Authors: John Grisham
Lacy paced a bit as she tried to absorb it. “Okay, but how did you hear of Eileen’s death in the first place?”
“I have a source. A mad scientist. An ex-cop who collects and studies more crime stats than anybody on the planet. There are only about three hundred murders by strangulation each year. All are reported in various ways to the FBI’s clearinghouse on violent crime. My source studies the cold cases, looks for patterns and similarities. He found Eileen Nickleberry ten years ago and passed it on. He found the Lanny Verno case and passed it on. He doesn’t know about Bannick and he has no idea what I do with the info. He thinks I’m a crime writer of some variety.”
“Does he agree with your theory? A serial killer?”
“He’s not paid to agree or disagree and we never discuss it. He’s paid to sift through the rubble and alert me if something looks suspicious.”
“Just curious. Where is this guy?”
“I don’t know. He uses different names and addresses, like me. We’ve never met, never chatted on the phone, never will. He promises complete anonymity.”
“How do you pay him? If you don’t mind.”
“Hard cash to a post office box in Maine.”
Lacy was overwhelmed and sat down. She sipped her coffee and breathed deeply. It dawned on her how much Jeri had learned and collected in the past twenty-plus years.
As if reading her mind, Jeri said, “I know this is a lot.” From a pocket she removed a thumb drive and handed it over. “It’s all there, over six hundred pages of research, news articles, police files, everything I’ve found that might be useful. And probably a lot of stuff that’s not.”
Lacy took the thumb drive and stuck it in a pocket.
Jeri said, “It’s encrypted. I’ll text you the key.”
“Why is it encrypted?”
“Because my whole life is encrypted, Lacy. Everything we do leaves a trail.”
“And you think he’s back there somewhere, on the trail?”
“I don’t know, but I limit my exposure.”
“Okay, along these same lines, what are the chances Bannick knows someone is on to him? You’re talking about eight murders, Jeri. That’s a lot of territory you’ve covered.”
“Don’t you think I know that? Eight murders in twenty-two years, and counting. I’ve talked to hundreds of people, most of whom were of no use. Sure, there’s a chance someone from his college days told him that a stranger was asking around, but I never use my real name. And, yes, a cop in Little Rock or Signal Mountain or Wilmington might let it slip that a private investigator was sniffing around an old murder file, but there’s no way to link me to it. I’m too careful.”
“Then why are you so worried?”
“Because he’s so smart, and so patient, and because it would not surprise me if he goes back.”
Lacy waited, then asked, “Back where?”
“Back to the crime scenes. Ted Bundy did that, you know, and other killers did too. Bannick’s not that careless, but he might monitor the police, see what’s happening with the old files, ask if anyone has come around lately.”
“The Internet. He could easily hack the police files and monitor things. Also private investigators, Lacy. You pay them enough and they’ll do the work for you and keep quiet.”
Lacy’s phone buzzed and she looked at it. Darren was checking in. “Things okay up there?” he asked.
“Yeah, ten minutes.” She put her phone down and looked at Jeri, who was wiping her face again and rocking.
Lacy said, “Well, Jeri, consider your complaint filed and the clock ticking.”
“Do I get updates?”
“No. I’ll let you know when and if we make any progress.”
“You have to make progress, Lacy, you have to stop him. I can’t do anything else. I’m done, okay. I’m physically, emotionally, and financially wiped out and I’ve reached the end. I can’t believe I’ve finally made it here and I cannot go on.”
“I’ll keep in touch, I promise.”
“Thanks, Lacy. Please be careful.”
Saturday, March 22, was a warm beautiful day, and Darren Trope, single and twenty-eight, wasn’t keen to spend it indoors at the office. He had arrived in Tallahassee ten years earlier as a freshman, studied business and law for eight glorious years, and had no current plans to get too far away from the campus and all of its related activities. He was, however, infatuated with Lacy Stoltz, his new boss, and when she said meet her at the office at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, and bring designer coffees, Darren arrived ten minutes early. He also brought a standard coffee for Sadelle, the third member of their “task force.” Being the youngest, Darren was in charge of technology, along with coffee.
Lacy told the rest of the staff that the office was off-limits Saturday morning, not that she was too worried about seeing a crowd. For a team that routinely skipped out at noon Friday, there was little chance of anyone pulling overtime over the weekend. Nine o’clock Monday morning would arrive soon enough.
They gathered in the conference room next to the director’s office. Because Darren had driven his boss to meet “The Contact” the previous Wednesday, he knew a few of the details and was eager to learn more. Sadelle, ashen, pale, sick, and as ghost-like as she had been for the past seven years, sat at the table in her motorized chair and savored her oxygen.
