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By M. WILLIAM PHELPS
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 M. William Phelps
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJoan and Philip Bates raised three delightful boys. They were as close as parents could be to their children. A solid family unit, the Bateses were one of those wholesome, old-fashioned Southern Christian families who believed strong ties, loyalty, respect, support and admiration for others were what mattered more than anything else in life. Married nearly forty years, Joan and Philip lived in and around Birmingham, Alabama, until 1991, when Philip took a job in Georgia, and moved the tribe to Atlanta. Philip was an engineer, able to get his degree, he was proud to admit, because Joan had worked her fingers to the bone and taken care of the family financially while he finished school. No doubt about it, the Bates marriage was a partnership.
In 1992, after twenty-nine years with BellSouth, Philip retired, relocated the family to Marietta, just outside Atlanta, where he went to work for an engineering firm, the Parsons Corporation. By 2000, the kids were grown and out of the house. Now it was time for Joan and Philip to settle into their "golden" years and enjoy the fruits of a life lived under the auspices of hard work and moral decency. There were grandkids and daughters-in-law these days. Family get-togethers and holidays.
Although the children were out of the nest, the three boysstayed in touch regularly with mom and dad. The Bateses lived in a modest home. Enjoyed life as the gift they felt it to be. Philip was like that: a dad who made his boys and wife a priority, not a responsibility that needed to be met. Philip did things from his heart, not some parenting playbook on the best-seller list. And the boys had picked up on this characteristic and had taken after their dad.
"Whatever we did," one of the kids said later, "Mom and Dad were there supporting us. Beautiful people."
On Friday night, February 15, 2002, as the ten o'clock hour came to pass, Joan Bates was stressed and worried. She paced in the living room for some time, wondering what was keeping her middle child, Alan, who should have arrived in Marietta from downtown Birmingham hours ago. The day before, Alan flew from his home in Frederick, Maryland, into Alabama so he could give a deposition that Friday in a child custody matter he was pursuing. Alan had gotten remarried four years after he divorced his first wife, a marriage that had produced two wonderful girls. Joan and Philip had two extraordinary grandchildren, who made their hearts shudder every time they thought of them. Alan and his first wife, Jessica McCord, had been at odds over the children-more Jessica's doing than anything Alan had instigated. Jessica, who had custody of the kids, had kept the girls from Alan for the past several years, making his legal visitations a living hell. Alan had put up with it for years, only because he didn't want to hurt the children, but he had recently decided it was time to take Jessica to court and fight for custody. The trial was slated to begin in a few weeks, on March 5, 2002. Alan was in Birmingham that Friday, February 15, to give his version of the events (deposition), same as Jessica. His plan was to pick the girls up after the deposition and drive them back to Marietta to spend the weekend with the Bates family.
Quite shockingly, Jessica had okayed the weekend visit.
Looking out the window, wondering where Alan could possibly be, Joan considered that maybe Jessica had changed her mind-it wouldn't be the first time-and reneged on an earlier agreement to allow Alan to take the kids for the weekend. Jessica often did that: told Alan he could have the kids and then disappeared, nowhere to be found.
At best, Marietta was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Birmingham. Standing, then sitting, then standing again, Joan did the math: Deposition ends at five, pick up the kids by six, get on the road and into Marietta by-the latest-nine-thirty.
Alan had always called and said he was on his way.
Philip and Joan expected them around nine, nine-thirty. Joan had dinner waiting, same as she always had.
Where in the heck were they?
Alan was never late. And he never forgot to call. The Bates were alarmed because they knew Alan generally would stop for fast food with the kids along the way and would call from that point on the road to give everyone an approximate time of arrival.
Not one phone call all night, however-and this alone, Joan and Philip believed, was reason enough to be anxious.
"We didn't get the phone call," Philip said later. "So suspicions were such that we began to think that something was wrong, especially when they weren't there by ten-thirty."
Philip put his arm around Joan, consoling her the best he could. "It's okay. He'll be here. Probably ran into traffic."
Joan looked at her husband. "Something's wrong." She felt it. That pang in the gut only a mother knew had been tugging at her: Alan had run into some sort of problem.
"I'll try calling him again."
Philip dialed Alan's cell phone.
He tried Terra, Alan's wife. She had gone with Alan.
It wasn't that the phone rang and rang, like it had earlier that night when Philip tried calling both the same numbers. Now, hours after Philip first called, the line immediately rolled over to a computerized phone company message: "This phone is not in use at this time."
Things were skewed. Bad energy abounded inside the Bates home. Nothing was as it should be.
All they could do, however, was wait.
