The dawn phone call. Almost a cliché when you’re a cop, it rarely brings anything but bad news. Of course, the bad news is not your bad news—it belongs to someone else. Sure, you’ll be tied up in the details of the family’s life and tragedy for a while, but it’s their life, their tragedy. As a career cop, you learn to put up the wall and keep your feelings out of the equation. Of course being human, means that separation isn’t always complete. So you land somewhere in the middle. One thing is for sure: the dawn phone call can be a life changer.
“Dawkins.” His voice still thick with sleep.
“There’s an accident, a one car fatality you should probably be looking at.”
“Where?” When it’s Bill “Crash” Simpson, veteran accident reconstruction specialist, telling you to come have a look, you trust his hunch and get out of bed.
“Highway 5 in Lake Elmo, just past the roundabout. Look for the flashing lights, you can’t miss us.”
Cade Dawkins, an investigator with the Minnesota State Patrol, is one of two full time plain-clothes investigators working out of the east metro division in the Twin Cities. The thirty-one year old had already spent nine years in law enforcement and was a recent transplant to the State Patrol, having been with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension—known statewide as simply the BCA—previously. He quickly made his reputation taking down the highway shootout killers, a once-in-a-lifetime case that made him the Patrol’s golden boy.
Crash was right, you couldn’t miss the lights. State Patrol, Washington County Sheriff and Oakdale police were all on scene. The road was closed, standard procedure in fatalities, the deputy waving Cade by. He parked behind Crash’s SUV, not wanting to contaminate the scene. Standing just over six feet, Cade was solidly built from years of soccer and had blondish brown hair, which always seemed a bit messy for his peers in law enforcement. Zipping up his jacket against the cool morning air, Cade headed for the commotion.
Recognizing Mike Swanson, a veteran trooper, Cade asked, “What do we have?”
Swanson, a typical trooper with his buzz cut and no neck, was an adrenaline junkie that raced cars in the summer and snowmobiles in the other six months of Minnesota’s year. He shook his head in the “I’ve seen it before and I’m going to see it again” way. “A body was discovered in a one car accident down in the ditch. An early commuter saw the glint of metal when the sun peeked out. She’d probably been down there for hours.” Along a rural stretch of Highway 5 in Lake Elmo, where cornfields frame the road, it’s not uncommon for a crash to go unnoticed for long stretches of time. “Lucky for us, the sun was out this morning.”
“Any day the sun makes an appearance in March, is a lucky day. What do we have on the victim?”
“The victim, Holly Janek, was an event planner on the way home to Stillwater from a downtown Minneapolis event. Her live-in boyfriend said she had left Minneapolis at approximately 2 a.m., so the fatality most likely happened around 2:30 a.m. To me, it looks to be an accident, that maybe she fell asleep. But I’m just a simple road trooper. Crash is the man to tell you for certain.”
Crash Simpson was a 50-something bear of a man, with a ruddy face and a ready smile—which considering he spent his days looking into car crashes, seemed unusual. Cade slid down the muddy embankment toward the green Camry. The car was facing the wrong direction in the ditch, but otherwise looked undamaged. “What do we know?” he asked when Crash stood up, who’d been kneeling by the driver’s side rear bumper.
“Let’s look at the road evidence first,” Simpson said, leading Cade back up the embankment. “The marks tell the story. You can tell a lot from vehicle marks if you know what you’re doing.” He looked at Cade with a grin. “And lucky for you, I know what I’m doing.”
Together, they walked down the road shoulder. Simpson stepped out on the road and stopped. “This is where it started. The marks begin here. And for the record, these aren’t simple skid marks. Skid marks show forward movement without tire rotation—in other words the brakes are locked up with the car’s momentum carrying it forward.”
Simpson pointed up the road toward the crash site. “The road evidence shows yaw marks, followed by scuff marks. These marks are in a S pattern, as the victim tries to correct, over corrects and ultimately loses control and goes off the road.”