Lacy handed each a copy of Betty Roe’s complaint, and they read it in silence. Sadelle inhaled mightily and said, “So this is the murder complaint you mentioned.”
“This is it.”
“And Betty Roe is our mystery girl?”
“Why may I ask are we getting involved? Looks like it belongs with the boys who carry guns.”
“I tried to dissuade the witness from filing the complaint, but I couldn’t stop her. She’s terrified of going to the police because she is afraid of Ross Bannick. She is convinced she might become another one of his targets.”
Sadelle gave Darren a look of uncertainty, then both returned to the complaint. When they finished, they contemplated the allegations and there was a long silence. Finally, Darren said to Lacy, “You used the word ‘targets.’ As if there might be more to the story.”
Lacy smiled and said, “There are eight dead bodies. The three you have in this complaint, plus five others. According to Betty’s theory, the killings began in 1991 and have continued, at least until Verno five months ago. Betty believes Bannick is still at it and might be getting careless.”
“She’s an expert on serial killers?” Darren asked.
“Well, I’m not sure how one becomes an expert in such matters, but she knows a lot. She’s been stalking—her word, not mine—Bannick for over twenty years.”
“And what got her started?”
“He murdered her father, victim number two, 1992.”
Another long silence as Darren and Sadelle stared at the conference table.
“Is she credible?” Sadelle asked.
“At times, yes. Quite. She believes that Bannick kills out of revenge and keeps a list of potential victims. She sees him as methodical, patient, and brilliant.”
“What’s his rap sheet with us?” Darren asked.
“A near perfect record on the bench, no complaints at all. High ratings from the bar.”
Sadelle took in oxygen and said, “Revenge would mean that he knew all of his victims, right?”
Darren began chuckling and when both women stared at him he said, “Sorry, but I can’t help but think of the other four files on my desk right now. One involves a ninety-year-old judge who can’t make it to court anymore. May be on life support. Another has a judge speaking before a Rotary Club and commenting on a pending case.”
“We get the picture, Darren,” Lacy said. “We’ve all handled those cases.”
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just that now we’re supposed to solve eight murders.”
“No. The complaint covers only three.”
Sadelle looked at her copy of the complaint again and said, “Okay, the first two here. Lanny Verno and Mike Dunwoody. What was Bannick’s connection, or alleged connection, to those two?”
“No connection to Dunwoody. He just showed up at the crime scene not long after Verno went down. Verno and Bannick had a spat in Pensacola city court some thirteen years ago. Verno won. Got his name on the blacklist.”
“Why did Betty choose to include this case?”
“It’s active, ongoing, with two dead bodies at the same scene. Maybe the cops in Mississippi know something.”
“And the other, Perry Kronke?”
“It’s an active case and the only one in Florida. Betty claims the police down in Marathon have no leads. Bannick knows what he’s doing and leaves nothing behind, nothing but the rope around the neck.”
“All eight were strangled?” Darren asked.
“Not Dunwoody. The other seven were choked with the same type of rope. Tied and secured with the same weird sailor’s knot.”
“What was Kronke’s connection?”
“How’d he make the list?”
“Bannick finished law school at the University of Miami. He clerked for a big firm there and met Kronke, a senior partner. Betty believes the firm yanked a job offer at the last minute and Bannick got stiffed. Must’ve really upset him.”
“He waited twenty-one years?” Sadelle asked.
“That’s what Betty thinks.”
“And they found him in his fishing boat with a rope around his neck?”
“Yes, according to a preliminary police report. As I said, the case is still active, even though it’s now two years old with no leads, and the police are guarding the file.”
All three sipped their coffee and tried to arrange their thoughts. After a while, Lacy said, “We have forty-five days to assess, to do something. Who has an idea?”
Sadelle wheezed and said, “I think it’s time for me to retire.”
This got a laugh from the other two, though she was not known for her humor. Her colleagues at BJC fully expected her to die before she retired.
Lacy said, “Your letter of resignation is hereby rejected. You gotta stick with me on this one. Darren?”
“I don’t know. These murders are being investigated by homicide detectives who are trained and experienced. And they’re not finding any clues? They have no suspects? What the hell are
supposed to do? I’m seduced by the idea of such exciting work, but this is for someone else.”
Lacy listened and nodded. Sadelle said, “I’m sure you have a plan.”
“Yes. Betty is afraid to deal with the police because she wants to remain anonymous. So, she’s using us to go to the police. She knows we have limited jurisdiction, limited resources, limited everything. She also knows that the law requires us to investigate every complaint, so we can’t just kick the can. I say we do it quietly, safely, careful not to tip our hand to Bannick, and after about thirty days we reevaluate. At that time we’ll probably dump it on the state police.”
“Now we’re talking,” Darren said. “If Bannick is a serial killer, and I have doubts, then let the real cops chase him.”
