When Jessie Barnes' parents are seriously injured in a car accident, she takes a leave of absence from her investigator job with the Chicago Police Department to help care for them in their home in Aiken, South Carolina. While in town, she's tapped to help the shorthanded local sheriff's department.
Just a week after her arrival in the sleepy southern town, she is called to investigate a double homicide. Tom and Carol Lowe have been shot to death in their spacious home on Mulberry Street. This isn't a typical crime for Aiken, which generally deals with much lesser-profile problems. Working with lead investigator Bill Hankinson, Jessie must leave her tough Chicago tactics behind as she adjusts to his southern ways.
The job gets interesting when additional murders occur in nearby Burnettown. She is assisted through the investigations and her indoctrination into the southern lifestyle by William Bradford, a local entrepreneur who develops a romantic interest in her.
As Jessie and the sheriff's department struggle to discover the truth behind these unlikely crimes, their investigation reveals shocking details that are highly unusual in these typically peaceful towns.
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The Aiken and Burnettown Murders
By D. R. Beavers
iUniverseCopyright © 2014 D. R. Beavers
All rights reserved.
The police and emergency vehicles were parked in front of the home of Carol and Tom Lowe, a middle-aged couple that had lived in the house next to mine for about three years. Our neighborhood consisted of four- to five-acre lots with large homes. The Lowes' house was situated about two hundred yards from the street, ensconced by a wooded lot. I had a couple of business ventures with Tom in the past and played golf with him fairly often. They often invited me over for dinners, cookouts, neighborhood gatherings, and sometimes just drinks. They apparently felt sympathy for me, a single male.
It was midnight on a Monday in the otherwise sleepy town of Aiken, South Carolina. The moon was full and glowing, competing with the sparkling stars—though the glowing and sparkling were likely due to my Lasik surgery. My future children, if I ever have any, will probably wonder why they're blind as a bat when their old man has twenty-twenty vision. I'll blame it on their mother, if I ever find someone who fits the job description.
I've always been a curious sort, so I threw on jeans, a T-shirt, and my running shoes and headed outside. I saw Ralph and Mary coming across the street. Both were wearing bathrobes. I caught up to them as they started up the neighbor's driveway. Behind us were other neighbors in varied attire.
Ralph said, "Hey, William. Do you know what's going on?"
"I don't have a clue," I responded.
The cops hadn't cordoned off the area yet, so the neighbors and I wandered up the driveway and as close to the Lowes' front door as we dared. A young officer came up to us and said, "Please go back to the street. This is a crime scene."
"What crime?" I asked.
"I can't tell you any details. Please go back to the street."
"Are Carol and Tom okay?"
"As I said, I can't tell you anything. Please move to the street." The polite officer began ushering us down the driveway as more neighbors joined.
Ralph said, "What do you think happened?"
"I don't have a clue. I was at their house last night, and everything was fine."
Crime tape was being put up, and we were about halfway down the long driveway when a black Impala came up and stopped beside our officer. I thought it might be a detective, but it was an attractive woman.
Her voice wasn't as attractive as she said through her open window, "Why aren't these rubbernecking yokels in the street? A good officer would already have these civilians away from the crime scene."
The officer tried to answer, "I'm taking them ..."
The woman didn't give him a chance to finish. "Get them in the street," she said before she continued up the driveway.
I asked the officer, "Who was that?"
"She's a detective from Chicago, helping us out while we're shorthanded."
"What's her name?"
"Jessie. I don't recall her last name."
I turned and walked backward so I could see the Chicago detective get out of her car. She was wearing black jeans, a black shirt, and black boots. Her black hair flowed over her shoulders. Her attitude and demeanor certainly matched her attire. She strode with purpose up to the house.
I asked the officer, "How long has she been in Aiken?"
"She just started a few days ago. She seemed much nicer when I met her at the station."
We all, not to be confused with y'all, waited in the street. More neighbors joined the hoard. The curved driveway to the house was lined with trees, so it was hard to see the front of the house. Thunder and lightning had started in the west, so the gawkers and I would be forced to seek shelter soon.
I saw the Chicago detective marching down the driveway the same time the polite officer saw her. He tensed up as she came close.
I heard a slight Chicago accent as she said to the officer, "Get everyone's name, address, and phone numbers and ask everyone whether they saw any vehicles or persons near the house this evening."
The officer had already been gathering the information and answered, "Yes, ma'am."
I took the opportunity to ask the Chicago detective, "What happened to the Lowes? Are they okay?"
She turned her glare from the officer to me and said, "There's nothing I can tell you." She then turned around and headed back up the driveway. She was a lean woman, about five feet seven or eight, and her gait was athletic with long strides.
The polite officer rolled his eyes as she walked away. He turned to the swarm of yokels and continued to gather personal information and ask if anyone had seen or heard anything during the night. No one had. The neighbors talked about the rain getting closer, so I went for my golf umbrella in my car.
