A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 24


PUSHING OPEN THE door to Associate Division 3, Elsie spotted Chuck Harris at the counsel table in Judge Carter’s courtroom. Chuck reclined in his chair, with his feet stretched out before him.

“You’re the picture of relaxation,” Elsie said.

“The product of a clear conscience,” he replied.

She handed the State v. Tanner Monroe file to him. “Thought you might want this.”

Chuck took the file and tossed it on the table. “Don’t get all wrought up. The public defender is waiving preliminary.”

“You mean the conflicts public defender,” said Elsie.

The local public defender’s office had declined to represent Tanner Monroe. They claimed they had a conflict, as they’d been appointed previously to defend Barry Bacon’s drug case, and until investigation of his hanging was completed, they would not undertake Tanner Monroe’s murder defense.

“Have you talked to the conflict attorney today?”

“Nope. Been busy.” Chuck pulled out the McCown County Record and turned to the entertainment section. “Do you think I could get on The Bachelor? They’re holding auditions in Oklahoma City.”

Elsie managed to look away before he could see her expression. “Chuck, I think you match the profile perfectly. Go for it.”

Eldon, Carter’s bailiff, was sitting at his desk beside the judge’s chambers door. Hanging up the phone, he said, “I’m going to the jail to get that boy. It’s dang near time.”

As he left, Elsie pulled up a chair beside Chuck and sat. “Conflict PD is late,” she observed.

“Always,” Harris agreed.

The door to the courtroom opened with a creak. Looking over her shoulder, Elsie saw Bob Ashlock.

She looked away with a jerk of her chin, turning in her seat so she faced the empty jury box. She and Ashlock had not spoken since their run-­in in the coffee shop.

Chuck waved, calling, “What brings you here, bro?”

Elsie hid a smirk. She didn’t expect Bob considered Chuck a brother.

Ashlock said, “I thought I’d make sure you don’t need me today, Harris.”

Chuck tipped back in the chair, crossing his feet on the table. “Wasted a trip, dude. Monroe’s waiving.”

Ashlock nodded. “I think I’ll stay and watch. Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.” He took a seat in the back row of the gallery.

Elsie kept her back to him, her posture rigidly erect. Despite the frosty air-­conditioning in the courtroom, she felt her face grow warm. She couldn’t help but remember the words spoken in the car after the trip from Tulsa. The words still rang in her ears: Stupid. Irresponsible. Unprofessional. Immature. Motherfucker, she thought, her heart rate increasing.

Hanging over the back of his chair, Chuck asked Ashlock about the progress of the forensic testing on evidence seized from the bus. Ashlock answered in the baritone voice Elsie loved so well. Used to love, she corrected herself.

When Harris cracked a joke, Ashlock laughed, and Elsie’s body reacted involuntarily to the sound.

What the fuck is the matter with me, she mused, running her fingers through her long hair and pulling it away from her face. She stood abruptly. “I better get downstairs,” she said, and turned to go.

Harris stared at her, uncomprehending. “But it’s just about to start. Stick around.”

As he spoke, the courtroom door opened, and Eldon ushered in Tanner Monroe.

The juvenile crept in, his feet shackled so close together that he was forced to take baby steps. With his arms cuffed behind his back, his chest was thrust forward. But his head hung down, whether in despondency, or to watch his feet to avoid falling, Elsie couldn’t tell.

Eldon escorted Monroe to the defense counsel table, where the boy sat alone.

The door to Carter’s chambers opened, and the judge stuck out his head. “Ready?” he asked.

“Defense attorney’s not here,” Chuck replied.

The judge slammed his door shut. The noise made the juvenile jump in his seat, as he sat in his shackles, his head still hanging down.

Elsie, looking at him sidelong, watched a smile begin to play on the boy’s mouth. He turned his face slightly toward her, shot her a wink, and returned to his woebegone position.

That boy is from crazy town, she thought, as she craned her neck to look at his hands. They were hidden in the chair, so she couldn’t check out the letters she’d seen before on his fingers.

