Slash and Burn: The Story of Picking Up a Young Murder Victim — April 7, 2008

I find myself a muted observer in 19th century England. I watch as two little girls are playing together, one about six or seven and the other is about two or three. They are finely dressed, adorable as dressed-up little girls are. I notice that there is something wrong with the older girl — an expression of malice darkens her face as she watches the other girl run around.

Suddenly, I find myself INSIDE of a furnace. I am not harmed; I am merely a specter observing images in the past. The furnace is aglow with all the colors of fire — orange, white, and yellow. I watch as the older girl, coaxes the toddler over to the furnace. The older girl’s face is expressionless. Like stone, she is cold. As the toddler approaches the mouth of the great fiery beast, she begins to anticipate the other girl’s intentions. She hesitates. The older girl coaxes her more. I watch, unable to intervene in any way, unable to look in any direction but forward. The toddler moves as if she cannot resist the older girl’s beckoning. Finally, the toddler stands right in front of the furnace, eyes wide with fright. Without changing expression, the older girl tosses her in.

Screaming, the toddler hits the white bed of pure heat. Instantly, her upper body crumbles into black powder, while her lower extremities remain intact. The other girl is gone. I reach out to the little one, but I have no body, so all I can do is send thoughts of sympathy. Her parents come running, and I can hear them exclaim, “But how could this happen? This is not possible!” In their British accents, they deliberate as to how such a thing could happen. But they take no physical action.

Frustrated, I wish they would come to the furnace and remove their daughter’s body. I realize it is because they are in shock that they are not acting. I look down and see that the toddler is completely intact, lying on the white bed of coals as if she were lying in bed. She is dead, her curly blond hair lies askew around her head, framing her face. Her eyes are wide open and blue as the ocean. They are blank, cold, as all traces of life are gone.

I gasp and sit upright. It is dawn and the morning light struggles to come through my closed blinds. My walls are gray, my room is gray, my bed is gray, and I am gray. I realize that this dream has to do with a case that I had the night before.

The Night Before…
2 a.m. finds me speeding through the highways of Portland, on my way down to a southern suburb. There is no one on the road. I must rush to a scene immediately because I needed now. As I move through the empty freeways, I run through different scenarios in my mind and come up with possible solutions to any problems I may have. But nothing prepares me for what I am about to see. Nothing.

As I slowly drive up the street of a sleepy neighborhood, I am surprised to find a crime scene of this magnitude. One home was taped off and was guarded by an officer. They had a mobile command center set up next to the home. The vehicle’s generator rumbled continuously. They had set up a lighting system to illuminate the entire home like a star performing on stage. I found parking outside of the taped area, jumped out of my van and headed toward the house. I could see that the house had suffered terrible damage from a fire. The smell of burning materials choked the air, but the fire had been put out. I identified myself and entered the home.

Police directed me upstairs. On all calls, I mentally prepare myself by trying to come up with the easiest way to remove a body based on each situation I encounter. As I entered, I systematically dissected the home checking for obstacles. I compared the situation in front of me to similar calls in the past and made a mental note of what equipment I would need to grab when I went back to the van. An officer followed behind me.

My thoughts streamed through my mind like a mighty river. As I reached entered the room where the body lay and saw the scene in front of me, all thoughts stopped at once. As I tried to process the scene, I saw how heinous the crime in front of me had been. The room had been on fire, and right in the middle of it lay a blackened corpse. I couldn’t come to close to the body; the fire had burned a hole right through the floor. I had trouble accepting that the charred figure had once been a human being. But she once was a human being.

I tried so hard to figure out how to get her out of there. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to rescue this person from her plight, in such a precarious situation. What if I damaged her? What if I fell though the floor? What if I destroyed evidence? How could I pick her up, move her, or even get to her? My fears were unfounded, because the investigation was not completed. Evidence would be gathered as I was there and plenty of help was available to me.

As I studied her body, I realized I was getting a gruesome lesson on human anatomy. I could see that she had been murdered, and the fire had been set to cover it up. The room began to fill with investigators and their scientific chatter. It was at this very moment that I felt like I had crossed into a completely different reality, a sub-reality where no ordinary person should ever go.

“Whiiiiir! Clack!”

The camera flashed as they documented the scene. I asked questions about the body, and began to put together what the fire had done to her. The smell was oppressive, and the fumes from burning material was suffocating. “You’ll definitely have a headache in the morning,” one of the investigators said. The medical examiner, quiet, calm, almost zen-like in his approach, carefully assessed the body and began collecting his own evidence.

“Whiiiiir! Clack!”

The camera flashed again. I tried to remember every CSI episode I had ever seen, trying in vain, to make sense of the scene in front of me. But I was lost, pulled along by the analytical parley going on all around me, as more and more police filled the room.

After a while, I went and collected my equipment and prepared to move the body. The medical examiner made everyone step back, and he alone approached the body, braving the danger that the floor might collapse. Once he rescued this woman from her compromising position, the rest of us approached. I slipped my gloved hand around her delicate arm and gently shifted her this way and that, trying to get her onto my little stretcher. I had plenty of help. I listened carefully to instructions and we managed to get her onto the stretcher. Three or four of us carried her small, frail remains down the stairs and onto my waiting cot. As I secured her, everyone seemed relieved that we got her out of there and that we would all be leaving soon. I had been there for over two hours. But everyone else had been there for over eight hours. As I covered the woman with a quilt, everyone fell silent. It was single event that humanized her. I followed the investigator to the medical examiner’s office. A million thoughts ran through my mind, as she lay just behind me in the can. I can’t remember what I was thinking. There was just too much that I was thinking. I dropped her off and headed home.

It was the first time in my life I was happy to see traffic. The more cars I saw, the more I was pulled back into mainstream reality, my reality. Two by two the headlights of cars flowed into oncoming lanes. Two by two, the highways became brighter and brighter. Two by two, I was brought back into reality. Two by two, the headlights lightened the darkness of a brutal crime. Like mourners in a grand candlelight vigil, pairs of headlights spilled into the freeway and floated past until I could see nothing but light.

At home, I dove straight into bed. I didn’t even have the energy to wash my hair, which had absorbed every wretched odor at the crime scene. I passed out with the stench of burning death on my pillow. Sometime later I awoke — with a piercing headache. The cop was right.

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