5 - A Tale of Two Sheriffs

Damian’s team completes their analysis of the crash site, but it took almost six hours. After about two hours - fearing the eastbound I-10 traffic would back up all the way into California and nervous that the motorists stuck in the gridlock would run out of gas or become ill from heat exhaustion  - Highway Patrol Division officers rerouted eastbound traffic around the accident site by converting the westbound double lanes into single lanes and directing eastbound traffic in a single-file fashion between freeway crossovers usually reserved for Emergency Vehicles Only.  

By 6 pm, all the victims, their belongings, and the wrecked vehicles were removed from the scene. The Arizona Department of Transportation team was now cleaning the roadway of debris to allow vehicles access to the blocked-off portion of eastbound I-10.  

“Damian! We got confirmation on that license plate from the minivan. Wisconsin registration,” said one of Damian’s team members. “The Coroner is confirming it looks like there were at least six, maybe eight occupants in the vehicle, based on the recovered remains.” Damian looks over at Sheriff Koontz, who has remained on scene while his deputies went on to other calls several hours earlier. “Sheriff, I’ll follow up with your office in the next couple of days after we get all this evidence sorted through back in Yuma,” Damian shouted as a large fire truck passed between them. Damian adds, “Did you want to inform the Jankins family, Sheriff?” Koontz has a strained look on his face when he replies, “I guess I should. I know his father will want to know, and his ex-wife and daughter are probably wondering what happened to him.”  

The Sheriff hops in his Crown Vic and speeds off to Parker as Damian returns to his cruiser. As he approaches the vehicle, he opens the back door and does a quick scan of the interior. He tries to tell himself he’s just following a safety protocol, but in the back of his mind, he’s thinking to himself, “man, it sure did seem like something was back there earlier, and why did the car horn sound off when nobody was in the cruiser?” Feeling a little silly for even entertaining that thought, Damian slams the door, climbs into the front seat, and speeds off back to Yuma to unravel the details of the crash and track down next-of-kin for the people in the minivan from Wisconsin.  

As Koontz heads back to Parker, he is full of self-doubt, unlike anything he has ever experienced before. Fred keeps running through his head the possible scenarios that could develop due to the crash, and more importantly, what led up to it. How was he going to explain why he ordered a pursuit fit for a Bonnie and Clyde style bank robbery suspect instead of a bat-out-of-hell chase of the meek and introverted Barry Jankins? He was the one who ordered the aggressive pursuit! He was the one who insinuated to his deputies that Barry Jankins posed a clear and present danger to the public. Koontz knew that Barry was fond of guns as a teenager but could not maintain the proper permitting from the State of Arizona after his domestic violence convictions and subsequent confinement in a county psych ward. Fred knew that Barry had relinquished all of his firearms, because John Jankins, Barry’s father, had turned in Barry’s weapons himself at the La Paz County Sheriff’s office months earlier. The elder Jankins didn’t trust his son to carry out the judge’s order, and besides, keeping Barry and Fred Koontz at a reasonable distance from each other was a good thing. The two had frequently clashed since Barry was in high school. There were no weapons found in Barry’s truck at the crash scene. There was no alcohol or illegal substances. Nothing! Fred had some explaining to do.  

As Fred headed back to Parker on State Route 95, he thought to himself, “I’m getting too old for this shit!” Indeed, Fred Koontz had just turned 65 the month before and was getting close to his retirement. He told his wife that he would retire “within a few years,” and that was five years ago. As Fred reached the half-way point between Quartzsite and Parker, Fred’s life just sort of flashed in front of him.  

Fred Koontz had grown up in a rural town in Arkansas, the son of a whimsical couple who spent most of their waking hours searching for their fortune from the diamond fields near Murfreesboro when they weren’t tending to their day jobs as the managers of the Shade Tree Resort - a dingy and dilapidated boarding house on the outskirts of Crater of Diamonds State Park. When Fred was seventeen, he escaped Arkansas’s boonies by joining the United States Army after almost flunking the psychological examination during the admission process. Fred was a troubled man. He had a split personality, almost bordering on an official diagnosis. In one moment, Fred could be charming and effusive, and in the next, he could become the most virulent, sulking, and angry person you ever met. Mostly, Fred was able to control his transition between his two faces until he couldn’t.  It almost caused him to be discharged from the Army because of his mercurial nature and frequent inability to follow orders. Hell, it’s the main reason he left his home quickly to join the Army, instead of facing the consequences of his erratic behavior.  

