Howard and Noodles: The Riverbed Slasher
Noodles was a disgraced former defense attorney turned landscaper. Howard was a brilliant criminologist and a goat. Together they solved mysteries and tended lawns in rural Montana. The following are excerpts from Noodles’ memoirs.
September 25, 1997
Winters in Montana are merciless, unpredictable and overlong. Summers are hotter than they should be and punctuated with thick smoke from perennial wildfires. Spring is less a buffer between than it is a soggy mud-caked soup of the two. But Fall in Montana makes it all worthwhile. Some years it lasts a month. Other years you get a few hours. Either way, it’s perfect. Fall in Montana has kept me here through all the harshness and misery that the rest of the year can bring.
Had it not been for a perfect fall afternoon, my ride back from Helena to Belgrade would have been an especially forlorn one.
Howard, the gentle friend that he was, did not impose conversation on me as we rattled toward home in the empty boxcar of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train. I was still digesting a bitter defeat at the State Bar of Montana. Howard sensed that a silent companion was more valuable to me than a cheerleader at that moment, and provided the kind of quiet comfort that only the truest of friends is capable of.
We had stashed our John Deere riding mower near the switchyard in Logan, which was a railroad stop in an abandoned small town near Three Forks, Montana. It wasn’t a true switchyard, but it did have three tracks for sorting and switching cars. It was an hour drive from our house on the old lawn tractor, but the yard was rarely monitored by the railroad and thus provided Howard and I with free rail access to most of Montana.
We were off the train and rumbling down the shoulder of the old Frontage Road home by late afternoon.
“It’s so unjust. That’s the part I can’t understand. The State Bar is a collection of people who have pledged themselves to the law. To truth and justice. How can they not not recognize the injustice of their position,” I complained.
“I don’t know the law like you do,” Howard said, “but it certainly seems absurd to me.”
“I understood why they suspended me. I get it. I had a mental breakdown. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I see it now.”
“The fact that you can see it now would suggest that you’re no longer suffering the effects of it,” Howard pointed out.
“Exactly. Recognizing the symptoms of psychosis in yourself is surely a sign that you are out of the psychosis.”
“Makes perfect sense to me.”
“And yet logic has no place with these clinicians, who go around slapping labels on anybody who fits a loose description in their big book of unscientific nonsense.”
“The board sure seemed to fixate on the schizophrenia,” Howard remarked
“Of course they did, when that charlatan of a ‘doctor’ was throwing the term around so haphazardly. It was a disgrace to call that testimony. Where was the foundation? Where was the science? That quack has probably never met a person he wouldn’t diagnose with some nonsensical ‘disorder.’”
“It was frustrating that they expected you to prove your sanity. How could anybody be expected to prove the absence of mental illness? It’s incredibly difficult to prove a negative like that.”
Howard was correct. Physical evidence can help prove that something exists, but the absence of it doesn’t carry the same weight to prove it doesn’t exist. If I had footprints, or photographs, or DNA, or skeletal remains, I could probably convince you that Bigfoot exists. But the fact that I have none of those things won’t necessarily persuade you that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. It’s always possible that the evidence is out there, it just hasn’t been discovered yet.
If the state had to prove that I was schizophrenic to disbar me, then I would have had a fighting chance. They would have had to present evidence and I would have had the opportunity to rebut it. But I stipulated to the fact that I was suffering from a mental illness two years prior, when I was battling some personal issues, because I had neither the time nor the resources to fight the state bar association. There were several trumped-up criminal accusations against me. They were all very weak misdemeanors and the prosecutor dismissed them long before they ever got to trial, but the Montana Bar Association’s disciplinary board required a much lower standard of proof than a criminal court would have. Had the disciplinary board found any of the criminal accusations to be true, I would have been permanently disbarred. We came to an agreement where they would suspend my law license and not pursue the criminal matter any further, but I had to admit that I was suffering from mental illness and agree to a mental health evaluation.
In fairness, I was suffering from some cognitive problems at the time. I had been experiencing auditory hallucinations for over a year, and they grew louder, more confusing and more distracting in the weeks leading up to my legal troubles. I had been a defense attorney long enough that I did not trust most of society’s institutions, so I turned to street pharmaceuticals for relief instead of the healthcare system. It exacerbated my mental issues instead of relieving them, but the drugs and the illness disoriented me so badly that I could not recognize the recklessness of my behavior at the time.
