Authors: John Grisham
In stalking Ross Bannick, she had learned to work with one crucial assumption: he was a killer with great patience. He had waited five years to kill her father, nine to kill the reporter, twenty-two to kill Kronke, and approximately fourteen to kill his scoutmaster. Finding the point at which his path crossed with that of Lanny Verno, if it happened at all, would require the usual painstaking and dogged digging through a mountain of public records that stretched back for years, even decades.
She was a tenured professor who lectured three days a week and kept somewhat regular office hours. The book she was writing was years past due. She managed to work just enough to satisfy her dean and her students, but she was far too occupied with crime to excel as a teacher like her father. She was divorced and attractive but had no time to even think about romance. Her daughter was doing fine with her graduate studies at Michigan, and they chatted or emailed every other day. Jeri had almost no other diversions from her real calling, her pursuit. She worked hours each night and early into the mornings chasing leads, pursuing wild theories, hitting dead-ends, and burning enormous amounts of time. “I’m wasting my life,” she said over and over in her loneliness.
Jeri guessed that, as an itinerant house painter, Verno didn’t bother to vote, but nonetheless she dug through the registration records for Chavez, Escambia, and Santa Rosa Counties. She found two Lanny L. Vernos. One was too old, the other was dead. Vehicle registration found another one, but he was still alive.
The online locators, both the free and the pricey, found five Lanny Vernos in the Florida Panhandle. The obvious problem was that Jeri had no idea, and no way to know, when her Lanny Verno had ever lived in the area, and, if so, when he moved on. He was definitely not living there when he was murdered. According to the bare-bones police report Kenny Lee obtained from the FBI clearinghouse, Verno’s female companion said they had “been together” for less than two years and lived in a trailer near Biloxi.
If he had a history with women then perhaps he had been through divorce court. Jeri spent hours online digging through those Florida records and found nothing helpful. If he had children scattered around then maybe he’d had support problems, but the court records yielded nothing. As a veteran sleuth with over twenty years of experience, she knew how precarious family and youth court records were. So much of the useful information was sealed for privacy reasons.
If he had spent his life as a house painter, then the odds were decent that he’d been in trouble with the police.
There were no felony convictions for Lanny Verno, at least not in Florida, and he had been involved in no civil litigation. Fortunately, though, the Pensacola City police department had digitized its records a decade earlier, and in the process had memorialized thirty years’ worth of arrests and old court dockets somewhere deep in the cloud. At two thirty in the morning, as she sipped another diet cola, no caffeine, she found a simple entry for the arrest of one Lanny L. Verno in April of 2001. The alleged crime was attempted assault with a weapon. He posted $500 bond and bailed out. She began cross-checking the arrest with the court docket and found another entry. On June 11, 2001, Verno was found not guilty in Pensacola city court. Case dismissed.
At that time, Ross Bannick was thirty-six years old and had been practicing law in the area for ten years.
Could it be the crossing of their paths? Was that where it happened?
It was a long shot, but in Jeri’s world so was everything else.
She chose a private detective from Mobile, one who would claim to be from Atlanta, or anywhere else for that matter. The sparse remnants of Verno’s family had buried him near Atlanta, according to an Internet posting from a low-end burial service.
She hated to pay private detectives but often had no choice. Almost all police investigators were middle-aged white guys who frowned on women digging through old crimes, especially women of color. Theirs was a man’s business, and the whiter the better. Most of her spare cash went to private eyes who looked and talked remarkably like the cops they dealt with.
His name was Rollie Tabor, ex-cop, $150 an hour, no-nonsense, and able to live with her fiction. He’d done it before and she liked his work. He drove to Pensacola, went to the police department, and shot enough bull with the desk jockeys to get himself sent to a warehouse several blocks away where all the old stuff was stored. Primarily evidence—court exhibits, rape kits, thousands of confiscated weapons of every variety—but also unclaimed goods, and rows and rows of tall cabinets filled with too many retired files to count. An ancient clerk in a faded police uniform met him at the front counter and asked what he wanted.
