Sheriff Koontz pulled into Eileen Jankins' driveway. Eileen and her daughter lived in an upscale mobile home park located just off the Rio Vista Highway north of downtown Parker. The yard was full of iron sculptures in varying stages of completion - relics from one of Eileen's many failed "entrepreneurial adventures." As Koontz walked through the front gate, 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 and a world view that bordered on naivety. Eileen always looked for the best in people. Compared to Barry's sullenness and moody temperament, she was the polar opposite, but 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 objections. It was way too dangerous at the mine, but Barry's dad convinced his mother that he would get some kind of office job where the worst thing that could happen to him was possibly a paper cut.
Barry had moved into an apartment with his one friend from high school. Away from the influence of his overbearing father, 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. Consequently, 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. Eileen liked that Barry seemed a little shy, though not soft-spoken, and she liked that he had this certain impish nature. But mostly, she liked that Barry had a job and a rich dad.
After they had been dating for 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 was going to make it to the "big tent" someday. Now that she was married to Barry, she was in "the big tent." 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.
Things seemed pretty typical for the first five or so years of their marriage. Their daughter Lizzy was their constant focus. Lizzy was a precocious youngster, 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 did seem special, indeed. 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 right to the wayward children! It was like she had this remarkable "GPS" for making connections with other people.
When she started middle school, things began to change. For one thing, it seemed like her parents weren't paying 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 rambling career path. By the time Lizzy was twelve years old, Eileen had tried and failed at a bunch of different jobs. Barry and Lizzy thought it was funny, until the time Eileen came home from beautician school 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 he started slipping back into his old ways of thinking and acting. His connection with Eileen and with reality began to fade.
The one special connection Barry did have was with his daughter. Lizzy idolized her dad and would copy his 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! When Lizzy became a teenager, a lot of things changed. Her dad was gone a lot, and when he was home, he seemed sullen and preoccupied. Still, as the wheels began to come off Barry and Eileen's marriage, it was Lizzy who was there - diligently trying to get them to patch things up. Regrettably, a teenager can do only so much, and Barry's ever-increasing moodiness and agitation, along with his almost daily clashes with Eileen, began to escalate. When Barry's torment turned physical, Eileen vowed she'd had enough. Barry never harmed anyone, not really. He would take off for days, not letting anyone know where he went, or he would wreck various parts of the house, including Eileen's precious iron sculptures in the front yard. Eventually, Eileen 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 and to escort him from the property. You see, when Eileen filed for divorce, she was concerned that when Barry got the divorce papers, he would explode. 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 raining on Barry's parade – who was now telling him he had to leave his own home. No, more outlandish than those things was the idea that the divorce was something he never even saw coming!
Fortunately, Fred brought back-up with him that day. When Barry refused to walk out the front door, Fred's deputy grabbed Barry by the arm, and a struggle ensued. 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 tagged on for that, although that charge was later dropped in a pre-trial plea bargain that took into account Barry's numerous 5150 mental health confinements. However, the court required Barry to surrender any firearms he possessed, something his father made sure Barry complied with, and a fact that came 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 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, burly 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, "she said in a polite, measured tone. 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," Koontz replied, and just as he was getting ready to speak again, in a rush, Eileen stumbled out with, "Thank you for sending your deputy over here earlier today. Barry was out of his mind again, and he kept telling me he didn't want to live anymo-" Before she could finish her sentence, Fred held up his hand slightly and interrupted her. "Ms. Jankins, I'm afraid I have some disturbing news to tell you," he said, trying to keep his voice from cracking. "There's been an accident on the Interstate just west of Quartzsite." Lizzy quickly sprang into action, "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 welling up in her soft green eyes. "Yes, I'm afraid there was a head-on accident, and 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. Like a rapid-fire machine gun, the facts and details Koontz and his deputies all 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. They gave me a 1096 code - proceed with caution, which is our code for dealing with a mentally disturbed person," he said as he intently scanned Eileen's gaze to make sure she was still tracking with him, and she was. "I radioed Deputy Thomas, who informed me that after he checked on you, he caught up with Mr. Jankins, who was playing chicken with other cars as he sped through downtown Parker." Koontz noticed the sobbing in the other room had ceased, and when he glanced down the hallway toward the bedroom, he saw Lizzy was peeking through the door listening to every word he said. He continued, but in a lower register, "I was finishing up with a call on State Road 95 near the turn-off to the La Paz County landfill with my other 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 again and headed toward Interstate 10. After splitting my deputies up, I continued the pursuit myself up Dome Rock Road. 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 Mr. Jankins might 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, it continues only after turning sharply right at the intersection where the road meets the end of the eastbound I-10 off-ramp, you know... that going straight will send you up the off-ramp in the wrong direction. Worse yet, there's only one small Wrong Way sign on the way up that ramp. Anyway, your ex-husband continued onto the freeway going in the wrong direction and struck a tractor-trailer a short distance after that. He was pronounced dead at the scene. I'm so sorry."