"I'll call Jessica," Philip said, patting Joan gingerly on the back again. He didn't like calling his ex-daughter-in-law's house. She was remarried to a Pelham, Alabama, cop. They lived in Hoover, a Birmingham suburb. They were crass people, Philip felt. Bitter and complex. Even arrogant at times. Definitely selfish. It was never an easy, friendly call. All Philip wanted to know was if Alan and Terra had shown up to pick the girls up, as scheduled, and, if so, what time had they left.
Simple questions requiring simple answers.
Philip dialed the number while staring out the window. He was obviously hoping the lights on Alan's rental car would bounce over the curb at the end of the driveway and, like two beams, hit him in the face as he waited for someone to pick up the line at the McCord home.
Another dead end.
By 10:45 P.M., now certain something had happened to their son, his second wife and the children, Philip and Joan Bates decided it was time to call law enforcement. Philip had no idea how far he'd get, or if the cops would be any help. But he couldn't stand around and do nothing. So he called the Pelham Police Department (PPD) to see if Jeff McCord, Jessica's husband, had clocked in. Jeff worked second shift. Friday was his night to be on. He should still be reachable by radio or phone. Maybe he knew something.
"No, he's not here."
In fact, Philip was told, Jeff had taken the night off.
Philip could not go to sleep without trying to find his son, grandkids and daughter-in-law. He called the Hoover Police Department (HPD). He wanted to know if there had been any reported trouble over at Jessica and Jeff McCord's Myrtlewood Drive home. Maybe a family squabble. Alan was scheduled to pick up the kids there, Philip knew, somewhere between 6:00 and 6:30 P.M. It would be unlike Alan to engage Jessica in any sort of confrontation. But perhaps Jessica had pushed Alan over his limit. Or maybe Alan and Jeff had words.
Philip needed information.
"Officer," Philip said, "do you have any report of a domestic disturbance at [the McCord's Myrtlewood Drive home] in Hoover?"
It was after midnight. Joan was dismayed by the course of events. If Alan had stopped and gotten a hotel or run into trouble along the road, Joan and Philip knew he would have called. He was a responsible son. Not calling would eat at Alan. Especially this late into the night. He knew his parents would be waiting and wondering, not sleeping. He would never put them through such a nerve-wracking ordeal.
As she thought about it, tossing and turning, trying to find any amount of sleep she could, there was nothing to convince Joan otherwise: Alan was in big trouble.
The Hoover PD told Philip they didn't have a report of anything taking place at the McCords' address, but they would send an officer over to the house to "check things out." Look around. See what was up.
Philip took a deep breath. Something was going to be done.
The case became known to the HPD from that point on as a routine "overdue motorist call." It happened a lot. People didn't show up where they were supposed to. Worried family members called in. The cops conducted a quick drive-by or knocked on the door. Generally, there was a simple explanation behind the missed calls-something that made sense later. A flat tire. A forgotten check-in phone call. A cell phone battery that had gone dead. Someone got food poisoning. A twisted ankle. The emergency room. Forgot to call, Ma, sorry.
There was a thousand and one reasons why people didn't-or couldn't-call. It would all make sense in a few hours. Perhaps Alan was stranded somewhere with no cell reception. No pay phone.
"We'll let you know what we find," the officer told Philip.
Chapter TwoHoover, Alabama, Police Department patrolman Scott McDonald was dispatched to Jeff and Jessica McCord's Myrtlewood Drive address. He had been told to check things out. Maybe Alan and Terra had broken down and were staying at the McCords' for the night while their car was being repaired.
Overdue motorist ...
All cops know that these types of calls-nine times out of ten-turn into nothing: a misunderstanding, miscommunication. It was late. Alan and Terra were probably at a hotel somewhere in town. Sleeping.
Myrtlewood Drive is located in a residential area close to Baston Lake and Interstate 65. It's a quiet neighborhood, full of white picket fences and tarred driveways with the standard 2.2 cars, boat, lawn mowing on Saturdays, cookouts on Sundays, neighborhood dog walkers, and an overall feel that this small section of Hoover represented a broad brushstroke of what middle-class America should look like.
Little pink houses.
By the time Patrolman McDonald took a right onto Myrtlewood Drive and looked for the address, it was dark, desolate, and rather lonely in the neighborhood. Most families were asleep. A lone dog, which the cop could not see, barked at the night moon. But other than that, and a line of porch lights on for safety, the neighborhood was quiet.
Nothing much happening.
After pulling up in front of the McCords' house, the officer grabbed his flashlight-the house looked deserted-and walked up to the front porch.
