Authors: David Simon
“He lives here?”
“He did, yeah.”
Edgerton writes the name on the second page followed by M/W/39 and the address.
“Anyone here when it happened?”
The female officer speaks up. “His wife called nine-one-one. She said she was upstairs and he was down here cleaning his shotgun.”
“Where is she now?”
“They took her to the hospital for shock.”
“Did you talk to her before she left?”
The woman nods.
“Write what she told you in a supplemental report,” Edgerton says. “Did she say why he might’ve killed himself?”
“She said he has a history of mental problems,” says the red-faced officer, breaking in. “He just got out of Springfield Hospital on the eleventh. Here’s his commitment papers.”
Edgerton takes a creased green sheet of paper from the officer and reads quickly. The dead man was undergoing treatment for personality disorders and—bingo—suicidal tendencies. The detective hands the paper back and writes two more lines in his notepad.
“Where did you find that?”
“His wife had it.”
“Is the crime lab on the way?”
“My sergeant called them.”
“How about the medical examiner?”
“Lemme check on that,” says the officer, walking outside to key his radio. Edgerton throws his notepad on the dining room table and pulls off his overcoat.
He does not move directly toward the body but instead walks around the perimeter of the living room, looking along the floor, walls and furniture. For Edgerton, it has become second nature to begin at the periphery of the crime scene, moving toward the body in a slowly shrinking circle. It is a method born of the same instinct that allows a detective to walk into a room and spend ten minutes filling a notepad with raw data before taking a serious look at the corpse. It takes a few months for every detective to learn that the body is going to be there, stationary and intact, for as long as it takes to process the crime scene. But the scene itself—whether it happens to be a street corner, automobile interior or living room—begins to deteriorate as soon as the first person finds the body. Any homicide detective with more than a year’s experience has already collected one or two stories about uniformed men walking through blood trails or handling weapons found at a murder scene. And not just the uniforms: More than once a Baltimore homicide detective has arrived at a shooting scene to discover some major or colonel wandering through a fresh scene, pawing the shell casings or going through a victim’s wallet in a determined effort to put prints on every conceivable bit of evidence.
Rule Number Two in the homicide lexicon: The victim is killed once, but a crime scene can be murdered a thousand times.
Edgerton marks the direction of spatter from the body, reassuring himself that the spray of blood and brain matter is consistent with a sin
gle wound to the head. The long white wall behind the sofa and to the dead man’s right is marred by one red-pink arc extending upward from a half foot above the victim’s head to nearly eye level at the front door frame. It is a long, curled finger of individual spatters that seems to point, in its final trajectory, toward the piece of ear near the welcome mat. A smaller arc extends across the top cushions of the sofa. In the small space between the sofa and the wall, Edgerton finds a few shards of skull and, on the floor just below the dead man’s right side, much of what had once occupied the victim’s head.
The detective looks closely at several of the individual spatters and satisfies himself that the blood spray is consistent with a single wound, fired upwards, into the left temple. The calculation is a matter of simple physics: A blood droplet that strikes a surface from a 90-degree angle should be symmetrical, with tentacles or fingers of equal length extending in any and every direction; a droplet that strikes a surface at an odd angle will dry with the longest tentacles pointing in a direction opposite the source of the blood. In the case at hand, a blood trail or spatter with tentacles pointing in any direction other than from the victim’s head would be hard to explain.
“Okay,” says the detective, pushing back the coffee table to stand directly in front of the victim. “Let’s see what you’re about.”
The dead man is nude, his lower half wrapped in a checkered blanket. He is seated in the center of the couch, with what remains of his head resting on the back of the sofa. The left eye stares at the ceiling; gravity has pulled the other deep into its socket.
“That’s his federal tax form on the table,” says the red-faced uniform, pointing to the coffee table.
“Check it out.”
Edgerton looks down at the coffee table and sees the familiar cover page of a 1040.
“Those things drive me crazy, too,” says the uniform. “I guess he just lost his head.”
Edgerton moans loudly. It is still too early in the day for unchecked constabulary wit.
“He musta been itemizing.”
