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653: Crime Scene

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Prologue

Ira Glass

I'm in the office of Dr. LJ Drakovic, who examines dead bodies for the police in Pontiac, Michigan, and he's running through this carousel of slides, all of them murder victims. They're close-ups of body parts.

Ira Glass

To say, as you just flip through these things, this is the grisliest slide show I've ever seen. It's just like every slide is some--

Lj Drakovic

Is another story, yes. Every crime scene is a story of its own, is a novel, and it opens up in every direction.

Ira Glass

To illustrate, he tells me this story. Back when he worked in the Wayne County Coroner's Office in Detroit, there was a young woman. This story, by the way, probably is not suitable for younger children. OK, anyway, there's this young woman. She apparently killed herself by taking her boyfriend's gun, putting it in her mouth, and firing. It was ruled a suicide. That's what the police thought. That's what the other medical examiners thought, but Dr. Drakovic wondered. This woman didn't have a history of depression. There's no note.

Lj Drakovic

My colleagues tease me as being paranoid and seeing things where they were not.

Ira Glass

So he does the examination, including the inside of the woman's mouth.

Lj Drakovic

In this particular case, the tongue showed two holes.

Ira Glass

Two holes, he says, is very strange in this kind of case because usually, he told me-- this gets a little explicit, again. Usually, he says, when people shoot themselves in the mouth to kill themselves, they kind of point the gun upward toward the brain. The tongue doesn't get involved at all-- doesn't get injured. The only way this could have happened, he realized, is if the tongue was all bunched up, kind of pushing against the tip of the gun-- the muzzle of the gun when the gun went off. But why would you do that? Why put your tongue there if you were killing yourself?

Lj Drakovic

In my assessment of this, this was a homicide. Now, do I know for sure? No, I did not. But that's the logic.

So I told the detectives that that was my finding. They went back to interview the boyfriend, and they said, we know that you shot her. He said, no, I didn't. They said, yes, we know. The doctor told us. He said, what doctor? He says, the doctor that did the autopsy. He said, what autopsy? I called the coroner's office two weeks ago, and they told me they never did autopsies on suicides.

Ira Glass

Of course, you know, why call the coroner's office to ask that question if you're not planning on killing anybody? It did not take very long after that, he said, for this guy to confess. As Dr. Drakovic says, every crime scene--

Lj Drakovic

Is a novel.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, we dive into those crime scenes and the novels that led to them. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And the thing that makes a crime scene such a strange kickoff to any story, any detective's investigation, is that the crime scene is filled with details, but it is totally unclear which ones are the important ones.

Years back, I was talking to this former forensic criminologist, Enrico Togneri, about this. And he said, sure, at a crime scene, there's all the stuff you would imagine from watching crime shows on TV. The shape of a blood stain can tell you the velocity and direction of the blood. A mist of blood means one thing. A puddle of blood means something else. But there's so much more, he said.

Enrico Togneri

Yeah, there's certain routine things that you would look for, and let's say you get into a scene where there's still some food on the table. You want to see if it's still warm. You want to see where the placing of the utensils might be. That might give you a clue whether it's a right-handed or a left-handed person that was last there. A smell could be important. You never know.

Ira Glass

If you can remember it, can you think of a case where an utterly ordinary object ended up being the piece of evidence that clinched it?

Enrico Togneri

Well, as a matter of fact, there was a burglary with a piece of cheese that had a tooth mark in it, and we were able to match the bite mark to the individual that did the burglary.

Ira Glass

What?

Enrico Togneri

Just a piece of cheese left in a refrigerator. The individual decided to help himself to some food, and he took a bite out of a piece of cheese. And he had a unique enough bite mark that we were able to identify it.

Ira Glass

When the police are done with a crime scene, who actually cleans up the crime scene?

Enrico Togneri

Usually, the person who owns the property. We would mark it as a possible biohazard, and then the individual would hire whoever he wanted to hire to have it cleaned up.

Act One: Grime Scene

Nancy Updike

Other drivers stare at Neal Smither's truck and sometimes take pictures. On the sides and back of it, in big red letters, is the company name-- Crime Scene Cleaners, specializing in homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths.

Ira Glass

That's Nancy Updike, and this is Act 1 of our program. Act 1-- Grime Scene. Back when we first broadcast today's program-- this was a few years back-- Nancy went to a town near San Francisco to see Neal Smither, who cleans up crime scenes for a living. Quick warning-- some of this might not be suitable for younger listeners, the squeamish, and wimps. Also, we have unbeeped the curse words here in the podcast. If you prefer a beeped version of our show, it's at our website.

Nancy Updike

After spending two days with Neal Smither, I was this close to signing up to open his Los Angeles franchise. I'm not joking. Neal spends all day, every day speeding around in a huge white pickup truck with a cell phone glued to his ear, making sure his company gets to dispose of every drop of blood within driving distance of Orinda, California, and his franchises in Utah, Kansas, Texas, Las Vegas, and Alabama. Mostly, he doesn't leave the truck. He's had this one for about a year, and it's got 90,000 miles on it. Neal is absolutely blunt about his job, to the point of crassness.

Neal Smither

I did a job one time. An old guy dropped dead, decomposed on his kitchen floor. So when we got there, we had about a 10-by-5 foot square pool of just gore. No power in the house, so it's dark. It's very quiet. I'm in there with a respirator because it was just humming. It smelled. I'm hearing this noise, you know, and I shouldn't be hearing a noise. There's no power in this house. Nothing.

