Authors: John Grisham
At the edge of town they stopped at a chain restaurant and went inside. At two thirty the place was empty and they chose a booth in a corner, far away from the deserted bar. Jeri carried a large bag, too big for a purse. Lacy assumed it contained files. They ordered coffee and sipped ice water while they waited.
Lacy said, “On more than one occasion you’ve described Thad Leawood as the first. Who was the second?”
“Well, I don’t know how many victims there are, so I can’t be certain Thad was the first. My project has uncovered six, so far. Thad was 1991, and I think my father was number two, the following year.”
“Okay. And you don’t want me to take notes.”
“Danny Cleveland, the reporter, was 2009. So was he the third?”
“I don’t think so.”
Lacy exhaled in exasperation. “Forgive me, Jeri, but I’m pulling teeth here. I’m getting frustrated again.”
“Be patient. Number three, on my list anyway, was a girl he knew in law school.”
“And why did he kill her?”
The coffee arrived and they went silent. Jeri mixed in cream and took her time. She glanced around casually and said, “Let’s deal with that one later. We’ve talked about three. That’s enough for now.”
“Sure. But just curious—do you have more proof in the other three than you have for the first ones?”
“Not really. I have motive and I have method. That’s all. But I’m convinced they’re all linked to Bannick.”
“Got that. He’s been on the bench for ten years. Do you suspect him in any case after he became a judge? In other words, is he still at it?”
“Oh yes. His last one was two years ago, a retired lawyer living in the Keys. A former big firm guy they found strangled on his fishing boat.”
“I remember that. Kronkite, or something like that?”
“Kronke, Perry Kronke, eighty-one years old when he caught his last fish.”
“It was a sensational case.”
“Well, at least for Miami. Down there they have more murdered lawyers per capita than any other place. Quite a distinction, huh?”
“And the connection to Bannick?”
“He was an intern in Kronke’s firm in the summer of 1989, then he got stiffed when there was no job offer. Evidently it really pissed him off, because he waited two decades to get revenge. He has remarkable patience, Lacy.”
It took Lacy a moment to absorb this. She sipped her coffee and looked out the window.
Jeri leaned in and said, “In my opinion, as a pseudo expert in serial killers now, it was his biggest mistake, so far. He murdered an old lawyer with many friends and who once had a fine reputation. Two of his victims were men of stature—my father and Kronke.”
“And their murders were twenty years apart.”
“Yes, that’s his MO, Lacy. It’s unusual but not unheard of for sociopaths.”
“I’m sorry but I’m not up on the lingo here. I deal with judges who are mentally sound, for the most part, and screw up when they ignore cases or mix personal business with their judicial duties.”
Jeri smiled knowingly and sipped her coffee. Another glance around, then, “A psychopath has a severe mental disorder and antisocial behavior. A sociopath is a psychopath on steroids. Not exactly medical definitions but close enough.”
“I’ll just listen and you keep talking.”
“My theory is that Bannick keeps a list of people who have harmed or slighted him. It could be something as trivial as a law professor who embarrassed him, and it could be something as devastating as a scoutmaster who sexually abused him. He was probably okay until he was raped as a child. It’s hard to imagine what that would do to a kid. That’s why he has always struggled with women.”
Again, her certainty was disarming, yet astonishing. She had been chasing Bannick for so long, his guilt had become a hard fact.
She continued, “I’ve read a hundred books about serial killers. From the gossipy tabloids to the academic treatises. Virtually none of them want to get caught, but yet they want someone out there—the police, the victims’ families, the press—to know they are at work. Many are brilliant, some are incredibly stupid. They run the gamut. Some kill for decades and are never caught, others go crazy and do their work in a hurry. These usually make mistakes. Some have a clear motive, others kill at random.”
“But they’re usually caught, right?”
“Hard to say. This country averages fifteen thousand murders a year. One-third are never solved. That’s five thousand this year, last year, the year before. Since 1960, over two hundred thousand. There are so many unsolved murders that it’s impossible to say this victim or that victim died at the hands of a serial killer. Most experts believe that’s one of the reasons they leave behind clues. They want someone to know they’re out there. They thrive on the fear and terror. As I said, they don’t want to get caught, but they want someone to know.”
