Not far from the glitter of the Las Vegas Valley’s world-famous adult playground, a serial rapist and murderer–the Phantom–claims his victims, seeking to inflict pain on those who remind him of the unbearable agony he’s endured…
Detective Steve Garneau of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is assigned as the lead investigator on the case. Working under a microscope of feminist groups and politicians alike, he pursues his elusive quarry but makes an unfortunate comment that an unscrupulous reporter overhears–and Garneau’s vow not to rest until the killer receives a lethal injection becomes front-page news. Instead of working under a microscope, Garneau finds himself in a white, hot spotlight for all to watch…including a killer both daring and elusive whose next victim could be Garneau’s wife or daughter.
GENRE: Mystery (Serial Killer) ISBN: 978-1-920741-30-3 ASIN: B003XYFMQM Word Count: 81, 798
The presence of the yellow crime scene tape and marked and unmarked police vehicles made it clear that something was going on at the southeast corner of Boulder and Russell. There were no buildings in the vicinity of the intersection. The terrain was level and consisted of hard-packed dirt with rocks, stones and an occasional desert shrub. Garneau wasn’t particularly pleased to see a Channel 7 news van parked off the road across from the action. If one media outlet already had word, others wouldn’t be far behind.
Garneau parked near the news van and crossed the street. A reporter and cameraman were engaged in an animated conversation with a Patrol sergeant. Ignoring them, he checked in with the uniformed officer in charge of the crime scene log. The identities of all personnel and their arrival and departure times would be noted in the log. Inside the taped-off area, a team of evidence technicians were busy at work. The center of activity was the sheet on which the body of the victim rested. While the corpse was only fifteen feet off Boulder, the crime scene was much larger. No crucial evidence would be missed because of having too limited a search area. All cigarette butts, cans, bottles and other debris would be collected and examined. Shoe prints and tire tracks could prove to be extremely valuable, but their presence was unlikely in these conditions.
Garneau walked over to the body. The sheet that it had been wrapped in was pulled back, the victim completely exposed. She was on her back, eyes staring unblinkingly at the bright sun that had recently replaced the darkness. Her skirt was bunched up around her waist; she was naked below. The upper part of her white blouse was stained with blood. Other stains, probably semen, were visible on the skirt and lower blouse. It was obvious the woman had been beaten in the head and there was bruising on her throat.
“What can you tell me, Tom?” Garneau asked the supervisor of the Crime Scene Investigative Unit, who was squatting next to the body.
“Morning, Steve. I didn’t realize you were standing there,” the man said, getting to his feet.
“I just arrived. What have we got?”
“Hispanic female, mid-thirties. Appears to be a manual strangulation, probably following a rape and beating. It looks like the guy was all business; her bra wasn’t removed and her panties were wadded up and stuffed inside her blouse. The crime had likely taken place somewhere else and the killer dumped her here. No ID or other personal belongings. I’m pretty sure we’ve got some semen,” he pointed his latex-gloved hand at the stained areas of the skirt and blouse. “I imagine the blood stains are from her, but he may have cut his hand when he hit her. We could get lucky there.”
“What about this?” Garneau asked, pointing to the woman’s swollen right ankle and the high heels next to her feet.
“I think it’s a sprain. Maybe she tried to get away from the killer and twisted it in the process. The coroner may be able to shed some more light on it. The shoes were wrapped up in the sheet with the body. I just hope we can find something to lead us to where this actually went down. That’s where we need to look.”
“Any tracks or drag marks?”
“Not so far. They’re still checking, but don’t hold your breath. I’d bet he parked on the shoulder of Boulder and carried her over here.”
“Did she put up a fight?”
“No evidence of that, but take a look at this.” Tom again squatted down and pulled the right shoulder of the victim’s jacket back. “There’s the same kind of bruising on her other arm,” he said, pointing to the discoloration on the biceps. “My guess is that he used his knees to pin her arms down. And here’s something else,” he added, this time running the tip of his index finger around the dead woman’s neck.
