Friday, November 9, 2012

Information Underload

Sgt. Amy Maurer stands reluctantly in front of a half-moon configuration of cameras, photographers, and reporters.  Behind her is a post-apocalyptic scene, bustling with police, crowded with squad cars, and layered in yellow crime scene tape. Shrouded behind a short black curtain lay a body, next to that person, a car and an SUV, resting in place after what appears to be some sort of cataclysmic collision.
The scene, with Sgt. Maurer out of focus

Maurer, explains, someone has died, and an officer is injured, and that it all unfolded at "1:23 PM" but beyond that, the Sergeant, deflects every simple question with an even simpler retort of:  "I don't know."

Who shot who?  "I don't know." How did the cars end up like that?  "I don't know?"  Is the victim male or female?  "I don't know?"

Maurer, is patient, as she is peppered with questions for almost 10 minutes, she understands that the three bits of information she's handed the reporters is all she will volunteer.  Fellow journalists contort their question, hoping internally, that posing the inquiry with a different sentence structure will trick the West Valley City officer into accidentally spilling "the goods."   After several minutes, I literally throw my hands in the air and walk away from what is devolving into a comical scene.

Police must withhold fact sometimes from the public, if they don't they risk jeopardizing the investigation.  A poorly released piece of information could  damage the ability to get to the truth or taint a case when and if it ends up in front of a jury, but as I look from one face to another among my colleagues, I am impressed with how many jaws are literally hanging open.

As Maurer slinks away from the disappointed horde, reporters begin to talk about the remarkable lack of candor from police, "I've never seen anyting like this," one says shaking his head in disbelief. "What was that?" another asks, as a third, interjects, "that was unbelievable."

As I prepare for my live report, I spot a West Valley City Patrolman whom I know, he is standing sentinel in front of a squad car, lights peppering the quickly darkening night with blinding, quick red and blue pulses.

"How are you?" I ask, attempting to pass the time, "I'm good dude," he pops off jauntily, and without prompting, volunteers, "Sorry man, they have shut down information," he shakes his head grimly.  "Yeah," I squint my eyes and I shake my head, "why is that?"  Is it because of Susan Powell?"  I ask knowingly.

Susan Powell disappeared from her West Valley City home two Decembers ago.  Her husband, Josh was a suspect but was never arrested, later he would kill the couples two children in a ghastly fire he set, burning his home, his kids, and himself to the ground.
Susan Cox-Powell

West Valley City Police had been asked some difficult questions by the local media in the wake of  Josh's suicidal rampage, and at the same time, torched by the national press.  On this cool Friday evening, as investigators mill around the scene, my friend says the press scrutiny didn't help, but he admits, "the shutdown," of information, had begun in his words, "long before that."

Sgt. Maurer makes her hourly pilgrimage to the edge of the crime scene perimeter as she has promised reporters, and each time, her information basket is empty.  "I have to say," my eyes connecting with hers, "I get the sense that there is a concerted effort to hold back information," I pause, waiting for an answer, the dutiful sergeant's eyes widen, and her lips part, "uh," a squeak escapes, I  interrupt, "It seems..." I pause as I search for the right words, "dirty," she demurs.  "No," I say matter of factly, "I would never suggest, at this early stage, that police have done anything wrong," I move closer to her, "but I'm shocked, and surprised by how little information you are willing to give," I continue, "and all it does is force us reporters to seek the truth elsewhere, and fill in the blanks, perhaps in a way that the police may not like," I raise my eyebrow, and wait.  "I agree," she pulls her shoulders upwards to her ears in an exasperated shrug, then shakes her head, "I agree." her voice trails off as her eyes cast downward to her heavy black military style boot that is nudging a small pebble across the black pavement.

Danielle Willard, 21.
"I heard three or four shots," a witness tells me in his thick Eastern European accent.  Another woman, calling herself "Pinky," relays the scene of chaos, gunshots, the crunching of metal, and a woman laying on the pavement.  Derrick, a teenage transplant from West Virginia recalls, in his thick southern accent, an officer grabbing desperately for his knee, then tumbling to the ground.  All snap shots of of the full scene, one police are unwilling to explain.

Her name is Danielle Willard, she is 21 years old, I will learn from Danielle's mother several days later that her daughter was not armed when she was shot and killed by a pair of police detectives.   Melissa Kennedy says that is all she has learned from police.  The other threads from that afternoon, she has heard from witnesses who have approached her,  or things she has hunted down on the Internet, or unburied on blogs.  Kennedy is just three days away from burying her daughter when she agrees to meet me in the parking lot of the funeral home, where her baby girl now lay.

"I'm patient." she tells me,  Kennedy's mind is swirling with questions, something about that afternoon doesn't sit right, but she says "I'm might have to wait for the investigation to come to an end," I say to her, "I agree," echoing the words Sgt. Maurer gave me just a few days prior.

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