Read The 37th Hour Online

Authors: Jodi Compton

Tags: #Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Minneapolis (Minn.), #Police, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #Mystery & Detective - General, #General, #Suspense, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers, #Missing persons, #Fiction

The 37th Hour (4 page)

The hallway was empty, and I walked slowly to the doors of the courtroom. I settled my shoulder bag, and then myself, onto a bench. I was to wait for O’Malley to come out and get me. I knew the drill.

Only once had I been called to testify in a criminal case in a capacity other than my official one, and that hadn’t been here in Minneapolis. It had been in St. Paul, at the pretrial hearing of Royce Stewart, accused killer of Kamareia Brown.

It was to me that Kamareia had identified him as her attacker, in the back of the ambulance.

The afternoon she’d died, Kamareia had been home alone. But she’d actually been attacked in the house of some neighbors who had been redoing their interiors. The two painters working there had finished around four in the afternoon, but only one of them was alibied for the time after that.

The other one was Stewart, a 25-year-old laborer from downstate. His car’s license plate reflected his nickname,
SHORTY
. He wasn’t that short, actually, about five-nine, with a wiry frame and a shaggy blond ponytail. But Kamareia had called him by his nickname, appropriate or not. She’d never even known his name; she’d only seen the license plate on the car that he drove. Genevieve had told me, a week before Kamareia’s death, that Kam had noticed “Shorty” looking at her, and that it gave her a creepy feeling.

No one ever figured out how he got her to come over to the neighbors’ property.

Stewart’s juvenile record was sealed, and since I was not an official part of the investigation and prosecution, I never got to see it. As an adult, he’d been caught furnishing alcohol to minors and exposing himself to teenage girls near a high school. Shorty, by all accounts, liked young girls.

Jackie Kowalski, the public defender who’d represented Stewart, told me later how Stewart had disclosed to her that he was making support payments for a child by a “black chick I only did one time.”

Stewart didn’t believe the baby was his. He had believed that the paternity test results were faked by sympathetic hospital staffers, who naturally took the side of a young, unmarried mother against a man. “ ’Cause you know, guys don’t have any rights anymore,” Shorty had explained.

He’d told Kowalski this story more than once, and she’d realized he felt it was part of his defense. The fact that he was making the support payments, for a half-black child, no less, proved that he was a good guy who wouldn’t have hurt Kamareia, who was biracial.

Shorty had also suggested to his lawyer that she present the theory that a black man had killed Kamareia with the express plan in mind of having a white guy take the fall for it.

If only Shorty had taken the stand, he would have repulsed any jury ever impaneled and all but convicted himself.

But the case never got to a jury, and that was my fault.

I was on the stand at the Ramsey County Government Center, during a pretrial hearing. Stewart’s public defender had asked for the case to be thrown out, as Mark Urban, the Ramsey County prosecutor, had predicted she would.

Urban sat at the table nearest the empty jury box, but it wasn’t him my eyes went to. Christian Kilander was also there, seated in the spectators’ benches. He must have taken the morning off to see me testify. It surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Kamareia’s death caused quite a stir among the many people who knew and liked Genevieve.

Kilander acknowledged my gaze with the slightest of nods, which I couldn’t return, and his face was unusually serious.

Jackie Kowalski stood in front of me, a slight young woman fresh out of U of M Law School, with light brown hair and an inexpensive catalog suit.

I more or less knew—Urban had warned me—what she was going to ask me, but it didn’t make things any easier.

“Detective Pribek—can I call you Ms. Pribek? Since you aren’t involved in this case as an officer of the law.”

“You can.”

“Ms. Pribek, you were at the house shortly after the crime, as you’ve said. And you rode in the ambulance with Miss Brown, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Why you and not her mother?”

“Genevieve was being treated for shock at the scene. She was still distraught when they were taking Kamareia away. I felt someone should go with her who wasn’t so upset that it would increase Kamareia’s distress.”

“I see. How did it come about that she identified her assailant? Did you ask her?”