Some of us were still in the street an hour later. That's when we saw the ambulance backing up to the house. The EMTs went inside and brought out a gurney with what looked like a body. Quick as could be, they drove down the driveway past the polite officer and us and headed out of the neighborhood toward town. A second ambulance repeated the process, so there were probably two bodies. The polite officer still didn't give us any explanation of what happened in the house, but by then I figured it was because he didn't know any more than we did. I could only assume that the victims must be Carol and Tom, but it wasn't confirmed yet.
By two o'clock, most of the neighbors had gone home, and the storm had moved in. I was the last to leave.
I'm William Bradford of the Appalachian Bradfords. You can be thankful to us for the lights in your home and the juice for your electronic toys. We Bradfords aren't the ones who own the utility company—probably aren't even shareholders—but are the ones who get the coal out of the ground for the power plants. We've been coal miners for generations.
I spent my share of time in the coal mines while I was in college getting my engineering degree. Each summer starting after high school and one Christmas holiday break, I labored in the mines. Using a sledge hammer. Busting rock. Working on the ventilation crews. Operating a belt head. Drilling for methane gas. Cleaning belt sections. It was an experience that all teenagers and students needed to have, if anything so they could feel what it's like to hear the rats scurrying in pitch darkness. Actually, I've seen pitch, and the mines were darker than pitch.
Our part of the Bradford clan was led by a hardworking father, George William Bradford—hence the William for me—and a mother, Maxine, who demanded all of us kids work hard. Children were the source of free labor on farms and businesses in that bygone America, and my family consisted of four sons and one daughter. I'm the youngest.
My childhood and teenage years in the heart of Appalachia involved building houses, remodeling houses, building barns, building outhouses including outdoor toilets, sharecropping, farming, and taking care of the livestock. The garden was massive, with enough vegetables for a whole year. Canning the crops happened all summer long. Mother did let us sleep and go to school. It was very gracious of her. Mother and Dad were religious, so Sundays involved only minimal chores. Sundays were also for pickup football or basketball games or swimming in the river. A favorite was riding in the river in a rooftop cut off a junk car.
Thanks to our mother, all the Bradford children are hardworking and successful adults. I'm thirty-two now, haven't found the perfect mate, and have acquired a sustainable amount of wealth despite my rather frugal upbringing.CHAPTER 2
I wanted to turn on my sirens and lights to make the locals get off the road, but there wasn't enough traffic in Aiken, South Carolina, to warrant it. It would have been my first opportunity, and it was thwarted by the lack of cars. I was already annoyed by the woman on the GPS giving me directions in a southern drawl and saying please all the time. I had to slow down at the intersections so the woman had time to tell me to turn. "Please take the next right turn on Whiskey Road" took her about twenty seconds to say. The GPS had to be a special order. And Whiskey Road should be a Chicago street and not the main street through Aiken, South Carolina.
The dispatcher called me at 11:50 p.m. and said I should report immediately to 225 Mulberry Drive. I got dressed and programmed my GPS. The county had provided me with a black Impala, and I was wearing all black. In Chicago, everyone dressed in dark clothes. A lime-green shirt stood out like a sore thumb in Chicago unless you were a hooker or a pimp.
I arrived at the house at 12:10 a.m. A young officer was trying unsuccessfully to move the neighborhood locals off the property. I gave him a piece of my mind. The houses on Mulberry Drive were on large lots, unlike Chicago. The house was huge, like those in the elite Chicago suburbs. It was brick and stone, three stories high, with an impressive entrance. The foyer had a marble floor and a wide staircase going to the second floor. An officer directed me to a master bedroom off the foyer. The master bedroom was a large room with tall ceilings, a large poster bed, and a sitting area. The one room was bigger than my apartment in Chicago.
I looked through the doorway, and the officer pointed out the two bodies on the bed. I didn't go in since the forensic techs hadn't shown up yet. I asked the officer for an update.
The officer said, "A 911 call came at 11:30 p.m. stating that there were two people dead at 225 Mulberry Drive. The caller didn't stay on the line and didn't identify himself. Police officers came to the house and found the front door wide open. They went inside and found the bodies in the bedroom. The officers called the dispatcher, who called the EMTs, the coroner, other officers, the shift lieutenant, investigator Bill Hankinson, the captain, and you. The coroner pronounced the couple dead shortly after arriving and said the time of death was about ten thirty. We're now waiting on the forensic techs to arrive to work the scene."
I usually took charge in Chicago. Actually, I always took charge in Chicago. Since I was being mentored by another investigator in Aiken so that I could learn the southern methods for investigating, I didn't take charge.
While waiting for the shift lieutenant, the captain showed up and said "How are you doing, Jessie?"
I had told the captain that I went by Jessie rather than Jessica. The captain was John Thomas, a local who had come up through the ranks in the local police departments. John was in his late fifties, had brown hair with lots of gray, and was about my height at five feet eight inches. John reported to the sheriff, Fred Franklin, another local who was elected sheriff. I had to get used to being asked how I was doing before getting down to business. In Chicago, if there's any small talk, it's usually an insult.
I said, "Fine, Captain."
The captain asked, "Did you find the house okay?"
"As long as my GPS works, I can find my way around. Otherwise, I'd be lost. The streets aren't numbered like Chicago streets."
"Have you been told what happened?"