“So no one, not even the FBI, knows how many serial killers are loose?”
“No one. And some of the more famous were never identified. They never caught Jack the Ripper.”
Lacy couldn’t suppress a laugh. “Forgive me, but I find it hard to believe that I’m sitting here in Podunk, Florida, having a pleasant cup of coffee and talking about Jack the Ripper.”
“Please don’t laugh, Lacy. I know it’s bizarre but it’s all true.”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“Just believe me, Lacy. You have to believe me.”
Lacy stopped smiling and drank some more coffee. After a long pause, in which neither made eye contact, she said, “Okay, I’m still listening. Using your theory, are you saying that Bannick wants to get caught?”
“Oh no. He’s too careful, too smart, too patient. Plus he has too much to lose. Most serial killers, same as other killers, are misfits from the fringes of society. Bannick has status, a rewarding career, probably some old family money. He’s a sick man but he puts up a good front. Church, country club, stuff like that. He’s active in the local bar, president of a historical society, even fancies himself as an actor with a county thespian group. I’ve seen two of his performances, just dreadful.”
“You watched him onstage?”
“Yes. The crowds were small, for good reason, but the theaters were dark. It wasn’t risky.”
“He doesn’t sound antisocial.”
“As I said, he puts up a good front. No one would ever suspect him. He’s even seen around the Pensacola area with a blonde on his arm. He uses several, probably pays them, but I don’t know that.”
“How do you know about the blondes?”
“Social media. For example, the local chapter of the American Cancer Society holds an annual gala, black tie and all. His father, the pediatrician, died of cancer, so Bannick is involved. It’s a big gala and they raise a lot of money. Everything gets posted online. Not much is private anymore, Lacy.”
“But he doesn’t post anything.”
“Nothing. No social media presence at all. But you’d be surprised what you can dig up when you live online like I do.”
“But you said everything leaves a trail.”
“Yes, but casual browsing is hard to track. And I take precautions.”
Another long pause as Lacy struggled for the next question. Jeri waited nervously, as if the next revelation might frighten away her new confidante. The waitress breezed by with a pot of coffee and refilled their cups.
Lacy ignored hers and said, “A question. You said that most serial killers want someone to know that they’re out there, or whatever. Same for Bannick?”
“Oh yes. There’s an old saying among FBI investigators that ‘sooner or later a man will sign his name.’ I got that from a book, maybe even a novel. I can’t remember. I’ve read so much.”
“The rope. He always uses a three-eighths-inch nylon cord, marine grade, double twin-braided, light duty. A length about thirty inches long, wrapped twice around the neck so hard that the skin is always cut, and secured with a double clove hitch knot, probably learned in the Boy Scouts. I have crime scene photos from every murder but Kronke’s.”
“Isn’t that careless?”
“It could be, but then who’s really investigating? There are six murders in six different jurisdictions, six different states, over a twenty-year period. None of the six police departments have compared notes with the others. They just don’t work that way, and he knows it.”
“And only one in Florida?”
“Yes, Mr. Kronke. Two years ago.”
“And where was that?”
“The town of Marathon, in the Keys.”
“So why can’t you go to the police down there and show them your files, give them your theory?”
“That’s a good question. That may happen, Lacy. I might be forced to do so, but I have my doubts. What do you think the police will do? Chase down five cold cases from five other states? I doubt it. You can’t forget that I have no proof yet, nothing concrete to give the police, and for the most part they’ve stopped digging.”
Lacy sipped her coffee and nodded along, unconvinced.
Jeri said, “And there is a much more important reason I can’t go barging in with scant evidence. It’s terrifying, actually.”
“You’re afraid of him.”
“Damned right I am. He’s too smart to commit a murder and leave it alone. For twenty years I’ve operated under the assumption that he’s back there, watching, still covering his tracks.”
“And you want me to get involved?”
“You have to, Lacy. There’s no one else.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know, Jeri. I really don’t know. I’m sorry, but this is not sinking in yet.”
“If we don’t stop him, he’ll kill again.”
Lacy absorbed this and was rattled by the casual use of the pronoun “we.” She pushed her coffee cup away and said, “Jeri, I’ve had enough for one day. I need to digest this, sleep on it, try to get my bearings.”
