June 11, 1977
The headlights of Sheriff Maddox’s patrol car shined down on broken, uneven pavement. He drummed his fingers nervously on the steering wheel as he drove deeper into the woods. As he approached a bend in the road, he knew he had arrived at his destination by the flashing blue lights reflecting against the trees. He parked behind a state trooper's vehicle and then sat for a moment, watching.
Three sets of flood lights had been set up to allow his people to do their work in the darkness, and from his vantage point the lights flickered with the moving shadows of men and women going about their business.
He left his keys in the ignition and his door hanging open as he moved toward the disabled vehicle at the center of the ongoing investigation. He walked right through the police tape like it wasn’t there and carried it with him around his stomach like a slipping sash on a beauty pageant contestant. His deputies scrounged to redraw the perimeter.
“Hey, Sheriff,” Ford said, coming to meet to meet him. He read the expression on his boss’s face. “I know. A damn tragedy is what it is.”
Maddox noticed the yellow tape, lifted it away from his body, and let it drop to the ground. He skirted the back end of a 1974 Ford Torino, raking his hand across the tail light. One of the illumination rigs—rows of lamp shells stacked on top of each other—had been set up about five feet away, and shined light down on the passenger side door of the Torino.
“Jesus Christ,” the sheriff muttered.
“I know, Sheriff. I couldn’t believe it myself. I mean, I could believe it—look at who we’re dealing with—but dang, I mean, are you kidding me?”
Maddox crouched beside the victim, adjusting his stance to prevent his shadow from obscuring any clues. A pair of legs and a torso protruded from underneath the vehicle, posed like a mechanic checking the undercarriage. The front passenger side tire had been removed and had fallen, or been thrown, into the grass a few feet away. A jack lay on its side beside the dead girl.
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” said the sheriff.
“Yep,” Ford said. “I ain’t never seen anyone change a tire like that before.”
Judging by the victim’s clothes—white short pants, orange striped halter top, plain white tennis shoes and bobby socks—she couldn’t have been older than 15 or 16 years old. Maddox couldn’t get a good look her face beneath the car, separated as it was from view by the rotor pinning her neck to the road.
Sheriff Maddox reached into his shirt pocket and removed a handkerchief. Even in the middle of the night it was 85 degrees and muggy. The mosquitos would feast on their damp skin. Maddox dabbed his forehead with the handkerchief and then held it over his nose and mouth as he bent close to the body for a more thorough examination. “The poor girl,” he said.
“If you ask me,” Ford began, “I don’t believe she was changing a tire. You’d have to be pretty stupid to go up under a car like that, especially when you ain’t got no jack base. I believe she was placed there.”
Maddox took a few deep breaths into his handkerchief and then looked up at his chief deputy. “Of course she was placed here,” he said quietly. “Clearly, the girl was murdered.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Ford said. He smiled in his usual way. “It’s a set-up, plain and simple.”
“Make sure no one comes up here,” Maddox said as he folded up his handkerchief and restored it to his breast pocket.
He surveyed the perimeter, checking the placement of his staff. Satisfied, he turned his attention to the flat tire lying in the grass by the side of the road. He pulled a flashlight out of his utility belt and shined the light in a circle around the tread until he found the puncture wound. “Probably a knife,” he said.
The radio squawked in a nearby cruiser. “Hold that thought, Sheriff,” Ford said. “I’m getting a transmission.” He ducked into his car and pulled the hand set to his mouth. A few seconds later he called out to the sheriff, who was shining his flashlight on the tracks in the dirt beside the road.
“That was Tommy. He said he’s got the girl’s parents down the street. They want to see the girl.”
“How in the hell are they here already? I just got here, for Christ’s sake!”
“They told Tommy they’ve been out searching for the girl all night. Apparently, they stopped by the station, and Sheila told them we had her here.”
“Do they know she’s dead?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Tommy wants to know if he should let them come down the road.”
“Is it the Reverend? Is he here?”
“I believe so. What do you want me to do?” Ford asked.
“I told you I don’t want anyone up here!”
“That’s what I told Tommy. He said they won’t take no for an answer.”
Maddox paced back and forth in the road. “If that son of a bitch thinks he can contaminate his own crime scene, he’s got another thing coming.”
Ford held the hand set to his chest as he waited for a definitive answer.
Maddox stopped and put his hand on his hips. He looked at the ground. “She can come,” he said finally. “He can stay in the car. I don’t want him anywhere near this place.”
“You got it, Sheriff. You want I should radio Tommy to bring her up?”
Maddox marched down the road. “I’ll go get her myself. You and Jimbo and Charlotte get the girl out from under the car. Cover her up with something. I don’t want her mama to see her like this.”
“You got it, Sheriff.”
It was a perfect location to dump a body—a little-used access road connecting two highways and surrounded by forest. Only one person lived in the area. The killer likely would have killed the girl at another location and then brought her here, knowing the odds of anyone driving by were slim, and giving him time to arrange the scene.
