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Authors: Michael Connelly

Switchblade: An Original Story

Switchblade

An Original Story

Michael Connelly

Little, Brown and Company

New York  Boston  London

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T
he saying goes that hope springs eternal. So too with homicide. At the Los Angeles Police Department, a decade of successes by the Open-Unsolved Unit in closing old and sometimes forgotten murder cases created a steady stream of inquiries from the loved ones of victims. They came from around the world, from any place there was an unquenched desire for justice. Every day came the calls and e-mails and even visits. People asking about cases, hoping to spark the interest of the squad that investigated the past, seeking its hidden killers.

So high was the tide of hope for justice and closure that the OU Unit could not handle all the inquiries and still dedicate the time needed to the actual investigations. The department dug into the budget and hired a sorter—that is, a civilian employee who worked out of the OCP, the Office of the Chief of Police, and sorted through the dozens of requests that came in each week, sometimes each day.

The sorter’s name was Emily Robertson and her main tools for dealing with case inquiries were the department’s murder logs. These leather-bound books contained a chronological list of every murder committed in the City of Angels going back to 1896. One page, one murder. There were more than fifty of these somber volumes on the shelves behind Emily’s desk. When an inquiry came to her or was referred to her— whether it was a phone call, an e-mail, or a walk-in—it was Emily’s job to find the reference to the case in the murder logs. By confirming the case and the year of the crime, Emily then knew which detective team in the Open-Unsolved Unit she should refer the inquiry to for follow-up. Each of the eight teams in the unit was assigned specific years of responsibility. Any unsolved cases from its assigned years went to that detective team.

Sometimes the follow-up took weeks, sometimes months. Every detective in the unit carried a sizable caseload, with investigations under way at varying stages. With more than six thousand unsolved murders on the books, there was no shortage of work. If the referred case proved workable—that is, if there was evidence that bore analysis with contemporary technologies and investigative techniques—then Emily would step out of the picture as the detectives took over. If the review of the case determined that there was no means of proceeding or evidence to analyze, then it was referred back to Emily, who had the difficult task of informing a family or a loved one that the case still remained unsolved and unworkable—a dead end.

Detective Harry Bosch enjoyed the sight of Emily Robertson when she came into the squad room each Friday morning with the week’s sorting of inquiries. Not only did it mean the possibility of fresh cases for him to work, but he also liked talking with Emily. She was an attractive woman of about forty. She was too young for Bosch, though he could still think about it.

The main attraction for Bosch, however, was that she spoke with emotional fervor about the cases she had sorted and the people who had come to her. She was the gateway between people whose questions had gone unanswered for so long and the detectives they hoped would bring resolution. The bottom line was that although Emily was not a detective, she understood the mission. That everybody counted or nobody counted. She seemed to take every case to heart, and that was a pitch over the plate to Harry Bosch. Indeed, the word around the squad was that Emily had seen a newspaper story announcing the sorting position and left a successful career as a legal secretary to take the job at a considerable reduction in pay.

The Billy Ratliff case began for Bosch with Emily. On a Friday morning more than a year ago, she entered the OU squad room with the usual stack of green files she had prepared, one for each case she had sorted. Bosch watched her from his cubicle and waited. His partner that day was on vacation, so Harry waited patiently by himself to see if a file or two would come to him. Emily made her way around the room, dispensing files, sometimes with a conversation, sometimes leaving a file on an empty desk because the corresponding detectives were out in the field or off duty.

She waited to come to Bosch last. She had one file left in her hand when she arrived at his cubicle.

“Good morning, Detective Bosch.”

“Good morning, Emily. When are you going to start calling me Harry?”

“I’m sorry. I always forget. Harry.”

She nodded, as if trying the name out and seeing if it worked.

“What do you have there?”

She handed him the green file.

“There is not a lot in there. This one was anonymous—came in yesterday. He didn’t say much but I was able to find the case. Nineteen ninety-two. One of your years.”

“Sure is.”

