I’m writing in response to your inquiry regarding the Keaton homicides. I've given it some thought, and I've decided I'd like to give you my testimony. Stories like this one shouldn't be stuffed into a drawer and forgotten. I'll admit, some of the pertinent details have slipped my mind over the years, but I've had a chance to visit the archives and have a second look at certain relevant documents—perks of being a former detective—and I think I'm probably in the best shape to give you the full story. Attached is my complete statement on the case, from beginning to end. Best of luck with your book.
Yours, James Lamb
A lot of people will tell you this story starts with a murder, but that’s not quite true. For me, this started before all the talk of serial killers—in fact, it started half a year before a single person at Lowry County PD had even heard the name “Jeff Keaton.” It started with a string of break-ins. They were in residential areas, and none of them resulted in anything of substantial value being reported stolen. All in all this was the kind of crime which we at the department wouldn’t have taken all too seriously had it not been for the fact that the break-ins had victimized certain members of the upper echelon of the community. If you’re going to really understand this story, then it’s important that you understand that this town is all about connections. The big businessmen, the politicians and various venerable families are all part of a group of people I call the town elite, and the town elite takes care of its own. By that I mean that these folks have a rich tradition of scratching each other's backs. So when a known socialite and donor for the mayor’s re-election campaign has a run in with cat burglar LCPD doesn’t hesitate to break out the big guns and conduct a thorough investigation, regardless of how little evidence there is to work with or how inconsequential the damages are.
Don’t let my outspokenness fool you—retirement’s made me blunt, but back then I was just another cog in the machine; I pretended all of this stuff didn’t exist just like everyone else. So when they asked me to put off actual work to do a formal interview of some six-year-old who claimed to have seen the burglar in the dark for less than thirty seconds, I didn’t complain; I did it with a smile. I’ve reconstructed the interview from notes in the archives, and here’s his basic story:
He woke up in bed, and he saw a figure crouching at the head of his bed. It was dressed in black, but he said the light from his window (his open window) was enough to see some of his face by. He had, and these are the kid’s words: “white skin, and black-ringed eyes.” They looked at each other for a minute, and then the figure smiled at him, whispered “go to sleep,” and climbed out the window.
I could buy that the kid saw the burglar. The face I rationalized as the distorted description of a white ski mask. The rest? I dismissed them as products of the kid’s imagination. Couldn’t fault a six-year-old for exaggeration, and god knows this kid was probably getting more attention as a “witness” then he usually got from parents as busy as his. If I were him, I probably would have sensationalized the story to make myself feel a little special, too. So that was that. I filed away his testimony and called it a day, and the burglar never struck again and of course we never found him. It’s only in retrospect that I can see, with chilling clarity, that it was him. Cutting his teeth on breaking and entering, biding his time until he got good enough at it to do what he really wanted to do. In a morbid sort of way, it’s funny: if we’d caught him back then, Tabitha Cromwell and the others would still be alive today. I try not to think about that too much.
Fast-forward a few months. I’m writing up a report on a 20-something man, a kid really, gutted in his house in the projects. I barely needed to do the requisite background checks to verify my first suspicions: gang violence. Strange how so many well-to-do folks and so many underprivileged ones can coexist in the same town like that, but that’s how it was. Gangs had been a thorn in our side for decades, and gang-related homicides were all the more tragic for their frequency. Fingerprints at the scene belonged to a guy already in the system. Jeffrey H. Keaton. I ran the name through the archives, got a profile on him.
Interestingly, we—the system, that is—were already acquainted with him. He had a brother, Liu Keaton, serving a term in the Stockton Juvenile Detention Center for assault with a deadly weapon, and he’d been reported missing at 14 after running away from home. The incident hadn’t received much press, apparently because his parents didn’t press LCPD to locate him. From all that, I was pretty sure at the time that I had him figured out. Kid in a bad neighborhood, indifferent parents, criminal brother, the ingredients for a gang kid were all there. I could only guess at what happened to him after he ran away but I assumed he became homeless and from there I can tell you from personal experience that most folks will do anything they have to to survive.
