It is true, generally speaking, there is nothing new under the sun, as it says in Ecclesiastes. Murder and larceny are as old as Cain and Abel. However this is a true story of murder and larceny, the details of which are so uncanny I am nearly certain it’s never happened like this before. King David indicates the days of our lives are numbered. Seems a little fatalistic, but maybe he was on to something.
It was 1998. Small Town, Indiana. A hot July day just like any other. And when that day was over, three people were dead … but I was not one of them.
I had been hired to do some forensic accounting work for a vending machine company in receivership. What that means is, the owner of Crown Vending had spent years embezzling cash, nearly half a million dollars, from the company and now he could not make his debt payments to his banks and suppliers, so the courts had stepped in and put someone else in charge of his company. That trustee was my friend and employer, Bill Rice. The trouble was that they didn’t remove the owner from the operation, so he was free to come and go as he pleased.
Bill Rice and I had worked together on other receiverships and business ventures, and so when this deal came around he hired me to interview employees and comb through old financial records to uncover and document the extent of the missing cash. We would then create documents for the lawyers representing his lenders, and try to find a buyer for the beleaguered company.
After four months investigation, the noose was tightening as his staff and company records painted a picture of systematic theft to support the owner’s lavish lifestyle. Nothing new here.
The guy’s name was William Drury, and he was a gold chain wearing, cigar smoking, crude talking, hard drinking, good old boy, racist, great big blow-hard in cheap cologne. And here is the scary part … more than a few people in that town thought him charming.
He controlled his employees with bravado and temper. It turned out he had been using company credit cards for personal spending AND skimming a minimum of $100 every day right out of the room where they counted cash from the vending machines, as long as anyone could remember. After all, he told them, this was his own company and the money belonged to him anyway. No one argued. No one really knew any better. His office employees were hard working women with high school diplomas and too many kids, working for a paycheck and following orders.
In late July the noose was tightening and the owner sensed it. The bookkeeper and the cash room supervisor were nervous as cats. Our efforts were ramping up after discoveries and transcriptions and spreadsheets and supporting documents were submitted to the court. Then on July 27 the owner was served with a court order to vacate the premises and never return. The company he had built from the ground up was no longer his. The locksmith was on his way. The security guard was in place to enforce the order. The sheriff had handed him the affidavit and briefly explained what it meant. He glanced over the first few pages and left quietly, but not before the names of the witnesses there on the front page were burned into his mind: Trustee William R. Rice, Assistant to the Trustee Mia Hinkle, Bookkeeper Sue Dorff, and Cash Room Supervisor Denise Arthur. These four had built a case against him. It was now to be an open and shut case.
Within the hour, he would be dead, along with my friend Bill Rice and the cash room supervisor. The bookkeeper only survived the shots meant for her because she hid under her desk when she heard him coming.
Back in Carmel, Bill’s wife, Mary Jane passed through the kitchen of her nicely appointed home. Oprah was on and it was one she really wanted to watch, but the hour was slipping by as she took care of just one more thing. It is always just one more thing. She and Bill were almost sixty, nearing retirement with schedules just as crazy as when their three children were little. Now they are all grown up with little ones of their own. Bill and Mary Jane were still lovebirds after almost 40 years of marriage, current membership in the National Guard, a stint in the Marines, two births, one adoption, six moves, and now caring for aging parents. More and more dinner conversation focused on their retirement dreams. When … where … the book he wants to write … the course he wants to teach … the countries they want to visit … the time they want to spend with grandchildren. Bill was a kind and generous man of integrity. He was smart and interested and interesting. At his funeral Mary Jane would be taken aback by just how many people told her, “I am going to miss Bill. He was my best friend.”
Mary Jane really wanted to catch today’s Oprah because the guest is an expert in autism, a condition that one of their grandchildren was recently been diagnosed with. So she makes herself stop and she grabs a cup of tea to relax into her favorite chair just in time to hear a late breaking news flash interrupt Oprah and the autism expert.
