Is He Dead?
“Dispatch called us to a lonely stretch of highway in a small county in Arkansas where we discovered the headless body of a young man lying in the middle of the road. We were able to locate the head some distance from the body. There were no signs of struggle in the dirt, on the shoulder of the highway, and there were no signs of activity on the road that would indicate that a car accident, or a hit and run, occurred. The preliminary indications suggested that the body was not moved or dumped there, so we widened our search out for any signs of activity that would lead to a decapitation out in the middle of a lonely stretch of highway. We were unable to find any answers.
“After we decided that the evidence at the scene would not further our investigation, I made the call that every lawman regrets having to make,” Sheriff Dan Anderson continued. “I called the man’s wife to inform her of the incident. When the wife answered the phone, I informed her that her husband was involved in an accident, and that I needed her to come out to this lonely stretch of highway to meet me there, so we could discuss the matter further. Information like this is not the type that one should deliver over the phone, so my reason for calling her was to look her in the eye when I delivered the news about her husband, and so I could console her in her time of need. I began to tell her the exact location of the incident, and I was ready to follow that up with any directions she might need to find it, when she cut me off.
“Is he dead?” she asked.
“Your husband was involved in an accident,” Sheriff Anderson said. “I began telling her where we were on this highway again, and I prepared to give her the directions to this location again, when she cut me off a second time.
“Is he dead?” She repeated this with a sense of urgency that I believed contained a desire to cut through what she might perceive to be the painful details of a matter that might shock her. My experience in such matters is that when a sheriff calls a home, most people fear the worst, and they don’t want to flirt with the possibility of a worst-case scenario on their drive over. They think that they will be better able to deal with such matters better if they can have those fears confirmed as soon as possible. I have not found that to be the case. I have found that most people need immediate comfort at such a moment in their lives. Most people need to have someone call their family members, to drive them to the scene, so that they can share that grief with a loved one.
“I began to inform her that she might want to consider asking someone drive her to the location,” Dan said, “but I’m not halfway through that sentence when she cuts me off a third time with her, ‘Is he dead?’ question.
“Yes ma’am,” Sheriff Anderson said, breaking protocol. “It appears that your husband met an untimely demise at the side of a highway.“ I also informed her that with the details available to me, at the scene, that I was not able to report to her the nature of the incident that led to his demise.
“I can tell you what happened,“ she said. “I can tell you exactly what happened. That sonofabitch would not leave me alone. He was always on me about such stupid stuff, and I warned him to leave me alone on this particular night, he said he wouldn’t, and this led to a big fight. I decided that I wasn’t going to put up with his stuff anymore, so I got into my truck to take off. Well, he up and jumps into my truck bed, saying, ‘I ain’t leaving.’ I tell him he is, and he says he ain’t, so I tell him he is. One way or another, I said, you’re leaving. I drove down the road as fast as I could, and I swerved to the left and right, and he does leave … the hard way.“
“With that new information in mind,” Dan said. “I walk up the lonely stretch of highway to find a highway sign bent at the corner. The logistics suggest that when the wife swerved at one point, at a high rate of speed, the husband flew out of the truck’s bed, and his neck met with the corner of a roadside sign in such a manner that it led to his decapitation.
“The reason I remember this case, to this day, has less to do with the sad and horrific details of it,” Dan continued, “and more to do with this woman’s callous reaction to the news of her husband’s death. Was her reaction the result of a flurry of emotions she still felt regarding the argument she had with her husband? Was the reaction fueled by a sense of remorse over what she did? My instinct was to discount remorse, as she didn’t sound remorseful, but I’ve found that remorse takes many forms. I couldn’t answer those questions, and I still can’t, as I don’t know what was in her head, but my experience, while working in this particular county in Arkansas, suggested that her reaction to the news of her husband’s demise was characteristic of the people in that Arkansas county. My experience with the residents of this county suggested to me that these people don’t value life in the manner the rest of us do. This wasn’t the only example of the experiences I had with this characteristic in this county, but it was one of the more brazen. I didn’t witness such uniform callousness in Kansas, in Phoenix, or in any of the locations I’ve worked throughout my career. It would define for me,” Dan said of his characterization, “how I would work in this county, and it happened early on in my tenure there.”
*This story was used with permission.
Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff I: “I Want to Kill Someone!”
The Strange Days of a Small Town Sheriff III: He was a Real Sonofabitch