record.”

“I called my sister Sandra.”

Not what I was expecting, but I stumbled along. “Is she in law enforcement?”

“No. She works for a doctor in Montana.”

I started to get impatient, then took another look—the guy was sleep-deprived and stressed. If I sighed too hard it might knock him over. “Why did you call Sandra, Richard?”

“To see when we could get Keith Landry in to see the doctor.”

Maybe he was past sleep-deprived. “Get him in for what?”

“An autopsy. A forensic autopsy, I mean. The hospital can do the other kind, but I didn’t want any chance of this being— The guy she works for is closest. But if he was backed up, I’d’ve gone to somebody else.”

“You aren’t satisfied the bulls were enough to cause death?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

He sounded weary. I decided to wrap this up. “Landry’s body has gone to a forensic pathologist in Montana.”

“Will go. About ten. After more preliminary work. The deputy coroner will go with, and Deputy Sampson.” A thin smile twisted his mouth. “His first autopsy. I warned Sandra.”

“And the forensic pathologist’s name is . . .” He told me. “When do you expect to have the report?”

“Couple months before all the toxicology is back.”

That didn’t mean I would wait a couple months to try to find out early results. It wasn’t a huge haul, but it was nice to have the information. Especially since it was a bonus.

My main reason for this conversation had been to give Mike time to pump Deputy Lloyd Sampson. I hoped I’d done that.

I HAD.

As I discovered when I found Mike waiting for me in the parking area for the sheriff’s department office.

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