Authors: L. J. Sellers
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Murder, #Thriller, #Eugene, #Detective Wade jackson, #Sex Club
Evans was the first to arrive. She looked surprisingly good for someone who had probably slept less than three hours. But then Evans took good care of herself. She was lean and muscular and worked out regularly.
“Anything on the background checks?” Jackson asked as Evans settled into a chair, tall premium coffee in hand.
“Nothing noteworthy.” She shook her head. “One tenant, Louis Frank, has a long history of theft and drug possession, but nothing for the last two years and no sex or violent crimes ever. Lives with his girlfriend and works at a door-making factory.”
McCray and Schakowski hustled in, both also cradling tall coffee cups from one of the dozens of vendors that had sprung up on every corner in town. Jackson wondered how much money the four of them spent on caffeine every day.
“Schak, you showered. Nice.” Evans teased him about spending half the night picking through garbage.
The big guy flopped into a chair, his barrel-shaped body hanging over the sides. “Trash digging pays. I found her clothes and backpack in the dumpster behind the dry cleaners at the end of the alley.”
The update was for the benefit of Evans and McCray. Jackson had seen the evidence in the predawn hours when Schak brought it in. The denim skirt, striped sweater, and pink flip-flops were on their way to the state crime lab in Springfield. The backpack’s contents were still in the department, awaiting fingerprint analysis, but unfortunately, the girl’s cell phone was not in the mix.
The older detective was lean and gray and had a pleasant but well-lived-in face. He was also fond of brown corduroy. McCray was tenacious but not competitive, a rare combination in law enforcement.
“Jose Sanchez, age thirty-one in unit twelve of the Oakwood Apartments, has two assault charges and recently finished a ten-month stretch in the county jail,” he reported. “Both his assault victims were males around his age. Bar fights is my guess. He also had a warrant for failure to report to his parole officer. I sent a patrol to pick him up.”
Sanchez didn’t sound like a solid suspect. Jackson told the group, “I’ve got Pete Casaway compiling a list of known sex offenders who live within a five-mile radius of Jessie’s home and/or the dump site, which are less than two miles apart.” He turned to Evans. “Did you get the prints made?”
“Yep.” She handed each of them a stack of four-by-five headshots of Jessie. Jackson was surprised to see how grown up Jessie looked in the photos. Was it the effect of makeup? Or had she changed that much in six months?
“Let’s go back to the apartments and show everyone the photos. Start with the units where you didn’t find anyone home last night. After that, we interview friends and family. I made lists.” After Judy Davenport’s sister had come over, the grieving mother had calmed down and become more cooperative. With prodding, she had provided a list of people who knew her daughter.
Jackson handed out the paperwork as he spoke. “Evans, I want you to talk to Jessie’s teachers and family. McCray, you hit all the neighbors, and Schak, you talk to the church members.” Jackson flipped through his notebook for the search warrants. “I’ll interview Jessie’s close friends: Angel Strickland, Rachel Greiner, and Nicole Clarke. They all attend Kincaid Middle School.” Jackson wondered if he should assign Evans to interview his daughter. Did Katie know anything? Probably not. Katie and Jessie hadn’t hung out in six months. An eternity in teen time.
“Let’s meet back here at 5 p.m. sharp.”
Wednesday, October 20, 11:13 a.m.
Jackson’s first stop was the Cricket store near the Gateway Mall. The mall was a busy retail development just across the line that divided Eugene from Springfield, its blue-collar sister city. The Cricket store manager, a pregnant woman who seemed young for the job, was flustered by the court order and called her district supervisor.
“There’s a cop here with a subpoena,” she whined, “and I don’t know what to do.” After a moment, she handed the phone to Jackson. He explained what he needed and extracted a promise from the supervisor that the records would be faxed to him within twenty-four hours.
As Jackson drove down Coburg Road, the late morning sun burned through the clouds. Another day of Indian summer, he thought, grateful for the change-of-season delay. He was happier and more productive when the sun was out.
Kincaid Middle School sat in the center of a busy south-side neighborhood with a mix of commercial and residential buildings. The school had a gray utilitarian look, with grass-only landscaping around the buildings. Not much had changed since Jackson had attended there almost thirty years ago. As a kid, what he’d liked best was the school’s proximity to the minor league baseball field where he’d watched the Ems play.
This morning, the school was quiet. No children were milling around and no cars were coming or going. Jackson felt a little guilty about pulling students out of class for a police interview; he knew how sensitive kids this age were about what their peers thought. But he needed to talk to Jessie’s friends now, without their parents around. It was the only way to get useful information.
Kincaid’s office had been remodeled and expanded, but the secretary, although new, seemed the same: middle-aged, a little pretty, a little plump, friendly on the surface, but instinctively wary. She looked at his badge closely when he offered it. Jackson respected that.
After looking up the girls’ schedules in the computer, she said, “Angel Strickland and Rachel Greiner are in biology class with Mrs. Berg, and Nicole Clarke is in advanced math with Mr. Abrams. I’ll bring them here to the office and find a place for you to talk.”
She used the intercom to summon the students, then led Jackson through a maze of filing cabinets to a short hallway. The secretary opened the first door on the left and said, “This is our vice-principal’s office. Mr. Ferguson is at a district meeting today, so you can borrow it.”
After five minutes in the small windowless office, the three girls appeared together at the open door. The thin one in front said, “You wanted to see us?”
Jackson’s first thought was how somber they seemed, then he remembered that they had just lost a friend. His second thought was that all three appeared conservative in comparison to current fads. No bellies showing. No cleavage. No unconventional piercings.
Jackson didn’t intend to interview them together, but he wanted to get a quick sense of the group dynamic, so he waved them all in.