“Name’s Dunlap, Jeff Dunlap,” Tabor said. As the clerk scribbled on a log sheet, Tabor studied his name badge. Sergeant Mack Faldo. He’d been there at least fifty years and could not remember when he stopped caring.
“Got an ID?” Faldo grunted.
Tabor had an impressive collection of IDs. He pulled out his wallet and removed a Georgia driver’s license for Jeff Dunlap, who, as a real person, lived quietly and unsuspectingly in the town of Conyers, just outside of Atlanta. If the sergeant bothered to check, which he never thought about doing, he would find a real person at a real address and immediately lose whatever interest he had. But Faldo was too jaded to even glance at the card and then glance at Dunlap to compare. He grunted again, “Gotta make a copy.”
He walked over to an ancient Xerox, took his time, and walked back with the license.
“Now, what can I do for you?” he asked, as if doing anything would upset his day.
“Looking for a court file from about fifteen years ago. Guy named Lanny Verno got himself arrested but got off in city court. He was murdered a few months back over in Biloxi and his family has hired me to dig through his past. He lived here for a spell and may have left behind a kid or two. Sort of a drifter.”
Tabor handed over a sheet of paper printed from a computer with the name of Lanny L. Verno, his Social Security number, his date of birth, and date of death. It was nothing official but Faldo took it. “When, exactly?”
Faldo’s eyelids half closed, as if he might begin a nap right then, and he nodded toward a door. “Meet me over there.”
Through the door, Tabor followed the old man into a cavernous room with more filing cabinets. Each drawer was labeled with months and years. Into 2001, Faldo stopped, reached up, yanked open and removed an entire drawer. He mumbled, “June 2001.” He carried it to a long table covered with dust and clutter and said, “Here it is. Have fun.”
Tabor looked around and asked, “Isn’t this stuff online now?”
“Not all of it. These are the files for the cases that were dismissed, for whatever reason. If there was a conviction, then those files are supposed to be in the archives. These files here, Mr. Dunlap, need to be burned.”
Faldo was tired when he came to work and exhausted by now. He said, “No unauthorized photos. You need copies, bring it to me. A dollar a page.”
“Don’t mention it.” Faldo walked away, leaving Dunlap alone with a million worthless files.
There were at least a hundred in the drawer on the table, neatly arranged by date. In a matter of minutes, Tabor found June 12, flipped through it alphabetically, and pulled out a file for Lanny L. Verno.
Clipped inside were several sheets of paper. The first was labeled
and an Officer N. Ozment had typed:
Victim [name redacted] came to the station, said he had an altercation earlier that day in his garage with Verno, said there was a dispute over payment for services, said Verno threatened him and even pulled out a handgun; after that things settled down and Verno left. There were no witnesses. Victim [name redacted] swore the warrant, charging attempted assault.
Someone had obviously covered the name of the alleged victim with a thick black marker.
Page 2 was an
with a mug shot of Verno at the city jail, and it included his address, phone number, Social Security number, and listed him as self-employed. His criminal record had only one DUI.
Page 3 was a copy of the $500 bond agreement with AAA Bail.
Page 4 was labeled:
But the entire page was blank.
Tabor spent the next few minutes flipping through other files in the drawer and studying the Court Abstracts. Each was a standard form that, when filled in, gave a concise summary of what happened in court, with the names of the judge, prosecutor, defendant, defense lawyer (if any), complaining party, victim, and witnesses and exhibits. He found a completed Court Abstract for each of the other files. Shoplifting, simple assault, unleashed dogs, public drunkenness, public profanity, public lewdness, harassment, and so on. The drawer was filled with all manner of allegations—none, evidently, that were proven in court.
A sign warned:
no unauthorized photos or copies
He asked himself who, other than himself and his client, could possibly want copies or photos, authorized or not.
He took the file back to the front counter and disturbed Faldo again. “Can I get this file copied? Four pages.”
