Close Case: A Samantha Kincaid Mystery
by Alafair Burke
Published by Henry Holt
351 pages, 2005
Investigating the brutal murder of a hotshot journalist, Samantha Kincaid finds herself caught in the middle of an increasingly personal -- and potentially dangerous -- struggle between Portland's police and the DA's office.
For Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid's thirty-second birthday, she gets an unusual gift: a homicide call-out. The crime scene: the elite Hillside neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. The victim: star investigative reporter Percy Crenshaw, who has been bludgeoned to death in his carport.
Tensions in the city have been running high. The previous week, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed mother of two in what he claims was self-defense; in the aftermath, protesters have waged increasingly agitated anti-police demonstrations. Crenshaw's death, it seems, is not unrelated: within a matter of hours, police arrest two young men who appear to have embarked on a crime spree in the aftermath of the protests. The case looks straightforward, especially when one of the suspects confesses. But then the man recants, claiming coercive police tactics, and Samantha finds herself digging for more evidence. Following Crenshaw's steps, her search leads her through an elaborate maze of connections between the city's drug trade and officers in the bureau's Northeast precinct.
Samantha's pursuit of the truth puts her in the middle of city political battles and on the outs with the cops, including her new live-in boyfriend, Detective Chuck Forbes. Worse yet, it puts her on the dangerous side of the line that can divide good cops from bad. Unsure whom to trust, Samantha tracks the path of clues left by Crenshaw, a path that could lead her to the same fatal end.
On the heels of the "compelling" Missing Justice (The Oregonian), Close Case proves to be Alafair Burke's most suspenseful and powerful novel yet.
Hotshot reporter Percy Crenshaw died on the last day of my thirty-second year.
I'm crystal clear on the timing, because I remember precisely where I was when I got word the following morning. I was slogging away in the misdemeanor intake unit, issuing criminal trespass after criminal trespass case, thinking to myself, This is a shitty way to spend my thirty-second birthday.
The way I saw it, I had no business working at intake. I have been a prosecutor for seven years, three federally as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York City, and four in my current position as a Deputy District Attorney for Multnomah County. Only someone with a local connection would know where Multnomah County is, let alone how to pronounce it. It's the county whose seat is Portland, Oregon, the rainy city in the Pacific Northwest. Not the big one with the needle in the skyline, the smaller one south of there.
Before hearing the news about Percy, my big complaint of the morning -- and the reason I was at intake -- was the protesters. Outsiders might not recognize the county name, but they know about these people, even if they've never made the Oregon connection. My hometown's protesters are the same nuts who stirred up the masses outside the World Trade Organization talks a few years ago. In a smaller local show, they tried to make a lost point about our soldier-a-day situation in the Mideast by upchucking red, white, and blue ipecac when the President showed up for a campaign stop. Some of them are rumored to be responsible for the arsons in California targeting suburban housing developments and SUV dealers.
The political causes may vary, but one thing remains the same: These kids love to protest. And the night before my birthday, the chosen cause was the fatal shooting two weeks earlier of Delores Tompkins, an African-American mother of two, by a patrol officer with the Portland Police Bureau. Like all police shootings, the Tompkins case would be presented to a grand jury before any official determination was made regarding justification. Unlike most, however, this one's purpose would not be simply for appearances. Tompkins had no criminal history, was unarmed, and was shot through the windshield of her car during what should have been a routine stop. And, as often seems to be the case with these things, the police officer in question, Geoff Hamilton, was white.
As the newest member of our office's Major Crimes Unit, I was not working on the investigation into the Tompkins shooting. But even I could sense a more than theoretical possibility that our office would be going for charges against Officer Hamilton. The public must have sensed it too. With each day since Delores Tompkins's death had come another related event -- a prayer vigil, a town meeting, a conference with the police commissioner -- each occasion an opportunity to apprise the city that its small community of color was fired up and paying attention. And as their message trickled its way each morning into a new edition of the Oregonian, the odds of an indictment reading State of Oregon v. Geoffrey Hamilton increased just a little more.
Until the Sunday night before my birthday, however, the pressure to indict had been quiet, subtle, and largely behind the scenes. All that changed when the state's band of semiprofessional protesters selected Delores Tompkins as their cause du jour, drawing a riled-up crowd of several thousand downtown on Sunday afternoon for a hastily planned March Against Racism. Supporters of the police bureau organized a counter-protest, not because they were marching for racism but because they interpreted the anger over the Tompkins shooting as a general attack on law enforcement. When a pack of militia types from eastern Oregon announced that it would piggyback onto the counter-protest, downtown Portland became the official magnet for every disgruntled wack job in the region.
