A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 29


ELSIE’S GUT TWISTED into a knot. Her legs were shaking; with a false show of poise, she crossed them tightly at the knee to still the quivering.

Judge Callaway cleared his throat. “Mr. Yocum, you may proceed.”

Yocum rose, standing tall, the overhead light glinting on his spectacles and his gray hair. “Your honor, now this may seem unorthodox. But in support of defendant’s motion to suppress, defendant calls Elsie Arnold to the witness stand.”

No no no no no, Elsie thought. Jumping to her feet, she spat: “Objection!” before the judge cut her off.

“Where is Mrs. Thompson?”

Elsie and Chuck exchanged a look. Chuck was seated beside Elsie at the counsel table, due to a last-­minute change of heart by Madeleine. “Someone has to be a witness to this train wreck,” Madeleine had said as she buttonholed him outside Elsie’s office. “And it won’t be me.”

Chuck stood at the prosecutor’s counsel table. “In her office, your honor.”

“Why isn’t she in court?”

Chuck replied, “We’re here on behalf of the state. Me and Ms. Arnold.”

The judge waved a paper copy of the motion with an impatient gesture. “Your names are included in the allegations. Repeatedly. Is this her case or isn’t it? Does she only make her appearances before a camera?”

Elsie felt an unanticipated surge of appreciation toward the judge, glad to learn that they were of a mind about Madeleine’s work ethic. Hiding a smile, she looked out the open window near the counsel table and watched a line of pickup trucks pass as Chuck defended Madeleine.

“Your honor, due to scheduling conflicts and conflicts of a personal nature, Prosecutor Thompson thinks it’s best to hand the case over to me. I’ll be representing the state.” After a pause, he added, “Assisted by Ms. Arnold.”

“That puts us in a pickle this morning, Judge Callaway,” said Yocum, drawing out the words in a drawl. “Because I’m here to tell you: both Mr. Harris and Miss Arnold are witnesses for the defense.”

Callaway closed his eyes. “Are they under subpoena?”

“Why no, your honor. Didn’t think it was necessary to ensure their appearance by subpoena. I assumed they would be here. And as you can see”—­extending his arm with a flourish—­“here they be.”

Judge Callaway sat with his eyes closed for some minutes while the attorneys stood before him. Elsie’s knee began to jiggle again. She pressed her leg against the counsel table to stop it.

At length, the judge opened his eyes. “Billy, how about you call a witness who’s under subpoena?”

“But your honor, the purpose of subpoena—­”

“Billy. Call your witness.” And the judge leaned back in his massive chair, breathing in a deep breath of the fresh, hot air blowing through the open windows.

Billy Yocum turned to the juvenile and bent to whisper in his ear. Tanner Monroe didn’t show any reaction. Picking up his notepad, Yocum announced in a stentorian voice, “The defense calls Lisa Peters to the witness stand.”

The door opened and Lisa Peters entered. She walked into court with the determined step of one who was facing an unpleasant duty. After being sworn, she scooted into the witness chair, glancing at Elsie sidelong and looking quickly away.

“State your name,” said Yocum.

“Lisa Peters.”

“What’s your occupation?”

“Deputy juvenile officer of McCown County.”

Yocum sat and draped his arm over the back of his client’s chair. “Let’s go back to the fourteenth day of June of this year. Were you a participant in an interrogation on that date?”

The young woman frowned, her brow puckering. “No,” she said after a moment.

Yocum sat up straight. “Beg pardon?”

“No—­I wasn’t a participant. That’s not accurate, because I didn’t interrogate Tanner myself. But I was present, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Yocum laughed. “I’ll have to be careful, won’t I, Miss Peters? Or we’ll be splitting hairs in here.”

The Peters girl is smart, Elsie thought. She won’t let him push her into a corner.

“Who all was present—­as you put it—­at this interrogation on June 14?”

“Detective Ashlock. He asked the questions, took the statement. And Chuck Harris and Elsie Arnold from the Prosecutor’s Office. And Tanner Monroe; he was in juvenile custody, at that time. And Tanner’s guardian ad litem, Maureen Mason. And me.”

Yocum whistled. Shaking his head, he said, “That’s a houseful, isn’t it, Miss Peters. Were Mr. Monroe’s parents there?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“They hadn’t been contacted.”

“And why is that?”

“Tanner didn’t provide the contact information, at first. He did later, though—­tell us how to reach his mother.”

“So he was questioned, without a parent present. Tell me, Miss Peters: What was the purpose of having those two prosecutors sitting in?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were they there at your invitation? Did you request it?”

“No. No, I didn’t.”

“Isn’t it true, Miss Peters,” said Yocum, warming to the task and getting into his theatrical mode, “that you openly voiced objection to the presence of Miss Arnold and Mr. Harris?”

Lisa Peters nodded. “I did.”