“Thanks for coming. I’m Detective Jackson. I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend Jessie. She was a friend of my daughter too.”
No one responded.
“Please introduce yourselves.”
The same girl who had spoken before said, “I’m Rachel Greiner.”
She wore no makeup but had intense aqua eyes and high arched eyebrows that gave her an exotic look. Her ash blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she seemed a little thin and small for her age. Despite her size, he pegged her for the leader.
Jackson nodded, then looked at the girl who stood a step behind her. Her lips trembled as she said, “Angel Strickland.”
Judy Davenport had told him Angel had flunked fifth grade and was a year older than her friends. So he was not surprised that she was taller and more filled out than the other two. But her strawberry blond hair, freckles, and heart-shaped face made her look younger. She blushed and looked away. The shy one.
The third girl stood a little to the side, expressing an independence from the group. “I’m Nicole Clarke.”
Her bright orange sweater contrasted with her long, almost-black hair and delicate features. Nicole’s brown eyes were smudged with mascara. She had been crying and looked like she could burst into tears again at any moment.
Jackson smiled gently at the group. “It’s important that I talk to each of you alone. So Angel and Nicole, please go back out to the front office. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
The two seemed glad to leave. He motioned for Rachel to sit.
“Rachel, I know it’s difficult to talk about Jessie now, but I need your help to find out what happened to her.”
“I don’t see how I can help.” She spoke distinctly without the typical teenage rush and mumble.
“How long had you know Jessie?”
“Since fourth grade.”
“What was she like?”
Rachel gave a half shrug, half smile. “Fun. Smart. Generous.”
“In what way was she generous?”
“The usual. She didn’t mind sharing her stuff. And she wanted to be a social worker. To help homeless people. Not many people knew that about her.”
“Did Jessie have a lot of friends?”
“Was she popular with the boys?”
“Of course. Maybe the most popular girl in our class.” Rachel sat very still for a fourteen-year-old.
“Did she have a steady boyfriend?”
She scowled a bit. “No.”
“Do you think Jessie could have had a boyfriend you didn’t know about?”
“No. She told me everything.”
Jackson countered, “I believe Jessie was sexually active.”
“That’s not possible.” Rachel shook her head. “Everyone in Teen Talk took an abstinence vow.”
Jackson decided it was time to press. “The state official who examined her body said she was sexually active. Who was she involved with?”
Rachel looked him right in the eye. “I have no idea.”
Jackson didn’t believe her. “This is important. It could help us find her killer.”
“I really don’t know.”
“Did Jessie ever talk about being sexually abused by an adult?”
“Did you see Jessie yesterday?”
“Of course. I saw her at school, then again after school at Teen Talk.”
“Is that a club?” Jackson had heard about the group from Jessie’s mother, but he wanted to see what Rachel would tell him independently.
“Just a small group of Christian kids who get together once a week.”
“What do you do and where do you meet?”
“We meet at Angel’s house. It’s supposed to be a Bible study, but mostly we talk about our faith and how to be good Christians, especially in such an evil world.”
This is a very serious young girl, Jackson thought. “What time did Jessie leave the Bible study?”
Rachel hesitated for the first time. “Around 4:30, I think.”
“Do you know where she was headed?”
Rachel shrugged. “Home, I assume.”
“Did she have a ride?”
“No. She walked. Or maybe caught a bus. She had a bus pass.”
“Did you see or speak to her again?”
“No.” Rachel pressed her lips together, and her eyes teared up. “I can’t believe she’s dead.”
Jackson handed her his business card. “If you think of anything important that I should know, please call me.”
She nodded, took the card, and left. He thought he heard her sob as she stepped out the door. He braced himself for more grief as the next girl came in.
After an hour at the school, Jackson headed back to the department. The other two interviews had been more emotional than the first and almost as unproductive. Both Angel and Nicole had insisted that Jessie did not have a boyfriend. They also seemed upset to hear that their friend had been sexually involved.
From Angel, Jackson heard that Jessie’s parents had split up the year before and that her younger sister had drowned two years ago. It made him realize that he had not learned much about Jessie when she and Katie had been friends. He had been oblivious to the grief Jessie had gone through.
Nicole had been a little more forthcoming about Jessie’s habits. She told him that “sometimes Jessie left Teen Talk a little early” and that Jessie had “a special friend she saw sometimes.”
The special friend intrigued him, but when Jackson had pressed for information, Nicole retreated. But she gave him the names of the boys who attended Teen Talk: Greg Miller, Tyler Jahn, and Adam Walsh.
Jackson decided he would have Evans interview the guys. They might open up more with a woman.
As he neared the downtown area, his cell phone rang.
“It’s Casaway. There’s a sex offender named Oscar Grady. A teacher who did time for statutory rape of one of his students. He’s only been out for three months. He lives on Patterson about four blocks from where the body was found.”
“Good work. What’s the address?”
“2817 Patterson. It’s a halfway house run by the Real Recovery Center.”
“Thanks. I’m on it.”
Jackson felt a little surge of energy. Grady could be Jessie’s “special friend.” Sex offenders had the highest recidivism rate of all convicts. And, as an ex-teacher, Grady would know how to get close to a young person.
Jackson made a left on 8th and headed back to the south side. Using speed dial, he called the Parole and Probation office and tracked down Grady’s PO. Barstow wasn’t in, so he left him a message. Parole officers liked to be kept in the loop when their charges were picked up.
The two-story house desperately needed a new coat of paint, but the yard was free of debris. A collection of decrepit bicycles cluttered the front porch, and a giant coffee can filled with sand served as a front-porch ashtray. Jackson rang the bell and waited a long time for someone to come to the door.