A Good Month For Murder by Del Quentin Wilber is the inside story of a homicide squad set in Washington, D.C. (On Sale June 7, 2016).
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Twelve homicides, three police-involved shootings and the furious hunt for an especially brutal killer—February 2013 was a good month for murder in suburban Washington, D.C.
After gaining unparalleled access to the homicide unit in Prince George's County, which borders the nation's capital, Del Quentin Wilber begins shadowing the talented, often quirky detectives who get the call when a body falls. After a quiet couple of months, all hell breaks loose: suddenly every detective in the squad is scrambling to solve one shooting and stabbing after another. Meanwhile, the entire unit is obsessed with a stone-cold “red ball,” a high-profile case involving a seventeen-year-old honor student attacked by a gunman who kicked down the door to her house and shot her in her bed.
On a frigid midwinter day, Mike Crowell slows his Chevy Impala to a stop and turns his domelike head from left to right, scanning the street for the man he thinks is a killer. But Central Avenue is devoid of people, even of stray dogs, and all Crowell spies are bare trees, beat-up houses with rusty chain-link fences, and scruffy yards covered in the remnants of an early-morning dusting of snow.
His eyes trained on the street, the detective feels for a soft pack of Marlboro Silvers in the pocket of the driver’s door, jiggles the last cigarette free, sticks it between his lips, and tosses the empty pack onto the passenger-side floor, where it joins another. He lights the Marlboro, lowers the window a couple of inches, and exhales a plume of smoke, which momentarily swirls in the cold wind before whipping back into the car. He takes another drag, his left foot tapping the floor, his right pumping the brake, his fingers drumming the steering wheel.
Where is he? He must be around here somewhere, thinks the detective, yanking his smartphone from its belt holster and scanning his e-mail messages. It’s been like this for the last two hours: Crowell has been aggressively crisscrossing Prince George’s County and pulling over every ten minutes to check for an e-mail that he hopes will pinpoint the location of Jeff Buck,* a twenty-three-year-old suspect in a murder investigation that hangs over the Homicide Unit like a shadow at dusk.
The e-mails are from Buck’s cell-phone carrier, and they provide “hits”—longitude and latitude coordinates of the suspect’s location. The last position was in the heart of the county, but the hit was hardly precise, having a margin of error of plus or minus thirteen hundred yards, or three-quarters of a mile. Crowell has received several dozen of these e-mails; after each, he raced to the assigned spot and hunted side streets and thoroughfares in an ever-expanding circle until the next e-mail arrived. The hits started near where Crowell believes Buck’s girlfriend lives and have gotten progressively closer to the DC-Maryland line. Crowell figures that Buck, a well-known street thug and drug dealer, is either on a bike—unlikely in the cold weather—or making stop-and-go narcotics deliveries.
Seeing no new e-mail, Crowell closes his smartphone’s screen and adjusts his wraparound sunglasses to ward off the glare from the bright winter sun.
“Where are you?” he wonders aloud, his gaze sweeping the street.
To his right, a black car speeds toward the intersection and then suddenly slows; the driver has clearly spotted Crowell’s unmarked cruiser. A beat-up black Lincoln with flashy rims and heavily tinted windows, the car is of the sort favored by young men in the drug trade, what police call a “battle wagon.” As the Lincoln rolls slowly past, the driver’s silhouette becomes visible through the darkened glass: short, slim, close-cropped hair, baseball cap. Crowell knows that the driver is not the suspect; the detective is looking for a tall man with dreadlocks. Even so, Crowell eases his foot off the brake. He lets the Impala slip into the intersection and turn ever so slightly toward the battle wagon.
Crowell can’t help himself. For more than a decade, he roamed the streets with an elite robbery-suppression unit that investigated and tried to prevent street crimes. The work is embedded in Crowell’s DNA—a double helix of high-speed pursuits, wrestling matches with men bent on fleeing, and aggressive interrogations. But those days are over. Crowell has been a homicide detective for two years; this job requires him to wear a suit and engage a more cerebral set of skills. He often spends hours at a desk, poring over cell-phone records, social-media postings, crime-lab reports, and interview summaries. This morning, however, he feels like his old self. Wearing his bullet-resistant vest, jeans, a gray fleece jacket, and sneakers, he is on the hunt. A grin spreads across face, and his grip tightens on the wheel. He lets the cruiser slip farther into the intersection.
Bet there’s a gun in there, Crowell thinks. And drugs—there are definitely drugs.
Pulling the driver over would be no challenge at all. Crowell would follow the man for thirty seconds, find one of a thousand pretexts to stop him, and then persuade the guy to allow his car to be searched.
Crowell watches as the battle wagon accelerates away to his left. His right hand thwack-thwack-thwacks the wheel. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. His Robbery Unit self is screaming for him to chase the car. But the homicide detective in him—still learning to be patient—whispers that he should let the Lincoln go, that he has more important work to do.
Chase or not chase? Chase or not chase? The battle wagon is nearly out of view. Shit. Exhaling a plume of smoke, Crowell stomps the brake, bringing the cruiser to a full stop. He watches the car vanish down a side street.
Shaking his head, he pulls out his phone again and checks his in-box.
Come on! Where are you?
The next hit suggests that the suspect is still making his way toward the DC line, so Crowell heads in that direction, motoring through a blur of neighborhoods. He jacks up the volume of the car stereo when he hears his favorite song, “Figured You Out,” by the rock band Nickelback. “I like your pants around your feet,” the singer belts. “And I like the dirt that’s on your knees.”
