By Chris Hernandez
So there I was, minding my own business, taking a bathroom break at the station. This was late on New Year’s Eve in a small town. I was just a rookie with less than a year on the street. But even so, I knew crap was going to hit the fan at any moment. My shift had started several hours earlier. The first thing I had done was head to the worst part of town and check the crowd. What I saw was a guarantee something bad would happen before long . . .
Every small Texas town has at least one really crappy area. Ours was “100 Smith Street”. On this block stood two tiny falling-apart old houses, about 1200 square feet each, which had been converted into “nightclubs”. The clubs were directly across the street from each other, the only two structures on a trash-strewn, crack-infested, deserted block. And on weekend nights on this very small street, about 400 people would be in and around these two clubs.
On “normal” nights on 100 Smith we had fights, stabbings and the occasional shooting. All night every night at least a couple dozen crackheads would just stand out there, doing who knew what. I would hide sometimes and watch them through binoculars. They would wander around holding lighters to the ground, searching for rocks of crack that users and dealers had dropped when police drove past. One night an angry crack addict, burned in a drug deal, flagged an officer down on 100 Smith, pointed into the crowd and yelled, “That guy’s got crack!” Six people took off running.
When I passed through 100 Smith earlier on New Year’s Eve, the tiny block was packed with about 600 people. Gangsters, thieves, prostitutes, crackheads, dealers, pretty much every local troublemaker was there. When I drove through the crowd I almost got trapped by people intentionally blocking the street in front of me. I expected beer bottles to start flying, as had happened to other officers on other nights. But I made it through.
When I came out of the bathroom at the station, I went to see if the dispatcher needed a break. Another couple of officers who were about to work off-duty security jobs were hanging out in there. One was a K9 handler. Right after I walked in, the 911 line rang.
A frantic voice yelled over the phone. The dispatcher jotted quick notes, then turned to me and said, “Shots fired, 100 Smith Street.”
Oh, hell, I thought. I looked at the other two officers, smiled and said “I don’t wanna go.” Then I ran out the door to my car and sped away. Smith Street was only about a mile from the station.
As I neared the intersection with Smith, I saw a bad sign. Cars were pouring off Smith, making turns and hauling ass. A flood of people were escaping whatever had just happened.
I turned onto Smith, followed the little dogleg in the road and was stopped by a gigantic, swirling mass of angry, frantic partiers. Cars and people were pushing past me or running in the opposite direction, pairs and trios were fighting in different parts of the crowd. I jumped out of my car and shined my flashlight into the crowd. About fifty yards away a clump of screaming people were clustered around something in the street. Several people jumped up and shrieked, “We need an ambulance!”
Like a moron, I started walking alone through the crowd toward the clump in the road. As chaos raged around me, I keyed my shoulder microphone and yelled for an ambulance. Cars crept past, with a few drivers yelling “It was Edward! It was Edward!” I yelled back, “Edward who?”, but nobody would answer me.
As I reached whatever it was on the pavement, two more police cars pushed their way through the crowd and stopped beside me. The sudden appearance of backup was fortuitous, because as the crowd parted it revealed one of the most surreal, unforgettable sights I’ve ever seen. Many years and two combat tours have passed since that night, but I’ve never again seen anything quite like what I saw on 100 Smith.
A dead young man was laid out facedown on the street. Without question, he was dead. His was shirtless on a cold night. A huge pool of blood, maybe four feet across, stained the pavement around him. The blood was thick and dark, and almost looked like chunks of liver. The man’s face was turned toward me, eyes half open, lips parted.
I saw all of this in little flashes, quick glimpses amid flailing limbs. I also noticed that the man was completely covered in blood from the waist up; every inch of skin between his belt and top of his head was solid, dark red. Because three or four other young men were kneeling in the pool beside the dead man, shrieking and smearing blood all over him.
It was, I guess, some weird expression of grief from his friends. Whatever it was, it freaked me the hell out.
The other two officers, a patrolman and a sergeant, jumped out of their cars. I think all of us froze in shocked disbelief. I know I did. Even then, in my first year as a cop, I had seen several dead people. But I had never seen people in near-catatonic trance, screeching unintelligibly and running blood-soaked fingers over a corpse’s face.
We had a job to do, though. We had to clear the scene, to get the corpse’s screaming friends off him before they destroyed any evidence. We jumped in and started pulling people away.
The only place to grab them without getting blood all over us was by the backs of their collars. But every time we pulled one off, someone else would jump in and start shaking the body by the shoulders, or rocking its head back and forth while screaming “Get up, get up!” I yanked one of them off and he spun around to face me. I jumped back as the man began shaking his hands violently up and down, flinging blood drops through the air. His eyes were wide as he ranted incoherently at me.