“Yaw?” Cade wasn’t familiar with the term.
“Yaw is a sideways movement of a vehicle in turning—basically movement of a vehicle in another direction than which it’s headed. If you’re driving too fast into a corner you’ll create a set of yaw marks. For some reason, our victim went from a typical forward motion into a yaw.”
Cade held up a finger. “I’ve been told I’m a smart guy, so clearly what you’re telling me is she didn’t fall asleep and drive into the ditch.” Simpson nodded. “And clearly, there was no reason for her to turn—suddenly and at full speed. This is a straight section of road.” Simpson nodded again.
“Let’s continue,” Simpson suggested. He walked further along the marks. “Right about here is where she overcorrected and lost control. The vehicle was in a spin and exited the road, here.” Simpson moved to the edge of the pavement, roughly 35 yards from the Camry’s final resting place. “Bottoming out with the far side of ditch’s upward slope halted her forward progress, leaving her facing in the wrong direction. The entire thing happened in less than three seconds.”
They moved off the road, once again sliding down the embankment. Cade’s boots now thoroughly caked with mud. “Take a look,” Simpson requested, waving Cade to the driver’s side. The door was open, with a woman still behind the wheel. The blonde woman’s face was a bloody smear, with splatters on the Toyota’s steering wheel. “As I said, the road evidence shows she spun out of control, which could explain these violent splatters,” gesturing to the blood on the steering wheel. The air bag had not been deployed and her seatbelt was not fastened.
“As I said, the road evidence suggests there’s more going on here than another case of overtired driver meets the ditch. All is not well here either. Take a look at our victim’s position and the state of her clothing.”
Crash stepped back, allowing Cade to step into the open car entrance. “Don’t touch her, the dragon lady hasn’t made her appearance yet.” The dragon lady was the Ramsey County Coroner, a flamboyant spectacle herself, she was more often than not dressed in vivid purples or reds with an outrageous hat to top off her unique ensemble. Without having a coroner of their own, Washington County had to wait for the loaner from St. Paul. As obvious as her death appeared to be, only the coroner had the authority to pronounce someone dead.
Cade took in her disheveled appearance, noticing her shirt is open at the top, her bra showing, as well as her short skirt is pushed up. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say she looks like she’s been out parking with her date.” Cade looked up at Simpson. “Could an accident have caused this?”
“If the accident was violent enough to kill her, wouldn’t her air bags have been deployed?”
“Not necessarily. There wasn’t a major impact or collision.” Simpson looked almost child-like with his “I know something you don’t know and I’m not going to tell you” smile.
“You’re making me work for this, aren’t you?” Simpson simply shrugs in response.
“The biggest issue in my mind—besides her post-prom appearance—is her seat belt. It’s not fastened. And if the spin was violent enough to kill her, it should have been violent enough to toss her from her seat. Which leads me to believe…” Cade leaned in and slid a pen under the victim’s shirt at her left shoulder. “Huh.”
“What?” This time it was Simpson being led down the path. “What is it?”
Cade stepped out of the doorway and faced Simpson. “There’s an abrasion on her neck consistent with seat belt restraints. Yet her seat belt was not buckled.”
“It’s possible she unbuckled after the accident just before her injuries took her life.” Cade didn’t think Simpson believed it either.
A trooper slid down the embankment. “Crash, the Dragon Lady’s here.”
Standing at the top of the ravine was an explosion of purple. Dressed in easily a half dozen shades of purple—from her oversize hat, to her long scarf, to her fluffy coat, down to her lavender boots—was the Dragon Lady. Minerva Adams had been the Ramsey County Coroner for longer than anyone could remember. As colorful in her quirkiness as her clothing might suggest, she took total charge of her accident scenes. Truth be told, she intimidated many of the burly troopers.
“Young man.” She was addressing the trooper next to Cade and Simpson.
“Yes, Miss Adams?” The trooper actually looked down at his feet.
“Are you going to make me get down there by myself?”
