Local News

On the Beat

In a North Carolina mountain town, the cops are good old boys, the sheriff’s a teddy bear, and the chief conducts drug raids in his head. All of which spells nothing good for a Mexican caught with a carful of guns, or for the town’s “Cop Beat” reporter.

Patrick Glover, Camaro Obscura, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Mindy Solomon Gallery.

The sheriff leaves his story about the Mexican in the Camaro until last. I’m sitting in his office while he drinks coffee, the mountains visible right out his window, the fog still floating around out in the parking lot. First he goes through the stack of computer printouts, write-ups from the afternoon before, stretching through the night up to 6 a.m., mostly misdemeanors: minor break-ins, assaults on females.

I didn’t know it before I started working at the paper, but that’s what it’s called: assault on a female. It’s apparently not a felony to hit a woman in North Carolina if you’re romantically connected to her. It’s a misdemeanor unless she’s your mother or you actually put her into the hospital. It’s not considered a felony unless the assailant uses a gun or a knife, or hits a kid.

I go to see the sheriff first thing every weekday morning. So many of these assaults happen over the weekend that he usually has a big stack of them on his desk by Monday. He doesn’t go into details because I don’t write up the misdemeanors. He says the phrase liltingly, sing-songily. “Assault-on-a-female, assault-on-a-female,” he reads. It sounds almost like “Jingle bells, jingle bells.”

He takes each sheet from the top of the stack in his left hand, flips them over into the stack of assault-on-a-females he’s read already, stops for a sip of coffee from his Rotary mug. He’s bright-eyed and freshly shaven in a dark blue suit at 8:30 in the morning, a teddy bear of a man with a brown buzzcut over a shiny baby face, beef-colored mustache barely moving as he reads.

He says the phrase liltingly, sing-songily: “Assault-on-a-female, assault-on-a-female." It sounds almost like “Jingle bells, jingle bells.”

“Assault-on-a-female. Assault-on-a-female. Assault-on-a-female. Breaking and entering. Assault-on-a-female…”

“And none of these are felonies?” I ask him, in a statement-like-a-question, like I do every few days. The sheriff doesn’t bother to answer me. I decide to just wait until he has a case to tell me about.

The week before we had a great one. A couple of guys got really drunk, then went to hold up a disabled veteran they knew because they remembered he had a gold watch and couldn’t chase them because he was in a wheelchair. They got hopped up on beer and Mountain Dew and whatever else, then went and banged their fists on the old guy’s door.

He opened the door, staring up past the three drunks on his front porch out into the night, asked them what they wanted.

“I’m Trinity Buck, and I’m gonna kick your ass!” the first one reportedly yelled, before he kicked the door in far enough to bounce off the edge of the guy’s wheelchair.

“Wait a minute,” I blurted out once we’d gotten to that part of the story. “He announced himself?”

The sheriff smirked, shook his head, and peered at the paper. He flipped it over so that it danced in the air for a second before he laid it down on the desk. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, but he was giggling.

“Used his real name. And the guy’s name is Trinity,” the sheriff said, breaking down into a real laugh, setting all the sheets down and wiping his eyes. “Dumbass.”

We had a little chuckle together over that one. Usually we’re so all-business. We’re in the mountains of western North Carolina. His family probably goes to church with the whole Buck family. His cracking up with me is like a little present, like he just handed me a sandwich or something.

We’ve been talking a lot about gifts this week at work. It’s the first week of December, when people in workplaces all over the country line up their obligatory office holiday plans in early morning staff meetings. Ours were popular because they often included Burger King biscuit breakfasts. For our Christmas project this year, because we have to have one, we adopted a Christmas family. My friend Carly, the education reporter, and I were charged with going over the local food bank by the 10th and picking our family out of a stack of applications. Then we planned to hit Wal-Mart and load up a cart with toys for the kids and clothes for the mom and dad.

Carly and I went to talk to the director of the food bank at lunch after the staff meeting. The woman asked if either of us spoke Spanish, and Carly said she spoke some. So we got a Hispanic family. The director told us they lived in the next town over and they didn’t have a phone, so we’d have to get the presents, wrap them up, and just go there and drop them off. I’d only been through said town quickly once or twice. My husband had heard they still had the Klan there.

“Seems we had a gentlemen stopped last night,” he says finally. “A Mexican gentleman. Says here he was sitting like a girl.”

So the sheriff is still talking, and I’m thinking about my plans to go shopping for the Christmas family at Wal-Mart. I suspect the sheriff goes through the sheets before I get there and saves the best for last, even though he swears he doesn’t. Today he lays the last paper down on his desk and just stares it down for two or three minutes.

“Seems we had a gentlemen stopped last night,” he says finally, lowering his head down closer to the paper, squinting at it. “Routine traffic stop of a 1995 Camaro at 10:35 p.m. A Mexican gentleman. Says here he was sitting like a girl.”

