Sheriff Koontz pulled into Eileen Jankins' driveway. Eileen and her daughter lived in a mobile home park located just off the Rio Vista Highway north of downtown Parker. Their yard was full of iron sculptures in varying stages of construction - relics from one of Eileen's many failed "entrepreneurial adventures." As Koontz walked up to the front door, he tried to remember his last interaction with Ms. Jankins. She had a daughter, right? Fred always tried to remember little bits of information about a person – especially if he was getting ready to have a difficult conversation with them.
Eileen was a tall woman with a sculptured thinnish figure. She had an enthusiastic personality but was a bit naive. Eileen always looked for the best in people. Compared to Barry's sullen, moody temperament, she was a breath of fresh air. You know what they say - opposites attract. Eileen met Barry soon after he started working at the Bagdad Copper Mine - a job his father got him over his mother's very stern objections. A copper mine can be a dangerous place to work. The elder Jankins assured his wife that he would give Barry some kind of office job where the worst thing that could happen to him was possibly a paper cut.
Barry moved into an apartment with his best and perhaps his only real friend from high school. Away from his overbearing father's influence, Barry's friend convinced him to seek help from mental health professionals - which he did. Barry started meeting with a therapist regularly and began taking medications for anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. After that, his emotional state became pretty even from day-to-day for the first time in his life. Eileen and Barry met on a double date. Barry had a particular impish nature that Eileen found attractive. But mostly, she liked that Barry had a job and a wealthy dad.
After they had been dating for just a few months, Eileen got pregnant. She convinced Barry that they should get married right away. Eileen was a fanciful woman. She had grandiose ideas and was endlessly talking about how she would make it to the "big tent" someday. Barry's parents had reservations about Eileen... hell, frankly, they thought she was a little kooky! But the thought of having grandkids trumped their reservations. Besides, Barry seemed truly happy for the first time in his life.
Life was pretty typical for the first five years of their marriage. Their daughter Lizzy was the center of their lives. Lizzy was a precocious toddler with a magical ability to say the cutest things. Grandpa John used to say Lizzy could read minds, that somehow, she always knew what to say at just the right time. Lizzy excelled in grade school and was well-liked by both students and teachers.
Lizzy was exceptional, indeed. She had a sixth sense or something. Sometimes she would know what a person was thinking before they would say anything. Other times, she could sense what was going to happen before it occurred. Word of these gifts got around quickly in a small town. Twice, she helped the Parker Neighborhood Watch Committee find some kids that had become lost while out on unsupervised trips into the desert with their friends. Lizzy said later she could hear the kids talking in her “mind's eye” – which led the searchers directly to the wayward children! It was like she had this remarkable "GPS" for making connections with other people.
When Lizzy started middle school, things began to change. For one thing, her parents didn’t seem to pay as much attention to her as they used to. Eileen was always talking about getting her side hustle on. As Lizzy got older and needed less supervision, it seemed like Eileen was frequently away from home, chasing some fanciful career path. By the time Lizzy was twelve years old, Eileen had tried and failed at many different jobs. Barry and Lizzy thought mom's career escapades were funny until she came home one time from a beautician school’s introductory seminar and began hacking away at their hair.
Meanwhile, the monotony of pushing pencils at his dad's office began to get the best of Barry. He started spending more nights out partying with his co-workers. He quit going to the counseling sessions he had with his therapist. Soon, he stopped taking his medications too. His dad had convinced him that the medicines were doing more harm than good. Eileen didn't like the effect the meds were having on their sex life, and well – that was that. It didn't take long before the old Barry began to resurface. He slowly began to lose control and started slipping back into his old ways of thinking and acting. His connection with Eileen and with reality began to dissolve.
The one special connection Barry did have was with his daughter. Lizzy idolized her dad. She had the same tastes in music, books, and movies. They would frequently take road trips into Phoenix for concerts and hang out together at the local bookstore. Astonishingly, they would often finish each other's sentences! Then, a lot of things changed. Her dad was gone a lot, and when he was home, he seemed sullen and preoccupied.
As the wheels began to come off Barry and Eileen's marriage, Lizzy was there - diligently trying to get them to patch things up. Regrettably, a teenager can do only so much. Barry's ever-increasing moodiness and agitation, along with his almost daily clashes with Eileen, began to escalate. When Barry's torment got worse, Eileen vowed she'd had enough. Barry never harmed anyone, not really. He would take off for days, not letting anyone know where he was. He would wreck various parts of the house in a fit a rage, including Eileen's precious iron sculptures in the front yard. Eventually, Eileen had enough and filed for divorce.
