My younger sister, Katy had dated a guy named Steve Walton when she was in college. I remembered him as a skinny beer-drinking kid. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out Steve was Lieutenant Steve Walton in charge Detroit Police Homicide Squads Three and Four, now a buttoned-up, experienced professional. I called him, reintroduced myself and asked if I could spend some time with homicide and observe how murders were investigated and solved. After getting clearance from the top brass I was in business.
I was assigned to the afternoon shift: four till midnight. I would arrive and talk to detectives for a while and then read old case files. I would study the often grisly crime scene photos, the lifeless body of a man or woman, shot and laying in a pool of blood. I would read the investigator’s report. I would look at photos of the body taken by the medical examiner, close up detail of the entrance and exit wounds. I would study the ballistics information, lab tests done on shell casings and bullet fragments to determine what kind of weapon fired the fatal shot or shots. It was a fascinating glimpse into the grim reality of murder.
One night Detective Ray Felts, standing in the doorway of a homicide conference room said, “Pete, get your coat, we’ve got one.”
On the way to the crime scene Felts, who is white and Coleman, who is black, told me what they knew. A man had been shot and was presumed dead in a van on the east side.
We arrived at the crime scene on a residential street at nine-thirty-two p.m. There were police cruisers, lights flashing, parked in front of and behind a silver Chevy van that had to be fifteen years old. A rag tag collection of residents from this depressed neighborhood of burned out, abandoned houses, stood some distance away, watching like it was TV.
I got out of the Chevrolet sedan and stood behind Coleman and Felts, surveying the scene.
“What we got here?” Coleman said to a white Detroit Police officer who looked about eighteen.
“Dead man in the van registered to a Tiffaney Jones. We ain’t touched anything inside.”
Coleman said, “But you’re sure the dude’s gone?”
“Look at him, detective,” the officer said, “you’ll know that too.”
“Where’s the dude found him, called it in?” Coleman said. The officer pointed at two black men, one dressed as a security guard or an exterminator in a blue outfit with red epaulettes, standing on the sidewalk under a street lamp. “I’m gonna go talk to them.”
Felts slipped on a pair of rubber gloves and I followed him, ducking under the crime scene tape on the passenger side of the van. Felts took a small flashlight out of his sport coat pocket and shined it on the grass, sweeping the beam right to left and back. He stopped and held the light on something, turned to me and said, “Casings. Looks like something big, a nine maybe or a forty. He crouched, laid the flashlight on the grass and tagged the shells with yellow Post It notes.
Now Felts got up and opened the front passenger door. The inside lights went on and I saw the driver, a big man with a scraggly goatee, wearing a brown wool cap. And a grey leather jacket zipped up that had two bullet holes in the chest leaking blood. His head was slumped forward, chin on his chest still strapped in his seatbelt, bleeding from additional gunshots wounds in his neck and head.
Ray Felts tagged two more shell casings that were on the passenger seat with Post Its. “Shooter knew him.”
“How do you know that?” I said.
“If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have let him open the door, get this close.” Felts paused, rubbed his crooked nose with an index finger. “Didn’t fire a shot.” Nodding at the chrome-plate semiautomatic the driver was still holding in his right hand.
I heard someone behind me, looked and saw Detective Coleman. I moved out of the way. Coleman stuck his bald head in the van and was now shoulder-to-shoulder with Felts.
“Dude over here passed the van on the way to the Bottoms Up gentlemen’s club about seven, saw the van, engine running, lights on, looked like somebody in the driver’s seat. He came out two hours later, van’s still there in the same place, now he’s thinking something’s wrong, goes and gets the security guard at the club. Security guard looks in the van recognizes the driver, regular at the club. Know who this motherfucker is? Dude’s Geron Powell.”
Felts glanced at him and shrugged.
“Man the Lieu mentioned this morning. Street name’s Geronimo.”
I said, “Why is he called Geronimo?”
“‘Cause he’s one crazy motherfucker,” Coleman said. “Drug dealer and prime suspect in the murder of that young dumb-ass white kid from the suburbs, trying to get into the trade. Know who I’m talking about?”
Felts rubbed his goatee and said, “You mean the one they found stripped, ziptied and shot in the trunk of his Mercedes?”
Coleman grinned. “Fucking with me, huh? You’re probably looking at the murder weapon right there he said, glancing at Geron Powell’s .45. So that one’s solved. Now who you think did Geronimo?”
“Maybe we’ll find out.” Ray Felts reached and took a cell phone out of a compartment in the dash, pressed redial and I could hear the phone ring and a woman’s voice say, “hello.”
“Who’s this?” Felts said.
“Know where Geron’s at?”
“Tole me he went to meet Sweet Tooth.”
“Sweet Tooth, huh? What’s his name again?”
“Maurice something or other.”
“Where were they gonna meet?”
“That titty bar on Harper.”
I could see the neon sign that said Bottoms Up fifty yards away.
Tiff said, “Hey, who is this? Who my talking to?”
Felts disconnected and said, “Know somebody called Sweet Tooth?”
Coleman shook his head.
Ray Felts said, “What’s this look like to you?”
“Knowing Geronimo’s line of work, I’d say a dope deal gone sideways. I’d also say Geronimo lost his cheeba.”
“What I was thinking,” Felts said. “Shooter and Geron definitely knew each other.”
“They were friends,” Coleman said, “why’d he have a pistol in his hand?”
“I think he always had a pistol in his hand.” Felts said. “Thought he was a gangsta.”
Coleman opened the glove box that was empty.
I followed the detectives to the back of the van. Felts opened the rear doors, and shined his flashlight over the folded down seats, lighting up crevices and saw a white plastic bag filled with something. He reached in grabbed it, cut the zip-tie with a pocket knife and opened the bag. I got a whiff of high-grade hydroponic.
Coleman said, “How’d Sweet Tooth miss this?”
“Under the circumstances I’d say he was in a hurry?”
Ray Felts investigator’s report said: The victim, Geron Powell, was shot four times with a high caliber semiautomatic handgun, and conveyed to the medical examiner’s office. The time of death was unknown. The manner of death, in his estimation, was ruled to be a homicide. The van was towed to the police lot, and I went home to the suburbs.
The next afternoon I reported to headquarters at 3:55 p.m. I went to Ray Felts desk and stood there till he got off the phone, anxious to know what happened after I left.
“Sweet Tooth’s real name is Maurice McNeal. He just got out of I-Max after five years for aggravated assault, decided to look up his old buddy Geronimo, get back in the trade.”
Two days later Maurice McNeal was found shot to death in a room at the Viking Motel on 2720 Grand River Avenue. After talking to the assistant manager and a couple from Toledo, staying in the room next to Maurice’s, Felts and Coleman were now looking for a muscular black man with dreads who drove a red Cadillac CTS with twenty-inch rims.