I get a flashlight. I'm hearing this funky noise, man. What the fuck is that? So I get closer to the gore with my light, and it's just a bowling ball size thing of maggots, and they're writhing around in the blood and the gore, and it sounds like when you knead hamburger.

Nancy Updike

The maggots were making a sound that you could hear?

Neal Smither

There were so many of them, just so many of them writhing around in this pool of gore that, yeah, you could hear them.

Nancy Updike

The only time he speaks gently about what he does is on sales calls.

[PHONE RINGING]

Neal Smither

Hi there, this is Neal. May I help you? Yes, sir. Yes, sir. All righty. That's all you need to tell me. Let me kind of walk you through how we work. We'd have a crew to you within the hour. They'd write you up a free estimate. If you like the estimate, they'd rock and roll on that job right then and there. Our services are all-inclusive.

Nancy Updike

By the way, have you noticed Neal's southern accent? He made it up. He borrowed it from his Arkansas grandparents so he could play Steel Magnolia during business negotiations. He grew up in Santa Cruz. He has no problem admitting the accent is cultivated.

Neal Smither

Something about a southern voice, it just kind of opens up a trusting vein, you know, which is great. I mean, that's what I want.

Nancy Updike

Neal has that tightly wound energy, like Jim Carrey. He's 5' 5" with short brown hair under a baseball cap and sunglasses. He smokes Kools, does not stop for lunch, and drives way too fast. The directness, the crassness is all deliberate. It's his marketing strategy.

Neal Smither

Gore sells. Look at the truck. We're pretty up front. I hope I don't offend too many people. I just try to be honest with them, you know? I mean, we're dealing with death. How do you sugarcoat death? You know, you can't.

Nancy Updike

Neal describes for me the outline left on a pleather couch by a body that has decomposed into it over the course of 60 days. And I want to stop here and acknowledge that this is gross. It is. It's gross, but it's interesting. And to me, it's much more interesting than it is gross. I mean, think of it-- a melted person.

Four years ago, Neal had never seen a dead body. He was a laid-off mortgage broker, for God's sake. Then he saw Pulp Fiction. Remember that scene where John Travolta blows the guy's head off in the back of the car by mistake, and they have to call in Mr. Wolf to fix everything?

Mr. Wolf

Good. What I need you two fellows to do is take those cleaning products and clean the inside of the car. I need you to go in the back seat, scoop up all those little pieces of brain and skull. Get it out of there. Wipe down--

Nancy Updike

Neal is possibly the only person in America who saw that scene and thought, wow, I want that job. And it turns out it is a real job. If someone dies in your house, it's up to you to get it clean. But doing it yourself, even if you wanted to, raises all sorts of problems. Are you complying with the state and federal laws governing the disposal of bodies and bodily fluids? Do you have the proper permits and liability coverage? No, you don't. So you call Neal.

Here's how his job breaks down. Murders are the least of his business. Most of the cleanups are either decomps-- bodies that have sat for a while and started to decompose.

Neal Smither

I did a decomp on the very end unit upstairs there. It was bad.

Nancy Updike

How long had it been going?

Neal Smither

He sat for a good, long while. He was all humming, maggots everywhere. It was a typical decomp.

Nancy Updike

Or suicides. Suicides and attempted suicides are a surprisingly big part of his job. The rest of Neal's business consists of meth labs and kiddie houses. Kiddie houses are those places usually full of old newspapers and other garbage that have dozens of cats everywhere, eating and peeing and crapping. Meth labs are usually hotel accounts. Neal has a few national chains on contract. Hotel rooms get used all the time to cook methamphetamine, Neal says. He does a lot of business with hotels. He claims, hyperbolically, that there's no hotel in the country that hasn't had a murder or suicide in one of its rooms.

The second day I spend with Neal, he gets called out to a jail to clean up after a woman who tried to kill herself in the bathroom off the prisoners' waiting room. I'm not allowed to record anything. I have to just watch. I hold open the bathroom door with my foot while Neal sets up his stuff. Next to the sink are several thick, dark red drops of blood, and there are a few streaks of blood on the wall. Inside the sink is more blood. It isn't a lot, maybe a third of a cup, overall, but clearly, she did some damage.

Then, while Neal's getting into his protective suit, a woman in the waiting room behind us-- a tweaker, Neal confided to me later, meaning a meth user-- reads the back of Neal's shirt out loud. Crime Scene Cleaners, she says. You cleaned my mother's house. Neal turns around. Yeah? Which one was that? Without any emotion, the woman says her mother and cousin were murdered by her mother's boyfriend a while ago. You guys cleaned the house, she repeats.

Oh yeah. I remember that one. That was on the news, Neal says. The woman nods and doesn't say anything, so Neal goes back to cleaning. He whips through it in about 10 minutes, like it's spilt milk. In fact, it's exactly like cleaning up a mess at home, except with industrial strength cleansers and equipment. He snaps on some rubber gloves, sprays the whole area with a special enzyme to neutralize the blood and kill any bacteria or viruses, scrubs any tough spots with a little brush, and then wipes everything clean with heavy duty paper towels. It isn't hard. Just depressing.

Neal Smither

Bottom line-- I'm a businessman. I'm an entrepreneur. I want to make money and build my company.

Nancy Updike

Were you like this as a kid?

Neal Smither

Well, I was the kid in school who would buy boxes of Blow Pops and bring them to school and sell them at lunch. I was the kid at school who ran a lunch ticket scam.

