“Finding her body was easy. The buzzards signaled the way. Finding the killer was the hard part.”
So said my dad at the kitchen table at our home on Ansley Boulevard in south San Antonio.
Having a homicide detective for a father made for conversations I was aware my classmates didn’t experience.
Normal talk at dinner time in the Dennis family often centered on Dad’s latest crime cases. He’d skirt around the particulars while we ate, but later he’d give me more detail. Usually there were intriguing nuggets
of wisdom peppered in.
Detective investigation was a fantastic topic for a curious 10-year-old kid. In retrospect, I realize Dad allowed me to follow along in such a way that I could begin to solve a crime or unravel a mystery.
Going into teenage years, it became obvious he would purposefully include clues and red herrings for my mind to tackle.
He paid attention, even if people didn’t think he was. I noticed around some individuals, he’d actually play dumb–even ignorant, when I knew he was keenly aware and knowledgeable.
His sense of observation and ability to get information from others was amazing. Brilliant.
“Remember that body language is always truthful and what people say isn’t necessarily true,” he coached. “They are especially easy to read when they’re hungry or thirsty–especially for coffee.”
He drilled me to rely on all the senses to observe my surroundings. It evolved and as I grew closer to adulthood, he would step up the challenges and test me.
One Saturday, in the summer, we stopped off to eat lunch at Bud Jones Meal-a-Minute Restaurant, a Southside institution on Commercial Avenue and S.W. Military Drive.
“When we go in there, we’re going to sit down with some men I’ve known for a long time,” he said as he turned off the ignition. “When we’re done, I want you to tell me about them based on what you observed.”
What an unexpected challenge, but I was ready. “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” was playing on Bud’s jukebox. I heard two ladies talking about “Marcus Welby, M.D” as we approached a man waiting at a table for four. Dad sat across from him and I went to the chair between them on the man’s right.
About the time we shook hands and my father introduced me, the second man joined us.
It was just as much fun observing them, taking mental notes, as it was enjoying the All You Can Eat Fish plate in front of me.
“Tell me about the first man,” Dad asked as we drove off. “What did you notice?”
“He’s outside a lot and works or lives south of here, maybe in Pleasanton or somewhere around there. He probably smokes and drinks a lot too.”
Dad was listening carefully, and as he backed his pickup out of the parking space, he glanced straight at me for more than a second.
“When he shook your hand he seemed nervous, but he slipped something to you in the handshake. Then he was like instantly relieved.”
“He, maybe is like, either accident prone, very careful or used to spilling things.”
“Ha. How did you get that idea?” Dad laughed.
“Every time he took a sip of coffee, he didn’t just drink it like you two did,” I continued. “He leaned over to the cup and held it with both hands. He didn’t bring the cup to his lips with one hand. His lips went to the cup.”
“He works in Jourdanton, tending cows, goats and chickens,” Dad responded. “That’s close to Pleasanton. How did you know that? We didn’t even talk about that. That’s pretty good.”
“His fingers and boots,” I proudly answered, somewhat relieved I was getting the hang of this. “Hands are tough and calloused. When Grandpa Dennis took me to Dilley to get watermelons (I had a produce stand) one morning, we came back through Pleasanton so he could show me their hanging tree where he saw a man hang from there once.”
“He showed it to you?”
“Yes, he said people came from all around to see it,” I answered. “I think he was a cattle rustler or stole some cows or horses He even showed me where he was standing when he saw it. Anyway, there’s red dirt–almost like sand in Pleasanton–on his boots and the knees of his khaki pants. He also doesn’t have a ring on his finger but no tan where it used to be. His teeth are yellow like some smokers I’ve seen. His lips are chapped. “
My father was pleased and emphasized how good my clue gathering was. It turned out my Dad had loaned him some money. The man was a friend from their school days at Harlandale High. He recently went through a divorce and had a Driving While Intoxicated arrest. Dad had loaned him some money to bail him out. That’s what he passed to my father’s hand.
I surmised the other man may have been in the milItary or was a veteran because of his crew cut, polished shoes and regimented demeanor.
“When he walked up to the table, he stood like he was in attention with his hands behind his back,” was one of the things I recall telling Dad. “It was like when you put your hand forward to shake, it was his ‘at ease.'”
“You’ve been paying attention,” Dad acknowledged. “What else?
“They knew each other but hadn’t seen each other in a long time. (The second man) looked stern at first but when he told (the first man) to order what he wanted because he was paying, the intial tension at the table went away. But I’m not sure what that was all about. Maybe I was just noticing too much and making a bigger deal out of it than it was.”
“No Son, you’re right,” he explained. “It was a big deal. Doing something good can make you feel better about something bad that’s happened. Or it can make you feel less guilty about doing something bad later.”
As a 14-year old, I needed elaboration. Whew, did I get it!
Man #1 was divorced because his wife left him. He never really knew why.
Man #2 was the reason.
After the divorce, the ex-wife left Man #2 for another man (let’s call him Man #3). #2 was both angry and hurt, but most of all felt great guilt for what he did to Man #1.
I never knew if #1 found out about #2, but I do know this:
1. A few weeks later I was a laborer replacing roofs on houses working with #1 and #2. We all worked hard together from dawn to dusk, except for lunch and naps under nearby shade trees.
2. The ex-wife/ex-girlfriend and Man #3 were later arrested and charged with writing hot checks and other thefts. #3 was on probation and was sent back to the penitentiary. The rumor was she moved to Alabama where she belonged.
3. The hard work, valuable lessons and acknowledgement received from my Dad were rewarding.
4. In a homicide investigation, the spouse is always the first suspect. And buzzards signal the way.