As Sheriff Koontz approached the front door, he happened to glance down at a crumpled iron statue of a frog on a lily pad. Fred remembered the day that particular statue got wrecked. He had come to serve divorce papers on Barry. When Eileen filed for divorce, she was concerned that Barry would explode when he got the divorce papers. She was right, and when Fred showed up at the door, Barry went ballistic! It wasn't just that it was Fred Koontz, the bastard cop who was always spoiling Barry’s fun times. No, more galling than that was the idea that the divorce was something he never saw coming!
A shouting match between Barry and the sheriff escalated into pushing and shoving. During the melee, the two fell off the porch and onto the toad statue, bending it in several obtuse angles. Barry got an assault charge for that, although that charge was later dropped in a pre-trial plea bargain that took Barry's mental health into account. However, the court required Barry to surrender any firearms he possessed. His father made sure Barry complied with that order - a fact that will come to haunt the sheriff as the days unfold following the crash.
As Koontz reached to knock lightly on the front door, it swung open immediately as if somebody knew the sheriff was approaching. "Well, if it isn’t Mr. Deputy Law-Dawg," Lizzy Jankins blurted out in a very sneering way. Taken aback a little, the sheriff paused then replied, "It's Lizzy, right?" "That's right, Sheriff. What's Barry done this time?" she retorted. "Can I speak to your mother, please?" Koontz said sternly. Lizzy's disdain for the sheriff was palpable and unrestrained. Today though, she sensed he seemed troubled by something. The usually gruff, ill-tempered sheriff was tentative in his speech and his posture, something she picked up on right away.
Just then, Eileen appeared behind Lizzy and motioned for the sheriff to come inside. "Please come in, Sheriff. Our A/C is not working that great, but it's better than standing out in that furnace.” Koontz walked through the doorway as Eileen motioned for him to have a seat in the living room. "Can I get you something to drink, perhaps a cold iced tea, maybe a lemonade?" she asked. "No, no, thank you, Ms. Jankins. Ms. Jankins, I'm afraid I have some bad news to tell you," Koontz said, his voice beginning to crack slightly. "There's been an accident on the I-10 just west of Quartzsite." Lizzy bolted upright out of her chair, "It's my dad, isn't it, Sheriff? He's hurt...no, he's dead! Oh my god!!" She began bawling loudly and ran into her bedroom.
"Is that true, Sheriff? Is Barry hurt or something?" she said. Tears began welling up in Eileen’s soft green eyes. "Yes, I'm afraid there was a head-on accident, and Barry, Mr. Jankins was killed." "How did it happen? Do you know?" she asked. Fred squirmed a little in his chair. He was a bit nervous Eileen would notice that, but like a rapid-fire machine gun, the details Koontz and his deputies agreed upon when they conferred on the roadway after the accident came into clear and sequential firing order in his brain.
"I got a call from my dispatch after Barry sped off from your house. I got a code 1096 - proceed with caution - which is our lingo for informing an officer we may be dealing with a mentally disturbed person." Fred scanned Eileen’s face intently. "I radioed Deputy Thomas. He informed me that after he checked on you, he caught up with Barry, who was playing chicken with other cars as he sped through downtown Parker."
Koontz noticed the sobbing in the other room had subsided. When he glanced down the hallway toward the bedroom, he saw Lizzy was peeking through the door listening to every word he said. Again, he scanned Eileen’s face trying to determine if she was buying his story. He continued, "I was finishing up with a call on State Road 95 near the turn-off to the La Paz County landfill with another deputy. Just as we reached the intersection with State Road 95, Mr. Jankins' truck sped by, with Deputy Thomas in pursuit, and we joined the chase."
"We lost track of the truck briefly when we got to the Quartzsite City Limits, but Deputy Thomas spotted the truck parked in an RV park with the engine running. After Mr. Jankins realized we were on to him, he sped back out onto State Road 95 and headed toward Interstate 10. After splitting my deputies up, I followed Barry up Dome Rock Road flashing my headlights, trying to get him to pull over. I had my deputies drive up the Interstate and exit at the point where Dome Rock Road crosses under the Interstate to block the road, but I think Barry must have spotted them, and he just kept going straight.
You know, the eastbound off-ramp from the Interstate is kind of weird there. It's not 100% clear that when you're going westbound on that stretch of Dome Rock Road, you have to turn right at the stop sign to stay on Dome Rock Road. Otherwise, you’ll head up the highway off-ramp in the wrong direction. Worse yet, there's only one small Wrong Way sign on the way up that off-ramp. Anyway, your Barry continued onto the freeway going in the wrong direction. He struck a tractor-trailer a short distance after that. He was pronounced dead at the scene."
Eileen was sobbing now. "He was such a troubled soul," she whimpered. "I wish there was something I could have done to calm him down that day.” "You shouldn't blame yourself, Ms. Jankins,” Koontz said in a conciliatory tone. "These situations can get out of control quickly..." but as he began taking his next breath, Lizzy came bounding out of her bedroom, screaming at the top of her lungs.