Nancy Updike

What was the lunch ticket scam?

Neal Smither

I had a girlfriend in the office, the head office in high school, and she'd kick me down with lunch tickets for a discounted price. And then I'd sell them for an increased price, but it was still lower than what the Mexican kids or whoever could buy them from the school. So I just figured I'd beat the school by $0.20 a ticket. Shit, I bankrolled my whole high school career on Blow Pops and lunch tickets. It was a beautiful thing. I always had money, and I didn't break any laws. Didn't sling dope-- none of that shit. Bought my own car and I bankrolled it with Blow Pops and lunch tickets.

Nancy Updike

Neal's plan is to retire in seven years, at 40, and be rich. But in the meantime, the job is changing him. Seeing so many crime scenes, seeing the way so many people die, he's also seen how they live-- in houses filled with old newspapers, dirty dishes, and too many cats, never cleaning the bathroom.

Neal Smither

I think more than anything now, most people are just dirty motherfuckers. We live like animals, man. You have no idea. I'm a clean freak. My place is spotless. So I was-- when I got into this, I was shocked by the way people live. It's amazing.

I went into a bathroom yesterday at a car wash, right? Guy in there doing his business, and I walk into the thing. And you know, this guy had thrown his garbage on the floor and didn't flush the toilet. Just common-- no common courtesy at all. And he was in a tie and-- a clean-cut, nice-looking guy. Didn't your mom teach you anything, you 40-year-old dirtbag? Are you just a dirtbag? That's dirtbag, straight up. That is a dirtbag.

Nancy Updike

Did you think people were this big dirtbags before this job?

Neal Smither

No, I had no idea. I had no idea. I thought everyone was normal. Believe me. The normal is the dirtbaggedness. Fuck.

Nancy Updike

But now, you see more dirtbaggery everywhere?

Neal Smither

Oh, it's 80/20 dirtbag. You bet. I swear to God.

So now I go home and take a hot shower. Then I'll convert to a bathtub, read my book, and not think abou dirtbags, wait for my girl to get home. Wait for death. Death or my girl-- I love them both. [LAUGHING]

Nancy Updike

Neal's thought a lot about his own death in the last few years, not surprisingly. He says he wants to die slowly, so he can say goodbye to everyone. He doesn't want to be found by a company like his and cleaned up with his family off somewhere wondering what happened. He doesn't even care if it's a painful death, he says, as long as it's slow. Cancer would be fine, he says. He'd take cancer. When was the last time you heard someone say that?

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is a producer for our program. We heard about Neal Smither from the book, Gig, which is a kind of unofficial sequel/tribute to Studs Terkel's classic book about Americans and their jobs, Working. Neal is still working. He has not retired. He says business is booming.

Act Two: What Police Cannot Do

Ira Glass

Act 2-- The Police Cannot Do. So the clues at a crime scene are not always conclusive, of course. Lots of crimes are forever unsolved. People die, and it's never explained why. Stuff disappears and is never found again, though we want it to be. Fiction writer Aimee Bender has this story about a boy who would be handy to have around at lots of crime scenes. I have to say this is one of my favorite pieces of fiction we've ever put on the radio show. Her story was read first by actor Matt Molloy.

Matt Molloy

Once, there was an orphan who had a knack for finding lost things. Both his parents had been killed when he was eight years old. They were swimming in the ocean when it turned wild with waves, and each had tried to save the other from drowning. The boy woke up from a nap on the sand, alone. After the tragedy, the community adopted and raised him, and a few years after the death of his parents, he began to have a sense of objects, even when they weren't visible. This ability continued growing in power through his teens, and by his 20s, he was able to actually sniff out lost sunglasses, keys, contact lenses, and sweaters.

The neighbors discovered his talent accidentally. He was over at Jenny Sugar's house one evening, picking her up for a date, when Jenny's mother misplaced her hairbrush and was walking around complaining about this. The young man's nose twitched, and he turned slightly towards the kitchen and pointed to the drawer where the spoons and knives were kept. His date burst into laughter.

Now that would be quite a silly place to put the brush, she said, among all that silverware. And she opened the drawer to make her point-- to wave with a knife or brush her hair with a spoon. But when she did, boom, there was the hairbrush, matted with gray curls, sitting on top of the fork pile.

Jenny's mother kissed the young man on the cheek, but Jenny herself looked at him suspiciously all night long. You planned all that, didn't you, she said over dinner. You were trying to impress my mother. Well, you didn't impress me, she said.

He tried to explain himself, but she would hear none of it. And when he drove his car up to her house, she fled before he could even finish saying he'd had a nice time, which was a lie, anyway. He went home to his tiny room and thought about the word "lonely," and how it sounded and looked so lonely, with those two Ls in it, each standing tall by itself.

As news spread around the neighborhood about the young man's skills, people reacted in two ways. There were the deeply appreciative and the skeptics. The appreciative ones called up the young man regularly. He'd stop by on his way to school, find their keys, and they'd give him a homemade muffin. The skeptics called him over, too, and watched him like a hawk. He'd still find their lost items, but they'd insist it was an elaborate scam and he was doing it all to get attention.

Maybe, declared one woman, waving her index finger in the air-- maybe, she said, he steals the thing so we think it's lost, moves the item, and then comes over to save it. How do we know it was really lost in the first place? What is going on?