“I get it, Lacy. And you have to understand that it’s lonely out here. For many years now I’ve lived with this. It has consumed my life and at times pushed me to the edge. I’ve spent hours in therapy and still have a long way to go. It caused my divorce and almost ruined my career. But I can’t quit. My father won’t allow it. I can’t believe I’m here now, finally at the point of telling someone, a person I trust.”
“I haven’t earned your trust.”
“But you have it anyway. There’s no one else. I need a friend, Lacy. Please don’t abandon me.”
“It’s not a question of abandoning you. The biggest issue is what am I supposed to do? We don’t investigate murders, Jeri. That’s for the state boys or maybe even the FBI. We’re just not equipped for work like this.”
“But you can help me, Lacy. You can listen to me, hold my hand. You can investigate on some level. The BJC has subpoena powers. In the casino case, you took down a crooked judge and an entire criminal gang.”
“With a lot of help from others, primarily the FBI. I’m not sure you understand how we work, Jeri. We don’t get involved in allegations of wrongdoing until someone files a complaint. Nothing happens until then.”
“Is the complaint anonymous?”
“Initially, yes. Later, no. After the complaint is filed we have forty-five days to investigate the allegations.”
“Does the judge know about your investigation?”
“That depends. Most of the time the judge knows he or she has a problem. The complaining party has made it known they’re unhappy and have issues. Some of these disputes have dragged on for months, even years. But, it’s not uncommon for the judge to get blindsided. If we decide the allegations have merit, which is rare, we file a formal notice with the judge.”
“And at that point he’ll know my name?”
“That’s usually how it works. I can’t remember a case where the complaining party remained completely anonymous.”
“But it could be done, right?”
“I’ll have to talk to the director, my boss.”
“That scares me, Lacy. My dream is to nail the man who killed my father. My other dream is to keep my name off his list. It’s too dangerous.”
Lacy glanced at her watch and shoved her cup away another inch or two. She exhaled and said, “Look, I’ve had a lot for one day and I have a long drive. Let’s take a break.”
“Sure, but you have to promise me complete confidentiality, Lacy. Understood?”
“Okay, but I have to discuss this with my boss.”
“Can he be trusted?”
“It’s a she and the answer is yes. This is delicate work, as you might guess. We’re dealing with the reputations of elected judges and we understand discretion. No one will know anything until they have to know. Fair enough?”
“I guess. But you have to keep me in the loop.”
The twenty-minute drive back to the cemetery was subdued. To keep things light, Lacy asked about Jeri’s daughter, Denise, a graduate student at the University of Michigan. No, she did not remember her grandfather and knew little about his murder. Jeri was intrigued by Lacy’s life as an attractive single woman who had never married, but that conversation fizzled. Lacy was accustomed to such curiosity and had no patience with it. Her dear late mother had hounded her for years about growing old alone and childless, and Lacy was adept in deflecting the nosiness.
At the cemetery, Jeri handed her a cloth shopping bag and said, “Here are some files, just some preliminary stuff. There’s a lot more.”
“For the first three, I presume?”
“Yes. My father, Thad Leawood, and Danny Cleveland. We can discuss the others later.”
The bag was heavy enough already and Lacy wasn’t sure she wanted to take possession. She couldn’t wait to get in her car, lock the door, and drive away. They said their goodbyes, promised to talk soon and so on, and left the cemetery.
Halfway to Tallahassee, Lacy’s phone buzzed with a call from Allie. He would be in late and wanted a pizza and wine by the fire. She had not seen him in four days and suddenly missed him. She smiled at the idea of cuddling up with a seasoned FBI agent and talking about something other than their work.
Darren Trope bounced into her office bright and early Wednesday morning and began with “Well, well, how was the PD? Do something exciting?”
“Did you miss us?”
“No, sorry,” Lacy replied with a smile. She was about to reach for a file, one of about a dozen stacked neatly in a rack at the corner of her desk. A judge down in Gilchrist County was irritating both lawyers and litigants alike with his inability to set cases for trials. Alcohol was rumored to be involved. Lacy had reluctantly decided the allegations had merit and was preparing to notify His Honor that he was under investigation.