"Yes, from the officer over there. I'm now waiting on the shift lieutenant."
The shift lieutenant showed up, saw the captain, and came over and said, "Hey, Captain. Hey, Jessie."
I had made a point of meeting the shift officers and crew during the past week. The shift lieutenant was Tom Brown, another local who had come up through the ranks of local police departments. Many of the local officers moved from local town, city, and county police departments during their career. Tom had been with the City of Aiken and County of Aiken Police Departments.
The captain asked, "What's the latest status?"
The shift lieutenant repeated the same information I had heard from the officer.
"Did the neighbors see or hear anything?"
"If they did, they're not telling us."
I continued to test my patiencesince I usually opened my loud mouth to ask questions. It was probably in my best interest to be less outspoken than I was in Chicago. The pace of living was slower here, and I was trying to adapt. It could cause me to explode, but I was really trying. I kept reminding myself that it was the South. I was on loan from the Chicago Police Department, and I needed to be patient. As an example of my typical lack of patience, I had driven off from a Burger King when my whopper took too long.
The captain asked, "Is the house alarmed and is there video? I saw a camera at the entrance."
The lieutenant answered, "The alarm system was off, and the video system was shut down. It's a digital system, so we may be able to retrieve some information."
I couldn't stand it any longer and asked, "Why isn't the whole house and lot a crime scene?" There were police officers all over the yard.
The lieutenant responded, "Since the yard and house entrance are already contaminated, we excluded them from the crime scene. We'll still look for evidence on the lot."
"Is this a normal practice?"
"It depends on the situation. Each scene is different."
"Have the forensic techs provided any information yet?"
"I haven't gotten anything yet but expect something soon."
As he finished his response, an Aiken County investigator, Bill Hankinson, showed up.
As he walked up, Bill said, "How-do. Sorry about being late, but I was in Augusta. I was fixin' to come back to Aiken anyway when I got the call." Augusta, Georgia, was about thirty minutes from Aiken across the Savannah River.
Bill was helping me learn the ropes in Aiken. He was a lanky, blond, all- American guy who was wearing a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. He also used snuff and chewed tobacco. He did ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which was a positive. Bill had tested my patience from the start with his slow talking and laid back attitude. I had to remember I was here because of my mother and father and didn't plan to be here forever.
The shift lieutenant asked, "What were you up to in Augusta? Were you trying to corral a Hereford?"
"You're close. I was teaching some lassies how to two step."
"I'm sure you were quite the sight on the dance floor."
"When I'm on the dance floor, the rest of the dancers stop to watch me."
I hoped no one saw me roll my eyes.
Bill continued, "Tell me what's going on here."
The shift lieutenant proceeded to catch Bill up on the situation. We now had a group with the captain, shift lieutenant, Bill, and me.
The captain said, "Bill, you'll be the lead investigator. Jessie, you'll work with Bill on the case."
Bill asked, "How long has the forensic team been in the house?" The shift lieutenant responded, "About an hour. I expect an update soon."
Bill looked at me and asked, "What do you think happened here?"
"If we were in Chicago, I'd think it was a hit. Since we're in South Carolina, it could be a murder suicide or maybe a robbery. Since it doesn't look like a forced entry and the alarm system was off, it looks like it could be a robbery by a friend or neighbor."
The lieutenant said, "If it was a robbery, why would they kill the couple?"
Bill answered, "That's a good question, along with a bunch of other questions that need to be answered."
The captain said, "You need to start getting answers quickly. The Lowes were a well-respected couple in the community and donated a lot of time and money to the local charities."
Bill responded, "I'm sure we'll get to the bottom of it quickly."
We stopped talking as we saw a forensic tech leaving the house. He came over to our group, and the captain asked him to give us an update.
The forensic tech responded, "As you probably already know, the two victims were shot in the head. Powder burns were on the faces of both victims. The coroner estimated the time of death at ten thirty last night. There were no weapons found, which indicated it was most likely a homicide. The victims appeared to be sleeping when they were shot. No casings were found in the room. The blood splatter was minimal, indicating a pillow, sheet, or some other covering was used to control the splatter. There was no blood on the floor or walls. A quick look at the doors and windows didn't indicate forced entry. There were a lot of fingerprints throughout the house. There were hair and fibers in the bed, and these were collected for the lab."
I asked, "Did you find anything outside the house?"
"We didn't see anything out of the ordinary."
"Did you find anything in the rest of the house?"
"Other than fingerprints, the rest of the house didn't provide us any evidence."
The electronic geeks came out of the house and came over. The captain said "Tell us what you found."
One of the two geeks responded, "We checked the alarm system, and it was off. It has a digital recording system with cameras in the exterior and interior of the house. The recording system had also been turned off. We removed the alarm system and recording unit to take them to the lab for further analysis."
I asked, "Could you tell whether someone tampered with the system?"
Geek One responded, "No, it looks like it was operating normally. We'll know more when we check it in the lab."
I asked, "Can you tell how it was shut down?"
Excerpted from The Aiken and Burnettown Murders by D. R. Beavers. Copyright © 2014 D. R. Beavers. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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