Thursday, October 15, 1970.
It had been almost fifty years since a cop had
been killed on California’s North Coast. In fact, only the oldest of
the old timers that met for breakfast at Fernbridge every day could
even recall that spring morning in April, 1921, when Constable Purvis
McKenzie was gunned down by an armed assailant near Klamath. The
shooter, who was captured four hours later attempting to flee from a
roadblock set up in Orick, had long since died in San Quentin prison
of natural causes.
Of course, that incident was not even on the
mind of California Highway Patrol Officer Dean Brennan as he turned
his older blue Datsun pickup off the freeway. In fact, he was only
thinking about football, Pop Warner peewee football to be exact.
All of that was about to change in the next
few minutes. History has a habit of repeating itself in small, remote
communities that time and progress seem to have forgotten, and
Humboldt County was just such a community in 1970. Brennan made the
two quick right turns that led him back toward the CHP Office, a
lonely cinderblock building that sat alone at the edge of the huge
open wetlands on the southern outskirts of the small bayside city of
The remnants of a crescent moon hung just over
the western horizon, creeping in and out of the gray-black clouds that
told of a pending storm coming in over the ocean. An early morning
fog hung low, touching the ground, low enough to see over it as he
drove up to the closed office.
The nondescript office was ‘ground zero’ for
the 25 Traffic Officers who patrolled the highways in rural Humboldt
County. Nestled against the background of the vast Giant Redwood
forests as they meet the Pacific Ocean, Humboldt remains one of
California’s almost forgotten northern coastal counties.
From the outside, at that time of the morning,
the building didn’t appear to be inhabited, but then, it was supposed
to look that way. The CHP, for safety purposes, would prefer that no
one knew that inside the building, CHP Dispatcher Sylvia Santos sat
alone all night in the Dispatch Center, a one-room cubicle set aside
in one corner of the CHP Office.
The Dispatch Center was manned 24 hours per
day, seven days per week, to answer public calls for help and to
dispatch Officers via radio to such calls. Sylvia was working alone
tonight on the “all-nighter” shift, which began at midnight. She was
the sole communication link for radio calls to and from the two-man
graveyard unit, which went off-duty at 4:30 a.m., and for unit “22-E”,
the solo Officer on the early morning “E” shift, which covers the two
hour gap until the regular morning shift, including Brennan and three
other Officers, began.
Officer Brennan pulled up to the locked gate,
which opens to the back parking lot. The gate was always locked,
except when there was a uniformed Officer present in the building.
The fact that the gate was locked as he approached meant his closest
friend on the CHP, Officer Sonny Tyler, who was working 16-22-E, must
have gotten a call and had “hit the road.”
“Damn,” thought Brennan as he got out, entered
the four-digit security code, and rolled the big gate open.
He parked in the first empty stall, and a few
moments later, he unlocked the back door of the office and went
inside. He made his way through the locker room and walked briskly to
the front corner of the building where Sylvia was sitting at the
dispatch console, illuminated by a single reading light in the mostly
unlighted room, engrossed in what appeared to be a romance novel.
Sylvia was by far the prettiest of the eight
dispatchers at the office, the 28 year-old granddaughter of Enrico
Santos, one of the many Portuguese dairy farmers in the community of
Ferndale, 18 miles south of Eureka. Her jet black hair fairly framed
her striking features, and her alluring dark eyes complimented her
naturally tanned complexion.
“Morning, Sylvia,” he said, “I guess Sonny is
already out on a call?”
She looked up and smiled as she closed the
book on her index finger between the pages. “Yes, Dean, he left just
a few minutes ago for an accident out in the Freshwater area. You’re
in here early.”
“I hoped to catch Sonny before he left and
talk some football. I want to go over some football plays with him
before we got busy. How bad is the accident, do I need to get out
there to help?”
“Just a reported non-injury accident.
Football, huh?” she said, “You guys still coaching football together?”
Brennan pulled out the only other chair in the
room and sat down across from the desk. A big man, he could barely
fit his 1958 University-of-Oregon-starting-left-tackle body into the
chair. Sylvia finished closing the book and set it on the table,
marking her place with a blank dispatch card.
“Yeah. Pop Warner Football; and this is the
big game this weekend. Fortuna versus Eureka.”
“Which side are you guys on?”
“Eureka, of course. We coach the Eureka
Pirates, the 9 to 12 year-olds. We play in Fortuna this week, and I
got this great draw play I wanted to show him. I’ll have to catch up
with him on the road later.”