Milton Hendricks, the one person who lived in the area, had discovered the body on his way home from a fishing trip around 11:45 p.m. He immediately called the police, who notified the sheriff’s office and the state trooper’s office. Maddox received the call around 12:10. Stirred from his bed and half asleep, he barked the necessary orders into the phone.
By now, the routine was familiar both to him and his crew. Everyone knew what to do. He told his wife to go back to sleep—she needed her rest—and then made himself a cup of coffee, showered and pressed his uniform. He had taken his time, knowing he was in for a long night. Now, as he came to the end of the road, he cursed himself for wasting so much time.
He found Tommy sitting on the hood of his car cleaning his fingernails with a pocket knife. Another vehicle was angled toward his, and Tommy appeared to be using the other car’s head lamps to aid him in his task.
Sheriff Maddox trotted into the cross beams. Tommy hopped down from the hood of his patrol car and folded up his knife. Maddox looked from his deputy to the darkened windshield of a black Crown Victoria. He could just make out the face of the Reverend sitting in the driver’s seat. The girl’s foster mother, Cassandra Baxter, sat beside him.
Maddox focused on the driver. “She can come with me,” he said. “You stay in the car.”
The Reverend leaned out of his window. “That is my wife. I should be with her.”
“This doesn’t concern you,” Maddox said.
Mrs. Baxter scrambled out of the passenger’s seat and hurried over to the sheriff.
“There is no cause to treat me this way,” the Reverend said. “If any harm has come to that girl, then I am a victim also.”
“If you’re a victim, then I’m the king of the ocean,” Maddox said. He took Cassandra’s arm in his, patted her on the hand, and escorted her up the road.
The Reverend clenched the steering wheel.
Jim Easton’s van wheeled in behind the deputy’s car, blaring “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band. Jim jumped out of the van and jogged up to the deputy.
“Hey, Tommy,” he said. “Thanks for the tip. Who is it this time?”
Tommy tilted his head in the direction of the Reverend.
“Holy shit,” Jim said. “Is that who I think it is?”
“The one and only.”
Jim moved between Tommy and the man parked a few feet away. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“Waiting for his wife to identify the body of her little girl.”
“Holy shit,” Jim said. “He killed his own daughter?”
“I wonder if he’d give me an interview.”
“Well, he did just kill his daughter. He’d probably love to discuss that with a member of the press.”
“Actually, I think she’s a step daughter,” Jim said. “You remember Clarence Woods? He played football at Benjamin Russell, but then died a few years ago? That’s his girl.”
“That makes sense,” Tommy said. “The Reverend won’t have to worry about her daddy coming after him.”
“I’m gonna go see if he’ll talk to me.”
“It’s your funeral.”
* * *
They walked through the darkness, following the beam shining down from Maddox’s flashlight. Cassandra clung to his arm like a life raft. Every step she took was a stagger. They walked in silence, Maddox wondering how to approach the delicate inevitable topic, and Cassandra staring into the woods with eyes as wide and round as a wounded animal’s.
“I’ve had that girl since she was three years old,” she said after a while.
“This isn’t going to be easy, Mrs. Baxter.”
“I took her in after her father died. Her mother wasn’t fit to raise her. Everyone knew that. Even her mother knew that.”
“I have to warn you. What you are about to see is a gruesome spectacle. You’ll need to prepare yourself.”
“She’s grown up so much. She acts like she’s ready to go out into the world.”
“Do you know anyone who would want to harm her?” Maddox asked.
“That girl acted like nothing in the world could harm her. She could stand up to anyone. I halfway believed it myself.”
“Did your husband want to harm her?”
Cassandra stopped and turned to him. Maddox looked into her eyes. Even from the dim afterglow of his flashlight he could see they were wet around the edges. She opened her mouth to say something, then turned her head away and they resumed walking. Her grip around his arm loosened.
“Why would Will want to hurt her?” she asked. “She was his daughter too.”
“Ma’am, when was the last time you saw your daughter?”
“We drove out to my sister’s house this morning. We spent the day there. We came back around seven, but then Lucy said she wanted to go out again. I said, ‘Forget it. It’s too late.’ I went to the den to watch television. I heard the car start up. When I went to look for her, she was gone.”
“And where was Reverend Baxter during all this?”
“Today? I don’t know. He said he had business. I made a report. I called the police. Will came home while I was making a report to one of your officers. Will drove me around afterwards looking for her. We drove back out to my sister’s place, but Lucy wasn’t there. We stopped by the police station on the way home. They said you had her here.”
They rounded the bend to the crime scene. Cassandra released the sheriff’s arm and went forward alone.
“Mrs. Baxter,” Maddox called after her, but she wouldn’t turn around. For some reason, he let her go on. He watched her round the back end of the vehicle. He could see her face move back and forth as her mind tried to process what she was seeing. Then he saw her face contort in pain. She dropped to the ground, and a low cry emanated from the spot where she fell.
Chapter 20 posts a week from today.
Chapter 20 posts a week from today.