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The Matter of the Spillway Absconder

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was having a difficult time with his memory. It was not the result of his age because, that being said, he was ‘not old,’ and ‘senior moments’ were misnomers because everyone got them. Everyone has brain freezes as well. Brain freezes because of ice cream were common for people of all ages as were the momentary lapses of memory, also called a ‘brain freezes.’ But today Noonan could not blame the ice cream cone he had not had.

In Noonan’s case, it was not his fault. His wife had given him a list of items to bring home from the grocery store and the list had magically vanished. Now he was struggling to reconstitute the inventory from memory. He recalled a good half-dozen of the incidentals – three red onions, coffee creamer, scallions, red lettuce, romaine, mushrooms – and then came the brain freeze.

He was wracking his brain for the other items, number and substances unknown, when the electronic tool of Satan vibrated in his pocket. Only two people had his number. One was his wife. The other was the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security who was, thankfully, at a conference in Maui. This meant the Commissioner would not call for a week with weekends on both sides; three days for the conference and another six for the beach. So the electronic beast could only be a summons from the Empress.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Noonan said without bothering to look at the incoming number. “I seem to have left the grocery list at home. Could you read it for me?”

“I’d love to,” said a strange female voice. “I don’t have the list but I’m sure it had some kind of a salad dressing, mayo and lobster tail. The lobster tail is what my husband always wants but will not get until we win the lottery.”

Noonan, surprised, looked at the number on the electronic Beelzebub. The call was coming from Area Code 319.

“319? Where’s that?”

“Iowa. You know, where the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.”

“Ha,” Noonan said flatly. “I’m not going to ask how you got this number. How about why are you calling me.”

“OK, I won’t tell you my Commissioner of Homeland Security met your Commissioner of Homeland Security on a beach in Maui and talked about a local mystery. Mysteriously my Commissioner of Homeland Security was able to pull your number from off a sun-drenched, sandy, 72 degree, beach in Maui which is 45 degrees warmer than it is here in Beiderbecke.”

Now Noonan chuckled. “Magic, eh? A lot of that going on these days. OK, I’ll bite. What’s the mystery?”

“Actually, an oddity. I was hoping you could give me a lead, a clue, to solve a crime.”

“I’m here to serve.”

“Let me start from the beginning, Captain.”

“Heinz. Until there’s a crime, it’s Heinz.”

“There is a crime.”

“Not to me. It’s still Heinz.”

“OK, Heinz. Two things happened that come together. First, there was a theft of three slides from the Burlington, Iowa.”

“But you’re in Beiderbecke.”

“Correct. The story starts in Burlington.”

“All right. Slides? Like playground equipment. Jungle gym and the like?”

“Yup. Three of them. Each ten feet long.”

“OK. How much do they weigh?”

“About 300 pounds each. They are plastic, not metal.”

“Go on.”

“We, that is, the Iowa State Troopers, are law enforcement for Beiderbecke because it is not a city. We got the call because the theft had actually occurred in Burlington, about 35 miles from Beiderbecke, but the packaging material for the slides had been found outside of Beiderbecke.”

Noonan shook his head as he dug for a notebook buried somewhere in the mound of paperwork called his desktop. “Let me get this right. The slides were stolen 35 miles away, in another town, but the packing material was found in Beiderbecke?”

“Correct.”

“How large is Beiderbecke?”

“It is not a town in the usual sense of the word so it takes some explaining.”

“I’m listening.”

“Beiderbecke is basically a huge rail switching yard. It handles cargo from across the Midwest. Very few people actually live in Beiderbecke. Workers drive in from Muscatine, Burlington and Iowa City. The railyard has three shifts of 1,500 apiece, so the community’s population, so to speak, is 4,500. But it’s almost all transients. It has a small business section which includes about six blocks of grocery stores, boutiques, banks, jewelry stores and the like. But most of the patrons are workers on their way to work or going home from work. The workers all live about half an hour from the railyard.”

“Now, the oddity.”

“Three weeks ago, we had a robbery of one of the jewelry stores. About $30,000 in precious stones was stolen.”

“That sounds like a lot of stones for a town that has no residents.”