That was more than two years prior though, and I had made a full recovery from the drug use and the mental illness before my status hearing at the Bar Association.
“I apologize for any influence I might have had on their decision,” Howard said.
“What do you mean?”
“If I were a human instead of a goat, I doubt they would have cared about our partnership. Or if I could speak, maybe I could have defended our arrangement a little better.”
“That was terribly inappropriate. You weren’t a witness and should not have been subject to any questioning. You were there for emotional support. If I was truly as mentally ill as they were suggesting, then I should have been entitled to an advocate in my corner. Maybe that could be my grounds for an appeal”
“I agree, but I still feel responsible.”
“I won’t hear another word about it,” I objected. “You’re not only a great friend, but you are also wiser than everybody on that board. I value your opinion over theirs any day.”
“Thank you Noodles. And if you truly mean it, then I’ll give you my opinion on the matter: You’ll do more good in this world as a private investigator and a landscaper than any of those people ever will in their law practices.”
Looking back now, Howard was as right as he always was. I had only known Howard for a little over a year, but we had already helped more people than any of those over-educated paper shufflers at the state bar. And the people we helped were precisely the types of people whose plights they would have either ignored or exploited — depending on which option paid better.
“Is that deer wearing underwear?” Howard asked.
“On the shoulder of the road up ahead.”
“The roadkill? That’s peculiar,” I said. “It looks like it’s wearing a thong. And fuzzy handcuffs on the hind legs.”
“Better pull over and take a look,” Howard said.
Still September 25, 1997
Howard and I were relaxing on the concrete patio of our studio apartment, enjoying the cool evening air. We had picked up a discounted package of chicken thighs at the IGA and I was cooking them on a small propane cook stove. I was sipping a glass of counterfeit scotch that we had acquired as part of a previous investigation. We were listening to Art Bell take callers on the a.m. radio, but were interrupted by a knock at the door and to this day I am still unsure of how the elderly gas station attendant from Portland outwitted the sasquatch that was stalking him through the dense forests of eastern Oregon.
Gallatin County Sheriff’s Deputy Sammi Watson was waiting at the door when I opened it.
“Hi Noodles. Do you have a minute?”
Sammi was a young sheriff’s deputy back then, but had already impressed me with both her intelligence and her character.
Back when I was a licensed attorney, I defended the very first person that Sammi ever arrested for drunk driving. It was the man’s third offense and he was guilty as sin, but he insisted on taking it to trial. I realized that Sammi was a rookie, so I scrutinized her entire case file looking for the types of subtle errors and omissions that were in virtually every case file. There were none. It was a misdemeanor traffic case that was tighter than any felony file I had ever gotten from her department.
She was even more of a problem for me on the witness stand. She was very pretty in her uniform, but in a non-threatening way that made both men and women like her. Her voice was clear and confident, and every word sounded like the gospel truth. I was worried that one little old lady in the front row of the jury box was going to injure her neck from nodding along so enthusiastically with Sammi’s testimony. I didn’t even want to cross examine her, for fear that some on the jury might take it as a personal insult.
DUI law in Montana was a nightmare for officers to enforce. The legislature only enacted DUI laws because the federal government threatened to withhold funding for road repairs. The state legislature was made up of ranchers and lawyers, and the Montana Code was written with the former’s scholarship and the latter’s common sense. And since it was a huge rural state with no public transportation, most of the legislature recognized that they would probably be drinking and driving at some point. Consequently, they made it as difficult as possible for the courts to actually convict somebody of a DUI.
An officer couldn’t even ask a driver to submit to a portable breath test unless the officer had cause to believe that the person was impaired. And even though the average child has the ability to discern if a person is drunk or not, the courts determined that trained police officers did not possess that same judgment. So they had to rely on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. The horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk-and-turn test and the one-legged stand test had to be administered in that exact order using a very precise set of instructions and grading criteria. And it had to be done mostly from memory on the side of the road in the middle of the night. Almost every officer made mistakes, and it only took a couple of mistakes to get the results thrown out of court.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put out a manual on the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests that was 75 pages back when I used it. My usual practice in any DUI trial was to discredit the officer with their own manual. Most couldn’t recite the name of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, let alone describe all of the tiny details of the tests themselves. I tried it with Sammi and it failed miserably. She knew every word of that damn book. And the more time I spent flipping through pages to find obscure passages, the better she looked to the jury when she quoted it from memory. My client was convicted, and I was surprised they bothered to take the jury back to deliberate.
