Part I, Ya Gotta Homicide, Kid

  • Bo Diddley… a southern black slang phrase meaning “nothing at all”, as in “he ain’t bo diddley”

Being a new homicide detective is a daunting experience. You felt good when you scored well on the detective’s exam and even better when you got your assignment of choice, homicide. But then suddenly experienced people who seem to be light years ahead of you are everywhere. Homicide “teams,” long term partners, view you with varying degrees of skepticism. You are an inexperienced, unknown entity. You have no homicide history. You jump from partner to partner because the other half of the team is on furlough or taking a compensatory day off. There is little or no continuity to your day-to-day assignments. With no formal training program you find yourself drifting from one partner to another, forming uneasy alliances for only a day or two.

Then suddenly one morning at the 8:30 roll call you are the odd man out. You’ve been there a few weeks and what the hell, it’s the day shift and the boss decides you can work alone for the first time. The question is of course, just what are you going to do?

Detective James Qunicy Vurpell, III, not so affectionately known as “Jimmy the Turd,” is the abrasive unit secretary universally disliked by the rest of the unit. The Turd has an idea. “Here kid, take this and do a little PR,” he says as he hands me a Xerox note from a death investigation the previous evening.

A homicide team had been dispatched when Bertha Tidwell was found dead in her bed. It was the previous night, late in the shift and absent any grossly overt signs of violence the team made an initial call of “natural death.” Neither of them was in any mood to work overtime. They typed a half page that would serve as unofficial notes on the case until they returned to work the following afternoon.

Vurpell handed me the note from the previous night. “The family’s calling with all sorts of tips and clues on this ‘murder’ case,” he said in his squeaky little voice. “Take a ride over there and tell them it’s not a murder. These people think that every time someone dies unexpectedly it’s because someone killed them.” Grateful for something to do, I grabbed the single sheet of paper and a set of car keys.

Out in the lot, I read that family members living with her had discovered Bertha dead in bed. They had thought she was out of the house, but found her when someone checked her bedroom. The ambulance crew estimated that she had been dead for several hours and the responding beat car made a routine notification to homicide. Bertha had already been removed from the scene when homicide arrived but they spoke briefly with the family. Bertha had diabetes and suffered from some vague heart problem. That’s all they needed to know. It was getting close to midnight… they would have just enough time to get back to the office, type a note for the morgue man, and leave on time. Neither of them was looking for overtime that night.

I arrived at the South Ridgeway address and observed that if it were after dark I probably would not have been there alone, even with a revolver strapped to my belt. I rang the bell and was greeted almost immediately by the extended Tidwell family. It was my first experience with the homicide mystique. The family was almost apologetic for interrupting what must be a very busy day for me. Surely I had bigger murder cases to work but they were never the less grateful for my presence and they promised not to take too much of my valuable time. It was infinitely more respect than I had received from Vurpell back at the office. For the first time since my promotion I began to feel like a real live homicide detective.

They told me that the previous day when they gathered for breakfast they noticed that Bertha had apparently left. Her bedroom door was hooked from the outside and her car was gone. Also gone was Bertha’s 26 year old nephew Charles Gastrum, known to the family as “Bo Diddley.” Bo had just joined the family unit from serving a prison term in Texas. Aunt Bertha must have taken him out job hunting. As they continued it became obvious to me that Bertha was the family matriarch. It was late evening before anyone dared unhook Bertha’s bedroom door to look for her. On the bed they found Bertha dead, her nightgown pulled up around her shoulders. The ambulance, the police car, the homicide detectives all seemed so quick and efficient the night before that the family hardly had time to collect their thoughts.

This morning however they felt compelled to offer clues to Bertha’s murder. Midway down the bed was a watery bloodstain. In her bedding near the foot of the mattress were a knife and a pair of men’s boxer shorts, size 46. Her purse was on her nightstand but her car keys and wallet were gone. Bertha never let anyone drive her car. The garage was well secured, locked from the outside and empty. There were no signs of forced entry. And Bo Diddley was missing. Bo wore size 46 boxer shorts.

Feeling more emboldened by the minute I called the crime lab and asked if they would process the scene. Within an hour lab techs had photographed the scene, and bagged and inventoried the bedding, knife and boxer shorts. I gathered recent photos of Charles Gastrum and interviewed each member of the family individually.

It was early afternoon before I returned to the Maxwell Street station armed with copious notes, pictures of Charles Gastrum and a crime lab case number. Vurpell went ballistic.

“That’s the trouble with you new kids!” His normal squeak was now a shrill shriek. “Everything’s got to be a murder. You don’t have a goddamn ounce of common sense. I don’t know where they find you, much less why they send you to us. This is a homicide unit for christsake!”

The other dicks in the office looked my way in sympathy. They hated the Turd and suddenly, in a strange way, I felt I was becoming a member of the group. Never the less I felt myself turning red and I had no idea how to respond. The phone interrupted the Turd’s tirade.