After a rather undistinguished stint in his four years as a Military Policeman, he moved to Parker because he wanted to live near Lake Havasu. He always wanted to own a boat and learn how to water ski. A friend in the Army had recommended Parker because it wasn’t as touristy as Lake Havasu City, and it was half the price. Fred got a job as a deputy with the Sheriff’s department in 1985, and he was one of the first deputies hired by the newly created La Pa County Sheriff’s Department. At the time, the County was desperate to fill posts - hence they didn’t perform a lot of the psychological screening big-time law enforcement agencies routinely administer to potential recruits. Two years later, he became a hero when he helped stop a rampage of bikers that had temporarily taken over the city center during a violent clash between two rival gangs.  

Fred had a charm and quick wit that was exceptionally infectious. Fred married a sultry beach bunny he met while jet skiing on Lake Havasu. She loved a man in uniform, and she was star-struck by Fred’s notoriety from the biker clash, not to mention his chiseled good looks. Together, the couple was a picture of wholesome youth and vitality, at least from all outward appearances. Judy was a compulsive organizer, and she was always involved in some sort of philanthropic venture. Through those connections, coupled with Fred’s reputation as the guy who stopped the biker war, they were able to successfully campaign for his election as the Sheriff of La Paz County in 1988. Once in office, Fred managed to fend off his rivals for years using a Get Tough on Crime message that resonated well with the mostly elderly retirees who make up a large percentage of the population in La Paz County. If you can’t afford to retire in places like Palm Springs, Scottsdale, or even Sun City, then La Paz County is where you can go for bargain prices on real estate. Many blue-collar elderly types retire in La Paz County, and Fred’s blue-collar persona always resonated with that demographic.  

They never had kids. Fred never liked being around children, and besides, Judy wasn’t sure she could even have kids. Her doctor told her for years that her alcohol and prescription pill consumption were causing irreparable damage to her body. Judy was always high on something, but she kept this a secret, and no one, except Fred, was the wiser.  

Fred also has a dark secret. When he was in the Army serving in Alaska, he drank heavily one night at a local watering hole. He was driving back to base in a car he borrowed from a friend when he vaguely remembered hitting something along the side of the road. He never stopped, though, quickly returning the vehicle to his friend without saying a word about the incident on the road. The next day he heard on the local news that an Inuit transient riding a stolen bike was hit and killed out on the same street he had been the night before. Because the guy was a transient, and the bike was stolen, and this was Alaska, nobody rigorously investigated. Fred shipped out a couple of weeks later to a new duty station. Memories of this event haunt him deep-down inside. No one knew his secret. Then one night, several years into his marriage, he told Judy the story when he’d had a little too much to drink.   

From then on, she threatened to reveal his secret when the two of them got into one of their private battles. Oh yes! Private battles and there were many. Yes, Fred had two personalities, the one he lets the public see - Mr. John Q. Lawman, civil servant, and hero of the 1987 biker rampage. Then there’s Fred Koontz, the moody, emotionally bankrupt person with this deep dark secret. When Judy would bring a threat of exposure, Fred demeaned her by saying she never worked an honest day in her life and would threaten to divulge her little addiction secret.  Judy would always back down.  She had her demons, but the institution of marriage was the one hopeful, stable constant in her life that she clung to with all her might. So, in essence, they both were living double lives, and no one in La Paz County was anymore the wiser, or least they didn’t say anything if they were.  

As Fred entered the city limits of Parker, his thoughts shifted to what he was going to say to Barry Jankins’ ex-wife, and more importantly, how was he going to break this to Barry’s dad? Fred Koontz and John Jankins had a combative relationship for many years. John Jankins was a very straight-forward man.  He had this keen sense of being able to read people very well, and it served him well in his mining business. John always sensed something was off with Koontz, but he could never quite put his finger on precisely what it was about the Sheriff that he didn’t trust. During Fred’s early years as Sheriff, John would often actively and openly support whoever was running against Koontz come election time. However, his son Barry was always getting into some sort of trouble, and as time went on, John would need to call in favor after favor from Sheriff Koontz to keep Barry from receiving the full brunt of the consequences from his sometimes bizarre actions. Now maybe Fred would need some help from John to smooth over the furor that was potentially coming if Fred’s actions are questioned regarding the chase that led to the tragic event. That thought made a knot churn in Fred’s stomach. 

To be continued…

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