by Justice William W. Bedsworth
One of the many joys of a career in the District Attorney’s Office is that you get to read a lot of police reports. Rhapsodize all you want about movies or music or surfing or whatever your favorite form of entertainment is, nothing can beat police reports.
I spent 15 years as a prosecutor. Except for the job I have now, there isn’t a better one in the system.(1) This is especially true if you learn to approach every police report as if you were picking up lost correspondence between Mark Twain and Alexander Pushkin.
Granted, the writing won’t be up to the standards of the aforementioned authors: Police officers hate being cooped up in a room writing; that’s why they became police officers. One of the few downsides of prosecution is that you have to spend a lot of time explaining to jurors that some of the mistakes in the police report are probably attributable to the desperate desire of its author to finish it so she could get back out on the street.
But not even J. K. Rowling on her best day could match the imagination of the criminal class. Some truly amazing stuff goes on out there. A few years ago, The Times of London gave me their “Judicial Wisdom of the Year Award” for concluding—in regard to a smuggling case I wrote about—that “There is no non-culpable explanation for monkeys in your underpants.”
I didn’t think that up, a criminal did. The criminal imagination is no less astonishing than the Mystery of the Trinity or the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And if you weren’t raised by kleptomaniacal werewolves in lower Manhattan, the facts related in police reports will almost surely beggar your own imagination.
When I was a prosecutor, we had a case involving the holdup of a gas station in Westminster. The would-be holdup-man(2) drove in, pulled out a thirty-ought-six hunting rifle and demanded cash from the startled attendant.
This was back in the day when there were attendants. Younger readers will just have to use their imagination to understand that back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, you could pull into a gas station and a person—an attendant—would greet you, put gas in your car, check your oil, wash your windshield, collect your payment, and bring you your change.
A huge meteor struck and killed off all the gas station attendants, so now you only know about them through books and old geezers who write columns.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . the W-B H-M(3) pulled out his rifle and demanded cash. This was a pretty good indicator we were not dealing with a criminal mastermind here. Passing motorists might not see a pistol, but a guy with a hunting rifle trained on the gas station attendant is hard to miss. Witnesses to the crime were not hard to find.
But cellphones had not yet metastasized into ubiquity, so it took awhile for people to find payphones and call in the crime. Our hero had time to order the gas station attendant to scoop up all the cash at the pumps (yes, Virginia, there were cashboxes at the pumps(4)) and then marched him into the office, where he had the attendant fill his other hand with all the cash in the till.
He then pointed his rifle at the terror-stricken attendant and demanded to know, “Where can I lock you up?”
The true answer was “Nowhere.” There was simply no room in the gas station that could not be opened from the inside. But watching a hunting rifle shaken at him by a W-E W-B H-M(5), the attendant correctly surmised that was not a good answer.
So he lied. “The ladies room,” he blurted.
The W-E W-B H-M put the gun barrel in the attendant’s back and prodded him to the ladies room. He then shoved him in, slammed the door, and ran to his car.
Leaving the bewildered attendant standing in the ladies room with two handfuls of cash.
I have often tried to imagine that moment when the wild-eyed would-be holdup-man realized he was only a W-B H-M rather than an actual H-M. I’ve never succeeded to my satisfaction.
But what made him a legend in our office was not so much the fact he drove off without the cash, but the fact he CAME BACK TO GET IT.
Honest. Westminster PD had just rolled up when the guy pulled back into the gas station. The bewildered attendant, who, according to the police report, was still holding the cash, pointed to the car and said, “That’s him.”
The guy now realized there were police on the scene and roared away, but he was stopped before he got a block. This was a police report that deserved a Pulitzer.
Some of us were actually somewhat concerned that trial of the case might be problematic. There’s an old adage that laughing juries don’t convict, and we had visions of this jury being on the floor. We certainly were.