Faldo almost smiled as he got up and lumbered over. “A dollar apiece,” he said as he took the file. Tabor watched as he methodically unclipped the four sheets, copied them, clipped them back just so, and returned them to the counter. The investigator offered a $5 bill but Faldo would have none of it.
“Only credit cards,” he said.
“I don’t use ’em,” Tabor said. “Gave ’em up in a bankruptcy years ago.”
This really upset Faldo’s world and he frowned as if hit with irritable bowels. “No cash, sorry.” The four copied sheets were lying on the counter, unneeded and unwanted by anyone else in the world.
Tabor dropped the $5 bill, picked up the copies, and asked, “Shall I put the file back?”
“Nope. I got it. That’s my job.”
And what a crucial job it was. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
In his car, Tabor called Jeri but got her voicemail. He went to a coffee shop, and as he killed time he took photos of the four sheets of paper and sent them to her. After his third cup, she finally called. He described what he had found and what the other files looked like. It was obvious that Verno’s had been doctored.
“This officer, N. Ozment, is he still around?” she asked.
“No. I’ve already checked.”
“And no other names in the file? Just Verno and Ozment?”
“Well, that makes the next step easier. See if you can find Mr. N. Ozment.”
Jeri was in her office on campus, her door open so any student could pop in for a chat, but she was alone as she crunched on a light salad and sipped a diet soda. Eating was difficult with her stomach flipping the way it always did when someone she was paying $150 an hour was on the job with no idea how long the job might take. There was also the excitement of finding paperwork that had been tampered with. She reminded herself that she did not yet know if the Lanny Verno she was tracking in Pensacola was also the one who had been murdered in Biloxi, and she admitted that the odds were long. There were ninety-eight Lanny Vernos in the country.
However, the facts might be tilting in her favor. As an esteemed member of the judiciary, Judge Bannick would certainly have easy access to old court files and evidence. He would be respected by the police. As an elected official, he would need their support every four years. He would be able to come and go through their many protocols and procedures.
Lanny Verno, a house painter, pulling a gun on Ross Bannick, a hotshot lawyer, thirteen years ago? And winning the case?
As always, she scanned several newspapers as she ate lunch. Same for breakfast and dinner. She found an interesting item in the
At the bottom of page 6 in the State section there was a recap of government news. The last item was a less than urgent announcement that Lacy Stoltz had been appointed as the interim director of the Board on Judicial Conduct, replacing Charlotte Baskin, who had been nominated by the Governor to run the Gaming Commission.
Clawing her way up the ladder, and moving from office to office, Cleo had learned to pack lightly and never fill the drawers or decorate the walls. Without a word to anyone, though the gossip was raging, she packed her things and left the building. The gossip did not follow her but instead turned to Lacy and the welcome rumor that she was taking over.
The following morning, she called everyone together in the workroom adjacent to the director’s rather depressing office and confirmed that she would be the acting, and quite interim, director for the near future. The news thrilled her colleagues and the staff, and there were plenty of smiles for the first time in months. She rattled off a few changes in office rules: (1) work from home as much as you want as long as the work gets done; (2) Friday afternoons off in the summer, as long as someone answered the phone; (3) no staff meetings unless absolutely necessary; (4) a mutual coffee fund to buy better stuff; (5) forget the open-door policy; (6) an extra week of vacation, unofficially. She promised to seek more funding while lowering the stress levels. She would keep her old office because she had never liked the big one and did not want to be associated with it.
She was congratulated by everyone and finally made her way back to her desk where a florist had just delivered a beautiful arrangement. The note was from Allie, with love and admiration. Felicity handed her a phone message. Jeri Crosby was calling with best wishes on the big promotion.
Tabor picked up the scent by casually stopping at a police substation in east Pensacola and asking an older cop behind the desk if he knew where Officer Ozment was these days.
“Norris?” the sergeant asked.
Since Tabor had only the initial “N” for the first name, he glanced at a blank notepad, frowned, and replied, “That’s him. Norris Ozment.”
“What’s he done now?”
“Nothing bad. His uncle died in Duval County and left him a check. I’m working for the estate lawyers.”