“We interrupt this program to bring you news of gunfire in a warehouse belonging to Crown Vending in nearby Martinsville. Two are confirmed dead and one more possible. The gunman is missing. We’ll bring you more news as it develops. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.”
She can’t believe her ears. She tries to reach her husband, who she kissed good-bye this morning as he took off for that very place, but no answer at the Crown Vending or on his cell phone. By the time the police knock on her door confirming her worst fears, six hours have passed. The most horrifying six hours of her life.
Back at the warehouse, the bookkeeper was in her office. Uneasy was a vast understatement for how she had been feeling all morning, ever since she had seen the document naming her as a witness. Right there on the front page … in black and white … unbelievable! He was sure to see it there, she remembers thinking. This would for sure push him over the edge.
Sitting at her computer, she couldn’t concentrate. Her body tensing with a sense of urgency with every sound. Then she heard it. Gunfire. One loud CRACK! And then Bill’s voice. “Don’t do it. Stop! Don’t do this! Please.” And again … CRACK! CRACK!
While other minds were scrambling to make sense of what they were hearing, Sue knew exactly what was happening. Her boss had made good on his promise that there would be trouble if anyone tried to take his business. “Over my dead body…” he had said.
When the attorneys had offered Sue protection for her testimony, she knew full well there would be no protecting her in this small town if her boss set his mind to finding her. She had worked for him nearly 15 years. He knew where she lived, where her kids went to school, and what kind of car she drove. She agreed to testify because she knew it was the right thing to do. She knew she was one of only a few who could collaborate our suspicions of fraud. From time to time over the years she had been uncomfortable with the way he did business, but when we began asking the right questions, it dawned on her just how huge this was. So she agreed.
And at this moment she couldn’t be sorrier she had.
She then heard the muffled voice of a woman in the hallway and then another loud CRACK. She knew who it was … the other woman named on the front page, the cash room supervisor. She later found out that Denise had stepped out of the counting room and into the hallway and found herself face to face with the shooter. He had pressed the gun to her clavicle and pulled the trigger. One shot. A piece of the shattered bone pierced her heart and she was dead before she hit the ground.
There was a creepy quiet after the shots and Sue knew what was coming next. She locked her door and dove under her desk.
Knock, knock, knock. “Sue, can I come in? I want to talk to you.” Again a gentle knock, knock, knock. “Sue, I just want to talk.”
Terror gripped her heart at the sound of his honey coated voice. She remained frozen and cowering like a small animal, wondering how her kids would grow up without a mother.
“Open the door, Sue. Let me in. I’m not going to hurt you.”
His voice was so calm yet so cold. For a split second she considered obedience. Then CRACK! CRACK! Woodchips from the hollow door came flying across the room. One bullet lodged in her printer, another skimmed the back of her chair and lodged in the wall … the same chair she’d been sitting in just a minute ago. Frozen, she sat in the knee opening of her desk, the deafening rush of blood in her ears and her heart pounding so loud she was certain he could hear it. Time was standing still and careening forward at the same time.
She could hear Cindy, the receptionist (the shooter’s own daughter by the way) down the hall speaking to dispatch at 911 describing the scene unfolding. “He’s got a gun! He’s shot two people already, maybe three. Now he’s reloading. He’s walking back down the hall. He’s opening the door to Bill’s office.”
Then she heard one more CRACK! And a final groan.
The receptionist continued, “He’s getting in his car. Come quick! Send an ambulance.”
At that, Sue bolted. She ran out the back door and across an empty lot to an auto dealership, Larry Bird Ford, where she asked them to call the police.
It wasn’t over for Sue by a long shot, though. The damage was just beginning for her. The nightmares, the grief, the counseling, the guilt, the loneliness, and despair continued for a long time. The thought she could have somehow kept it from happening …that it was somehow her fault. It was months before she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. She still finds it hard to trust anyone. I think when someone you know very well tries to kill you it shakes your faith in mankind a bit.
