The finality of death is certain. Most have experienced the pain that can tear at the heart. I see death on a regular basis. The cold empty eyes stare back and are no longer filled with the fire of life. The motionless air makes it hard for me to breath.
Saturday, September 2nd, 2000, was a normal day for me. However, it was my weekend on call, so I had nothing planned but to relax and try to recoup from a long tedious week of work and school. My pager sounded with a call-out and I immediately acknowledged receipt of the page. As I gathered the initial information with Central Dispatch, my mind shifted automatically into the mode in which I survive while working
Sixty teenagers had entered the “Marshy Branch Bayou Reserve” to drink, celebrate several birthdays, and hangout on a Friday night. Around midnight deputies patrolling the area spotted numerous vehicles littering the gravel drive. When the deputies were discovered, several teens scampered into the dark, wooded terrain. The deputies confiscated alcohol, because they were minors, called a few parents and remanded the remaining teens to vehicles with sober drivers.
Unbeknownst to the deputies, only fifty-nine of the teenagers would arrive home that night.When the deputies departed around 1:15 a.m., they believed all teens were now safely home in bed or being chastised by the parents who were awakened to pick up their wayward children. For twelve fateful hours, department personnel would remain unaware that “Michael”,the15-year-old freshman was missing. Only when his family called, were the deputies notified of the lost boy and a search would be launched.
That Saturday wasn’t a clear day, but like most Louisiana summer days it was overcast and extremely hot. When I arrived at the scene and stepped from my unit, I could almost taste the air on my tongue with each breath. I walked the gravel road leading to our command post for the search. The sticky heat clung to my clothes instantly, and I found myself amid the dense forest and marshy ground surrounding the location "Michael"was last seen. When I neared the edge of the woods, no human life could be detected, although I knew approximately twenty-five deputies and rescue personnel, with search dogs, were combing the territory. Each tree resembled the next and each footstep was achieved by the utmost caution.
All the perils of Mother Nature were not completely evident in the area and I silently pondered the intelligence of the teens that had been there on Friday night, abandoning the marked trails in their efforts to escape the torment of the adult world. The potential strike from alligators, combined with the size and depth of nutria’s nesting were at the bottom of a long list of dangers. The marshy area of the swamp brought to mind quick sand, not because of the thickness, but the surging power of the mud when a body sank into it. Snakes were not easily detected in the high grass and the mosquitoes seemed the size of honeybees, undaunted by the layers of repellent. Occasionally the wind would blow slightly or
a helicopter would fly above and tease my sweat-clad body with a breeze.
“Michael’s” sister, “Anna” sat with her hands clasped and elbows resting on her knees, under the pavilion that was part of the reserve. The natural fear was evident in her eyes, but a nearly tangible layer of hope nestled around her. A couple of her friends appeared and sat with her for a moment, but they wandered off, unable to endure the constant vigil she maintained. I remember thinking how fragile but strong she appeared, and wishing I could befriend her. I knew I couldn’t, because the first rule of survival for a law enforcement public information officer is to avoid the victim’s family. Although this may sound cruel, it is one of our learned coping skills.
I walked through the wooded area, but stayed close to the edge in case duty called, which it did. I concluded my television interviews while the search continued by air, land and water until darkness enveloped the scene. We continued the search by air until 12:30 a.m. on Sunday and made plans to return at 5:30 a.m., hoping the early-morning dew would return the human scent dissipated by the search day’s heat.
When morning arrived, I discovered that “Anna” had maintained her watch throughout the night, dozing on a picnic table so hard that my body had refused me permission to sit on for more than two hours. Around 10:00 a.m., while giving an interview to a TV Station, “Anna” approached me and handed me a picture of “Michael”. Her words were simple, “Thank you, “Linda”. Here is my little stud.” I remember wondering how she knew my name. I kept the media from harassing her, but hadn’t spoken to her. She didn’t realize that while it was my job, I did this not only to protect her, but also to keep myself from having to acknowledge that she was a real, alive person and would be the survivor. I understood that if Thomas was in the swampy area and had avoided the natural predators and danger, dehydration would be his assailant at this point.
As quickly as I could, I explained that it was her right to speak to the media, but she did not have to make any comments. I assured her that I would protect her from them. I tried very hard to keep from looking into her eyes, but they were like a magnet drawing me, pulling me. I could tell she had little sleep and her mussed, brown hair was stuck under a baseball cap she wore backwards. Her eyes were deep blue, with a ring of red brought on by the fatigue and crying. Her t-shirt was untucked and her blue jeans were streaked with dirt. She never left the pavilion. After our brief conversation, she turned and walked back toward the pavilion to resume her vigil, and I pondered the life “Anna” and “Michael” abided. Their father was deceased, their mother allegedly addicted to crack cocaine and the grandmother, with whom they lived, was riding the border of insanity. The mother neither made an appearance at the scene nor did she attempt to phone, and the grandmother showed her face twice during the dispirited ordeal.
