After the recent Las Vegas massacre by a supposed lone gunman armed with multiple assault weapons, sevral people asked me for my take on the possibility that this individual really acted alone and basically what I think of common sense gun control. I'd like to wait for a final conclusion of the investigtors on the ground at the scene before theorizing too much about the first question, but The overall idea of COMMON SENSE gun control has always appealed to me. I DO NOT advocate banning all guns from civilians entitled and qualified to purchase and own them; any legislation pointed in that direction is nothing more than a waste of time and a disaster waiting to happen. However, the laws as now written are disjointed nationwide and in need of COMMON SENSE refurbishment. A quick fix would not be overly difficult, but should be addressed by people who understand statute law, the public's right to basic protection from incidents like these and the point of view of the average law-abiding gun owner.
Following the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT years ago, I wrote a novellette that I thought answered many of the questions people asked about how or why could such a thing happen. Unfortunately, the publisher I had at the time refused to handle it, stating it was too controversial. A few years later and a new publisher on the hook, she also declined to publish it for the same reason. Finally a publisher in the UK, uneffected by the taboos of mentioning US gun law inadequacies, published it as part of an anthology where the proceeds from the sales went to charity.
Now, I'd like to post PAPER TRAIL on my blog to allow anyone to read my thoughts about this ongoing problem. The procedures contained within the story are sound and based on my twenty years as a detective and police administrator. The laws, as existed at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting and still exist, are accurately depicted and based on my experience as a holder of a federal firearms license for twenty-three years.
This not a short story. It's 11,000 words. It should take an hour to read.
By Wayne Zurl
Sergeant Stanley Rose scrambled from behind his patrol car and moved clockwise toward the school’s rear entrance. When he reached a white Toyota parked near the corner of the building, he rested an Ithaca pump shotgun over the hood, pointing it at the admin office window.
POs Junior Huskey and Harley Flatt scurried in the opposite direction until they found cover behind a Ford Fusion and a Chevy pickup. Junior carried a scoped Winchester model 70 and Harley an AR-15. Their khaki uniform shirts contrasted with the darker vehicles; their green trousers blended with the grass.
Bobby Crockett and I remained at the side of the school behind my unmarked Crown Victoria, no more than sixty feet from the building, carefully watching a young man hold the muzzle end of an AK-47 at the head of John Woolford, the assistant principal of the Lamar E. Shields Elementary School in Prospect, Tennessee, a small city generally said to be on the “peaceful side of the Smokies.” In addition to carrying an assault rifle, the grips of two high-capacity semiautomatics protruded from the gunman’s waistband. That much firepower turned a skinny kid into a formidable opponent.
I’m not a professional hostage negotiator, but I needed to establish contact and do something to keep the situation from swirling down the toilet. Using my cell phone, I called a landline in the school’s office.
Woolford picked up. “Yes?”
“John, Sam Jenkins, Prospect PD. Can I speak to the man with the guns?”
On the other end I heard, “The police chief wants to speak with you.”
The young man, who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, was very thin and dressed all in black. After hearing the message, he pushed Woolford roughly into a chair and grabbed the phone.
“What?” he said.
I identified myself and began a dialogue. “Tell me what you want. What can I do to work this out?”
His nostrils flared as he sucked air in through his nose; he took no time to reply. “I already done what I came here for. I got nothin’ more to say.”
As he dropped the phone onto the desk, I yelled, “Wait!”
Without further ado, he calmly squeezed the trigger of the assault rifle. The muzzle flashed and recoiled slightly, the cracking report loud enough for us to hear outside the building as one 7.62 x 39 millimeter round travelled through John Woolford’s head. The young man showed no emotion, no more feeling for another living thing than if he had cut the head off a fish.
For a moment afterwards, he looked out the window. His head turned thirty degrees to the right, then to the left, perhaps searching for the eyes of the last person with whom he spoke. Who knows what a homicidal individual thinks? I’ve met plenty and can never figure them out.
The silent radio broke squelch and Junior said,“I’ve got a shot.”
“Standby,” I said. “Let’s see what he does.”
The young gunman shrugged, turned the rifle, placing the muzzle between his lips, and put a bullet through the top of his head.
He collapsed out of my view and I keyed the transmit button on my small handheld radio again. “It looks like he ate the gun. Move in, but be careful.”
I let out a long breath and shook my head. Could I chalk up yet another example of colossal waste to the collection I’d amassed over the years? What else would we find once we entered the school? The apparent is not always the sole factor in a can of worms like the one before us. But a few precautions were necessary before running headlong into the building.
The elementary school, named for our mayor’s grandfather, occupied a small, one-story brick building with only six ways in or out.
Stan Rose, a tall black man, built like a professional wrestler, ran to the pair of double doors at the rear of the building.
My radio squawked. “Door’s locked,” Stan said. “Looks like he wrapped a chain between the bars.”
“Junior,” I said, “try another door. Harley, check the front.”
The two officers acknowledged my transmission.
I turned to Bobby. “We’ll take those two on this side.”
Junior reported in first. “This one’s chained, too.”
“Same here in front,” Harley said.
When I reached my pair of doors, I found them secured with a bicycle chain and padlock. But from one of the classrooms, a woman stepped into the hall; she must have heard me rattling the door. Four young children followed her; two girls held hands. The boys just stood there, one with tears on his cheek, both wide-eyed.
“Stan,” I said, “get bolt cutters from your car and meet me at the side doors. And bring a windshield hammer. Junior, Bobby, Harley, keep circling the building. Check all doors and windows. Look for an accomplice or anyone who seems like they don’t belong.”
Moments later, Stanley jogged up to meet me, carrying an orange hammer especially designed to break safety glass and a bolt cutting tool more than two feet long.
“Stand back, the glass fragments may scatter,” I yelled at the woman, but probably didn’t need to. Everything had become quiet, but I was still cranked up.
I waited a moment. She turned, gathered the children together and stepped back almost twenty feet. Heads peeked from doorways. More children and adults stepped into the hall from other classrooms in the wing, many were crying, most stared dully, obviously in shock.
I swung the hammer, striking the upper half of the glass door in the center with the pointed end of the head. A small spider of cracks appeared, but I was far from accomplishing my goal. I tried again and saw a bit more progress. Additional cracks appeared, as did a small indentation.
“That might have done it,” Stanley said. “Gimme a little room.”
He swung the bolt cutters like a bat, putting all his 235 pounds behind the effort. The glass broke inward. Then he smashed the business end of the tool against the glass like a soldier driving the butt of his rifle into a Goliath-like opponent. After the third try, the glass disappeared from the metal door frame. A quick snip of the chain that secured the bars locking the doors together gave us entry. I tried to imagine what we’d find, what damage and horror the gunman left behind.
Stan used his radio to call the three other officers and coordinate with the sheriff’s units and state troopers the county dispatcher sent to assist.
“Who needs first aid?” I asked the closest teacher.
Tears rolled down her check. “It’s too late.”
