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By M. William Phelps
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2009 M. William Phelps
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEbb & Flow
It was midmorning, May 29, 2002, when Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) detective Scott Bernal took a call from Fairfax City, Virginia, police officer Mike Boone. Fairfax City was a good three-and-a-half-hour hike from Ocean City on a good day, without traffic. Although the OCPD routinely received calls from various police departments for different reasons, Detective Bernal sensed right away that this call had a different smell to it. Something, his gut instinct told him, was amiss.
"We have a woman whose coworkers are reporting [her] missing," Boone said. "This woman never misses a meeting, apparently. She had a meeting scheduled with fifteen coworkers for yesterday at ten. She didn't show up or call."
"She came here?" Bernal asked, meaning Ocean City.
"Yeah, with her boyfriend. I called his employer. He hasn't returned to work, either-and should have on the same day."
Bernal took down a description of the couple's vehicle. It was a red or maroon Acura with the recognizable license tag that few would have a tough time forgetting: GENEY C.
"Where are they staying?"
Boone said, "Atlantis Condominium."
"Let me check it out."
Bernal finished up what he was doing at thestation house in midtown Ocean City and took off down the strip to check out the Atlantis.
There is a repetitive, soothing, and rhythmic flow to the steadiness and cyclical nature of ocean waves. No matter how high or low the tide, waves begin from an unknown, initial source out in the middle of the sea and ripple into shorelines around the world at a continuous, melodic pace, speeding up and slowing down. One can sit for hours and become mesmerized by their sheer beauty and elegance, while getting lost in the meditative genuineness, sound, feel, and even smell of simple seawater lapping against beach sand. Perhaps a gull or two squeaking in the remote background adds to the ambiance. But ask those who live for it, and you'll hear about an unexplainable grace assigned to the ocean that they all crave: the one place where your troubles seem to melt into the salty foam left over along the shoreline after the baptismal power of the water fades into the wet sand.
Ocean City, Maryland, is one of those places along the East Coast where one can indulge in such summer splendor and magnificence. For some, though, mainly the younger crowd, Ocean City is more of "Party Town, USA," where you can let your hair down when the sun sets, violently crack crab legs with wooden mallets, and party at any one of the scores of nightclubs and seaside bars located along "the strip," or as Random McNally deems it, "the Coastal Highway." In fact, the one day of the year that almost every bar owner, resort keeper, hotel manager, and seasonal worker waits for is the Friday before Memorial Day. This is the day when summer unofficially begins, and tourists and beachgoers and partiers and graduates start filing into town: to spend money, sun themselves, dance, drink, eat, and hang out poolside. Interestingly, between Labor Day (September) and Memorial Day (May), Ocean City is home to about twenty-five thousand people. Just a normal community of working-class folks, who love living by the sea. Yet between those two summer holidays, the number of people fluctuates from 250,00 to 500,000, depending on weekend weather.
Thus, the summer season becomes the time of the year in Ocean City that perhaps only one group of professionals in the region do not look forward to: the OCPD, which itself doubles in size during this same period.
OCPD detective Scott Bernal did not always see himself as a cop in Ocean City, Maryland. The Brooklyn-born, Queens-bred transplant had followed family down into what he calls "good old boy" country, where it's not at all that easy to fit in. Still, at about six feet, 220 solid pounds, the stocky detective with the unmatched New "Yawk" accent had weathered the licks his adversaries had tossed at him, putting together a solid record as a hungry detective looking to serve the community. It was that veteran, seasoned experience prowling Ocean City's streets and solving cases for all those years that led Bernal to believe that something had happened to the missing female from Fairfax City. Not necessarily her boyfriend, but for the woman-Bernal sensed something was out of place.
As Bernal pulled onto 103rd Street, 10300 Coastal Highway, and saw the maroon Acura with GENEY C on the license plate just sitting there by itself in the parking lot of the Atlantis Condominium complex, he had a sinking feeling about the situation. It was the way the car was parked. Bernal could tell it hadn't been driven for quite a while. Beyond that, every parking space in the front of the building was empty-except for the last space, where that maroon Acura was just sitting. There was nothing all that peculiar about it. It was just the car's presence, Bernal said later. It spoke to him. That same uneasy feeling you get sometimes when you walk into your home and you just know someone has been inside.
As Bernal got out and checked around the outside of the vehicle, he could tell it hadn't been moved. The tires alone had sediment and leaves and sand on all sides.
What's going on here? Bernal considered.
So he called in for another officer to accompany him into the condo itself. He didn't want to enter the room alone. He needed someone with him, just in case he ran into a situation.
