The Stowaway by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQSeptember 14, 2021
Most of the media had already made up their minds. They were calling Wyatt Butler the worst serial killer in decades. Depraved. Evil. A twisted, calculated madman who had preyed on innocent children. News vans and angry members of the public packed Foley Square outside the New York County Courthouse on this, the ﬁnal day of jury deliberations. A heavily guarded police line held the swarm at bay.
Somewhere in the depths of the granite-faced court building, Maria Fontana approached the drab refreshment table at the end of the deliberation room, carrying a small folder. She poured herself a stale black coﬀee. The hum of a struggling air conditioner and a quiet ticking clock ﬁlled the room. Her eleven fellow jurors were seated around a long, rectangular table, silently sifting through the horriﬁc evidence.
Emotional and physical exhaustion had set in long ago. Most jurors slumped in their chairs, elbows propped up on the table. Jackets oﬀ. Ties removed. Top buttons unfastened. The sense of formality from the ﬁrst week had slowly but surely ebbed away. They’d been here for three weeks, deadlocked after two secret ballots. Gone through the same debates again and again. Now the judge had given everyone a ﬁnal chance to reconsider before declaring a mistrial.
Maria knew that her decision would potentially send a gruesome killer to prison for the rest of his life. Or free an innocent man who had the misfortune of being assumed guilty in the court of public opinion, based purely on circumstantial evidence. Either way, the choice would be made in less than ﬁve minutes during the ﬁnal ballot.
Then, I can forget all this horror . . .
The sights and sounds of the evidence she was subjected to made her stomach churn. She guessed it would take years for her nightmares to end.
Maria sipped the coﬀee and grimaced at the bitter taste. She would have thought that good coﬀee was a requirement for jury duty that took this long. She was wrong.
Guilty or not guilty. The decision, for her, boiled down to a few basic facts.
Wyatt Butler—an antique watch restorer—stood accused of brutally murdering eight children in several diﬀerent states. For sure, he was a narcissist. Maria’s career as a psychologist told her that. He was outwardly self-centered and arrogant, without an apparent shred of empathy for the victims in this case. He had more than a hint of a superiority complex in the way he constantly sneered at the prosecution’s claims. He was immaculately dressed in a sharp suit, lean, and clean shaven with a perfect buzz cut. His strong Brooklyn accent had ﬁlled the courtroom as he denied everything with an air of indiﬀerence, and openly mocked the police for wasting time pursuing the wrong person.
He was most deﬁnitely an asshole.
But none of this necessarily made him guilty.
The legs of a chair scraped against the polished stone ﬂoor.
Fellow juror Ashlyn Berry—who looked like Rihanna, only twenty years older—rose from the table and headed over toward the side of the room. None of the other jurors batted an eyelid as she made her way to the refreshment table.
All twelve of them had stayed in a hotel throughout the monthlong trial and deliberation to avoid outside inﬂuences. An impossible task because the proceedings were covered on every news channel around the clock. No phones. No laptops. No connection to their friends or families. And the less-than-luxurious hotel they’d chosen to house them in didn’t help with the crushing boredom.
Nevertheless, over the course of the lingering month, Maria had struck up a friendship with Ashlyn. They frequently had dinner together in the dingy hotel lobby, trying to unwind from the horrors of the case. The older juror had been overwhelmed by their task. And with the clock ticking down to the ﬁnal ballot, the frown lines and nervous look had returned to Ashlyn’s face.
“Which way you think it’ll go?” she whispered.
“I’m not sure,” Maria replied. “We each have to do what we think is right. It’s hard to get past the lack of DNA and the eyewitness problems.”
“I hear you,” Ashlyn said. “But he sure does look guilty, don’t he?”
Maria nodded in agreement. She set down her coﬀee and opened her folder. She ﬂipped from page to page, showing the police sketches from a few of the eyewitnesses from various investigations. Each of the drawings looked diﬀerent and—more importantly—none looked like the man on trial for the crime.
How could every witness describe a diﬀerent suspect when the crimes were nearly identical?
It just made no sense.