The young man didn't know himself. All he knew was the feeling of a tug-- light, but insistent, like a child at his sleeve. And that tug would turn him in the right direction and show him where to look. Each object had its own way of inhabiting space, and therefore messaging its location. The young man could sense, could smell an object's presence. He did not need to see it to feel where it put its gravity down. As would be expected, items that turned out to be miles away took much harder concentration than the ones that were two feet to the left.

When Mrs. Allen's little boy didn't come home one afternoon, that was the most difficult of all. Leonard Allen was eight years old and usually arrived home from school at 3:05. He had allergies and needed a pill before he went back out to play. That day, by 3:45, alone, Mrs. Allen was a wreck. Her boy rarely got lost. Only once had that happened, in the supermarket, but he'd been found quite easily under the produce tables, crying. The walk home from school was a straight line and Leonard was not the wandering kind.

Mrs. Allen was just a regular neighbor, except for one extraordinary fact. Through an inheritance, she was the owner of a gargantuan emerald she called the green star. It sat, glasscased in her kitchen where everyone could see it, because she insisted that it be seen. Sometimes, as a party trick, she'd even cut steak with its beveled edge.

On this day, she took the green star out of its case and stuck her palms on it. Where is my boy, she cried. The green star was cold and flat. She ran, weeping, to her neighbor, who calmly walked her back home. Together, they gave the house a thorough search, and then the neighbor, a believer, recommended calling the young man. Although Mrs. Allen was a skeptic, she thought anything was a worthwhile idea, and when the phone answered, she said in a trembling voice, you must find my boy.

The young man had been just about to go play basketball with his friends. He'd located the basketball in the bath tub. You lost him, said the young man. Mrs. Allen began to explain, and then her phone clicked. One moment please, she said, and the young man held on.

When her voice returned, it was shaking with rage. He's been kidnapped, she said. They want the green star. The young man realized then that it was Mrs. Allen he was talking to and nodded. Oh, he said. I see.

Everyone in town was familiar with Mrs. Allen's green star. I'll be right over, he said. The woman's voice was too run with tears to respond. In his basketball shorts and shirt, the young man jogged over to Mrs. Allen's house. He was amazed at how the green star was all exactly the same shade of green. He had a desire to lick it. By then, Mrs. Allen was in hysterics. They didn't tell me what to do, she sobbed. Where do I bring my emerald? How do I get my boy back?

The young man tried to feel the scent of the boy. He asked for a photograph and stared at it-- a brown-haired kid at his kindergarten graduation. But the young man had only found objects before, and lost objects at that. He'd never found anything or anybody stolen. He wasn't a policeman.

Mrs. Allen called the police, and one officer showed up at the door. Oh, it's the finding guy, the officer said. The young man dipped his head modestly. He turned to his right, to his left, north, south. He got a glimmer of a feeling towards the north and walked out the back door through the back yard.

Night approached, and the sky seemed to grow and deepen in the darkness. What's his name again, he called back to Mrs. Allen. Leonard, she said. He heard the policeman pull out a pad and begin to ask basic questions. He couldn't quite feel him.

He felt the air, and he felt the tug inside the green star, an object displaced from its original home in Asia. He felt the tug of a tree in the front yard, which had been uprooted from Virginia to be replanted here. And he felt the tug of his own watch, which was from his uncle. In an attempt to be fatherly, his uncle had insisted he take it, but they both knew the gesture was false. Maybe the boy was too far away by now.

He heard the policeman ask, what is he wearing? Mrs. Allen described a blue shirt, and the young man focused in on the blue shirt. He turned off his distractions, and the blue shirt came calling from the northwest like a distant radio station.

The young man went walking and walking, and about 14 houses down, he felt the blue shirt shrieking at him. And he walked right into the back yard, right through the back door, and sure enough, there were four people watching TV, including the tear-stained boy with a runny nose eating a candy bar. The young man scooped up the boy while the others watched, so surprised, they did nothing. And one even muttered, sorry, man.

For 14 houses back, the young man held Leonard in his arms like a bride. Leonard stopped sneezing and looked up at the stars, and the young man smelled Leonard's hair, rich with the memory of peanut butter. He hoped Leonard would ask him a question-- any question. But Leonard was quiet. The young man answered in his head. Son, he said to himself, and the word rolled around, a marble on a marble floor. Son, he wanted to say.

When he reached Mrs. Allen's door, which was wide open, he walked in with quiet Leonard, and Mrs. Allen promptly burst into tears, and the policeman slunk out the door. She thanked the young man 1,000 times, even offered him the green star, but he refused it. Leonard turned on the TV and curled up on the sofa. The young man walked over and asked him about the program he was watching, but Leonard stuck his thumb in his mouth and didn't respond. Feel better, he said softly.

Tucking the basketball beneath his arm, the young man walked home, shoulders low. In his tiny room, he undressed and lay in bed. Had it been a naked child with nothing on-- no shoes, no necklace, no hair bow, no watch-- he could not have found it.

He lay in bed that night with the trees from other places rustling, and he could feel their confusion. No snow here. Not a lot of rain. Where am I? What is wrong with this dirt?

Crossing his hands in front of him, he held onto his shoulders. Concentrate hard, he thought. Where are you? Everything felt blank and quiet. He couldn't feel a tug. He squeezed his eyes shut and let the question bubble up. Where did you go? Come find me. I'm over here. Come find me. If he listened hard enough, he thought he could hear the waves hitting.