Bill Rice had been on the phone with the attorney that hired us when the gunman had opened fire. Debbie Caruso of Dale & Eke heard the whole thing. She heard the shots. She heard Bill beg for his life. Then she heard … silence. Years later when Debbie and I run into one another on the soccer fields, we give each other that knowing nod…. the one that says, “We have been through something really big together.” She always asks about Mary Jane.
So Bill Rice lay dead in office we had once shared, Denise lay dead in the hallway, and Sue was terrorized and in hiding. The gunman sped off in his car knowing the police would be there at any moment. He tried to outrun them. His wife, another daughter, and his pre-school grandchildren on their way into Martinsville from their Painted Hills home, had seen the police chase and recognized the car. They followed. There had been a big thunderstorm over the weekend and the side roads and ditches were soft and muddy. While trying to flee the police and doing a U turn, his wheels got stuck in the mud. The police car caught up to him about the same time as his wife’s car did. The officer (a good old buddy of his) approached the car to talk him down. He looked into the officer’s eyes, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger; his wife, daughter, and grandchildren just a few yards away.
And at his funeral the following week – I couldn’t make this stuff up – they played the song, “I Did It My Way.”
But wait. The uncanny part of the story is yet to come. Follow me here…
My name was also on front page of that affidavit. I normally would have been in the warehouse, either with Bill or by myself. In the final days of the investigation, things were changing very quickly based on the information we gleaned and our reports to the attorneys. So I would drive down to Martinsville about every other day, gather information and ask questions. I would stay home on the off days and generate the necessary documents. Bill would go down every day and call me on his way home to let me know what the plan would be for the next day, and what time he would pick me up the next morning. When Bill didn’t call me the night before to firm up plans for the following day, I thought it was a little strange but I was busy with the kids (Jackson was 6 and Walker was 8 at the time) and I figured he’d call when he needed me.
But sometime during the next day I noticed that our phone hadn’t rung all day, and when I picked it up, instead of a dial tone I got a loud buzzing noise. I went next door and called the phone company to send a repairman. Walking back, I noticed orange paint lines across my neighbor’s lawn from the phone box behind my shed to a Bradford Pear tree in my neighbor’s yard that had blown down in the storm last weekend. I guess the utility company marked orange lines for the guys who were coming to grind down the stump.
When the telephone repairman arrived, he tested the lines in my house and determined the trouble was at the phone box behind my shed. When he lifted off the lid, revealing a million wires looking like a big bowl of colored spaghetti, he noticed one tiny wire that had been crimped over the edge of the box which apparently was causing the loud sound on my phone and my dead line. He figured that the utility guys who painted the orange stripes for the stump grinding crew, had put the lid back just a little off so as to crimp one little wire. One of a million wires. My telephone line.
Coincidence? I think not. If Bill had called me the night before, he would have just heard my phone ringing and ringing. And I would have never heard the call coming in. He got up the next morning and headed off to Martinsville to serve the papers.
At the end of the day I was there when two policemen in their dress blues came to Mary Jane Rice’s door to deliver the dreaded news. One was old and seasoned. One was young and wet behind the ears. It was obvious this was his first time to deliver this kind of news. I felt sorry for him.
Mary Jane and I fell into each other’s arms and she said, “Oh Mia. I am so glad you didn’t go with Bill today. I am so glad it was him and not you. Your two little boys at home. I am so glad you didn’t go with him today.”
So began a period of shock for both of us that lasted a very long time.
We know that murder and larceny have been around since our oldest ancestors. But this kind of elaborate orchestration specifically purposed to keep me far away from danger when my number wasn’t quite up yet? Hard to wrap the mind around, I know. But maybe this kind of intricate handy-work is in play each and every day until that moment when the number of my days IS finally up.
Perhaps King David was on to something after all. ~~~~