Despite being at odds with them many times both professionally and personally, I actually did respect most of the law enforcement officers in the area. They were good people, for the most part. But Sammi really stood out. She was composed in situations where I had seen many other officers lose their cool. Her bravery was second to none, and her judgment was impeccable. She was everything a taxpayer would want in a police officer.
There were only four other female police officers in all of Gallatin County back then, and they all suffered a level of harassment and disrespect that would disgust our modern sensibilities. But none had it as bad as Sammi. She wasn’t just a woman; she was the most talented and ambitious young officer in her department. Some of her fellow officers appreciated that and treated her with dignity. Some were indifferent. But there was a group of a dozen or so that did everything they could to force her out of law enforcement. They failed in that endeavor, and their efforts only seemed to embolden her resolve.
“Hi Deputy. What can I do for you?” I asked.
“I’ve heard you are doing some private investigation work?” she asked.
At that point in our career, neither Howard nor I were licensed or insured to do private investigation work, so I lied and said I wasn’t.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make that sound like a question. I know you are doing some private investigation work.”
“Well, Howard and I have helped a few people on a couple of fact-finding matters, but it’s not a commercial enterprise. Certainly nothing that would require a county business license or anything like that.”
“That’s not why I’m here Noodles. I just need some help.”
“Somebody is going around torturing animals, and I’d like to figure out who it is before it escalates.”
“What are they doing?”
Howard walked in from the patio and explained, “the deer we saw earlier. It was tortured.”
“Who’s this guy?” Sammi said as she leaned over and rubbed Howard behind the ear.
“This is Howard. He does most of the investigating. I just drive him around and assist where I can.”
“Yeah, I heard something about that too,” she said. Her voice was skeptical, but her face conveyed sympathy.
“I understand how it must look. He has no formal training. He can’t interview suspects. It sometimes seems like he isn’t paying attention when you talk to him. But I promise, he’s the best investigator I’ve ever seen.”
“How about you Noodles? Are you taking care of yourself?”
The implication was obvious, but I could tell it came from a kind place. “I’m better than I’ve been in a long time. I’m not hearing voices anymore. The delusions are mostly gone. I’m getting exercise and plenty of fresh air. Things are definitely looking up.”
“Are you staying on top of your medication?”
“Yeah. I take it when I need it. You know how that stuff is though. The side effects are worse than the symptoms most of the time.”
“Just be careful. I don’t want to see you back in jail or the hospital again. Or worse.”
“Thank you for your concern. I will take care of myself, I promise. Now tell us about the torture.”
Sammi led Howard and I to her patrol pickup, dropped the tailgate and removed a tarp. I saw the same deer that had been on the side of the road earlier.
“You were right,” I said to Howard. “But why would this be considered torture. Putting underwear on roadkill is weird, but it doesn’t exactly seem like torture.”
“I didn’t want to say anything while we were out on the highway because it was unsettling and none of our business at the time, but this deer wasn’t struck by a car. It was strangled. And underneath the underwear, somebody mutilated the deer’s genitals with what appeared to be a sharp knife.”
“Where did the underwear go?” I asked Sammi.
“How do you know about that?”
“Howard and I saw her on the side of the road on our way home tonight. Under the Town Pump billboard outside of Manhattan right?”
“Yeah, that was her. I removed the underwear and the restraints,” she said as she handed me a paper evidence bag. “They were covering this.”
Sami lifted the rear leg and I could see what Howard had described earlier. Somebody had sliced up the doe’s groin area for reasons that were too disturbing for me to comprehend.
“That is troubling,” I remarked.
“Yes it is. And it’s not the first. There was a raccoon in lingerie last week that had all eight of her nipples cut off.”
“Who would do such a thing?”
“That’s what I want to know Noodles. I need you to find out for me.”