But it turned out counsel decided that the defense of, “I just happened to drive into that gas station minutes after a holdup in the same model car as a robber who looked just like me and I just happened to have a hunting rifle too and I drove away fast because I suddenly realized I had a full tank and a pressing appointment,” was a low-percentage play. So we never found out.
I had always assumed forgetting the money was a rare—if not unique—robbery fact pattern.
But then I read about Clifton Taylor. Clifton Taylor lives in Kansas City. Well, actually, he is presently a guest of the United States Corrections Department in Cameron, Missouri, but he used to live in Kansas City.
Back in March, Clifton walked into a Kansas City bank and handed the teller a note demanding $3,000 “or somebody out here get shot.” Resisting the temptation to initiate a conversation with Clifton about syntax, she gave him $2,700, correctly intuiting that Clifton would not count it.
He fled. With the money.(6)
Unfortunately, part of Clifton’s brilliant escape plan(7) was to change his appearance by shedding his black jacket and green knit cap. Police, looking for a man in a black jacket and green knit cap would be completely baffled by his white t-shirt and cap-free head.
He tossed the jacket and cap into the back of a pickup truck. As you might imagine, people seeing a man “running like hell” and tossing clothing into a pickup truck as he ran by, called police. Others chased him from the bank.(8)
Nonetheless, Clifton might have escaped punishment had he not chosen to “lose himself in the crowd” in an electronics store. There Clifton became the star of one of the great moments in cinematography.
Seeking to be as customer-like as possible, Clifton grabbed a phone, walked up to the counter and announced he would like to buy it. Then, as the store’s security camera recorded the incident, he reached into his pocket for his newly obtained cash, and found . . . nothing.
The $2,700 was in the pocket of the jacket he had shed as part of his brilliant escape plan.
So the store security camera recorded Clifton first putting his hands to his head in a classic pantomime of shock, and then lowering his head to the glass display case in agony. As my friend Kevin Underhill put it, “Let’s say you’re in acting class and you are asked to convey the emotions of a man who has just realized he left $3,000 of stolen money in the coat he threw away while escaping. This is what you should do.”
Had Clifton been represented by counsel, the case would have been plea-bargained. For almost anything. Witnesses ID’d him, his DNA was on hairs found in the cap, he wore distinctive designer boots and jeans which showed up rather nicely on the security tapes of both the bank and the electronics store . . . the case was unwinnable. It cried out for a negotiated plea.
But Clifton represented himself. Probably not the best choice, but, as the Kansas City Star noted, “His judgment had been suspect before.”
Clifton’s defense was simple: “I think all the evidence was planted and all the witnesses were coached,” he argued.
Unfortunately, none of the accounts I’ve been able to track down relate Clifton’s explanation for the one last odd but vaguely incriminating detail in the case against him. His post-arrest interview with the police was videotaped. At one point in the questioning, the detective left the room to get coffee for them.
While he was gone, the camera caught Clifton trying to eat the detective’s interview notes.
I wonder if Clifton has relatives in Westminster.
(1) Trial court judge is a great job, too, but you don’t get to pound on the table and be righteously indignant as much. Prosecution gives you the opportunity to win all the time and still—occasionally—feel yourself the victim of huge injustice. That’s a pretty heady combination.
(2) The reason for this awkward circumlocution will become apparent shortly.
(3) Would-Be Holdup-Man. You forgot that quickly?
(4) It begins to occur to me that younger readers are gonna find a lot they don’t understand in this story. If you’re under 40 and just blundered into this column without noting its title (which the Surgeon General requires me to put on every one), you might just want to skip back to the President’s Message. Lei Lei is a lot more current than I am.
(6) Which put him slightly ahead of my gas station robber. A lead he quickly relinquished.
(7) Most of which can be summed up in the words, “Run like hell.”
(8) Turns out if you rob a bank without a gun, people are much more likely to follow you than if you rob a bank with a gun. This detail was tragically unaccounted for in Clifton’s brilliant escape plan.
William W. Bedworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com.