The Winnebago Sheriff’s Department has recovered an old Dodge Charger from the bottom of a lake. Meantime, the sheriff is nowhere to be found. This picks up when the last entry left off.
Sergeant Doug Matsen, head of the newly expanded Winnebago County Crime Lab, was waiting with the overhead door of the evidence garage open. KT Towing’s flatbed truck was backed up close to the garage, ready to unload the Dodge Charger. Smoke joined the group right ahead of me, and we all squinted against the blinding rays of the late morning sun reflecting from the glass and metal on the vehicles. Even with my sunglasses cutting out most of the glare, my eyes still partially closed from the assault.
Sergeant Matsen was in his late thirties, seven or eight years older than me. He had been on the wild side in his earlier days with the department, pushing the limits of what he could legally do to solve crimes. Word was that it had kept Sheriff Twardy on edge wondering if Matsen might cross the wrong line at some point. But Matsen had the determination and dedication that made him an astute road deputy. And when he put in for the crime lab’s supervisory position, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was the one best suited for the job.
“Back far enough into the garage to unload this precious cargo,” Smoke said.
Kyle got back in the driver’s seat and did just that. “Say when,” he yelled out his open window.
Smoke, Matsen, Ted, and I went into the garage to monitor the process.
“That’s good,” Smoke called out, and the truck came to an immediate stop.
Ted walked around to the back of the truck. “Okay Kyle, lift the front of the bed up and I’ll get the ramps in place.”
When the bed of the truck rose to about a thirty degree angle, Kyle lowered the ramps then climbed back up. He grabbed the truck bed wall for better balance as he walked uphill to operate the winch. Kyle shut off the truck’s engine and got out to watch the action. As the strap loosened, the car made its slow descent to the garage floor.
“If this don’t beat all,” Matsen said as he snapped on latex gloves and stared into the Dodge Charger that had been safely delivered to him. “When you get out of bed in the morning, you never know what the day is going to bring you.”
“That’s a given,” Smoke said.
It most certainly was.
Smoke honed in on Kyle and Ted who looked like they were settling in, prepared to stay for the duration of the investigation. “Thanks, guys. We need to get to work, and I’m sure you do, too,” Smoke said.
The towing team took the non-subtle hint and left with a wave and a nod.
Matsen frowned as we bent over and stared in the windows. “Two victims, from what I can see. Was it accidental drowning? Or something else?”
“That’s the puzzle we’ll have to put together. I know this car, and who it belonged to. I’d be willing to bet the owner’s one of the victims. And the other one was his girlfriend.”
Matsen straightened and studied Smoke like he was a specimen under one of his microscopes. “You’re serious?”
“This would not be a time when I’d be kidding.”
“No. No, I guess not. Who do you think they are?”
Tony Fryor and Wendy Everton. They disappeared thirty-three years ago. It seemed at the time that they fell off the face of the planet.”
“Thirty-three years ago? Damn, that is an old case. So how do you know so much about the car and the victims?”
“They were my classmates, and friends.”
“And my mom’s and dad’s, too,” I added.
“Whoa. Here at Oak Lea High School?” Doug said.
“Yup,” Smoke said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Matsen took a moment to have another look inside the Charger. “And they did a thorough investigation at the time?”
“Yeah, it sure seemed like it. I’ll go through the file again, but when the department hit enough dead ends, they called it.”
“What did they think happened to them, some kind of foul play?”
“No. They figured they ran off together. Maybe eloped.”
“Hmm, so it sounds like not everyone was in favor of their relationship.”
“That’s true enough. The way I remember it, Tony did not measure up to the high standards Wendy’s parents had set. Not exactly sure why. He was a star athlete, and seemed ambitious enough.
“And I don’t think Tony’s mother cared much for Wendy, given the fact that she’d had a number of boyfriends throughout high school. Everyone who knew them was questioned, back then. Including me, and Corky’s parents. I don’t know of anyone in our class who wasn’t. The classes were smaller then and most everyone knew everyone else. The detectives—and there were only two of them in the county in those days—were trying to find one person who had heard them say they were running away. And they never did. I guess now we know why.”
“Accident or suicide-homicide? That’s what we’ll try to figure out.”
Smoke drew his eyebrows together and sucked in a breath. “No, that’s what we will figure out. Now that we know where they ended up, we have a starting point anyway.”
“Smoke, are their parents still living?” I asked.
“Yeah, as far as I know. I looked through the file on them all those years ago, after I’d started here with the department. You know, I think about Tony and Wendy from time to time, kind of doing a little wishful thinking that they’d come back with a pack of kids and show everyone they were meant to be together after all.”
“A sad ending. But now their families will have closure,” I said.
“We know there won’t be any fingerprints. The water would have dissolved them within the first month.” Matsen said, enlightening me on that. “What time did you call the medical examiner?” he directed at Smoke.
“As soon as the divers said we had skeletal remains. She was tied up, finishing an autopsy. When she called me back, she said she’d meet us here.” Smoke looked at his watch. “Should be shortly.”
“Good. I’d rather wait for her. I’ll get some more shots of the car and the contents.”
Smoke’s phone rang. He pulled it out of its holder, looked at the display, and pushed a button. “Cindy. What have you got for me? . . . Hmmph, his radio? And his car is gone from the parking garage? . . . . Okay, well thanks. And keep me posted.” He hung up and caught my eyes with his. A slight shake of his head told me there was still no word from the sheriff, but it sounded like he had driven off somewhere. “His portable radio is sitting on his desk.”
A growing sense of unease pickled my nerve endings. It was completely out of character for the sheriff to not answer his phone or at least let his staff know when he left in the middle of the day where he was going. And to leave his portable radio behind was unheard of. As the chief law enforcement office in the county, Sheriff Dennis Twardy was always on duty. Always. And there we were sitting with evidence of the very old, unsolved mysterious disappearance of a young couple and he was nowhere to be found.
“I’m gonna give Kenner a call, see if the sheriff stopped by to see him. And maybe has a dead cell phone,” Smoke said. Chief Deputy Mike Kenner was out on medical leave, following a surgical procedure.
“You’re looking for the sheriff?” Matsen said.
“Yeah. Nobody seems to know where he is.”
“I saw him in the break room getting a cup of coffee first thing this morning.”
But where did he go after that?
Smoke phoned Kenner, checked on how he was doing, and learned Kenner had not heard from the sheriff at all that day.
Sergeant Matsen spent the time getting photos of the car from every angle.
“I’ll try one last thing. The sheriff took his car, so he’s got that radio, if he’s still driving.” Smoke pulled out his radio. “Three-forty to Three-oh-one on two.” When there was no response, he repeated the call. Still no response. He shook his head and his shoulders lifted in a slight shrug.
As Smoke turned to me, Doctor Bridey Patrick from the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office opened the inside entrance door and walked with purpose in her step toward us. She was short and squat, and had spiked gray hair. Patrick was wearing a white lab coat over a black top and pants. She gave Smoke a look of noted appreciation, and greeted us with a simple, “Morning,” then turned her full attention to the Dodge Charger and its “contents.”
Doctor Patrick shook her head back and forth. “This is my first experience with remains that have been submerged for decades in a vehicle. I have two assistants who are on their way with gurneys and body bags.” She grabbed a pair of gloves out of the lab coat pocket, pulled them on without a downward glance then made the sign of the cross on her head and chest with her right hand.
Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County Mystery Series