“We’ll be happy to give it a shot, but you’re a trained police officer. Why don’t you do it yourself.”
“I was trying, but the sergeant pulled me off the case. He said that it’s not a crime, just a stupid prank, and he wasn’t going to let me waste department resources on something so trivial. He threatened to write me up if I spent any more time on it.”
“Even if it technically isn’t a crime, surely it’s a red flag. Anybody deranged enough to do this is somebody the police need to know about.”
“Oh, I know. This is more twisted than a lot of the stuff that Dahmer did as a kid. But it’s all just roadkill to the sergeant. He doesn’t care.”
“Well, it’s not exactly roadkill.”
“Sorry Noodles, you obviously have a soft spot for animals. I didn’t mean to be so callous. It was a living thing, it isn’t just roadkill.”
“Thank you, but I mean that it wasn’t hit by a vehicle. Howard said it was strangled.”
“How would a deer get strangled?” she asked.
Howard had me explain and demonstrate. “Shine your flashlight around the eyelids and you’ll see petechial hemorrhaging from oxygen deprivation. And around the neck you can see that the fur is disturbed where a ligature was applied.”
“Is it possible somebody strangled her after she was struck by a car?”
“No, it doesn’t have any of the trauma you would see from a vehicle strike.”
“How would they have gotten a ligature around its neck if it wasn’t injured?”
“She was caught in a trap. The left rear leg is broken, bloody and missing fur right above the hoof.”
“I shudder to even say this, but Howard insists. The mutilation was done before the animal died and with a knife that wasn’t very sharp. There is extensive bruising around the area that wouldn’t show if the cutting was done postmortem.”
“Good lord. This sick son-of-a-bitch tortured her while she was alive.”
“It appears so.”
“This is worse than I thought,” Sammi said. “Look, I can’t pay you much and nobody from the department can know about it, but would you please help me on this. We need to figure out who this is before it gets worse.”
“Of course Sammi. No charge.”
“Thank you Noodles. What do you need to get started?”
“Did you save the raccoon cadaver?”
“No, I took it to the dump.”
“How about the lingerie?”
“Sorry, I didn’t save anything since it wasn’t going to be a criminal case. You can have the underwear and cuffs from this deer.”
“We’ll start with that.”
“Do you need the deer carcass?”
Howard thought about it for a minute, then had me say, “no, I think we’ve learned everything we can from it without sending it to a forensic lab.”
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Anything else?”
“Any idea where the handcuffs came from?”
“Sorry. All of my handcuffs are department issued.”
Still September 25, 1997
Looking back on my notes for this memoir, I am often struck by how much the world has changed for investigators in the past 20 years. I sometimes wonder if the infinite pool of information on the internet might have made Howard’s incredible mind somewhat obsolete. But most of the time, I find myself drowning in that infinite pool, thrashing desperately to make some sense of it. That’s when I wonder what Howard’s incredible mind might have done with a tool like the internet. It wasn’t so much that Howard had an incredible memory for facts and information, though he did, but it was his ability to interpret and organize that information that made Howard such an amazing detective. He saw significance where I saw chaos, and I often wonder what significance he might have found in the chaos of our modern world.
In this particular case, we were actually a bit lucky that the internet hadn’t come around yet. Tracing the origin of a frilly thong or fuzzy handcuffs in the age of the internet would be like pinpointing a particular piece of sand on the beach. But in Gallatin County in 1997, there was only one place to find those types of items.
Jimmy’s Adult Video was a pornography shop in a converted warehouse off of Airport Road. It had a hand-painted sign that was erected with the care and professionalism of a child’s lemonade stand. There was a red light above the front door that functioned as an open sign, and it could be seen from the Frontage Road after dark. The driveway was a single lane of ruts and potholes that was almost a quarter of a mile long and slowed incoming traffic enough that Jimmy could scan for light bars and police antennas. Jimmy’s business was licensed through the county, but not subject to all of the same regulations and inspections as every other business. Enough people in positions of power were either friendly to or fearful of Jimmy that he was able to operate largely outside of most laws. Though sheriff’s deputies had been to the business many times over the years looking for a way to charge Jimmy with any of the litany of crimes that the establishment was notorious for, none was ever able to find a legal way to get past the innocuous storefront where Jimmy’s shelves were stocked with VHS tapes, cheaply-made lingerie and assorted marital aids. There were persistent rumors of debauchery and criminality in the back of the warehouse, but law enforcement was never able to substantiate the rumors enough to get a warrant.
