and the case goes cold.
Detective Luca knows there are hundreds, if not thousands of killers out there. When he receives a strange call about an unsolved murder, the evil that struck 25 years earlier resurfaces.
A teenage girl brutally murdered. A younger brother who was with her that night. A devastated mother, unable to move on.
Contemplating fatherhood himself, Luca commits to solving the horrific crime. He'll find the killer, offering the family a measure of closure.
But there are a carousel of suspects, the original investigation was botched and someone is trying to stop Luca.
Someone who isn't afraid to kill again.
Release date: December 11, 2018
Print pages: 246
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A Cold, Hard Case
It was a strange conversation. The caller claimed to have information to solve a twenty-five-year-old murder. The woman identified the victim as seventeen-year-old Debbie Boyle. Pressing her for more, she became cagey, saying it was some sort of deathbed confession that she wanted to discuss in person. I jotted down her address and hung up.
I’d been in Naples, Florida, for several years, and the name Debbie Boyle didn’t mean anything to me. Much as I wanted to do something other than chase petty thieves, I needed to check the cold case archives before heading into the sunshine.
Protocol was to pass the information to the detectives who’d worked the case. Plugging Debbie Boyle into the database, I was betting they were long gone.
A grainy picture of a pretty seventeen-year-old filled the screen. Shoulder-length, dirty-blond hair framed a petite nose and thick, dark eyebrows. Was her hair dyed? The kid was five foot three, a hundred and five pounds. It looked like she was wearing a school sports shirt.
Below the image was a summary:
Persons of interest -
Clem Walker - Surf fishing near Wiggins Pass the night of the murder.
Spiro Papadakis and Diane Nielsen - Separately out beach walking in the area that night.
Matt Boralis - A 37-year-old Lee County man questioned for luring young girls at the park.
Lew Mackay - Placed at the park by witnesses but denied being there.
Evidence, case documents and interview notes filed in Records, Section 3, Row L, on November 15, 1996.
Weird, the report was filed exactly twenty-two years ago today. I leaned back. Detective Foster had put the case on ice in less than four years. Why? He seemed to have a parade of suspects. In my book, you don’t call someone a person of interest if they've been cleared. Maybe it had to do with the way they uploaded cold cases when everything went online.
“Timmy, it’s Luca. Can you dig out 038231 for me? . . . Nah, just the case file . . . Great, I’ll be down in ten.”
A thin layer of dust darkened the top of the cardboard bankers box. I lifted the cover carefully. Greeted by a musty odor, I set the cover on the floor.
It was twenty-five years ago; didn’t they use more paper back then? There were only four folders making up the case file, and they were thin. Did Timmy miss a box? I checked the tab on the lead folder: Deborah Boyle 4/19/76.
Black marker was used to write the case number and to strike through a red stamp that read active. The preprinted folder had no box for homicides, which are rare in Collier County. Someone checked the box marked other, penning homicide next to it.
No one had signed out the file since it went cold. That was strange. Nothing had come up in twenty-five years?
Staring at the teenager, a tiny vibration ran across the base of my skull. That sensation hadn’t occurred since my first homicide, the Barrow case. Ignorant at the time, I allowed myself to be bullied into arresting someone I didn’t think did it.
Swallowing my pride was nothing compared to the guilt I felt when Barrow hung himself his first night in a cell. I knew I would continue to regret ignoring that biological alarm the rest of my life.
I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
* * *
“Hi, Frank. What are you reading?”
“Hey, Vargas. Got a strange call on a case, a kid, Debbie Boyle, was killed at Wiggins Park.”
“A murder at Wiggins?”
“Twenty-five years ago.”
“Oh, you scared me.”
“What was the call about?”
“Who was the lead?”
“Detective Ernest Foster.”
“Must be retired.”
“Probably. Anyway, this Kennedy woman called in—”
“Was she in the case file?”
“No, but I didn’t get through it all.”
“Fill me in and we’ll go see her.”
“Boyle was at Wiggins with her brother; he was just seven, and a boyfriend, a twenty-two-year-old.”
“How old was Boyle?”
“And she was dating a twenty-two-year-old?”