She shivered slightly and shook her head, probably never having experienced anything close to what happened moments before and the results she was forced to see. I felt sorry for her and wondered how many shrinks would work overtime to help these survivors sort out their mental anguish.
“Show me,” I said.
I followed her while Stan and Harley Flatt, guns in hand, jogged down the hall to look for the shooter.
My other two cops herded the teachers and children into the blacktop parking area, twenty yards from the building. Car doors slammed and two uniformed deputies walked toward the crowd in the parking lot.
The teacher and I entered a first grade classroom. The smell of spilled blood hit me likethe stink of low tide on the mud flats in the Great South Bay where I grew up. Immediately, I scanned the room. The body of a woman in her forties lay on the floor below the blackboard; blood stained her pale yellow blouse and a pool of maroon covered the floor aroundher. Off to one side lie more bodies—a younger woman and six children—all shot. The amount of blood appeared excessive, like the dark red contents of several gallon paint cans had been spilled on the floor and splattered on the walls. The putrid odor of the bodily releases that occur at a time of death could have gagged a maggot. No one gets paid enough to deal with something like that.
In the furthest corner, behind an overturned desk, a small boy and girl huddled together. I pushed my way through the scattered, tiny desks.
“Are you hurt?”
The boy shook his head and the girl whimpered, “No.”
“I’m a policeman,” I said softly. “No one will harm you.”
They nodded, but looked at me with a thousand yard stare people their age shouldn’t possess. Their smooth young faces displayed a mental pain one could only imagine. The girl’s breathing sounded uneven and labored. The boy held her tightly—his way of protecting a friend.
“Everything’s okay now,” I said, knowing that was a convenient lie. “Let me help you up and you can go with this teacher.”
The kids rose unsteadily to their feet. The woman bent to put her arm around the pair and ushered them into the hallway.
The older-looking dead woman, dark-haired, tall, and probably once attractive, who I assumed was the teacher, lay beneath the blackboard with two bullet wounds in her chest. A two inchstick of white chalk lay only a foot from her right hand. At the rear of the room, the second woman, petite, baby-faced, but perhaps in her late-twenties and probably a teacher’s aide, had taken one round to the head. A portion of her skull was blown away, exposing blood-stained brain tissue. A halo of congealing blood surrounded the remainder of her head in a very unholy manner. The six children all suffered multiple gunshot wounds to various parts of their upper bodies. Everyone, of course, was dead. I assumed that Stanley would find the dead shooter in possession of a select-fire AK-47. It appeared that, for a reason perhaps known only to the gunman, he sprayed that corner of the classroom with a long burst of automatic fire. A semiautomatic weapon couldn’t do as much fast and concentrated damage.
I walked into the hallway and found the teacher still holding the boy and girl and asked her to keep the children away from anyone else until I spoke with them.
Outside the building, I found Junior, Bobby, the two deputies, and a state trooper standing in a loose circle around the group of people they had moved from within the school. Teachers, children, two men wearing green janitor’s uniforms, and three women who I knew worked in the admin office, milled uneasily in the parking lot like cattle waiting outside the slaughterhouse. I asked the trooper and deputies to set up an outer perimeter and keep anyone, especially the press, away from the school building.
“Bobby,” I said, “call the sheriff’s duty officer and ask for as much help as they can spare. Junior, call Bettye and have her round up as many of the off-duty guys as she can find and send them here.” It was no time to worry about my overtime budget.
I trotted down the hallway to the administration office where I found Stanley holding the shooter’s wallet. On the desk closest to the body, he had arranged two 9mm pistols, a Sig-Sauer P-225, and a Glock 17, along with two extra loaded magazines for each handgun, giving the shooter almost one hundred rounds of potent hollow points to use if he exhausted his complement of rifle ammunition. Next to them lay a civilian import, Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47. The gunman had taped together three thirty-round magazines so, with only minimum effort, he could almost continuously fire ninety rounds of the high velocity ammo. And if that wasn’t enough to do the damage he intended, three additional loaded rifle magazines were stored in a pouch still slung over his shoulder, something for the evidence technicians to remove after they took photographs.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“License says Lindell Merritt. He would have been twenty-one next month. Prospect address,” Stan said.
“In addition to this man,” I pointed to the body of the assistant principal, “I’ve got two dead women and six children in one of the classrooms.”
Spattered blood and other bodily materials covered the wall behind the chair where John Woolford sat when he died. The .30 caliber bullet entered his frontal lobe traveling at approximately 2,400 feet per second and exited the rear of his skull, taking blood, bone, and brain tissue along for the ride. A wider splatter pattern covered the ceiling above the gunman. His self-inflicted wound included a sizable loss of his skull. A sticky patch of gray and red matter clung to the fiber ceiling tile over his body.
“Call for crime scene units and the medical examiner?” I asked.
“Already have,” Harley said.
I returned to the place where we had entered the building. Standing just outside the door where Stanley broke the glass, I found the teacher and two children.
“What’s your name, miss?”
She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, blonde with some dark roots showing, and attractive in a clean-cut and pretty, girl-next-door way.
“I’m Lucene Helmer. I teach second grade here.”
“Did you see what happened?”
“No, sir. I was two doors away.” Lucene acted calmer than only a few moments earlier. Perhaps tending to the two children occupied her mind and distracted her from the aftermath of the massacre she observed in the classroom. She’d be lucky if she could ever erase those images from her mind. But that’s not reality. It’s a good thing denial isn’t only a river in Egypt.
I nodded and knelt on one knee to speak with the children. Even that close to the floor, I looked down at my two witnesses. The boy was blond and the girl had long dark hair.
“Hi,” I said. “Remember me? I’m one of the policemen.” The kids nodded. “I know you guys are upset. I am too. But did you see what happened?” I knew they did, and hoped they could talk about it.
The frail little girl began to cry silently. The boy nodded again.
I spoke to the girl first. “What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Thank you, Dora.” I looked the boy in the eye. “And how about you, son?”
He pushed his shoulders back and lifted his chin. “Randy Glen Dillard, sir.”
I rested a hand on his shoulder. “Good man, Randy.” The boy was obviously shaken, but stood tall, took a deep breath, and did his best to act like a soldier.
“You guys think you can tell me what you saw?”
Dora sniffed and wiped a tear from her cheek before nodding. Randy looked like he was fighting back tears, but said, “Yes, sir.”
“Dora, I’m guessing you could use a drink of water. Please go to the fountain with Ms. Helmer and I’ll meet you ladies as soon as Randy and I finish talking.”
I smiled at Lucene Helmer. “Would you mind?”
She forced a smile, nodded, and walked with Dora down the hall.
“Okay, partner,” I said to Randy, “I’m sorry to lean on you, but you’re the best help I’ve got right now. Go slow and tell me what you saw.”
Controlling your emotions after a traumatic incident isn’t easy, but if you don’t have to talk about it, a person’s survival mode kicks in and allows them to appear calm and collected. Asking the boy to recount the shooting brought everything back to reality for him, and with no small amount of difficulty, Randy Glen mustered up the strength to tell me that Lindell Merritt entered the classroom and withdrew the AK-47 from a large canvas bag. He confronted his mother, teacher Wynona Merritt, and after a brief conversation and argument, he leveled the gun and shot her twice.
