She sat in the chair at the last table in the detective bureau. Her hands shook as she raised a hamburger to her mouth. No, that’s not exactly accurate. Her whole body shook, as if she’d been on the cusp of a seizure. Except she wasn’t having one. She was in the custody of the Lancaster Police Department for shooting and killing her boyfriend.
It’s been 35 years since I walked into the bureau and saw that terrified girl, alone in the back of the room, trying to eat a bland hamburger. I don’t remember her name. I don’t even remember her hair color or the exact clothes she wore. But I do recall she was pretty with long hair and long legs; it must have been the summertime… she wore tight jeans and a revealing top, but I can’t tell you the type of top – halter or tube. I just know the girl’s nerves were shot and I thought she might shake herself right out of the chair.
When I sat down in the chief detective’s office just off the main room, I got the story of the girl’s plight from the supervisor, Ron Balser. I’d worked hard over the years to nurture a professional relationship with him, and he’d come to trust me as a reporter who would treat him fairly. In the ’80s as a reporter in Central Florida, I’d had horrendous professional relationships with police and sheriff’s departments. We’d been advised by our lawyers to make sure we didn’t put ourselves in a position where fake evidence could be planted in our cars and used to arrest and charge us; we were about to run a series detailing law enforcement corruption and were being threatened if we ran it. See, I’ve been exposed to both good and bad police officers, and Balser was one of the good ones.
The girl, in her late teens or early twenties, had been involved in a ugly fight with her boyfriend. Earlier, he’d been charged with drug-related offenses and had failed to appear at a court hearing. She’d been angry with him for bailing on the hearing. He’d been high and threatened her. Afraid he’d hurt her, she’d grabbed a pistol and shot him. I can’t tell you how many times… too many years have passed, but enough that he died in their Lancaster, Ohio apartment.
Balser pulled some Polaroid photos from his top desk drawer and shared them with me. I was a bit shocked at what they depicted – the girl and her lover having sex, X-rated selfies ‘70s style. The photos obviously wouldn’t be used as evidence, but they did illustrate a tragic end to a rough romance. A night of bed romping – and a day or two later gunshots and a life snuffed out.
The news surrounding the Ferguson, Missouri police department got me thinking about my days covering police departments and sheriff’s offices. In the wake of the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Police Department has come under intense criticism and scrutiny for being almost entirely a white force patrolling a 70-percent black city. In many cases nowadays, videos document shootings of suspects by police who say they believe their lives were in danger. For example, not long after the Michael Brown death, two St. Louis police officers shot and killed a mentally ill suspect wielding a small knife.
As I watched the video of the knife man, I found myself wondering when police across the country started thinking they needed to go immediately to lethal force to bring down suspects, some unarmed like Brown, others holding small knives. That made me think back to a feature story I did when the Lancaster police adapted the PR24 police sidearm baton. My police sources extolled the virtues of the weapon as a means to disarm suspects holding weapons like knives. The PR24’s marketing materials said its striking capabilities included thrusting, twirling and striking along with various Jujitsu-style takedown and grappling techniques. That seems like a fine weapon for disarming a mentally ill guy holding a pocket knife or an unarmed man charging a patrolman.
I can really think of only one occasion back in the ‘70s when Lancaster police exchanged fire with suspects; a bank robber leaving a branch fired at police through a glass door. I don’t recall the outcome, except I can say the officers weren’t hurt and the suspect wasn’t killed. Not to say there weren’t other incidents… I just don’t remember them.
I do recall sitting in Balser’s office one morning drinking coffee with him and discussing the Columbus police case of Billy Milligan. He was quite notorious in the late ’70s. Arrested for three rapes on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, his defense lawyers pleaded insanity. Psychiatrists diagnosed Milligan with multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder). His lawyers claimed two of his 24 alternate personalities committed the crimes without Milligan being aware of it. He was the first individual acquitted of a major crime by this reason; instead, he spent a decade in mental hospitals.
At various times, Milligan lived in Lancaster and the police were quite familiar with him. Psychiatrists blamed the splintering of Milligan’s personality on sexual abuse by a stepfather. According to an award-winning book – “The Minds of Billy Milligan” – written by Daniel Keyes in 1981, Milligan was suspended from junior high school because he went into trances and wandered around Lancaster. Lancaster High School officials expelled him in 1972. He helped plan a Lancaster drugstore robbery in early 1975. Soon after, Lancaster police arrested him; he pleaded guilty to robbing the other men and the store. Milligan was sentenced to at least two years in prison and paroled in April 1977. The campus-area rapes began six months later.
That day in his office Balser said Milligan was a devious manipulator. Balser didn’t think Milligan suffered from multiple personality disorder. I don’t know if he still feels that way. I read Keyes’ book during a New Year’s trip to Key West in late December 1982. Based on what I read, I’m convinced. For example, one of the rape victims said Milligan was quite nice and that he acted like a three-year-old girl. A young girl was one of his personalities.
To conclude, my days as a reporter covering cops in Lancaster, Ohio, was quite fun. When you do a good job of gaining the trust of detectives and patrolmen, you get to see the underbelly of a small city. Many would share their frustrations from their jobs. And there were some fringe benefits, like sitting down with 20-something female dispatchers and flirting with them. Sometime I’ll tell you about the city auditor’s secretary; I took her up to Columbus on a movie date in the hours just before the Blizzard of ’78. Thankfully, we didn’t get stranded on the way back to Lancaster with just a few blankets and our bodies to keep us warm.
Hey, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m an author. Book 1 in my trilogy is The Emperor’s Mistress; book 2, Thief’s Coin. The first two links are Amazon; the next two links, Barnes and Noble; the final link, my publisher, Wings ePress.