Friday, July 25, 2008

Homicide: A Career in Death

by Sgt. Eric Mehl

I stood in the hallway of a luxury hotel on the north side of Houston. It was late and I was tired. I carried with me an empty clipboard and I was wearing a ball cap emblazoned with the hotel logo. I knocked on the door directly in front of me.

In a loud and clear voice, I announced, “Engineering!”

I knew the man who would answer my knock had, several hours earlier, beaten an elderly woman to death with an ax. We had come to this particular hotel on a hunch that he might be there. An inquiry made at the front desk confirmed our suspicion. The dead woman was registered at the hotel. In fact, according to the hotel records, she had rented two rooms. After she had been murdered.

Hotel room doors can be difficult to breach. Any delay at the door could give the killer time to arm or barricade himself. Adding to the predicament was that the rooms rented by the killer were first-floor lobby rooms. Hotel patrons would be put at risk if we couldn’t take him quickly and quietly.

A plan was developed for him to open the door for us. The real hotel engineer cut off the electricity to the rooms the killer had rented. We waited for the suspect to call the front desk and lodge a complaint. He didn’t bother. So the front desk clerk called him and told him an “engineer” was on the way to restore the power in his rooms.

Now, standing at the door, I heard the privacy lock being disengaged from the inside. My heart began to pound in anticipation of what was to come. My right elbow rested against my .45 caliber pistol, holstered and hidden from view. It would be of little use this night.

The door swung open and there, standing in front of me, was the man who had taken an ax to an old lady. His size alone was daunting—he stood over six feet and weighed at least 220. Since he thought I was there to restore his electricity, he seemed genuinely happy to see me.

Trust me. In about one second he wouldn’t be quite so pleased.

I charged like an angry linebacker on steroids. At the point of impact, he let out a screech similar to a little girl's upon seeing her first spider. He crumbled when faced with someone comparable in size and strength. An old lady I’m not. It was over in seconds. The murderer was sitting on the floor in handcuffs and no one had been hurt. It was a successful execution of the arrest warrant.

Just Another Day at the Office

This is my world as a homicide detective. I have to admit, I’m addicted to the work.

Nobody enjoys a good murder mystery more than I do. The one where I’m standing among th
e carnage left in the wake of a fresh kill. Making those decisions in the first few critical hours that can mean the difference between bringing a killer to justice and knowing that he's out there unidentified. The stakes are high and the pressure is on. Moving quickly as the leads develop and staying with your case, regardless of fatigue, is mandatory. The work is dirty, demanding, challenging, and frustrating. I’m in my element. I can’t imagine having chosen a better profession.

I was a 28-year-old patrol sergeant when I was asked to apply to the Homicide Division of a large metropolitan police department. Now, more than twenty years later, with more than 500 homicide scenes behind me, I’m still there. I was warned early on not to stay too long.

“Promote out,” I was advised, “and become part of management.”

I didn’t heed the warning.

It might take only one murder case to cement your future. Mine came early in my homicide career. She was a 75-year-old woman who had been at home when she was beaten to death with a brick. Her name was Wilma. The force used against her was so tremendous that the brick broke in half. The killer then tied bound her by the neck, to a support column in her kitchen. Her legs were tied to the refrigerator door. After using her washing machine to clean the blood from his clothing, the killer stole most everything of value she owned. He had a thirty-six hour lead on me.

Two days later, I was in a small police department in Mississippi taking the murderer’s confession. He held nothing back:

There was some bricks on the side of the house and I grabbed one. . . . I walked inside. . . . She had her back to me at the kitchen table. . . . I raised my arm up and struck her on top of the head real hard. . . . She fell forward, toward the window, screaming for help. . . . I hit her so hard with the brick that it broke the brick. . . . She was laying on the ground in the kitchen and I picked up the broken piece of the brick and started pounding her with it. . . . She wasn't really moving at the time. . . . She was breathing a little bit. . . . I searched the area for a rope or something that I could tie around her neck and choke her with it.
Wilma’s murderer was buried with evidence. He had left his finger- and palm-prints at the murder scene. Bloody footprints on the kitchen floor had been made by the shoes he was wearing when he was arrested. I tracked down the stolen items he had pawned or otherwise sold. I had the ribbon of a typewriter found in his possession transcribed to prove it belonged to Wilma.

After both sides had rested their cases at trial, the defense lawyer reminded the jury that he had informed them, in his opening statement, that the evidence against his client would be, “overwhelming.”

It was—and I was hooked.

Priceless Benefits

People will often ask how I can endure the constant barrage of death and tragedy. I’m not sure it’s easily explained. In the end, it’s the murder victims themselves who keep me coming back for more. Especially the most vulnerable among us, the very young and the very old. Someone has to stand and speak for them since they can no longer speak for themselves.

The work can, at times, take a toll. I remember a two-year period when 1,288 people where murdered in Houston during 1990 and 1991. The scenes came so fast I found myself standing in the middle of the next homicide scene before I could complete the last one. Or the one before that.

There was a three-month period during that time that was especially troubling, at least for me. During those three months—April, May, and June—I stood over the bodies of seven murdered children. Six had been shot to death in two separate incidents. The seventh was a 4-year-old girl who had been raped and beaten to death with a tree limb. Her name was Monique. Her killer had left her in a wooded area. It took us five days in the Bayou City's merciless heat and humidity to find her.

Imagine the sight.

Secretly, I hoped people would stop killing children. It was not to be. A little boy named Datrick was beaten to death one night, by his father, because he refused to eat his spinach. He also dared to give his father, a preacher, an evil look. His father told us he refused to have such an undisciplined child. The preacher no longer has that concern.