Ira Glass

Aimee Bender's short story is called Loser. It's from her collection of short fiction called The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. It was read for us by Matt Molloy.

Coming up-- what does it mean when you get out of prison, kick your drug habit, return to the scene of your crimes, and little kids make fun of you? Kindergarten con in a minute on Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: A Criminal Returns to the Scene of the Crime

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- crime scenes and the stories they tell. So today's episode first aired years ago, but in putting together the rerun, we all realized here we did actually have a question about crime scenes that comes from stuff that's been in the news recently.

Bennet Omalu

I am Bennet Omalu. I'm a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist.

Ira Glass

After Stephon Clark was shot by Sacramento police back in March, the county coroner did the official autopsy for the state. But the family also hired a well-known forensic pathologist named Bennet Omalu to do an autopsy for them. He announced his findings at this press conference. If you remember that case, Stephon Clark was unarmed, 22 years old, shot by police multiple times. Dr. Omalu's analysis came out before the county coroner's, and he was definitive about a number of things.

Bennet Omalu

There were a total of eight gunshot wounds, meaning that he was hit by eight bullets.

Ira Glass

The first shot, Omalu said, hit Stephon Clark in the side and then spun him around so his back was to the officers. Then six of the eight shots were to his back. That is a different story than the police had told. Police had said he was advancing towards them when they fired.

Bennet Omalu

So the proposition that has been presented that he was assailing the officers is inconsistent with the prevailing forensic evidence.

Ira Glass

Weeks later, the county released its report. It was different from Dr. Omalu's report in some significant ways. First, it said there were seven bullets, not eight. It said only three shots were to the back, not six. And as for the first shot, the county said it was probably to his thigh and that Clark probably was walking towards the officers when it happened. And we wondered here at our show how could something so basic be in dispute? The number of shots, whether they entered from the back or from the front, does that indicate that one of the autopsies was deliberately spinning the results? Or are these actual, honest scientists simply disagreeing about the evidence that's in front of them?

Well, I asked Dr. Judy Melinek, a veteran forensic pathologist who does autopsies in San Francisco, and she said these kinds of discrepancies happen all the time when there are two autopsies of the same person. She said in these kinds of cases, the official autopsy-- the coroner's office-- usually happens first, and then the family gets to do their autopsy after that. That's true, even though the family usually goes public with their results first, as happened in this case.

So Dr. Melinek says, picture, OK, two autopsies by two doctors.

Judy Melinek

The first autopsy done by the coroner's office alters the body and changes the evidence. So it makes it a lot more difficult for the second pathologist.

Ira Glass

When the second pathologist gets the body, it's already been washed clean, so it doesn't have any bloodstains or trace residue. The first pathologist has already cut open the body, has already removed the bullets.

Judy Melinek

So when Dr. Omalu got the body, he didn't have the bullets anymore. They had been taken out by the first autopsy, and he didn't have access to the x-rays of the body from the first autopsy.

Ira Glass

Which would have shown him where the bullets had been.

Judy Melinek

He also didn't have the organs in their proper orientation in the body. The organs had been taken out by the previous autopsy pathologist and sliced up to identify the wound tracks, and then put in a plastic bag inside the body cavity. So the first pathologist has that advantage because they got the body pristine, and it wasn't altered.

Ira Glass

In this way, Dr. Melinek says, there could be lots of disagreement, and it could be honest disagreement between pathologists. They are people looking at different sets of data, so they come to different conclusions. And with that, we have arrived at Act 3 of our program. Act 3-- Return to the Scene of the Crime.

You know, there's this truism in detective fiction that a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. It turns out, in real life, that actually is not very common at all, except among arsonists. Arsonists apparently like to see the fires they've set, and then some of them are actually caught when police look at pictures taken of crowds at fires. And then-- OK, maybe this is rare, maybe not; nobody really keeps track of this kind of thing-- there are the people who circle back to the scene of the crimes to undo, to erase something, or at least to promise that it's never going to happen again. Katie Davis discovered that one of her own neighbors in Washington, DC, an old friend of hers, was trying to do just that.

Katie Davis

Bobby comes up my street one afternoon in March. I haven't seen him in a few months, and he's kind of gliding along, smoking a Marlboro. That's the way he's carried himself since sixth grade, when I first met him-- one of the bad boys from over on Calvert Street. Bobby tells me he's going to coach a Little League team with some neighborhood kids. Great, I say from up on my porch. Inside, I'm thinking, who's he kidding? He's rail thin. He's sweating. It looks like he's been using all winter.

Bobby flicks his burning cigarette into the street and watches me, waiting for more reaction. This is the same Bobby I loved and tried to save for a whole year. Bobby who sold $60 from my house to buy heroin and swore to God-- swore to his own dead daughter that my dog, Purdy, ate the money. And this is his latest plan to get clean? Coaching a bunch of 10, 11, and 12-year-olds rounded up by the DC Department of Recreation? All I can say is, that's great.

A week later, Bobby's back, this time on my machine.

Answering Machine

You have two messages.

[BEEP]

Message one.

Bobby

Hey, how are you doing? Just calling to say hi. When I get off, I'll probably walk Bailey. See if we can both run up and see if we can say hi to you. Katie, you've got to see this. These thugs I got are unbelievable. One of them tried to spit on me yesterday at practice. A couple of them, I don't think-- I don't think even I can handle. It's like they're too much of a disruption, you know?