“Sleep late? A long fancy lunch somewhere with our FBI boy?”
“They’re called personal days for a reason.”
“Well, you didn’t miss anything around here.”
“I’m sure of that.”
“I’m going out for some decent coffee. Want anything?”
“Sure, the usual.”
Darren’s coffee runs were taking longer and longer. He had been at BJC for two years and showing all the usual signs of being bored with a stalled career. He left, she closed the door behind him, and tried to concentrate on another drunk judge. An hour passed with little progress and she finally shoved the file aside.
Maddy Reese was her most trusted colleague around the office. She had been there for four years and, among the four lawyers, was now second in seniority, far behind Lacy. She tapped on the door as she walked through it and said, “Got a minute?”
The last director had imposed an open-door policy that had led to a freewheeling culture in which privacy was almost impossible and work was routinely interrupted. But he was gone now, and though most office doors were closed, old habits were hard to break.
“Sure,” Lacy said. “What’s up?”
“Cleo wants you to review the Handy matter, thinks we should get involved.”
Cleo was Cleopatra, the secret nickname of the current director, an ambitious woman who had managed to alienate the entire office in a matter of weeks.
“Not Handy again,” Lacy said in frustration.
“Oh yes. Seems he keeps overturning zoning ordinances in favor of a certain developer, who just happens to be a friend of his nephew.”
“This is Florida. That’s not uncommon.”
“Well, the adjoining landowners are upset and they’ve hired lawyers. Another complaint was filed against him last week and things do look rather suspicious. I know how much you love zoning cases.”
“I live for them. Bring me the file and I’ll take a look.”
“Thanks. And Cleo is calling a staff meeting for two this afternoon.”
“I thought we suffered through those on Monday mornings.”
“We do. But Cleo is making her own rules.”
Maddy left without closing the door, and Lacy looked at the screen on her desktop. She scrolled through the usual lineup of emails she could either ignore or postpone, and stopped at one from Jeri Crosby.
Can we talk? I’ll call you. Number is 776-145-0088. Your phone won’t recognize it.
Lacy stared at the email for a long time as she tried to think of ways to avoid a response. She wondered which of the half-dozen cell phones Jeri was using. Hers buzzed and the number appeared.
“Hello, Jeri,” she said as she walked to the door to close it.
“Thanks for yesterday, Lacy, you have no idea what that meant to me. I slept last night for the first time in forever.”
Well, I’m glad
did. Even with Allie’s warm body next to her, she’d had trouble shutting out the events of the day. “That’s nice, Jeri. Yesterday was quite interesting.”
“To say the least. So, what’s up?”
The question threw her as she suddenly realized that her new friend might feel the need to call every day for updates. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what do you think? What’s next?”
“I haven’t thought about it,” she lied. “A day out of the office and I’m still trying to catch up.”
“Sure, and I don’t mean to bother. Forgive me, but I’m so relieved that you’re on the case now. You have no idea how lonely this has been.”
“I’m not sure there is a case, Jeri.”
“Of course there is. Did you look through the files?”
“No, I haven’t got there yet, Jeri. I’m busy with other stuff right now.”
“I see. Look, we need to meet again and cover the other victims. I know it’s a lot for you to digest so soon, but, I dare say nothing on your desk could possibly be as important as Bannick.”
True. Everything in the office paled in comparison to allegations of murder against a judge.
“Jeri, I can’t just drop everything else and open a new case. Any involvement on my part must be approved by the director. Didn’t I explain this?”
“I guess.” Brushing it aside, she continued, “I’m in class today and tomorrow, but what about Saturday? I’ll make the drive over and we can meet somewhere private.”
“I thought about this driving home yesterday, for three hours, and I still don’t see how we have any jurisdiction. We’re just not equipped to investigate a murder, singular or plural.”
“Your friend Hugo Hatch was murdered, in a staged car wreck, and I believe there was another murder in the casino case. Right, Lacy? You were involved in that one up to your ears.” Her tone was becoming aggressive, but there was still a fragility in her voice.
Calmly, Lacy replied, “We talked about that and I explained that there were real detectives in that case, even the FBI.”