“Like a what?” I look up from my reporter’s notebook where I’ve been waiting, doodling guns. Everybody owns guns around here. Lots of them. The sheriff told me the other day that he owns about 25 of them. I just moved here from Atlanta a year ago. I don’t own any guns. I’m doodling them, trying to figure out what they look like up close.

“I know, I had to look at it a minute myself. Says he was sitting…” He slides his chair out from his desk so I can see. He puts his hands in his lap, squeezes his legs together, one knee a few inches over the other.

“Like a girl,” he says, and now he adjusts and sits normally, slides his chair back under his desk.  “When the officer asked the man to step out of the car, he initially refused. Officer asked him again, ‘step out of the vehicle,’ and it says here that eventually he did.”

He breaks, my cue to step in.

“And then what?”

“Well….” He is peering at the paper again. “Seems the guy had an AK-47 and several other guns in the car. He was trying to obscure them by sitting on them, see. Then under the car seat, he apparently had several handguns, another AK and a whole lot of meth.”

My hand is cramping because I’m writing so fast, little blue scrawls I won’t be able to decipher 10 minutes later. I’ll probably have to call him once I get back to the office and get the details right. The sheriff asks me to check in about the story later with the narcotics officers, whose unmarked lair sits across the parking lot, right off the jail. I know already that I’ll never be able to get the narcs on the phone, so when the sheriff and I are finished for the morning I walk right from his office to theirs.

Larry the narc officer is big, busted out at the belly with long-ish gray hair in a ponytail. He answers the door, offers me a Mountain Dew, and tells me to sit down before they bring out all the guns and meth for me to photograph for my story, because “it’s gonna blow your mind.”

I try not to smirk. These guys all play right into their stereotypes. They talk like they just got done watching Smokey and the Bandit.

“Now, you know your publisher isn’t going to let you tell the real story, don’t you?” Larry sits down and leans way back in his squeaky secretary’s chair, folds his hands over his big belly, just like in a cop show.

The chief is quietly regarded among the sheriff’s deputies as paranoid and Close to Losing It.

“What do you mean?” I ask him. “You made an arrest. I’m going to get pictures. Why would I not get to tell the real story?”

Larry shakes his head and smiles at me.

“Won’t happen. I guarantee you. I’ve been talking to reporters from your paper for years, and your publisher doesn’t want to run big stories about drugs. I promise you—they just don’t. But you go ahead and take some photos just the same.”

Three narcs use the same little office, their old metal desks crammed into the corners and covered with soda cans and photos of them in camouflage posing next to trucks, and this is the way all my conversations with all of them go: They make some blanket pronouncement about how nobody wants to know how much drug-running goes on in our little mountain tourist town; I ask naive questions. We eventually get to something I can write up, but it takes a while. Then I have something that I think will work for the front page that gets edited down to 100 words and stuck in the back of the paper for the “Cop Beat” column. It goes right next to the log of 911 calls, tallied up by county.

Today, Larry spells out the details for me. All the drug-runners are Mexicans, he says. They all live together in a single trailer park just outside of town. The drugs come in from Atlanta in the afternoon into the town to the east of us, and the Mexicans run through our county all night and eventually end up at home, in the trailer park in the town to the west.

They arrested the man with the Camaro last night and he’s cooling his heels in a cell on the other side of the door right behind Larry’s desk. But he’ll be gone by tomorrow. Immigration officials will come, he’ll give them the same fake name he gave the officer last night, or maybe some other one, and he’ll be deported.

“That little shit,” Larry jerks his thumb over his shoulder, “looked me right in the eye and told me,” and here he does a very bad Mexican accent: “You canna hold me. Doesn’t matter what you do to me. I’ll be back here in 24 hours.”

I don’t say anything. I’m trying to figure out how that’s physically possible. I think the upshot is that immigrations officials deport him and he comes back, but it takes half a day just to get from our town to immigration court in Raleigh, so I’m wondering if the drug-runners get sent to some way-station kind of place like Atlanta, instead of all the way back to Mexico, and start back from there.

Anyway, I take some photos of the guns, and the meth ice in its little plastic bags. I think about the Mexican guy in the jail cell just on the other side of the wall from me. The phone rings, Larry answers it, hands the phone out over the desk to me.

“Sheriff wants to talk to you again,” he says.

The sheriff tells me that if the chief of police calls me and tries to get me to go on a drug raid later, don’t. The sheriff doesn’t realize that the chief called me yesterday.

The chief is the opposite of the sheriff. He’s 20 years older. The sheriff is relaxed and folksy and a little pudgy. The chief is rail-thin and wiry and tense. The chief has piercing blue eyes and a small, sharp features and acts like he drinks a lot of Red Bull. The sheriff’s kids go to a homey Christian elementary school down the street, while the chief has one son fighting in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

The sheriff had wanted to be sheriff since he was a kid. His election night was a dream come true, with his whole extended family in the county library conference room awaiting the returns as they came in. When the chief got into a skirmish with the city manager over his rate of pay, he just told them all he could always go to work as a security contractor for Blackwater and kiss all of them goodbye. The chief is quietly regarded among the sheriff’s deputies as paranoid and Close to Losing It.