When the song ends, Crowell switches to a rap station, and soon angry lyrics and a thudding bass line are pulsing from the speakers. The detective’s taste in music is eclectic—he likes everything from classical to rock to heavy metal to hip-hop. But when he’s chasing suspects, rap seems best, and now the detective pumps his balding head to the heavy beat.
As he checks his phone for the next hit, Crowell hears a gravelly voice crackle from the police radio in a pocket of his bullet-resistant vest: “I’ll be in the AO in five mikes.”
It’s Sean Deere, Crowell’s squad mate and the lead detective on this case, the investigation into the murder of an innocent seventeen-year-old named Amber Stanley. Crowell chuckles and keys the microphone: “Command post copies.”
Fucking Deere, acting all military, thinks Crowell. Deere is definitely not military. A former undercover narcotics investigator, he is as laid-back as Crowell is aggressive, as methodical as Crowell is impulsive. And because he is chronically late, Deere’s nickname is “Detective En Route.”
Crowell and Deere are friends, though earlier that morning there had been a testy exchange that highlighted their differing approaches to police work. Deere had obtained a court order compelling a communications company to provide Jeff Buck’s phone records and the data the detectives needed to track his phone. The department has a cell-phone-locating truck, a technological marvel that can pinpoint a phone in continuous real time by zeroing in on its signal. But to the great frustration of the PG homicide detectives, the truck has been out of service for six months, meaning they have to rely on other agencies to help them track fugitives. Crowell and his partner, Joe Bunce, had arrived early that morning to begin the search for Jeff Buck and wanted to catch the suspect quickly. After a string of grueling weeks, the two men had hoped to enjoy some time on a quiet Friday evening with their wives, Beth and Debbi.
“Beth said she would be waiting upstairs for me,” Crowell told Bunce, egging his fellow detective into calling the head of the DC police department’s phone-truck squad. “We need to finish up by three! They’ll find the guy a lot faster than we will.”
“But Sean wants us to grab Buck ourselves—quietly,” Bunce said.
“Fuck it,” said Crowell. “I want to get some ass tonight.”
When Deere finally walked into the office, at 11:00 a.m., he scowled at Bunce’s mention of the DC request. “I don’t want them involved right now. I don’t want a bunch of guys on the street scaring this guy,” said Deere, adding he would prefer to rely on the less precise tracking method of hopscotching from e-mailed location to e-mailed location. “I want to take him nice and quiet.”
“Sean, they do this all the time,” Crowell said. “They don’t cause a scene. They are good.”
“No, I want to do this my way,” Deere insisted. “And that is nice and quiet.”
Crowell wasn’t happy with the decision, but he said nothing further. This was Deere’s case, so Deere’s word was law.
WITH A CIGARETTE dangling from his lips, Sean Deere drives toward the AO—the area of operations—zigzagging through Capitol Heights, a 4,000-person town of single-family homes, townhouses, and apartment buildings squeezed into less than a square mile next to the DC line. He, too, is dressed casually: black boots, blue jeans, long-sleeved black T-shirt, black police jacket. Country music blares from the stereo of his loaner, a car so beat-up that its glove box is secured by duct tape. His usual ride, a blue Impala with 121,000 miles on the odometer, is getting a tune-up at the department’s maintenance shop. Six months into his investigation of Amber Stanley’s murder—the most difficult case of his career—the detective feels as rundown as his Impala and as rickety as his loaner.
Deere regrets having snapped at Mike Crowell and Joe Bunce earlier, but he had his reasons. For one, the stakes are high, and he can’t afford to take the risk that another department’s officers will screw up his investigation. For another, the warrant he has for Jeff Buck’s DNA is a piece of shit. To emphasize this point to the ever-impatient Crowell, Deere that morning had waved his hands over the document like a wizard. “It’s all rumor and magic,” he told Crowell, “and it might get tossed by a judge. So I want to keep it in my pocket. I want him to consent.”
In the heart of Capitol Heights, Deere drives slowly down avenues and up side streets. He scans sidewalks but sees no one who matches the description of his target. As he cruises through another alley, he feels his smartphone vibrate. He pulls the cruiser to a stop and reaches for his belt holster. Scrunching his eyes, he studies the e-mail on his smartphone. He smiles.
“You see this?” Crowell blurts over the radio.
Deere keys his mike and tells Crowell that the hit has a variable radius of only about a hundred feet. “He must be out in the open.” Deere knows that hits get more precise when suspects are on the phone and outdoors.
Placing his radio back on the passenger seat, Deere enters the longitude and latitude into a mapping program on his phone, and out pops the location: a half mile away near Eastern Avenue, a dividing line between PG County and the District. The detectives were right: Buck has been moving toward the line. If they’re lucky, they will catch him with a gun or drugs, giving them leverage in the interrogation room.
Deere slams the accelerator, and the battered cruiser roars to life. The detective races up Southern Avenue and swerves onto Eastern Avenue, a blur of townhouses, vacant lots, squat apartment buildings, and parked cars flashing past his window. A moment later, he spies a tall man in a leather jacket sauntering down the sidewalk, a grocery bag in his right hand. It’s Jeff Buck—no question.
Got you, thinks Deere, grabbing his radio and relaying Buck’s location. “Sixty-second and Eastern.”
“On my way,” says Crowell.
Hanging back a bit, Deere watches Buck stride into an apartment complex’s parking lot. A moment later, the detective pulls into the lot, comes to a quick stop next to Buck, and leaps from the car. “Put your hands on the hood!” Deere shouts.
Buck spins toward Deere, his dreadlocks flailing under a dark ball cap as his eyes search for an escape route. As Deere knows from having read reports and spoken to fellow officers about his suspect, Buck is not afraid to run from the police.
“Don’t,” says Deere. “Don’t!”
