"Sheriff Koontz, is it?" Damian asked, extending his hand to the Sheriff. "Damian Fernandez. I'm the lead investigator from the Yuma office." For a moment, the Sheriff just stood there. Damian couldn't see his eyes behind those Ray-Bans, but he could feel the Sheriff sizing him up for what seemed like an eternity. After a long, pregnant pause, the Sheriff extended his hand and replied, "Fred Koontz, trooper – what d'ya need from my team?" "What happened here?" Damian asked.
Koontz looked at the wrecked vehicle closest to them. "That truck there started this mess," he said, pointing to a late model Ford F250 Raptor. The truck was in the middle of the eastbound lanes aligned at a slight angle in the wrong direction towards what would be oncoming traffic. Just a few feet in front of it was the mangled front end of a large semi-truck with an Amazon Prime trailer attached to it. The front third of the Raptor looked like it was gone entirely. It wasn’t, though. It was just pushed half-way back into the passenger compartment. The Raptor was one of those “monster” trucks you’d see young men driving a lot. All jacked up, with big oversized tires. On the freeway pavement, about ten feet in front of the Raptor and to the side of the semi-truck were two yellow-colored plastic sheets. One covered a body whose cowboy boots were slightly visible from the back edge.
About seven feet away was a smaller yellow plastic sheet that hadn’t been fully unfolded and covered something about the size of a basketball. "Poor guy lost his head over the whole thing," joked one of Koontz's deputies. The Sheriff gave the deputy a piercing glance as if to say - what the hell did you just say? Koontz shook his head and said, "The body under the sheet, or should I say sheets, is a suspect we were pursuing. It looks like he suffered a decapitation as a result of the impact with the semi. We were pursuing him from Parker, and he just made a mistake and barreled up the off-ramp to evade us.” Damian turned away from the Sheriff and began surveying the crash scene more thoroughly.
Rammed up into the back of the Prime trailer was the burned-out hulk of what looked like a minivan. It was challenging to identify the make and model. The van and the back end of the trailer were intertwined, and they were still smoldering. Luggage and personal effects from the van were scattered in a large debris field on either side of the trailer. Firefighters continued to shoot water on the wreckage, and none of the van’s potential occupants were visible.
Off to the freeway’s right shoulder, down an embankment, was a Jeep Cherokee lodged upside down against a giant saguaro cactus. Paramedics had just extracted two occupants from the vehicle and were wheeling them to a medevac helicopter that had just landed several hundred feet down the roadway. To the left in the freeway median were two cars that had collided with each other, one rear-ending the other. Paramedics were attending to the injured. One of the victims looked very seriously injured with appendages that pointed in directions they are generally not intended to point.
“It’s a real mess, isn’t it?” Koontz said matter-of-factly. “The guy we were pursuing is a local named Barry Jankins. He lives, I mean lived, just outside of Parker,” he added. Just then, one of his deputies, Rufus Thomas, spoke up. “I responded to a 911 call from the Jankins residence. It was Mr. Jankins' wife, Eileen. She said that Mr. Jankins had shown up at the house – in defiance of a restraining order – to insist he speak with their daughter Lizzy.” Damian began to think to himself - I really don’t need this much information - but decided just to keep listening because he was concerned about provoking the Sheriff. “Dispatch informed me that Ms. Jankins had stated that her husband had shown up very drunk, or high, or something and demanded, ‘Let me see Lizzy right now, or something terrible will happen!’” Sheriff Koontz was becoming agitated as he started to bite his lower lip ever so slightly. “When I reached the house, Mr. Jankins saw me approaching, jumped in his truck, and drove away at a high rate of speed. I called in to dispatch to inform them that Mr. Jankins' had fled the scene, and then I checked on Ms. Jankins,” Thomas continued.
The Sheriff quickly injected himself into the conversation. “Deputy Thomas reached out to me to inform me of the situation. Our Department has a long history with Mr. Jankins. He has a history of violence, and I decided to handle it as a pursuit of a suspect who posed a grave threat to public safety.” The Sheriff continued, “We proceeded with a Code 3 response and pursued him for several miles on county backroads where he entered onto southbound State Road 95 and through the town of Quartzite - then out onto Dome Rock Road.” The Sheriff’s voice began to crack a little, “I had one of my deputies block Dome Rock Road at the underpass beneath the Interstate as I chased the young man westbound on Dome Rock. When the Jankins kid got to the spot where the I-10 off-ramp intersects Dome Rock Road, he must have spotted my deputy blocking the road in front of him, so he proceeded up the off-ramp and past the WRONG WAY signs and then onto the freeway. We ended the pursuit at that time.” Damian thought to himself, did the Sheriff just call him “the Jankins kid”?
Just then, Damian’s discussion with the Sheriff and his team was interrupted by someone who had just interviewed one of the witnesses. The witness claimed they watched the minivan crash into the Amazon semi-truck just before bursting into flames. According to the witness, it was the same minivan they had seen at a restaurant earlier that morning when they stopped for breakfast. Shockingly the witness reported that they saw a man and woman get into the van with four young teens and two infants - maybe twins. Damian excused himself from the Sheriff’s discussion and told him he’d have someone on his team follow up with them.
As Damian walked away from the Sheriff and his men, he thought there was something just a little off about what he just heard. He could not put his finger on precisely what it was, but he couldn’t help thinking that there was way more to the story. As he walked back to his police cruiser to make a phone call, he passed by the two yellow sheets covering the body near the mangled Ford truck and got this creepy feeling that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He remembered when he was a kid, Damian told his dad about a dream he had where creepy people kept following him. After that night, when the two of them would see something Damian would think was creepy, his dad would jokingly ask him, “What’s your creep-meter on now, son?” Damian would play along and say, “Oh, it’s a 2, or it’s a 6.” The little game would always make him feel better.
As he slid into his cruiser, he noticed a slight aroma like men’s aftershave. Also, it was cold in the vehicle – really cold! Damian had left the A/C on low when he got out earlier, but now, the inside of his cruiser felt as cold as the old ice locker he used to work in when he was trying to earn some extra money back in high school. He reached for the cell phone in his shirt pocket when he heard faint sounds like whispering coming from the back seat. He looked back and saw nothing. When he turned back around, he briefly glanced up at the rear-view mirror and noticed the faintest outline of someone sitting in the back seat. Now, his “creep-meter” was suddenly on 10!
To be continued…