“I don’t know. The $30,000 is what the insurance company paid. It was based on records of the jewelry store. We, the Troopers, did not do an inventory. We just looked at the surveillance tapes. Single perp with a pistol goes in just before closing. Locked the front door, herded everyone into a back room. Took gems and went out the front door.”

“On tape?”

“Yes.”

“Where’s the oddity?”

“While the perp was taking the stones, the employees were slamming themselves against the backroom door. It was not a secure door, just one into a back room. Just as the perp was going out the front door, the door to the backroom splintered. One of the employees chased the perp out and down the street.”

“Chasing a perp with a gun is not a good idea. Why didn’t he call 911?”

“She did. As she was chasing the perp, he, we think it was a ‘he,’ jumped onto one of those fat tubed bicycles and headed toward the railyard.”

“But she called 911?”

“Correct. So did the jewelry store. We had cars in motion in seconds. Now, to get to the rail yards from the business section of Beiderbecke, you have to cross a bridge. It’s a two-way road used by rail yard traffic and has a walkway and staircase in about the middle. See, workers park their cars in large parking lots on both sides of the railyard. Then they walk over the bridge and down the staircase to their jobs in the rail yard.”

“Does the bridge have vehicular traffic?”

“Yes. It’s called support traffic. Moving equipment and supplies from one part of the rail yard to the other. The railyard is massive and it makes sense to transport the heavy equipment over the yard rather than bounce over dozens of sets of tracks.”

“Now, the Troopers.”

“We were at the bridge in a matter of minutes. One car blocked off the far end of the bridge and walkway. Another blocked the staircase exit at ground level and the third advanced on the bridge behind the employee who was chasing the perp.”

“So the bridge was closed off?”

“Both sides and the staircase.”

“Let me guess, the perp vanished and then you found the stolen slides.”

“You got it. We found the fat wheeled bike abandoned and when we looked over the side, we saw the top of the slide. One of them. There were three of them bolted together and set against the side of the bridge. The bottom disappeared into a collection of trees.”

“How do you know the perp used the slide to get away?”

“We could see the imprint in the falling snow of something heavy having gone down the slide. That was all we could see. It was in the middle of a storm and there was a ferocious wind. A whiteout. Being from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you probably don’t know what a whiteout is”

“I have Alaskan in-laws and every one of them tells me tales of whiteouts, some of them possibly true.”

“Good. So you know visibility is limited.”

“Very.”

“What we do know because we have it on surveillance cameras on the jewelry store and the two more stores between the jewelry store and the bridge, the perp being chased by the employee. The bridge, both ends, was shut tight about 30 seconds later as was the staircase. As soon as backup arrived, about a minute after that, two Trooper vehicles advanced on the bridge and met where the employee was standing over the fat tire bike and looking over the bridge’s railing. When the slide was spotted, another Trooper vehicle went to the bottom of the slide. Footprints could be seen leading away from the slide into the railyard. About a dozen steps later the footsteps headed for a warehouse. We were lucky we got there when we did because there was a horrendous wind. The tracks were barely visible when we got there. We sealed off the structure and searched it for the perp. There were 37 people working in that structure and all were questioned and searched. After they were taken downtown – to Burlington – we did a search of the warehouse and found nothing.”

Noonan kind of muttered to himself. Then he said. “Are you sure the perp used the slide? Could he have conned you into believing he used the slide but slipped over the railing on the other side of the bridge and was in hiding waiting for you to leave?”

“We’re sure. We had vehicles stationed on both ends of the bridge and the staircase. Then we did a foot-by-foot examination of the bridge on the other side of the railing. And we used a searchlight under the bridge to make sure there wasn’t a spot to hide.”

“And under the staircase?”

“Yes.”

“Was there only one set of tracks leading away from the bottom of the slide?”

“Just one set of tracks. We checked to make sure. We only found the one set leading away from the bottom of the slide toward the building we closed down. Even as ferocious as the wind was, if there had been another set of prints, we would have spotted it.”

“And now you have zip.”

“Zip?”

“Zip. Nothing. No perp, no stones and no idea what to do next.”

“That’s right. Which is why I’m calling you.”

Noonan was silent for a moment. “OK, I’ll see what I can do for you. I’ll need some more information. Do you have a pen and paper handy?”