“I know, the kid lost her father when she was three. Probably looking for a father figure.”
“A twenty-two-year-old father figure?”
“You know what I mean.”
“They’re at the beach late, and sometime around eight the girl goes missing.”
“They kept a seven-year-old at the beach that late?”
“It’s a question we need to check into. So, Boyle disappears. The boyfriend said she’d gone to the bathroom, and when she was gone too long he went to see what was going on.”
“He left the kid alone?”
I nodded. “The boyfriend said he was attacked by someone and hit on the head. Claims he was unconscious and doesn’t recall anything.”
“How long was he out?”
“He said less than an hour. Said when he came to he went looking for his girlfriend and her brother. The brother was by the water’s edge talking to a guy named Clem Walker, who was fishing. This Walker character has a shady past, a couple of arrests.”
“What happened? Did they find the girl?”
“No, said they combed the area but couldn’t find her.”
“You think this boyfriend knew where she was?”
“He’d be the first on my list. Anyway, a guy camping finds her body early the next morning. She’d been stabbed repeatedly and died sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight.”
“What happened to the boyfriend? He said he was attacked.”
“Had a forehead wound from a blunt instrument, but it didn’t appear too serious.”
“You think it was self-inflicted?”
“Pretty convenient, don’t you think? Feels damn suspicious.”
“I know. He’s out long enough to say he doesn’t know what happened?”
“I didn’t get to it yet, but his medical records better support a blow hard enough to knock his ass out.”
“What did her brother say happened?”
I shook my head. “I scanned one interview, and Foster seemed to be leading the kid. It’s another thing we need to look over when we open it.”
“You’re going to reopen the case based upon a quick read through?”
“And the call. Besides, why not? We got nothing but that handbag ring we’re chasing.”
“You got a feeling on this, don’t you?”
She knew me better than I knew myself. “There’s something here, Vargas.”
“All right, let’s go see Kennedy.”
“Right after I check the box of physical evidence.”
The catalog of objects collected from the crime scene was disappointing. What was I expecting? The items from the scene read like a picnic check list: a red cooler containing potato chips and Coke, a blanket, the victim’s pocketbook, hair belonging to the victim, to her brother, and to John Wheeler, the boyfriend. There was a deck of cards, a magazine, a sand shovel, and a blue bucket.
Articles obtained from the autopsy were standard: bloodstained clothes, the victim’s jewelry, fourteen dollars in cash, and her driver’s license.
I pawed my way through the plastic-bagged items. Mold was visible and extensive. I wondered when the switch to paper bags had taken place and put the lid back on the box.
There were six officers involved in a stakeout we’d set up at the Saks in Waterside Shops. Over the last month, a team of thieves had stormed the handbag department twice, making off with thirty-two bags each time.
Miami had experienced the same caper, and we were certain it was the same gang. Targeting only the priciest bags, it took four thieves under a minute to grab eight Chanel and Prada bags each. Saks was taking a seventy-thousand-dollar retail value hit each time. Who said crime wasn’t scalable?
Vargas and I were set up in Waterside’s security office watching video feeds. Two women officers, outfitted as sales ladies, patrolled the handbag department. Two officers milled around each of the exits, and two others sat idling in unmarked cars in the parking lot.
It was a waiting game, and though it was my operation, I was more interested in a twenty-five-year-old homicide than in nailing pocketbook crooks. I radioed the squad sergeant covering the entrance to the mall.
“Bill, it’s Luca. I need you to manage this from the security office. Vargas and I have to see a witness in a homicide investigation.”
* * *
Betty Kennedy lived in Egret’s Walk, a coach-home community in Pelican Marsh. I loved the location of the Marsh, and it’s four entrances provided great access. I considered this place myself and would have settled into one if they had two-car garages.
Kennedy’s second-floor unit backed up to a lake where a fountain sprayed a huge volume of v-shaped water. I never liked fountains in lakes. Unless you had road noise to cover, they were kitschy.
Kennedy answered the door wearing crisp white jeans, a royal-blue blouse, and a smile. The modern interior belied her age and the unit’s traditional exterior. She had glassed in the lanai overlooking the lake, extending her living space. I nudged Vargas, throwing a chin toward a cool treatment on a main wall. It was something I’d love to do in our place.