The John Deere stirred up quite a ruckus as we bounced and crashed our way down Jimmy’s crumbling driveway, but I’m proud to say it made it all the way. Jimmy was waiting at the front door as we approached.
“Noodles,” he said as he nodded suspiciously.
“Jimmy,” I replied.
“What brings you by?”
I put on a rubber glove, removed the underwear from the paper bag and held them out for Jimmy to see.
“I’m trying to find the owner of these,” I explained.
“Well, let me take a look,” he said as he grabbed them from my hand. He turned them around a couple of times then held them in the light. “I don’t think they’re mine,” he said condescendingly. Then he put his nose into the fabric and took an exaggerated breath. “Nope, definitely not mine. I’ve got a special shampoo for the crabs and it stinks up all my undies,” he said as he threw the underwear back at my face.
I caught them and placed them back in the evidence bag. “Can we please come in and talk?”
“You and the goat?”
“Yeah, this is Howard. He’s my business partner.”
“Look Noodles, I don’t know what kind of freaky business you got planned with that goat, but I promise you can’t afford what I’ll charge you to do it here.” Jimmy said. “Best just load up on your mower and get the hell out of here.”
“Just a few questions, Jimmy, I promise.”
“Suit yourself. But you get that goat out of here if any customers come by. Unless they look like they might be into it. In that case, I get 60-percent of whatever he brings in.”
We walked in behind Jimmy and took a quick lap around his store. The shelves were dusty and stocked sparsely. Howard located an empty spot up on a shelf where a dust outline remained from a box. There were two boxes of pink fuzzy handcuffs lined up behind the empty spot.
“I need to know who bought the fuzzy cuffs,” I said.
“Noodles, do you have any idea how many fuzzy cuffs I sell?”
“Judging from the pile of dust on that shelf, I’d say just the one pair. Probably ever.”
“I don’t know Noodles, I haven’t done inventory in a while. But that seems low. Probably two or three times that over the years.”
“Who bought the most recent pair.”
“How in the hell would I know that Noodles?”
“I’ve represented enough of your customers in court to know how you operate. You keep better records than a bank. That’s why you have so much leverage over so many people.”
“True. But what I meant to say is why in the hell would I tell you Noodles? I don’t betray customers like that unless there is something in it for me.”
“What do you want?”
“Does that goat do anything nasty?”
“He solves crimes.”
“Not interested. What else you got?”
“We also do landscaping.”
“I am having a few friends over for a barbecue this weekend. I suppose the backyard could use a little tending?”
“Are you being literal, or is that a euphemism?”
“I’ve got a girl to tend to that backyard Noodles. She’s a real professional. She wouldn’t show up with a goat unless I specifically requested it, and you better believe that goat would be down for anything. You know what I’m saying?”
“Ok, I get it.”
“Committing crimes, Noodles, not solving them. Biblical crimes. Terrible stuff.”
“Ok, I get it.”
“Clean up my actual yard before tomorrow afternoon and you’ve got a deal.”
September 26, 1997
We arrived at Jimmy’s house at 9:00 am and were surprised to find that he was already awake for the day. Given the late hours at his sex shop, he couldn’t have gotten more than a couple of hours of sleep. Even if he was despicable and exploitative, and the energy came mostly from illegal stimulants, the man still had an impressive work ethic. The criminal economy was still capitalist, and guys like Jimmy rose to the top through hustle and ingenuity.
Jimmy had already told us who purchased the fuzzy handcuffs, but we decided to finish the landscaping job before continuing our investigation. A deal with the devil was a deal nonetheless.
Howard chewed through various patches of weeds and grass while I carefully mowed diamond patterns in his large rectangular backyard. I had a bag attachment that filled up five times before the job was done. I emptied it into the back of a dump trailer that Jimmy parked beside his garage.
As I reached the final far corner of the lawn, I noticed that Howard was fixated on one particular spot. I parked the mower and got out beside him.
“This patch is sod. Not seeded with the original lawn,” Howard pointed out.