The courtroom door behind her opened with a mighty creak, and as she swung round in her chair, Billy Yocum made his entrance.

“Counsel for defendant appears,” he boomed.

Elsie and Chuck looked at each other. Chuck piped up: “What you here on, Billy?”

“State v. Tanner Monroe,” the attorney replied, walking up to the defense table and laying a kindly hand on the boy’s shoulder.

Elsie said, “Billy, Mr. Monroe is represented by the conflicts attorney.”

Opening his worn leather brief case, Billy pulled out a legal pad. “Conflicts attorney had a conflict.”

Eldon rapped on Judge Carter’s chambers door, and the judge emerged. Attired in his black robe, the judge took the bench. He was a slim man in his forties, with a head of prematurely silver hair.

“Appreciate you taking this on, Billy,” the judge said, with a friendly nod in Yocum’s direction.

“Glad to oblige, your honor,” Yocum said, before he sat next to the juvenile and huddled in consultation with the boy.

Elsie jerked on Chuck’s jacket, pulling him around to face her. “What’s going on?” she hissed.

“How should I know?”

“Is he going to waive or not?” Clearly, the state was not ready for preliminary, and Elsie knew from past experience that Judge Carter would not be happy to hear that the state was not prepared to proceed with evidence. Elsie had been down that road before in Judge Carter’s courtroom.

Chuck rose from his seat. Approaching Yocum, he tapped the lawyer’s shoulder with a tentative hand. Yocum looked up with a scowl. He said, “Mr. Harris, I’m speaking to my client in confidence.”

“Sorry, Yocum. You’re going to waive preliminary hearing, right?”

The irritation disappeared from the old attorney’s face, replaced by a toothy grin. Yocum guffawed as he slapped Chuck Harris on the shoulder.

“That’s a good ’un, young man. I’ll tell you something: in forty years of practicing law, I have never once waived preliminary. Not once. I regard it as malpractice.” He slapped his pad on the table and clicked his pen. “Get your first witness ready.”

Chuck looked at Elsie, bug-­eyed. He whispered in her ear. “I’ll ask for a continuance.”

“You won’t get it,” she hissed, but Judge Carter was settling in his chair, and Chuck was already approaching the bench.

“Judge Carter,” Harris said, apologetically, “we got a situation.”

The judge peered down at Harris from the bench.

Harris continued, “We thought the defendant was waiving preliminary hearing. I had it on good authority, from the conflicts attorney.”

“Conflicts attorney doesn’t represent defendant,” the judge snapped.

“Yeah, I know, I can see that. But that’s why the state is not ready to go.”

Judge Carter slammed his hand on the bench.

Yocum rose, shaking his head. “Your honor, these young attorneys know that my client—­a mere boy—­is being held at the county jail. Being exposed to hardened criminals in an open cell, with the risk every blessed day of their criminal influence. He’s in danger”—­and his voice dropped to a grave whisper—­“of assault from perverse infidels.”

Elsie turned to see how the juvenile would react to the exchange. She saw him shut his eyes during the attorney’s speech. Tanner Monroe’s chest convulsed; his lips twitched. Is he laughing or crying? she wondered incredulously.

The judge inclined his head to Yocum. “When did you enter your appearance?”

“Yesterday. Yesterday afternoon.”

“The Prosecutor’s Office should know that. They should be up to speed.” As Harris opened his mouth to protest, the judge cut him off. “I don’t even want to hear it. Proceed,” he said, with a shake of the gavel.

“The state respectfully requests a continuance.”

“Denied. Proceed.”

“Give us a minute, Judge,” Harris said. He hustled over to Elsie; bending his head to hers, he whispered, “What the hell are we going to do?”

“Just put Ashlock on,” she whispered back. “He’s holding his file; you know he’s got the juvenile’s statement in there. Ashlock can testify about the bus and the body and the statement and the knife. That’s enough for probable cause.”

Chuck’s eyes were wild; she could see the whites all around the iris. “I don’t have an exam prepared.”