“In fact, Miss Peters, did you not say that the detective and the prosecutors were ‘dog-­piling the poor kid.’ ”

Elsie tried to keep from slumping in her seat. Those were the very words Lisa had used. And they sounded pretty bad for the prosecution, when repeated in a court of law. Why hadn’t Elsie listened to her gut that day, and excused herself?

Lisa didn’t answer right away. Yocum left the counsel table and approached her like an old mountain lion cornering his prey.

“Weren’t those your very words, Miss Peters?”

Lisa sighed, but before she could speak, Yocum added, “Need I remind you that you’re under oath?”

She shook her head. “I can’t recall my exact words. But that sounds like something I’d say.”

“Well, let’s go about this another way. On that occasion, did it seem to you that they were ‘dog-­piling’ my fifteen-­year-­old client? Ganging up on a young juvenile, a mere boy? And taking advantage of him on that occasion?”

Please don’t please don’t please don’t say it, chorused through Elsie’s head, but it did not prevent the inevitable.

Lisa Peters took a deep breath and said, “Yes. That’s what I thought.”

We’re in trouble, Elsie told herself.

Billy Yocum actually bowed to the witness, as if they’d finished a square dance set. “No further questions.”

Chuck stood. Elsie watched him, praying that he would undo the damage.

“Ms. Peters, how old are you?”

What a stupid bullshit question, Elsie thought.

Apparently, Lisa Peters thought so, too. She cocked her head, eyeing Harris with a look of disbelief. “Why?”

“Just answer the question,” he said.

“Twenty-­two.”

“Twenty-­two,” Chuck repeated. “And how many years of experience do you have in juvenile work?”

“Objection,” Billy said. “The prosecutor is acting like we’ve tried to qualify the witness for an expert opinion, a matter of expert testimony, your honor, which the defense did not do. This line of questioning is irrelevant.”

“Overruled.” Judge Callaway picked up the court file and waved it back and forth before his face, a makeshift fan.

“How many years, Ms. Peters?”

“This is my first year at the juvenile office. But I have a degree—­”

“Just answer the questions I ask, Ms. Peters, thank you. Do you have a legal background?”

Lisa looked at Harris, her face tense. “No.”

“Have you had any experience in police detective work? As a law enforcement professional?” Harris paced before the stand, chest thrust out like a rooster.

“No. Like I said, I’m a juvenile officer.”

“A deputy juvenile officer, you said. So please tell the court, Ms. Peters,” and he stopped pacing, pointed a finger at her, and raised the volume of his voice, “where you got the idea that you are qualified to sit in judgment on the McCown County Prosecutor’s Office? And the Barton Police Department?”

“I’m just answering the questions—­” Lisa said, as Yocum rose and shouted, “Objection! Badgering the witness!”

Ignoring Yocum, Chuck stepped closer to the stand. “What qualifies you to second-­guess an attorney?”

Oh shit, Elsie thought.

Yocum cried out: “Objection! I have raised an objection, your honor. Does the prosecutor not understand that we are under a duty to hear the ruling of the court? Boy, what did they teach you about proper court procedure up in Kansas City?”

The judge rolled his head backward, cracking his neck. “Sustained.”

Chuck turned on his heel. “No further questions.”

Watching Lisa step down, Elsie saw her make eye contact with Chuck. When Elsie glanced Chuck’s way, she caught him shooting a wink at the juvenile officer. Elsie almost choked. What a dick, she thought; was he trying to cut their throats at the prosecution table?

Yocum interrupted her thoughts; he announced, “The defense calls Detective Robert Ashlock.”

Elsie’s head jerked around to look through the courtroom door. Through the chicken wire embedded in the glass, she could see that his face was grim.

After Ashlock was sworn, he took his seat on the witness stand, his back stiff. His eyes were flinty as Yocum approached the stand.

“State your name for the record, Detective.”

“Robert Dean Ashlock.”

“Occupation?”

“Chief of detectives, Barton Police Department.”

“How long have you held that position?”

“Nearly ten years.”

“Ten years as chief of detectives,” Yocum repeated, sounding impressed. “That’s a long old time.”

There was silence, not broken until Yocum added, “Wouldn’t you say, Detective?”

“Yes.”

“I expect you’ve conducted a lot of suspect interrogations in that time.”

Ashlock nodded. “Yes, sir. I have.”

“How many, you reckon?”

Ashlock paused, his brow wrinkling as he calculated. “Hundreds. Hard to give a precise number.”

“Well then, let’s say ‘many.’ Would that be accurate?”

“Yes.”

“Among all those ‘many’ suspect interrogations, did you ever question a juvenile suspect?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“From time to time. Less serious offenses, generally.”

“Many juvenile interrogations. Less serious offenses. This the first time you’ve questioned a juvenile suspect in a murder case?”

