Aiding and Abetting
An excerpt from Urban Legends
There are some stories the detectives tell over and over again. Some are about the hilarious stupidity exhibited by a perp or how a random fluke blew a case wide open. Some are just funny, while others -- the ones they save for when last call has been announced -- are much more serious. No matter how many times these stories have been told, everyone listens and reacts to them as if they were being told for the first time, laughing at the funny ones and sadly staring into their beers during the others. Out of all the stories they tell, there is only one that makes them do both.
They couldn’t help getting somber whenever they talked about a case that involved Garrison. The best detective in their unit, he had been found murdered in the parking lot of the building they worked in every day. The crime was still unsolved, and invoking his name automatically reminded them of their failure to find justice for their fallen friend. But there was one case he solved that was simply too bizarre for them not to laugh and holler at whenever they retold it. It was easily the strangest murder case any of them had ever heard of.
Garrison had been called down to the Fleetwood Arms, a rundown apartment building in the oldest part of town. The body of a 17-year-old boy had been found in the nets that a crew of window washers had set up on one side of the building. As a crime scene, the net was too dangerous to investigate, so by the time Garrison got there the body had already been taken down and sent to the morgue. Jenson, the forensics expert, filled him in on the details.
“The super in this place identified the kid. Said his name was Billy Settler. He lived here with his folks. A couple of uniforms are up there interviewing them right now."
"How do you think he got up there?" asked Garrison.
"The windows in this place don't open," answered Jenson, "which means the only way the kid could have gotten onto the net is from the roof."
Jenson shook his head.
"I don't think so."
"He was pushed?"
"I don't understand."
"Well," said Jenson, "we'll know more after talking to the coroner, but I'm guessing he was forced off the building by the shotgun blast."
"He was shot?"
"In the chest. It would have killed him instantly."
"Did anyone hear it happen?"
"This isn't a good neighborhood. People hear gunshots all the time. Plus most of the people in this building are seniors. They all have their televisions up so loud it'd be a miracle if they heard someone fire a shot into their own chests."
The building's elevator was broken, which meant Garrison had to walk all the way to the building's second-to-last floor to see the kid's parents. They were an older couple, in their 60s. Billy must have been a late surprise. His father wore blue sweatpants and a white T-shirt, while his mother wore a floral print housecoat that looked to be 20 years old. They were screaming at each other and at the policemen who were searching the apartment and trying to interview them when Garrison, out of breath from the long trek up the stairs, walked in on them.
"Look, another one!" shouted the woman as he came in. "Why are you bothering us when you should be finding out what happened to Billy?"
Garrison chose not to answer her. Instead he motioned for one of the uniformed officers, a kid just out of the academy, to catch him up on what was going on.
"Why is it so dark in here?" he asked.
The kid shrugged.
"We tried to open the blinds, but I guess they're broken."
"So what've you guys learned?"
"Nothing much, except that these are two of the most miserable people on the planet."
"How'd they react to the news?"
"They screamed at us, but that's not so strange, since that's all they seem to do."
"I found something!" another officer shouted from a bedroom. He came out with a piece of paper and handed it to Garrison.
"What is it?" asked the kid.
"Looks like a suicide note," answered Garrison.
It appeared that young Billy had been a very unhappy boy. His handwritten letter described a lifetime spent with two people who were incapable of anything but furious and nonstop bickering. His parents' constant battles had made him so cynical and doubtful about the possibility of his own future happiness that he decided to end his life rather than risk the possibility of becoming just like them.
Jenson, who was in a lot worse shape than Garrison, finally lumbered into the apartment. He was so tired he had to sit down. He gasped to catch a breath while Garrison walked over to him and handed him the note.
"What do you make of this?" he asked the expert.
Jenson continued to wheeze as he read the note.
"Huh," he responded when he finished it. "That's interesting."
"Could he have shot himself on the roof?" asked Garrison.
"Yeah, but there's just one problem with that scenario."
"We didn't find a shotgun on the roof, on the net or anywhere along the side of the building."
"So he wrote a suicide note, but somebody else shot him?"
"He could have gotten a friend to do it."
"Look at the note again. He didn't have any friends."
"Right. What about -- " Jenson nudged his heads towards the parents.
"That would be my first guess."
"Why is it so dark in here?"
"Blinds are broken."
A couple of hours later Garrison was standing in the morgue with his least-favorite person in the world, Hamilton, the coroner. He had taken Billy's parents in for questioning, but they were so belligerent, he decided to let them sit for a while and calm down. In the meantime he needed to find out what kind of clues Billy's remains could give them.