Garneau removed a pair of exam gloves from his jacket pocket and squatted next to Tom. His finger traced the same groove. “What do you think?”
“Some sort of garrote, I suppose. I removed some fibers from there. When we do the microscopic on them we’ll probably find that it’s rope.”
“What about the manual strangulation?” Garneau asked.
“I doubt the garrote killed her. I think it was used to get her attention, gain control. He probably finished her off with his hands.”
As Garneau was pondering that information, a Patrol officer approached him. “Detective, I’m to deliver this to you.” He held out a black purse. “This is from the missing persons case reported last night.”
“Thanks,” Garneau said, rising to take the bag and sign the evidence receipt. He opened the purse and located the wallet. After a quick search a Nevada driver’s license was found. Resuming a squatting position, he compared the picture on the license to the dead woman. Even with the battered face, there was no doubt he was looking at what had formerly been Juanita Hernandez.
Terry Bolton’s arrival twenty minutes later had been preceded by the appearance of two more news crews. The media were now being kept across Russell from the crime scene. They had a lot of questions and were getting impatient waiting for a spokesperson to accommodate them.
As soon as Terry logged in, Garneau took her to an area several feet from the body, which had already been searched for evidence. He began his briefing with what he’d learned from the Patrol supervisor. Juanita Hernandez, age thirty-eight, had been reported missing at 11:15 Friday night. Her eighteen-year-old daughter was emphatic that her mother promised to be home right after finishing work at ten. She had promised to take her daughters out for a ride in their new car, and when Juanita Hernandez made a promise to her kids, she didn’t break it. No way! There was something wrong. A Patrol unit was dispatched to Southgate Mall. Juanita’s car was found in the parking lot, her purse, containing credit cards and cash, lay on the pavement at the rear of the vehicle. There was no sign of a struggle, but the circumstances were definitely suspicious.
He finished with what he learned from Tom and his own examination of the body. “We’ve put in a call for the coroner’s people. Dan should be here in a little while and he’ll give them a preliminary statement.” He glanced at the reporters across the street.
Terry nodded. “What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“For now, take a look at the victim. Tom will answer any questions you have that I didn’t cover. Maybe you’ll notice something from a woman’s perspective that we men may have missed.” He smiled.
Terry knew Garneau was being serious, not condescending. At age thirty-six and after ten years working Patrol, she was becoming disillusioned. The transfer to homicide had rejuvenated her. In the two months she had been working with him, she learned he was the consummate professional. One could take what he said at face value, without having to look for hidden meanings. Although she was single and temporarily unattached, he never made a play for her. They had bonded very quickly and were friends. She had a lot to learn, but couldn’t think of a better person to learn from than Steve Garneau.
Dan Daniels got on the scene a few minutes after eight. Noticing the mob of reporters gathered on the north side of Russell, he parked on Boulder south of the crime scene. He knew that nothing fired up the press like a murder, especially one involving sex. He hoped to have a chance to talk with Garneau and get up to speed before the media spotted him. However, his six-foot-three inch frame was familiar and didn’t go unnoticed.
Responding to the howls for his attention, Daniels veered across the street to address the news-hounds. Chaos ensued as a barrage of questions were hurled at him. Daniels extended his arms toward the reporters in a calming gesture. “Please folks, I just got here. Give me a chance to get some information for you. I’ll be back in ten minutes,” he promised. Temporarily sated, the media encampment grew relatively quiet.
As soon as Daniels reached him, Garneau passed on all the relevant information. “Did you talk to the guy who found her?” Daniels asked.
“Yeah. He lives in Henderson and was on his way to the Longhorn for breakfast. He slowed down for the intersection and noticed something off to the side of the road. He pulled over to get a better look. When he got closer, he recognized that the lump he had seen was a sheet with something inside it. He got scared and called 911 on his cell phone.”
“He didn’t see the body?”
“No. When he figured out what might be inside that sheet he didn’t touch anything. He went back to his car and waited for the patrol to get here. There was light traffic on Boulder, but no vehicles or persons at the scene. I got him out of here before your friends across the street could get a hold of him.”