At last count, the bureau had arrested 212 protesters for various counts of criminal trespass, reckless endangerment, vandalism, and disorderly conduct. Clashes among and between opposing political groups and police officers continued until 2 A.M. And, on Monday morning, extra available bodies in the District Attorney's Office -- including mine -- had been summoned to misdemeanor intake for the overload.
So that's why I was at intake when I found out that hotshot reporter Percy Crenshaw had been killed.
"This is a shitty way to spend my thirty-second birthday," I said, this time not to myself but to Jessica Walters. Jessica was the head of the District Attorney's Gang Unit. She had just walked in, forty minutes behind me, grande mocha latte in hand, trademark pencil tucked between her pearl-studded ear and her sporty frost-tipped haircut.
"Could be worse, Kincaid. I got ten years on you, it's not even my birthday, and I'm stuck drinking decaf because of this little fucker." She gestured with her Starbucks cup at the swollen belly hidden beneath her black maternity pantsuit. Leave it to Jessica to find a way to drop the f-bomb as a maternal term of endearment. "I guess intake is Duncan's idea of a reward for coming in early."
The boss of all the bosses, District Attorney Duncan Griffith, had left an office-wide voice mail for all of his deputies that morning. The gist: Intake needed help issuing custodies from Sunday night. The rule: The first deputy to arrive in each unit was to report to misdemeanor intake immediately to help, unless the lawyer had a trial scheduled to go out.
It takes a lot to make me yearn for a trial, but that did the trick. Doing someone else's work is bad enough, but this was mundane stupid busywork. Not to mention the fact that the intake unit was located in the Justice Center, two blocks from the courthouse, so in this case doing someone else's work had started with a walk back out into the rain.
"I guess the early birds really do get the worms," I said, handing her a misdemeanor intake file. "When I got the boss's message, I was tempted to hightail it out of the courthouse. Let someone else take the bullet."
I left Jessica with the misleading impression that my conscience had gotten the best of me. In truth, it was my paranoia, combined with my ignorance of technology. For all I knew, Griffith could be keeping track of who had logged in to voice mail and in what order. I didn't need to furnish him yet another opportunity to accuse me of not being a team player. Or, better still, to unleash my very favorite motivational phrase: 'There is no 'i' in team."
Maybe not, I say, but there is a me, and that "me" had little interest in churning out another misdemeanor complaint. Jessica Walters, on the other hand, had little sympathy. "Cut your whining. If I can pull this duty, you can suck it up for one morning."
Known in some circles as Nail-'Em-to-the-Wall Walters, Jessica was a career prosecutor, a fixture in the office for nearly twenty years. Before her promotion to supervise the Gang Unit, she'd preceded me as the only female lawyer in the Major Crimes Unit, handling some of the toughest capital murder prosecutions in the state. She was right. It had been only six months since my promotion into MCU. If she wasn't too good for intake, I guess I wasn't either.
I counted another four files from the large stack we were facing, handed them to her, and then plucked out five more for myself. "Want to race to make it interesting? Winner on each set of five cases buys a drink?"
"Rub it in, Kincaid. You have no idea how much I miss my amber ales." She looked down again at the contents of her maternity suit.
"Sorry," I said sheepishly. "Starbucks?"
"You're on," she said, opening the first folder.
Jessica and I each issued fifteen separate cases in the next fifty-six minutes. I won two prosecutorial sprints of the three. A quick read of the police report, a few taps on the ten-key pad for the badge numbers of the arresting officers, and a few more strokes for the applicable sections of the criminal code, and -- voila! -- out popped a criminal complaint.
If the pace seems callous, don't blame me; blame the system, at least when it comes to issuing custodies. These are the cases filed against suspects who were booked the previous night. If a custody case isn't ready for arraignment by the time the suspect is called on the 2 P.M. docket, the court cuts the suspect loose. Free lattes weren't our only motivation for rushing.
As eight-thirty was rolling around and the rest of the office was finally strolling in, a young woman I recognized as the intake unit's receptionist interrupted our case-issuing sprints.
"You're Kincaid, right?" she asked.
I nodded, scrawling my illegible signature at the bottom of yet another complaint.
"You've got a call from an officer. I'll transfer it back," she said.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"Who pays attention? They asked for you, though."
"Thanks a bunch," I muttered, under my breath. I couldn't figure out who would be calling me at intake, but for the moment it was an excuse to ditch my post, at least for a few minutes.
I picked up the transferred call. "Kincaid."
"Good morning, Ms. Kincaid. It's Jack Walker." Otherwise known as one of my favorite Major Crimes Team detectives. "So my sources were right. You've worked your way all the way up into the glorious misdemeanor unit."