That said, two pieces of evidence were particularly persuasive in connecting Wyatt Butler to the crimes. In every location of a murder, he’d stayed in the same town. On the same night. In the same chain of motels. An intrepid detective noticed the odd fact when cross-referencing motel guest lists in each city, assuming the killer traveled from town to town committing the crimes. Butler’s alibi was that he was there to sell antique watches, a fact that was backed up by his buyers. But still, the odds were fairly astronomical that this was mere coincidence.
Secondly, police found a pair of freshly bloodied pants belonging to an unidentiﬁed child in Butler’s attic in Bay Ridge. But the man had no children of his own, nor any explanation for where the clothes came from. The blood did not match any of the victims, so the evidence—while massively incriminating—simply wasn’t bulletproof.
The decision, for Maria, rested on opinion rather than hard evidence. Yes, most in the room had already decided his guilt. In spite of this, the unpalatable fact remained. Butler had a modicum of plausible deniability.
“I just want this damned thing over,” Ashlyn muttered.
“I wish they never selected me.”
Maria rested a reassuring hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “One way or another, this ends today,” she said. “We’ll all be home tonight. Life will return to normal, I promise you.”
She gave a slight nod. “I hope you’re right.”
Ashlyn returned back to the table and sat down, forlorn. The case had taken a heavy toll on her spirit. On them all.
Maria took a deep breath. Thoughts about her ﬁnal decision raced through her mind. Setting a potential monster free wrenched her stomach. Convicting the wrong man left the same deranged psychopath free to continue out his murder spree. Either way, her choice would leave an indelible mark on her. A constant question in her mind of which instinct was right.
She pondered her words to Ashlyn. In all likelihood, at least for her, life wouldn’t return to normal, not any time soon. When she closed her eyes and thought about returning to work, only the gruesome images of the case appeared in her mind.
The gut-churning tableaus of tiny bodies, purposely conﬁgured in bizarre positions. Decapitated limbs next to torsos. Tendons stripped, cleaned, and arranged in strange patterns, giving the scenes a sinister formality. And then the weirdest part. Stretched over each of the children’s corpses were oddly ﬁtting items of kids’ clothes that did not belong to the victims. A young boy wearing a yellow sundress. A four-year-old girl wearing an older boy’s Communion suit.
How could Maria go back to teaching psychology at Columbia University when her own psyche was so severely damaged? How could she go home and look her children in the eye with those grisly images still swirling in her mind? Terriﬁed that it could happen to other children, or even them?
But still, unless she was absolutely certain of Wyatt’s guilt, she knew how she had to vote.
The lead juror, a portly, middle-aged man with a gray-streaked side part, stood from the table. He double-checked his watch and cleared his throat. “Guys, it’s time to vote again. We all know what we have to do, and what this means.” He let out a huﬃng breath and propped himself up by his ﬁsts on the table. “Please. Let’s make this quick. We all want to get home.”
The jurors exchanged apprehensive glances as they ﬁled through to the next room. A grand, empty space with high ceilings and paintings on the wall of early-twentieth-century lawmakers and judges. It was as if they were casting their eyes down to the center of the room. Watching. There sat a booth with a curtain across its entrance. The jurors entered one by one to give their decisions on a small piece of paper. Each reappearing from behind a curtain, grim-faced.
Maria went in last.
She held the pen over the paper. Her ﬁngers quivered slightly as she wrote her decision. She walked back out into silence, praying she’d made the right choice.
A few of the jurors appeared relieved that it was all over. At least for them.
Maria suspected that for some, the road would be much, much longer.
Maria left the warmth of St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, back into the bitterly cold weather that had gripped New York for the last week. Her eleven-year-old twins, Chloe and Christopher, were already wrapped up in thick coats, scarves, and hats. Each edged closer to her side as she raised her umbrella. She snapped it open to cover everyone, and they headed out into the freezing rain.
Thunder rumbled overhead.
Raindrops hammered against the umbrella’s canopy.
Their shoes splashed through puddles while they headed along the path toward Broadway. Only a few cars sped down the street. Unsurprising for a Sunday morning in October, with an angry sky, and the mercury due to dip again by lunchtime. Luckily, she’d managed to ﬁnd a parking space by the side of the church on Corona Avenue. Less than a minute from the church steps.