“Men and football,” she said with a slight
shake of her head. “Of course, my family is all about High School
football. No, make that Ferndale High School football.”
“We’ll be there soon. Watch out for Eureka
High in 1976, when our kids get there.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the
arrival of Wayne Coughlin and Russ Gibson, two other day shift
Officers coming on duty. Coughlin, the older and shorter of the two
by two inches, was smiling proudly under his thick black mustache. He
fancied himself quite a ladies man, and everyone could see he was
proud of something he had to share with them as he maneuvered his way
into the now-crowded room. Gibson, quieter by nature, stood slightly
behind him in the doorway in anticipation. Without hesitation,
Coughlin broke into the conversation. “Hey, Sylvia,” he said
seductively, “I had a dream about you and me last night…”
“That’ll be the day!” she said, rolling her
eyes and looking down at the desk.
“No, really,” Coughlin continued, now a little
louder and cockier, “We were together and you said I was the biggest
you’d ever had!” He paused, gloating over the thought that he’d
caught her off guard with his crude innuendo.
“Coughlin.” Sylvia paused. She slowly and
deliberately rotated her head and eyes from the desk to look directly
at him. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that being told you’re the
biggest prick they’ve ever seen is NOT a compliment?”
“Whoohoo,” Officer Brennan shouted as he and
Gibson burst into laughter. Coughlin turned red and looked at them
and said, “That’s not funny!” He pressed backwards past Gibson and
walked away muttering to himself.
“That is the first time I’ve ever heard
Coughlin speechless,” Gibson laughed. “What a hit for his giant ego.”
“We gotta tell the Sergeant about this, he’ll
love it.” Brennan chuckled as they made their way down the hall
toward the briefing room. Sylvia smiled proudly to herself, as she
re-opened the novel and began to read again.
Brennan and Gibson were still chuckling about
the incident in the briefing room a few minutes later, when Sergeant
George Anderson walked into the room, walked past the podium at the
front of the room, and sat with his right leg on the corner of the
front desk, just as he always did. Three minutes till 6:00 a.m., just
like every other day. He was punctual, if nothing else.
Anderson was one of three Sergeants assigned
to the Area. He was not highly respected by any of the Officers,
since they saw him as a man who commanded attention by virtue of the
stripes on his sleeve, rather than through his actions. Four years
previously, when the CHP was doubling in size statewide, he had taken
the Sergeant’s test and came near at the bottom of the 320 who took
the test. Normally about 100 Officers would be promoted on a list,
but as fate would have it, new Sergeants were needed throughout the
state, and every person on the list was promoted. So there he was, a
Sergeant, even if in name only, and the Officers were stuck with him.
He looked over at the two men assembled in the
room and smirked with anticipation. Officer Coughlin was not there
yet, but he could hear him in the adjacent locker room. Coughlin was
always the last one in the room, and the Sergeant knew he would come
breezing in, half dressed, and usually with seconds to spare before
the clock struck 6:00 a.m. Once in a while, he’d be a few seconds
late, and the Sergeant hoped today would be one of those days. He
looked up at the clock again, ready to catch Officer Coughlin late, so
he could call out to him in the locker room, “Coughlin, get in here!”
It was a little ritual they played out every morning. It was Officer
Coughlin’s way of showing his lack of respect for the Sergeant, and it
was Sergeant Anderson’s way of reminding Coughlin who was in charge.
“Hey Serge,” Brennan said, “You’ll love this.
Wait’ll you hear what Sylvia just did to Coughlin.” But before he
could continue, Coughlin shouted, “Shut the fuck up, you guys,” from
the adjacent locker room. Again, Brennan and Gibson burst into
As he watched the clock and waited, Sergeant
Anderson didn’t attempt to get involved in the conversation, but
quietly waited for the second hand of the clock to point exactly to
the 12, at which time he would be officially in charge once again.
His silent sentinel was interrupted by the voice of Sylvia, on the
intercom. “Sergeant Anderson, please come up to dispatch
immediately. Please hurry!”
The collective heartbeat of everyone in the
room stopped in its tracks. That certain pitch in a dispatcher’s
voice was reserved only for a singular type of emergency; that
involving one of their own. An Officer was in great danger!
Officer Brennan was closest to the door, and
was the first to react to the call, with Officer Gibson right behind.