"Rumor's out already, huh? You calling to gloat?"
"I'm busting you out of there. We got a body up in Hillside. I'm told you're our gal."
"Yeah? By whom?"
"That'd be one Senior Deputy District Attorney Russell Frist." He enunciated my supervisors name in the deep booming staccato voice used widely in law enforcement circles to mimic Russ Frist. Apparently Russ had decided this call-out would be mine.
"You need me to come up there?" I asked.
"Definitely," he said. "This one's gonna be a doozy."
As my Jetta putted up the steep incline on Burnside toward what Walker had helpfully described as "the parking lot of those big pink condos," I considered the scenarios possibly awaiting me at the top of the hill -- none of them good. Protocol requires the bureau to connect with our office immediately on every new homicide, just to be sure a DA works the case from the start. But most cases don't warrant the physical presence of a prosecutor at the crime scene. What made this one so special?
When I turned into the parking lot of sprawling Vista Heights, I silently cursed Jack Walker. There must have been eight hundred condos perched on the overlook above north-west Portland, surrounded by acres of parking lot. I cruised the main road surrounding the complex -- as well as its various offshoots -- at a steady five miles per hour, thanks to the frequent and enormous speed bumps spread throughout the property. I finally knew I'd reached the right place at the dead end of one of the side roads when I spotted a flurry of cop activity behind the familiar yellow crime-scene tape.
I found an open spot, grabbed my briefcase, and climbed out of the car, cinching my raincoat more tightly around me. It was the first week in November, and the autumn dampness had already begun to settle into the air and into my bones.
As I walked across the parking lot, I noticed neighbors peering from behind their blinds at the obvious bustle. A few had stepped outside their condos, some still in robes and holding coffee cups, trying to ascertain what could have brought so many uniforms and marked vehicles to this quiet enclave.
The learning curve in the Major Crimes Unit had been a steep one, and by now I knew the ropes on a call-out. I showed my badge to the officer monitoring access at the scene, watched as he logged my entry onto his clipboard, and then ducked beneath the tape that roped off about a quarter acre surrounding an open carport.
Jack Walker caught sight of me in his periphery and waved me over. He stood with his partner, Detective Raymond Johnson, in front of a black Mercedes S-430 sedan. The personalized plate read SNOOP. Even in a lot stocked with late-model yuppie-mobiles, that one stood out.
As I approached, I saw two crime-scene technicians rise from where they must have been kneeling next to the front driver's-side tire. A blur of crisp white linen flashed between them; then they carefully maneuvered a covered gurney through the tight corner in front of the vehicle. I nodded as they passed on their way to the medical examiner's van.
Johnson and Walker met me just outside the carport. Some of the other detectives referred to the pair as Ebony and Ivory. Even beyond the obvious contrast in melanin, the two couldn't have been more divergent physically. Walker wasn't much taller than my five-eight, but about twice as wide, testing the buttons of dress shirts that were almost universally short-sleeved. Johnson's frame, on the other hand, was tall, fit, and always tucked neatly into whatever suit he'd brought home that month from the Saks men's store.
Regardless, the partners were two peas in a pod. I couldn't imagine them working with anyone but each other.
"So who's our dead guy?" I asked, glancing back at the techs loading the gurney into the van. The MCU culture required a kind of nonchalance toward death -- or at least the appearance of it.
The two detectives exchanged a glance. Using whatever silent language partners tend to share, they must have decided to let Johnson break the news.
"The one and only Percy Crenshaw."
"The reporter?" I asked incredulously.
"Didn't I just say he was the one and only?" Johnson retorted.
I shook my head. "This is not good."
'Try telling that to Crenshaw," Walker said dryly.
Percy Crenshaw started out doing "on your side" pieces for the Oregonian's Metro section. If a restaurant fed you bad meat, or your used car oozed mystery melt, or your new hairdresser surprised you with a blue mohawk, Percy Crenshaw was the go-to guy. More recently, though, he had managed to make a name for himself as a celebrity muckraker in this relatively quiet little city. Of course, like all good muckrakers, he had done that by turning what usually would have been relatively quiet stories into salacious tales of sex, greed, and corruption.
Last year, just for instance, I had worked on a case involving the murder of an administrative law judge. Sure, it had all the ingredients of a good scandal: bribery, betrayal, adultery, the works. At its heart, though, it was the sad story of a woman whose own mistakes had gotten her killed. Crenshaw had nonetheless managed to sell his version of the story, including every last irrelevant detail of the victim's sex life, to L.A. Magazine.
"That's some damn shameful timing," Johnson said. "The man was right about to hit it big."
"Didn't he just sell the movie rights to that magazine article?" Walker asked.