As self-assured as I was about my theory about Keaton’s life, however, there were a few things about the nature of the crime that suggested something more sinister than gang violence. For one, the state of the corpse: it had been mutilated, skinned in places and riddled with dozens of shallow cuts carved into the flesh. I saw it myself, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a gang casualty brutalized like that. They could be vicious, but they weren’t psychopaths. For another thing, they’d apparently broken into this guy’s home, deep in an area we knew was dominated by one gang, to kill him. Gang wars took place out on the open, in the streets like the displays of strength they were. And when they entered private residences they were rarely carried out in stealth like this break-in had been or done so close to territory that wasn't in dispute.
It didn’t all add up so I had my suspicions, but personal curiosity doesn’t often translate into professional action in my line of work. Kids in the projects didn’t have wealthy benefactors to make sure their cases stayed open. I put in the minimum effort required (placed him on the right lists, put out a warrant for his arrest) and then I moved on. No concerted effort was ever made to find Keaton; he just joined the faceless mass of people suspected of gang affiliations and that was the end of it. Or so we thought. Whoever said hindsight’s a gift never made any mistakes.
It all went to hell two months later. I can’t speak for other departments, but LCPD has an unfortunate tendency to slip into complacence around the holidays, when the prospect of winter leave is on the horizon. Maybe they’re all like that, or maybe this is just that kind of town. Either way, the events of mid-December could not have occurred at a less opportune time.
It was a quiet Saturday afternoon when I got the call. I still haven’t forgotten the little details: picking up my phone, getting in my car, pulling out of the driveway trying to remember if the name Tabitha Cromwell meant anything to me. When I got to the station, everyone was already on their feet, pacing, talking with one another in low, anxious voices. After maybe twenty minutes, the chief came into the room and this is more or less the run-down he gave us:
Two days before, a maid who did weekly housework for one Tabitha Cromwell had let herself into her employer’s house with a spare key to do Saturday cleaning, found Cromwell’s body mutilated on her living room floor, and called 911 in a panic. LCPD had sent a ground crew to the scene to corroborate the maid’s story, and they found everything just as she’d described it. They did a preliminary investigation and found a few items of note: a) the state of her body suggested she’d only been dead one or two days at the most and b) there were fingerprints around the house. The boys in forensics had run them through the database, and as you’ll already know they belonged to Jeffrey H. Keaton. The Cromwells were already pressing for an investigation, and the chief had called us in to start assembling a case. I’d find out later Tabitha was the widow of John Cromwell, three-term city councilman and, in his prime, contender for state senate.
My first thought about Keaton in six weeks was this: he was a dead man. Like I said, the elite in this town move mountains. Gang-related homicide was one thing, but this? Her in-laws would be breathing down our necks until we caught him, and after that he wasn’t going to see an ounce of mercy in court. To tell the truth, the fact that people as well-to-do as her could be victims of crimes like this at all was jarring. They way we see them, the way they carry themselves, sometimes it’s easy to forget they’re only human.
In a sick way, when the chief told me I was taking the lead on the case I was excited. One has to understand, at this point I looked at this case in a completely impersonal way, and I’ll put it plainly: handling high-profile cases isn’t an uncommon way to rise in my line of work. I’d been tapped for the job for two reasons. For one, I was something of a rising star in the department (and besides that some of the more obvious senior candidates had taken their leave already). For another, after looking at Keaton’s file the chief had noted I’d handled his other case and assumed I’d be more familiar with him. So that was that—this was a manhunt for a serial killer with two murders under his belt, and I, young and ambitious, wasn’t going to squander the opportunity to prove myself.
I planned to handle it by the book. We put out press releases and gave statements to the local news giving descriptions of the suspect and urging people to report in with information. I also arranged for interviews with residents who'd lived near Tabitha, the neighborhood watch in her area and even the family of that projects kid who'd long ago lost faith that their boy was ever going to get justice. That last group was oddly lucky that their cause was being unknowingly championed by the Cromwells; a rising tide lifts all ships, I suppose, even if that tide is blood.