The kitchen was off-white with gray quartz countertops. We sat around a table made from the same material, which was overkill.
Kennedy said, “Can I get you something to drink?”
Mary Ann was on my back about not drinking enough, so I said, “A water would be nice.”
“I’ll take one too.”
She opened the stainless fridge, handed off bottles, and sat.
Vargas said, “Thanks. We appreciate you coming forward with information.”
“I have to be honest, when my sister told me, I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do.”
Vargas said, “You made the right decision.”
Kennedy picked at her sleeve and said, “My sister Cheryl, she just passed away two weeks ago. She had a bad case of cirrhosis of the liver. It wasn’t from drinking or anything like that. She somehow contracted a viral type of hepatitis. They said it could have been from a needle when she was hospitalized after a car crash twenty years ago.” Her eyes narrowed. “But that man she married, I think he was playing around with prostitutes and brought it home to Cheryl.”
I said, “What’s your sister’s full name?”
Mackay? Pretty sure that was one of the people near the crime scene.
Jotting down the name, Vargas said, “Please continue.”
“Cheryl was very sick. It was terrible; she was dying a little each day. It was so sad.”
Kennedy hung her head, and Vargas patted her hand.
“Two days before she died, she was in hospice at home and very weak. I was with her constantly. I could feel that she wanted to tell me something. I tried to keep talking to her about when we were kids, you know, to distract her.”
I said, “What did she tell you regarding the Boyle murder?”
“Lied about what?”
“After it happened, there were reports that Lew was seen in the area. He was a suspect and questioned. But Cheryl said he was with her when the murder happened, so they let him go.”
“Your sister lied about his alibi?”
“Yes. She said she felt bad all these years about lying.”
“How did the subject of Debbie Boyle’s murder come up?”
“She knew she was going and wanted to get right with God. I called in Father Ahearn to hear her confession. After he left, she said there was something she had to get off her chest, and that’s when she told me. Believe me, I was shocked. I asked her the next day to be sure, and she said she had lied to help Lew. Believe me, I never liked Lew, but I didn’t think he’d do anything like killing that poor girl.”
“What can you tell us about Lew, her husband?”
Kennedy scrunched her nose like she’d smelled a piece of bad fish. “He was beneath her. He’s a crude man. Never treated Cheryl right.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“Works for the county park system.”
Vargas said, “Has he ever been violent?”
“I didn’t see him much until she got sick. He made some very inappropriate comments to me.”
“Can you share what he said?”
“No, but I’ll tell you they were suggestive and lewd.”
“Did he cheat on your sister?”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Cheryl told me about one of his affairs, and I told her she should leave him. She didn’t want to, and we had a big argument about it. Believe me, I told her she was a fool to stay with him. After that, she never said anything more about him being unfaithful. You ask me, she was protecting him, didn’t want to tell me.”
“Did he like younger women?”
Kennedy smirked. “Show me a man who doesn’t.”
“Can’t say I would know that. I would think he’d keep that a secret.”
“Did you ever see him staring at a younger girl? Or being friendly? Anything that seemed harmless at the time?”
She pulled her lips in and slowly shook her head. “I really can’t say.”
Vargas said, “That’s okay.” She held out a card. “Give it some more thought and call us with anything you remember.”
We hopped in our Jeep Grand Cherokee and headed to see Lew Mackay.
“We nail Mackay for this, Chester should give us an office with a view of the Gulf.”
“Don’t pack yet, Frank. All we have is a hearsay deathbed confession. We don’t have a stitch of evidence.”
“We keep our heads down and do the work, we’ll get the evidence.”
“This is twenty-five years old, with twenty-five-year-old evidence and memories.”
“I know it makes it tougher, but you know what? In all my years, up in Jersey and here, I never had a case go cold.”
“Why am I getting the feeling you found your next obsession?”
“I don’t like the way the case was handled.”
“How can you say that? You just started looking into this today.”
“I can’t tell you why. I just know, that’s all.”
“All right, Frank. I’ll go along for the ride, but you have to promise as soon as we start chasing ghosts, we back off.”