“Just keep me off his list.”
The following Tuesday, two-thirds of the task force left Tallahassee at 8:00 a.m. for the five-hour drive to Biloxi. Darren, the wingman, drove while Lacy, the boss, read reports, made phone calls, and in general acted the way any interim director of BJC would act. She was quickly learning that managing people was an unpleasant part of her job.
During a lull, Darren, waiting to pounce, said, “So, I’m reading up on serial killers these days. Who holds the American record for kills?”
“Kills. Dead bodies. That’s what the cops say.”
“Gee, I don’t know. Didn’t that Gacy guy kill a few dozen in Chicago?”
“John Wayne Gacy killed thirty-two, or at least that’s all he could remember. Buried ’em under his house in the suburbs. Forensics found the remains of twenty-eight, so the cops believed his confession. He said he tossed a few in the river but he wasn’t sure how many.”
“Bundy officially confessed to thirty but he kept changing his stories. Before he was fried in the electric chair, here in our beloved state, by the way, he spent a lot of time with investigators from all over the country, primarily out West, where he was from. He had a brilliant mind but he simply couldn’t remember all of his victims. It is widely believed that he killed as many as one hundred young women, but it has been impossible to confirm. He often killed several in one day and even abducted his victims from the same location. He gets my vote as the sickest of a very sick bunch.”
“And he holds the record?”
“No, not for confirmed kills. A guy named Samuel Little confessed to ninety murders and was active until ten years ago. The authorities are still investigating and so far have confirmed about sixty.”
“You’re getting into this, aren’t you?”
“It’s fascinating. Ever hear of the Green River Killer?”
“I think so.”
“Confessed to seventy, convicted of forty-nine. Almost all sex workers in the Seattle area.”
“What’s your point?”
“I didn’t say I have one. What’s fascinating is that none of these guys killed the same way. I’ve yet to find a single one who did it for twenty years and killed only those he knew. They’re all deranged sociopaths, some are brilliant, most are not, but none, so far, in my vast research, are even remotely similar to Bannick. Someone who kills only for revenge and keeps a list.”
“We don’t know if he keeps a list.”
“Call it what you want, okay? He keeps the names of those who’ve crossed him and stalks them for years. That appears to be highly unusual.”
Lacy sighed, shook her head, and said, “I still can’t believe this. We’re talking about a popular elected judge as if we know for a fact that he’s killed several people. Murdered them in cold blood.”
“You’re not convinced?”
“I still don’t know. Are you?”
“I think so. If Betty Roe has her facts straight, and if Bannick did indeed know the first seven victims, then it can’t be just coincidental.”
Lacy’s phone buzzed and she took the call.
Dale Black, the Harrison County sheriff, was waiting when they arrived promptly at 2:00 p.m. He led them down a hallway to a small multipurpose room with a table in the rear, and he introduced them to Detective Napier who was in charge of the investigation. Quick introductions were made and they sat around the table. The sheriff began the conversation with “So, we’ve checked you out online and know something about your work. You’re not really criminal investigators, right?”
Lacy smiled, because she knew that when she dealt with men her age or older her charming smile normally got her what she wanted, or something close to it. And if she didn’t get what she wanted she could always count on disarming the men and neutralizing their attitudes. She said, “That’s right. We’re lawyers and we review complaints filed against judges.”
Napier liked her smile and offered one of his own, one with considerably less appeal. “In Florida, right?” he asked.
“Yes, we’re out of Tallahassee and work for the state.”
Darren had been told to remain silent and take notes, and he was complying on all fronts.
Napier asked, “Well, then, the obvious question is why are you interested in this double murder?”
“That is obvious, isn’t it? We’re fishing, okay? We’ve just been handed a complaint against a judge, in an unrelated case, and through our initial work we’ve come across some information on Lanny Verno. You do know that he once lived in Florida, right?”
Napier’s smile vanished and he glanced at his boss. “I think so,” he mumbled as he whipped open a thick file. He licked his thumb, flipped some pages, and said, “Yep, got a DUI over there a few years ago.”
“Do you have any record of him living in the Pensacola area around 2001?”
Napier frowned, kept flipping, searching now. He finally shook his head, no.
Very pleasantly, Lacy said, “We know he lived there around 2000 and worked as a painter and remodeler. This might be useful to you.”
Napier closed the file and managed another grin. “His girlfriend, the one he was living with, said he moved into this area a few years ago, but she has proven to be unreliable, to say the least.”
“And his family is from the Atlanta area?” Lacy asked. It was a question but her tone left no doubt that she knew the answer.
“How’d you know that?”
“We found his obituary, if you could call it that.”