Buck and the detective lock eyes for a moment, both men utterly still. Finally the suspect frowns and gently sets the grocery bag on the ground. Swiveling, he places his hands on the car’s hood.
“I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a little bit,” Deere tells Buck, running his hands up and down the man’s sides and over his legs, checking for weapons. Finding none, he pats Buck on the back, prompting him to spin around.
Over the past two months, Deere has often eyed Jeff Buck’s mug shot, and now he is not surprised by what he finds in front of him. The twenty-three-year-old has a long, sloped face, a flat nose, and a goatee. A Pittsburgh Pirates cap covers his thick dreadlocks, and he’s clad in camouflage pants and a clashing red-and-black leather jacket. Leaning back against the car, Buck jams his hands into his jacket pockets and sneers, clearly unhappy about being stopped and frisked in public.
“I have to take you back to the office,” Deere says. In his peripheral vision, he catches Crowell’s Impala pulling into the lot. A moment later, his fellow detective stands at his side.
“What the fuck? I’m just bringing these things to my baby’s momma,” Buck says, nodding toward the plastic bag at his feet.
Deere glances at the bag and sees that it contains cleaning supplies and diapers. Off to his right, he hears a door open, and a woman in a blue bathrobe emerges from a ground-floor apartment. The woman briefly surveys the scene before taking a few angry steps toward the investigators. She must be the baby’s mother, Deere thinks, so he holds up his right hand, a signal for her to halt.
She complies, puts her hands on her hips, and begins to scream.
“You can’t take him!” she shouts. “You need a warrant! You need a warrant! Let him go!”
“No, I can,” says Deere.
“Is he going to be all right?” the woman asks. “Give me your card. What is your badge number? Give me your badge number!”
“We’ll give it to him,” says Crowell. “He’ll be fine—he’s with the police!”
“Fuck you!” the woman yells. “Fuck you all! Jeff, don’t say a word! Fuck you all!”
“He’s an adult,” Deere says, too quietly for the woman to hear, as he opens the front passenger door of the cruiser.
“You can come with us if you like,” he says to Buck. Then he grabs the man’s left arm with his right hand and guides him around the door. Before his suspect can object, the detective spins him into the passenger seat and slams the door.
THE PHONE CALL that ushered Sean Deere into a personal hell came six months earlier, at 11:10 p.m. on August 22, a warm and muggy Wednesday. Deere was at home; half-asleep on his couch, he was watching the late news. When he answered his cell phone, the midnight-shift detective told him a teenage girl had been slain in her own bedroom. The murder, the detective said, had occurred in Kettering, a suburban subdivision featuring tree-lined streets with genteel names like Burleigh and Princeleigh and Wimbleton.
A neighborhood of ramblers, split-levels, and colonials built in the 1960s and 1970s, Kettering was east of Washington’s Beltway—which in PG County is generally considered the highway’s “good side”—making it a somewhat unusual venue for a homicide. But after having spent five years investigating murders all across the sprawling county, Deere was keenly aware that even the most placid neighborhoods could hold deadly secrets. As he drove toward Kettering, his mind ran through the typical reasons a teenager might be killed in such a place: she was a prostitute, a gang member, the girlfriend of a drug dealer, or the resident of a narcotics stash house. All were grounds enough to be slain in PG County.
Deere arrived in Kettering just after midnight and soon turned onto Chartsey Street, a curving road lined with homes on small but neat grassy lots. He passed a dozen PG patrol cars and evidence vans before stopping in front of the victim’s house, a split-level with beige siding, burgundy shutters, and a red mailbox. The investigator got out of his car, ducked under police tape, and found Andre Brooks—the midnight-shift detective who had called him an hour or so earlier—chatting with Deere’s sergeant, Joe Bergstrom. The investigators told him what they knew: someone had kicked in the front door of the house, climbed to the second floor, and fatally shot Amber Stanley in her bedroom.
Brooks told Deere that Amber Stanley’s mother, older sister, and foster sister had already been taken to the homicide office, where investigators were quizzing them. The older sister, Brooks said, reported being in her basement bedroom with her four-year-old son and hearing Amber scream; she then heard a gunshot, more screams, and more gunshots. The sister ran to the first floor and dipped her head around a corner. Looking up the stairs to the second floor, she saw a man leaving Amber’s room. He was wearing a dark sweatshirt and a dark mask; in his right hand he was holding a semiautomatic pistol. Before the gunman could react, the sister dashed downstairs to her room and slammed the door. She blocked it with a filing cabinet, snatched her son, and climbed out a back window.
Deere jotted down some notes, then walked to the front door of the house. It had clearly been had been smashed in—the dead bolt was extended, and the jamb was cracked—but he saw no evidence of shoe or boot imprints. Shifting his gaze, he spotted a mangled bullet three feet in, on the entryway’s hardwood floor; five feet beyond that was a shell casing.
Deere stepped into the house and took the stairs on his right to the second floor. Amber Stanley’s room was just off the landing; slipping across the threshold, he found the murdered girl. Clad in a baby-blue sleeping T-shirt, looking tiny and delicate, she lay crumpled over a pillow on her bed. Under her face was a pool of congealing blood. A jarring mix of scents—perfume, hair spray, gun powder—filled the small white room.
On the bed’s bright green comforter, Deere counted three shell casings. A fourth was on the floor to his right. Nearby were a pile of clothes, a small dresser, and a set of white shelves filled with books and pink baskets containing hair spray, brushes, mousse, and creams. Pink curtains covered the far window. In one corner of the room was a jewelry box, in another an electronic music keyboard. On the wall was a dry-erase board with a to-do list: “book reflection, two essays, binders, sheet protectors.” Under it was a calendar; in the box for Monday, August 20, bracketed in blue and red marker, were the words “First Day.”