“Deal. But don’t forget, we have nothing but the pocketbook ring.”
“You gonna tell the sheriff about this?”
“Let’s see what this Mackay guy has to say first.”
“I really like this Cherokee, Mary Ann. Maybe when your lease is up you should get one.”
“You know I’m not an SUV type of girl, Frank.”
“You’ll like it. You’re up high, so you can see everything.”
Turning off Livingston, I made a right into Delasol, a small community of single-family houses, where Lew Mackay lived. I had never looked seriously in here but knew they had limited amenities, which meant nice, low fees.
Mackay lived on Vallecas Lane, in a small Mediterranean styled home I pegged at five hundred thousand.
Hair thinning, Lew Mackay’s face had a pinched look, like he’d banged a knee. Pale skinned, he didn’t appear to spend time outdoors, which made me wary. Was he one of those people who carried an umbrella around to shield the sun? I didn’t like him, even though he hadn’t opened his mouth yet.
Mackay blinked as Vargas introduced us and stepped aside. A pile of sympathy cards and a white Bible bearing a red cross sat on the foyer’s credenza.
Vargas said, “We’re sorry for your loss, Mr. Mackay."
“Thank you. It’s probably for the better; Cheryl was in a lot of pain.”
“It’s always difficult.”
He sighed. “I know. Let’s sit in the kitchen.”
We followed him into a kitchen with oak cabinets topped with an even darker brown granite. There was an uncomfortable weight to the kitchen. I couldn’t figure if the heaviness came from the recent death or from the hideous color scheme.
Mackay removed a wilting vase of flowers from the kitchen table and we settled into chairs.
Vargas said, “We’ve reopened the Deborah Boyle case.”
Mackay’s eyebrows lifted. “Really?”
I said, “Yes, in fact, it was your wife who precipitated the opening.”
“My wife? What’s Cheryl’s death got to do with that?”
“She spoke to her sister, Betty Kennedy, shortly before she died.”
“So? Betty was here every day.”
“It seems your wife admitted that she had lied to the police about your alibi.”
“The one she gave about your whereabouts the night Debbie Boyle was murdered.”
“What? That I was home with her that night?”
“Exactly. She told her sister that was a lie, and that you weren’t home with her.”
He shrugged. “Look, now that she’s gone I can tell you the truth. I was out with another woman that night.”
Vargas said, “Okay, I can see why you wouldn’t want your wife to know that.”
“I feel terrible about being unfaithful, especially now.”
I said, “Who was the woman?”
“Uh, I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember the woman you were with the night you were accused of murder? Come on now, who was the woman?”
“Her husband would go crazy.”
“You should have considered that at the time. Name?”
His shoulders sagged. “Okay, I’ll tell you what I was really doing. It was stupid, but a guy I knew, well, he dealt drugs, and he needed someone to meet a supplier down at Wiggins. I didn’t touch the drugs or nothing. I just dropped off the money.”
“How much money?”
“I don’t know. I just handed off a bag; it wasn’t that big.”
“Who was this guy?”
“Ah, just some friend of a friend.”
Vargas said, “We’re going to need a name.”
“I don’t even know if he’s around here anymore. Haven’t seen him since.”
I said, “You going to give up the name or not?”
I jotted the name down. “And what’s his last known address?”
“I don’t know where he lived.”
“Where did you supposedly meet him?”
“The old Pewter Mug, on forty-one.”
“Dealing in drugs. That’s a helluva new alibi you got there.”
Vargas said, “How well did you know Debbie Boyle?”
“I—I didn’t know her at all.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Absolutely. I swear. I never saw the kid.”
“Okay, Mr. Mackay, that’s enough for today.”
The door closed behind us. I said, “Look at that sky, will you. Not a cloud in sight.”
“Nice day. What did you think of Mackay?”
Shrugging, I dangled the keys. “You want to drive?”
Vargas eyed the Cherokee and frowned. “Nah.”
“You’re missing out.”
“All right, we’ll check on this Machado and see if narcotics knows if there was any noise on the Pewter back when this happened.”
* * *
“Take a seat, Frank.”