The sound of gunfire and sight of Mrs. Merritt being killed scattered the students across the rear of the classroom. Off to the shooter’s left, a group of kids huddled near Sarah Ledbetter, a twenty-six year-old teacher’s aide, with one girl crying uncontrollably. Lindell Merritt pointed the rifle at them and yelled for the girl to shut up. His angry words, smoking assault rifle, and thebody of their dead teacher lying only yards away—never a calming combination—only exacerbated the situation and the girl cried louder and a few other children joined in.
After a second attempt to quiet the students failed, the frustrated Merritt held down the trigger and sprayed the corner of the room with the remaining twenty-eight bullets in the magazine. When he finished killing Ms. Ledbetter and two boys and four girls, he ejected and reversed the magazine assembly, jammed a loaded clip into the port of the AK, and pulled and released the bolt to seat a new round. Then he quietly left the room without looking back and headed toward the administrative office where we assume he met Mr. Woolford.
Thirteen of the surviving students ran from the room after Merritt left, looking for the safety of a teacher and another classroom. Randy stayed with Dora, thinking the shooter wouldn’t return to the scene of the killing; probably a wise choice on the kid’s part.
I patted the small boy’s shoulder. “Thanks, Randy, you’re a good man. Now let’s go find Ms. Helmer so I can speak with Dora.”
I left Randy with the teacher and listened to virtually the same story from Dora Plemmons, who added that she and Randy remained in the room, too frightened to venture out, until Ms. Helmer and I walked into the classroom.
Finished speaking with my young witnesses, I decided to check on the remainder of the school population and stepped outside. The grounds appeared to be in a state of controlled chaos. Parents were driving up in all kinds of motor vehicles to look for their children. Television news crews and newspaper reporters and cameramen walked the perimeter looking for information and pictures. Helicopters from the TV stations hovered overhead and I saw the mayor’s black Lincoln Navigator parked near Junior’s police car. Three additional state troopers had arrived and the sheriff sent two crime scene units, three detectives, and four more deputies to assist. Then everyone’s favorite, the morgue wagon, pulled in. Unfortunately, the medical examiner would need additional vehicles to transport all the bodies to the UT Forensics Lab for autopsies.
A sharp pain encompassed my entire head. I was hungry and wanted a drink, but had miles to go before I sorted out Prospect, Tennessee’s worst nightmare.
At early afternoon the next day, less than twenty-four hours after ten people died in an elementary school designed to shape lives, not lose them, I sat in my office with Stan Rose, Junior Huskey, Bobby John Crockett, Harlan Flatt, and my admin sergeant and den mother to the eleven other Prospect cops, Bettye Lambert. We needed to kick around the happenings of yesterday and see what more needed to be done. It was the kind of thing some of the nitwits I worked for in New York called a debriefing. I guess they used that phrase to sound more governmental.
I don’t know what happens in the germ-laden cubicles of a room filled with telemarketers or in a post office when workers are subjected to a horrific incident, but I know good cops. They don’t demonstrate their emotions, they internalize them. They may take an extra drink the night after or snap at the kid for leaving his bicycle in the driveway, but they don’t do things like thatat work. The five officers around me appeared stolid, stoic, professional—anything but unglued from the events of the day before and the horror imprinted on their memory chips.
Bobby said, “Couple teachers said Mrs. Merritt claimed ta be havin’ problems with her son. Biggest thing bein’ he wasn’t takin’ his meds faithfully.”
“What were the meds for?” I asked.
“They thought he was bi-polar or somethin’.”
“What kind of background did you get on the shooter?” I asked Bettye.
“He was charged as a juvenile with killing a neighbor’s puppy when he was nine.”
She pressed her lips together and shook her head; Bettye’s telltale sign of annoyance and frustration.
“Family court said he had to visit a psychologist and after six sessions, the records were sealed. At seventeen, he got picked up by Blount County with an ounce of marijuana. His lawyer requested youthful offender status, pled him out to misdemeanor possession seventh, and asked the court to hold the verdict in abeyance. Lindell stayed out of trouble for six months and the record was expunged. That’s all for a criminal history. Couple of traffic tickets and he was suspended from high school once for fightin’.” She paused and took a sip of coffee.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“I checked a little further and found out his mother talked him into a voluntary committal at Peninsula Psychiatric almost three years ago. He spent twenty-one days and walked out with a couple of prescriptions.”
“How’d you get that information? Peninsula isn’t famous for giving out confidential records without a release or court order.”
“I know someone and told her we’d not be using it officially. Don’t ask who.”
I shrugged. “Far be it from me to ask another cop to divulge her informant. How about the mother?”
“Clean record all around. Divorced ten years,” Junior said. “Broke up mostly because of the kid. Father wanted him to get more mental he’p, mother said he was doin’ okay with his meds. He’s workin’ on oil rigs down in Loosiana. Off shore right now, but he said he’d come back soon as possible. Her parents moved to Florida and both his are deceased. Said he’d call her family.”
“And now the big problem,” I said. “What do you know about the guns?”
“TBI says the Glock was a legitimate purchase from that big dealer on Broadway in Maryville,” Stan said. “Mrs. Merritt bought it for home protection. The Sig was sold to a lawyer from Knoxville more than twenty years ago by a gun shop no longer in business. Former owner told TBI after five or six years he lost interest and sold it at a gun show at the convention center. That buyer’s ID is unknown and where it’s been since then is anyone’s guess. The AK was imported prior to the first assault weapon ban and sold to a dealer in Harriman. He’s outta business, too, so since assault rifles are not subject to a pre-purchase records search, ATF will have to hand check those old store records for the first buyer.”
“You take the guns to TBI for processing?”
“I did,” Harley said. “First thing this mornin’. Bill Werner, the firearms examiner, says he’ll give them priority and see what he can tell us.”
“Three guns and two of them have virtually no paper trail,” I said. “Makes you wonder where they’ve been.”
“Sure does,” Stanley said. “That AK started life as a legal semi-automatic, but somebody altered it with one of those drop-in sears and made it full-auto.”
“Those semi-autos are all legal,” Harley said, “but there’s at least a dozen mail-order places who advertise in the Shotgun News sellin’ conversion kits, silencers, ten-inch illegal barrels, and any other part you’d ever need. For a few bucks and with a set of instructions, anyone can rock an’ roll.”
Harley knows his firearms.
Bettye tossed her pad onto my desktop. “That is a damn shame. Those parts should be just as illegal as a machine gun. And how do you suppose that young man got those two undocumented guns?”
“You’re right about the parts,” I said. “If you need a federal permit to own an automatic weapon, the conversion kits should be regulated and illegal to ship to buyers in states that totally ban machinegun ownership.”
Bettye shook her head, made that annoyed face again, and walked over to the counter where Mr. Coffee sat.
Only a slight display of emotion, which women aren’t afraid to show, but something we macho guys wouldn’t dare.