I got down on my hands and knees and inspected. He was right. It had nearly grown together, but if you looked very closely you could see a definite seam where the sod laid against the original lawn.
“A dead spot?” I suggested
“A grave.” Howard said.
“What do you mean?”
“See the very slight depression in the ground?” Howard said. “Now walk across it. The ground is softer. It’s not compacted like all of the undisturbed soil around it. There was a hole here, then it was filled in and sod was laid over it.”
“Oh my god, you’re right. I can see it. But how do you know it’s a grave?”
“Walk the boundaries and look at the dimensions. Not quite six feet long. A couple of feet wide. Way too small for a septic tank. He doesn’t have underground sprinklers. It doesn’t connect to anything like an underground utility would. It’s just one human size pit all by itself in the corner of his yard.”
“What do we do?” I asked.
“For now, let’s just finish our job and get out of here. Don’t let him know that we discovered it.”
October 1, 1997
Howard and I had spent several days combing the bottoms of the headwaters of the Missouri River until we found the trap that Howard believed would lead us to the sadistic animal torturer.
“What do you think Deputy Watson is going to do about the grave?” Howard asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think there is much she can do. Jimmy would never let the police on his property without a warrant.”
“She couldn’t get a warrant based on what we told her?”
“No. After everything the bar association has put on the record about me, there is no way that a judge would find me to be a credible witness. And since she can’t talk to you directly, everything ultimately has to come through me.”
“There’s no other way huh?”
“I’m afraid not. Unless she lies in an affidavit, and she just won’t do that.”
“For a system that supposedly only cares about truth and justice, the courts seem to have a lot of self-imposed obstacles to truth and justice.”
“It’s not a perfect system. But all of those obstacles have a legitimate purpose. I’m just not used to being on this side of them.”
It was a pretty nifty bit of detective work that Howard orchestrated to get us in a position to solve the animal slayings. We found out from Sammi that the woman who had purchased the fuzzy handcuffs had reported a burglary at her home the previous week. She had not listed the handcuffs among the items missing, but that was an understandable bit of discretion on her part. The burglary was just one of a rash of burglaries that struck a bunch of rural farmhouses near the area where the Madison River met the Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers.
The area around the headwaters was a state park, and trapping was not legal. Howard correctly assumed that a person capable of such cruelty was probably the type of person who wouldn’t respect the state of Montana’s game laws. We spent a lot of hours scouring the leaf-covered ground but eventually Howard spotted the steel teeth of a coyote trap poking out from beside a willow tree.
I borrowed a small duck blind from a pawnbroker who owed me a favor, and we spent the following day hiding by the river waiting for somebody to come check their illegal trap. Shortly before sunset we heard the approaching whine of the type of poorly-maintained two-stroke dirtbike that was so popular with rural lowlifes.
“I believe that’s our culprit.” Howard said, as a skinny teenage boy in camouflage pants crept by slowly, eyeing the area where the trap lay.
I snapped a Polaroid as he went by, confident he wouldn’t notice the sound over the clanking of his bike.
“I know that boy,” I said. “I know his father at least. Tommy Bryan. I was his public defender probably a dozen times. He stole everything that wasn’t bolted down. Then he stole a socket set and started stealing everything else.”
“Looks like he’s taken up the family business.”
“What should we do?” I asked.
“We’ll let Deputy Watson handle it. But we should probably take that trap with us before he catches something else in it.”
“I agree, but can we just take it? Technically, that’s theft.”
“You’re not an officer of the court anymore Noodles. Your only obligations are to our clients and to your conscience.”
“And it isn’t like he is going to report the theft of his illegal trap to the police.”
“I suppose not. Should we follow him home and slash the tire on his dirt bike too?”
“We probably should Noodles, but I’m afraid that might be crossing a line.”
October 3, 1997
Howard and I had a job bagging leaves in Belgrade and wanted to get an early start so as not to run late on a Friday and disrupt our weekend leisure. But Deputy Watson stopped by and caught us on our way out to the mower.
“It’s been a busy week for you,” I remarked.
“For you too Noodles. I just wanted to thank you for all of the great work on the Bryan kid. I can’t do anything about the animals, but he’s going to be charged with about a dozen burglaries. It will at least get him on probation.”