“It was. Is.”

Yocum made a show of walking back to the counsel table, digging through his worn briefcase for a pen, checking off an item on a legal pad. Then abruptly, he swung back to Ashlock; peering over his glasses, he asked, “Is this the first time you brought your girlfriend along for custodial interrogation?”

Sweat dampened Elsie’s armpits as her heartbeat increased. To her surprise, Chuck jumped from his seat with heroic zeal.

“Objection!”

Judge Callaway had not given signs of his ordinary somnolence throughout the testimony. He turned his attention to Chuck. “What grounds?”

“Assumes facts not in evidence.” In response to the judge’s quizzical look, Chuck added, “She’s not his girlfriend.” Deflating under the judge’s scrutiny, he added, “Anymore,” and sat back down.

Billy Yocum smiled, his teeth shining like ivory keys on an old piano. “I appreciate Mr. Harris’s candor, Judge, I surely do. But he is not under oath. I prefer to obtain the information from the witness on the stand.”

“Objection overruled. Proceed, Billy,” said the judge.

“Detective Ashlock, let me put the question another way.” Billy offered Ashlock a cordial nod. “Do you customarily bring your girlfriends—­your ladyloves—­along when you interrogate suspects?”

“Ms. Arnold was a professional colleague,” Ashlock said.

“Well now, Detective, that’s not what I asked. I didn’t ask you whether Miss Arnold is a professional.” Turning to the bench, Yocum said, “Judge, could the court reporter read back the last question, so the detective can answer?”

The court reporter pulled the strip of paper from the machine. “ ‘Do you customarily bring your girlfriends—­your ladyloves—­along when you interrogate suspects?’ ”

Elsie watched Ashlock as he focused on Yocum. She tried to read his face, but it was a stoic mask.

“No,” Ashlock said.

“Specifically—­murder interrogations? Custodial interrogation of murder suspects?”

“No.”

“How about interrogation of a juvenile suspect in a murder case? Did you bring your girlfriend along on that one?”

“I was accompanied by two members of the county prosecutor’s office, Chuck Harris and Elsie Arnold.”

“And?”

“At the time, Ms. Arnold and I were socializing, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“What exactly does that mean—­‘socializing’? Does that refer to an exclusively social relationship?”

When Ashlock didn’t respond, Yocum zeroed in. “Romantic relationship? Sexual relationship? Come on, Detective, you were dicking Miss Arnold, weren’t you?”

Elsie’s heart palpitated; I’ll never live this down, never.

All the air seemed to be sucked out of the hotbox of a room. Elsie looked around in slow motion; no one moved. The judge wore a sour look. Ashlock’s face had turned a shade of red bordering on purple. Chuck sat with his mouth agape. Billy Yocum leaned against the jury box, waiting.

The juvenile caught her eye. He was watching her. He pursed his lips and sent her an air kiss.

The kiss jolted Elsie from her trance. She jumped from her seat, shouting, “Jesus Christ!”

The judge swung his gavel in Elsie’s direction. “Is that an objection?”

“Yes, your honor; oh yes it is,” she said, recovering her wits in a rush. “Mr. Yocum’s tactics are underhanded and unethical. He is badgering the witness, intentionally inciting him with questions designed to inflame the witness and the court.”

Yocum raised his hand, preparing to respond, but Judge Callaway cut him off.

“Sustained.”

Billy looked like he’d been delivered an electric shock. “Your honor!”

“Now Billy, I gave you some leeway with this, let you make your point. But you’re going into territory that’s best left alone.”

“Your honor, I can demonstrate bias—­”

“Hold off, Billy. You’re done here. And you won this round.”

Elsie, who had half risen from her seat, sat down again. Chuck leaned in to whisper something to her, but she only listened with half an ear. She waited for the judge to continue, clutching her pen in a tight grip.

The judge said: “I’m not going to ask you all to prepare written suggestions, because my mind is made up. I’m suppressing the statement. The state cannot submit it at trial as part of the state’s case in chief.”

Billy straightened his tie before he spoke. “Judge, I respectfully request that the state also be barred from using the statement for purposes of cross-­examination in the event the defendant testifies.”

Elsie was busy calculating the damage that the judge’s decision would do to the state’s case when she heard Ashlock speak up.

He was still in his seat on the witness stand. “Judge, we got all the forms signed, read him his rights—­did it by the book, from A to Z. And you’re throwing it out? I don’t understand.”

“And I’m not obligated to defend my ruling to you, Detective. But this once, I will.” The judge cut his eyes at Elsie, then turned his chair toward Ashlock. He spoke so softly that Elsie could barely make out the words: “I don’t much care who you’re fooling around with. But I don’t like you interrogating a boy that age without a parent present. Doesn’t sit right with me.” He tossed the file folder to his clerk. “Court is adjourned.”


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