[BEEP]

Katie Davis

My machine cuts him off, but now I know Bobby's clean because if he were still using heroin, nothing could puncture his detached haze. He's sounding awake and rattled. Bobby, who spent 2 and 1/2 years in Lorton Prison on assault and possession charges, rattled by a bunch of kids at their first baseball practice.

Boy

First day was just crazy.

Bobby

We went to Harrison Playground between 13th and 14th on V Street, and that's a rough neighborhood. And as soon as we got on the field, my kids started to act up right away-- right away-- and I think they were afraid. I was a little afraid.

Boy

OK, he was like picking who was going be right field or whatever, but then everybody was just yelling at each other and jumping on each other.

Bobby

I tried to get them to chill, to relax and play ball, focus on the game. They started cursing me-- a few of them-- cursing me and cursing each other. One kid spit at me.

Boy

And he got mad and said practice was over.

Bobby

And I cursed them, and I told them I didn't-- they didn't [BLEEP] impress me. Before they were born, I was in the penitentiary, you know, so if they're trying to act like they're bad, they're not impressing me. And right when I did that, I felt in my gut that I had just screwed up. I felt right then that, you know what? You just laid all of your cards on the table. You don't have a whole card anymore. Now they know you.

Boy

Then Shannon said maybe he got pumped in the butt by lots of men. That's when everybody was laughing.

Bobby

One kid says, well, while you were in prison, were you getting humped? And then I knew I had screwed up. I said, no, that didn't happen to me. Another one said, oh, because you were the humper, right?

Katie Davis

Three days later, they hold a second practice, this time at a field in our neighborhood. Bobby's back for more salvation through Little League.

Boy

Shut the for I smack the shit out of you.

Boy

Do it.

Katie Davis

What's your strategy? Or do you-- maybe you're formulating it?

Bobby

I'm formulating it, but my strategy, short term, is to-- my strategy is to remember I'm the adult. Break! Good stick! Go, go, go, go! Run it out. He might fall. He might break his ankle. All right. Good stick. Good hustle. Hey, every first baseman don't play as good as him.

Katie Davis

The second practice is going a lot better. The only tantrums being thrown are by the kids. Bobby stands by the backstop in our park, pushing away a locust sapling that's grown up through the fence. There are no bases and only a warped piece of rubber for the pitcher's mound. That's how it goes around here. Anyone with any money drives their kids to the wealthier neighborhoods to play, leaving this misshapen field for Bobby's team.

Bobby

Come on, man. I'm not going to tell you where it's going, but I want you to bring it home when it comes to you. Wake up! Wake up.

Boy

I thought you was talking to--

Bobby

That's what I'm saying, see. The guy in the game, the batter's not going to tell you where the ball is going, guys.

Talent level-- Bad News Bears. They're horrible, as far as talent. I think they're wonderful kids, and I'm not going to give up on them. But God, man. They can't throw a ball, they can't catch a ball, they can't hit a ball, and they've never learned. No one's ever taught them.

Bring it home.

[PING]

Ah, OK. You've got good stop, good throw. That's the way to play, fella. That's the way to play. You think it's coming your way?

Boy

Yeah.

Katie Davis

Yeah?

Boy

I'm back in the field and got a new ball.

Bobby

Heads, heads up.

Katie Davis

The third practice starts around 5 o'clock on a humid April afternoon. Kids are scattered around the field, squatting down, twirling their gloves. Joey is throwing rocks at his brother. Joey is always throwing rocks. Benjamin thinks he should be pitching. Bobby tells him to stay right where he is and keep catching.

Bobby

That's what I'm talking about right there. Come on, Benjamin. Get that thing, man. Get that ball.

Benjamin

You know.

Bobby

Get in front of that ball.

Benjamin

Oh, you didn't know.

Bobby

I do know. You need to learn. Get in front of that ball. Bring it home.

Katie Davis

After a half hour, things start to spin out of control. Benjamin, the most volatile of the kids, throws a rock at Joey. Bobby tells him to run a lap. You must be tripping, says Benjamin. I might be tripping, but you need to be lapping, says Bobby.

Benjamin

You going to make me run a lap, and I ain't even throw nothing.

Boy

Maybe you need exercise.

Bobby

Benjamin-- he's my favorite because I just see me more so than any other child on that team. I don't know what his home life is like, but from what I can see, he's emotional, and when he feels cheated or done wrong, he reacts exactly like I always reacted-- violently, verbally with the violence. And he just goes off-- and fuck you and fuck the team and-- well, that's me. That was me, and in ways, it still is. When I get my feelings hurt, I don't always say, well, you really hurt my feelings. I say fuck you, motherfucker. And you know what I do? What I've done for a lot of years is I would hurt myself because someone hurt me. Well, Benjamin does that at practice.

Benjamin

No, man, he always getting up on my nerves. Shit. Getting on everybody's nerves.

Katie Davis

Bobby finally asked Benjamin to go home and come back next practice. Instead, Benjamin stands over my microphone and starts calling the game as he says it.

Benjamin

He thinks he's right all the time.

Katie Davis

Who are you talking about?

Benjamin

The coach! He always-- he pressed, oh, I've been in the penitentiary. I know all this stuff. Man, bump all that, man.

Katie Davis

Bobby pauses as Benjamin mimics him, then throws the ball up and cracks it to the outfield.

Bobby

Bring it home, fellas, bring it home.

Katie Davis

A few minutes later, Benjamin finally does a lap, but he walks it.

Bobby

Watch the hop. You've still got him. Good throw now, Monty. Thank you, thank you.