It was Tabitha’s father-in-law who initially suggested we try to compile a psych profile on Keaton. Early on, Maurice Cromwell (“Call me Maury.”) started making regular visits to the station to follow up on the state of the case, and by the end of the investigation I got to know him a lot better than I cared to. He was slight and old, but there was authority in his voice and his mannerisms. He was, after all, the driving force behind the investigation. He was also, as he was polite enough to refrain from mentioning more than a couple of times, one of many private sponsors of LCPD. Go figure. One of our meetings early on, he mentioned that he had a lot of faith in psychological profiling. I tried to explain that we generally didn't approach homicides that way. By way of reply, absurd as it sounds, he cited some crime show as evidence that this was the way to catch a serial killer. At first I thought he was joking, but when I realized he was dead serious I assured him we’d have a thorough psych profile assembled. I knew the man could have had me removed from the investigation with one word to the chief, so I wasn't about to question him. Little did I know how radically his half-baked idea was going to change my perception of this case.
I started gathering a list of potential witnesses to contribute to the profile. The pickings were slim. Keaton’s parents, the obvious choice, made it clear they weren't going to give a statement and though I made many efforts to get them to reconsider eventually I had to accept that they weren't going to come around. I asked around his former school and his neighborhood too, and though there were shreds of information from various people it seemed as though no one had known Keaton in an intimate way, or if they had the prospect of confessing about a suspected serial killer was enough to frighten them into silence. I tried to impress upon them that their testimony would be anonymous but as Keaton had been a kid when he ran away most of them were also kids and a prone to irrational fear—to be fair, we all are. That was that. It took me longer than it should have to finally consider speaking to the kid who would eventually become my best witness: Jeff’s delinquent brother, Liu.
When I first sat down to talk to him in Stockton JDC, I had a general idea of what he'd be like. I didn't know anything about him save that he’d been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, and I'd dealt with people with histories of violence. I pictured someone intimidating, and uncooperative. From past experience, I had the corrections officer in duty stay on hand in case things went sour, even though he insisted Liu "wasn't that kind of kid."
I was taken aback when this lanky, pale boy with thick glasses and a dog-eared book under his arm walked in and introduced himself as Liu. In retrospect, I wonder how I neglected to find a picture of him before coming to talk to him. Trying to hide my surprise, I introduced myself as well and held out my hand. He shook it halfheartedly. I've been watching the news,” he said abruptly. “I know what he did.” It took me a minute to realize that Liu was cutting straight to the point and talking about Jeff.
“He’s still only a suspect,” I replied.
“I'm not going to tell you anything. The only reason I agreed to see you is to make my supervisor happy.” Liu didn't say this with malice. He said it matter-of-factly, as though he'd made up his mind the minute he heard my proposition. He paused. “I'm not going to sell him out. And even if I was, I haven't heard from him in years.”
We went back and forth a while. I explained that information didn't have to be recent to be valuable, and I hinted at the promise of an early release, but he didn’t seem interested. After a few failed starts, I threw out something that stuck.
“Think about it this way. I'm looking for background information, and that always humanizes a suspect in the eyes of a jury. I can sympathize with your loyalty to your brother, but you have to understand that by telling us who he was you'd be helping him. It's a lot easier to put a person to death when you don't know them."
That resonated with him. I could tell as soon as the words left my mouth. Deciding to quit while I was ahead, I took out my business card and slid it across the table to him before rising from my chair. "Take a week to think about it, okay? If you change your mind, tell your supervisor and they'll arrange another meeting with me."
Of course, I was lying through my teeth. Like I said earlier, once he was caught, Keaton had no chance. The Cromwells were going to make certain he was crucified. But I wanted Liu’s testimony, so I didn't tell him that. And a few days later, the phone rang. I've always been a particularly good liar.
I started seeing Liu every Wednesday; visits to Stockton became a kind of weekly ritual I performed after the day’s office work on the case was finished. I probably would’ve taken the assignment less seriously had Cromwell not checked on the progress of the psych profile every week. Because of him, I had to remain diligent. The first few weeks, Liu was reticent and the material he gave me was innocuous. Quickly though, without much plying from me, he started telling Jeff’s story in earnest, almost eagerly. At first I had no idea what had caused him to become abruptly cooperative, but gradually I realized that this was a story he desperately wanted to tell someone, anyone. A dynamic emerged between us. He became my informant, and in return I became his confessional priest. I can only guess as to whether our relationship benefited him as much as it did me.