“Thanks for seeing me, Sheriff. Don’t worry, there’s nothing crazy going on. Just wanted to let you know what I’m working on.”
He didn’t smile. “That’s good.”
“There was a murder, twenty-five years ago, down at Delnor-Wiggins Park. A girl was at the park with her brother and her boyfriend. She went missing and was found dead the next morning.”
“What was the victim’s name?”
“Deborah Boyle. She was just seventeen years old.”
Chester shook his head. “Terrible.”
“The case went cold too quickly, in my opinion.”
“We didn’t have much of a serious crime department back then. Who handled it?”
“Detective Ernest Foster. He doesn’t appear to have much homicide experience.”
“You want to reopen it?”
“Yes, I received a call from a woman whose sister made a deathbed confession. She had lied about her husband’s alibi.”
“You think it’s him?”
“I’m not sure at this point, but I can tell you, and I’ve got all the respect in the world for my fellow officers, but this was not only rushed, it was sloppy.”
“I don’t want this department disparaged. Make sure that not a word of how poorly you believe the case was handled gets out. You understand?”
“Absolutely, sir. I just want the family to feel like justice was served.”
“That would be nice. Okay, go ahead and reopen it. I’d love to close an old one.”
I started to get up when Chester said, “Hold on a minute. I have something I’d like to discuss.”
I sank down. “Sure. What about?”
Chester put an arm on his desk. “You and Detective Vargas.”
“Oh. What about?”
“You tell me. I’m aware of your relationship. I’m not passing judgment on it. In fact, I like Detective Vargas and think you make a nice couple.”
I eked out a thanks and Chester continued, “This office has rules about interdepartmental relationships . . .”
“But we checked on it, sir. We were told that it only mattered if you were married.”
“Married? That doesn’t quite mean what it once did. There are all kinds of relationships these days, and legal believes the intent of the verbiage was to prevent compromising situations.”
Legal? The sheriff was talking to damn lawyers about my relationship with Mary Ann?
“There is absolutely nothing to be concerned about, sir. We conduct ourselves with the highest level of integrity that—”
Chester threw up a palm. “Save it, Luca. It’s out of my hands. You’re cohabitating, and as such, cannot work the same shift together.”
“So, it’s either my girlfriend or my partner?”
“It’s the perfect time to change partners.” He knocked a knuckle on the desk. “We don’t have a major crime on our hands.”
“But we work so well together.”
“You have a lot to offer, Frank. You’ll train someone new.”
“How long do we have?”
“No more than ninety days.”
The more I thought about it the madder I got. I was careful not to slam the door when I came in. The TV was on, and the smell of garlic was in the air. I headed to the kitchen.
Mary Ann was watching WINK News as she stirred a pot on the stove.
“What are you making?”
“Escarole and beans.”
My favorite comfort food. How the hell did this woman know I was upset?
“What’s the matter, Frank?”
“What are you, some kind of witch?”
“You going to tell me?”
“Chester’s splitting us up. He’s giving us ninety days to wind it down.”
“We had to expect it, Frank. Why are you surprised?”
“I’m not surprised. I’m pissed. You realize I’m losing my partner for the second time?”
“Take it easy. This is totally different.” She wrapped her arms around me. “I’m still here. I’ll always be here for you.”
“But don’t you care?”
“I care, but honestly, it’s better this way. We’ll be able to separate our work lives from the rest of our lives.”
“But I don’t want to do that. I like working with you.”
“So do I, Frank, but trust me, it’s better this way.”
* * *
After Mary Ann went to sleep, I grabbed a file and a bottle of water and retreated to the lanai. A big fat moon was sitting on the tree line, casting a yellow glow onto the pool. I cracked open the water, thinking that with the quiet vibe and postcard scene I should have made coffee instead.
Brian Boyle, the seven-year-old brother of the victim, had been interviewed three times. The first time his mother was present, and the interview was conducted by Detective Foster at the Boyle household. It took place the afternoon the body was discovered and wasn’t recorded. Witnessing the questioning was a uniformed officer named Henry Glevek. Foster’s signature appeared below his summary:
The witness, Brian Boyle, is a minor. He accompanied his sister to Delnor-Wiggins Pass Park the night of May 14, 1993. They drove to the park in Wheeler’s car. The witness is uncertain what time they arrived but said it was still light out when they arrived. The park is open from sunrise to two hours after sundown, which was appx. 8:07 p.m.