“Go for it.”

“How big is the jewelry store, how long has it been in business, how many employees does it have, are any of the employees related, when were the security cameras put in, same security questions for the other business that have the pair on tape, how far is it from the last security camera to the edge of the bridge, how far was the slide from the edge of the bridge, did anyone take photographs of the footsteps leading away from the bottom of the slides, did anyone see anything in the snow beside the footsteps leading away from the base of the slides, did you take an inventory of any trash in the warehouse, did you check under the slide to make sure the gems were not hidden there, did the warehouse personnel take breaks together of whenever they needed one, how do you know the perp did not exit the warehouse leaving you to believe he was still in the warehouse, what was the perp wearing in the jewelry store and did you find that color parka or jacket in the warehouse? That’s all I can think of right now.”

“I can give you some of these answers right now.”

“Nope. I’ll call back in a day or two. I want some think time first.”

“You got it.”

* * *

Whenever Noonan was presented with a loo-loo call, he went to his two tried-and-true sources of information: history and the local newspapers. Both proved to be sparse. Beiderbecke, Iowa, was not actually a community. It was just a large railyard. Rather, it was a sizeable trans-shipping yard. Cargo from the East Coast or coming up or down the Mississippi River would be exchanged for shipments coming from the West, Midwest and Far West. It offered mechanical repair services and temporary cargo storage. It was the size of a modest Air Force Base and had a scattered workforce.

The facility, the term Noonan used to describe it rather than “community” or “town,” was a set-aside by the State of Iowa and named for a famous Iowan, Bix Beiderbecke. Noonan was vaguely familiar with Bix Beiderbecke from his college days when he had been hooked on jazz. Beiderbecke had been an oddity. He was a jazz genius who could not read music. He learned songs by ear. And he was better than good. He was fantastic. He was the best, played with the best and died at 28. According to Wikipedia, he was “one of the most influential jazz soloists of the 1920s, a cornet player noted for an inventive, lyrical approach and purity of tone, with such clarity of sound that one contemporary famously described it like ‘shooting bullets at a bell.'”

The result of Noonan’s research on slides revealed the same amount of information as that on Beiderbecke: microscopic. Slides varied in composition, length and cost. The only crime he could find relating to playground slides was an ID-10-T father who stole a 300-pound slide and installed it in his son’s bedroom. How the father figured he would not be discovered was beyond Noonan.

But there was one tidbit which stuck in Noonan’s craw. The slides had been stolen in Burlington yet the packaging had been discovered in Beiderbecke.

* * *

When Noonan called the number he had written down from the Mephistophelian electronic agent, he finally got the name of the Trooper who had called him: Sarah Sanchez.

“My husband is Filipino,” she said by way of explanation. “I’m a Smith from Iowa.”

“We all have to come from somewhere,” Noonan said. “A couple of quick questions before you give me your answers. First, the packing crates for the slides. Where were they found?”

“Vacant pullout alongside the highway. There was a lot of trash there. We, that is, the Troopers, knew of the slide theft and the boxes were large. Hard to miss. One of the Troopers checked the boxes and, bingo, we got a hit.”

“But the boxes weren’t covered or broken down?”

“Nope. Just tossed with the rest of the trash.”

“What was the ‘rest of the trash?’”

“Oh, the usual, squashed boxes, rusting beer cans, empty water bottles, plastic bags, some plastic bags of newspaper. Nothing we could link to the slide crates.”

“OK,” Noonan said as he opened his notebook to a fresh page. “Now, my answers.”