The following, compiled from maybe a half dozen separate interviews with him, is the complete (to the best of my knowledge) story of Jeffrey Keaton, as told by Liu, spanning until the time of his brother's imprisonment. Much of it was verified after the fact through interviews with other witnesses (who, strangely enough, became more willing to talk as the hunt for Jeff drew on) and the rest was taken on faith, but it's my conclusion that the core of this story is true. I include it here because though it's relevance may be dubious now, in the end this testimony was probably the defining factor in my handling of the case.
Jeffrey Keaton and his brother Liu moved to Lowry County three years ago, when Jeff was 13 and his brother was 16. They’d lived in some no-name rural town, so urban life was a bit of a culture shock. Jeff took the transition particularly hard. Liu didn’t have much trouble integrating into the community, but Jeff struggled. He had always been a quiet, solitary boy who spent most of the day in his room and he had a hard time getting close to people. Liu told me matter-of-factly that sometimes he thought he was his brother’s only real friend. In a small town where everyone kept to themselves, he was let alone for the most part. But here, in the city schools, outcasts were prey.
Jeff had trouble with bullies since the beginning. Liu didn’t hesitate to name names: apparently, three kids named Randy, Troy and Keith were the ones who started it. It started one afternoon when Jeff seemed unusually bitter, after Liu asked him if anything was on his mind. See, besides being quiet and reclusive, Jeff had had trouble making friends in the past because of his problems with anger. The kid didn’t like to express his emotions in general; in the face of good news his enthusiasm was usually muted, and when he was sad he found it hard to cry. But anger was different—he held on to his anger, sharpened it like a blade and, at the least expected times, allowed it to translate into impulsive and violent action. By way of example, Liu recited for me the story of a birthday party when Jeff was no more than 8. He and the birthday boy didn’t get along, but Liu was excited to go and it would have been discourteous to invite one but not the other. Jeff behaved himself all night, until the guest of honor made a passive aggressive comment (tamer, according to Liu, than most of the insults they’d slung at each other in the past) and Jeff lost his grip and overturned a table, sending a dozen pieces of fine china and the birthday cake clattering to the floor.
There were visits with doctors and psychiatrists afterwards, but in the end the most they could provide were prescriptions and Liu’s parents were the kind of folks who were embarrassed by the idea of needing medicine to control their child. But social standing was important to them, and they were furious with Jeff for humiliating them in the eyes of the community, so ignoring the problem was out of the question. According to Liu, Jeff’s father took out his anger under the pretense of disciplining his son and all Jeff got in the way of help for his violent impulses was violent treatment.
Since then, Jeff’s violent outbursts had been few and far between but no matter how many bruises his father gave him after the fact he was never quite able to stop them from happening. Liu, for his part, had taken a vested interest in his brother’s mood and feelings. So when he told Liu that some kid named Troy had made a snide remark to him at school and the class had laughed, Liu took it very seriously. He urged Jeff to ignore anyone who harassed him but even as he said it he knew from personal experience how empty his words were. He prayed that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t. A week later, Troy had pushed him in the hall, and then a few days later Troy and his friends had started following Jeff home from school some days and jeering at him. After listening to Jeff’s story feeling helpless to act, Liu jumped at the chance to defend his brother. He offered to walk him home from school as long as he wanted to.
The first few days were uneventful, and then one day Liu was there to see Troy and his friends Randy and Keith following Jeff on the sidewalk. From the beginning, their intent was clear: “Didn’t realize your boyfriend was walking you home Jeff.” Liu turned to the boys. He was three years older than them, though he wasn’t substantially taller or bulkier than any of them. At first he tried to defuse the situation by cracking a joke, but Troy and the rest weren’t having any of it. So Liu threatened to hurt them if they kept following Jeff. Now like I said, Liu isn’t the most physically intimidating person. They called his bluff, and Liu admitted, with shame in his voice that had clearly survived the years, that he couldn’t follow through. And then, Jeff punched Troy in the mouth. He reeled, and his lip started bleeding. No one had expected it, least of all Liu. Randy and Keith just stood there, dumbfounded. Liu, coming to his senses, led Jeff away and the boys didn’t follow them. The rest of the week, they walked home without being bothered.