When she got to the counter, Bettye turned around. “I shouldn’t keep drinkin’ this coffee, but I’m so mad I don’t know what else to do.”
“There’s always a bottle of scotch in here.” I tapped the bottom desk drawer with my toe.
The guys laughed. Bettye didn’t. She was one of the prettiest blondes I’d ever met. Her hazel eyes were usually bright and happy. Today, they looked dark and somber. She wasn’t in the mood for a joke.
“That’s all I need.” She returned to her seat and gave me a look mothers reserve for bad children.
I gave her my repentant little boy smile and shrugged. “Back to your question about Lindell Merritt buying undocumented weapons. They’re as common as slingshots in states that don’t require a permit for a handgun. And assault rifles have never been controlled. Buy one from a dealer and when you get tired of it, sell it to whoever has the cash, no paperwork needed.”
“And Tennessee only requires a permit to carry a handgun concealed,” she said.
“Sure. If a civilian buys a handgun from a dealer, the dealer has to get approval from the TBI, which only does a record check for convictions and committals to a state mental facility.”
“So our boy with a sealed juvie record, expunged criminal conviction, and time in a private mental hospital would have been approved,” Stanley said.
“Afraid so,” I said.
“More guns are sold outta the trunks o’ cars in the parkin’ lot at a gun show than bought off the tables inside,” Harley said.
“Yeah,” Bobby added, “most people don’t want their guns on paper. And it’s all legal.”
“They think Big Brother will come and take ’em away,” Junior said.
“That’s also ridiculous,” Bettye said.
“That’s the casual sale rule,” I said. “Don’t want a pistol any longer? Sell it to someone who does. If you’re not a gun dealer, it’s simpler than selling a car.”
Stanley said, “My neighbor had a big .357 he used to take hunting that he didn’t want anymore. Asked me if he needed to tell anyone when he sold it. I told him no, but he’d be crazy not to get ID and keep a record of the one who bought it. I mean what happens if this buyer offs his mother-in-law with the gun signed out to you and you don’t remember who you sold it to?”
“Did he take your advice?” Bettye asked.
“Hell no. Said the buyer would have backed out if he had to give his ID.”
“Everything we’re talking about is part of that Brady Bill,” I said, “a federal law that’s about as potent as a ninety-year-old man with prostate problems.”
“That law’s a joke,” Bobby said.
At 9:30 the next morning, Bettye buzzed my phone.
“Bill Werner from TBI firearms for you.”
I thanked her and she transferred the call.
“Sam, I’ve got a two out of three jackpot for you.”
“Why do you state cops always complicate my life?”
“Better than making no impact at all.”
“What’s my jackpot?”
“The Glock is clean, but you probably knew that. Only the owner obviously didn’t safeguard it properly.”
“Assuming she didn’t buy it for her former mental patient son, that’s an understatement. What’s next?”
“It gets more interesting. The Sig, originally bought by a Knoxville lawyer, test fired as a gun used to wound a Roane County deputy six years ago.”
“Lovely. I wonder if my guy was their shooter.”
“I checked. Their description isn’t even close. But they’d like to hear what you find out after you track these things down.”
“I’ll give them what I get. How about the AK?”
“Another problem. It comes up as stolen during a house burglary in Anderson County. But there’s a glitch here. Somehow the transfer of data from Anderson County to NCIC failed. There’s a state record of the stolen gun, but the info never made it to the national computer, or it got deleted and drifted off into the ether.”
“I hate computers.”
“You’re just old and cranky.” He chuckled. “But I did call around to a few local places that deal in and repair those kinds of guns. That AK showed up in a Knoxville gun shop for repair three years ago.”
“And this gun shop has a name for that owner?”
“Yes, and it’s not your shooter.”
I began my investigation tracking the life of those firearms with the closest and probably most cooperative subject, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant who owned a firearms store in nearby Maryville. Sarge Greene’s Armory occupied a former IGA food market in a non-affluent section of town.
I walked through the front door to find enough firepower to equip half an infantry battalion. Wall racks filled with sporting rifles, shotguns, surplus military rifles, modern assault rifles; more used long guns than you could fit in the bed of an average pickup truck surrounded me. No less than ninety linear feet of double-shelved, glass-fronted display cases loaded with every form of handgun, swept across more than half the perimeter of the showroom, separating the sales personnel from the customer. The sound of muffled gunshots filtered up from the well-advertised twenty-five yard range set up in the basement. I spoke with the owner, Leonard Greene, a man in his early fifties, who stood a hefty six-one and had an all-around military look about him—the kind of guy Aldo Ray made a fortune portraying in the movies.
He flipped through a thick ledger until he found the page we needed.
“Sold that one before we went computerized,” he said. “Here ya go, Wynona Merritt. Bought a Glock 17 on June 10th, three years ago. I remember her now. Nice lookin’ woman. Said she wanted home protection.”
“You sell lots of pistols, Gunny. Why do you remember her?”
“B’sides bein’ good-lookin’, she seemed ta know jest what she wanted. Specified a Glock 9mm. Said her son suggested gettin’ an all double action weapon. I had a new 17 in stock.”
I had to be careful with my next question. I didn’t want him to think I suspected him of agreeing to a “straw-man” purchase, a sale he’d be obligated to deny. “You think she was buying it for her kid? Like a birthday present or . . . coming of age gift?”
“Had no reason to believe that. I remember sellin’ her a cleanin’ kit and some ammo. I’ll pull the sales receipt and we’ll see exactly what.”
He rummaged around in a file cabinet for a few minutes and came back to the counter with several pages stapled together.
“Look here, sir, she also bought two boxes of reloads ta practice with and a box of factory hollow points. Also paid for a half hour of instruction and an hour of range time.”
“Know if she took any safety classes?”
“Not from us. Didn’t say she had or wanted a concealed carry permit. Buzz, over there,” he pointed to a short and stocky young man with a crew cut matching his own helping another customer, “he’s one of my instructors. NRA certified. He showed her the ropes. Would’ve talked basic safety, shown her how to load the weapon, clean it, and talked her through shootin’ a few rounds.”
“And that’s it?”
“Don’t ever remember seein’ her again.”
“No more range time? Ammo sales? Ever bring her son here to shoot?”
“I’d have ta check on that, but I don’t think so. Hang on another minute, sir. I’ll ask Buzz if he knows anymore.”
After a few moments, he came back with Buzz in tow.
“I’m trying to learn anything I can about this woman,” I said. “She was the victim of a homicide. Do you remember something about her after she bought the Glock and you gave her instructions?”
“No, sir,” Buzz said. “I remember this woman. She had a hunnert rounds o’ practice ammo, but only shot about thirty. She didn’t stay on the range for the full hour she paid for, either.”
From Maryville, I drove to the law office of RolandFarley in Knoxville’s old town. Originally from a little jerkwater burgh in Missouri’s Ozark region, Farley was a dapper fifty-six, working out of a two-hundred-year-old, three-story mansion overlooking the Tennessee River.
“The Sig-Sauer distributor says they sold this gun to Dutch Valley Firearms. That business has changed hands and names three times over the years, but the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has your name on file. Am I correct in assuming you’re the original buyer?”