Napier said, “We’ve had little contact with his family. Quite a bit, though, with the Dunwoodys.”
Lacy offered another smile and asked, “Is it fair for me to ask if you have a suspect?”
Napier frowned at the sheriff, who returned the scowl. Before they could say no, Lacy said, “I’m not asking for the name of a suspect, I’m just curious as to whether you have any solid leads.”
Sheriff Black blurted, “There are no suspects.”
have one?” Napier asked.
“Maybe,” Lacy said without a smile. Both cops exhaled loudly, as if suddenly relieved of a burden. Darren would say later that he caught them glancing at each other as if they wanted to pounce on her single word: “Maybe.”
Lacy asked, “What can you tell us about the crime scene?”
Napier shrugged as if this might be difficult. Black said, “Okay, what are the rules here? You’re not law enforcement, you’re not even from this state. How confidential is this little chat? If we talk details they stay here, right?”
“Of course. We’re not policemen but we do occasionally deal with criminal behavior, so we understand confidentiality. We have nothing to gain by repeating any of this. You have my word.”
Black said, “The crime scene revealed nothing. No prints, fibers, hairs, nothing. The only blood belonged to the two victims. No signs of resistance or a struggle. Verno was strangled but also had a severe head wound. Dunwoody’s skull was splintered.”
“And the rope?”
“The rope around Verno’s neck.”
Napier was about to respond when Black stopped him. “Wait. Can you describe the rope?” he asked Lacy.
“Probably. A thirty-inch piece of three-eighths nylon, double twin braid, marine grade, either blue and white or green and white.”
She paused and watched as both faces registered disbelief. Then, “Secured at the base of the skull with a double clove hitch knot.”
Both cops recovered quickly and regained their poker faces. Napier said, “I take it you know our man from somewhere else.”
“Possibly. Can we take a look at the photos?”
Lacy had no idea of their frustration. For five months now, every lead had gone nowhere. Every Crime Stopper’s tip had done nothing but waste more time. Every new theory had eventually petered out. Verno’s murder was so carefully planned that there had to be a reason for it, but motive eluded them. Little was known of his unremarkable past. On the other hand, they were convinced that Dunwoody had simply picked the wrong spot. They knew everything about him and nothing suggested a motive.
Could Lacy and the BJC be their first break?
They spent half an hour poring over the gruesome crime scene photos. Sheriff Black had important meetings elsewhere but they were suddenly canceled.
When Lacy and Darren, still silent, had seen enough, they packed their briefcases and got ready to leave.
The sheriff asked, “So, when do we talk about this suspect of yours?”
Lacy smiled and replied, “Not now. We see this meeting as the first of several. We want a good working relationship with you, one built on trust. Give us some time, let us do our investigation, and we’ll be back.”
“Fair enough. There is one other bit of evidence here that might be helpful. It’s not in the file because we’ve been sitting on it since the murders. It seems as though our man may have made a mistake. We know what he was driving.”
“Helpful? Sounds pretty crucial.”
“Perhaps. You saw the photos of the two cell phones he took from his victims. He drove about an hour north of here to the small town of Neely, Mississippi. He put them in an envelope, a five-by-eight-inch padded mailer, and addressed it to my daughter in Biloxi. He dropped the package into a standard blue box outside the post office.”
Napier pulled out another photo, one of the mailer with the address.
The sheriff continued. “We tracked down the cell phones within hours and found them in the box in Neely. They’re still at the state crime lab but so far have given us nothing.”
He looked at Napier, who took the handoff. “Someone saw him stop at the post office. It was about seven p.m. on that Friday night, roughly two hours after the murders. There was no traffic in Neely because there never is, but a neighbor saw a pickup truck stop at the post office. A man walked to the box and dropped in the package, the only one deposited after five p.m. on that Friday. Not much mail in Neely either. The neighbor thought it was odd that anyone would choose that time to drop off some mail. He was on his porch a good ways off and he cannot identify the driver. But the truck was a gray Chevrolet, fairly late model, with Mississippi tags.”
“And you’re certain it was the killer?” Lacy asked, a very nonprofessional question.
“No. We’re certain it was the man who dropped off the cell phones. Probably the killer but we’re not sure.”
“Right. Why would he drive up there to ditch the phones?”
Napier shrugged and smiled. Black said, “Now you’re playing his game. I think he was just having some fun with us, and especially with me. He had to know that we’d find the cell phones in a matter of hours and that they wouldn’t be mailed to my daughter.”
Napier added, “Or maybe he wanted to be seen driving a vehicle with Mississippi tags because he’s not from Mississippi. He’s pretty clever, isn’t he?”
“And he’s done this before?” asked the sheriff.
“We believe so.”
“And he’s not from Mississippi, is he?”
“We think not.”