“No, she volunteered the information.”

“What did she say?”

“She said, ‘It was Shorty. The guy who was always watching me.’ ”

“And you took this to mean Mr. Stewart?”

“Yes. It was his nickname.”

Jackie Kowalski paused. Had we been at trial, before a jury, she most likely would have pursued the matter, trying to poke holes in Kamareia’s tenuous identification-by-nickname. But there was no jury here, only the judge who Kowalski was asking to dismiss the charges. She had a legal point to make, and so she moved on.

“What else did she tell you about the assault?”

“She had gone on to say she should have been more careful, or something to that effect. And I said, ‘It’s okay, you couldn’t have known.’ ”

“Was that the extent of your discussion of the attack?” She knew it was. She’d read the deposition.

“Yes.”

“So you never asked her a question.”

“No.”

“Did you come to the scene as an officer of the law?”

“I’m always an officer of the law.”

“I recognize that,” Kowalski said. “But you were at your partner’s home socially, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“The two of you see a lot of each other outside of work, and consider yourselves friends?”

“Yes.”

“And you saw a lot of Kamareia Brown in this capacity, as a friend of her mother?”

“Yes.”

“And so, when Genevieve Brown was too distraught to go along to the hospital with her daughter, you went in her place because you were ‘composed.’ That indicates to me that your purpose was to keep Kamareia Brown calm, to comfort her. Would you agree?”

“My primary purpose was to make sure Kamareia was not alone at that time.”

I wasn’t going to make it easy for her.

“Did you ever remind her of your status as an officer of the law?”

“Kamareia grew up around—“

“Please answer the questions I put to you.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Kowalski paused, signaling a change in direction. “Ms. Pribek, the ambulance attendant who was in the back with you and Miss Brown has said in her deposition that you made efforts to comfort Miss Brown. In fact, she said that she heard you say ‘You’ll be all right’ twice. Is that true?”

This was the question all the others had been leading up to.

“I don’t remember if I said it twice.”

“But you know that you said, at least once, ‘You’ll be all right.’ ”

I met Kilander’s eyes and saw him seeing the case fall apart. He knew what the question meant.

“Yes.”

Genevieve, a potential witness, had been barred from attending this hearing, and at the moment I was grateful my partner was not among the spectators.

“And in general you made comforting statements to Miss Brown, leading her to believe she would survive her injuries.”

“I don’t feel I was leading her to believe anything.”

Kowalski raised her eyebrows. “Could you explain, then, what other understanding she could have taken from the statement ‘You’ll be all right’?”

“Objection,” Urban said. “Counsel is asking the witness to speculate.”

“I’ll withdraw it,” Kowalski said. “Ms. Pribek, did you say anything to Miss Brown that would indicate to her that her injuries were fatal?”

Genevieve, I’m so sorry. I was trying to do the right thing.

“No, I didn’t.”

Dying declarations are notoriously tricky. They rely on the understanding that someone who knows she is dying has no reason to lie. For this reason, the paramount issue in court tends to be whether the dying person in fact believed he or she was dying.

On the stand, Kowalski had made it clear to the judge that Kamareia did not see me as a criminal investigator, hence Kowalski’s insistence on calling me “Ms. Pribek,” instead of using my rank. More importantly, Kowalski established that I had led Kamareia to believe she would not die of her wounds.

Kilander had told me about dying declarations once, long before Kamareia’s death. It wasn’t as if I’d never heard about the legal aspects of point-of-death accusations; they simply had not crossed my mind, not even remotely, that day when I’d been watching a young woman die.

Jackie Kowalski was right about one thing—I had gotten into that ambulance as a friend. I had tried to be a good friend to Kamareia, to do what her mother would have done, to comfort and reassure her. All these things compromised Kamareia’s accusation, and in doing so jeopardized a case that was shaky in its other aspects.