“Just wing it.”

“I can’t. I can’t put him on cold.”

Harris looked over his shoulder at Ashlock, then back at Elsie. “You do it.”

“What?”

“You put him on. You can put him on cold; you’re used to warming him up.”

Elsie’s eyes flashed. As she opened her mouth to snap a fitting retort, the judge intoned, “Call your first witness, Mr. Harris.”

Elsie turned in her seat, facing Ashlock at the back of the courtroom. “The state calls Detective Bob Ashlock.”

Ashlock’s brow lifted slightly in surprise. He met Elsie’s eye squarely and walked up to be sworn. As he passed Elsie on his way to the witness box, their shoulders brushed, and she could smell the scent of the deodorant soap he used.

After taking the oath, Ashlock settled in the witness chair, file in hand. Elsie stood before him, unsmiling. “State your name,” she said.

“Detective Bob Ashlock.”

“What is your occupation?”

“Chief of detectives for the City of Barton Police Department.”

“How long have you been employed in that capacity?”

“Ten years in the Detective Division, eight years on patrol before that.”

“I direct your attention to the twelfth day of June of this year: did you have occasion to be called to a crime scene?”

“I did.”

“Where?”

“I was called to the Muddy Creek bridge on Farm Road 233.”

“Is that location in McCown County, Missouri?”

“It is.”

“For what reason did you go to that location on that date?”

“I was called in to investigate a body found in the riverbed, under the bridge.”

“Upon arriving, what did you observe?”

“A white female, aged forty to forty-­five, was lying on her back in the bed of Muddy Creek. Her throat was cut.”

So far, the exam was an easy give and take, a routine that both Elsie and Ashlock had danced many times before. She relaxed, leaning against the counsel table, and asked, “Was the woman alive?”

“She was not.”

“Objection!” Yocum jumped to his feet, pointing a gnarled finger at Ashlock. “The witness has not indicated any medical training, he’s not qualified to make that judgment.”

Elsie looked at the old attorney in disbelief. “Is this going to be the basis of the defense? That the victim wasn’t dead? Lord, Yocum, is that the best you can do?”

The defense attorney’s angry reply was cut off as the judge ordered, “Qualify your witness, Ms. Arnold.”

Cocking an eyebrow at Ashlock, Elsie said, “Describe the woman you found in the creek bed, Detective.”

Ashlock’s graphic description of the condition of the body, the location of the wound, the bloating from decomposition and the attention of the flies and the resulting maggots made the judge wince, but Elsie kept an expressionless demeanor. Ashlock concluded, “The victim was not breathing. Had no pulse.”

“Detective Ashlock, in the course of your eighteen years of police work, have you had occasion to see a dead body?”

“Many times.”

“In your opinion, what was the condition of the woman you observed in the Muddy Creek?”

“Ma’am,” he intoned, “she was dead.”

Yocum jumped up, waving a gnarled hand. “Your honor,” he began, but the judge stopped him.

“Overruled. Whatever objection you were about to make is overruled. Let’s move on.”

Ashlock testified regarding the discovery of the woman’s identification. On a hunch, Elsie asked, “Do you have the ID with you in court today?”

“I have a copy.”

He opened his file and produced a copy of the license. Elsie had the court reporter mark it as an exhibit, and handed it back to Ashlock.

“I’d like to show you what’s been marked for identification as state’s Exhibit #1,” she said. “Will you tell the court what that is?”

When Ashlock opened his mouth to reply, Yocum spoke from his chair. “Objection, Judge. Best evidence rule. Where’s the original?”

The judge sent an inquiring glance Elsie’s way. Smoothly, she asked Ashlock, “Can you tell us where the original document can be found?”

“At the highway patrol crime lab over in Springfield, Greene County, Missouri. Undergoing testing.”

“Is state’s Exhibit #1 a fair and accurate representation of the chauffeur’s license you found on the deceased’s person on June 12?”

“It is.”

“Your honor, the state offers state’s Exhibit #1 into evidence.”