"He definitely died from the shotgun blast," the balding pathologist informed him. "He was hit directly in the chest, and his heart and lungs were instantly turned into jelly. He must have been quite close to the window when it went off."
Garrison looked at him, confused.
"What do you mean?"
"Judging by the amount of glass I dug out of him, I'd have to say he was just a few inches away."
"But he was shot on top of the roof," Garrison informed him. "There are no windows up there."
Hamilton shook his head and stood by his initial assessment.
"Someone shot this kid through a window."
Garrison drove back to the building. He walked around it and looked for any broken windows. He couldn't find one, but -- during his second trip around -- he noticed an American flag draped over one of the windows. This wasn't too uncommon, but the fact that the flag was on the outside of the window was. He sighed when he realized what apartment the window came from.
The apartment was quiet now that Billy's parents weren't there anymore. He opened the door and ducked under the yellow crime scene tape to walk inside. He strode over to the heavy blind that had kept the apartment so dark just a few hours before when the sun was out. Pulling as hard as he could he yanked it down and exposed a shattered window, covered by an American flag.
He was walking down the stairs on his way to confront Billy's parents when he was stopped by the voice of teenager. It was a boy, around 13 or 14.
"Mister?" asked the boy. "Are you here about what happened to Billy?"
"That's right," Garrison told him.
"He was shot, right?"
The boy bit his lip and paused before he spoke again.
"I didn't say nothing before, when the policeman came and asked my mom some questions," the boy admitted, "'cause I didn't want to rat on Billy, but then I thought it could help you..."
"Me and Billy were friends. Kinda. He was really quiet most of the time, but we liked the same comic books so sometimes he and I hung out together. We usually just talked about the comics and TV shows we liked, but I remember one day he started talking about his parents."
"What'd he say?"
"He said he hated them. He didn't like how they were always fighting. He said it got so bad that sometimes one of them would grab a shotgun and point it at the other one. He said it didn't mean anything, since it wasn't loaded and there was no ammunition to put in it, but they still acted like they were going to shoot each other. Then he got this weird look on his face, like he had an idea. I think it was the first time I ever saw him smile. He laughed and said that he should buy some ammo and load it into the gun. That way the next time they fought, one of them would end up shooting the other like they wanted."
"Did he do it?"
"I dunno. I didn't talk to him after that."
Billy's father was slumped down on his chair when Garrison burst into the room in which he was being held.
"Where's the gun?" he shouted at the older man.
The old man started to protest, but before he could finish Garrison pounded the table between them with his fist. This stunned Billy's father into silence.
"I know about the shotgun. What did you do with it?"
Once again, Garrison found himself back at the apartment. He walked down into its basement, which served as a storage area for the tenants. He found the cage reserved for the Settlers and opened a trunk that sat on its floor. Under a pile of old clothes and sheets he found what he was looking for.
Jenson was positive.
"This is it," he insisted. "This is the gun that killed Billy, and his mother's prints are all over it."
"Okay. So she shot him while he was outside their window, which has no ledge or any other visible means of support."
"Looks like it."
"And how do she do that?"
Jenson had no idea.
"Magic?" was the best he could come up with.
With this evidence Garrison had enough to book both Mr. and Mrs. Settler, so he decided to let them stew in the lock-up while he went home to get some much-needed sleep. But the puzzle in front of him was too complex to let his mind rest. Instead he just lay there and tried to figure it out. Finally exhaustion overcame him and he fell asleep and started to dream. But then, suddenly, his eyes opened and his body become so energized with excitement he virtually leapt out of his bed.
The answer was so obvious that it seemed impossible.
"You're joking, right?" asked Jenson, when he heard Garrison's theory.
"Think about it."
"I'm still going to go with magic," he decided.
Mrs. Settler looked uncomfortable out of her floral-print robe, which had been exchanged for an orange jumpsuit. She could barely contain her fury when she saw Garrison walk in to talk to her.
"How dare -- " she started before he silenced her with a glare.
"I know what happened," he told her. "I know you didn't kill him on purpose. It was just an accident."
She tried to speak, but her emotions caught up with her and she started to sob.
"I didn't know it was loaded," she admitted as tears flooded her eyes.
"You were just threatening your husband like you always did."
"I was so angry at him. He wouldn't shut up. Whenever I got the gun out, he'd usually get the point. I didn't know...we didn't keep any bullets for it! How could I have known?"
"It just went off, didn't it?"
"Right in my hands. There was this blast of noise and the window exploded. I didn't know."
