The importance of a cooperative witness

By John Ford Sr. | Aug 16, 2010

Nov. 16, 1982, began like any other night on patrol. My working partner, Scott Sienkiewicz and myself patiently sat waiting for a night hunter to pop into our sights.

Around midnight, I received a radio request to contact a party in Burnham. A complainant said her neighbor had just shot a deer.

There was a fresh dusting of snow on the ground as we quickly headed toward the area to investigate. The elderly woman was quite disgusted. She'd watched her neighbor light a small field behind his trailer, then she heard a single rifle shot.

She said the neighbor then scurried out the back door of his trailer over to an apple tree along the edge of the woods. She watched him drag what she assumed to be a dead deer into the woods, and soon after he ran back inside the trailer, leaving the animal behind.

The old woman stated this type of activity had been going on for years and she'd quite frankly experienced enough. "There won't be a damned deer left in this area if someone don't stop him!” she angrily muttered.

We parked in front of the trailer in question and I attempted to make contact with the supposed perpetrator, who appeared to be comfortably perched inside and refusing to come to the door.

We walked behind the house and found fresh footprints in the new snow that headed toward the apple tree that the complainant had described. As we searched around the apple tree, we found fresh drops of blood in the snow. They led to what appeared to be drag marks heading toward the edge of the woods.

As we began following the tracks we heard muffled bleats of what sounded like an animal in distress a short distance away.

As we neared the woods, I was shocked to find a live deer, making every effort to flee. But the poor creature was unable to do so because a carefully placed shot had severed its spine, rendering it crippled and unable to move. It was one of the most pathetic and gross sights I'd experienced to that point in my career.

We watched the frightened animal desperately trying to gather enough strength to get away from us. It was rather obvious the tenant in the trailer had purposely wounded the animal and left it to suffer.

More than likely, he planned to put it out of its misery the next morning, just before taking it to the tagging station to be registered. Thus, the signs of rigor would not have settled in and the tagging agent would not ask any questions as to the actual time of the kill.

It was a cruel act of animal abuse to say the least. This guy knew exactly what he was doing.

We quickly disposed of the poor creature. After we put it out of its misery, we dragged the carcass across his lawn and put it in my vehicle. By then, I was irate about the viciousness of such an action.

We once more returned to the trailer, where I continued pounding on the door, hoping to get a response. But my actions went ignored.

I told Scott, “Damn it all. We know he's inside that trailer and I plan on waiting him out no matter how long it takes. I'll stay here for a damned week if I have to; sooner or later he'll come outside. If he doesn't, I just might call a wrecker to hook onto that damned trailer and haul the whole kit and caboodle down to the Belfast to the county jail!”

I knew my last statement was a little far-fetched, but I was determined to make sure this fellow didn't sleep that night. Sadly, I kept the entire neighborhood awake too, but I heard that most of them liked it. We certainly made sure my trailer-bound buddy wasn't getting the rest he'd planned.

Every 15 minutes or so, I'd lay on the horn or blow the siren, hoping to force the issue and perhaps bring him outside. But all of my efforts were to no avail – 1 a.m. came and passed, then it was 2, then 3, then 4. There we sat monitoring for any activity inside the trailer.

Occasionally, there'd be a new puff of smoke rising up the chimney after he placed a little more firewood on the fire, but he ignored our request to speak with him. More blasts on the siren, blowing of the vehicle's horn, yelling on the PA system, and a host of other loud noises were all in vain.

Finally, at a little after 5 a.m., we noticed movement inside the mobile home. Again I pounded on the door, making it very clear I intended to remain there until someone responded, even if it took weeks.

Slowly the door opened and Rodney sheepishly said, “Are you looking for me?”

I felt like saying, “No. I'm waiting for Christmas to come, hoping to catch Santa Claus sliding down your #@*-damned chimney.”

But I thought better of it.

Summoning my best ability under the circumstances to remain as professional and courteous as I could, considering the frustration of the past several hours, I read him his Miranda rights — those damned rights that protected him from the brutality of nutty officers like me. I hoped to question him with regard to the wounded deer behind his house.

Rodney had been this route several times before. He simply smiled and stated, “I have nothing to say!” He exercised his right not to speak with us without having an attorney present. And I knew that wasn't about to happen.

We wrote out a couple of summonses, assigning Rodney a court date and a chance to get his attorney.

The next day, I talked again with the complainant. She was happier than a pig in poop to know he'd finally been caught. “Damn him,” she sputtered. “He's been getting by with this for years. I've had enough!”

Sadly, her happiness quickly disappeared and Rodney once again became victorious when it came time to hold him accountable for those sins. Rodney pleaded not guilty and demanded a court trial.

When it came time for the trial, my up-until-then cooperative witness decided she would not, under any conditions, appear in court to testify against him. She feared retaliation in the neighborhood if she did.

“You did your job, John. You followed his tracks right out from the house to the deer and back again. No one else was there, no one else, so why to hell do you need me?” she angrily asked.

I tried to explain the time the shots were fired and her personal observations were all necessary requirements to convince the judge of Rodney's guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. It also was a demand by our district attorney before he'd proceed with attempting to prosecute the case.

But she would have no part of it. “I won't go and I won't testify,” she strongly emphasized. "That's all there is to it!”

And she didn't.

Suddenly, it appeared as if I was the villain. The case ended up being dismissed. Rodney played his cards in this game of bluff and he obviously won the hand. The reality of this story boiled down to the simple fact of how important it is to have a cooperative witness.

Without it, many officers' hands were tied and we were left holding the bag. Justice was not done, and the community and wildlife suffered the losses. This was one of those cases.

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