After a moment’s delay to realize what he just heard, Sergeant
Anderson caught his breath and raced up the short hallway to the
dispatcher’s office, pushing his way into the small, crowded, room.
“What’s up?” he gulped. Officer Coughlin came up from the locker
room, his shirt out and his pants half zipped, yelling, “What’s going
“Shut up, Coughlin!” the Sergeant said. Then,
turning to the ashen-faced dispatcher, “What’s wrong?” he asked
“I got a faint call a few minutes ago. I
couldn’t make it out, but it sounded urgent. The only unit we have
out is Officer Tyler, and now he doesn’t answer.” I pulled the master
tape and put it on the spare reel, but this is all I can get from
it.” She pushed the PLAY button and out of the quiet they heard a
short, faint utterance. The entire transmission was very short, just
the keying of the microphone, followed by a few labored, breathless
words, but it was clearly from Unit 22E, Officer Tyler. “Play it
back! … Play it back!” someone yelled from the rear, “and turn it up!”
Once again, the dispatcher backed up the tape,
turned up the volume, and clicked the PLAY button. A chill ran down
the neck of everyone in the room, when they heard Officer Tyler, in
obvious anguish, take a deep breath and groan, “22E, Officer Down!”
For a few short seconds, there was silence, another labored breath,
and then the mike went dead. Officer Gibson said, “Holy Shit!”
Officer Brennan shouted, “Where is he?”
Sergeant Anderson asked excitedly, “When did
you talk to him last?”
Without waiting for an answer, Officer Brennan
sprinted from the room. From the dispatch center, his footsteps could
be heard as he ran down the hallway to the locker room. Moments
later, a locker door slammed, and he was out the door to the carport.
Behind him, you could hear other lockers and doors slamming, and the
jangling of keys, as Gibson also prepared to respond to a location
neither had yet determined.
Back in the dispatch center, Sylvia turned to
Sergeant Anderson and Officer Coughlin, “Just a few minutes before the
call, he radioed he was clear from the accident call on the east
side. Grabbing the log, she said, “Here it is! Dispatched at 5:49
a.m. Citizen report of a non-injury accident, Myrtle Avenue at
Freshwater Road. It was GOA, gone on arrival. Then, a few minutes
later, he called in a traffic stop for a registration violation on a
California plate, but didn’t give a location. It has to be close to
Myrtle and Freshwater.”
Officer Coughlin moved quickly through the
doorway to respond to the call. At that moment, Officer Brennan came
over the radio, “Humboldt, 16-18. I’m en-route. What was Tyler’s
Switching to the countywide radio frequencies,
Sylvia alerted all available units of the situation, “16-18 and all
units, Emergency Traffic! 11-99! Repeat, 11-99! Officer Needs
Help! Last reported making a traffic stop on a white late-model
Chevy, expired California license ARM601, about three minutes after
clearing a call at Myrtle Avenue and Freshwater Road.”
Brennan responded, “16-18 is en-route; run
that license plate and get the vehicle and Registered Owner
information to me as soon as possible.”
Minutes later, first Gibson, and then
Coughlin, also called in to report they, too, were en-route to the
area from which Tyler was last heard.
In the dispatch center, Sylvia went over the
details again with the Sergeant. “Tyler is working E watch alone. He
responded at 5:19 a.m. to a non injury accident call at Myrtle and
Freshwater. At 5:49 a.m., he calls it in as GOA. A few minutes
later he made a traffic stop on a white late-model Chevrolet;
California license ARM601, for expired registration, but didn’t give a
location. The last radio traffic was me advising him there was no
record on the plate; it shows unregistered for at least five years.
That’s as far as DMV records are available.”
“No record in five years?” Sergeant Anderson
asked. “Run it again, there has to be something! Call DMV in
Sacramento. Get the old owner, new owner, anything!”
“That plate number means it is a very old
plate, Sarge,” Sylvia declared, “But I’ll see what I can find out. In
the meantime, I could use some help with notifications and getting the
All Points Bulletin out to other agencies to be on the lookout for a
white late-model Chevy.” Pausing, her voice dropped, “It sounds bad …
don’t you think we should let the Commander know what’s happening?”
Sergeant Anderson nodded.
Moments later, while they waited for the
Officers to arrive at the last known location of Officer Tyler, the
phone rang. “CHP dispatch. Is this an emergency?” Sylvia answered.