Then there was Floyd. Floyd was two years old and must have done something incredibly terrible. I say this because his mother decided to punish him by placing him in a bathtub of scalding water. The injuries were textbook. She decided against medical treatment—Children’s Protective Services might take him away. It took Floyd ten days to die. Ten agonizing days.

When I arrived at that scene, Floyd’s mother and her boyfriend were sitting in their living room watching television. A patrol officer motioned me to a bedroom. There was nothing in the bedroom, except Floyd. He was lying on the floor against a wall. His skin, from the waist down, looked like pink, green, and yellow bubbling wax. Infection had set in. It was absolutely horrific. Floyd died in that bare bedroom all alone. I’m sure death was a relief—Floyd didn’t have to hurt anymore.

So there it is. Floyd, Monique, Datrick, Wilma, and the hundreds of other murder victims who came after them have kept me in Homicide for so many years. Though dead, they were provided with a voice and they were heard, albeit in a courtroom. Someone, whom they had never met, was there to say that what they endured was wrong and that the people who hurt them have to be held accountable.

Life After Death

My days as a policeman are now numbered. Death is cruel and plays no favorites. It visited my home twenty-one months ago. Seeing so much death in my life has numbed me to a certain extent. But nothing in my experience prepared me for having to tell my 7-year-old daughter that her mom would never again be coming home.

Today, I try to manage a homicide caseload along with the school and social schedule of my daughter, now nine. Time constraints prevent me from giving either the proper attention. People tell me I’m too young to retire. I disagree. My daughter has already lost her mother to heart disease. She won’t lose me to my job.

The big city police department can make you feel like you’re nothing more than an employee number and a seniority date. I will be easily replaced when I leave. My hope is that the young sergeant who replaces me and walks into the Homicide Division for the first time acquires a pas
sion for the work. A passion I’ve carried with me for the past two decades.

Eric Mehl is a sergeant with the Homicide Division of the Houston Police Department, where he has worked for twenty-seven years. He was one of two detectives asked to form the Cold Case Unit, which he now heads. Sgt. Mehl lives in Houston with his daughter. Read more about his career here.


luvmypeanut said...

Wow! I am almost speechless reading your article here. All I can say is thank you for being there for these victims and performing this incredibly difficult job.

I am also sorry for your personal loss. Your daughter is so lucky to have you as a dad!

Thanks for sharing your story!

TxMichelle said...

There are some crimes that really stick with me when I just read about them. I am sure the actual crime scenes, especially the ones with the children, have to stick with you and give you the motivation to catch the person.

Not all detectives can be replaced. Well, physically they can put a body in there, but it doesn't mean they will have the drive you did. I hope so.

My sympathies to you and your daughter over the loss of your loved one. That is a hard road to travel. It is good that you made the decision for her sake. She will no doubt appriciate it and gain from it.

Diane Fanning said...

Incredible. Thank you for the job you have done. Your dedication and passion are inspiring.

Anonymous said...

What an incredible post! I wish all of our law enforcers were as passionate as you are. You WILL be very difficult to replace.

I'm curious about something... are you by any chance thinking of a writing career once you do retire? If so, I believe you would have a huge following. I enjoyed your writing style very much and I would definately read anything you published.

Kathryn Casey said...

Really enjoyed your post, Eric. Thanks for contributing.

TxMichelle said...

I knew I heard of the first crime you spoke of. That was Guy Alexander who murdered Wilma. He is on Texas Death Row. I guess you did do your job!!

Anonymous said...

txmichelle you are right. Alexander was the poster boy for a bully - always taking advantage of the weak and helpless. Wilma was a tiny, 88 lb. retired Exxon secretary minding her own business when Alexander forced his way into her home. The Houston newspaper - 'as a child he used a stick to poke at a noisy neighborhood dog, exposed himself to women, spit on a 5-year-old girl, threw firecrackers at people and tried selling marijuana to a juvenile.' nice guy

TxMichelle said...

Oh yeah. He was a real winner. That is for sure. That was a brutal crime.

Leah said...

Incredible post! You are an awesome homicide investigator and it will be hard to fill your shoes. I am proud of you for making your daughter your number one priority. She is blessed to have you for a father. I wish both of you the very best.

Kimberly said...

I have to agree with "anon" about your writing ability. I don't usually post after articles, however, I was glue to your article and and felt every word you were saying.

Thank you for your years of service, standing up to the victims and their families and for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

Sgt. Mehl, there is a special place in heaven for you. Thank you for all you do for all of us.

shelley said...

I am speechless after reading your article. I am certain that you will be greatly rewarded for all your efforts in protecting the public. Some of the stories sent chills down my spine. I am glad there is an individual such as yourself out there. The world would be a safer place if there were more of you.
I am so sorry for your loss in your personal life. She was a very special lady and a great person to be around. I know this because she was my roommate at SWTSU in San Marcos. We loss touch with each other through the years because of careers and distance in Texas. I am saddened that we sometimes allow our jobs to get in the way of lasting friendships. I recently found out about her passing because I was searching for her for a reunion of various friends. I am devastated that I was not there all those years. Please give my condolences to her daughter and her family. I am so glad you were a part of her life. Finally, the most wonderful thing I remember about her was her infectious laugh. Take care and God bless.

Eric Mehl said...

I apologize for my late response. Without detailed computer instructions, I'm lost.

First, let me say thank you to everyone for all of your kindness. It is very encouraging.

The question of whether or not I will write in the future was asked. I don't know. Others have encouraged me to do so. Right now, however, life is just too busy to think about anything other than just getting through another day.

Shelly-At times I can still hear her laugh. It's in the back of my mind somewhere and usually comes to me when the house is quiet and I try to sleep. I hope it never leaves.

shelley said...

It will never leave you. She is in your heart.