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COP TALES: My best friend’s boy

Cop Tales are true stories as told by law enforcement officers from all over the country. The stories are told in the first person. The actual officer’s initials follow each story.

When you are a young state trooper, you are faced with many challenges. That was particularly true in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I served in the state police traffic division. We worked in one of the 12 state police troops scattered throughout the state. As long as you didn’t do something terrible during the academy, you were assigned to the troop in the area you lived.

Living and working in the same area presented opportunities, and despite the geography we covered you were inevitably going to interact with someone you knew or a family member. No amount of training can prepare you for everything you will face, working in a rural area of the state where you were often the only law enforcement for 60 miles. One Halloween night, I faced the single most devastating event in my young career as a state trooper.

It was about 11:30 p.m. on Halloween when I was dispatched to a fatal traffic accident. As I went roaring through the piney woods to the crash scene, my mind raced as I anticipated what I would see once I arrived. My route was one of the farthest from the troop office and my closest supervisor was 62 miles away. The scene was chaotic with several local residences, county deputies to assist with traffic management, tow trucks and an ambulance.

It was a typical narrow, dark and isolated rural county road. The two vehicles involved were off the road, pushed past the ditch with a large truck logged squarely on top of a smaller vehicle. Both of the vehicles were still smoldering, and the smell of battery acid, radiator water and death were pervasive. The smaller vehicle had been devastated by the impact. The vehicle's roof was sheared off and the occupant of the smaller vehicle was still in the driver’s seat. The driver of the larger vehicle was sitting on the ground away from the vehicle he had been driving. While my supervisor was en route, I took control of the scene and started the investigation. What I didn’t know was that the deceased young man in the front driver’s seat of the vehicle was my best friend’s son.

After putting the investigative pieces of the crash together, taking pictures, measurements, conducting a field sobriety test, making the arrest, and having the body removed, it was my task to go the five miles to my best friend’s house with my supervisor to deliver the most heart wrenching news of my career. What do you say? How do you say it? I had watched this young man grow up. He was only 16 years old and their only son.

When my supervisor and I arrived at my best friends’ residence at 4 a.m., my supervisor and I discussed what we would say when we walked to the front door that I had entered dozens of times before. I rang the doorbell and my friend arrived and opened the door. He looked confused and wanted to know what we wanted. As I grappled with every fiber of my emotions, I slowly told him what had happened. It felt like the room was spinning; I couldn’t hear my own voice. My best friend began to get angry and told me it was impossible because their son was in his bed. He then pushed past me as he burst into his son’s empty room. The boy had snuck out of the house, pushed the car down the driveway to attend a friend’s Halloween party and was killed by a drunken driver as he rushed home before his parents could catch him.

I was so fortunate to have such an amazing supervisor, but the next few hours were a blur. I went with my friend as he identified his son’s remains, I explained the next steps and did my best to console my friend. As the days progressed, there was a funeral, a trial for the drunken driver and fortunately, a conviction. However, my friend and I were never the same. I knew that for all the great memories we shared, he remembered that cold night when I told him his son had been killed.

Few outside of law enforcement understand the responsibilities that come every time you put on the uniform. What you will face, whether or not you will return home, the pain you will endure from what you see and the tragic news you may have to deliver. I have no regrets about my time in traffic, but it was the single most difficult assignment of my trooper career.

- HM

And that was a slow shift

When the officers were in training status, they had to sit in the dispatch center for a day to see what tasks we performed on a daily basis. There were usually three dispatchers per squad with each having different days off, so there were usually two dispatchers on the shift. One of us would usually pick up lunch and it was my partner's turn to do the food run.

While she was gone, we had a vehicle accident at a major intersection, where the driver hit a power pole near a bank. The bank robbery alarm went off, so I needed to dispatch officers to that location. I also needed to dispatch the officers and EMTs to the vehicle accident. Did I mention that we also dispatched for the water/sewer department? The accident also interfered with the utility lift station operation and the utilities workers needed to be dispatched.

The officer was amazed that I was able to dispatch all the necessary units from three different departments and still answer the phones. When my partner came back, she asked if we knew about the accident. The officer left the dispatch center and never even came back in to visit.

- HC

A sergeant’s lesson

I was working a day shift in a rural county for the highway patrol when I got a call of a vehicle into an irrigation ditch about 15 miles from my location. Dispatch advised that a farmer found the car when he was driving the levy road and could only see the rear bumper, but it looked like it had been there a while. When I got there, the farmer and my sergeant were both at the edge of the levy looking down into the irrigation ditch at the rear bumper of a car. The irrigation ditch was about 20 feet deep and it was not unusual for stolen cars to be dumped in there. The county did not have a dive team and the water was so murky we couldn’t even see the rear license plate, so we called a tow truck to get the car out of the water.

When the tow truck arrived, he threw a hook onto the rear bumper and started hoisting. My sergeant grabbed me and told me that since the vehicle was submerged for so long that if there was a body inside, the body would be bloated and weigh about 300 pounds. He told me to be careful about pulling it up.

As the car came up, the driver’s side door opened and a body fell halfway out of the car. My sergeant and I ran down into three feet of water to grab the body. As we got to him, I realized what my sergeant told me was true, he did weigh about 300 pounds and I didn’t think the two of us could pull him out. Just then the tow driver yelled, “That’s my best friend. I have been trying to call him the last couple days.” My sergeant looked over his shoulder at me and asked me to hang onto the body for a couple minutes.

My sergeant ran up the embankment through waist-deep water. He grabbed the tow driver, threw his arm around him, and sat down on the embankment with him. I don’t know how long he sat with him and I don’t really remember if the body was that heavy, but that’s what needed to be done. My sergeant came back down the embankment into waist-deep water and helped me pull the body back up the embankment as the tow driver finished pulling the car up to the levy road. We then backed off while the tow driver said his goodbyes. At the end of the day, I was soaked to the skin in irrigation water and my pants were ruined, but I learned a great lesson from my sergeant. Taking care of people is what is most important.

- DG

Brian Smith served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and retired as an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol. He resides in Bakersfield. If you have a personal “Cop Tale” to share, please contact Smith at bmsmith778@gmail.com.