“Yeah, like I told the TBI agent on the phone, I got it new in the box. The shop was on Cedar Bluff, just north of the Interstate.”
“Did you want it for personal protection?”
He laughed. “No. I didn’t know how to use a gun. If I tried to protect myself, I’m afraid the bad guy would have taken the gun from me, stuck it up my ass, and pulled the trigger.”
I smiled at his honesty. “I wish more gun buyers would consider that possibility.”
“I bought it because my neighbor was a shooter. Nice guy. We used to socialize with him and his wife. He said if I owned a gun we could go to the Oak Ridge shooting complex. He suggested the Sig because the Navy SEALS were using them.”
“And you didn’t stay interested in the shooting hobby?”
“I was never very good at it, and my neighbor moved to Florida. So, I sold the gun.”
“I don’t know.”
` That surprised me. I thought a lawyer would be sharper, more conscious of liabilities. “I beg your pardon?”
He shook his head. “I never got his name. I took it to a gun show at the convention center. Two cops checked to see it wasn’t loaded and then used an electrician’s plastic tie to hold the slide open and sent me into the hall. You ever been to a gun show?”
“Then you know how crowded it can be, and how many people walking around are trying to sell guns. I stopped at a few tables with signs saying that they’d buy, but those dealers wouldn’t even pay half of what it was worth. The gun was like new, with the box, papers and an extra magazine.”
“And what happened next?”
“Some guy stopped me in the aisle and asked if the gun was for sale. He looked it over and finally offered me four hundred bucks.”
“And you took it, no questions asked?”
“I looked up the rules before I got there and also spoke to one of the cops who confirmed there was no paperwork necessary for a sale between two private individuals.”
“Would have been a good idea to know who bought the gun. Your name’s attached to it and now who knows where it’s been?”
“I guess you’re right, but I just wanted to sell it and get out.”
“Did you know your gun was used to shoot a cop?”
I had no doubt attorney Roland Farley practiced keeping a poker face at the appropriate moments, but my remark jolted his cool demeanor.
“Good Lord, no. Was he killed?”
“He lived, but you see how getting a buyer’s name would be helpful?”
“Of course. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“That happened a long time ago, but the case was initiated and the statute of limitations won’t apply. I’ll be forwarding my information to Roane County. You’ll probably hear from one of their detectives shortly.”
“I’ll cooperate fully.”
He didn’t have a chance to regain his composure when I hit him with another guilt trip.
“The problem didn’t stop there.”
I explained the school shooting and showed him a photo of Lindell Merritt. “This person would have been very young when you sold the gun, but have you ever seen him?”
“On the news yesterday. I can’t believe he had my gun with him.”
“I’ve learned that strange occurrences can be more the rule than the exception. Remember what the gun buyer looked like?”
He provided a good physicaldescription.
“Thanks for your time, counselor.”
“I’m sorry I ever sold that damn thing.”
So far, I had visited a gun shop owner who did all the right things and his legally sold merchandise ended up in the hands of a fruitcake. A damn shame, but not something to spend time fretting about. Then I met an outwardly successful and intelligent attorney who, like a moron, cared more about getting four hundred bucks for a gun in which he lost interest than keeping it out of the hands of an illicit buyer. Something like that only refreshed my belief in the old adage, ‘You meet all kinds.’
My third stop took me to a store called Knoxville Arms Depot and Grundy’s Custom Shop on Kingston Pike in central Knoxville. The store wasn’t as large as Leonard Greene’s, but it was loaded with military surplus rifles and pistols, modern paramilitary assault rifles and shotguns, and rows of cases holding hundreds of new and used handguns. Military recruiting posters and enlarged photos of American GIs hung on all the walls. It looked like a hangout for the wannabe mercenary and armchair soldier of fortune.
The manager was in his late-thirties, had a shaved head and close-cropped Vandyke beard and mustache, and wore a big Desert Eagle semi-auto holstered on his right hip.
He took me into the backroom workshop to chat with the gunsmith, an older, paunchy-looking man with curly gray hair, who stared at me over a pair of narrow reading glasses.
I explained the reason for my visit and asked for any information he could provide on my murder weapon or the man who dropped it off for repair.
“You know, of course,” he said, “we’re not responsible for anything a gun owner does with a weapon we fix or modify. They sign a document relieving us of any liability.”
Tell that to the families of the dead teachers and students.
“I assume you only do legitimate repairs and legal modifications?”
“This AK had been altered to select fire. I hope you don’t make those conversions.”
“We do not.” He sounded indignant. “Never have, never will. I’d lose my license.”
I wanted to believe him, but wondered what he’d do for a friend.
“What work did you do on that gun?”
“Hang on a minute, I’ll get the books.”
I hung in there and he dug out his ledger.
“Says here he complained about jamming and stove piping. That means . . .”
“I know what it means.”
He nodded. “I checked and cleaned the bolt and extractor and polished the throat and port area, making sure there were no burrs or rough spots. Some of these imports coming out of the old Warsaw Pact countries in the early nineties weren’t as well made as the real military versions.”
I wondered how many real ones came through his door.
“Just cranked out to keep us Americans armed and dangerous?” It wasn’t exactly a question.
“Afraid so,” he said.
Before I left, he handed me a business card. From it I read,
Grundy provided me with the name and address of then fifty-year-old Eltone Seebold, a resident of North Knoxville.
I found the small, one-story post-war home unoccupied, but a neighbor said I could locate Eunice Seebold working at a nearby beauty shop. When I found her, I started a conversation.
“My husband died two years ago in a wreck on Rutledge Pike,” she said. “Damn motorcycle. I hated when he’d go off on it.”
Eunice was a middle-aged blonde wearing enough makeup to fill the dents on a battered old car.
“Sorry for your loss,” I said.
“Thanks, but he’d been drinkin’. Damn motorcycle and a damn fool.”
I shrugged. “Happens, doesn’t it? What did you do with his gun?”
“Ya mean guns. Eltone had a bunch. His brother Alvis took ’em all and sold ’em for me.”
“Where can I find Alvis?”
I drove to a diesel engine repair shop on Asheville Highway in East Knoxville and found Alvis Seebold bent over the fender of a Dodge pickup, working on a Cummins engine. When I tapped him on the shoulder, he flinched and almost knocked himself out on the hood of the truck.
Alvis shook off the effects of his self-inflicted bruiseand wiped his hands on a clean rag while I identified myself.
“I need to talk to you about your brother’s AK-47.”
Alvis’s expression made him look like I just demanded to know who shot JFK. “Man, I ain’t got that one no more.”
“I know. It turned up in a shooting.”
He shook his head quickly. “Don’t know nuthin’ about that.”
“The gun is listed as stolen. You know where Eltone got it?”
Alvis frowned. “My brother weren’t no thief. Had him a good job. Didn’t need ta steal nuthin’.”
I wasn’t looking for a brotherly endorsement, I needed a name.
“Where did he get the gun?” I repeated.