Yocum rose, shaking his head. “Now, wait a minute, Judge. The witness didn’t say anything about the original being destroyed. They just didn’t take the trouble to get the original to court today. I object to the admission of state’s Exhibit #1.”

“Your honor, we’ve demonstrated that it’s unavailable.”

Yocum scoffed. “You’ve demonstrated it’s in Springfield, that’s all. That’s not ‘unavailable.’ You could get there in forty-­five minutes. Thirty, if the detective turns his siren on.”

Elsie was making moist palm prints on the counsel table, so she wiped her palms on her skirt. Her pulse raced; she had to get the license into evidence, for she must prove the identity of the murder victim named in the criminal complaint. Clearing her throat, she said, “Judge, the detective has testified under oath that the license is a fair and accurate representation. Mr. Yocum’s objection to the exhibit is baseless.”

Yocum slapped his hand on the table. “Bring in the ID! It’s a piece of plastic. It’s not like I’m asking to see the Mona Lisa,” he cried.

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” Elsie snapped.

The judge intervened; with a weary look, he admitted the exhibit. “Let’s get on with it,” he ordered.

Elsie faced Ashlock again. “After finding the body, did you have occasion to take a statement at McCown County Juvenile Hall?”

“I did,” he said. He opened his file and pulled out a document; it was the Tanner Monroe statement, the original, encased in plastic sheet protectors. Inwardly, when Elsie saw the light reflect off the plastic sheets, she breathed a sigh of relief.

She said to Ashlock, “When you arrived at Juvenile Hall, what did you do?”

“I met with Deputy Juvenile Officer Lisa Peters and members of the prosecutor’s staff. After the guardian ad litem arrived, I conducted an interrogation of Tanner Monroe.”

“Is the individual you questioned on that date present in the courtroom today?”

“He is.”

“Would you point him out, please?”

Ashlock pointed at the juvenile, stating, “He’s the man at the defense table, wearing orange county inmate garb, seated next to attorney Billy Yocum.”

Turning to the judge, Elsie said, “Your honor, may the record reflect that the witness has identified the defendant?”

“It shall,” the judge said.

“Did you apprise defendant of his rights prior to questioning?” Elsie asked.

Ashlock answered that he had, and handed Elsie the rights form. Elsie had the form marked and offered it as an exhibit.

“What, if anything, did the defendant say during questioning?”

“Defendant said that he was hitchhiking from St. Louis, and got a ride on a bus, driven by the deceased. He said a second passenger joined them down the road. Monroe said the second rider cut the deceased’s throat, dumped the body, and took defendant prisoner.”

Ashlock paused. Elsie prompted him: “Did he make a written statement?”

“He did,” Ashlock said, handing Elsie the plastic-­clad handwritten sheets.

Elsie had the statement marked as an exhibit, and offered it into evidence. She handed the statement to Yocum, who studied it intently, but didn’t object.

Elsie continued, unable to contain a blush, “That week, did you have occasion to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma?”

He avoided eye contact with her. “I did.”

“For what purpose?”

“To examine the school bus which was found with defendant.”

“What did you do on that occasion?” Elsie’s cheeks were scarlet, and not from the heat.

Ashlock, without missing a beat, described the collection of evidence from the bus, detailing his collection of blood, hair, fiber, and fingerprint samples. “The evidence was bagged and tagged, and transported to the highway patrol crime lab for forensic testing,” he concluded.

“Did you find anything else on the bus?”

“A knife.”

Yocum looked up, squinting through his glasses. He craned his neck to see whether Ashlock had brought anything to court with him, other than the manila file in his hands on the witness stand.

“Please describe the knife.”

“It was a hunting knife with a wooden handle and a four-­inch serrated blade.”

“What was the condition of the knife?”

“It was covered in a dried reddish-­brown substance that appeared to be blood.”

“Where did you find the knife?”

“Under the floor mat of the driver’s seat of the bus.”

“What did you do with the knife?”

“Bagged it, tagged it, took it back to the crime lab by way of the Barton Police Department.”