Despite the rape, there had been no semen recovered, an occurrence more common than many people realized. Maybe Shorty wore a condom, maybe he simply didn’t ejaculate. It was an academic point to me. I considered Kamareia’s murder a hate crime in its simplest definition: the result of hatred. As far as I could see, Stewart had raped Kamareia because it was just another way of beating her.

But the end result was that there was no DNA to recover. Other hair and fiber evidence wasn’t useful, because Stewart had been all over the house, working, for two weeks. And Kamareia’s fingernail scrapings yielded nothing useful. She’d clearly been too stunned, attacked too abruptly, to put up a good fight.

The whole case revolved around Kamareia’s point-of-death accusation. When the judge threw out Kamareia’s statement, the rest of the case collapsed like a house of cards. The judge found insufficient grounds to go to trial, and the worst that happened to Royce Stewart in the Cities was that he lost his driver’s license in an unrelated DWI.

“Sarah?”

The courtroom door had swung open almost soundlessly. Jane O’Malley was looking at me. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I said.

 

chapter 3

While O’Malley had said
the people’s testimony had been moving faster than expected that day, it took time for me to recount my part of the story. It was after five when I returned. Vang was still at his desk, and once again on the phone. He must have been on hold, because he slid the lower end of the receiver away from his mouth and said, “Your husband was here, looking for you.”

“Shiloh was here?” I repeated, stupidly. “Is he—”

But Vang had snapped his attention back to his phone conversation.

“Hello, Commander Erickson, this is—”

I tuned him out. Shiloh had obviously been and gone, and even though my day was over and I’d be home soon, I was oddly disappointed at having missed him. Up until two weeks ago, Shiloh had been a detective with the Minneapolis Police Department. While we hadn’t technically worked together, our jobs used to overlap at times. Now I never ran into him downtown anymore, and I missed it.

It was something I’d have to get used to. Shiloh was leaving next week for his FBI training at Quantico, which would last for four months.

I glanced down, making one last check for messages. There were none, so I set the phone to go to voice mail on one ring and picked up my bag. I gave Vang a little finger wave on my way out, which he acknowledged with a nod.

 

My 1970 Nova was the first car I’d ever bought. Some of the guys at work winced to see it; I knew they were imagining the restoration work they’d do on it, if it were theirs. Its gunmetal gray paint had faded without the regular waxing a car aficionado would have given it, and thin cracks ran through the dashboard. Yet it was surprisingly reliable, and I was perversely attached to it. Every winter I imagined trading it in for something more surefooted on the snow and ice, an SUV or 4WD truck like many of my fellow officers drove. But now it was fall again—October—and I still hadn’t given serious consideration to placing an ad.

I didn’t go straight home. The Nova’s fuel gauge needle had slipped below the quarter-tank mark, and I filled it at the cheapest gas station I knew, then took my boots to a repair shop. They were going to need professional attention if they were going to survive their unexpected soaking in the Mississippi. My errands cost me more than a half hour before I turned onto the quiet street in Northeast Minneapolis where Shiloh and I lived.

Nordeast, as locals still sometimes called it, used to be a heavily Eastern European part of town; it had grown more integrated through the years. Bisected by the railroad, it was a place of weather-beaten old houses with big screened porches, light industrial businesses, and corner bars whose signs advertised meat raffles and pulltabs. I’d immediately liked it here, liked Shiloh’s old house with the rumbling trains that ran behind the narrow backyard and the dreamy, undersea quality it had in the summer from the dappling of sun and shade created by the overhanging elms. But I also knew that in this neighborhood Shiloh had taken a switchblade knife away from an 11-year-old kid, and last Halloween someone had scrawled anti-police slurs in red chalk on our driveway. It was a city neighborhood, no mistake.

Old Mrs. Muzio, our next-door neighbor, was coming out of her house with her old wolfhound-mix dog, Snoopy. I considered waving, but it was often necessary to stand right in front of Nedda Muzio to get her attention, so instead I cruised past her place to ours. Shiloh’s old Pontiac Catalina was absent from the driveway, so I pulled in to occupy that place.

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