"Why couldn't you have just left him alone? Why have you never been able to just LEAVE MY DAD ALONE? My dad would have never run away like that if you hadn't chase him! You never liked my dad... you always had it in for him. Now I guess you finally got your wish!" Eileen finally intervened, "Lizzy, Stop! Sheriff Koontz was just doing his job," but Lizzy didn't stop to listen – she stomped back to her bedroom and slammed the door shut.
"If you don't have any more questions, Ms. Jankins, I need to get going. I still need to talk to Barry's father about the accident and find out how he wants to handle the arrangements," Koontz said, eyeing the front door - hoping to now make a quick exit. "Thank you for coming by and letting me know Sheriff," she said with a sigh.
Koontz took the cue and hurried to the door, stepped out onto the porch and down the walkway to his car. As he reached to open the door of his Crown Vic, Lizzy came bounding out of the front door and charged down the walkway toward his vehicle with Eileen close behind, trying to restrain her. She had something in her hand that looked like a milk container. "Killer! You're a coward and a killer Deputy Law-Dawg. I hope you rot in hell!" she screamed as she threw the milk cartoon against his front windshield, splattering milk all over the car’s hood, windshield, and on Fred.
"Lizzy! Come with me back in the house right now," Eileen pleaded. Lizzy brushed her mother aside and ran back into the house, cursing under her breath the whole way. As Koontz wiped his face with a handkerchief, Eileen tried to apologize for her daughter's behavior. "I'm sorry, Sheriff, teenage girls and hormones. What's a mother to do, I guess? She really loved her dad!" "I understand, Ms. Jankins, it's hard for young people to take this kind of news," Fred replied as he jumped into his car and sped away.
Back in the house, Eileen confronted Lizzy. “What was that all about, Lizzy?” “Mom, that guy is a total douche-bag!” “Lizzy, really, is that really necessary?” “He’s not telling you the truth. He’s not telling you everything. I know he’s not!” Lizzy replied. Eileen began to speak again, then decided not to. She knew all too well that Lizzy had a knack for seeing what others couldn’t and decided she’d leave well enough alone - for now.
Fred pulled up to the large wrought-iron gates protecting the winding driveway leading up to the Jankins estate. Koontz pressed the button on the call box and waited for a reply. "Jankins residence, how may I help you?" a small quiet voice with a distinct Hispanic accent came out of the speaker. "Sheriff Fred Koontz here to see John Jankins," the Sheriff shouted as if the speaker box was hard-of-hearing. There was no reply. Fred waited for about two or three minutes. Getting impatient, he was just about to press the call button again when the large gates began to open, creaking and groaning as they did.
Fred drove through the gates and up the driveway, parking his police cruiser just in front of the large arched Spanish style doors that led to the luxurious residence's grand foyer. The place was like something Randolph Hearst would have built, and that was just the look John Jankins was going for when he had a famous architect design the home for him soon after being appointed General Manager of the Bagdad Copper Mine back in the 1980s.
As Koontz stepped out of his cruiser, he noticed John Jankins was already standing in the now opened doorway. Jankins called out to him, "Hey, Sheriff, what brings you out here today? I didn't think the election campaign started up for another six months. Trying to get a head start?" Jankins said jokingly. "No, John, I'm afraid it's official business," Koontz responded solemnly. The two went inside and sat at a small table near a long hallway that led to the kitchen. "It's about your son Barry. I'm sorry to have to advise you that your son was killed in a motor vehicle accident out on Interstate I-10 just west of Quartzsite this morning."
Koontz thought the deceased man’s father didn't seem very surprised by what he was just told. That baffled Fred a little. Fred explained what happened earlier in the day. He walked through the same details and timeline as he had just done with Eileen. The elder Jankins just nodded and shook his head in disbelief. John remarked that he heard that the State of Arizona had been seeing an unusually high number of wrong-way crashes and were dragging their feet on what to do about the issue. Koontz told Jankins if he had any more questions to just give him a call. Jankins thanked him for coming out in person and accompanied the sheriff back to his car.
As Koontz passed back out through the gates of the property and pulled back out onto the Rio Vista Highway, he thought to himself, "Well, that was much easier than I had anticipated." Still, Fred had this uneasy feeling, like a bag of rocks were rolling around in the pit of his stomach. There WERE going to be more questions that would undoubtedly come up. That was for sure!
Lizzy Jankins' reaction had unsettled Koontz. Maybe there would be more reactions like Lizzy’s? More concerning, he was worried one of his deputies, Rufus Thomas, who loved to talk shop with whoever would listen, might eventually blab something to someone that would draw unwanted scrutiny. He made a mental note to follow up with his deputy later.
To be continued...