“What was done with it at the Barton Police Department?”

“Preliminary tests were done to determine that the substance on the knife was in fact blood.”

“Anything else?”

He lifted a brow just a fraction. Her eyes bored into his. He nodded.

“We tested for prints.”

“And?”

“A print on the handle matched the defendant, Tanner Monroe.”

Yocum reared up. “Whoa! Hold on! We’re missing some steps here.”

He marched up to the bench, protesting, “Who’s doing these tests? Where’s the expert? I object to the question!”

“Too late to object; he already answered,” Elsie murmured, deadpan.

Yocum gasped, laid a hand on his heart. “Then I demand that his answer be struck. Struck from the record.”

“On what grounds?” Elsie asked.

“Not qualified to make the statement.”

Elsie clutched her heart, in parody of Yocum. “Object! I object to his attack on this fine, upstanding expert!”

Yocum swung on her, enraged. “The prosecutor is mocking me, your honor.”

“Ms. Arnold,” the judge said in a warning tone.

“Hey, Judge, I’m just serving up to him the same thing he’s giving me.”

“Well, stop it. Now.” The judge took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

The juvenile tugged at his attorney’s sleeve and murmured a question. Yocum whispered in response, and the two huddled at the table for a hushed consultation. Elsie drummed her fingers on the bench, waiting. At length, she turned to the judge and said, “Does he want a recess? To consult?”

The judge leaned forward at the bench and called, “Billy?”

The lawyer sat up straight, saying, “Where are we? Is direct exam concluded?”

Elsie cut a glance at Ashlock. If she had a shot at squeaking by with their patchy admission of fingerprint evidence, she should quit while she was ahead. “Yes, your honor.”

“Mr. Yocum, your turn.”

As Elsie sat down, Yocum descended on Ashlock. But while the defense attorney made considerable noise, he made no headway; Ashlock was unshakable.

Watching Ashlock deflect Yocum’s questions gave Elsie more pleasure than she liked to admit; and when Ashlock scored a point by correcting Yocum on proper police procedure, she looked down to hide a triumphant smile.

When she looked back up at the witness stand, Ashlock’s eyes were upon her, with a shade of the old warmth in his expression. She was starting to feel a little fluttery—­in a good way—­when Yocum asked, “Who all was present at the interrogation of my client?”

Ashlock looked away from Elsie and back at Yocum. “The juvenile officer, Lisa Peters; the guardian ad litem, Maureen Mason; myself; and Elsie Arnold and Chuck Harris from the Prosecutor’s Office.”

He said my name first, before Chuck’s, Elsie thought with satisfaction, before the defense attorney interrupted her thoughts by shouting, “The Prosecutor’s Office? What on earth was the Prosecutor’s Office doing there?”

Ashlock gave him a level look. “Observing.”

Yocum scratched his thinning hairline. “Well, that’s a little out of the ordinary, wouldn’t you say?”

Ashlock was silent.

“I’ll repeat the question. Wouldn’t you say—­”

Ashlock interrupted Yocum. “I’d say it was an unusual interrogation in a ­couple of respects. Because it was an unusual situation, the suspect being a juvenile of fifteen.”

“Indeed,” the lawyer drawled. “Yes, indeed.” He looked over his glasses at Ashlock, who suffered the glare with equanimity. “No more questions. For now.”

Ashlock stepped down. As he passed by Elsie, their shoulders brushed. Ignoring the tingle the contact engendered, she whispered to him, “Get your print man here.”

He bent down, his lips barely touching her ear, and whispered back, “He’s in Jeff City.”

The judge tilted his chair back and instructed Elsie to call her next witness. She and Chuck Harris exchanged glances. Harris still looked shell-­shocked. To the judge, Elsie said calmly, “No further witnesses.”

Yocum, moving in slow motion, started to rise from his chair, his face a study in apoplexy. The judge spoke up before the defense attorney could frame his address.

“Where’s your fingerprint witness?” the judge demanded.