A biting wind whipped against her coat, bringing a cloud of freezing mist. The kids turned their heads into the breeze, catching the freezing-cold droplets in their mouths. Maria quickened her stride.
The churchgoers who had followed her outside audibly groaned at the inclement weather. No one had time to hang around outside and gossip.
Maria shuddered. “Step it up, guys. There’s hot chocolate waiting at home.”
“Is Steve making it?” Chloe asked.
“Last time, he put thirty marshmallows in my mug,” Christopher added.
“Well, if you’re lucky, he’ll put thirty-one in today.” Maria smiled.
The kids quickened their pace to match hers along the sidewalk.
Her new boyfriend, Steve, had been great with her kids since they began dating. He was a ﬁnancial advisor and part-time thespian at a local community theater, and he truly had the heart of a child. A family man for sure, but when it came to Sunday church, she knew that wasn’t his jam. He broke up with God a long time ago.
In the weeks since the trial ended, meeting him was one of the only bright spots in her life. His laugh was infectious, and he never missed a moment for a well-placed joke. He was goofy, even. Playful. It had been years since she’d felt like this with a man. And though she harbored no bad feelings toward her ex-husband, he could never make her laugh the way Steve did.
He’s exactly what I need.
Maria dug her hand into her coat pocket for her car keys as they crossed the intersection. When she looked back up, a woman was standing on the corner of Corona and Broadway in front of them.
She was dressed in a dark coat, with no umbrella. Her soaked hair had matted against her head as if she were oblivious to the downpour. She stared at Maria and the kids as they approached. Not with curiosity. More a manic, wild-eyed expression, like she was a deer who had just spotted the silent approach of an alligator.
It wasn’t unusual to encounter someone like that in this part of town. Typically high on some drug. Down on their luck. Begging. Maria had already dropped her available money in the collection plate. She peered down to avoid eye contact, sorry that she had nothing to give. Protectively pulled Chloe and Christopher closer as they crossed the street.
The safety of the car lay seconds away.
But something felt wrong.
The woman’s expensive coat and shoes, for a start. The fresh makeup running down her cheeks in columns. The lines too harsh to be from the mist. And her stare—it pierced right through them.
The most unnerving thing was that the woman appeared vaguely familiar.
Maybe it was the lingering paranoia since the trial, expecting every strange look to be something personal. Then again, maybe not.
The strange woman’s head turned to follow Maria and her children as they passed by on the sidewalk.
Maria quickly hit the Unlock button on her key fob. All four signal lights ﬂashed, and the SUV let out a beep.
“Make sure you hold those kids tight,” the woman muttered from behind.
Maria stopped and spun around, moving her children behind her back. “What did you say?” Maria replied.
“I used to have a boy too, just about your son’s age,” she said. “No more. No more . . .”
The woman’s head hung low, making it diﬃcult to make out her face up close.
“I’m . . . I’m very sorry to hear about your son,” Maria replied.
“You’re . . . very . . . sorry,” the woman replied. “You know, I don’t think you’re sorry at all, Ms. Fontana.”
Startled, Maria racked her brain with who this woman was. “Excuse me, do I know you?”
“No. But you damn well should.” The woman slowly raised her head, body trembling. Tears rolled down her face, smearing her mascara along with the spatters of rain. “I want your kids to remember my face, Maria. To know my pain . . .”
The woman moved within an arm’s length. Maria instinctively pushed back, accidentally squeezing the twins backward between herself and the cold exterior of the car.
“Mom . . . ,” Christopher said, clutching her arm.
“It’s okay, sweetie. Let’s get you guys out of the rain.” Maria nervously turned to her vehicle. She opened the back door, and the kids jumped inside. “Stay inside—seat belts, please. I won’t be a minute.”
They nodded in reply.
She slammed the door shut and immediately locked it with the key fob. Chloe smudged her face against the glass. Christopher joined her.
