Chasing the Ghost

police cars

1st Place: Private investigator and crime novelist John Nardizzi tells a twisted tale of murder and conflicting stories, diligent investigation and justice unserved.

The mothers of the dead sat next to the mothers of the killers. One of the killers, according to police, was my client. That he was only accused seemed immaterial. Four people were dead, one of them a child. Someone had to pay.

That the most likely suspect was not charged with murder had not yet come into focus. That outrage would come to light as the trial proceeded.

The Scene of the Crime

On September 28, 2010, at 1:11 AM, four people were shot to death on the corner of Woolson and Wildwood streets in the Mattapan neighborhood, just blocks away from a Boston Police station. The crime scene was grotesque. The naked, bullet-riddled body of Simba Martin, clad only in a pair of bloody white socks, was splayed in the street. Eyanna Flonory lay dead on the sidewalk in blood-spattered pajamas. Her baby boy Amanihotep Smith lay under her, shot twice. Levaughn Washum-Garrison lay dead, shot through the heart and lungs. A fifth man, Marcus Hurd, was shot as he tried to escape by climbing a fence. He was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

A man named Kimani Washington claimed that my client and another man were the killers. My client denied shooting anyone. All three men had been together at one point in the evening; their stories diverged from there. Kimani first spoke with police just hours after the slayings. Trying to jab his way to freedom, he gave three lengthy interviews full of contradictions. My job was to investigate those contradictions—explore what Kimani had done that night, what he was in the past.

The Investigator’s Art

When people ask what a defense investigator does, this case is Exhibit A. We talk to strangers. There were dozens of witnesses to interview. My days began in a similar way, researching contact information, then driving through downtown Boston into the poor, mostly black neighborhoods of Dorchester where the witnesses lived.

In an era where texting has replaced conversation, a private investigator’s work retains a lost simplicity. You engage a person to sit and discuss personal, often tragic, events. You knock, they talk. Or they don’t. Some have a sense of larger forces in motion—trials, guilt and innocence. Some may not care.

Witnesses are bored, angry, intrigued, scared—a variety of moods. Everyone is different. A good interviewer uses a dose of psychology, a bit of magic and luck, a touch of the body language skills of a good con artist. But you never con people. You don’t hold back why you need to speak with them. There are stringent ethical rules governing contacts with witnesses, but there is more than that. What people really want to hear is the simple truth—it is an exciting thing. Nothing ends an interview more quickly than a stilted, condescending attitude. That’s why defense lawyers stay at the office. You make your bones during the interviews.

The Backstory

I spent long hours probing gaps in Kimani’s story. A compact bundle of muscle-bound malignancy, Kimani grew up in Columbia Point near Boston Harbor. A friend compared him to someone who goes to college and embarks on a career after a lifetime of training.

Kimani’s arc of education was crime. He was as much an expert in his chosen field as a doctor or electrician, with an extensive criminal record of assaults and robberies. Nearly a half-dozen women had restraining orders against him, including a member of his own family. In prison, Kimani espoused the teachings of black supremacists. His mother murmured a symphony of support—he was a leader of the people with so much to share. Robbing drug dealers was Kimani’s mode of employment.

He glorified his work in his raps:

Yo I’m a spittin’ rappa,
I put the ladies in the crappa!
Like a dog with rabies
Ima gonna kill yo babies
Pay me for the pot
or I end you on the spot
Shoot you in the face

Always livin’ for my capers
See my black dome in the papers

Kimani’s target was a Mattapan condominium rented by Simba Martin, who dealt marijuana and drove a custom white BMW. While successful, he wanted a path out of the drug business, scouring the internet for jobs. Driving a BMW might be sweet, but Simba knew what lay ahead: endless harassment, imprisonment, the target of gangsters.

He never made it out. His cash hoard was well known on the street. In the summer of 2010, just months before the murders, Kimani ran into a man named Dwayne Moore at a bus stop. The men got to talking—young bloods with rap sheets, no prospects and rising frustration. A witness told me that Kimani was trolling the neighborhood that summer looking for “a lick,” an easy target. As time passed, things began to crystalize in an awareness that a BMW-driving drug dealer was ready for the taking: Dwayne’s friend, Simba.

The Night in Question

One the night of the murder, Dwayne called Simba to lure him outside. Simba walked over to a parked Ford Edge SUV and got inside. Stepping from the shadows, Kimani strode up and aimed a gun at the windshield. He ordered the men out and yelled for them to strip. This tactic ensured they could not hide weapons, and added a layer of terror. Kimani marched them at gunpoint inside the house. The sleeping residents awoke as the place was ransacked. Then the residents were marched out of the house and gunned down on the street.

Kimani claimed he had driven away in the SUV before the shooting, leaving my client and Dwayne as the shooters. Despite evidence showing this was false, Kimani got a deal, agreeing to testify in exchange for a guilty plea to robbery and home invasion. When the police arrested him, Kimani already was planning ahead, asking if he could “get numbers” (a sentence of years instead of a life sentence) if he cooperated. I believe that he was desperate to avoid responsibility for killing the child.

I examined cell phone logs and started to decode what Kimani had done in the hours after the murders. He made a series of strange phone calls just minutes after the killings, a kind of settling of affairs. I went methodically from witness to witness until I made headway. Several witnesses close to Kimani told the DA that they felt threatened by my requests for an interview. The DA then placed them in the witness protection program.

A judge eventually ordered the government to bring the witnesses to a courthouse where I interviewed them along with the lawyers. Information gleaned in these interviews allowed us to build a line of questioning.

The Trial

On the day Kimani was set to testify, the victim’s families crammed into the gallery, perched on hard wooden benches. Court officers paced warily, ready to spring into action. The trial began. Kimani could not resist portraying himself as the ultimate thug.