Eileen was sobbing now. "He was such a troubled soul," she whimpered. "I feel responsible for this whole thing. If I hadn't called the police, this might not have ever happened," she said as she sniffled. "You shouldn't blame yourself, Ms. Jankins. You did the right thing by calling us," 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 has a job to do. That's all he's 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 additional questions, Ms. Jankins, I need to get going. I still need to inform Barry's father about the accident and find out how he wants to handle, you know, the arrangements," Koontz said, eyeing the front door like it was his "escape hatch from hell." "Thank you for coming by and letting me know Sheriff," she said with a sigh. I'll follow up with John to find out about the funeral arrangements." Koontz took the cue and hurried to the door, then out onto the porch and down the walkway to his car. As he was reaching to open the door of his Crown Vic, Lizzy came bounding out of the front door and charged down the walkway toward his car with 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, milk splattering all over the car and all over Fred. "Lizzy! Get back in here right now," Eileen screamed from the front door. Lizzy 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!" Eileen said sheepishly. "I understand, Ms. Jankins, it's hard for young people to take this kind of news," Fred replied as he jumped into his car. He turned on the wipers to clear the milk off the windshield and sped off. He still had one more stop to make, and he needed to let his wife know he thought he might be late for dinner tonight.
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, Mr. Sheriff?" a small quiet voice with a distinct Hispanic accent came out of the speaker. "Sheriff Fred Koontz here to see John Jankins, please," 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, along with the low continuous hum coming from the motor used to move the huge gates. Fred drove through the gates and up the driveway and parked his car just in front of massive double doors that led to the grand foyer of the 1920s-style luxury residence. The place was like something Randolph Hearst would have built, which is just the look John Jankins was going for when he had a famous architect design it for him soon after he was appointed General Manager of the Bagdad Copper Mine back in the 80s.
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 election campaigning season started up for another six months. Trying to get a head start on your next campaign?" "No, John, I'm afraid its official business," Koontz responded. "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."
For some strange reason, Koontz thought, John Jankins didn't seem very surprised by the pronouncement. Jankins invited the Sheriff to come in, and the two of them talked for about twenty minutes. Koontz explained what happened earlier in the day, and John remarked that he heard that the State of Arizona was seeing an unusually high number of wrong-way crashes and were dragging their feet on what to do about the situation. Koontz gave the same story he told Eileen earlier, and the elder Jankins just nodded and shook his head with grief. Jankins didn't even have many questions when Fred described the events leading up to the crash. Koontz ended the conversation by telling Jankins to let him know if he needed anything from the Sheriff's office to make preparations for Barry's funeral. 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 Jankins'. Also, he was worried one of his deputies, Rufus Thomas, who loved to talk shop to whoever would listen, would eventually blab something to someone which would draw unwanted scrutiny to the tragic events that transpired on that hot Arizona summer day.
To be continued...