Editor's note: Cop Tales are true stories as told by law enforcement officers from all over the country. The stories are told in the first person.
As a commander of a Highway Patrol office, I was notified of a possible multiple fatal on the outskirts of town. When I arrived, I noticed the Highway Patrol helicopter on the berm of the aqueduct, other rescue workers and a Highway Patrol officer who I will call Officer X.
I was told a van with a bunch of people crashed into the aqueduct and the divers were going to search for the bodies.
Officer X and I stood there watching as the divers raised up one body after another from the water. They pulled out a woman, then an infant, then another child, then another. It seemed to never end. Every one of them was deceased. It was a horrific scene.
As I learned later, it turned out that the father went to work and realized he forgot his lunch, so he called his wife and asked her to bring it to him. She was not an experienced driver, but she put her four young children and her 12-year-old niece, who was visiting them for the week, in her van and dropped off his lunch.
On her way back home, she took a curve too fast and instead of hitting the brakes, she hit the accelerator and the vehicle went through the fence and into the aqueduct. The vehicle plunged to the bottom.
After all the bodies were pulled out and a license plate was obtained from the van, I went to the registered owner’s house to make notification, but no one was home (I didn’t know he was at work).
On the way back to the scene, I stopped to buy the officers and firemen refreshments. While I was there, my dispatcher called to notify me that Officer X’s wife had committed suicide. I knew her very well.
I asked how Officer X was handling the news. The dispatcher advised he did not know yet and someone had to tell him.
Officer X was at the scene with that whole family that perished and now I had to tell him about his wife? It seemed like it took me forever to get to him.
When I returned, I asked him to take a walk away from the accident scene and I broke the news to him.
I can’t even describe his reactions. I then asked the Highway Patrol helicopter pilot to take us to her location. When we got there, I went in to see his wife. I didn’t know how he would ever get through something like that. He had two small children and he knew he had to be there for them (which he always was).
My day was not over yet. I then had to return to the husband/father’s house of the earlier crash and tell him he lost his entire family. He was home when I got there that time.
That was so long ago, but every memory of that day is still stuck in my head.
THE FIRST TIME I LIED TO A DYING PERSON
As a young deputy, I was working the 2100 shift (9 p.m. to 5 a.m.). I was responsible for about 800 or so square miles of the county, pretty much by myself. The local Highway Patrol went on call at 2230 (10:30 p.m.), and the local city police had a few officers on duty.
One night, I received a call of a victim of a shooting at a house in the unincorporated area of the city. As I arrived on scene, I found a man lying on the floor of the bedroom with a .22-caliber gunshot wound to the chest.
There was very little bleeding and only a small hole in the center of his chest. I could see that he was not doing well at all and he was in a lot of pain.
He was holding onto one of the legs of a tall dresser with one hand. The pain was causing him to push/pull on the leg so hard that it was in danger of being tipped over onto him.
As I was kneeling next to him, I had to put my hand up to keep the dresser upright. He told me that he was going to die. I looked him in the eyes and told him to hang on, that the ambulance would be there shortly and although I knew otherwise, I told him he would be fine.
After I told him that, he settled down and relaxed a little bit. I stayed by his side talking to him as I watched him die. He died just as the ambulance arrived on scene.
I had been raised to not lie, that it was always better to tell the truth. That night I learned that sometimes it is kinder to lie, if it can give a little comfort to someone about to die.
Since it was my first homicide, I also witnessed his autopsy. I was 23 years, 2 months and 20 days old; he was only 21.
Looking back, I’m amazed how a single call could shape a person and how I could remember so many details 44 years later.
One sunny afternoon, I was patrolling the highways when I passed a large, expensive black Mercedes Benz in the No. 2 lane.
As I passed the Mercedes and looked at the license plate, a light went off in my brain. I knew he had the wrong type of license plate on the vehicle. I ran a check on it and sure enough the plate came back to a different type of vehicle out of a city two hours away.
After making the stop, it became clear that something was wrong. With a backup unit responding, I ran the VIN of the car and it was a reported stolen vehicle.
The person driving had committed a home invasion robbery, pistol-whipped the family, stole their jewelry, money and car. He then drove to his home where he put the wrong plates on the car, but he had no idea that the license plates belonged on a different type of vehicle and most officers would notice it.
What appeared to be a minor violation turned into a bigger case. I was able to take a violent felon off the streets just because I paid attention to license plates.