Deere’s stomach clenched. His victim was not involved in the drug world; a dirtbag’s girlfriend does not highlight the first day of school, and certainly not with enthusiasm. In her bedroom and then elsewhere in the house, Deere studied photographs of the girl, every one of which was striking. With soft, round cheeks and glimmering brown eyes, Amber Stanley had been beautiful—later, Deere would learn that she was a part-time model and an honor student who dreamed of becoming a geneticist.
A stream of investigators and evidence techs came and went from Amber’s room. There was no banter at the victim’s bedside; to the officers present, this girl could have been a sister or a daughter. Deere was as hardened as any of them, but as he leaned close to the girl he felt a surge of sadness, his thoughts drifting to images of his four children, two of them girls.
Working deliberately, Deere noted several wounds to Amber’s head and face, the position of her body, the type of shell casings, the lack of other physical evidence. This didn’t feel like a robbery: a plastic bag of cash, apparently Amber’s, lay at the foot of the bed. It didn’t seem like a domestic dispute, either. It felt like an execution, which made no sense. Nobody executes honor students, Deere thought. Not like this.
While searching the rest of the house, Deere was momentarily puzzled by a black footprint on the door of a second basement bedroom, this one normally occupied by the foster sister. The door had been kicked in, but Deere quickly realized that the damage wasn’t the work of the killer. Instead, the footprint had been left by the boot of an officer frantically hunting for the gunman or any survivors. When Deere entered the foster sister’s rather plain room, he found a twin bed, a dresser, and a desk covered with journals and diaries. He collected the brightly colored volumes as evidence, but nothing else in the room caught his attention.
Deere spent the next few hours working closely with evidence technicians and forensic investigators. It was his responsibility to make sure they did their jobs properly; he observed them photographing the victim and the scene, collecting potential evidence, and, finally, placing the body into a zippered bag. Just as the sun rose above Chartsey Street, Deere left the house and drove to the office, where he would spend much of the next forty-eight hours. Already, he was deeply worried; this was not a typical homicide. He could feel it in his bones.
OVER THE NEXT several days, Deere reviewed the autopsy results, the evidence collected by the techs, and the interviews with the victim’s family members. He soon put together a plausible scenario of what had happened in the house that night: the gunman had kicked in the front door and startled Amber Stanley, who was standing just ten feet away in the front hallway. The killer fired his first shot; the round struck the teen in the left arm, breaking it. Chased by her assailant, Amber fled upstairs and ran to her bedroom. There she took refuge on her bed, next to her stuffed animals. The gunman followed her into the bedroom, stood over her, and fired several more times, hitting her in the face and head. Then he raced back down the stairs and out of the house.
But the killer’s motive—not to mention his identity—remained a mystery. Within hours of Amber Stanley’s murder, the case had begun to attract a huge amount of attention from both the PG police department’s higher-ups and the media. It was a classic “red ball”: a high-profile murder that must be solved, and solved yesterday. (The police took the nickname from the railroad business; red balls were trains carrying priority items.) As Deere knew, the gunman had killed more than just a pretty teenager: Amber Stanley—an honor student with a bright future—was a living emblem of hope in a county too often defined by shattered dreams.
Under intense pressure to find her killer, the PG police department hurled plainclothes officers, drug investigators, and dozens of detectives into the case. Days became weeks, but still the case remained unsolved. Now, six months after the murder, Deere struggles to believe that he’s making any real progress. He often feels like a lifeguard being dragged under by a drowning swimmer.
With thinning brown hair, sallow cheeks, and puffy bags under his eyes, Deere looks a decade older than his forty-four years. He has put on at least thirty-five pounds since catching the case, erasing the gains of a months-long diet that combined a strict vegan regimen with the regular consumption of appetite-suppressing cigarettes.
Possessed of an innate curiosity and a superb memory, Deere is a whiz at trivia contests and an enthusiastic student of history. The son of a DC firefighter, he grew up in Prince George’s County, did well in school, and attended junior college with the idea of going into real estate. But public service was in his blood, and he quickly grew bored with his studies. Changing course, he applied to the PG police department and became an officer in 1990, at the age of twenty-one. Like all rookies, he started in patrol before spending a decade as an undercover narcotics investigator—a job that taught him patience, since complicated drug probes can take years to build. In 2008, looking for a new challenge, he won an assignment to homicide, policing’s most dynamic and intellectually challenging assignment.
After five years in the crucible of murder investigation, Deere thought he had seen everything—until he caught the red ball express the night Amber Stanley was killed. Since then, he has worked an almost endless string of sixteen-hour days, conducting scores of interviews, compiling hundreds of reports, filling seven binders with meticulous dossiers on witnesses and suspects. He has listened to mind-numbing recordings of phone calls from jail, delivered at least three detailed briefings to the police chief, and passed far too many nights staring at the bedroom ceiling, fretting over what crucial piece of evidence or information he has missed. Though he blames his weight gain on the long hours and the abrupt demise of his vegan-and-cigarettes diet, the real culprits were stress and anxiety. With twenty-three years on the force, Deere is nearing retirement; for better or worse, his reputation will ultimately be defined by this one case.
Deere is well aware that some of the county’s most infamous red balls have never been solved. In fact, the twentieth anniversary of one such case is fast approaching. In May 1993, ten-year-old George Stanley Burdynski Jr. left his family’s white bungalow on his bicycle in the working-class town of Brentwood, never to be seen again. For months, Junior’s disappearance was a major news story, with reporters chronicling the frantic efforts by the police to find the boy, or at least his missing red bicycle. For a while, investigators suspected that a ring of pedophiles was responsible, but eventually that trail went cold. On nearly every anniversary of Junior’s disappearance, the department displays thousands of pages of reports to prove to reporters how hard the case has been worked, as if the stacks of dusty documents demonstrate anything other than the obvious: despite enormous effort, no killer has ever been brought to justice.
