Acclaimed crime novelist Archer Mayor brings his star protagonist, Vermont State Police BCI detective Joe Gunther, to campus at the invitation of the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.
BY ARCHER MAYOR
The Norwich Record | Summer 2018
Editor’s note: This short story sets the stage for a tangled web of fictional crimes at Norwich. Students in the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies specializing in computer forensics and incident team response management will investigate the case during Residency Conference in June. During the hands-on learning exercise, the team must apply their skills to gather additional evidence from digital devices and physical crime scenes—leveraging that information to further investigate, analyze, and solve the case. Northfield police, Vermont State Police, and staff from the Vermont Attorney General’s office will also participate, lending realism to the exercise.
The two cops paused just inside the yellow police tape cordon, taking in the scene.
They were standing on the edge of a loop road within Norwich University, in
Northfield, Vermont, facing a bland, low, red brick building overlooking the football eld at the bottom of the hill. That same hill extended above them, swathed in trees, making this curved stretch of University Drive a secluded, out-of-the-way corner of the campus.
“What’re we looking at?” the older cop asked his colleague.
“Combination press boxes and president’s suite,” came the answer. “The latter’s in the middle and is basically a standard VIP lounge where the Prez can entertain the high and mighty during games. The two press boxes flank it and look pretty much like you’d expect: long window, counter-like desk for computers and whatnot, and chairs for reporters.”
“They interconnect?” her boss asked. He was Joe Gunther, of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, the state’s major crimes unit. His younger sidekick was Samantha Martens, universally called Sam. She’d been the one to actually pick up the phone when this call came in two hours ago.
“Nope. Three separate rooms, side by side. Each has a door facing the street, as you can see, and they’re all locked except during games.”
As if on cue, the nearest of those doors—to one of the press boxes—opened, and a police officer dressed in a white Tyvek suit stepped into view.
“Lieutenant Jansen?” Sam called out as he loosened his front zipper.
The Northfield cop extended his hand in greeting. “Hey, you Martens? You made good time.”
Sam introduced Joe, who asked in a carefully neutral voice, “Anyone else in there?” gesturing to the press box.
Jansen smiled. “No. The scene’s preserved. I just ducked in to make sure the sun wasn’t screwing anything up. I laid down some paper to walk on, too, but other than checking on the bodies initially, nothing’s been touched. I’ve got more suits in that box by the door.” He pointed to the spot nearby.
Both VBI agents nodded. “And the crime scene folks?” Sam asked leadingly.
“Maybe thirty minutes out.”
Joe gestured toward the door. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s get dressed and at least take a quick look. I don’t want to be underfoot when they get here.”
The door led to a narrow, perpendicular hallway, which then opened into the box itself, presumably so that people entering didn’t disturb any reporters trying to concentrate on the game. It also meant that no one could see anything by simply peering through the glass-paned door.
The press box was pretty much as Sam had described it, barring one last detail: the long window, the extended desk—complete with phone—a few chairs. She’d left out the two corpses.
One was dressed in the military uniform of a Norwich faculty member, the other in civvies. Both were male, the officer older than his companion. The civilian was sitting on the floor, facing them, his back against the far wall, his legs splayed out, and his hands by his sides, palms up. His eyes were still half open, making him look as if they’d just disturbed him in mid-nap—except for the freshly broken nose and the halo of blood on the wall some three feet above his head.
The older man lay closer by, in the middle of the floor, face up, neat and squared away, his insignia and decorations properly in place. Beneath him was a wide, dry puddle of blood—also smeared and asymmetrical.
“We know who we’re looking at?” Joe asked.
Jansen consulted a pad in his hand. “Colonel Frederick J. Fellows. Faculty member here for six years. Combat experience in Afghanistan before that. Career military man. He’s fifty-one years old, lives on campus, is divorced with two adult kids, and is a history prof, from what I was told. He has no criminal history in Vermont, according to the computer. Or he’s never been caught.”
“Always the qualifier,” Joe murmured.
“How many people have been in here so far? We need to rule them out,” Sam noted.