After eight years at the same console, she instinctively drew the
correct dispatch card from the slot without looking, punched it in the
time stamp machine, and began to make notes on the card.
“What? I’m having a hard time hearing you,
sir. There’s some traffic noise in the background. Can you speak a
little louder? That’s better, it went away. No sir. What is the
location?” She then repeated the information she was being given so
that the Sergeant could follow along, “CHP unit with its emergency
lights on and no-one appears to be around. Where? Greenwood Heights
Drive one-half mile north of Freshwater? Can I get your name, sir?”
There was a short pause, and then she said, “He hung up.”
“That’s less than a mile from Myrtle and
Freshwater.” Sergeant Anderson said.
Back on the radio, Sylvia said, “Attention
16-18 and all units; Citizen’s report of a CHP vehicle with its lights
flashing and no-one around on Greenwood Heights Drive one-half mile
north of Freshwater.”
“10-4. En route,” answered Brennan.
It seemed like an eternity as she and the
Sergeant waited for the call they didn’t want to hear. While they
waited, anticipating the worst, Sylvia picked up the phone and dialed
the ambulance ‘hot line’. “Morning, Verna. I want you to start an
ambulance, with EMT’s and Paramedics, everything, as soon as you can,
Code 3, to Greenwood Heights Drive one-half mile north of Freshwater.
No, it isn’t an accident, but I think we may need all the help we can
get for an Officer down at that location, and I want to get help
As she waited, she went over in her mind what
she would do if this was really the “worst case scenario” every
dispatcher dreads. She grabbed the Emergency Procedures Manual from
the shelf, but before she could open it, they heard Officer Brennan
say, in an obviously excited voice, loud enough to be heard above the
siren in the background, “16-18 is on the scene with the unit on
Greenwood Heights; it appears no-one is around. Advise other units
for backup. I’ll be looking around.”
“This isn’t good,” Sergeant Anderson said.
“This is NOT good!”
Within seconds, the silence was again broken
by the now-panicked voice of Officer Brennan, “Humboldt, 16-18,” he
said breathlessly, “Officer Down! Send an ambulance, supervisor, and
Sheriff for … he paused to force the words out of his mouth … possible
11-44, Officer Down!”
“11-44 Officer?” Sergeant Anderson grimaced
as if someone had just punched him in the stomach. He sank back in
distress into the empty chair at his side. A half-hour ago, he
relished being “in charge.” Now, the thought that an Officer had been
killed on his watch made him want to throw down his badge and run
away. “This can’t be true,” he muttered to himself. “I’d better get
out there,” he said, as he walked from the room.
“10-4, 16-18,” Sylvia responded to Officer
Brennan, tears already streaming down her face. She took a deep
breath to compose herself, and said slowly into the microphone,
“Ambulance is already en-route. I’ll make the notifications.” She
looked at the timestamp on the dispatch card she held; it was 6:21
Back at the scene, Officer Brennan hung up the
microphone and stared out through the windshield at Officer Tyler’s
unit in front of him. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out as
he took in the enormity of the situation. He swallowed hard and
hesitated a moment in shock and disbelief. He knew what to do next;
he had done it a thousand times on lesser cases than this over the
last 16 years. He had to preserve the crime scene, and protect
potential evidence. But this was his closest friend on the CHP, and
he couldn’t just let him lie there, dead, while he waited helplessly.
What if he weren’t really dead?
Brennan got out of the unit and walked quickly
between the vehicles and along the right side of Tyler’s car,
approaching the still, lifeless form on the ground near the right
front fender. He winced as he kneeled down near his friend, who was
slouched against the right front wheel and fender, his head cocked to
the left staring eerily into the adjacent forest. A medium caliber
bullet hole was visible in the Officer’s blood soaked shirt just to
the left of the top button. A second hole was in the throat area, and
everything below it was drenched in deep red blood. There was no
blood coming from the wounds now; it appeared that it had all drained
down his shirt and into his lap, forming a large puddle on the ground
around the Officer. The smell of fresh blood filled his senses, and
as his heart held out hope for his fallen comrade, reality kept
reminding him that he’d seen and smelled death before, and this was
exactly what it looked and smelled like.
By now the last remnants of the moon had
vanished beyond the western horizon, and the first rays of daylight
were yet to appear from the east. Lost somewhere between night and
day, reality and denial, Officer Brennan knelt down, supported Officer
Tyler’s head, held it in his arms and, in a broken voice, begged his
friend not to die