You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy.
The cold case.
It starts like it always starts; with a whisper, a text or a phone call in the night.
“pssssst. You working today?”
I laugh. Am I working today?
When in 30 plus years have I not been working?
Christmas? Yep. Thanksgiving? My phone’s on. Vacation with palm trees swaying over head? Of course.
In this new world of on line, on air, and on the go, there is no place to hide from the digital demons that blow news 24/7.
The voice on the other end of the line is familiar. “We’re sitting on a storage locker, waiting for a search warrant in a 17 year murder case we just solved.”
How fortuitous! It just so happens, the story I am assigned is falling apart like a bee hive that has been run over by a lawmower.
“How long you gonna be out there?,” I ask.
“A while,” the voice responds.
“I’ll let you know,” I say hanging up.
I find my Boss. “I think we need to re-direct,” I say as I begin to tell him what I think I can get.
“Go for it. I like cold cases.”
And so it begins. Another wild news day full of highways, country roads, wrong turns, and what’s next.
We head to a County in the middle of other counties that is already far from civilization. Getting here takes effort and purpose. There are roads that lead in, but the road signs are comically placed, like a substantive plot in a 3 Stooges skit.
Where this story will unfold today is still trapped in time. It’s a community where you once had to dial a 666 prefix to make a phone call.
I’m not sure if this was an ATT numerical roll of the dice or something more diabolical. It’s just one of many discussion my photog and I will have on the hour long drive to a place that GPS calls “recalculating.”
We pull into the parking lot of a country market. The locals gassing up their dualies cast a quizzical eye at the news guy standing beside the man with the badge.
I listen for banjos playing in the wind. I hear only the roar of another dump truck shifting through gears down the highway.
“We arrested the man this morning,” The sheriff says. “We sat on him and when he moved, we took him down without incident.”
The story is a sad one. A woman’s body is discovered in a ditch July 20o1. In the 17 years since, leads have gone cold, and the name of the victim has disappeared from most conversations at the local meat and three.
The sheriff will take office 5 years after her death. From that day he tells his investigators to solve this case.
And after 17 years, today, his men do just that.
According to the sheriff, the now 66 year old murder suspect is an old boyfriend. The sheriff will tell me the man was always a person of interest, but there was never enough to link him to the crime.
The sheriff is tight with his facts, but he does tell me that something happened in late February that reinvigorated this investigation. Whatever came to light was enough to present to a Grand Jury and whatever it was, enough to get a True Bill.
The sheriff hands me the phone. It’s the victim’s youngest daughter, now a woman herself with 4 young children.
She calls from a trampoline place, the background filled with the happy shrills of children playing, who think nothing of murders and affidavits and grand jury presentments.
The woman steps outside. I hear the wind in the receiver, but her words are crisp and clear. There is passion in her voice, a sense of relief.
She cries on the phone, her emotions flowing like a leaf gliding down a quick moving river.
In one moment, she is happy, almost beyond words. She tells me that her family has never given up hope. Then the receiver is filled with sobs about loss and the dark days as she wondered how her mother suffered at the hands of a ruthless killer who would murder her and leave her for dead in the dirt.
The daughter will tell me, had her mother have lived, she’d have known her 6 grandchildren, none of whom she will ever meet. I will later look at this photo of children and I am saddened. It’s a family portrait, high on a bluff overlooking something wonderful. I stare into the face of the babies and wonder how each of these little lives has somehow been cheated.
The daughter tells me about her mother’s rich life that began with cheerleading and prom queen presentations and a college degree. She tells me about wonderful memories where her mother stopped to help senior citizens she didn’t even know.
The woman expresses deep gratitude to the sheriff for not letting this case go unsolved.
The sheriff hears these words and smiles. He says he wants to solve every crime, but solving a homicide and bringing peace to a family is why he wears the star on his chest.
The woman sends me photos that catalogue her mother’s life. Black and white pictures from the 60’s. Grainy color photos from the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s.
After 2001, the pictures of smiles and good times end. It’s in 2001 that the dark mystery begins.
Suddenly, outside a remote country store, there is hope. The enigmatic darkness of a life suddenly gone is now replaced with vindication and a sense of closure for a family whose wounds have been open for decades.
I get back to the newsroom and look for video of the crime.
Only a handful of people have even been at the station for 17 years. They certainly don’t remember a murder from a distant county over a Holiday weekend almost 2 decades ago.
I check the computer system. We’ve changed hardware, software, editing programs 20 times since then. Of course I find nothing!
So my photographer and I set out to reintroduce middle Tennessee to a woman whose life had meaning, was full of promise and love.
My photographer pushes away from his editing station and takes off his headphones with a pause.
I can see he is moved by the product he has just helped create.
“It’s powerful,” he says. “This will make people care about her.”
He doesn’t usually push away from his desk and say anything.
I know before I watch, that he is correct. I wrote it. We discussed it. We constructed it in our minds on the hour long ride back to civilization.
I watch the story. It is moving. In 90 seconds it tells me about a life lost, a family’s anguish, and a law officer’s dedication to his community and to the truth.
I have been doing this a long time.
It should be old and boring. But it’s not. It’s still fun and new and filled with purpose.
Every day usually starts with a whisper in the dark, or a text out of the blue.
I don’t question how the story finds me or I find it.
Especially when I get to peel back the onion of truth, to shine a light on a family who has lived an eternity in the dark.