"Yeah, he did," Johnson said. "Got a nice chunk of change from that one actress, the blonde in all those legal thrillers."
His partner didn't read the entertainment section as thoroughly as I did. Walker wanted to know if she was the same actress who "gained all that weight for that one role." Nope, they just looked alike.
I guess that's the way the entertainment industry works. The victim dies, her family loses a daughter and sister, and I nearly get killed. But who sells the story and drives an S-Class Benz? Percy Crenshaw.
"I actually met him once," Johnson said.
"I hope you weren't the target of a story he was after," I said. "From what I've heard, the guy left no stone unturned."
"Understatement of the century," Walker added. "More like he'd crawl over his dying mother to get to the last stone left unturned."
"Nah, nothing like that," Johnson said. "We had a real quick 'Hello, how are you?' kind of deal about a year ago at a Boys and Girls Club thing. There's not too many brothers in this white-bread town with real jobs. Once you find yourself on the list of people to call for mentoring panels and whatnot, it's probably inevitable that you end up meeting Percy."
Fewer than 7 percent of Portland's half a million residents are African-Americans. Take into account the predictable decision of the upwardly mobile to live with similarly situated others, and you don't find many black professionals who move to or stick around the Pacific Northwest.
"So what was he like?" I asked.
Johnson's eyes darted briefly to the ME van, the doors now closed. He paused, then shook his head. "Not what you'd expect," he said. "You know, none of the 'tude he puts on in his interviews. Pretty down-to-earth. He talked to the kids about being one of the few black journalism majors at U of O. They were more interested in his work digging up the dirt. I remember him looking me right in the eye when he told them he'd thought of being a cop but wanted the freedom to do what was right."
"I know the guy's dead," Walker said, "but fuck that noise."
"No, he was all right. You get stopped a hundred times for being in a nice car, and you eventually develop a chip. Imagine what he would have written today about the protests. I feel bad for Hamilton," he said, referring to the cop who shot Delores Tompkins, "but if this shit keeps up, the city's going to burn."
I could tell that Walker was poised for rebuttal, so I brought us back to the subject at hand. "Any theories yet on who might have had a chip against him?"
They shook their heads. "Way too soon to say," Johnson said. "I suppose there's always the chance he finally ticked off the wrong kind of nut job--"
"Well, you know that's what they'll be saying tonight on the six o'clock news," I interjected.
"Of course I know that," he acknowledged, "but I also know what you've been around long enough to know too: By the end of the day, we're probably going to learn that Percy Crenshaw had something kinky going on behind the public persona."
You've seen it before in high-profile murder cases. Early speculation about a motive usually gives way to a dirty little secret, lingering somewhere in the victim's life: shady business deals, a tryst with someone else's wife, a hidden life in Internet chat rooms -- something to put the case squarely in the "comfort zone" of murder, where people toeing the straight-and-narrow are safely off limits.
"Unless," I wondered aloud, "it's a carjacking gone wrong?"
"A definite possibility," Johnson said. "The guy who found the body says he noticed a couple of guys in the parking lot last night. He didn't think much of it at the time, but maybe it plays into the carjacking angle."
"I don't suppose he recognized them."
Johnson smiled, familiar with my impatient tendency to hope for early lucky breaks. "Nope. Two white guys in jeans and rain gear. He thinks he might recognize them, though, so we'll sit him down at the station with some mug shots. The poor guy's kicking himself, feeling guilty as shit."
"He's the superintendent for the whole complex." He checked his notebook. "Peter Anderson. He found the body in the carport when he went to replace the motion-activated light that's supposed to be there. Percy put in a maintenance request for the burnt-out bulb a week ago, and Anderson was running behind. I didn't have the heart to tell him he'll be lucky to avoid a lawsuit."
A holler from across the parking lot interrupted us. "Detectives, when you got a sec, we got something you might be interested in."
After exchanging glances with Walker, Johnson volunteered -- "I'll go" -- and started a slow jog toward the patrol officer.
"Anyway," Walker continued, "we're keeping the carjack scenario as a possibility, but usually they take the car, plan gone wrong or not. We found the keys right there." He pointed to a numbered evidence placard marking a spot by the driver's side door. "Crenshaw probably dropped them during the attack."
I looked more closely then at the area surrounding the Benz. Low spatters of crimson marred the barren white Sheetrock of the carport. A wet stain that might otherwise be mistaken for oil spread beneath the front tire like a Rorschach test. I suspected that the matte smear down the side of the cars waxed front panel was also blood.
I turned back to Walker. "Was he shot?"
