Look Closer

It is the prejudice of some cops to just accept things as they appear to be. A robbery is a robbery; a burglary, a burg. But sometimes it pays to remember the slogan from "American Beauty"—"Look closer."

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Some crimes just lend themselves to suspect identification: When was the last time you did a line-up on a domestic violence case?

With other crimes, identifying a perp can be more problematic. And if divining who's responsible for an emotionally charged crime such as battery or murder can be a challenge, then how easy can it be to figure out who committed a seemingly random act of vandalism?

It is the prejudice of some cops to just accept things as they appear to be. A robbery is a robbery; a burglary, a burg.

But sometimes it pays to remember the slogan from "American Beauty"—"Look closer." That things might not be what they appear to be has been a philosophic staple of investigative procedurals from Sherlock Holmes to Vincent D'Onofrio's Robert Goren in "Law and Order: Criminal Intent."

Reality affords us all manner of illustrative examples, too.

When Claremont McKenna College professor Kelli Dunn reported having found her car spray-painted with racial epithets and its tires slashed, Claremont (Calif.) PD was pressed to action. The community had already been dealing with racial fallout in the aftermath of a shooting death of a black motorist by its personnel; the highly-tuned sensibilities of the college campus were just waiting to jump on the local PD for any perceived lack of response to the matter. However, two independent witnesses eventually came forward and identified the psychology professor as the person responsible. Now you know why I abandoned my major in psychology.

Once we had a bomb threat call at a business. The threat was just the latest of several the establishment had been receiving in recent weeks, but no suspicious package or device had been recovered. But I noticed that of the people we were interacting with, none were less forthright than the one I would have suspected to have the most to offer—the security guard at the location.

It didn't take long to realize that if he didn't see himself as having much to offer, he did see himself as having the most to lose if the contract for his services wasn't re-newed; and things had not been looking good on that end in the weeks leading up to the problem.

Other things began to register. 1) The guard had a cellular phone—at a time when cellular phones were not so ubiquitous—and all the threats were made by a male in his mid-20's using a cellular phone. Too bad we brainiacs couldn't figure out how to bring up the last 10 calls made on the device; 2) all the calls were made to businesses within the scope of his employing security firm; 3) all calls occurred on his work days rather than his days off. Was he someone we might want to take a closer look at? What do you think?

In such cases it helps to consider that something less obvious warrants your presence. Someone may be trying to play you for some kind of gain. It's times like this that it makes sense to ask yourself some questions. Who stands to lose (and who would want them to?) Who stands to gain?

While this may be good advice, don't follow it blindly. Sometimes, your "Spidey sense" might be off. Sometimes what you have is ... well, what you have.

One night I assisted a deputy on a kidnapping-for-ransom call. The handling deputy gave me a quick lowdown on the developing drama that was followed by a more detailed explanation by the victim's wife.

The woman said she was a legal resident—albeit a two-time ex-con for sales—but that her husband was not, and had been ferried across the border by coyotes four years before, resulting in some unpaid debt to the coyotes. Her husband had gone for a walk a few days before and hadn't been seen since. The night before she called us, she'd gotten a call from a woman claiming to be with her husband. The woman said she'd bring him to Ajax Market. She received another call the morning of the meet with a new ransom demand of $1,500.

My initial suspicions of the informant's credibility were, I thought, reasonably well-founded.

First, there was the ridiculously low ransom amount. Who the hell kidnaps someone for $1,500? I've seen dogs held hostage for more than that—dogs that didn't even belong to the people being hit up for their safe return.

Then there was the informant's lack of visible concern for her husband's fate. She'd waited three days to call on him, and treated the matter as an afterthought when she did. I've seen women sweat missing hair appointments and Oprah more.

Her enjoyment at being at the center of our investigative attention was obvious, too. As far as she was concerned, it was COPS Live and on Tour!, and the girl being brought on stage to dance with the Boss couldn't have been more giggly and happy.

Just when I was thisclose to calling bullshit on the whole thing—a hitherto high batting average for an alleged victim's b.s. had fostered the temptation—the batphone rang and the informant ran to it. I followed her into her bedroom and monitored as much of her conversation with the caller as I could with my ear and recorder.

It was the kidnapper.

The caller verified that she had the "dinero" and gave her directions to a meet site in Los Angeles. The handling deputy ended up contacting a delighted department's special investigations unit that assumed control of the investigation. By the next day, they'd closed the case, reuniting the kidnapped victim with his less-than-worried spouse and taking five into custody.

The incident stuck with me. I realized that my intuitions had failed me and I was glad that we'd paid the requisite respects to at least doing the minimum expected of us. But it could have turned out much worse for everyone involved.

Like so many other things in life, sometimes the best way to cover your ass is to cover all the angles.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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