Five years after Junior’s disappearance, fifty-year-old Sherry Crandell was discovered bound, raped, and strangled in her office at Prince George’s Hospital Center. The crime shocked the DC region: was the county so dangerous that hospital employees were not safe at work? The police promised a quick arrest; they believed the killer was a thief who had assaulted Crandell after she surprised him while he was rummaging through her office. Not only had the killer left behind his DNA, the hospital also boasted dozens of security cameras that were likely to have captured crucial evidence. Yet, the investigation went nowhere, and now, nearly fifteen years after Crandell’s death, the investigation’s lead detective remains tormented by the failure.
These murders haunt the PG police force like phantoms. In particular, they plague Sean Deere, who yearns for Amber Stanley’s case—his investigation—to be solved. In his darkest moments, he imagines a painful phone call ten or twenty years hence, from some young detective who brazenly asks how he had missed an obvious piece of evidence. This is his waking nightmare: that the answer to the Amber Stanley riddle lies somewhere in his seven binders, that he has somehow missed the critical clue among hundreds of facts and rumors, reports and scribbled notes. The clue waits there, unseen and uncaring, and it will wait there as he retires, grows old, and dies.
TEN MINUTES AFTER grabbing Jeff Buck, Deere parks his Impala behind police headquarters, leads the suspect through a set of double doors and down a long hallway, and then turns left into the unmarked door of the homicide office. They pass one closed door before Deere opens a second one—this is Interview Room 2. He deposits Buck inside, telling him that he and Detective Crowell will return in a few minutes.
After closing and locking the door, Deere shuffles through the 1,350-square-foot squad room. The low-ceilinged space is crammed with five rows of workstations, each topped by a filing cabinet decorated with work schedules, family photos, and sports logos. The room’s fluorescent lights are harsh, and though one wall has five windows, they are small and their curtains are drawn, so almost no natural light enters the room. On each desk, a whirling fan circulates the stuffy air, which smells of stale pepperoni pizza and fried chicken, the last two meals devoured by the investigators.
Deere passes between two rows of desks piled high with case files, papers, and boxes. His is the last desk in the last row; it sits next to a concrete wall so thick that it blocks most cell-phone signals from the bunkerlike room. A moment later, Crowell arrives and takes a seat at his desk, which is next to Deere’s. For five minutes, the two detectives silently review notes and check e-mails. Then Deere stands and signals for Crowell to follow him. It’s time.
The detective walks to the interview room and presses his right eye to the peephole. Jeff Buck has removed his leather jacket and is now down to a black sweatshirt. With his hands deep in the pockets of his camouflage pants, he is half-sitting, half-lying in a plastic chair, his eyes closed. He appears to be asleep.
The felony nap, thinks Deere.
As every homicide detective in the unit knows, only the guilty sleep in the windowless, eight-by-eight-foot interview room known as “the box.” The innocent pace, bounce on their toes, sob, even piss their pants in fear. Who wouldn’t in this grim enclosure, with its gray walls, flickering lights, heavy door audibly locked from the outside, and black video orb mounted in an upper corner? No, the innocent do not nap.
The guilty, however, sprawl out on the wooden table or the dingy tile floor or in one of the hard plastic chairs. They sleep, or pretend to. Within the Homicide Unit, explanations for this behavior abound: maybe some kind of circuit breaker has tripped in their minds; maybe they are simply acting. Sean Deere has his own hypothesis: the guilty, the true killers, are reptilian motherfuckers who don’t give a shit, either about the life they have taken or the one they might be about to lose.
Stepping back from the door, Deere runs a hand through what remains of his hair and rubs the bags under his eyes. He takes a deep breath; glancing over his right shoulder, he spots Crowell checking the wall clock and jotting down the time on his notepad.
“Ready?” Deere asks.
“Let’s do this,” says Crowell.
Deere does not want to show Buck the flimsy warrant for collecting his DNA, partly because it will alert him to his status as a suspect, partly because Buck could challenge it and prevent jurors from hearing the evidence Deere hopes to collect. So the detective wants to keep the interview low-key for as long as possible and eventually persuade Buck to consent to giving them his DNA. The results of that test will either confirm that Buck is a serious suspect or force Deere to reevaluate two months of work. Deere also hopes to convince Buck to surrender his cell phone and its potential trove of e-mails, texts, photographs, videos, and social-media postings.
As Deere and Crowell step into the interview room, the detectives are assaulted by the pungent smells of marijuana and body odor. On the ten-minute ride to the station, Deere had sniffed the skunklike smell of weed emanating from Buck’s clothes. Now that aroma has merged with the stink of the room’s most recent occupant, most likely a homeless man. Deere wonders whether they should move Buck to a better room but decides against it. The detectives will get used to the smell; they always do.
“You got weed on you?” Crowell asks, his voice muffled by a golf-ball-sized plug of sunflower seeds in his right cheek.
“I don’t think so,” the man says.
“Are you sure you don’t have a J on you?” asks Deere.
“We don’t care,” Crowell says. “If you do, we’re just going to get rid of it.”
“Do you smoke?” asks Deere, referring to marijuana.
Buck laughs—of course he does.
“This morning?” Deere says.
“Yeah, this morning.”
