Twenty-seven years ago, I created a bit of a stir among a few Central New York police agencies when the newspaper I worked for ran my interview with a murder suspect I wasn’t supposed to know about.
Sources told me state police accused sheriff’s deputies of leaking me the information, and that sheriff’s deputies threw the accusations right back. Everybody was mad at everybody.
The funny thing is that no one asked me how I got his name, not even when the suspect sued state police for defamation, or when the real killer was caught years later.
I have whispered my story to only a few, select people over the years, but I am ready to relieve myself of this burden — to confess to you. First, however, let me tell you a little about this case.
This particular murder troubled people more than most.
The victim and his family were well-respected, and the boy was killed in community that took pride in its reputation as a quaint, safe and desirable place to live. There was no way to blame the victim, no way for parents to tell themselves this couldn’t happen to their children.
Police were under pressure.
I was under pressure.
Residents wanted to feel safe again.
The suspect invited me in when I knocked on his door, pointed to the unmarked police car in a neighboring lot that neither of us was supposed to know about, and told me why, he believed, he was a target.
First, he lived on the lake close to where the body was submerged. Second, he was a motorcycle-riding stranger in a well-off village that didn’t like motorcycles or strangers. He theorized that police didn’t tell me about him because they had no evidence and too many doubts. It was the community that wanted to convict him.
He wanted to clear his name, so I listened.
Then I talked to state police.
Then I wrote the story.
How did I find him?
Here it goes.
About three days ( I think) after the body was found, I stopped by the building police had been using as a local command post while they investigated the murder. It was empty. They had packed up and left, which usually meant one of two things: They had no leads, or they had a really good one. Police weren’t saying much about the case, which fueled my belief that they had a suspect.
Well, I say the room was empty, but one thing remained.
There, on the bare conference table was a blank, yellow legal pad. It was void of ink, but full of deep indentations from a pen or pencil. It beckoned me. Memories of a childhood game gave me an idea and I grabbed the pad before I could think about it any further.
At a table in a local Burger King, I gently rubbed the page with the long edge of a sharpened pencil, the same way I decoded “secret messages” as a child. Words began to appear and there it was: the name and address of the suspect.
That was it.
The secret has been revealed.
Nobody leaked me anything, at least not intentionally.
The kid me is to blame.