“Believe it was from some guy at work.”
“I need to be sure.” I sighed and added, “Any idea who?”
“Got a good deal on it from one of them Mexicans who worked on his roofin’ crew.”
That narrowed it down to just under half a million people.
“When was that?”
“Not sure. It’s been a while. Eltone’s been dead more’n two years now. ”
“He owned a roofing business?”
“Was a foreman for Dowdle Brothers Roofin’.”
“I need to track down that AK. Can you help?”
“I kin try.”
I hoped to get results from his renewed enthusiasm.
“How many guns did Eltone have?” I asked.
“Oh, lemme see.”
He kept wiping his hands. I didn’t think they’d ever get any cleaner.
“The AK ya know about, a Chi-neez SKS, same caliber, a Marlin lever action deer rifle, a Remin’ton bolt action thirty-ought-six, couple o’ 12 gauge shotguns, and I guess two revolvers and two automatics.”
“That’s a lot of firepower.”
“We used ta go huntin’ and shootin’ a lot.”
“You sell all the guns?”
“Kept me the Remin’ton and a side-by-side 12 gauge. Paid Eunice what they’s worth, though, didn’t keep nuthin’ without payin’ fer ‘em.”
Hell of a guy.
“I understand. What happened to the rest?”
“To a dealer?”
“Naw, dealers won’t pay nuthin’. I took ’em to a gun show at the Expo Center. Cain’t remember ‘xactly when. Some time jest after Eltone died, I s’ppose. With two promoters in town, they’s havin’ almost a show a month back then. I trolled around inside awhile, sold a couple, then set out in the parkin’ lot with the tailgate down and sold the rest fer cash money.”
Alvis was a prime example of a jerk and the cause of frustration an investigator deals with all too often. I already knew the answer, and I had nothing to lose but my sanity, so I asked a stupid question. “Get names from the buyers?”
“Sure, Andrew Jackson, U-lysses Grant, Abe Lincoln. Like I said, the sales was fer cash money. But I do know one man who bought a couple pieces.”
“Would one of those pieces be the AK-47?”
“Matter o’ fact, it would.”
As I get older my patience doesn’t get any greater, but I really try. “Lucky me. Who’s that?”
“I ain’t gonna git him in no trouble, am I?”
I felt no obligation to tell Alvis the truth. “No, of course not. He didn’t do the shooting. I’m just trying to trace the guns that have no paper trail.”
“Man’s name is Cecil Brogdan.”
“Why do you remember him?”
“I done bought guns from him before. Sold him some, too. Cecil’s always good fer cash.”
“But he’s not a dealer?”
“You mean he’s unlicensed, but dabbles in gun sales?”
“Ol’ Cecil’s been a gun trader long as I kin r’member. Handles good stuff. Prices are always right. Ain’t afraid ta pay fer a gun neither.”
All things considered, it was easy to pry information from Alvis. “You mean he doesn’t try to rip anyone off? Doesn’t need big profits?”
“Right. He’s happy ta make a few bucks and turn the stuff over quick-like. Ol’ Cecil’s an honest man.”
Actually, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives might question Cecil’s honesty, since profiting from the sale of guns without a federal and state license is a crime. But I didn’t bother to mention that to Alvis.
“Sounds like a good guy. Where can I find Cecil?”
“Don’t know where he lives at. Knoxville somewhere, I suspect. Try any gun show. He hits ’em all.”
“He pay for tables and set up?”
“Naw, Cecil don’t want his name on nuthin’. He jest walks around with a few pieces lookin’ fer buyers.”
“Thanks for your help, Mr. Seebold.” Spending all that quality time with Alvis had given me a tension headache. “You’re a fine American.”
He smiled like a happy baboon. A gold tooth twinkled from his upper left quadrant.
I called the most knowledgeable gunslinger I knew, Police Officer Harlan Flatt.
“Who do you know who could lead me to a casual gun dealer named Cecil Brogdan?”
“Hell, boss, I know Cecil. He’s been around fer years.”
“You know where he lives or works?”
“No. I don’t socialize with him. Jest been seein’ him buyin’ and sellin’ guns for a long time. He makes about every gun show ‘tween Lexington and Chattanooga. Maybe more.”
“Who would know where to find him?”
Harley thought for a long moment. “Best guy ta ask—leastwise a guy who’ll give ya a straight answer —is Dickey Hollowell. He’s a retired Knox County deputy and used ta be president of the Smoky Mountain Gun Collectin’ Society.”
Dickey and Isat in his living room in a post-World War Two home in the North Knoxville community of Fountain City.
“You have a big collection?” I asked Hollowell, a medium-sized man with a gray buzz cut and bi-focal glasses.
“Yeah. Been collectin’ old Colts for more ’an forty years. I love these antiques—Single Action Armies, Bisleys, Lightnin’s, cap and ball Armies and Navies—you name it. If it’s an old west Colt, I’ll buy it.”
“Ever buy guns from Cecil Brogdan?”
“Not many. He’s usually selling modern stuff. He likes his Smith & Wessons. Not too knowledgeable about antiques. But occasionally he’ll run across an old gun and he calls me first.”
“Think he’d help me track down an AK-47 that once passed through his hands?”
“Gun from the school shootin’?”
“That’s the one.”
“Cecil in trouble?”
“Probably not over this, unless he altered the gun to shoot full auto.”
“I can’t speak for Cecil, but figger he’s not the type who does that. He can tinker with guns, but he’s not a smith.”
“Doesn’t seem necessary to have much knowledge to install a drop-in sear and get full auto capability out of one of these imports. They provide full instructions. Not much more than installing a light bulb.”
“Still, getting’ caught with a machine gun could be federal hard time. I doubt Cecil would risk it when he can make a quick profit and move on.”
“Profiting from gun sales without a license is a federal crime.”
“Yeah, but everybody does it.”
Dickey Hollowell told me I might find Cecil Brogdan working at a commercial plumbing supply store in the industrial area of the old city. It was getting late, so I decided to continue my fool’s errand the next morning.
At 9 a.m., I sat in my shiny gray unmarked Ford outside Volunteer Wholesale Plumbing and Supply at the corner of McCalla and Bertrand. But before going inside to roust Cecil Brogdan, I called my friend Ned ‘The Fed’ Greznik at the BATF&E office on Locust Street.
“You interested in an unlicensed guy who’s been dealing in guns for decades?”
“Maybe. Who are we talking about?”
“Guy named Cecil Brogdan.”
He laughed. “We’ve known about Cecil since before I got here. Why are you looking at him?”
“At one point he owned the AK-47 used to kill ten people at my school shooting.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Trouble is,” he said, “more than fifty percent of the part-time gun dealers in the U.S. are operating without a federal license. Everybody and his brother want to make a few bucks buying and selling guns. They troll gun shows, set up at weekly flea markets in every backcountry town in the south, and say they’re just disposing of their collection.”
“So what about Cecil? I’m sitting outside his job right now.”
“We’ve tried to buy guns from him dozens of times. Every time a new agent comes into the office, we try again. We know what he’s doing, but he knows us or he can smell a cop across a crowded gun show and always says and does the right thing.”