“Homicide, Vurpell,” he answered, his tone had returned to his normal irritating little high-pitched squeak. It was Pat Bughford calling from the morgue. Pat was our morgue man on days. He handled the paperwork on all the Area Four bodies from the night before, observing autopsies, inventorying additional evidence, and phoning the results back to the office, thus freeing other detectives for duties on the street. Area Four, “the murder factory,” was the only area that could justify a full time morgue man.

Vurpell cradled the phone on his shoulder. “Ya, go ahead Pat… Tidwell from last night… Ya I got it,” he said as he grabbed the half page note from the night before. “Ya…What? …death by strangulation… possible rape pending microscopy. Okay Pat, thanks.” he said as he hung up the phone.

Vurpell never looked up from his desk. “Ya gotta a homicide kid,” he squeaked. “Find someone to help you do a format report.” He dismissed me by swiveling his chair away. End of conversation.

A format report! Any vindication I felt instantly faded into a sense of helplessness. A format report was the first official homicide report written in any murder case. It was detailed. It was complex. It outlined every known element of the case and served as a reference report for each subsequent report. It would run a minimum of six single spaced, typewritten pages and many times it would exceed twelve to fifteen pages… and I had never done one.

Suddenly I had comrades. Every homicide dick in the office crowded around me with compliments and comments of support. It was us against him… united against the common enemy, the Turd. I was one of the group… Area Four Homicide! A fraternity that Detective Vurpell would never be allowed to join.

Bill Felston was elected to help me with the report. Death Investigation reclassified to Homicide/Murder. Victim: Bertha Tidwell. Wanted for Questioning: Charles Gastrum AKA Bo Diddley. It ran eight pages. A stolen auto report was initiated on Bertha’s car. We requested a national stop on Gastrum and the car. We logged three hours of overtime. For the first time I began to feel like a real homicide detective. The Turd could go to hell. He would never experience this feeling behind his desk.

The hunt for Bo Diddley was on although it didn’t last long. But it did turn into a long story. Stay tuned next week: Part II, Ya Gotta Extradition, Kid


Preview: Part II

Huntsville, Texas, September  1971
The State Prison sally port gate slides slowly shut.

The prisoner—
A massive black man, settles his cautious gaze
On the two Chicago homicide detectives.
Today is to be his first airplane ride
But with the dark clouds to the south
It’s not shaping up to be one of his better days.

The young detective—
Eyes the prisoner warily.
His size… the months in the prison weight room…
The dense Texas air hangs heavily upon them
Extraditions are supposed to be fun
But this does not look promising.

The older detective—
Assesses and then reassesses.
This can work he thinks… if the new kid holds together
And the prisoner behaves.  He’ll let the kid drive.
But there is this little thing about the weather.

Hurricane Fern—
Roils north, toward Houston.
The three frightened souls head south,
Toward Houston.


10 Comments on “Part I, Ya Gotta Homicide, Kid”

  1. T Gainer says:

    Jim continues to capture the tempo of the office, street and survivors, of both. Memories of The “olde buddies” and their antics are vivid and colorful.

    Impossible to forget the first murder case and the scene, I did not solve mine.

    Partners, the right mix made all the difference. That said, “if you ever seen Charlie wresting with a bear, you help that bear out”.

    Keep it up Jim.

  2. Rich says:

    This one is starting to read like a James Lee Burke novel. Keep it up!

  3. Tom says:

    Jim, keep up the good work, I really enjoy reading about the old area. Your a great “paper man”

  4. Pat Cronin says:

    Ya gotta a great story, Kid.

    Always a pleasure to reread.

  5. jim brown says:

    I can still hear the shrill voice. Very good story and factual.

  6. Chuck Dulay says:

    I can still see the pencil stuck behind his ear, would like to have stuck it somewhere else.

  7. Wally says:

    Hi Jim:

    Retired Sgt. Don E. from your range recommended your blog. I’ve never known Don to be wrong and this is no exception. Simply fantastic! I check it several times a week to see what you tales you have posted.

    Thank you sir!

    Wally Klinger
    Sergeant, Cook County Sheriff’s Police

  8. Billy BlueShirt says:

    Very Good read so far… Cant wait for part two. You should put it all together and write a book!! Very fun to hear the old stories, keep it up!!!

  9. John says:

    Just as you never forget your first girlfriend, your rank on a promotional test, your star number, date of appointment, you never forget working your first homicide. My partner and i, after assisting other teams for a month, finally get told “You got a dead one, shot, on the street at 47th-Sacramento.” We ask who we’re assisting and hear “It’s yours.”

    As we are pulling up to the scene, we hear the Sgt. standing on the sidewalk say to the beat coppers, “Good, the Dicks are here!” My partner and I, still in the car, look at each other, and I don’t forget which one of us said it, but from our car comes “Little do they know, these 2 Dicks haven’t a clue what they’re doing.”

  10. Saul says:

    Outstanding sir! Keep em’ coming. The stories are great and I for one appreciate your efforts.

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