Born exactly one week and nineteen years apart, nearly two decades of life and experience had separated thirty-two-year-old Joshua Ford and his fifty-one-year-old live-in girlfriend, Martha Margene "Geney" Crutchley. Yet, that division of time did little to diminish the love and respect they shared for each other. Joshua and Geney liked to have fun, but at the same time they were committed to their devotion to each other. Photographs of them depict what appears to be an old married couple lapping up the wonder years of their lives together, planting trees and making faces into the camera lens, raking leaves in the yard of the spacious Fairfax City home they shared, or just sitting, holding each other in supple grace that a park bench brings, happy in the delicate way love had entered and then changed their lives.
Joshua and Geney met at a Christmas party in Boston in 1999, but they had lived together since April 2001 in a modest home in a suburban Virginia hamlet located just on the outside boundary of the Beltway in Washington, DC. Joshua had been torn by love once already; he had a six-year-old son he adored, born from a first marriage, and an ex-wife who spoke nothing but good things about him. They liked each other still, Joshua and his ex-wife. It was just that their marriage, a high-school romance, wasn't in the cards, and they understood love's way. Still, Joshua's "whole world," a family friend later told a newspaper reporter, "spun around" his son, and his ex-wife allowed him to see the child anytime he wanted.
For Joshua, a mortgage banker, and Geney, an insurance executive accountant working with a company in Chantilly, Virginia, there was never a second thought when it came to dropping everything, leaving the fast-paced pool of economics they swam in all week, and, on a Friday after work, heading off to the beach. Living near such an abundance of ocean real estate, the hardest part about planning a weekend getaway was choosing the spot. In some respects, the move to Virginia for Joshua, away from most of his family in Boston, had been a reprieve. Just last year, in October 2001, a terrible tragedy had struck the Ford family. Joshua's brother, Mark Ford, got a call from law enforcement that his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Kelly, who had been missing for eighty days after leaving a Massachusetts rehabilitation center, and never being heard from again, had been found. Her headless body, buried in a shallow grave along the Cape Cod shoreline, was discovered by a passerby. Her heart had been cut out. Police had no suspects in the murder, but suspected the murder to be the work of a serial killer. Mark Ford and his wife Deb, like Joshua and the rest of the family, had been left to wonder what animal would do such a thing to an otherwise beautiful, helpless, innocent young woman with so much life ahead of her. But the Ford family went on in the face of such heartbreak. Lived life. Loved one another. Carried on best they could.
It was Saturday, May 25, 2002, just four days before Detective Scott Bernal took that call about Geney, when Joshua and Geney decided to take their first weekend trip of the new summer season to Ocean City, a 175-mile journey due east of their Virginia home. It was a long trip, but then Memorial Day weekend was the first blowout of the summer year, and, like many, they had an extra day off. Both had been expected back at work on Tuesday, May 28. In fact, Geney had that planned meeting, which Officer Mike Boone had mentioned to Bernal, scheduled with her staff at ten o'clock that morning. Geney and Joshua had planned a relaxing weekend together. They could party a little, sun themselves, eat some great seafood, then hit the road late on Monday afternoon after all the holiday weekend traffic had somewhat dissipated.
As Bernal waited for a fellow officer before going into Geney's room, he spoke to a manager on duty. It appeared that Joshua had rented the room at the Atlantis, a twenty-story high-rise located directly on the beach at 103rd Street, smack in the middle of the "strip," with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and postcard bay views on the other. In walking distance from the Atlantis was the Coastal Highway, where any number of nightclubs and bars and seafood and steak house restaurants were dotting the strip. It was the perfect location to celebrate summer.
Moped, bicycle, and boogie board rentals.
T-shirt factory outlets.
The popular restaurant chain Hooters was down the block, as was the glorious Rainbow Condominiums, with the Seacrets nightspot a five-minute, two-mile ride, or half hour walk south. Traveling throughout the resort town, however, was not going to be a problem: just a small fare allows you to ride the bus anywhere you want to go. And if you were planning on drinking, the bus was a smart move. DUI and other alcohol-related arrests made up a large percentage of summer citations and court appearances.
When OCPD officer Brian Brown showed up at the Atlantis, Bernal and Brown were let into the unit Geney and Joshua had rented. Bernal knew that Joshua and Geney should have left Ocean City already. There was no reason, so late in the week, that they should have been still hanging around town. Then there was Geney's car. Just sitting there by itself in the visitor's parking space, alone.
"Strange," Bernal said as they made their way up to the room. "Something doesn't sound right."
Normally, Bernal would have handed this case off to a patrol officer and moved on to more pressing things. But something, he later said, had brought him to the Atlantis and tugged at him. What it was that dragged him down there would become evident in the days and weeks to come; but for now, Bernal was going with it.
