Saturday, May 19, 2018

20 years ago today

I remember May 19, 1998 like it was yesterday. Despite being a whole degree or two further separated from that day's events than many other people were.

I was in the midst of a wholly unimpressive career as an insurance broker when I drove across the Howard Frankland Bridge for a business lunch with two insurance company reps. I remember that one of them was named Dean, but I couldn't begin to tell you the name of the company they worked for. What I can tell you is that just as I was pulling into a parking space at a now defunct Tex-Mex restaurant called Tuscon's, breaking news came on the AM radio station 970 WFLA, stating that two homicide detectives from the Tampa Police Department had been killed on duty. Upon hearing those words, I felt my heart stop, and my stomach fall away like it had been pushed into an abyss.

Part of my brain had already done the math before the other part of my brain had time to put its pants on. The TPD was not a small police department, but how many homicide detectives did it have? Eight? Nine? Maybe ten, but certainly no more than a dozen, and a dozen was pushing it. One of them was my Uncle Rick, and through him I had met others. Mathematically, the odds that one of my close family members had just died were uncomfortably high, and the odds that somebody I knew had just died were higher still.

I looked down at my cell phone and saw no indication that it had rung without me hearing it. No news is good news, right?

But what if the TPD had not yet been able to notify my aunt? What if the news had been broadcast because some smarmy media bastard heard chatter on the police scanner and went to air without thinking of the needless panic he might be causing some listeners? What if the TPD had notified my aunt of the tragic news and she was too devastated to have relayed the news to the rest of the family? What if she was trying to figure out how to tell their kids -- my cousins -- before she could tell the family at large? What if? What if?

Should I go into Tuscon's and sit through this suddenly meaningless lunch that was on my schedule? Should I pretend to care what the company reps were saying? Or should I call it off and drive around waiting for my phone to ring, or should I start calling family members myself? Should I? Should I?

May 19, 1998 was the day a white trash piece of shit named Hank Earl Carr ended the lives of some people and wrecked the lives of many others.

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My uncle was not among the deceased, and to this day I call that the good news. But it feels strange using the phrase "good" to describe news that still meant innocent people had to receive the disastrous, anguishing news that their loved one had been murdered, that he had been cut down in his prime and would never again be in their presence, at least not here on Earth.

Hank Earl Carr's first victim that day was a four-year-old boy named Joey Bennett, the son of his girlfriend, Bernice Bowen. Carr shot Joey in the head with a rifle, though it remains unclear if he did so intentionally or accidentally.

Sometime around 10:00 in the morning he and Bernice drove Joey, still clinging to life, to a fire station and Carr claimed that Joey had been dragging the rifle around and it had somehow accidentally discharged a bullet into the boy's brain. Already a convicted felon, and wanted on a drug trafficking charge in Ohio, Carr concealed who he was by identifying himself as Joseph Bennett (Joey's father) and saying that Bernice was his wife. Bernice assisted in the lie, later testifying that "he told me to tell everybody his name was Joseph Bennett."

For obvious reason, police were called when Carr and Bowen showed up with the gunshot boy. While being questioned, Carr -- still using the Joseph Bennett alias -- learned that Joey had died and he changed his story, now admitting that he had been holding the rifle when it discharged but continuing to maintain that it was an accident. Then, as if showing up at a firehouse with a gunshot boy was not suspicious enough, he committed another insanely suspicious act by suddenly sprinting away from the scene and heading back to his and Bowen's apartment on foot, with officers in pursuit.

He grabbed a rifle, threatened officers with it, then tried again to flee but was caught and arrested. Homicide detectives Randy Bell and Ricky Childers (not my Uncle Rick) returned with him to the apartment, continued questioning him, then loaded him in the back of their car, handcuffed, to haul him into the police station.

En route, they exited Interstate 275 on the ramp to Floribraska Avenue. That is not the most direct route to the station, but it is two blocks from a Checkers fast food restaurant, and as Uncle Rick put it several days later: "Knowing Ricky, I guarantee you they were going to grab something to eat at the drive through on their way in." But Hank Earl Carr carried on his person a small key that works on handcuffs, and tragically, it had not been detected. Sitting in the backseat, he managed to surreptitiously access the key and free himself.