“Not many,” Jansen reassured her. “Me, the maintenance guy who discovered them, campus security who noticed us. That’s it. The campus cops filled me in on the colonel. I know the other one myself.”
“Dazzle me,” Joe encouraged him.
Chuckling, Jansen said, “Peter Hunter. Local loser. First caught our attention in high school with the usual underage drinking, moving violations, disturbing the peace, minor drug offenses, et cetera. Then, driven by an escalating need for marijuana, coke, crack, heroin, and finally anything laced with fentanyl, he moved up into stealing cars, breaking and entering, retail theft, street dealing, and the rest. Nothing violent. I’ll give him that. As you can see from what’s left of him, he was built like a scarecrow. Always was. I actually kind of liked him. He was a screwed-up waste of time, but he had a good heart, and could be real funny.”
“Who checked them for vitals?” Sam asked.
Jansen gave them a wry look. “Yeah. That went a little weird. Normally, it would’ve been the custodian finds the bodies, calls 911, and EMS does the honors. This guy called campus security instead, only telling them there was a problem in the press box—and not what it was. So by the time the campus cop got here, it pretty much spoke for itself. So, no EMS. The good news is, fewer prints to rule out, right?”
Joe was unperturbed. He pointed vaguely at the colonel. “Blood’s dry. Both of them have clearly been dead a few hours.” He glanced at Sam and asked, “So, what do you see?”
During this conversation, Sam had been studying the scene from as many angles as the butcher paper under their feet permitted. She now straightened, extracted a laser pointer from her pocket and using it as a guide, took them through her findings, long distance, so as not to disturb things further.
“Hunter first,” she began. “I figure the ME will find an injury to the back of his head to match the blood on the wall. Given the dynamics suggested, I’d say he was punched in the face, smashed his noggin as he flew backwards, and died on the spot, sitting down like a rag doll. Brain bleed, broken neck, maybe even the nose bone driven into his brain. I hear that can happen.”
The beady red dot of her laser danced across the dead man’s hands. “What we can see shows no bruises or cuts or angulations from a broken wrist, suggesting he didn’t fight back. Looks like a sucker punch he never saw coming.”
She shifted her attention to the colonel, continuing, “Which makes Fellows that much more interesting. See his right hand?”
“Knuckles are skinned,” Jansen said softly.
“Skinned and stained with blood, but not cut, which makes me think the blood came from Hunter’s nose.”
She played her light across the broad pool on the rug. “And look at this. Assuming the colonel’s wound is in the back, he’s lying in the puddle off-center, his tunic is slightly rumpled as if somebody grabbed it, and his ankles are crossed.”
“He was rolled after being killed,” Jansen said.
“Looks that way,” Joe agreed. “But it suggests a missing pink elephant.”
Jansen looked at him. “Huh?” “The third person,” Sam filled in. “Whoever killed him.”
Confirmation of all this wasn’t long in coming. Both the medical examiner’s field investigator and the state forensic lab’s mobile unit arrived—complete with technical crew—and coordinated with Joe and Sam. Sam’s snapshot of what had happened was confirmed, along with the additional finding that the probable cause of Colonel Fellows’s demise was a single knife wound to the back. Also, the two cops were given access to two wallets and two cell phones. The contents of the wallets were unremarkable— credit cards, cash, driver’s license, and other identifiers we carry around for no obvious reason. The difference—not surprising, considering Jansen’s earlier victim portraits—was the differing condition of the wallets themselves. Fellows’s was leather, well preserved, neatly organized, and stocked with a trio of hundred-dollar bills. Hunter’s was fabric, torn, stained, and duct-taped, jammed with scraps of paper, illegible documents—like to a local drug treatment center—and containing three dollars. Almost as a footnote, there was also a small bindle of what appeared to be heroin, tucked inside, possibly put there for the proverbial rainy day—now never to arrive.
Side by side, both billfolds were contrasting, and telling, anthropological artifacts.
The cell phones were similarly divergent—a smartphone versus a cheap disposable, both of which the lab techs offered to preserve and download from the back of their van in short order, so Joe and Sam could check their contents for recent activity.