For a split second, Maria tried to remember where she’d seen this woman before. She’d seen hundreds, if not thousands, of students and patients in her years as a professor and psychologist. It certainly wouldn’t be the ﬁrst time she’d forgotten a face from her time at Columbia.
No, it wasn’t that . . .
Maria turned back toward the woman deﬁantly. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
Ignoring her questions, the woman continued, “Charlie turns eight next month. Would have turned eight. He wanted a new ﬁshing rod.”
Maria stared intently at the woman, still confused.
“You wanna know what I want, Ms. Fontana?” she continued. “I want to know if it was you.”
The edge in the woman’s voice had taken on a new tone. Sharper. Accusatory.
“I . . . If what was me?”
“Are you the one? Are you the one juror that voted not guilty? The one juror that caused the mistrial and set that animal free after what he did to my boy? After what he did to all those kids? I deserve to know.”
Maria’s head swooned with what she was hearing. Those words instantly brought back a sea of unwanted memories from the trial. Grisly images of the victims. The faces of the grief-stricken families who had the bravery to attend. The media frenzy when the mistrial was declared.
It can’t be, can it?
Maria scrutinized the woman’s face. It was impossible to recognize her because of her wet hair and grimace.
“I . . . I . . . ,” Maria stammered, in shock at what was happening.
Churchgoers had stopped on the sidewalk, forming a small crowd around the two women. One of them, an old man named Bob, whom she only knew on polite terms, stepped in toward the confrontation. “Is everything okay here, Maria?”
“Yeah, yes. We’re good,” Maria said, wanting to avoid escalating the situation further. She searched her memory for a boy named Charlie.
Charlie . . . Buxton.
A seven-year-old boy who had had his arms and legs severed by the killer, and his remaining corpse dressed in a girl’s pink bathing suit. The gruesome crime scene photos . . . the brutality . . .
Maria’s eyes teared up as she looked at the woman. “Mrs. Buxton, I am so very sorry for your loss. You have to believe me.”
Mrs. Buxton stepped closer and jabbed a ﬁnger in Maria’s chest. “Tell me, are you the one who voted not guilty and set Wyatt Butler free?”
Maria drew in a deep, shuddering breath.
One of the churchgoers moved toward Mrs. Buxton to intervene, but Maria extended a hand, stopping the man in his tracks.
“I . . . I’m sorry . . . ,” Maria stammered, “but you know I can’t tell you that, Mrs. Buxton. We’re sworn to—”
“Bullshit!” the woman exclaimed, losing her temper for the ﬁrst time. “Do you know what it’s like seeing photos of your murdered son every single day on the TV? Reading the description of what Wyatt Butler did to him in every newspaper? Watching that animal waltz out of the courthouse without a care in the world? I deserve to know which one of you set him free!”
A shiver rocked through Maria. Her worst fears had been realized. The trial was following her. Even here. To her church in Elmhurst. The church she’d been going to since she was a little girl.
A few of the churchgoers muttered to each other. Maria eyed the rapidly growing crowd. Most of the onlookers stood stony-faced, watching this situation escalate. She couldn’t blame them. She felt like she was going to faint.
Maria lowered her voice to a whisper. “I can’t begin to imagine your pain, you must believe me. But . . . I’m sorry. I cannot tell you how I voted.”
Mrs. Buxton’s cheeks turned ﬂush with seething anger. The sadness that seemed to encompass her moments ago had shifted. Rage swiftly took its place. She leaned in closer to Maria’s ear.
“Now you listen to me,” she said, whispering back at Maria. “I won’t stop until I ﬁnd out. The other parents won’t stop. The press won’t stop. If he kills again, and if I ﬁnd out it was you that voted not guilty, so help me God . . .”
Maria didn’t wait for the rest of the sentence. She abruptly turned to the car, unlocked the door, and leaped in. She slammed the lock down, pushed the Ignition button, shifted the car into drive, and gripped the steering wheel with shaking hands. She slammed on the gas. All the churchgoers surrounding the car had to practically dive out of the way.
The SUV accelerated quickly through the intersection and sped oﬀ down the street.
But deep down, Maria knew. No matter how fast she drove, she knew she would never outrun the past.