Bosch opened the file. It contained only two sheets of paper. One was a photocopy of the page from the murder log where she had found the case recorded. The other page was just a few notes from the anonymous call she had received. Bosch read this page first.

7/20/12—anon.

male—40s?

vic: “Billy” 1991–95 Hollywood—stabbed

“Patrick Sewell killed that boy.”

That was it. Bosch looked up at Emily and smiled.

“You know, maybe next time you get one of these, you should transfer it down here,” he said. “This doesn’t sound like a family member. This is a tip and it should’ve gone to the tip line, where officers take the info and can ask questions, or if it’s an old case like this, just transfer it down here.”

She nodded.

“I know, I know. I tried to put him on hold so I could transfer the call and he said he wouldn’t hold. He said, ‘I told you all I have to say,’ and then he hung up.”

Bosch frowned.

“And you think you got the name right?”

“I think so. He said it twice. He said, ‘Patrick Sewell killed that boy. Patrick Sewell.’”

“Okay. So he gave the suspect’s full name twice but only a partial on the victim’s. Just Billy.”

“Right. And there were a lot of murders in the nineties. I started looking through them all until I saw the name. They didn’t know who it was at first, then they updated it with the name. William Ratliff. I think this is the case. I didn’t find any other unsolved cases in the Hollywood area with a victim named Billy or William.”

Bosch nodded again and looked back down at the file to read the entries on the log page.

187 W/M 20s—08:40 2/9/92—1628 N. Vine

R/O Whitcomb (6A67) called to scene by city building inspector Oscar Reyes. Victim in abandoned/burned restaurant (Brown Derby). Victim stabbed multiple times torso/c. Wrists bound behind back. Victim naked. Hollywood 187—Rodgers/Quinlan.

Bosch knew that the famed Old Hollywood restaurant where the body had been found had been destroyed during the 1992 riots. It stood partially intact afterward but was abandoned except by the homeless for almost another two years before being leveled and turned into a parking lot.

Bosch distantly remembered the murder as the Brown Derby case. This was not because of any involvement on his part in the investigation in 1992 but because he had reviewed the stored evidence and case records—contained in a binder called a murder book—when he was assigned to the Open-Unsolved Unit and given responsibility for the year 1992. He rated the cases he reviewed on a scale of one to five, with a five designation meaning there was highly viable forensic evidence that could be followed up on. But his memory at the moment was that he had rated the Brown Derby case a one or a two after he ran fingerprints collected at the crime scene and got no matches in the data banks, where millions of prints were stored. He didn’t recall there being any DNA or other evidence worth pursuing using modern technology and science.

Below the initial entry was a short second paragraph added to the log by Homicide detectives Rodgers and Quinlan after an initial assessment of the case and identification of the victim had been confirmed.

02/10/92 additional—victim ID through fingerprints

William Ratliff—dob 7/14/73

multiple 646(b) 92-94

SID 94-00064 (prints, clothing, knife, tape)

No suspects at this time

The second entry meant that the nineteen-year-old victim had been identified through fingerprints that matched those taken during multiple arrests for prostitution and soliciting. It also mentioned that the Scientific Investigation Division was processing all evidence from the crime scene. The shorthand on the entry indicated this included all collected fingerprints, the victim’s clothing, a switchblade knife that may have been the murder weapon, and the tape that had been used to bind him.

“What do you think?”

Bosch looked up at Emily, who was still standing next to his cubicle.

“Well,” he said. “I remember this case and—”

“You were a detective in ’92?”

There was genuine surprise in her voice.

“It was only twenty years ago,” he said, smiling. “I actually was on the homicide table at Hollywood Division and worked with these guys, Rodgers and Quinlan. But it wasn’t my case, and that’s not why I remember it. What I meant was that I remember reviewing this case when I was transferred to this unit and ’92 became one of my years. I looked through all the open cases from that year. There were a lot. We had the riots that year. Anyway, I looked at this one and I don’t remember there being any workable leads. I don’t remember this name—Patrick Sewell—being in the file.”

“Okay. Is there anything you can do with it?”

Bosch shrugged.