Asked what other criminal enterprises he was involved in, he replied, “Pimping . . . I assist females who sell themselves.” There were hisses from the gallery. His testimony bordered on surreal at times. He admitted that he had a bad temper and drank Red Bull and cognac all the time—”I like to stay drunk,” he said as the prosecutor looked on, aghast. Kimani went into a discussion on hustling and lying. He defended lying to police during his interviews: “I keep it an honest hustle.”

News reports began to highlight the lack of evidence in the prosecution’s case. Kimani was in police custody just hours after the shooting, and admitted he tossed his clothing in a dumpster. Yet police never tested him for gunpowder residue or searched for his clothing. Police also admitted that they had lost video footage that would have shown the identify of the driver of the SUV speeding from the scene. These crucial errors forced them to make a case with Kimani at the center, his lies spiderwebbing the case together.

The DA had hitched his wagon to a dark star … crucial errors forced them to make a case with Kimani at the center, his lies spiderwebbing the case together.

The defense called several witnesses of their own. The testimony was damaging. One eyewitness had testified in front of a grand jury that he saw a an SUV with a blue-colored license plate speeding from the crime scene—the same vehicle Kimani carjacked. The prosecutor was forced to attack his own witness as mistaken.

I engaged in good-natured banter with one police detective during the trial. When the defense called a witness, he whispered to me: “This guy is junk, he’s all over the place.” I asked the detective how long he had interviewed the man; he replied ten or fifteen minutes. I told him I met with the man for hours on several different occasions.

The detective stared at me with a curious look. The police report on this witness was just a few lines long. Yet in the course of lengthy interviews, this witness revealed to me some evidence that put Kimani at the scene of the murders. Some of the exculpatory evidence never appeared in any police report. Witness remarks that tended to exonerate my client were not explored in detail by police; instead officers wrote down those comments that tended to prove their case. It is a reporting method that flies in the face of sound scientific procedure.

The image of Kimani, dressed in bright colored dress shirts, his bald skull gleaming in the light, loomed over the deliberations. The DA had hitched his wagon to a dark star. Going back was not an option. The jury went out to deliberate and two days later, reached a verdict on one defendant and deadlocked on the other. An unseasonable balmy spell settled on Boston, and after the early morning court proceedings, the defense team walked the waterfront awaiting the final verdict.

The Verdict

Finally, a call went out to the lawyers: the jury had reached an impasse. The verdicts would be read out loud.

As the counts against my client were read, the foreman repeated solemnly: “Not guilty.” A long collective groan began to build. A family member of one of the victims screamed in anguish, and a court officer raced to forcibly guide her to the exit. The jury deadlocked on all counts against Dwayne Moore. Screams of anger ripped the air, and then sobbing, like a bass line underneath. The DA looked ashen.

Through the nine days of jury deliberations, I had a deeply troubling feeling. It bubbled over after the verdict. A family member had a serious health crisis, and I worked to the edge of exhaustion in the run-up. Like a hawk flying in hurricane winds, the pressure dropped and a hard flight careened to earth. The sheer emptiness was unlike anything I had experienced before.

The jury deadlocked on all counts. Screams of anger ripped the air, and then sobbing, like a bass line underneath. The DA looked ashen.

But I did feel different about this case. The physical helplessness of the victims in this case pressed into my mind. The victims were stripped of clothing, stripped of privacy, then left dead on midnight asphalt. But the case put on by the government was a sham.

I had an overwhelming sense of a case where someone, something, got away. The someone was Kimani. He was sentenced to 16 to 18 years in prison. He would still take phone calls from his mother, or from his girlfriend.

In some sense, the thing that got away was the larger truth. This case was like chasing a ghost. Light was receding every moment. The truth was a pawn for both sides to push and pull during the trial until the story told was just a misshapen hunk in a dark corner, another carcass on the street.

But later, the blunt machinery of the state rumbles to life and a new case comes across your desk. Your client tells you he is innocent. When you read the police reports, information is missing, the mistakes are glaring.

 

About the author:

John Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. In May 2003, he founded NARDIZZI & ASSOCIATES, INC., an investigations firm focused on civil and criminal trial work. He has publishing credits in numerous professional and literary journals.  His 2014 crime novel “Telegraph Hill was lauded for ” lyrical prose and intimate observations of lesser-known San Francisco neighborhoods.” His second book in the series will be published soon.

Prior to working as a PI, John worked as a landscaper and in athletic clubs. He failed to hold any restaurant job for longer than a week.

 

Why we chose it:

Nardizzi has applied the tools of a fiction writer’s trade to a nonfiction piece, and the result is sheer artistry. His novelist’s eye for detail captures the story of the crime, the street lingo, and the fullness of drama and despair in the courtroom. The storytelling is deceptively simple, and thus, powerful—with some drop-dead beautiful phrases and spot-on character descriptions. We can see and hear the scenery he paints with his words, and he also makes great points about the how-tos of interviewing and capitalizing on police errors. Best of all, the title encapsulates the message: The truth is sometimes impossible to find.

Best tip:

“A good interviewer uses a dose of psychology, a bit of magic and luck, a touch of the body language skills of a good con artist. But you never con people.”

Best philosophical musing:

“A private investigator’s work retains a lost simplicity. You engage a person to sit and discuss personal, often tragic, events. You knock, they talk. Or they don’t. Some have a sense of larger forces in motion—trials, guilt and innocence. Some may not care.”

Takeaway:

In our justice system, the truth sometimes never comes out: “I had an overwhelming sense of a case where someone, something, got away. In some sense, the thing that got away was the larger truth. This case was like chasing a ghost.”