We searched with no luck, but the fateful call eventually came. Around lunchtime, dispatchers relayed a 911 call about a woman discovering a body in an abandoned industrial plant approximately one mile east of search area. The plant was on the opposite side of the roadway leading to the Reserve. At first no one wanted to believe it was “Michael”. His friends had repeatedly shown deputies where he was last seen during their flight on Friday. They insisted he entered the swampy area and as long as there was no body identification there would be no definite evidence of death.
Rescue deputies immediately confirmed, via radio, that the woman had discovered “Michael’s” body. I remained at the command post because the TV reporters were still lurking about. The lieutenant of the Search and Rescue Division and I were the only personnel to stay at the post. After the confirmation, he called to “Anna”. As she was walking toward us, her eyes darted from his to mine, searching and fearing. He calmly said, “Anna, “Michael” has been found.” She replied, “How is he?” He said, “It is not good.”
At first she gasped, as if all oxygen had been stolen from her slender five-foot-two-inch frame. She looked at me and said “Nooooo!” In less than a second she started to wail, she grabbed my arm and squeezed, and it felt as if my heart had stopped beating. She began sobbing and threw her arms around the lieutenant. I almost hate myself for it, but I released a breath I had not realized I was holding, when I sensed she was no longer clutching me. She fell to the ground sobbing, and then she jumped up swinging and screaming “No! No! No!” A few of her girlfriends began to surround her, but she batted at them, almost daring them to draw close. The memory of the exact events may fade with time, but the inhuman sounds followed by the words that exploded from her are firmly implanted.
“Fuck that God, Fuck God, He took the only thing I had left. First my dad, oh no, not Thomas. I want to see him. Please let me see him, hold him. Please no, please oh God no. Fuck you God.”
I was paralyzed for a moment. I had always followed the rule to avoid family, remain detached and elusive. “Don’t personalize”, I was taught. My heart broke and painfully ached for a girl I didn’t know and I silently cursed the survival mechanism that refused to allow me to cry.
The TV reporters were present during our notification to "Anna"; they witnessed the torment of a young girl who had experienced immeasurable heartbreak and afterwards had stealthily snuck off to the “scene of discovery.” I had no time to think. Duty called. I quickly pushed the heartbroken girl from my mind, departed and drove to the new scene.
“Michael’s” 15-year-old body lay broken on the ground inside the rusty, long abandoned plant, which had not functioned since “Michael” had been a child. There were no large amounts of blood covering the ground, indicating death was instantaneous, but ants were making their way in and out of his body. His arms and legs were badly broken and refused movement when prompted. His eyes were empty, no fire, no life, and his skin was the color of death, ashen, with one cut down his tender young cheek. His olive-colored shorts had a slight tear, where the barbwire had snatched at them while scaling the fence, but his tennis shoes were still white. White! He hadn’t been trekking through the swamp; he had been hiding, waiting for the deputies to leave that Friday night. I looked away and tried to force the thick air to return to my lungs. I refused to succumb to the exhaustion of my body and I couldn’t allow my emotions to interfere with by duties.
I conducted my business and quickly put his lifeless, ant-covered, broken body out of my mind. I could think of that later, when I had time and could allow it. The detectives, deputies and coroner would depart before I completed my duties in the downpour of rain that had settled over the area quickly. When I drove from the scene I waited for the numbness to enfold me; it always arrives after facing death. I wanted to scream; cry and curse for a life gone so young and the life of a girl appeared alone and beaten. I didn’t, I couldn’t; that’s not the way we survive these incidents. I shoved it down, turned up the radio and tried to forget. I then felt a lightning bolt strike. I drove past the “scene of discovery” that morning. I drove past and didn’t even glance in that direction. My eyes had focused on the woods, where friends insisted he had fled. A 15-year-old boy fell fifty feet to his death and I drove fifty feet from him and didn’t even notice.
I wish now I had hugged “Anna” or offered words of comfort, but I might have broken down myself. For as long as I live, “Anna’s” painful, tormented declaration to the Lord will be alive in my memories, and until the memory fades, everything about the “Jones” children will live inside me.
I had never experienced those feeling after facing a death. I understand mortality; I encounter it often, force it from my thoughts daily and survive to move to the next one. I do this with a single thought; the next one may be alive.