Liu was proud of his brother for standing up for himself, but at the same time he was scared. Scared because he knew how easy violence came to his brother and feared he’d lose control if he did anything like that again. He made Jeff promise he’d only ever hurt someone again if he was certain he was in danger. Jeff seemed unhappy that Liu was upset that he’d defended himself, because he maintained Troy had deserved it. That was another thing Liu told me about Jeff—he had a strong sense of justice, if it could be called that. He didn’t believe in hurting what hadn’t hurt him. One of the few links between his various fits of rage over the years were that, at least by his own admission, everyone he’d hurt had hurt him first. Nevertheless, he promised. He looked up to his older brother, and the last thing he wanted to do was disappoint him.
For a time, Randy and the others left Jeff more or less alone. Troy never reported the attack, whether out of shame at being beaten or fear of the consequences Liu didn’t know. Liu started to believed that Jeff’s problem was solved. And then, one day in the winter when the sun was setting earlier and earlier and Jeff and Liu had started to walk home in the dark, they were back. The way Liu tells it, he barely saw them coming and then suddenly Randy and company were in front of them. They were walking down a narrow side street, and no one was around. There was a moment of hushed silence, and then there was the rustling Randy’s coat and Liu saw something silver glinting in the moonlight. A knife. In that moment, his heart fell. He didn’t remember what Randy and the others had said, only that they’d started advancing towards him and he froze. He couldn’t take his gaze off that knife.
And then with a strength he didn’t know he had, he ran at Randy. The younger boy hadn’t expected it, and in the moment of surprise the knife fell from his grasp. Liu scrabbled for it on the pavement and clutched the handle in his fist, and then, according to him, he lost control. Randy looked as though he was about to get up, and Liu took the knife and plunged it cleanly below his ribs. Randy’s breath caught in his throat, and it was clear he wasn’t going to rise again, but Liu couldn’t help himself. He stabbed him again, and again, until Randy’s coat was soaked with blood and his face was white as death. He didn’t know how long he stood there, crouched over Randy’s body, but at some point he heard a man’s voice and then he dropped the knife and felt his arms being wrenched behind his back. Troy or Keith had called the police, and they had found him there, shirt covered in blood, a knife in his hand, Randy’s twitching form lying on the ground beneath him.
The rest was in the archives. He’d been held on bail and eventually had his day in court. I’d already seen the records. His public defender had made the case for self-defense, but in the end he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and Randy and the others had walked away. The official story was that Randy and the others were unarmed, and Liu had attacked them unprovoked with a knife. Of course, that could have been true, and Liu’s version of events could have been completely manufactured. But I looked into the facts surrounding the court case and I found some items that make that unlikely.
For one, this wasn’t Randy’s first run-in with the law over an altercation with someone else. He usually got off with a warning, but the history of violence was there. For another thing, the knife was found to have had Randy’s fingerprints on it. No effort was made to explain that. The jury may have ruled in his favor, but from skimming their post-verdict interviews I gathered that the prevailing opinion among them was that Randy couldn’t have been entirely innocent of blame.
But assuming he started the fight, why did he get off scot-free? Simple. Randy’s full name was Randall Cromwell, and Tabitha Cromwell was his mother. If Liu was to be believed (and I believed him, to an extent at least), Tabitha had used her influence to coerce the court into looking the other way while she spared her son from blame and gave Liu a substantially harsher sentence than was typical for his crime. If playing the system like that sounds absurd and impossible, just think of it as the logical extension of giving someone’s break-in a more thorough investigation than it deserves because they’re powerful. These things are far from inconceivable, at least in my town.
So that brought us to Liu’s arrival in Stockton JDC. I wasn’t done with him just yet, but I had some things to sort out before I continued to take his testimony. I let him have a week off while I made use of his story. By now, I was convinced Maury Cromwell, in his bumbling way, had stumbled on a stroke of genius in asking me to write up a psych profile.