Katie Davis

When he has these kids' ages, Bobby ran wild at night, taking money, stealing bikes. Most kids were afraid of him, but he never messed with me and my brothers. I even remember Bobby and his sister eating with us a couple of times because his mom never made dinner. When Bobby was 13, his mother caught him stealing change out of her purse and kicked him out of the house. The only place Bobby knew to go was right here to this field, where he now coaches baseball.

Bobby

You've got one more shot at it.

Katie Davis

It used to be an abandoned lot full of old cars and refrigerators. Here in the left outfield, where Joey is pacing and muttering because Bobby told him to quit looking for a fight-- right here, there used to be a white '69 Ford Falcon. That's where Bobby went when his mother threw him out.

Bobby

I spray painted all the windows black so no one could see in, and I would shoplift food from the corner store-- the Maddie's delicatessen, neighborhood deli. Stuff like Vienna sausages and a bottle of wine to go to sleep with at night and sardines. And that was dinner.

Katie Davis

Bobby says that alcohol helped him feel less afraid late at night in that old Ford. Soon, he found pot, then PCP. In his 20s, he started shooting heroin.

Boy

Sorry, you little, big-headed, little kid. Like a whole bunch of little leprechauns running around.

Katie Davis

Trash is talked at every practice, and Bobby is teased relentlessly for wearing Payless shoes, which the kids would never be caught dead in. Brandon, the 8-year-old, calls Bobby powdered donut because he's white, and he likes to lean into Bobby and whisper, punk. Mostly, Bobby laughs. Other times, though, especially when the kids start in on each other, it can get to him.

Bobby

Fellas, fellas, I can't talk if you're talking.

Boy

Pusher needs some more gloves, man.

Bobby

I'm about ready to put the gloves in the bag and go home. Give me this stuff. Let me roll. That's yours, right?

Boy

No, man. No, man.

Bobby

I'm serious. Well, shut up. Everybody shut up, please.

Katie Davis

Bobby picks up the bat bag and slams it against the brick wall.

[BANGING]

Bobby

Chill, OK? Chill. I can't talk if you're all talking. OK, look here. I'm sorry--

What's up, fellas? What's happening?

Katie Davis

Somewhere around the third or fourth practice, without announcing it in any way, the boys start calling Bobby "coach." Coach, can you fix this glove? Coach, which bat should I use?

Katie Davis

What's it like when the kids call you Coach?

Bobby

You know, I had no-- it didn't really hit me at first, you know? I took them to a picnic a couple of weekends ago that some recovering alcoholic and addict friends of mine threw. And to hear people there-- hey, Bobby, hey, Bobby, and then to hear this group of kids that I came with-- hey, Coach, hey, Coach. That's when it sort of hit me that, hey, man, that's who you are. And these people now see me as Coach, not just Bobby, the recovering drug-- dope fiend. He's Coach. So that makes me feel good to have these kids call me Coach.

So I don't know. Now I have this little small part and shape in what their day is going to be like, you know?

Boy

When he told me that he had come from prison and he got shot in his neck, I thought he was just another one of them people who like to talk about their life and didn't get over it. But I learned to understand him.

Katie Davis

How do you understand him?

Boy

He don't want no trouble. He just wants us to listen to him. But I guess as you grow into people, you start to have more patience.

Katie Davis

As you roll into people?

Boy

Grow. Start to have more patience, and I think that's what's happening.

Katie Davis

The Department of Recreation gives Bobby an ID badge, which he wears around his neck when he comes down to the neighborhood, like a sign. I am no longer a dope fiend. I'm doing something good. Most people might keep it in their pocket. Bobby wears it right on his chest.

Bobby

I just walk around with my head high and feeling proud for the most part, very proud of what I'm doing.

Katie Davis

The skeptics are everywhere, though-- neighbors who gave him advances for paint jobs he never did, people he stole bank cards from, people he actually spit on.

Katie Davis

What is that like for you to walk around in the neighborhood? And you might even walk by somebody that you owe money to or conned money out of.

Bobby

It's hard to explain, really. It's a roller coaster of emotions, you know? There's times-- and right when I'm feeling like the world is wonderful, when everything is going my way, I'll see someone that I had conned out of a few hundred bucks. And the voice in my head will immediately say, see there? You're still a scumbag. Remember what-- look. That's who you really are.

Katie Davis

So what do you do when you see that person?

Bobby

It depends. It depends on how I feel, and there's times when I might be feeling really insecure, and I'll put that macho thing up. And I'll put the cocky thing up and hope they say something wrong to me, so that I can go south with my-- you know? So--

Katie Davis

Do you do that?

No, but I want to. I want to. I mean, there's a part of me that still wants to be a thug, you know? There's a part of me still very capable of being a thug, you know? I just wouldn't be able to be a real good thug with my hands because I'm older. I'd have to get a weapon now, you know?

Boy

I ain't wearing no girly junk, man.

Katie Davis

It's early May, and after 10 practices, the kids are finally stepping into their uniforms at the local recreation center. This is the first new thing they've seen all season. Their bats and gloves are splintered and old, but the uniforms are bright blue and gray-- Texas Ranger uniforms with red caps. Bobby is tanned and relaxed, dancing around, faking jabs, counting the kids to see if he can field the team. Never a sure thing. Today, there are exactly nine boys-- the day of their first game against another team.