Deere wonders if the man is too impaired by the drug to continue but decides that he’s reasonably lucid and presses ahead. The detective doesn’t like the way the furniture is arranged in the box, so he and Crowell move the table away from the wall, into the center of the room. Deere takes a seat across from Buck, while Crowell sits in one corner of the cramped room, his right knee two feet from Buck’s left knee.
Deere begins the interrogation with straightforward questions about the man’s background. Buck is twenty-three and says he lives with his “baby’s momma”—the screaming woman from earlier that afternoon—in an apartment on Eastern Avenue in Capitol Heights, on the line between PG County and the District.
After he finishes with Buck’s background, Deere asks where he was last night and this morning. It’s a test, a question to which Deere and Crowell think they know the answer. They have spent weeks learning everything they can about the suspect, and for the past few days they’ve tracked his cell phone. They believe he spent the night at another girlfriend’s apartment, about three and a half miles from where they nabbed him.
Buck says he slept at his baby’s momma’s house and, before that, was with a friend on Southern Avenue. In other words, he was nowhere near where his cell phone was pinging. He says he had just left a grocery store on an errand for his baby’s momma when the detectives found him. That part was no doubt true—he’d been carrying a shopping bag filled with the expected supplies—but it seems more likely that he had popped into the store on his way home from his other girlfriend’s apartment, or perhaps after conducting a few drug deals.
When Deere asks Buck why he went to the grocery store, Buck says his baby’s momma had run out of soap for her washing machine. He also says he needed cigarettes and bought two.
“You buy cigarette singles?” Deere asks.
“Yeah,” Buck says. “The guys around here sell them in singles.”
“How much is a cigarette?”
“Fifty cents for one?” Deere asks in the hoarse voice of a smoker who inhales a pack a day of Camel Blues.
“Yeah, two for a dollar.”
“You get a better deal with two for a dollar,” Deere deadpans.
Buck’s brow creases; he is perplexed. “It’s the same thing,” he says.
Deere laughs. “The more you buy should be cheaper. Hey, a carton is cheaper than a pack.”
“I’m trying to cut down,” Buck says. “But as many singles that I smoke, I should buy a pack.”
Deere taps pen to paper once, twice, a third time. The preliminaries are over. He asks Buck about his last visit to this office, five months earlier. Like a number of others who live in or near Amber Stanley’s neighborhood, Buck had been questioned about the murder. Deere has read the department’s report on the interview, and from what he can tell, the detective who interviewed Buck did a decent job. But the detective clearly hadn’t been particularly familiar with the details of the case; besides, in light of what Deere has recently uncovered, he couldn’t possibly have known the right questions to ask.
When Buck replies to Deere, his tone is casual: “He asked me if I knew her, who I think did it. He asked me a lot of random questions. I really can’t remember—it was a couple months back. He was asking me if I know the girl.”
“What did he say happened?”
“He didn’t tell me. He wanted my story first.”
“What did you hear?” asks Deere.
“Basically, some guys came into a house. I think they said three guys came into the house. They shot the girl while she was sleeping in her bed and left.”
The two detectives exchange quizzical looks. It is the first time Deere has heard anything about three men being involved; he also wonders if the confidential detail about Amber Stanley being slain in her bed has leaked out. He knows Buck has at least one fact wrong, however: Amber Stanley wasn’t sleeping when she was killed.
“Three guys came into the house and shot her while she was sleeping?” asks Deere, making sure he has the story straight.
Deere is quiet for a moment, again tapping his pen to paper, nodding slightly in thought.
“You knew her?” he asks.
“No, but I knew her sister.”
Deere and Crowell exchange another look. Good: Buck has admitted that he knows the sister. Not the older sister—the foster sister. Looking back at his suspect, Deere thinks, Okay, now it’s time.
FROM THE FIRST, Deere was all but certain that Amber Stanley was an innocent victim who had done nothing to deserve her fate. The murder had to be about something else, or somebody else. That somebody, Deere felt, was probably Amber’s foster sister, Denise Garner,† a known prostitute who was a magnet for trouble.
A thin, pretty teenager, Denise seemed mentally unstable and had endured a deeply troubled childhood and adolescence. When she was three, her mother, a prostitute, was found sexually assaulted and beaten to death. Until she was thirteen, the girl lived with various family friends and relatives, including an aunt. She then moved through a succession of foster homes, finally arriving at Amber Stanley’s parents’ house eight months before the murder. Her new situation suited her; in fact, she described living with Amber Stanley’s mother, Irma Gaither, as the best experience of her life. Even so, the most recent move had apparently done little to improve Denise’s behavior. As police investigators quickly discovered, she was selling sex for cash, marijuana, and cigarettes.
Denise, who turned eighteen not long after Amber’s slaying, soon became the focus of Deere’s investigation. She had a lengthy list of clients who needed to be tracked down, but Deere was particularly interested in learning more about a violent incident that might be related to the killing. Just five days before Amber’s murder, her foster sister had reported having been raped.
According to Denise, she had been walking home from a friend’s house at about 8:00 p.m. on August 17 when she was pulled into some bushes by a man wielding a knife. After forcing her to the ground and threatening to kill her, the man sexually assaulted her. “I almost died in the dark, all alone, in the grass somewhere,” she told sex-offense investigators a few hours after the assault. She initially denied selling herself to the man, but investigators were well aware of her background and suspected that she was lying about what had happened.
Soon after Amber’s murder, Deere talked with the sex-offense investigators who had interviewed Denise. They expressed considerable skepticism about the teenager’s story: under questioning, Denise had changed several details of her account, and by the end she’d decided that she didn’t want to report the crime. The investigators came away from the interview feeling somewhat skeptical that a rape had taken place; their guess was that a client had probably refused to pay and then brandished a knife to enforce his will.