There were two conclusions I drew that made this whole thing worthwhile. Firstly, I thought I now had a fair idea of Jeff’s motives for killing Tabitha Cromwell. As Liu told it, he was Jeff’s only friend. If Jeff were going to turn violent, one of the objects of his rage would certainly be the woman who the whole town knew played a role in getting Liu imprisoned. The fact that she was Randy’s mother certainly didn’t help. I presumed the boy would have been killed to had he not (as some research revealed) left town for a boarding school years ago. Maybe it was simple revenge, but I recall Liu saying Jeff believed in hurting only the people that had hurt him. Was this his idea of justice? She’d gotten Liu branded a felon, and his extended sentence was her doing as well. When he got out, his prospects of a meaningful career, a decent life, were all but gone. She’d stolen his life, even if she hadn’t killed him. Maybe to Jeff’s mind, she’d paid with her own.
The second conclusion I drew was that Liu was lying. I realize I just explained that I believe him, but I only believe him to an extent. His story wasn’t completely true. He wasn’t lying about Randy’s role in the confrontation, he was lying about his own. And unlike me, Liu was not a good liar. The whole interview process, I got to know Liu’s personality. Increasingly, it baffled me that this calm, even-tempered kid with his nose in the classics and his self-professed history of being easy-going and nonviolent could commit assault with a deadly weapon. The truth, as I understood it, was that he hadn’t. When you alter a story you alter all of it, you don’t just alter that parts that suit you and leave the rest the same because that leaves inconsistencies. Liu’s story didn’t add up. He’d admitted he’d been unable to make good on his threats to hurt Randy when the boy was unarmed. Yet suddenly he managed the courage to fight him while he was armed with a knife? Jeff, on the other hand, had a history of aggression. A history of losing control when he was confronted and giving into violent impulses.
I decided that Liu had told the truth right up until the end, and then he’d lied and I knew why. In Stockton, Liu could manage more or less alright. Jeff would have been thrown into the psych ward the first time he got angry and probably would have spent the rest of his life being slung from one mental institution to the next like so much trash, drugged out of his mind. But why would Troy and Keith go along with the story that Liu had stabbed Randy when they’d seen otherwise with their own eyes? I don’t know, but maybe having seen the whole incident scared and in dim lighting they were unsure of their own memories and decided if everyone else believed Liu was the aggressor he was. Or maybe after seeing what Jeff was capable of they were too frightened to try and incriminate him. Either way, they kept quiet.
I could see it play out in my head. Three boys meet two brothers in the dark. One boy has a knife and moves to hurt them. One brother just stands there, frozen. Suddenly, the other loses control, rushes the boy with the knife and knocks him to the ground before grabbing it and stabbing him a dozen times in the chest. The older brother looks on, and sees the other two boys standing there in shock. One of them takes out his phone and calls a number. Realizing what's about to happen, the older brother rips his brother’s bloodstained coat off and switches it with his own before prying the knife from his hand and shoving him out of the way. He stands over the bleeding boy, feigning shock, until the police arrive and then he lets them take him away.
Time didn’t stop while I got what I needed from Liu. In the outside world, new developments were taking place and Jeff, or “Jeff the Killer” as they were calling him now, had been busy. As you’ll already know, there were two more murders. The victims were precisely who you’d expect—Keith and Troy. After it came out who those boys were and how they’d known Jeff, a lot of people started reaching the same conclusions I had: Jeff was killing those he thought had wronged him. Of course the media sensationalized the whole thing: they started portraying Jeff as some kind of horror movie villain, crossing names off a list of people who’d hurt him to pursue his sick brand of justice. If that list existed, the people I knew to be on it were drying up, but that wasn’t any relief. For all I knew, there were a million other people Liu didn’t know about who Jeff thought deserved punishment.
Troy’s younger sister witnessed him entering their home, and her testimony started to shape the public’s perception of Jeff as well. She described him much as that break-in victim from almost a year ago had, with white skin and black rings around his eyes. Everyone had their own explanations for why he might look that way, though eventually it came out that his face was disfigured after suffering severe burns. But more importantly, the girl said that Jeff had told her to “go to sleep.” Everyone had a field day with that. After some tasteless local talk show theorized that was his catchphrase, people started repeating it to each other in mock-menacing voices as a joke. Leave it the general public to make light of a serial killer at large.