The recreation bus is an hour late to take the team to their game, so some of us go in a taxi-- six kids and I all squished together. Bobby and the others are hailing a cab when the bus finally shows up. We all pile out at what is supposedly the best Little League field in the city. The grass is shin high, there's a pile of dirt in the outfield. No fans, no parents-- just Bobby and the team.

Boy

They don't even have a field I can slide on.

Benjamin

Hey, what time is it?

Katie Davis

6:00, about five of 6:00.

Boy

Dang, man.

Benjamin

Oh, the other team-- 4:50.

Katie Davis

The other team never shows, so Bobby's team wins by default. Some other kids are in the same boat, so there's an impromptu scrimmage. And official or not, this is the first baseball game that most of these kids have ever played.

Benjamin

They too dang small, man. We would tear them up.

Boy

Uh-huh, OK, we suck, shut up, uh-huh, OK.

Katie Davis

The other team is small, but very fast, and they have three coaches who tell them when to steal bases. So a line drive becomes a run, then another run, and another run, and it's 5-0.

Bobby

He stole home on y'all.

Man

Good play, good play, Carlos.

Bobby

That's all right. We'll see what we need to work on today, instead of looking good in our uniforms. Come on, let's get an out. We got a force at second. Get the force at second.

Katie Davis

The season lurches forward with DC Recreation canceling games for no reason, never rescheduling rain outs. The uniforms are not washed for three weeks, and one day, no one shows up to let the boys in to suit up for a game, so they have to forfeit.

By June, Bobby's team has only played one real game, one game in four months. In this inconsistent world, Bobby is someone the kids can count on. He never misses practice, coming in his painter's pants most days to hit the ball to them. And while it might seem like Bobby's keeping the kids in line, he'll tell you that's what they're doing for him.

Bobby

I don't want to have to avoid my neighborhood. I don't want to have to avoid my community playground because I let these kids down because I'm a drunken dope fiend fucking bum, which is what I become if I go have a beer right now or some dope right now. Tomorrow, I'm a bum because all the good feelings are gone.

I don't want to feel the shame, which I felt from relapses. And that's a big time shame. It's a shame. I won't be able to look these kids in their eyes, in their faces. I'll duck them. God, I'm 42 years old, and I would have to come in my own neighborhood and duck children because I'm ashamed. I don't want that.

Throw that smoke. Throw that smoke. Throw that smoke. You're the man out there. You're the man.

Katie Davis

By June, Bobby's team gets its first win with some great pitching from Donald and a catch by Ricardo in the third inning that looks more like a football interception.

Bobby

Oh, yeah! Woo! Yeah! Oh, man! Boy, that was a Major League catch, man! I don't make catches like that. Woo!

Katie Davis

And while they wait for their bus to take them back home, the boys start tussling with each other, rolling around on a grassy hill.

Bobby

They're celebrating their win.

Boy

They are celebrating their win by wrestling. I'm about to myself!

Katie Davis

This is easily the sweetest moment of the season, not only because of the win, but because it's amazing to see the boys so happy. And this is what Bobby will remember-- when Justin and Ricardo get in a real fight an hour later, when he has to suspend Benjamin not once, but twice, and when Joey threatens to beat up a kid from another team. Always that delicate balance-- fragile, like sobriety.

Boy

Time out, time out. Let me-- I've got to tie my shoe.

Bobby

I always thought I was going to be a loser forever. Man, first of all, being clean makes me feel like, OK, I got a chance to be a winner. But the kids, especially-- and something about kids. This is something I never thought, man, that I'd be able to do. It's like-- man, I was walking after a practice like a week or two ago. I swear to God I walked across Duke Ellington Bridge to the subway, and I started crying. I started crying because I was so fucking happy. You know? So happy that, damn, this is probably going to work out. I'm probably going to be able to pull this off.

Katie Davis

By the end of the season, the kids have a record of two wins and no losses. Playoffs never get scheduled, so there's no reason to practice anymore. No one knows where Benjamin is these days, and just this week, I saw Joey stealing a soda from the corner store, and I made him take it back.

Bobby still comes around, though, and hangs out in the park, talks with the boys, and he sometimes shoots one on one with them. And he says, stick with me. I'm going to have tryouts for a 12 and under basketball team. I'm going to still be coming around here.

Boy

Oh, you're going to get it now.

[YELLING]

Ira Glass

Katie Davis throws that smoke in the neighborhood she grew up in in Washington, DC. It's been years since we first broadcast this story over a decade ago. Bobby did go on to coach a basketball team, and they took first place at a local Boys and Girls Club. But Bobby also relapsed. He started doing heroin again. And then he would get clean, and then he would relapse again. Then he moved to a halfway house, a sober house, where a few years back, he died. He was clean. His counselor said that one of his few possessions when he died was a CD with this story on it.

Credits

Ira Glass

Web programs produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors for today's show-- Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margie Rockland, Elise Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and conciliary Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachman, Mary Wiltenburg, and Anna Martin. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Mixing help today from Katherine Rae Mondo and Stowe Nelson. Producing help from Alvin Melathe.

Special thanks today to Marion Roach, Cheryl Miller, Bob Cargee, Robert Kershner, Wesley Lowery, and John O'Leary. Enrico Togneri, the forensic criminologist you heard near the top of the show-- he died years ago. Our web site, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 stories for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he was showing me around his gardening shed. He showed me his shears, his hand pruner, has shovels, and-- I don't know-- this thing filled with soil.

Neal Smither

That is a dirtbag. Straight up.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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