The Pepper Tree
Publisher: Aakenbaaken & Kent
A Southern California landmark primarily known only to law enforcement earned a reputation for crime scenes of the most unspeakably vicious homicides. Infamous serial killers had chosen this location to discard and display their victims as trophies of their horrific deeds. Lieutenant Scott Hunter must lead a team of detectives to identify and capture a perpetrator who’s targeting young women, and has chosen this landmark to showcase his victims.
This story is a work of fiction, but the Orange County location is real. So notorious, in fact, that those officers working the graveyard shift need only radio their activity at a site bearing two words, and they are immediately dispatched a back-up officer to the “pepper tree.”
As a young patrol officer, Hunter had been introduced to the “terror at the tree” on an evening when he turned his police cruiser down that dusty road separating asparagus fields, and discovered a corpse hanging from a low-hanging limb. But now as the leader of the Robbery/Homicide team, he received that most dreaded call interrupting the stillness of the night, a body dump.
Like the mast of a majestic clipper ship rising vertically through the horizon, the trunk and its heavily leaved branches interrupted the monotonous plane of the two-lane roadway. Interstate 405 ran parallel to Barranca Road, giving motorists driving northbound from Sand Canyon to Jeffrey Road an expansive view of the tree and its surroundings. Bordered by asparagus fields, Barranca was seldom traveled, but the pepper tree announced its presence, and the density of its foliage shielded the most unspeakable of crimes.
By day the tree was odd; almost enigmatic. Why one, rather than a row? By night, it was an ominous adversary; in particular, to the officers of the graveyard shift. Most activities observed were cars with fogged windows, or simply the impromptu beer bust. But for the serial killer, it seemed to be a magnet that hypnotically drew the perpetrator toward the culminating acts of his horrific crime. It was the kind of place training officers, would admonish trainees to pay particular attention to possible ambush, proper illumination, and the avoidance of passing in front of spotlights, and backlighting you as a target.
This evening was going to prove to be the very thing about which Officer Jim Janowitz had been warned. When his flashlight revealed the woman’s leg, the history of this site flashed before him within a millisecond. Serial killer Randy Kraft had been convicted for the murder of a man whose body had been dumped at this very spot. The newspapers had sensationalized the crime by sharing that a four-foot twig had been stuffed into the victim’s body cavity. Two months prior to the discovery of Kraft’s crime, Gerald Shill had chosen this tree to dispose of a prostitute he had shot to death. Now this.
Janowitz hit the high beams and directed his driver side spotlight across the hood of his cruiser, while with shaking hands he radioed for back-up.
The spotlight illuminated her entire body from feet toward the crown of her head, as she lay prone, and nude from the waist down. Her dark hair, draped over the shoulders of a blue long-sleeved blouse, was matted with blood that sparkled from the beams of light projecting from the idling patrol car. With his flashlight in his left hand, he got out of the patrol car leaving the door ajar.
As he awaited the arrival of what would soon become a busy crime scene, Janowitz surveyed the open field leading from the tree to the freeway, straining to see any signs of human shadows that might have fled upon discovering the approaching sedan bearing an overhead light bar. He rounded the trunk and ducked below the flashing amber caution light, carefully stepping toward the body, scanning for threats, while trying to avoid trampling evidence. He swept the immediate perimeter ensuring there was no further danger, and checked the victim to confirm that she was, in fact, deceased.
The familiar roar of an accelerating V-8, signaled to him that help was on the way in the form of the Area 4 car, manned by Officer Karl Peterson.
As Peterson’s cruiser approached from the north, he could see the tree awash in the lights beaming from his partner’s patrol car. The scene appeared surreal – a pale, mannequin-like figure lying face down in the dirt, at the base of a huge tree, with a slender uniformed officer standing over the body.
“You call a supervisor?”
“I phoned Austin. I heard him radio that he was Code 7 (meal) at Denny’s and figured he didn’t hear my call; the reception’s so bad there,” Janowitz responded, gesturing with his cell phone.
“Let’s get a unit to block Barranca at Sand Canyon, and another to block it off at Jeffrey. I’ll call it in, and you can start setting up a cone pattern for the crime scene.”
“Austin can make the call for the homicide team.”
Sergeant Richard Austin’s supervisor’s unit lumbered down the potholed, graveled asphalt of Barranca Road. The 20-year veteran was in a sour mood. Although he was the senior supervisor in Patrol, he was forced by policy to rotate onto graveyards for a three-month stint, and he had just sat down for dinner when this dead body call came out. He had a feeling that he would be standing a long time, and his back would be smarting from the weight of his Sam Browne gun belt. It was day three of his 4-day work week, and it looked as if his uniform wouldn’t make it to day four before needing dry cleaning. Austin slowly strode from his unit toward Janowitz after glancing at the body.
“Are you sure she’s dead?”
“I checked carotid, no pulse. I looked for lividity, and saw signs of blood pooling on the exposed extremities – knees, thighs…”
“This is Irvine, Janowitz, America’s safest city; we generally frown on this type of activity.” Austin responded sarcastically.
The sergeant then began to approach the body, tracking across the dirt shoulder of the road.
“Sarge, careful, there’re some footprints around her that aren’t mine.”
“I’ve handled more dead bodies than you’ve taken petty theft reports Junior.”
Janowitz hoped Austin’s bluster was compensation for the sobering scene that lay before them. Viewing bodies was, unfortunately, part of the job, but what appeared to be a beautiful girl being discarded at the foot of this tree seemed, well, monstrous.
Austin reached over and separated several strands of the victim’s dark brown hair glued together with dried blood, revealing what appeared to be an entry wound.
“Well, Janowitz, looks like this young lady has a bullet hole in her skull. I’ll call Homicide.”
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