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Departments : The Beat

Folded Pieces of Paper

An officer responding to a traffic accident didn't know the incident would affect him so deeply.

March 01, 2004  |  by John Richter


I think it was the little folded pieces of notebook paper that did it. Even now, years later, I can still remember it as though it happened only yesterday. Watching the little square pieces of paper gently flapping in the breeze as they lay in the roadway pushed the whole thing deep into my memory.

The normally busy intersection was crowded with stopped traffic on that crisp autumn evening. As I approached I could see many of the drivers standing outside of their vehicles, staring blankly toward a group of medics on the other side of the road.

Eventually I made my way through the traffic, parked, and walked around the edge of that ambulance to discover what was causing all of the stares.

For a moment I just forgot about everything, forgot about myself. And that is the only way I can explain why I turned and faced the sky to ask God to please not let that little girl die.

Her body was not contorted or visibly mangled by the accident. There was just a little blood in her nose. The thing that made this image so powerful was that this sweet, innocent 11-year-old girl was obviously dead already.

But those brave medics kept working. And there was a feeling that swept over me. I could feel all the prayers and wishes of the people gathered there, all the medics, all the firemen, all of the other people who had gathered there in that intersection, and me, all of us staring blankly, all of us wishing, hoping, and praying.

One of the drivers on foot approached me and pointed out the striking vehicle and its driver, some distance away. Her voice snapped me out of my prayer trance. My training took over and I was now determined to do this job better than ever before.

As I collected the appropriate information from the witness and driver, out of the corner of my eye I could see the medics loading the little girl into the ambulance, still performing CPR. I rushed over to the ambulance driver and asked which hospital he was taking the child to. He told me and added that another ambulance had already taken her sister to the same hospital. Apparently the two had been holding hands while crossing the street. The collision had thrown the sister to the side and she received a broken leg but was otherwise fine. She was younger, maybe 8 or 9.

For the next 10 minutes the only thing I could see in my mind was a little girl lying in a hospital bed who, after having witnessed her sister being crushed under that pickup truck, was going to have someone tell her that her sister was killed in the accident. I couldn't fathom how a little nine-year-old mind was going to absorb that. And I still can't.

Eventually we were able to finish the arduous tasks of the investigation, and we were just about to clean up when a woman standing on the other side of the crime scene tape called out for our attention.

She was the mother of the two little girls. She inquired about her children's effects-the clothes medics had had to cut off the girls, and a purse. When she mentioned the purse I turned to look at it in the now closed roadway. That was when I first no­ticed the two-dozen or so folded pieces of notebook paper lying all around it. They must have come out of the purse during the impact.

I lifted the crime scene tape high enough for the children's mother to duck under it. Then I knelt in the road with her to help gather all of the objects that had come out of the little beaded purse. I began picking up the folded pieces of notebook paper. I unfolded one silently. And then I froze.

On this little piece of notebook paper, the kind that has the wide blue lines on it, the kind that grade-schoolers use, and which was folded so neatly, were notes the little girl and her friends had written and passed back and forth in school. There were two-dozen or so. Apparently she saved them all. But now they were just remnants of blossoming friendship lost.

John Richter served as a Public Safety Officer and Accident Investigator with the Indianapolis Police Department for 10 years. He currently serves as an Inspector with the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.


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