They were at the stop sign at the bottom of the Floribraka exit ramp, waiting for it to turn green, when Carr -- acting with what I can only assume was feline quickness -- reached into the front of the car, snatched Childers's Glock pistol from his shoulder holster, and shot both detectives in the head. In an instant, the lives of two good men were snuffed out and the lives of their families and friends were torn asunder.

May 19, 1998 was the day a white trash waste of sperm named Hank Earl Carr used the blood of innocents to purchase a one-way, non-cancellable, non-refundable ticket to Hell.

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My business lunch came and went with me sitting at the table and barely hearing a word. I nodded and replied but I can't tell you what I said or what was said to me. Meanwhile, my phone did not ring. No news is good news, right?

When I got back in my car I immediately called Erika, and she immediately asked if I had heard who it was. She had not, and of course neither had I.

Steeling myself, I dialed my mom's number and asked if she had received any word. She said that she had, and it was not my uncle. Then she hastily added: "It was Randy Bell and Ricky Childers."

The first thing I felt was a wave of relief. And in the very next instant I felt a sensation very much like getting hit in the stomach with a hard-thrown basketball, for Bell and Childers were men I had met, and I knew a lot about them. They were, like I said, good men... and they had just been killed by the very sort of human scum they spent their careers protecting the rest of us from.

And they were my uncle's good friends, which meant that right at that very moment he was experiencing the precise anguish his own loved ones had been spared.

As I drove back across the Howard Frankland Bridge and made my way toward home, I listened to the continuing drama unfold live on the radio. Carr's true identity was still unknown, so news people and authorities were calling him Joseph Bennett, and he had since claimed a fourth victim: 23-year-old Florida State Trooper James B. Crooks.

After murdering Bell and Childers, Carr had carjacked a pickup truck and fled north after a brief stop at his mother's. Trooper Crooks spotted the truck and pursued him on Interstate 75, and he turned onto the exit ramp to State Road 54. Partway down the ramp, Carr suddenly stopped the truck, jumped out, and walked swiftly toward Crooks's car while Crooks slammed on his brakes. Before Crooks had time to take any defensive actions, Carr shot him twice in the head, and his soul left Earth to join those of Joey, Bell, and Childers in the Great Beyond.

Back in the stolen truck, Carr resumed his northward flight with every lawman in the state on the lookout for him, and every media outlet in the Tampa Bay Area going wall-to-wall with coverage about the man they thought was Joseph Bennett. Chased by a bevy of cops on the road and at least one helicopter overhead, he got as far as State Road 50, approximately 45 north miles of downtown Tampa. With the truck's tires having been blown out and the gas in its tank dwindling, Carr exited the interstate and barged, armed, into a small Shell station where he took the lone employee hostage while law enforcement converged on the site. Before long there were more than 200 officers surrounding the building, making it not unlike Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being holed up and surrounded by the Bolivian Army. Except that in this case, the crimes were current and therefore the criminal's true nature was not papered over by Hollywood; Carr was no Paul Newman or Robert Redford.

He called into 970 WFLA and they put him on the air. I remember listening as he discussed deliberately slaughtering the three officers, and how he said he knew he would "have to pay for the cops" but also claimed that he did not intend to kill four-year-old Joey.  And I remember him saying, right before he went off the air, almost as if it was an afterthought, that he knew he was being referred to as Joseph Bennett and wanted to set the record straight because "my name is Hank Earl Carr."

By the time the denouement occurred I was back home and watching on TV. In a rare act of mercy, Carr had allowed the hostage, a young pregnant woman named Stephanie, to leave, but he remained inside and overhead views on TV showed police officers in position all around the small building, guns at the ready.

Sometime between 7:15 and 7:30 in the evening, an explosive was detonated near the building to create disorientation with its concussion blast, and a SWAT team stormed inside. When they got to Carr he was dead, having turned his gun on himself and taken his own life. Or at least that's what they said.