“There’s got to be somebody who can score a gun from this guy.”
“I’m sure there is, but I need multiple sales from an unlicensed individual to establish an ongoing criminal enterprise and make a case. It would take too much time and money only to get a smalltime dealer.”
“You gotta be kiddin’.”
“It’s the same as most of the drug dealers out there. The narcs know who’s selling, but knowing and making a case are two different things.”
“So, after I talk to him, you have no interest?”
“The AK was altered to full auto.”
“If you can prove Cecil altered it and sold it that way, yeah. If you don’t want him in state court, we’ll take him for that.”
“I’d have an easier time solving the Lindberg kidnapping.”
“Sorry. But from what we know of Cecil Brogdan, he probably didn’t mess with an automatic weapon.”
“That’s what I hear, too.”
“Look, Sam, don’t spin your wheels too much. For a couple months after your shooting, the public and the politicians will act outraged and call for tighter gun control. Three months from now, after the pro gun lobbies start chanting about the Second Amendment and the politicians envision votes going down the drain, their plans for more regulation fade away.”
“Hard to believe most states don’t care about keeping a paper trail on handguns and assault weapons.”
“I agree,” Greznik said, “but prior to the Brady Bill, you could walk into a gun dealer or pawn shop in most states and legitimately buy a handgun with nothing more than a driver’s license proving you were a resident.”
“I know. In New York, I used to arrest people all the time with a trunk full of guns that came from the Carolinas. Local skells who had friends or relatives down south would take a drive and stock up on handguns. Even if they bought retail from pawn brokers or real gun dealers where the friend or relative acted as their straw man, they’d pick up Saturday night specials they could sell on any street corner for ridiculous prices and make a fortune. New York kids seemed to need a gun so they’d have more juice than the other kids on the block.”
“Unless every state requires a permit to buy handguns, and I’d even toss assault rifles into that restriction, and outlaw these casual sales, we’re pissing in the wind. You don’t have to ban guns, you just have to make sure they’re only sold to people qualified to own them—honest citizens, not criminals and head cases.”
After Greznik thoroughly ruined my morning, I walked into the plumbing supply store. Dressed in my Harris Tweed sport jacket, I doubted that anyone thought I’d come to buy pipe fittings. But no one gave me a hard time and Cecil Brogdan wasn’t difficult to find.
“You ever hear your car backfire and stall and you just know it’s not going to start again, Cecil?” I asked, somewhat cryptically.
“I don’t understand what ya mean.”
Cecil was pushing sixty, thin and clean cut with short gray hair.
“I’ve got you in possession of the AK-47 that killed ten people at the elementary school in Prospect.”
His eyes bugged out and he stammered before making his next statement.
“I didn’t kill nobody.”
Lack of common sense always amazes me. “If you sold that gun to Lindell Merritt, you idiot, I’m going to give your name to every spouse or parent of a victim. Ever hear of a wrongful death suit?’
He nodded slowly.
“I hope you don’t own much because after their lawyers get finished with you, you’ll be living in a cardboard box.”
“Whoa, officer. That’s got nuthin’ ta do with me.”
Cecil sounded troubled . . . and sincere. Sometimes a little nudge works wonders.
“Cause I didn’t sell that gun to no head case who shot up your grammar school.”
“And how can you be so sure?”
“Cause I saw that kid’s pitcher on the news. He weren’t my buyer. It ain’t that long ago and that’s the only AK I ever owned and turned over. I sold it to some Cherokee guy.”
“What Cherokee guy? What’s his name?”
Cecil began blinking like a camera on motor drive. His Adam’s apple jiggled up and down and he tried his best to moisten the cotton in his mouth with saliva. Classic signs of someone getting exasperated. I should have prepared myself to do CPR on the man.
“How in hell should I know?” he squawked. “I was walkin’ through a gun show at the Jacob Building with a fer sale sign stuck in the muzzle o’ that gun and this Indian stopped me and bought it.”
“How do you know he was a Cherokee?” I knew I’d love his answer.
“Cherokee, Chickasaw, how’s I supposed ta know what kinda Indian he was? Looked like he posed for the back o’ the buffalo nickel. Coulda been an Apache, for all I know.”
“How old was this Indian?”
“Way over the age limit. I don’t sell no guns ta no kids.”
I wasn’t getting anywhere with Cecil, so I tried a new line of questioning.
“Okay, listen. Let’s forget about the AK for now. The shooter also had a Sig-Sauer 9mm that the original buyer sold at a Knoxville gun show. It’s been a while, but the seller gave me a good description of the guy who bought it. If I tell you what he looked like, would you tell me if you know him from the local gun shows?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because then I won’t call my friend at ATF and tell him I have you handling a gun used in multiple murders.”
True or not, that grabbed his attention, so I softened up a little.
“And I’ve got three dead teachers and six dead children not much older than babies lying in the morgue,” I said. “Somebody has to stick up for them.”
Cecil didn’t answer right away.
“Most people in this area claim to be good Christians. How about you, Cecil?” I asked, trying to pry the right thing from him.
He remained silent for another long moment.
“Okay,” he said, reluctantly, “what’s he look like?”
“This description is a little old, but maybe six foot, medium build, salt and pepper hair pulled back into a ponytail, Fu Manchu mustache. Wore a gold earning made like the base end of a bullet. Had a primer and said .38 Special on it.”
“Needed a shave most o’ the time?”
“He did that day.”
Cecil sighed, looking like he’d rather do anything other than give up a brother gun dealer.
Perhaps Zell Wakeman was a light at the end of my tunnel, an actual player who really did something I could substantiate and tie him to my shooter. “How do I find Zell?”
“Don’t know where he’s at now. Ain’t seen him around for more ’an a year. Heard he got him a job down in Atlanta or Birmin’ham. Chattanooga, maybe. I’m not sure where.”
Another cold trail. And I was moving from the realm of an investigation pertinent to my case to just being plain nosey. If I found Zell Wakeman and he was stupid enough to admit he sold a handgun to an underage buyer, if in fact he did, I could charge him with an offense. But maybe Wakeman never met Lindell Merritt and he sold the Sig to someone else. Without seeing a documented history on the ownership of that gun, I could envision it being in the possession ofmany other people. Nonetheless, Merritt had been twenty years old when he died and even if I could tie Wakeman to him, Wakeman’s lawyer would stall their court appearance for months to let the emotions of the moment pass. By that time, I doubted anyone would care. A sad state of affairs, but painfully true.
The Sig was used to shoot a police officer, so I wanted to help Roane County further their efforts by passing along the information. But that was their case, not mine. And all this was eclipsed by the hour and my mayor not wanting me to work overtime.
At 4:45, I walked back into Prospect PD, tired of interviewing witlings and seeing no satisfying conclusion to a frustrating few days. At least my little neat and orderly police department provided a respite from the lunacy of the outside world. I dropped into the chair next to Bettye Lambert’s desk like a paratrooper hitting a drop zone with ninety pounds of combat gear attached to him. I let out a sigh.