There was shuffling of papers on the other end of the electronic connection. “Here goes,” Sanchez said. “In the order you gave them to me. The jewelry store is small, a family-owned affair. Everyone in the store is a relative. It’s a husband, wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law operation. I know what you are thinking but no, no trouble with the police, no charges of any kind. The family has been in business for two decades, is financially successful and, according to state auditors, does not have a single blemish on its record. Let’s see, the security cameras, top of the line, went in when the shop was opened. Same for the other businesses in the mall. The pictures we saw were clear. From the last security camera to the start of the bridge is about 25 yards and the slides were placed 57 yards further down the bridge. I had to measure it out for the crime report. There were no photographs of the footsteps leading away from the bottom of the slide because the whiteout was filling them too quickly. By the time the forensic people got there, they were just depressions in the snow. I don’t know what you mean by anything in the snow besides the footsteps leading away from the bottom of the slides because, well, like I said before, the footsteps were almost filled in with snow by the time the forensic people got there. We did a search under and around the slide for the gems and found nothing. We did not take an inventory of the trash in the warehouse but it is still there. The warehouse staff was scattered throughout the building and they took breaks as their work gave them the opportunity so there is no way to verify who might have been missing for the time it took to commit the robbery. The perp could not have exited the warehouse because there were no tracks in the snow leading away from the buildings and we locked it down when we got there. The tracks went into the building and never came out. The perp was wearing a dark jacket and jeans. Just about everyone in the warehouse was wearing jeans. Their jackets were on pegs and most were dark.”

“OK,” Noonan said as he was writing. “One more question. What you said was the perp on the fat tube bike rode down the bridge. There was a walkway on the side of the bridge. Was the bike rider on the roadway or the walkway?”

“I was the Trooper doing the chase. Snow was blowing pretty hard but I could see the fat tire mark ahead of me as I drove over the bridge. I had to be careful because I knew someone was chasing the perp and I did not want to hit the pursuer. I caught up with the pursuer where the slide met the bridge.”

A dull chime clanged in Noonan’s brain.

* * *

Billy-Bob George “Handsome” Weasel, the “Bearded Holmes in Training,” was pleased to inform Noonan he, Weasel, had solved the so-called Matter of the Spillway Absconder.

“Easy,” Weasel told Noonan. “The problem isn’t who stole the gems. It’s where they are right now. We know they have to be in the warehouse. So, why not secure the warehouse and put extra security cameras inside? Then give the perp the apparent opportunity to sneak back in and recover the gems?”

“Good thought,” Noonan said. “But suppose the gems are not in the warehouse? Remember, it was snowing so heavily any sign of hiding the gems outside would be covered with snow. Suppose the gems are outside the warehouse?”

ALBERT

Weasel thought for a moment. “Then why not train a security camera at the bottom of the slide and wait for the perp?”

“Could be a long wait.”

Weasel looked at Noonan with suspicion. “OK, why?”

“My guess, and what I told the Iowa Trooper, was this was an elaborate scam.”

“But the gems were missing!”

“Oh, the gems made it out the jewelry store all right. But they never made it onto the bridge. Just a guess now, Weasel, a guess. When it comes to loo-loo calls, that’s the best we can do.”

“OK,” Weasel said. “Guess away.’

“My guess is that the daughter-in-law is about to file for divorce. The jewelry store is a family business. But not her family. The daughter-in-law is an outsider. When the divorce goes through, she gets no part of the business.  She’ll be unemployed. Again, my guess. She and her boyfriend want to start their new relationship with cash. They have a friend who works in the railyard so the three of them set up the robbery.”

“How?”

“First, the slides. They needed a distraction and one that would pull the Troopers off the trail of the real robbery. So they stole the slides from Burlington and left the packing material where it would be found in Beiderbecke. This pulled the focus of the Troopers to Beiderbecke.”

“But that would bring the focus of the Troopers onto the site of the robbery.”

“That was exactly the point. The perps needed the Troopers in Beiderbecke. The Troopers were a critical component. The set-up was simple. The three perps linked the three slides, one after the other, and secured them to the side of the bridge. There was a lot of snow, so the slides were coated pretty quickly. Unless you knew where to look, you could not have seen the slides before the robbery.”

“OK.”

“Then the daughter-in-law and her boyfriend waited until they had a day with a ferocious wind and snowstorm. I’m guessing at this time of year in Iowa, you don’t have to wait that long for the right night. Then, on the right night, the boyfriend came into the jewelry store just before it closed and robbed the store. He forced everyone into the back room. He went into the vault, which was still open, and, again I’m guessing, the daughter-in-law had the gems already in a bag of some kind. Then he waited.”

“Waited?! He had the gems and waited?! Why?”