As for other personal possessions, they found loose change, a pocket knife, Life Savers, a checkbook, and five keys on a ring on Fellows, and cigarettes and a lighter on Hunter.
While this inventory was being gathered, the VBI mobile command center arrived, stuffed with phones, computers, printers, fax machines, and the like, allowing for an interconnected procedural process to kick into action. Various police officers were dispatched to secure Fellows’s office and on-campus apartment, and Hunter’s trailer on the edge of Northfield. Orders were issued to find any computers, and identify and preserve all internet accounts like Facebook, Twitter, emails, and the rest. Word was circulated to locate any vehicles belonging to either man, create lists of contacts, colleagues, and friends, and also to determine the identities of anyone who may have been near the press boxes and seen something unusual. Along these lines, any and all CCTV cameras were located, on campus and off, and warrants issued for their contents. Finally, a complete background check on each man was ordered through the state’s intelligence fusion center, outside Burlington, and an effort made to locate next of kin.
All of this was brought to bear by phone, text, via dispatch, or in person, depending on proximity and efficiency, and all of it coordinated and time-logged by Sam Martens, through her standard but exemplary computer skills.
Within ninety minutes of having arrived on campus, Joe and Sam had as many as a dozen people working full or part time on their behalf, including several extra VBI agents. Homicides were rare in Vermont; double killings with no immediate explanation bordered on the unique and were understandably deemed worthy of a full court press.
All these whirling gears notwithstanding, the essence of a fundamental investigation remains pretty much the same: talking, digging, and interviewing are at the core. The digging was now underway, the talking had begun between Sam and Joe at the scene, and the interviewing would start shortly.
Right now, Joe just wanted to make sure he and Sam were thinking along parallel lines. As they walked together back down University Drive to Harmon Drive, off of which Colonel Fellows had an office in Hollis House, he asked her, “Any ideas so far?”
She shook her head. “It’s the disconnect between the two victims that bugs me. A squeaky-clean, older, Army vet faculty member, and a young, lowlife, homegrown mope, together behind a locked door where neither one of them belonged, but where they were apparently having a private meeting.”
“Maybe the third person brought them together,” Joe mused.
“Talk about keys to the puzzle,” Sam agreed. “I’d love to talk to that guy.”
“Speaking of keys, tell me about the lock,” Joe requested.
“Dead bolt. Not a spring lock. Knob on the inside, key only on the outside. And it was thrown. Campus security had to unlock it to get in.”
“Fellows had keys,” Joe remarked. “And one of them t the lock,” Sam answered wonderingly. “According to what I learned, he wasn’t supposed to have it, and, of course, the kicker is: It was still on him.”
Joe finished her thought. “So who threw the lock from the outside, upon leaving, and how and why did they have a key to begin with?”
“I asked campus security to search their files for all key holders, past and present. I didn’t get the feeling they were thrilled by their chances.”
Frederick Fellows’s office looked much as expected: desk, cabinets, bookshelves, framed diplomas and photographs, chairs, including an armchair by the window. It was cozy, squared away, with patriotic memorabilia appropriate to a veteran, and contained a tall, rangy man with a crooked smile and a hank of unruly blond hair. Lester Spinney was another of the VBI crew, brought in to help out and assigned here over an hour ago. He was sitting at the desk, attired in latex gloves, going through the late colonel’s computer.
“Hey guys,” he greeted them, perpetually upbeat. “Welcome to G.I. Joe’s home away from home.”
“Is that how he’s coming across?” the real Joe asked, glancing around.
“Yes and no,” Lester told them. “At first, absolutely. Straight up and narrow, red, white, and blue. I went through his desk, his computer, his phone messages, his in and out boxes, and I interviewed a couple of people up and down the hall. The guy was a total Boy Scout. Not that pleasant, by the way, but not a complete creep.”
“I can’t wait,” Sam prompted him.
He laughed and waved his hand. “Look around the room,” he suggested. “What do you see?”
Sam understood instantly. Her eyes sought out the abnormality hiding in plain sight. By instinct, she looked high and low, which most people don’t usually do.
“The chair by the bookcase. There’s no reason for it to be there, and the dents in the carpet show it normally sits by the door, where it makes more sense.”