Deere came to a different conclusion. Early on in their investigation of Amber’s murder, Deere and Crowell interviewed Denise and felt she was being honest about the rape. Though she admitted to selling sex for money, she was persuasive when swearing that she had not filed a false report to punish a client who’d refused to pay. The detectives inspected several cuts and small bruises on her arms, knees, legs, and hands, physical evidence that corroborated her description of struggling with a man threatening her with a knife. And Deere took note of two other salient facts: not only had her attacker used a condom, he’d also worn gloves, despite the summer heat. He had seemed to go out of his way to make sure that he didn’t leave any forensic clues behind—behavior that was hardly typical of a random trick gone bad.
Ever since learning of the assault, Deere had been guided by the wisdom of a former sergeant: “There are no coincidences in homicides.” Though Deere believed that his victim had not played a role in her own demise, her foster sister was a prostitute who had been raped a few days before the murder. The investigator’s suspicion that the sexual assault and the murder were connected gained credence as investigators learned more about Denise’s actions in the days after the rape. Soon after the assault, she had taken to Facebook to taunt her assailant, at one point writing, “ALL I GOTTA SAY IS LET ANOTHER PERSON HIT ME OR TRY TO. ITS GOING DOWN! BECAUSE NIGGAS COMING OUTSIDE WITH KITCHEN KNIVES AND BLACK GLOVES, NIGGA I WILL GET YOUR ASS SHOT!”
Given that Denise was displaying such bravado on the Internet, her attacker could have concluded that she’d also talked to the police about the rape. To Deere, that suggested a motive for shooting Denise, which in turn suggested that Amber Stanley could have been slain in error. Now Deere had a scenario that seemed plausible: desperate to stop Denise from talking further to the police or broadcasting details of the rape on social media, the rapist had gone to Denise’s house, kicked down the front door in a fury, and shot the young woman standing in the hallway. As he’d watched Amber run up the stairs, he might or might not have realized that he had shot the wrong girl. To Deere, it didn’t matter: the killer had to finish what he’d started, so he’d followed Amber up to her room and murdered her in her bed.
As Deere dug into the details of Denise’s rape in the days following Amber’s murder, he came across an intriguing piece of evidence: after the assault, a small spot of blood had been discovered on Denise’s shirt. The attacker had been careful, but Deere wondered if perhaps he had been cut during the encounter. Though the detective scoured the reports, he found no mention of Denise having been injured beyond scratches and bruises—certainly nothing that would explain the spot of blood. Further confirmation came from the injuries he and Crowell had noted when inspecting Denise’s extremities: none were terribly serious, though they were extensive enough to convince Deere that they corroborated her story of fending off an attacker.
In mid-October, Deere received the DNA test results on the blood and learned that it had indeed been spilled by a man. Now Deere believed he’d found another piece of the puzzle, a deduction that Denise would later confirm: during the assault, the teenager had wrestled the knife away from her assailant long enough to turn it on him. If the detective could locate the man whose DNA matched the blood found on Denise’s shirt, he might also have Amber’s killer.
That fall, Deere pursued a number of leads and theories, but none pointed to a likely suspect for either Amber’s killer or Denise’s rapist. Then, in early December, Deere got the tip that led him to Jeff Buck. A Maryland State Police detective told Deere that one of his informants had pinned Amber’s murder on a gang operating near her neighborhood. Actually, “gang” was too strong a term—as Deere came to understand, the crew was a loose-knit group of tough guys, drug users, and marijuana dealers who chilled on porches and in parks, smoked lots of their own product, and committed crimes ranging from breaking into cars to armed robberies. Jeff Buck was the group’s leader; a street tough whose criminal record included arrests on such charges as drug distribution and assault, Buck was known by the police to be a marijuana hustler. The informant said that Buck had raped Denise and ordered a friend, his gang’s enforcer, to silence her. After the killing, the gunman had supposedly fled to California.
This lead seemed especially promising. Not only were the informant’s details specific, but Deere was able to establish that Denise had frequently hung out with the gang’s members, putting her in close proximity to the new suspects. Deere would have liked to interview Denise about Jeff Buck and his gang, but for the moment that wasn’t possible. Earlier that fall, she had been whisked out of town and placed in a residential mental-health facility in the Midwest. Access to her was severely restricted: no calls in, no calls out, and very few visitors. Deere hoped he’d get the chance to speak with Denise at some point, but in the meantime he turned his attention to Buck and his crew.
Just before Christmas, Deere and Crowell went hunting. First they found the alleged triggerman, Buck’s enforcer. Though he denied killing Amber, the man acknowledged having traveled to California in the weeks after the murder—an unwitting confirmation of information provided by the informant. After only a little prodding, the enforcer provided a DNA sample. Several weeks later, Deere learned that the sample didn’t match the blood on Denise’s shirt—hardly surprising, since the informant had said the shooter had played no role in the rape. By this point, Deere knew that the only way to find out whether the enforcer was involved was to question the man who’d supposedly ordered the hit.
Deere spent a good part of January learning everything he could about Buck’s history and his current operations. The detective was particularly eager to get his suspect’s cell-phone records, since they would provide a trove of details about his daily activities. When the records finally landed on Deere’s desk, he went straight to the information about Buck’s calls on August 22. Suddenly the new lead looked even better: the records showed that Buck’s phone was in Amber’s neighborhood at the time of the murder.
SITTING ACROSS FROM Buck, Deere jots an occasional note as he listens to the suspect talk about his friends in Amber’s neighborhood, including Denise. He’s glad Buck has fessed up to knowing the foster sister—he thought he might have to waste time pressing Buck to admit that was friends with, or at least an acquaintance of, the teen. As the interrogation rolls on, Deere and Crowell ask Buck for more details about his relationship with Denise.