Looking much like he was being chastised by his kindergarten teacher, the trooper scrambled back up the embankment. “No ma’am. Sorry.”
She held onto his arm as they made their way down the steep incline. “And if I ever hear you call me the Dragon Lady again, I will kick your ass all the way to the Wisconsin border. Am I clear?”
Cade turned away not wanting to get busted by the Dragon Lady for his grin. Simpson had done the same.
“Mr. Simpson. May I have a peek at your ICR?”
Simpson handed a clipboard with the Incident Crime Report to the coroner. He stepped back while Adams glanced at the report, her face offering nothing. “Let’s see what we have here,” she said to no one in particular and knelt by the open driver’s door.
Crash Simpson waved a finger at Cade. They stepped back to the Camry’s rear. “Another thing for you to see.”
A dent with deep horizontal scratches was evident in the dark green paint of the quarter panel. Squatting next to the Camry, Cade examined the damage. “Recent?”
“Uh huh. Fresh damage will be clean. Like taking a cloth and wiping it. If it been older, there would be a layer of dirt and grime sitting on top.”
“Like my car,” Cade grinned. “The thing I would expect, would be some paint transfer to the victim’s car. But I’m not seeing it. Am I wrong?”
Crash Simpson cleared his throat and nodded toward the coroner. She was closing up her medical bag and approaching them. “I’ve made the pronouncement. Her body is released. Good luck with this one gentlemen. Looks like you’ll need it.”
Grabbing on to the arm of the waiting trooper, the Dragon Lady headed back up the embankment and was gone.
Simpson leaned in by Cade. “See? It didn’t feel right to her either. And you’re right about the paint transfer. Typically, the vehicle evidence will show left behind paint—very noticeable. Paint will be clumped. The BCA analyzes the paint transfer, telling us the make, model and year range of the other car. But not when someone has wiped it off.”
They walked around the back of the Camry. “So let’s say you’re correct about this being more than your typical late night one-car fatality. The road and vehicle evidence suggest someone bumped our victim’s car on this deserted stretch, and the bump sends her vehicle into a spin she’s unable to recover from. She ends up dazed in the ditch, vehicle pointed in the wrong direction. So far, so good?”
“I don’t have a sense for how much trauma occurred from the spin, but I have to assume there was some. Our mysterious perpetrator then enters the vehicle, and in no particular order, kills her, molests her and unbuckles her seat belt. He cleans off the dent, thereby removing any evidence of his vehicle’s paint. He climbs back in his own vehicle, heads for home and the comfort of his own bed, leaving her to be found hours later—all without a single witness.”
“Yeah, that about covers it.” Simpson stated. He held Cade’s eyes.
“I’m guessing our perpetrator must have had some issue with our victim. Maybe her boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend. Wanted to make it look like an accident.” Cade shook his head. “Odd way to go about it though.”
Holding up a finger, Simpson hesitated. “There’s one more thing.”
Cade’s eyebrows went up, but he didn’t say anything.
“Remember the early morning fatality last month on Highway 95? Red Honda, woman apparently fell asleep, a St. Paul attorney.”
“I saw the report, but Zink handled the follow up. How do you remember all these cases?”
“It’s all I do. I have no life.”
“Sucks to be you. Anyway, what about it?”
Simpson didn’t say anything. That is, until Cade prodded him. “Crash?”
Simpson let out the breath he’d been holding. “It was the same victim.”
The confusion Cade felt was apparent in both his voice and expression. ‘Same victim?”
“Appearance-wise anyways. The victim, Jennifer Allard, an attorney from Bayport. She was a tall, slim knockout blonde. Same long, white blonde hair. Pretty similar style of dress as well.” Simpson pulled off his cap, running his fingers through his thinning hair.
“Could it be just a coincidence?”
Simpson replaced his cap and folded his arms, looking directly at Cade. “I hate coincidences.”
“Me too.” Head spinning with ramifications, Cade repeated, “Me too.”