“Darlin’, you look frazzled,” she said.
“You ain’t just whistlin’Dixie, Blondie.”
“What’s the matter, hit a brick wall?”
“Ever hear about the man shoveling sand against the tide?”
“You’ve mentioned that before, but didn’t call it sand.”
I chuckled. Bettye has a good memory.
“Three adults, six kids, and one deranged bastard who woke up one morning, didn’t take his meds, and decided to kill his mother, all died and I doubt anyone can do anything about it.”
“Couldn’t find anything?”
“I found a lot, but I also learned that we’re going to need more than ten lost lives to make any common sense changes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everybody is selling guns—handguns, assault weapons, sporting guns, you name it. If they can make a buck, they sell it. But neither the cops nor the feds can or want to expend much energy to control who gets an off-the-books firearm that’s almost untraceable.”
“Sounds like a long story. Want me to make coffee?”
“I want something stronger than coffee.”
“From the bottom drawer?”
“It’s almost five o’clock. I’ll switch the radio and phone over to county 9-1-1.”
“I’ll meet you in my office.”
A few minutes later, Bettye walked into my room, took off her gun belt, and laid it on the center of my desk. Her khaki shirt and green uniform pants fit like they were tailor-made, but I knew she bought off the rack.
I dropped my feet from the desktop, spun my chair to the right, and took a bottle of Glenfiddich and two clean glasses from the bottom drawer and set them on the blotter.
“Ice?” I asked.
“Please, and a little water.”
I stepped over to the mini-fridge and fixed two drinks. I walked back, sat in the guest chair facing her, and took a pull on the three fingers of scotch I’d poured formyself.
“Tell me,” she said.
“I’ve spent two days chasing down these guns and just got more and more frustrated.”
Her expression softened. “I’m sorry.”
“Any felon, mentally screwed-up weirdo, terrorist, or person looking to kill his mother-in-law with a virtually untraceable handgun can buy one easier than finding a bottle of good whisky in one of the dry counties in this state.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“It’ll take more than you and me to make sense out of this.”
I shook my head and drainedanother half of the scotch sitting in my glass. Bettye took a tiny sip of hers.
“Have you got any more leads to follow?”
“Sure, two doozies. The Sig was last seen in possession of a guy named Zell Wakeman who may have relocated to Atlanta or Birmingham or Chattanooga, or Upper Volta for all I know. The last recorded owner of the stolen AK-47 may have gotten it from an unidentified Mexican who, years ago, worked on a roofing crew out of North Knoxville. And the brother of the dead guy who bought it from the Mexican, sold it to a guy who sold it to an unknown Native American who could have been a Cherokee or Navajo or Eskimo for all anyone knows.”
Bettye took a turn shaking her head. “Lord have mercy. Is it even worth tryin’ anythin’ more?”
“The Sig was used to shoot a cop, so I’ll tell Roane County what I learned and, since this Wakeman may have gone out of state, they can ask the FBI for help. I am not going to jump through any more hoops to find a mysterious Mexican and an Indian who may have followed the letter of the law in obtaining and disposing of the assault rifle.”
I finished my drink and poured a second. “Want any more while I’ve got this open?”
She shook her head and showed me her mostly fullglass. Her shoulder-length hair swayed from side to side. “I’ve got a long way to go with this. And do you think you should go easy with that? You still have to drive home.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll sip this one.”
She blinked a few times and smiled slightly. After a long moment of looking into my eyes over the rim of her glass, she asked, “You doing okay with this?”
“I’ve run across some frustrating stuff in my life, but this tops it all.”
“I didn’t mean your investigation. I meant after the massacre at the school.”
I smiled at her thoughtfulness. “Thanks for asking. I’m no worse than anyone else. Maybe better. If I let this kind of stuff bother me, I’d be a candidate for a straight jacket.”
“You’re a piece of work, Sam Jenkins.”
My mother also called me by both names when I annoyed her. I like when Bettye does it.
I grinned like the village idiot. “Did you tell all the guys involved that I want them to visit our girl at dial-a-shrink?”
“I did. Want me to make an appointment with Peggy for you, too?”
“When I get finished.”
“I’ll use my gun.”
“I give up.”
“You’d never surrender. You’re just being nice.”
I shrugged, took another gulp of scotch, and realized it hadn’t left any effect on me. I rattled the cubes in the glass. The second drink was almost gone; must have evaporated in the low humidity.
“I can’t imagine what it was like to see those six dead children,” she said. “I feel so sorry for anyone there.”
“Yeah, dead kids are different. The first homicide I ever handled were twins strangled with a pair of pantyhose. They were only five weeks old.”
“Oh, Lord have mercy. I’m so sorry.”
“The woman’s husband was a soldier getting ready to go overseas. She’d been suffering with post-partum depression and one day . . . just decided she needed to kill her babies.”
We sat in silence for a few moments. Bettye wiped a single tear from her cheek and took another sip of scotch. I didn’t refill my glass.
“The mayor called down while you were out” she said. “The city council held an emergency meeting and decided they want to allocate funds to hire two full-time and one part-time armed security guard to cover the middle and elementary schools.”
I rolled my eyes.
“I don’t know how I feel about that,” she said.
“Neither do I. It’s something to do, but I’m not sure it’s the right thing. They don’t pay the teachers an honest wage, how much do they intend to pay these security experts?”
“Ten dollars an hour.”
I went to the side of my desk and started banging numbers into a calculator.
“Four hundred dollars a week and they’re off all summer.” I reached a bottom line. “That’s an annual salary below the poverty level.”
“Who can afford to take a job like that?” she asked. “Certainly not someone qualified to take on an armed man.”
I returned to the guest chair, crossed my legs, and folded my arms over my chest. I’m sure she could read my body language. “I know who’ll apply, old Jesse Fart who owns a gun and collects a pension or anyone who wants to supplement their Social Security income. They’d be lucky to get a retired cop.”
“Would a single guard help in a case like ours?”
“The people who commit these atrocities may be mentally unstable, but they’re not stupid. And they seem to know their guns and tactics. If I wanted to kill specific people in a building with an armed guard, I’d take out the guard first. And no one can tell me they couldn’t. After that, the gunman is right back to where we were when a teacher called 9-1-1. Either we kill him after he does the damage or he takes his own life.”
“The mayor said he’d like you to train the guards.”
I sat up straight and laughed. “Oh, sure, give me a week and I turn them into a combat-ready fighting machine. Ronnie needs psychiatric help.”
“I’ll call Ralph Oliveri at the FBI and see if he can send me their statistics on how many bank guards are killed during the armed robberies they were hired to prevent.”
“I never thought of that,” she said.
“Here’s an even more sobering question. Ever think how it would feel if one of your kids were murdered?”
Bettye’s eyes opened much wider. “Not until this happened.”
“Neither did the parents of those six children. And what will those mothers and fathers think when, after the fever cools down, those who can change things for the better are no longer enthused about formulating a workable, common sense plan to keep something like this from happening again? ”
“Two people like us will ask the same questions.”