He shook his head. "Doesn't look like it. He was beaten real bad. Unclear whether the technical cause of death's going to be the internal bleeding or some real nasty damage to his head, but I'm guessing there was a weapon involved. Maybe a bat or a crowbar."
I swallowed, relieved that I hadn't arrived a few minutes earlier, before the gurney was covered. "So what are you working on?"
"We've got patrol officers canvassing the complex in case a neighbor saw something. Doubtful, though. In a place like this, someone would have called it in."
"Did you notify the family?'
"Not yet. We're working on that as a priority. We've got the place closed off, but it won't be easy keeping this quiet. I assume everyone in the complex knows whose car that is, and it's pretty obvious what's going on here."
"He's single, right?'
"Yeah. Ray put a call in to the Oregonian for next-of-kin information. Hopefully his family'll hear it from us before it hits the news."
"Have you gone into his place yet?"
"Working on that too. He lived alone, so we're getting a warrant. Should be easy."
"Who's working on the applications?" I asked. Judges routinely sign warrants for a homicide victim's home and office, so the paperwork was straightforward.
"Mike and Chuck are taking care of it now, back at the office. They'll page you when they're ready for you to look at it." Detectives Mike Calabrese and Chuck Forbes were partners, also in the Major Crimes Team. I'd seen the latter just three hours ago when he rolled out of my bed, pulled on his clothes, and kissed me goodbye. In addition to his position in the bureau, Detective Forbes also filled the role of my current boyfriend. And, technically, I suppose he rolled out of "our" bed, because as of a week ago we were officially shacked up.
"Any legal work you need me to do?"
"Not yet." He squinted at me, anticipating what was coming.
"So why am I here?"
"Appearances," he said bluntly. "I called Frist as part of the usual procedure, but I told him we didn't need anyone at the crime scene."
"And he said?"
"Something along the lines of -- Walker channeled his best Frist -- "'Uh, that's fine, Detective Walker, but, you know, the news'll be all over this one. Why don't I go ahead and ask you to get Kincaid out there; it'll be easier down the road if something comes up."
"Your impersonation's better than ever."
"I'm pleased that you're pleased. Now, as for why he dimed you up instead of someone else in the unit, I can only guess."
"And your best guess?"
"Honestly? To see how you'll cut it. You've got to admit, the one other time you got handed a hot potato, your approach wasn't exactly traditional."
He was referring, of course, to the aforementioned case of the missing judge. By the time that one played out, I had leaked information to a defense attorney and helped him subpoena some of the biggest muckety-mucks in the county. Yes, I suppose Walker was correct: My boss wanted to put me to the test.
Ray Johnson walked back to the carport with his black leather steno pad open in front of him, Montblanc pen in hand.
"They find a neighbor?" I asked.
"Looks like we've got a possible girlfriend."
That got Walker's attention. "I thought the guy at the paper told you there was no girlfriend."
"So maybe Percy didn't tell the guys at work everything. A couple nights ago, one of the neighbors came home late to find a car parked in her designated spot. She got ticked and took down the plate so she could complain the next day. Later on, she saw Percy walk the lady to her car. He gave the neighbor the mandatory apologetic wave, so she let it go, but she's still got the plate for us."
"Good," I said. "Run it and find out her story. Anything else?"
"That's it from the patrol so far, but Chuck just called. He and Mike are working last night's PPDS entries from the area." The Portland Police Data System is the clearinghouse for every piece of information collected by the bureau. Generating a list of arrests, stops, and traffic tickets in a given location during a stated time range was a snap.
"Anything worth following up on?" I asked.
Johnson glanced at his notes. "Yeah, maybe. They're still culling through the full list, but there's a couple that jumped to the top. A broken taillight on a two-time car thief down on Twenty-third Avenue. A stop-and-talk with some kid at the bottom of the hill; we still need to get the details from the patrol officer." He flipped a page of his notebook. "Another stop farther up Burnside; that one's for drugs. We'll see, right?"
He closed his notebook and switched gears.
"Also, I finally got through to the human resources chick at the Oregonian. Crenshaw's local emergency contact is just a friend. Closest family's his parents down in Cali."
"I'll do this one," Walker said quietly.
Johnson tucked in his lower lip and nodded. I knew how much they hated notifying the families. "Oh, before I forget, he said, pointing at me, "when I talked to Chuck, he and Mike were just finishing the warrant applications."
It was time for me to head down to MCT. | July 2005
Copyright © 2005 Alafair Burke
A former deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School. The daughter of acclaimed crime writer James Lee Burke, she is a graduate of Stanford Law School and currently serves as a legal and trial commentator for radio and television programs, including for Court TV. She lives in New York City. Close Case is the third book in the Samantha Kincaid series.