We pushed people away from the body. Then I stopped focusing on my immediate surroundings, and realized we were surrounded by angry, threatening men and women. A street thug had just killed another street thug, but, not surprisingly, they had decided it was somehow our fault.
The crowd closed in around us. People were demanding, “Why aren’t you giving him mouth to mouth? What, you don’t care? You hope he’s dead?” We formed a loose, three-officer perimeter around the body, pulled batons and pepper spray to keep everyone out. But there were too few of us. Ones and twos slipped past to try to revive the body by shaking and screaming at it.
In the middle of the insanity, a dazed, bloody young man staggered toward me. His shirt was torn, face swollen. He slurred, “Hey man, we need an ambulance.”
I answered, “Yeah, one’s on the way.” The man swayed on his feet, and I noticed a ripped, bloody dent on his skull. I looked at it and wondered, Is that a bullet hole in his head?
The man collapsed at my feet. Others closed in around him. I don’t know who took him, but he wound up at the emergency room later. A bullet had bounced off his skull.
The K9 officer who had been at dispatch bumped me on the radio to ask if we needed help. K9s are great for crowd control. I tried not to sound scared when I shouted into the microphone, “309 to 552, if possible come to this location and bring a dog!” I later found out that when I yelled for backup, every officer in the county who heard me burned rubber toward our scene.
Around this time our fourth officer showed up. That was all we had, four officers on duty. He parked about 20 yards away, got out and started walking toward us with pepper spray in hand. Someone grabbed him by the collar, pulled him face to face and growled, “It should have been one of y’all.”
The surprised officer pepper-sprayed the man in the eyes. The man spat an agonized curse, let go and staggered into the crowd.
An ambulance forced its way through the throngs of angry people in the street. Paramedics pushed their way to the body. One of them took about a minute to confirm what we already knew. The man was, without question, dead. The crowd wailed in anger when they saw that the paramedics weren’t going to treat him. Angry friends and relatives, or maybe people just joining in for fun, closed in. We were in danger of being overrun.
The sergeant yelled, “Load him! Get him out of here!” We had to break a cardinal rule, to ruin the crime scene so we wouldn’t have to shoot our way out of a riot.
The paramedics lifted him onto a stretcher. As they did, I saw one of the gunshot wounds on his side. It was small, with flesh and fat pushing outward. We found out later he been hit with two 9mm Black Talons.
As soon as the body was gone, more officers showed up and the crowd trickled away. I was wired, overloaded on adrenaline and bouncing all over the scene. I was only 23 then, and that had been the most intense experience of my life.
In this county, whenever we had a murder, fatal accident or major nonfatal crime, the District Attorney would be called at home. Either he or an Assistant D.A. would personally come to the scene. The D.A. showed up within minutes. When he found out I had been the first officer on the scene, he asked me a series of questions.
“So did you identify any witnesses?”
I was still tense, heart pounding, dancing on electrified nerves. I looked at him like he was crazy and said, “Hell no I didn’t!”
He frowned and asked, “Did you recover any evidence?”
“Of course not.”
He rolled his eyes. “Did you identify a suspect?”
“Yeah, if hearing people yell ‘It was Edward’ counts as identifying a suspect.”
The D.A. threw his hands up in exasperation, walked away, and drove to the emergency room to see the victims. He arrived just before an enraged mob showed up and tried to force their way to the body. Officers already at the hospital had to yell for help, force people out and lock the hospital doors. I think the D.A. understood my position a little better after that.
Eventually, we pieced together what had happened. And, as usual with crimes at low-end clubs, nothing about the incident was simple. The shooting in the street had only been half the incident.
Inside one of the clubs, a customer was holding a lighter to the low ceiling. An employee told him to stop. He complied, then did it again. When the employee told him again to stop, he did. Then he shot the employee in the back. Club patrons heard the shot, panicked and rushed outside. Meanwhile, two drug dealers had gotten into a fistfight in the street. One of them, “Edward”, shot two dope-dealing rivals.
The man with the head wound survived. So did the club employee. We didn’t find out about the shooting inside the club until well after everything was over. The two shootings were simultaneous and unrelated. But in an odd twist, the dead man outside was the brother of the shooter inside.
In the end, Edward was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison. I don’t think the employee who was shot followed through with prosecution. The drug dealer who was shot in the head proudly showed his scar every time we dealt with him afterward.
And about a month later, business was back to normal on 100 Smith Street.
Chris Hernandez posts at chrishernandezauthor.com where you can read more of his wonderfully written cop and war stories. Chris is an active law enforcement officer in Texas who splits his time between military and police work. He’s the author of Proof of Our Resolve and the upcoming Line in the Valley which will be released on January 18th.