“Because the daughter-in-law needed to put as much distance between herself and the stolen gems as possible. The robbery had to be confirmed. The gems had to disappear so when they eventually turned up, there was no trail back to her. The perp waited somewhere he could not be seen on the surveillance cameras.  Or he dawdled over the gems while the family in the back room was slamming the door to get out. When the door finally splintered, the perp knew it was time to move. Out the front door he went, the daughter-in-law following. The jewelry store called 911 and so did the daughter-in-law. We know the daughter-in-law was chasing the perp because she was caught on the surveillance cameras of the two businesses between the jewelry store and the bridge.”

“Then?”

“Simple. Again, Weasel, we are in the guessing business. I guess there was a fat wheeled bike by the bridge. The perp with the stones headed away from the bridge. The daughter-in-law tells the 911 operator she was chasing the perp on a bike. She gets on the bike and off she goes.”

“And the perp just walks away?”

“Yup. He just walks way around the mall avoiding any security cameras. He gets to the parking lot, gets in his car and goes. While he is walking away from the bridge, the Troopers have the bridge and the walkway sealed off. One of the Trooper cars advanced down the bridge following the daughter-in-law. I spoke with the driver of that car and she said she could see the track of the fat wheel bike but not any tracks of the pursuer. If the daughter-in-law is ever asked to explain why her footprints were not seen on the bridge, she’ll just say she was running along the foot path. There would be no way to prove her wrong because the snow would have covered any footsteps.”

“Then the person on the slide was a red herring? Something to lead the Troopers away from the real perp?”

“Nope. There never was anyone on the slide. As soon as the daughter-in-law got to the slide, she loosed a bag of something she and perp had stashed there. Down the slide the bag went leaving the impression someone had used the slide. Then a third person, the friend who works in the railyard, picked up the bag and dashed into the warehouse.”

“Which accounts for the footprints,” Wesel said. “But there’s that bag. What about the bag? What’s the friend going to do with the bag?”

“Good question. I’m betting the bag had to be heavy enough to leave the impression of a human body on the slide. Maybe 50 pounds. I don’t see the friend lugging a 50-pound bag all the way across the railyard so I’m guessing the bag was slit open. As the perp walked, the contents of the bag were sprinkled along the way. It was snowing heavily, so as long as the sprinkles were light and not bunched, the snow covered the holes in the snow quickly. And if the sprinkles were gravel, they’ll never be noticed when the snow clears.”

“A perfect crime. Jezz-Louise! The gems are gone, the daughter-in-law’s in the clear, the person in the railyard cannot be identified. And I’m betting the daughter-in-law knows enough about the jewelry industry to feed the gems back into the system with no risk. The perfect crime.”

“Almost.”

Weasel looked at Noonan suspiciously. “What am I missing?”

Noonan smiled mischievously. “Weasel, no case is over until every single clue is examined. There is no benefit to speed. The one clue left is the bag from the slide. Again, I’m guessing. What I told the Troopers I guessed,” Noonan made quote marks in the air with his fingers when he said guessed. “I guessed the empty bag is in the trash in the warehouse.”

Weasel shook his head. “That bag could be one of hundreds!”

Noonan disagreed. “I don’t think so. The perps didn’t think about making the empty bag invisible. The key to the distraction was having the Troopers follow the footsteps in the snow from the bottom of the slide. The perps knew the Troopers would not be looking at the sprinkle marks beside the footsteps. Besides, they were probably covered with snow by the time the Troopers made it to the bottom of the slide. Once into the warehouse, the bag was worthless. So it was dumped. The problem the perps did not consider was the bag as a clue to the robbery. My bet? The bag contained gravel or sand. When the bag was empty, the perp dumped it in the trash. Probably stuck it under other garbage to conceal it. But I doubt there are any other empty bags of gravel or sand in the warehouse. Railyards use gravel and sand by the ton, not the 50-pound bag.”

“So they find the bag. What will that prove?”

“Weasel! Think like a cop. Check coats, pants and jackets for small pieces of gravel. See if there are any fingerprints on the bag. Maybe see if there is any DNA on the bag. See who bought the bag and follow the money. It’s a clue, Weasel. It only takes one clue to close a case.”

Weasel thought about it for a moment and then Noonan added, “Remember, gravel, sand and silt have great sedimental value.”

Steven C. Levi is a sixty-something freelance historian and commercial writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle. 

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