Strangely, the window panels on the door were "covered up," McDonald later said, "with towels or sheets from the inside."
It gave the windows a peculiar look. Like someone was trying to block the view of the inside of the house from anyone looking in. Or maybe there was work going on inside the house, spray painting or something.
That was it. Home repairs. The Home Depot and Lowe's had sent the suburban handyman into a frenzy of remodeling. Everyone was into changing this and painting that and falling farther into debt.
McDonald shined his light toward the windows to his right and left.
Same thing: the windowpanes were covered with towels and sheets.
Back on the porch, McDonald found a note of some sort-a handmade sign, Magic Marker written on a piece of cardboard: WE'RE HAVING SOME PROBLEMS WITH OUR FRONT DOOR. PLEASE COME AROUND TO THE BACK DOOR.
Now it made sense. In all likelihood, the family was having some work done to the inside of the house.
McDonald checked his watch: 12:21 A.M. Everything was magnified at this time of the night. Spookier and more mysterious. There was probably a nice, cozy family inside the home, all of whom were sleeping. Nothing more than a routine call.
Overdue motorist ...
The officer rang the doorbell in front before heading out to the back. It was worth a try before walking away.
With no answer, he knocked hard on the door a few times.
Staring more closely into the house, his view obstructed because of the paper towels and sheets, McDonald saw the faint shimmering of a few lights left on. Was someone working in there now?
Of course not.
The officer found his way to the driveway and noticed that there were no vehicles parked in the yard.
He walked toward the garage. It was connected to the house. One of those you could walk from the garage directly into the house. He was hoping to look in through the twelve-by-twelve-inch square windowpanes on the garage door to see if there were any vehicles inside.
Once again, he couldn't see. The windows were covered with the same material: paper towels and sheets.
What in the world ...
Beside the garage was a fence blocking the officer's view of the back door.
McDonald looked for the gate, he said in court later, not being able to see inside the fenced-in section, when he heard footsteps seemingly coming at him.
Fast and furious. Leaves cracking. Branches breaking.
Then came the barking. Ferocious and mean-spirited.
A dog. It was caged up inside the area. McDonald knew better. He wasn't going inside and having a showdown with some Cujo-like home protector. No one had answered the front door. What were the chances of someone answering the back?
So McDonald walked to his car and called dispatch. "Back in service," he said. "No contact with anyone at this residence."
Chapter ThreeDuring the early-morning hours of February 16, 2002, somewhere near 3:30 A.M., four friends traveled down Old Mill Road in Rutledge, Georgia. They were on their way to South Carolina to attend what one of them described as a "chicken show." In fact, inside the Toyota minivan they were traveling in were cages of chickens to bring to that show.
It was dark as motor oil out there that time of night. The men had just woken up. They were all a bit groggy still, the ruts in the dirt road bouncing them along, when one of them noticed a light. It was no common light. It had a red and orange glow to it. It came from off in the distance.
"Over there," one of the men shouted.
The others looked.
"I know someone who owns that land, y'all. Turn around and head over there."
There was a concern that the woods were on fire. A friend might lose acreage. Maybe even a barn. Animals. People. The closer they got, pulling onto Hawkins Academy Road, where the dark smoke and flames were centered, the more it became clear that this was not a small brush fire, but some kind of inferno. Something was burning out of control.
Pulling up to what they realized was a car engulfed in flames, the men got out of the van. As soon as they hit the outside air, they could feel the heat from the blaze push them back.
One of them was already on his cell phone calling the sheriff.
Morgan County, Georgia, deputy sheriff John Eugene Williams took the call. The man on the other end of the line reported that there was a car on fire in the woods near Hawkins Academy Road. Someone needed to get the fire department out there immediately, before the woods burned out of control. There were trees on fire already. The ground was charred and flaming. Rutledge is a suburb of Madison. It is a deeply settled region of Morgan County. Lots of trees and dirt roads and farmland.
"It's rural," Deputy Williams later explained.
"There's a car on fire," the man said into his cell phone, "out here at Hawkins Academy Road...."
Damn kids probably messing around again. After all, it was still Friday night, unofficially speaking. Bunch of punks probably tied a good one on and, after funneling beers half the night, got a little rowdy and decided to torch an old rusted-out junk vehicle sitting in some farmer's pasture. Deputy Williams needed to get the local fire department out there as soon as he could and get those flames extinguished before that common car fire turned into an uncontrollable forest fire.
Excerpted from DEATH TRAP by M. WILLIAM PHELPS Copyright © 2010 by M. William Phelps . Excerpted by permission.
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