On the Outside Looking In
At first, being on the other side in the civilian world was odd after being in law enforcement for 27 years. Then, things started settling in and I learned that certain humility comes with retirement and I let things be. That was 12 years ago. Just a month ago, I learned a new side of civilian life: being the family of a crime victim.
Someone very close to me, a minor, was molested and, when my wife and I learned of the incident, it was shattering. I have sat across the table with victims of the most horrific crimes imaginable and some not so imaginable. Even while maintaining my professionalism, I’ve been able to connect – at least in some human way – to their loss and their pain. I’ve answered their phone calls and heard the desperation and hope in their voices: Are you any closer to making an arrest? What’s happening with the case? When’s the trial? Why haven’t we been updated on anything? Is he going to get away with this? Can’t he be charged with something more serious?
On May 1st, 1986, Jack Wilcox was murdered in the office trailer of a crane company where he was the manager. They rented heavy equipment and operators to construction crews and road repair companies. It was a difficult case and it remains unsolved to this day. Jack’s widow, Frances, called me daily, wanting to know what was happening. Then, the calls tapered off to two or three times a week and then to once a week. And, as the investigation dragged on and cooled, I was pulled off the case to work a series of murders we thought were connected. I could have told Frances we were doing everything we could, every day, but I told her the truth: I was ordered to work on something else and the time I could devote to Jack’s case had narrowed considerably. She wasn’t happy, but she appreciated me telling her the truth. Frances’ calls kept coming, once a month, then once every year on May 1st. To this day, we speak on the phone every May 1st. We talk about family and we know everything about each other’s kids and their husbands and wives. She is a friend.
Being a crime victim, or the family of one, is disorienting, frustrating and, sometimes, infuriating. Seeing this loved one of my family suffer with the helplessness and terror of what happened to her has its own special brand of pain and anger, too. Just several days ago, I made a call to the investigator who is in another state. There had been precious little done on the case and I wanted to light a fire.
“Look,” I said, “I spent a good part of my life investigating homicides. I’m not going to interfere or tell you how to do your job, so please understand that. But, I do want to make sure we maximize everything which can be done against this offender.”
The investigator was appreciative and I think – I hope – I made enough of an impact on her to keep our case in the forefront. This is one of the problems with police work. You get a case, then another, then another. Ask any burglary or auto theft detective. They can, and sometimes do, become just another case number. That dynamic is different, of course, when it’s a murder. When it’s a sexual assault, there’s always the possibility the victim isn’t being truthful or even the greater possibility that physical evidence is nonexistent, in which case you have to rely on statements. Getting statements from witnesses and offenders takes planning, skill and, sometimes, a little luck. You also have to really want to close the case. In homicide, getting motivated was easy, especially if you had been on the scene and looked at the lifeless body of some innocent mom lying face down in a pool of blood because she came in with groceries and surprised a burglar. You don’t need anyone to light a fire under your ass in a case like that. Once, the bureau brought in an old-timer who I guess thought he would ride out his last few years in a place which didn’t work hard. He had barely been there two weeks when I was discussing with him a witness we were trying to find. He snorted.
“Huh. Tell me, Nyberg, do you care?”
I stared at him. “Yeah,” I said, “I do. So does everyone else who works here.”
He was gone after about six months.
Being here in the “stands” and not down on the field anymore, you think about all those things and you wonder what’s being done; how well it’s being done; and, then, how a prosecutor is going to look at it all. I know that many more things can fail than succeed in cases like this, but diligence, and a will to make the case, is key. It’s just, well, not in my control anymore.
The ripple effects of a case like this are profound. This victim has brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and parents. Everyone has taken a punch to the gut and every day it seems we are trying to get our wind. But, it’s her this has happened to and none of us can feel what she feels, or how she is trying to move forward, keep up her grades, keep up her smile, and be the great person we all know she is. We have all agreed that our role is support her and do whatever we can to help her heal. Part of that is seeing the handcuffs go on this vermin. As deeply as I want to see that happen, I know what an uphill battle it can be.
If you’re an investigator and you’re reading this, all I can say is this: Your cases all have case numbers on them, but they’re not just case numbers. They represent something which happened to someone and has affected that someone for the rest of his (or her) life. And, that thing which happened affected his (or her) entire family as well. Please care about your cases and, if you find one day that you don’t, leave the unit you’re working in and go do something else.
One day, you might be on the outside looking in, with a loved one sobbing in your arms because some monster decided to take advantage of them. I hope that never happens to you, but, if it does, that badge which says “retired” on it won’t help you.
All you will have is hope.
Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years in police work. He now owns his own private investigation agency, Nyberg Security and Investigations, and can be reached at Ramesh@NybergPi.com. He enjoys getting feedback from readers.