Bernal walked into the room with Brown and found all of Joshua and Geney's personal belongings still where they had left them. They weren't packed up or even collected in any sort of natural order. It appeared, in fact, as though Joshua had been working. There was a computer and some documents scattered about a table. Geney's camera was there on the counter. All their clothes. It was as if Geney and Joshua had gone out and not returned-or had been plucked out of the room somehow.
Bernal spied a purse on one of the beds and walked over to it. Without touching it, he saw an ID of Geney sitting on top. There was a half-smoked cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table. Next to that was what appeared to be a small amount of marijuana.
Walking throughout the unit, Bernal spotted something that, to him, spoke volumes. There were two wineglasses on the table. The liquid levels in the glasses were different. Next to those wineglasses were two other glasses, which also had wine in them.
"Four people," Bernal said to himself. "Huh?"
Either they had visitors, or had met up with someone here in town.
Then Bernal checked the bathrooms. All of Geney and Joshua's toiletries were there: toothbrushes, shampoos, shaving things.
Bernal flipped open his cell phone and called his captain, who was at home for the night already. "Listen," he said, "something's not right over here. We need to make this a crime scene immediately."
"Why, what's up?"
"Well, look, four glasses of wine, all their things are still there."
Bernal had also uncovered a receipt on a table. It listed all of the groceries Geney and Joshua had purchased on Saturday, May 25. He checked the refrigerator and cabinets. All of the items were still there, unopened, unused. No one had obviously been in the unit since Saturday.
"Don't worry about it," Bernal later said his captain had told him during that call. "We'll go by there tomorrow and check it out."
"OK," Bernal said. "Will do." Then he sat for a moment after talking to his captain and thought about it. They're dead. "I never came out and said it," Bernal recalled, "but as a cop you just get a feeling-and I had this strong sense tugging at me while walking through that condo that these people, or one of them, were dead."
"Brian," Bernal said to the officer with him, "get some yellow crime-scene tape and secure this unit." Bernal found the manager and security detail for the condo. "No one goes in or out of that room," he told the manager. He was closing it off and-going over his boss's head-making it a crime scene.
"No problem, sir."
Bernal then called into the OCPD to get a tow truck out to impound Geney's car for safekeeping. When he returned to the OCPD a while later, he called the Delaware State Police (DSP), Maryland State Police (MSP), and "other police agencies," he said, "in two additional states. I also called the [medical examiner's] office in Delaware and Maryland. Then the deputy medical examiner. I called family members and friends...."
But no one had heard from Geney and Joshua, and no agency had any record of two unidentified individuals being hurt or killed or arrested.
Like the morning mist along the coastline and famous Ocean City Boardwalk, Martha "Geney" Crutchley and Joshua Ford had seemingly disappeared into the magnificent Maryland sunset.
On May 25, 2002, three days before Detective Scott Bernal was actively pursuing the missing persons case of Geney Crutchley, Geney was in the Atlantis condo bathroom getting ready to go out, when Joshua Ford called his brother, Mark.
"How 'bout those Celtics?" Joshua beamed.
The team had come from behind earlier that night and pulled one out.
"Yeah, can you believe they did it!" Mark said. It was good to hear Joshua's voice. He sounded relaxed. Happy to be with Geney at the beach. The guy worked hard. He deserved a break.
"Unbelievable win," Joshua said excitedly.
"You havin' a good time?" Mark asked, knowing the answer. As brothers, they were close.
"Yeah," Joshua said, "it's great here."
After moving to Boston from Iowa, a 1989 graduate of Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Joshua was schooled, you could say, in "Southie," a popular section of Boston known for its rough streets and ties to James "Whitey" Bulger and his gang of crooks and thieves. An avid sports fan, Joshua was forever analyzing the Boston Celtics' performance. Any Southie transplant was a Celtic, Rex Sox, and Bruin fan; if not, you'd get your arse handed to you for talking down about any of the teams.
Mark was exhausted. He had worked a twelve-hour shift that day and just wanted to plop himself down on the couch, zone out with the remote control and some television, and then fall asleep. He could speak to Joshua anytime.
"I'm tired.... Call me back," Mark told his brother.
Joshua understood. "I'll talk to you soon. Get some rest."
Outside their condo, Joshua and Geney waited for the bus. It was dusk. A beautiful picture, really. The sun rose on one side of the strip and set on the other. On clear nights, like this one, it projected a reddish orange glow throughout the town that spoke of God's wholesome grace. Standing, staring out at the scene, one couldn't help but notice or deny there was some sort of Maker out there pushing celestial buttons, turning out these magical landscape settings.
Excerpted from Cruel Death by M. William Phelps Copyright © 2009 by M. William Phelps. Excerpted by permission.
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