Zomercolumn – Roger Ellory … THE SEARCH FOR RESEARCH
hard you try, you can never escape your own memories…’
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.
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.
do not think about it,” he adds quietly. The case of which he speaks is very
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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…’
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.