Liu had little else to say. He told me that Jeff had tried to visit him every week after he was sent to Stockton. Neither one of them mentioned Randy’s stabbing. Liu heard that Troy and Keith left Jeff alone at school, and he was finally let alone. And then Jeff got into an accident. Liu didn’t hear from him from months, and he stayed up some nights wondering if he'd ever see him again. When he finally came back in to Stockton, half his face was swathed in gauze and what wasn't was scarred beyond recognition. Liu learned from his parents (who visited him on occasion, even though as a felon he was a source of more shame for them than Jeff at this point) that Jeff had suffered severe injuries in a house fire. Liu tried to get Jeff to open up about the accident—he had his suspicions about it—but Jeff refused to say anything, claiming he didn't remember and he didn't want to talk about it. Liu told me Jeff wasn't the same afterwards: he was less coherent, harder to fathom, and listless. As time passed, his visits got rarer and rarer and then one day Liu's parents told him Jeff had run away. He never came to say goodbye.
As it happened, I already knew the circumstances behind Jeff’s “accident.” On my break from visiting Liu, I’d driven to Randy’s boarding school. He wasn’t hard to track down, and when I did he wasn’t hard to get a meeting with. No one, not even Maury Cromwell, suspected he could be a victim so he’d been allowed to stay put and I think he liked being as far from Lowry County as possible. From milling around the campus and casually questioning passing students without telling them who I was, I gathered quickly that news of Jeff the Killer had spread past Lowry County. Kids here were by and large as morbidly fascinated with the manhunt going on as anyone their age who’d heard of it.
When I got to Randy’s dorm, I had to wait for him to unlatch the deadbolt and chain before I could step inside. The look on his face told me he’d be an open book; he was pale and sallow, and he had rings under his eyes. He’d clearly bought into the media’s idea that Jeff was out for revenge and feared he’d be a target. Up front, he asked for a guarantee that nothing he said could be used to incriminate him. Reluctantly, I gave him that assurance and that was all he needed. Guilt had been eating away at for a long time, and now that he feared for his life he wanted desperately to make his presence known to the police, even if he had to get their attention by airing his secrets. This is the story he told me:
He spent his two-month recovery alternately terrified of and seething at Jeff. He had nightmares about the kid rushing him and the knife slipping into his chest. When he heard Liu had been blamed for the incident, he told his family he remembered Jeff stabbing him but by that time the public’s mind was already made up and his concerns were brushed aside as a misremembering of a traumatic incident. At times, he told me, even he started to believe he was mistaken and Liu had stabbed him, but then he fell asleep, woke up in a cold sweat after a nightmare and was sure of himself again. After a while he stopped insisting Jeff was his aggressor, but privately he started making a plan to deal with him.
According to him, it wasn’t even really revenge. Randy was convinced he’d seen something unholy in Jeff that night in the dark, and he felt strangely, strongly compelled to do something about it. So when he was strong enough to get back to school, he strong armed Troy and Keith (who would have been content never to see Jeff again) into accompanying him to Jeff’s house (they’d followed him home enough to know where he lived) in the middle of the night. He took a can of gasoline from his garage and and a matchbox. He didn’t know quite what he wanted to do, but he had a vague idea. He said he’d had no concept of the severity of the crime he’d been planning. They opened the lock on Jeff’s front door and crept inside. Randy searched until he found Jeff’s bedroom, and then suddenly his hazy, uncertain plans for arson coalesced into one overpowering urge. He opened the can of gasoline and threw it over Jeff’s sleeping form. The boy stirred, and Randy waited until he had opened his eyes and he was certain Jeff recognized the three of them. As Troy and Keith watched in mute horror, he lit a match and flung it on the bed.
In the instant the dim room exploded into light, the horrible realization of what he’d done dawned on him. Randy swore to me he hadn’t been thinking straight until that moment, and when it happened it was as if he snapped out of a trance. Jeff screamed in agony, and he ran down the stairs and out the door, Troy and Keith on his heels. He regretted his actions every moment since then, especially after seeing Jeff’s scars when he came back to school.