“Glad we could help,” I said. “But I was referring to the other matter. The one in the paper.”
“I owe you a big thanks for that one too. We wouldn’t have found those girls without you.
“More than one? The paper said Jimmy was charged with one count.”
“Just between you and me, we dug up the entire backyard and found three bodies. We’ve only identified one of the victims so far, but he’ll get charged with the other two soon.”
“I’m happy for you. That’s a really big case. I just hope you know what you’re doing Sammy. The ends can’t justify the means in this business.”
“What are you implying Noodles?”
“I don’t know how you got that warrant, but I know you couldn’t attribute any of that information to Howard or I. I just hope you didn’t lie. You’re too good of an officer to go that route.”
“I don’t lie Noodles. Ever. Especially not in an affidavit.”
“How did you get a warrant then?”
“I did my job. I’ve been doing periodic trash pulls at his porn store for two years. A year ago I found an identification card belonging to the victim. She was listed as a runaway out of Billings though, and I had no idea what happened to her until you told me about the grave.”
“But how did you explain the grave? After the bar association smeared my name, you couldn’t very well attribute anything to us in an affidavit.”
“I didn’t. I went and saw it for myself.”
“No way he gave you permission to set foot on his property.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“So you sneaked onto his property?”
“That would be trespassing Noodles.”
“She is clever,” Howard thought as he put the puzzle together and explained it to me. “She sneaked over his property.”
“Over his property?” I asked aloud.
“Exactly. Don’t need a warrant to ride with a crop duster in the general vicinity of his normal route.”
“And you could see the grave?”
“If you know what you’re looking for and you have a decent set of binoculars, you can see it perfectly. The depression in the ground and the different colored sod really stand out from overhead.”
I was stunned that her supervisors supported her on what surely sounded like an outlandish and improbable accusation. Of the dozen or so officers who disliked her the most, two were her immediate supervisors. I found out later that she cheated the chain of command and went right to the sheriff himself. The sheriff made sure that the warrant application found a judge’s desk and that the department provided every resource she needed to find the bodies. Her name was on the affidavit and the newspapers managed to get a picture of her out at the crime scene. In a county that goes two or three years between murders, she became locally famous for the high-profile arrest. It alienated her further within her own department, but it was a fantastic bit of police work that earned her a lot of admiration from Howard and I.
Even though we told her that we would not be billing her for our services, Sammi still gave us a $50-bill for our efforts. She claimed it came from the department’s confidential informant fund, but I suspect she reached into her own pocket. We appreciated the gesture nonetheless. Howard and I were done bagging leaves by early afternoon and used the money to treat ourselves to a go-order of steak fingers from The Oasis. We ate on the patio and listened to Art Bell expose a little-known alien invasion that took place in Utah in the late 1970s. There were no updates on the sasquatch situation in Oregon.
- Tommy Bryan Jr. was sent to the Pine Hills youth treatment center for 6 months after admitting to the burglaries. He went back for three more stays at Pine Hills before he reached adulthood, then graduated to the county jail and eventually the state prison in Deer Lodge.
- Deputy Samantha Watson spent 16 years as a sheriff’s deputy, rising to the rank of Detective Sergeant. She then ran for and won the top job, becoming the first female sheriff in Gallatin County history.
- The State Bar of Montana acknowledged several procedural errors during my hearing for reinstatement. I was offered a second hearing, but was informed that Howard would not be permitted to attend. I declined the invitation and allowed the suspension of my license to stand unchallenged.
- Jimmy beat the murder rap in court after autopsies failed to determine a cause of death for any of the three victims. He was still convicted of evidence tampering, but he was sentenced to probation. His pornography business was devastated by the emergence of the internet, so he abandoned it in 2004 and turned his full attention to drug distribution and sex trafficking. His probation was eventually revoked and he spent 18 months in prison after police caught him taking indecent liberties with a neighbor’s goat. The goat’s resemblance to Howard was unsettling to both of us.
To read how a disbarred defense attorney came to partner with a criminologist goat, check out:
To see how the duo thwarted an extortion plot and altered the course of a United States Senate election, read:
For a nonfiction look at crimes that actually happened, check out Reckless Speculation About Murder