Of all the reports Garrison had written up, this was easily the hardest to sort out. It told the story of a very sad teenager who decided to commit suicide by jumping off his building. He was so angry at his parents for making his life so hard, he decided to leave them with a surprise that might take one of them with him. But no one could have ever imagined that -- as he fell towards the ground -- his gift would be discovered and blow a hole through his own chest during the split second it took for him to pass by his parents' window on his way down. Garrison noted that, because of the net in which he was found, Billy's suicide attempt would have been a failure. If it were not for the gunshot, he would have survived.
His parents were both changed with manslaughter, and -- as the person responsible for loading the gun that killed him -- Garrison listed Billy as an accessory in his own murder.
Whenever the detectives finished telling this story, they would all ask each other if they would have had the same epiphany that allowed Garrison to solve the case. Emboldened by a few beers they would all agree that it might have taken them a bit longer, but they would have gotten there in the end. They all knew that this probably wasn't true, but they liked to believe it anyway.
* * *
For most of the 20th century, urban legends usually depended on word of mouth to spread across the globe. While effective, this method is also very slow. It could take years for a story to spread from one coast to another, but that all changed when the Internet grew from being a playground for a select group of computer enthusiasts -- a.k.a. geeks -- to an important part of normal people's everyday lives. Now, with a single email capturing people's imaginations enough to have them forward it to all their friends, a legend could gain national and international renown in a matter of weeks, if not days.
That habit of sending amusing emails to one's friends and coworkers has resulted in a great number of famous legends, many of which are the result of the person who first sent out the message not being totally clear in the body of their text. For example, if they failed to name the author of the piece they're sending out, most often a famous writer who had nothing to do with it is given the credit. The most famous example of this was a piece originally written by a Chicago Tribune writer named Mary Schmich. Written as a satirical commencement address to the college graduates of 1997, she insisted that the most important advice she had to give was that they "wear sunscreen." The article was funny and well written and people started sending it to others via email, but the majority of the emails failed to credit Mary Schmich as the author, and it didn't take long for people to assume that it had been a real commencement address. Thanks to the story's amusingly cynical tone and style, people started to credit it to the writer Kurt Vonnegut, who is most famous for his classic 1969 novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." That should have been that, but the story continued when film director Baz Luhrman, best known for his Academy Award–nominated musical "Moulin Rouge," read the piece while he was working on a record album entitled "Baz Luhrman Presents." Luhrman loved the piece enough to want to include it on his record. An Australian voice-over actor named Lee Perry was hired to read it over some spare new-age music, and the result was a huge hit in Australia and a minor hit in America. Had the piece been credit to Mary Schmich all along, it probably would have died out before reaching the famous film director, but because it was erroneously credited to a legendary author it earned itself a strange niche in both journalistic and musical history.
A similar situation led to the legend of the murdered jumper. For seven years it existed in the minds of only a few people, until it was posted on the Internet in August 1994 and became instantly familiar to thousands. Many people were so fascinated by this bizarre story of forensic logic that they sent it to all their friends, often so they could debate the questions raised by the case. In the original post, the parents were not charged and the boy's death was ruled a suicide, but as the story mutated on the Net, every possible legal outcome of the incident was described. In January 1998, the story received its first dramatic recreation on an episode of "Homicide: Life On the Streets." The writers of the show must have been fans of urban legends, as just a month earlier they had dedicated an episode to the legend of the last goodbye (discussed elsewhere in URBAN LEGENDS). In this case the producers took the interesting step of casting a legendary celebrity couple, Steve Allen and Audrey Meadows, in the roles of the parents whose constant bickering causes the whole confusing tale to take place. A year later, the legend was given its first cinematic treatment at the beginning of director P.T. Anderson's Oscar-nominated film "Magnolia," which also featured another legend that will be discussed later in URBAN LEGENDS.
So what is the origin of this fascinating legend? It all started in 1987 at a meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. There a member of the academy named Don Harper Mills told the story to illustrate his point that by changing a few facts in a case you can dramatically affect the charges that result. Mills had mapped out part of the story earlier and invented the other part during the course of his presentation, and he had no idea that some day it would become so well-known.
As complicated as the story is, it still can be solved. The same cannot be said for the mystery of how the story ended up on the Internet seven years after Mills first concocted it. The identity of the person first responsible for posting it on the web is still unknown and likely always will be.
With this new digital age, from now on you should always be aware that whenever you make a story to illustrate a point, you risk the chance that someday you'll end up paying to see it in the latest Tom Cruise movie to hit the multiplex.
Copyright ©2004 by Ghost House Books. All Rights Reserved. Media wishing to use this excerpt are asked to contact our for permission. Thank you.
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