“But you made it happen, Lacy. Without you, the crimes would not have been solved.”
“Jeri, what am I supposed to do? Go to Signal Mountain, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas, and Marathon, Florida, and dig through old police files and somehow find evidence that isn’t there? The police, the pros, couldn’t find it. You’ve been trying for twenty years. There is simply not enough proof.”
“Six dead people, all killed the same identical way, and all six had a connection to Bannick. And you think that’s not enough? Come on, Lacy. You can’t let me down here. I’m at my wit’s end. If you turn your back on me, then where am I supposed to go?”
Anywhere. Just please go away.
Lacy exhaled and told herself to be patient. “I understand, Jeri. Look, I’m busy right now. Let’s talk later.”
If she heard this she didn’t acknowledge it. “I’ve checked around, Lacy. Every state has a different way to deal with judicial complaints, but almost every state allows an aggrieved party to initiate an investigation in some anonymous way. I’m sure it can be done in Florida.”
“Are you willing to sign a complaint?”
“Maybe, but we need to talk some more. It seems possible to do it with an alias or something. Don’t you think?”
“I’m not sure right now, Jeri. Please, let’s talk tomorrow.”
As soon as she managed to end the call, Darren finally arrived with her almond latte, almost an hour after he had left to fetch it. She thanked him, and when it appeared as though he wanted to loiter and share the break, she said she needed to make a call. At noon, she eased from her office, left the building, walked five blocks to meet Allie for lunch.
BJC’s secret weapon was a badly aging woman named Sadelle, a career paralegal who decades earlier had given up on the bar exam. She had once smoked three packs a day, many of them around the office, and had been unable to quit until she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Suddenly motivated, she had laid down her smokes and made preparations for the end. Seven years later, she was still on the job and working more hours than anyone else. BJC was her life, and she not only knew everything but remembered most of it as well. She was the archive, the search engine, the expert on the many ways judges could screw up their careers.
After the staff meeting, Lacy sent her an email with some questions. Fifteen minutes later, Sadelle rolled into her office in her motorized chair, an oxygen tube attached to her nose. Though her voice was strained, scratchy, at times almost desperate, she nonetheless enjoyed talking, often far too much.
She said, “We’ve done this before. I can think of three cases in the past forty years in which the aggrieved party was too spooked to sign on. Perhaps the biggest one involved a judge down around Tampa who discovered cocaine. He was thoroughly seduced by the drug and it became a real problem. Because of his position he found it difficult to buy the stuff.” She paused for a second to take on oxygen. “Anyway, his problems were solved when a drug dealer appeared in his court on charges. He got friendly with the guy, gave him a light sentence, and eventually got in bed with his pusher, who was in with a major trafficker. With a steady supply guaranteed, the judge really went off the deep end and things deteriorated. He couldn’t do his job, couldn’t sit on the bench for more than fifteen minutes without calling a recess for a quick snort. The lawyers were whispering but, as usual, didn’t want to squeal. A court reporter was watching closely and knew the dirt. She contacted us, terrified, of course, because the gang had some nasty boys. She eventually filed a Jane Doe complaint and we went in with subpoenas, the works. She even funneled documents and we had plenty of proof. We were preparing to bring in the Feds when the judge agreed to step down, so he was never indicted.” Her face contorted as she sucked in more oxygen.
“What happened to him?”
“Killed himself. They called it an accidental overdose, but it looked suspicious. Saturated with coke. I guess he went out the way he wanted.”
“When was this?”
“Not sure of the exact date, but it was before your time.”
“What happened to the court reporter?”
“Nothing. We protected her identity and no one ever knew. So, yes, it can be done.”
“What about the other two cases?”
“Either Jane or John. Not sure, but I can find them. As I recall, both were dismissed after the initial assessment, so there wasn’t much to the allegations.” Another pause to reload. Then she asked, “What kinda case you got?”
“Wow, that could be fun. I can’t remember one of those, other than the casino case. Does it have merit?”
“I don’t know. That’s the challenge right now. Trying to determine what might be the truth.”
“An allegation of murder against a sitting judge.”
“I like it. Don’t hesitate to keep me in the loop.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Sadelle filled her scarred lungs, put the chair in reverse, and scooted away.