Daniels smiled at Garneau’s dry humor. “I’ll go over and give them a short statement so they can get out of our hair. Be right back.”
Garneau was glad he wasn’t the one who had to deal with the media. Most of the reporters were smart, hard-working and conscientious, but not all. Some were loose with the facts and either didn’t accurately report what they were told, or took statements out of context. Those were the kind that made him shy away from microphones and cameras.
Lieutenant Daniels was just the opposite. As long as he was in possession of the necessary information, he seemed to relish these little sparring sessions. Mentally agile, he had an uncanny ability to give the press the information they were entitled to without saying things that came back to haunt him.
Five minutes later, Daniels returned and the exodus of reporters was underway. They would report that a passing motorist had discovered the dead body of a female. The police believed they knew the identity of the deceased, but the name would not be released until her next of kin had been notified. A homicide investigation was commencing. No other information would be immediately available. There would be an update later in the day.
The reporters weren’t necessarily happy with the very limited disclosures, but they knew they would get nothing more out of Daniels for the time being. They also knew the promised update would consist mostly of what Daniels felt the public – and the killer – should know.
By 10:30 the coroner’s investigators had removed the body, estimating the time of death at around midnight. Their on-scene examination agreed with the scenario Tom had come up with. The autopsy could, of course, contradict those theories.
The evidence technicians were just wrapping up and preparing to head for the crime lab with the items they had collected. Juanita’s clothes and the sheet would be sent over from the coroner’s office later to be examined and the stains analyzed. Trace evidence on the clothes and sheet might reveal where Juanita had been killed and the type of vehicle involved. Any hairs the morgue staff would later comb from the victim’s pubic area would also be submitted. Under a microscope it would be determined if the source of those hairs were other than from Juanita. If so, they might provide as critical evidence to help identify the killer.
A few minutes later Daniels, Bolton and Garneau were standing alone at the former crime scene. Daniels smiled as he watched Garneau repeatedly run his right hand through his light brown hair, a sign he was in deep thought. “What’s on your mind, Steve?” he asked.
“There are lots of places in the desert to hide a body. He dumped her on the side of a busy highway where she’d be found right away. Why?”
“Good question,” Daniels said. “What’s your answer?”
“Maybe he was sending some kind of message. Maybe it’s a challenge to us or maybe he wants to be caught…” Garneau shrugged as his words trailed off.
“If it was a husband or boyfriend, he may have killed her in the heat of passion, then became concerned about the remains being handled properly. Didn’t want the animals to get her or wanted the family to know what happened to her,” Terry offered.
“That’s a possibility, too,” Daniels said, although he thought it was a remote one. “Let’s get started and maybe we can get some answers.”
“Right,” Garneau said. “Come on, Terry, we can pick the daughters up and take them to the morgue for a positive ID. Then we’ll start interviewing. We’ll drop your car off at the office first.”
“I’ll stop by the store where she worked and break the news. I can ask them to have everyone who worked with the victim yesterday available for you to question this afternoon. While I’m there I’ll check with mall security to see if they had any incident reports that could be related to this,” Daniels offered.
“Thanks, Lieutenant. You’ll be around the office later?”
“You bet! I want an update for the news media before the six o’clock broadcasts. We should have some preliminary reports from the medical examiner and the lab by then. Let’s just hope the victim knew her killer.”
Garneau and Bolton both knew the importance of that statement. If the killer and victim were acquainted, during the course of interviews with the victim’s family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, someone would mention the killer’s name. He would eventually be questioned. But if the victim had been randomly picked, the identification and apprehension of the killer would be much more difficult.
There was something more to consider than merely the difficulty of capture, though. If the victim was a specific target because of jealousy, greed or some other human emotion, the death satisfied the motive. If, however, the perpetrator chose the victim solely because of his desire to kill, then he would probably be compelled to repeat the crime.
Steve Garneau glanced at the spot where Juanita Hernandez had been found and hoped he hadn’t witnessed the opening act of a serial killer.