Lester applauded and raised his eyebrows at Joe. “You really ought to reconsider ring her, you know? She does have some skills.”
“Up yours,” Sam commented, used to the ribbing. “What did you find Oh Sherlock?”
Lester upended an evidence bag by his elbow. “Three burner phones and what looks like a coded ledger, all tucked away behind the gewgaws on the top shelf, out of sight and unreachable without moving that chair.”
Joe smiled. “But with the chair where it is, the implication is that Fellows moved it just before he went out for the last meeting of his life.”
“And that he was in too much of a rush to put it back,” Sam filled in.
“Something had upset the colonel’s clandestine world,” Lester added.
Joe chuckled. “I’m going to look forward to tearing his apartment to pieces.”
“That and Pete Hunter’s trailer,” Sam said. “I’m betting that somewhere between the two of them, we’re gonna find something linking these guys.”
They didn’t get that far. Joe Gunther’s cell phone informed him that the BOL they’d issued earlier for any cars belonging to the two victims had resulted in a discovery at the university’s B Lot, near the baseball field. In answer to Joe’s question as to why he should be called about such a mundane fact, the answer was enticing enough: “Trust me. The trip’ll be worth your while.” It was. As he and Sam cut across the campus’s centrally located, tree-lined parade ground on top of the hill, and began descending the far side toward the university’s back end, where most of the student parking was located, they couldn’t but appreciate the cluster of official cars, uniforms, and the relocated crime lab van.
“Uh-oh,” Sam commented. “That doesn’t look good.”
Congratulations were due once again, it turned out, to the campus security folks, who’d taken seriously their assignment to inventory all vehicles in their realm. Sadly, the officer who’d come upon this particular sedan—a seen-better-days Subaru with different-colored doors and enough rust to decorate the Titanic—was the same who’d been called to the press box earlier.
As Joe crouched outside the vehicle’s opened door to take in its contents, however, congratulations were not on the tip of his tongue. Slumped in the passenger seat, a tourniquet wrapped around her bone-thin biceps, was a skinny, wasted-looking young woman with an empty syringe still plunged into the crook of her arm.
She was dead. “What’ve we got?” Joe asked in general. Their counterpart, Lieutenant Jansen, answered for the group. “It’s Hunter’s car, but we’re still scratching our heads over her. No purse, no ID, and no one here has seen her before. We’re starting to get details about Hunter’s background, and there’s a woman named Marjorie Evans who crops up recently and more than once, so we’re looking into her, but that’s about it right now.”
While he was speaking, one of the lab techs opened the door adjacent to the dead woman, and after taking several photographs, rose with two objects dangling from his gloved hands.
“Maybe these’ll help,” he said from behind his face mask.
Visible to all, he was holding a single key, and a blood-stained knife.
Investigations are sometimes like treks across the desert, from one oasis to the next, where increasing knowledge gleaned from research, evidence, and discovery metaphorically shrinks the distances between waterholes, until the whole case comes together into a single, verdant entity.
And so it was here. As Joe Gunther and his associates followed the various leads, they uncovered a sociopathic Colonel Fellows unknown to his friends and fellow faculty—a man born to anger and dysfunction, abandoned by his abused wife and children, exposed to corruption and temptation in Afghanistan, who’d calculated a way to enhance his seemingly modest lifestyle by importing heroin from overseas and distributing it to the likes of Peter Hunter and his girlfriend, Marjorie Evans.
Eventually, Joe, Sam, and the others had enough puzzle pieces to complete a narrative as banal as it had been baffling at first. Using sources as diverse as electronic communications, video footage of clandestine meetings, ledger entries, and witness statements from friends of all three deceased, the investigators untangled a tale of a slighted user, Hunter, demanding a meeting with Fellows, where the latter killed the former just as Evans—apparently running late—let herself in with a key dating back to when she’d worked at the university years earlier. Stabbing Fellows in the back and rolling him over in her panic afterward, she then fled the scene, retired to the car she and Hunter had used to get there, and gave herself a fatal overdose, either intentionally or by mistake, her judgment overwhelmed by her distress.