I have never been convinced that the SWAT members didn't take it upon themselves to kill him. And frankly, as bad as this may sound, a big part of me hopes they did, because for Carr to die voluntarily and of his own choosing would be for him to get better than he deserved. But either way he deserved to die, and die he did.

May 19, 1998 was the day a white trash heap of dung got to feel perdition's pyre.

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There are too may stories about the fallout from the murders of Joey Bennett and Randy Bell and Ricky Childers and James B. Crooks, including a lot of armchair quarterbacking, to go into them right now. So on this 20th anniversary of that horrible day, I conclude by offering a few vivid recollections, some of them firsthand.

The outpouring of support for Bell's and Childers's families and for their law enforcement co-workers was immense. Crowds flocked to downtown Tampa and left bouquets at the Fallen Officers Memorial outside the police station.

On her way to work the morning after the slayings, Erika took the Floribraska exit, just like she did every other morning. A police officer had parked his cruiser on the ramp and was sitting on its hood, sobbing.

Both the graveside funeral and the public memorial service at the Tampa Convention Center, and the motorized procession between the two, were unifying in ways whose importance must be mentioned. Bell and Childers were white. The young lady who sang "Amazing Grace" was black, as was TPD Chief Bennie Holder, who attended in full regalia and honored his fallen officers. As the long procession snaked its way to the cemetery where both men were laid to rest, people of every hue from every walk of life paid their respects from the sidewalks. There was no sign whatsoever of the social and racial divisions we often hear about when police are discussed.

His zest for homicide work drained following the loss of his good friends, my uncle left the homicide department after many years of distinguished service. Four years later he retired from police work altogether, only 50 years old at the time.

My cousin Ashley (Uncle Rick's daughter) was 17 when the slayings occurred, and word that two homicide detectives had been killed on duty leaked through Leto High School during the late morning hours. For a period of time that must have seemed an eternity, she had to exist in that school while wondering if her father was dead or alive.

Ashley knew Bell and Childers, and had for years. Some days after their deaths, perhaps even the very next day, she overheard a fellow student say that they probably deserved what happened to them, because, you know, they were cops.

Uncle Rick is, and Randy Bell and Ricky Childers were, my elders. But now I am older than all three of them were on that fateful day, and I struggle to wrap my mind around that even though it's a very simple concept made obviously inevitable by very simple math.

Today, a nondescript brown sign sits beside a road near the exit ramp where Hank Earl Carr took the final life that he would take, other than his own. The nondescript brown sign states that that particular stretch of State Road 54 is known as the James B. Crooks Memorial Highway, and every day thousands of people drive past the sign and many don't even see it, much less read what it says. And of those who do see it and read it, I wonder how many of them even know who James B. Crooks was. After all, he was basically a kid when he died, with only nine months on the job, and never had the opportunity to make the kind of deep impacts and impressions that were made by Bell and Childers.

The last time I saw Randy Bell was -- quelle surprise -- at a hockey game, in what is now known as Amalie Arena but was then known as the Ice Palace. It was the arena's first season. Bell used to work there when he was off duty, doing whatever security-related things need to be done in the tunnel that players take from the locker room to the ice and vice-versa. My cousin Rob and I were up in the stands watching the Lightning play the Rangers (if memory serves) and one of the players had to head to the locker room for some reason. I don't recall if the player was a Bolt or a Ranger, but I do remember that as he started down the hall, we saw Bell standing there far below, only a little ways down the tunnel, and Rob said "there's Randy." Obviously we did not speak to him, and little did we know that his life was mere months from being over.

Like I said above, there are too many stories about the fallout to go into them all right now. Chief among them are certainly the stories of widows and of children left fatherless. I am not writing those stories because, in addition to the fact that time is lacking right now, I feel unworthy of that task.

All I know is that May 19, 1998 was the day a useless husk of white trash got what he had coming to him... and was also the day that countless other people received news that no human being should ever have to hear.

Every other May 19, including this one in the year 2018, is simply a day to remember.