“I see. Norris quit five, maybe six years ago, went into private security. Last I heard, he was down the coast working at a resort.”
Tabor scribbled nothing legible on his notepad. “Remember which one?”
Another cop rumbled in and the sergeant asked him, “Say, Ted, you remember which hotel hired Norris?”
Ted took a bite of a donut and pondered the heavy question. “Down on Seagrove Beach, wasn’t it? The Pelican Point?”
“That’s it,” the sergeant chimed in. “Got a nice gig at the Pelican Point. Not sure if he’s still there.”
“Thanks a lot, guys,” Tabor said with a smile.
“Just leave the check here,” the sergeant said and everyone howled. Such a comedian.
Tabor left town on Highway 98 and went east as it snaked along the coast. He called the Pelican Point and confirmed that Norris Ozment was still working there, though he was too busy to answer his landline. His cell number could not be passed out. Tabor arrived at the hotel, found him in the lobby, and turned on the charm. He stuck to his ruse of being a security officer from the Atlanta area, hired by the family of a deceased gentleman to track down some potential offspring. “Five minutes is all I need,” he said with a friendly grin.
The lobby was empty, the resort half-full. Ozment could manage to spare a few minutes. They sat at a table in the grill and ordered coffee.
Tabor said, “It’s about a case you had in Pensacola back in 2001.”
“You gotta be kidding, right? I can’t even tell you what I did last week.”
“Neither can I. It was city court.”
Tabor pulled out a folded copy of the arrest report and slid it across. “This might help.”
Ozment read what he had written in another lifetime, shrugged, said, “Vaguely rings a bell. Why is the name blacked out?”
“Don’t know. Good question. Verno was murdered five months ago over in Biloxi. His family has hired me. Nothing from this old case rings a bell?”
“Not right off the bat. Look, I was in city court every day, a real grind. That’s one reason I quit. Got tired of the lawyers and judges.”
“Do you remember a lawyer named Ross Bannick?”
“Sure. I knew most of the locals. He later got elected judge. I think he’s still there.”
“Any chance he could be the other guy here, the alleged victim?”
Ozment stared again at the arrest report and finally smiled. “That’s it. You’re right. I remember now. This guy Verno painted Bannick’s house in town, and he claimed Bannick wouldn’t pay him all the money. Bannick claimed the work wasn’t finished. They squared off one day and Bannick claimed Verno pulled a gun. Verno denied it. If I recall, the judge dismissed the case because there was no other proof. One’s word against the other.”
“Yeah, I remember it now. It was pretty unusual to have a lawyer involved in a case, as the victim. I didn’t testify because I didn’t see anything. I remember Bannick being really pissed because he was a lawyer and he thought the judge should’ve seen things his way.”
“You seen Bannick since then?”
“Sure. After he got elected to the circuit court, I saw him all the time. But I’ve been gone for years now. Haven’t missed it for a minute.”
“No word from him since you left the force?”
“No reason to.”
“Thanks. I may need to call you later.”
As they talked, Ozment’s staff ran the tag numbers on the investigator’s car. It was a rental. His story barely stuck together. If Ozment had shown any more interest, he would have tracked down Jeff Dunlap. But an old city court case was of no interest.
As Tabor drove away in his rental, he called his client.
Jeri felt dizzy and her knees were weak. She reclined on the sofa in her cluttered condo, closed her eyes, and made herself breathe deeply. Eight dead people in seven different states. Seven victims of the same type of strangulation, all unlucky enough to have bumped into Ross Bannick along the way.
The cops in Biloxi would never find Norris Ozment, and they would never know of the courtroom altercation between Lanny Verno and Bannick. They would dig deep enough to know that Verno’s criminal record was only a DUI in Florida, and they would dismiss that as nothing. Verno was, after all, the victim, not the killer, and they were not too concerned with his past. The case was already cold, the investigation at a dead end.
The killer had stalked his prey for almost thirteen years. He was far ahead of the police.
Breathe deep, she told herself. You can’t solve all the murders. You just need one.