“I’ll follow up, see if I can find out who this guy Patrick Sewell is and go from there.”

“Okay.”

“Meantime, if the anonymous tipster calls you again, try to get him to me. Tell him a detective needs to talk to him.”

“Okay, I will.”

“Thanks, Emily. You have a good day.”

“You too, Harry.”

Bosch smiled because she had used his first name.

  

The evidence box from archives took three days to get to Bosch after he formally made the request. By then he had already pulled the murder book from the Records Division and reviewed the case again. Billy Ratliff was a homeless kid who ended up on the streets of Hollywood at age fifteen. He was small in stature with blond hair and a toothy smile. He fell in with a group of fellow runaways who squatted in abandoned apartments and buildings and sometimes lived in city parks and homeless shelters. They were drug users and panhandlers and prostitutes. Billy was known to engage in all three activities and was in and out of juvenile halls and then jails after he turned eighteen. He always came back to the boulevard and the so-called “rat pack” in which he eventually served, as the oldest, in the capacity of alpha male.

The investigative theory contained in the murder book was that Billy’s street life took a fatal turn when he crossed paths with a psychopath who took him into the kitchen of a closed restaurant for an exchange of sex for money or drugs. According to the autopsy report, Ratliff was stabbed seven times in the chest and torso with a rage and ferocity that were evidenced by indentations in the wounds made by the hilt of the killer’s knife. The murder was classified as a hate crime because a psychological profile of the killing drawn up by a department shrink concluded that it was likely motivated by homophobic rage.

No next-of-kin notification was ever made in the case. Members of the rat pack provided little investigative help about the crime and were not even sure where Ratliff was from, though records at a youth shelter called My Friend’s Place had a file on Ratliff that said he was from Long Beach. Rodgers and Quinlan could never locate anyone from Billy Ratliff’s family. Nobody claimed his body and it was cremated at taxpayers’ expense.

Nowhere in the murder book did Bosch find the name Patrick Sewell. It never came up in interviews and wasn’t in the routine harvest of names of local miscreants and possible suspects known to be operating in the Hollywood area at the time. The detectives also pulled lists of suspects in other hate crimes that occurred in Hollywood in the previous year and nowhere did Sewell come up on the radar.

Despite there being no mention of Sewell in the murder book, Bosch had no trouble tracking him down twenty years later. A check of law enforcement databases spit out a Patrick Sewell serving a life sentence at San Quentin for a murder committed in Orange County four years after the Billy Ratliff killing. Bosch requested the case records from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and learned that the murder Sewell was in prison for was the stabbing of a man Sewell had picked up at a gay bar in Irvine.

The case had several similarities to the Ratliff murder, most notably that both victims had been homosexuals stabbed with a switchblade and that rage was clearly part of the motivation. In the Orange County case, Sewell had stabbed the victim with such force that at one point his hand slipped over the hilt of the knife and he cut himself, transferring his own blood to the victim and leaving the evidence that would help convict him.

This gave Bosch an idea. Ratliff had been cremated, so there was no going to the interred body to look for evidence. But according to the evidence report in the murder book, the switchblade had been found at the crime scene submerged in an industrial-size sink full of rancid water. It was surmised that the suspect had attempted to clean the weapon in the dark waters of the sink and left it there in panic or so that he would not be found in possession of it.

When the stored evidence from the Ratliff case arrived from archives, Bosch found that the sealed box contained the switchblade along with Ratliff’s clothes and the gray duct tape that had been used to bind and gag him. Bosch’s name was on the chain-of-custody receipt on the box. He had been the last one to open it seven years before while he was reviewing unsolved cases from the years assigned to him.

Back then he was quickly going through cases, looking for obvious investigative points of origin such as fingerprints and DNA sources. This time was different. This time he would go deeper. He had a clue to work with now.

Bosch took the entire box to the Regional Crime Lab, where he left its contents with various experts—the clothing to be viewed under lighting that would make body fluids fluoresce, the duct tape to be checked by specialists using new methods to expose fingerprints and fibers, and the switchblade to be examined by a DNA expert.

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