The mother of both Brian and Debbie Boyle confirmed she had attended a wedding that night, a Friday, and left Debbie to care for Brian.
Witness states that the victim’s boyfriend, John Wheeler, was also present and brought along one or two duffel bags. Arriving at the beach, the victim spread out a blanket and they sat on it. They played cards and ate sandwiches the victim had brought from home. They walked by the water and held hands.
The witness said there were other people walking by the water but could not identify anyone. He said someone was fishing from the beach but could not estimate the distance. When pressed, the witness could not be certain it was a male nor that he or she was actually fishing.
Sometime after dark, the three of them were laying on the blanket, looking at the stars when his sister left to go to the bathroom. He is uncertain where she intended to go but based upon the witness’s recollection, headed in a northern direction.
After a period, unknown in length, the boyfriend got up and told the witness to stay on the blanket, he was going to find out where the victim was. After an indeterminate period of time, the witness left the blanket and carried one of two lanterns with him to the water’s edge. He thought the couple might be taking a walk.
The witness ran into Clem Walker, who claimed to be fishing at the time. The witness and Walker walked toward the direction that the witness came from and met John Wheeler.
The witness said that Mr. Wheeler had a bruise on his forehead, was excited and yelling. The three of them searched for some time but couldn’t find his sister. He was unsure who recommended they call the police.
I put the report down. Young children like Brian Boyle were unable to gauge the passage of time. The kid’s inability to determine when his sister had left and how long she and Wheeler were gone contributed to the depth of the rabbit hole. But the main question I had was about the supposed wound Wheeler had suffered. He was knocked out but was able to search for Debbie Boyle and drive home? What did the fisherman have to say about the injury?
The second interview was conducted two days later, on May seventeenth. It was conducted by Detective Foster in his office. Brian Boyle’s mother was not present, but the proceedings were recorded. Scanning the transcript, I eyed where the meat was:
Foster - When you were sitting on the blanket, what was your sister and John Wheeler doing?
Boyle - We were playing Steal the Old Man’s Bundle.
Foster - Boyfriends and girlfriends like to kiss each other. Were your sister and her boyfriend kissing?
Brian - I think a little.
Foster - Girlfriends like when their boyfriends touch them. Did Johnnie touch Debbie?
Brian - I don’t know.
Foster - Think. Were they sitting close together?
Brian - Yes.
Foster - Was Debbie giggling? She liked Johnnie, didn’t she?
Brian - Yes.
Foster - So, she liked it when Johnnie touched her.
Brian - Yes.
Foster - Your sister and Johnnie were together a lot, weren’t they?
Brian - Yes.
Foster - Johnnie is a nice guy but like all people, even your mother, he would get mad at times, right?
Brian - Sometimes he would get mad at me.
Foster - And he would get mad at Debbie, right?
Brian - Yes.
Foster - And they would fight sometimes.
Brian - Sometimes.
Foster - Did Debbie leave the blanket to get away from Johnnie?
Brian - She said she had to go to the bathroom.
Foster - Sometimes adults say things they don’t mean. You know that, don’t you?
Brian - Yes.
Foster - It could be that she left to get away from Johnnie, right?
Brian - I guess.
Foster - When Debbie left to get away from Johnnie, did Johnnie follow her?
Brian - No.
Foster - Are you sure? Couldn’t you have been distracted? Playing with cards and missed him following after her?
I couldn’t read anymore. Foster was steering the kid. This wouldn’t pass the smell test with a judge, no less a defense attorney.
Wheeler’s story was tough to believe, but Foster was building a case against him that would collapse in a courtroom. It made no sense.
Flipping to the end, I shook my head. Foster hadn’t signed it. This guy was grating on me.
The third interview was more of the same —useless. If the family knew how poorly the inquiry into the crime was handled they’d go to the press or file a lawsuit. It was up to me to conduct a proper investigation and bring the killer to justice.
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