“We’re saving the additional expert testimony for trial,” Elsie said, sanguine.

Yocum blustered, “My client has not been tied to the offense.”

Elsie replied, “Detective Ashlock tied the defendant to the offense; he testified that he observed defendant’s prints on a bloody knife found on the bus.”

Harris echoed from the prosecution table, “His prints are on the knife.”

Yocum wheeled on Harris with a snarl. “Are you going to double-­team me? That’s two on one, Judge.”

The judge waved a hand in Harris’s direction. “One attorney at a time. Don’t turn this into a circus.”

Elsie approached the bench. “Judge, if you’d like to continue the hearing until a later time, we can call Officer Gates for additional testimony regarding the weapon.”

“Get him over here now,” the judge snapped.

“He’s at the State Capitol,” she said. “Important police business,” she added. It damned well better be important.

The judge turned to Yocum. “Billy, do you want to come back later this week and hear from the print guy?”

“No, I do not,” Yocum bellowed. “I want the charges dismissed and my client released from custody.”

The judge sighed. With a glance at the prosecution team, he asked, “Why isn’t the state presenting further evidence?”

Harris began, “The conflicts attorney told me—­” but Elsie cut him off.

She said stoutly, “This is a probable cause hearing, your honor. We’re not required to put forth our full case.” She held up the criminal complaint, signed by Madeleine Thompson. “All we need is to demonstrate to the court that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the offense with which he is charged. We are not obligated to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt this morning.”

The judge nodded. “That’s true.”

Encouraged, Elsie held up one finger. “Detective Ashlock’s testimony established that the deceased was found in McCown County, Missouri.”

Holding up two fingers, she continued, “We provided evidence that defendant, Tanner Monroe, was a passenger on the bus the vehicle was transporting. By his own admission, he was present at the time of the murder.”

She was pacing before the bench. Holding up three fingers, she said, “Detective Ashlock testified that defendant’s prints were on the knife.”

“That’s hearsay,” Yocum cried.

Elsie whirled to face him. “You didn’t make a hearsay objection when the testimony was offered.”

“I objected.”

“You objected to his qualifications as an expert—­which had been already established. You didn’t object on the basis of hearsay.”

“I was consulting with my client.” Turning to the bench, Yocum appealed to the judge. “I’m objecting now.”

“It’s too late,” Elsie said. “Hearing’s over. Can’t unring a bell.”

“Billy,” the judge said, shaking his head, “pretty late to object to testimony. Witness has stepped down.” With a skeptical glance at Elsie, the judge said, “This is awful slim evidence for a murder prelim. One witness.”

“Barton PD’s finest, Judge,” Elsie said forthrightly.

“Still,” the judge countered.

Elsie edged up to the bench. “Well, Judge, it’s your call. Because you are the one who will bear the responsibility if a murderer is cut loose.”

“Stop that right there,” the judge said testily. “You’re always feeding me that same line. I don’t appreciate it.” He fiddled with his file for a moment, then flipped it open and reached for his pen. “I’m going to bind him over to Circuit Court.” To Yocum, he said, “You should’ve made that hearsay objection, Billy.”

Yocum sprayed saliva as he cried, “I demand another hearing!”

“Simmer down, Billy.” The judge pushed a button and his clerk appeared. As he dictated his finding of probable cause, Elsie turned to Chuck. She made a face, pretending to fan herself in relief. Chuck gestured to her, and she bent over to listen to him, when a voice behind her spoke from the defense table.

“I didn’t do it.”

Elsie whirled around, surprised to see the juvenile on his feet, addressing the judge. Yocum put an arm around the boy’s shoulders, and tugged him back into his seat.

“Of course you didn’t do it, son. Best hush up now; I’m your mouthpiece.”

“I’m not your son. Don’t call me that.” The boy rose again, rage coloring his features. “I’ve done some shit, but I didn’t do this. I’m not going down for some asshole.”

“Who’s the asshole?” Harris whispered to Elsie, but the defense attorney had jerked the boy back into his seat and was hissing in his ear.


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