He’d called the day before, while Carly and I were drawing up our plans for the Christmas family. Jose and Helena Hernandez de Cabilla. A mom, a dad, and two little girls, ages two and four.

“You want to go on a drug raid?” the chief shot at me over the phone. “We’re gonna meet at the station at about five in the morning. Then we’re going to raid them at about six, run them out of town. You need to be there. Bring your camera!”

The chief says we have to do these raids because it’s next to impossible to pull these guys over on the street. They always drive late-model cars with absolutely nothing wrong with them. No headlights out, registration up to date, so you can’t pull them over for some routine violation. They always drive the speed limit and they never have road rage. You’ve got to hit them where they live, the chief says, or you’ll never get them.

I asked him when this raid was going to go down, but he couldn’t tell me. Soon, he said. Maybe next week. Or a couple weeks. Soon. He left me with what he intended to be a nugget I could use for my investigative reporting.

“The obituaries. Do you read them?” he whispered now, like he didn’t want anybody at the station to hear him. “Read them. We got kids, 25, 30 years old, dying of heart failure. Heart failure! That’s meth.”

“Who?” I asked, reaching for my notebook. “Who died of heart failure?”

“I can’t tell you. You gotta read the obituaries. I gotta go.”

That week I’d written a front-page feature about a local accountant who brought her dogs into the office every day, complete with portraits of the dogs as they greeted people in the reception area. I scanned the obituaries for young people who’d died of heart failure, but I found only old people.

When we finally find their trailer, it looks rusted out, abandoned. Painted brown, peeling paint. There are no cars out front. Handmade curtains hang inside closed-up windows.

I told my editor I had a possible story idea about young adults dying of heart failure from meth. He asked what proof I had for it; I told him about the chief’s phone call. He just snickered a little bit and shrugged his shoulders at me, and we spent the rest of the next half hour planning our coverage of the upcoming downtown Christmas Fest.

Carly and I go shopping later that week at the local Wal-Mart on our lunch hour. We get a cart and fill it with warm clothes for the mom, jeans and rose-colored sweatshirts and sneakers. I wonder about Helena, who’s a size 7, like me. I wonder if she’s worried about not being able to buy her girls presents for Christmas, if they have enough money for food. Carly shops for the dad, picking out jeans and flannels and socks. Buying them underwear would have felt weird.

Then we go to the kids’ section in the corner of the store, buying dresses and Dora the Explorer t-shirts in 2T and 4T, sets of pink socks, shirts with lacy headbands attached with plastic tabs. We shop until the cart is full and load the stuff into Carly’s car and bring it back to the office for wrapping in Christmas paper. Then we set out to make our delivery.

At first it’s hard to find their trailer. We ride down the main road toward the town to the right, taking smaller and smaller roads with smaller and smaller signs, like tiny river tributaries. The trailer park itself has no sign; it’s just a hardscrabble dirt turnoff cut into the hillside. Once we turn in, this community goes back for at least a mile. A group of young Mexican men stand off to the right, working on a car. Carly approaches them to ask where the Hernandez family lives.

When we finally find their trailer, it looks rusted out, abandoned. Painted brown, peeling paint. There are no cars out front. Handmade curtains hang inside closed-up windows. But just to the right of the front door is a little girl’s pink plastic tricycle.

The woman finally opens the front door. She speaks no English and she jumps a bit when Carly says her name. The food bank director told us her husband, Jose, speaks a little English, so Carly asks if he’s home. Helena stares at Carly’s feet and shakes her head. She looks scared. Carly points back down the road, I think asking if Jose is one of the men working on the car. Helena shakes her head again.

Carly points back at our car, where I’ve started to unload the presents from the trunk. Helena finally seems to get what’s going on, and she lowers her head to stare at Carly’s feet again, then backs into trailer to let us in.

The trailer smells amazing. Helena has a pot of something on the stove, bubbly and brown with cumin and tomatoes. Her eyes don’t light up like I’d thought they would. The little girls don’t run out, all excited, jumping around for the presents. When we bring the things inside, they’re splayed on the couch watching TV. Helena stands with her back to the food, as though she’s afraid we might take it. She’s all soft and brown, I notice now, with her hair held back in a ponytail and wearing a white cotton shirt and jeans and beige canvas heels with red bows at the toes. She looks at the floor in the kitchen, won’t meet our eyes.

I get another look at the group of men as we drive out of the trailer park, and it hits me, what they’re doing to the car. The hood isn’t open. They’re not fixing it. They’re cleaning it. They’re replacing headlights, shining mirrors. It’s a late-model Camaro. I don’t tell Carly about the car, or that I just figured out where the Hernandez dad is. I figure there’s no time to really look into it and I’ll never know for sure whether I’m right, anyway.

That afternoon we go back to the paper and I write a story about a shaggy white dog whose owner takes him everywhere in the back of his truck, and everybody in town has seen the dog and remembers him, because he’s always wearing sunglasses, and it always looks like he’s smiling.