“She was loose,” Buck says, shrugging. He explains that another neighborhood girl had approached him and asked if he would pay fifty dollars to have sex with Denise. He is friends with the girl’s boyfriend, who drives an unlicensed taxi and gives Buck rides in exchange for gas money. Deere jots down the information—two more people to track down.
“She wanted to sell her body or something,” Buck adds. “All I know is that it’s beneath me. I would never pay for no pussy.”
Crowell chuckles. “Oh, you pay for it.”
“You are paying for it,” Crowell says, winking.
After a moment, Buck gets the joke, but he barely cracks a smile. “In a way,” he replies, “but I’m not putting a dime in her pocket. I might pay for dinner or something of that sort. I feel like I’m showing a female a good time. But I don’t put money in her pocket.”
Changing tack, Deere asks Buck whether he chills out at a house that has a recording studio in the basement. It is a well-known hangout; Deere would love to search it and guesses he would find guns or drugs. Buck acknowledges spending time in the studio; he says he’s cut a song there and hopes to produce another one that will earn him $2 million.
Deere pivots again, asking in a friendly way whether Buck and his friends enjoy “the purple drink,” a combination of Sprite and strong cough syrup that for some reason is consumed separately, in two cups.
“I’m going to put my beer in two cups so people think I’m drinking the purple drink,” Deere jokes, hoping to set Buck further at ease.
The banter has the opposite effect. Buck’s eyes narrow; he looks up at the wall as if to find a clock and check the time, but there is no clock in the box. He is clearly annoyed by these two uncool detectives trying to be hip. They can’t even pronounce the name of the drink right: on the street, it sounds like “purple drank.”
“How much longer am I going to be here?” Buck asks. “I have some things I have to—”
“You are going to be here a minute,” Deere interrupts, his voice harder now.
Bearing down, Deere begins questioning Buck about the murder. For the most part, the suspect deflects and evades, though he does provide what Deere considers helpful insights. He says he originally believed that the foster sister was the one killed. A week or two before the murder, Buck says, Denise had told him that “somebody had tried to rape her, or did rape her when she was walking home.”
Crowell asks Buck what else Denise said about the assault.
“She got to running and he got to grabbing her and she was fighting back,” Buck replied. “She thought the person was going to kill her, and she let him take it. After it was over, the nigga was like, ‘You shouldn’t be walking out this late at night because people out here like me are going to get you.’”
“He had a knife?” asks Deere.
“Where did she say it happened?”
“On the way home.”
“Did she always walk by herself?” Crowell asks.
“Yeah, she was always by herself.”
“Did you ever walk her home?” Deere asks.
Buck shakes his head; then he says that because the girl wore such skimpy clothes, she deserved what she got.
“You told her that?” Crowell asks.
“No. I was thinking it. I’m not that coldhearted a person.”
Deere purses his lips, thinking, Oh really? Then he asks, “Did you ever talk about it after that, since the murder?”
Deere is quiet for a moment. He considers asking Buck more questions about Denise but instead decides to focus on the murder, hoping to learn more about what Buck knows or is trying to hide.
“What’s the rumor on the street about what happened—what does everyone think happened to her?” Deere asks casually. He leans back in his chair, his hands clasped on top of his head, as if the question is unimportant.
“The girl who got killed.”
“Somebody came in,” Buck says, “and shot her in the face.”
Copyright © 2016 Del Quentin Wilber; http://agoodmonthformurder.com
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Comment below for a chance to win A Good Month for Murder by Del Quentin Wilber! To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below. TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In! A Good Month for Murder Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2016/06/a-good-month-for-murder-new-excerpt-del-quentin-wilber-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) June 2, 2016. Sweepstakes ends 11:59 a.m. ET June 10, 2016. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
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Del Quentin Wilber is the New York Times-bestselling author of Rawhide Down, an account of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. An award-winning reporter who previously worked for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, he now covers the justice department for the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
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Wow! How amazing to get yourself in a position to shadow a Homicide Unit! Kudos to Mr. Wilber for that alone. Then to have it turn into a crazy month with a dozen murders? Certainly enticing to read the rest of the story.
This sounds like a fascnating read.
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Murder is a bitch! Yes!
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The first chapter reels you in, now I know why it received a starred review from Booklist. Hopefully, I’ll be the luckey winner.
i like the fact that so much is going on…. makes me wanna read more
sounds like a good one
I love reading true crime. Can’t wait to read this.
would love to win….Thank you…
Would love to win this book. It would make a nice companion piece to my copy of Homicide-Life on the Streets by David Simon, one of the few books I’ve read multiple times.
It sure looks interesting.
First pre-sentence investigation I ever worked on as a probation office was assisting my FTO on a Florida serial keller. Sitting in on the interview with him was one of the most sobering events of my career. The amount of work that goes into an investigation like this is staggering.
Sounds like a great read, would love to enjoy the whole story. Thank you to Criminal Element for the giveaway.
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This is exactly the type of story I like to read! Thank you for giving me a chance to win.
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[b]Can’t wait to read the rest![/b]
i thoroughly enjoyed his first book and I like his newspaper reporter experience!
Many thanks, Cindi
This sounds like a good book. Thanks for the excerpt!
Just enough of a preview to make me want to read this book right now.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a great non-fiction account of homicide policework; this looks like it’s been worth the wait.
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I found this one at my library, but thanks for the preview.
Who doesn’t love to read about solving crimes?
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Interesting to hear the inside story
Police procedurals, I wonder how close to real life they are. Would love to read this mystery!
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