“Police,” Edgerton repeats, “are sick fucks.”
He looks at the shotgun between the victim’s legs. The 12-gauge is resting with its stock on the floor, barrel upward, with the victim’s left forearm
resting on the upper barrel. The detective gives the weapon a once-over, but the crime lab will need a photograph, so he leaves the gun resting between the victim’s legs. He takes the dead man’s hands in his own. Still warm. Edgerton convinces himself that death was recent by manipulating the ends of the fingers. Every now and then, some irate husband or wife wins the argument by shooting the significant other and then spends three or four hours wondering what to do next. By the time they seize on the notion of staging a suicide, the victim’s body temperature has dropped and rigor mortis is evident in the shorter facial and finger muscles. Edgerton has had cases where the killers caused themselves much useless aggravation by attempting to push the rigid fingers of the not so recently departed inside the trigger guard of a weapon, an effort that fairly screams foul play by giving the body the appearance of a department store mannequin with a prop glued to its ungrasping hand. But Robert William Smith is one very fresh piece of meat.
Edgerton puts pen to paper: “V. braced gun between legs … muzzle to right cheek … large GSW to right side head. Warm to touch. No rigor.”
Both uniforms watch as Edgerton pulls on his overcoat and deposits the notepad in an outside pocket.
“You’re not staying for the crime lab?”
“Well, I’d love to but …”
“We’re boring you, aren’t we?”
“What can I say?” says Edgerton, his voice dropping to something approximating a matinee idol baritone. “My work here is done.”
The red-faced officer laughs.
“When the guy gets here, tell him I just need photos of this room, and tell him to get a good shot of the guy with the gun between his legs. We’re going to want to take the gun and that green sheet.”
“The discharge papers?”
“Yeah, that goes downtown. What about securing this place? Is the wife coming back?”
“She was pretty messed up when they took her out of here. I guess we’ll find a way to lock the place up.”
“Is that it?”
Edgerton looks over at the female uniform, still seated at the dining room table.
“How’s your report coming?”
“It’s done,” she says, holding up the face sheet. “Do you want to see it?”
“No, I’m sure it’s fine,” says Edgerton, knowing a sector sergeant will review it. “How do you like the job so far?”
The woman looks first at the dead man, then at the detective. “It’s okay.”
Edgerton nods, waves to the red-faced officer and walks out, this time carefully sidestepping the ear.
Fifteen minutes later, he is at a typewriter in the homicide unit’s administrative office, converting the contents of three notepad pages into a single-page 24-hour crime report, Criminal Investigation Division form 78/151. Even with Edgerton’s hunt-and-peck typing skills, the details of Robert William Smith’s terminus are condensed to a manageable memorandum in little more than a quarter hour. Case folders are the essential documentation for homicides, but the 24-hour reports become the paper trail for the activities of the entire Crimes Against Persons section. By checking the log containing the twenty-fours, a detective can quickly familiarize himself with every ongoing case. For each incident, there is a corresponding one-or two-page missive with a brief, declarative heading, and a detective flipping through the log can look at those headings for a complete chronological account of Baltimore’s violence:
“… shooting, shooting, questionable death, cutting, arrest/homicide, serious shooting, homicide, homicide/serious shooting, suicide, rape/cutting, questionable death/poss overdose, commercial robbery, shooting …”
Dead, dying or merely wounded, there is a form 78/151 for every victim in the city of Baltimore. In little more than a year in homicide, Tom Pellegrini has probably filled in the blanks on more than a hundred twenty-fours. By that same estimate, Harry Edgerton has gone through five hundred forms since transferring to homicide in February 1981. And Donald Kincaid, the senior detective in Edgerton’s squad and a homicide man since 1975, has probably typed well over a thousand.
More than the board, which tallies only homicides and their clearances, the 24-hour log is the basic measure of a detective’s workload. If your name is on the bottom of a twenty-four, it means you were picking up phones when the call came in or, better still, you volunteered yourself when another detective held up a green pawn shop card with an address scrawled on it and asked a question older than the headquarters building itself: “Who’s up?”
Harry Edgerton didn’t volunteer often and among the other members of his squad, that simple fact had turned into an open wound.
No one in the squad doubted Edgerton’s abilities as an investigator and most would admit that, personally, they kind of liked the guy. But in a five-man unit where the detectives all worked one another’s cases and handled every kind of call, Harry Edgerton was something of a lone wolf, a man who regularly wandered off on his own extended adventures. In a unit where most murders were won or lost in the first twenty-four hours of investigation, Edgerton would pursue a case for days or even weeks, running down witnesses or conducting surveillance on a time clock all his own. Perennially late for roll calls and shift relief on nightwork, Edgerton might just as easily be discovered putting together a case file at 3:00
. when his shift had ended at midnight. For the most part, he worked his cases without a secondary detective, taking his own statements and conducting his own interrogations, oblivious of whatever storms were buffeting the rest of the squad. They regarded Edgerton as more of a finesse pitcher than a bullpen workhorse, and in an environment where quantity seemed to matter more than quality, his work ethic was a constant source of tension.
Edgerton’s background only added to the isolation. The son of a respected New York jazz pianist, he was a child of Manhattan who joined the Baltimore department on a whim after glancing at an ad in the classifieds. Whereas many of those in homicide had spent their childhood on the same streets they were now policing, Edgerton’s frame of reference was Upper Manhattan, tinged with memories of visits to the Metropolitan Museum after school and nightclub engagements where his mother would accompany the likes of Lena Horne or Sammy Davis, Jr. His youth was as far removed from police work as a life could conceivably be: Edgerton could claim to have seen Dylan in the early Greenwich Village years, and he later sang lead for his own rock ’n’ roll group, an ensemble with the flower child name of Aphrodite.
A conversation with Harry Edgerton was apt to wander from foreign art films to jazz fusion to the relative quality of imported Greek wines—an expertise acquired through his marriage into the Brooklyn family of a Greek merchant who had brought his family to New York after several successful years of trading in the Sudan. All of which made Harry Edgerton, even at the settled age of forty, an enigma to his colleagues. On midnight shift, when the rest of his squad might be sitting together, watching Clint Eastwood fondling the largest and most powerful handgun in the world, Edgerton could be found writing out an office report in the coffee room, listening to a tape of Emmylou Harris singing Woody Guthrie.
And during the dinner hour, Edgerton was likely to disappear into the back of an East Baltimore Street carryout, where he would park in front of a bank of video games and lose himself in a fevered effort to blast apart multicolored space critters with a laser death ray. In an environment where a willingness to wear a pink necktie is held suspect, Edgerton was a certified flake. One of Jay Landsman’s throwaway lines pretty much summed things up for the entire unit: “For a communist, Harry’s a helluva detective.”
And though Edgerton was black, his cosmopolitan background, his coffeehouse leanings, even his New York accent so completely confounded expectations that he was regarded as inauthentic by white detectives accustomed to viewing blacks through the limited prism of their own experience in the Baltimore slums. Edgerton crossed up stereotypes and blurred the unit’s preconceived racial lines: Even black detectives with local roots, like Eddie Brown, would routinely suggest that while Edgerton was black, he certainly wasn’t “po’ and black,” a distinction that Brown, who drove a Cadillac Brougham the size of a small container ship, reserved for himself. And on those occasions when white detectives needed someone to anonymously call some West Baltimore address to see if a wanted suspect happened to be at home, Edgerton would be quickly discouraged.
“Not you, Harry. We need someone who sounds like a black guy.”
Edgerton’s detachment from the rest of the unit was furthered by his partnership with Ed Burns, with whom he had been detailed to the Drug Enforcement Administration for an investigation that consumed two years. That probe began because Burns had learned the name of a major narcotics trafficker who had ordered the slaying of his girlfriend. Unable to prove the murder, Burns and Edgerton instead spent months on electronic and telephone surveillance, then took the dealer down for drug distribution to the tune of thirty years, no parole. To Edgerton, a case like that was a statement of a kind, an answer to an organized drug trade that could otherwise engage in contract murder with impunity.