I thought I knew then why Jeff hadn’t talked to Liu about his injuries, why he’d grown incoherent and why he’d run away. The boy had been plotting his revenge since he became lucid in the hospital. This incident, I was fairly sure, had pushed him past the breaking point. He’d waited until his scars were no longer raw, until he was off the pain medication and could survive on his own again, and then he had run away to begin a years-long scheme for vengeance. This was, I thought, the beginning of his descent into the person he eventually became.
I opted not to tell any of this to Liu. His utility to me was about to come to an end, and I wanted to part on a more pleasant note. On my last meeting with him, I tried to make it clear how grateful I was for his cooperation. He hadn't asked, but I promised to look into reducing his sentence for helping me. He didn't object. He seemed preoccupied with something. It was only as I was getting up to leave that he gave me the letter. It was a plain envelope, with the name Sara written in a fancy script on the front. “Could you do something for me?” Liu started uncertainly. Before I could ask him to elaborate, he explained. “I’ve been . . . it’s been hard. This girl, my neighbor, Sara, I haven’t seen her in a long time. We used to be really good friends, but her parents think I’m a bad person so they don’t let her visit me. I just . . . I don’t have anyone right now, and she’s the only person I can think of who’d hear me out. I’ve been wanting to get something to her for a while now, but she never replies to my letters; I think her parents throw them away. But you could get this to her. There’s a house next to mine that’s been unoccupied since we moved here. Me and Sara, we used to send each other messages through the mailbox. It’s a longshot, but maybe she still checks it. If I gave you the address, could you put it there?” I thought for a moment, and then smiled and promised him I would. He smiled back, and I could tell he believed me.
Like I said, Liu was a bad liar. I didn’t buy his flimsy story for a single second, but I don’t think he expected me to. See, when he gave me Jeff’s story, I made a show of acting as though his testimony had humanized his brother in my eyes. To tell the truth, it wasn’t even all acting—as time went on, his story had made me sympathize with Jeff to an extent. The boy was a victim of his circumstances, and I pitied him. But if Liu thought that was going to make me look the other way while he delivered a message to Jeff, he was mistaken. The case came first. I didn’t enjoy violating his trust, but I opened the letter as soon as I got to my car. Before doing so, I resolved that if it was harmless, I’d make sure Jeff got it if or when we caught him, if we took him alive.
I expected some kind of heartfelt message, but instead I got a notecard with two dozen words on it. It was an address for a local coffee shop, and a date and time two weeks from that day. My heart leaped into my throat. Could Liu have unwittingly engineered a sting operation to catch his brother?
It seemed perfect, but the more I thought about it the more guilt I felt at betraying Liu. If I set up a stakeout of his mailbox and his brother showed up, they’d never see each other again. I tried to dismiss the feeling with the rationale that this was all being done in the name of the case, but it wouldn’t go away. In the end I made a decision that went against every professional instinct I had—I’d let Jeff get the letter on his own and then trust that he’d come to the coffee shop on the appointed date so that Liu would have his chance to see his brother again before he arrested him. Even as the idea entered my mind I knew it was ludicrous to throw away my first opportunity to catch Jeff, but I also knew I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t.
I dropped the envelope off at the assigned location, and when I checked back on it a week later it was gone. I informed the chief and Maury Cromwell that a sting operation was underway while altering the details enough to skirt around the fact that I’d wasted a chance to catch Jeff, and both of them were ecstatic (or at least Cromwell was as close to ecstatic as a man still grieving his daughter-in-law could be). The whole station held its breath until the night came.
We took a single unmarked police car into the coffee shop’s parking lot a few hours before the time Liu had set. Four cruisers took up positions far enough around the building so as not to be seen but close enough so that they could respond at a moment’s notice. With all the pieces in place, we waited. Sure enough, eventually Liu arrived and took up a spot on one of the outside tables. When a figure in a hooded sweatshirt matching Jeff’s description walked up to him, all of us let out a sigh of relief. We had him.
The officers were waiting for my call to advance. I waited maybe ten minutes. Jeff and Liu were sitting opposite one another. I could see they were talking as soft snowflakes fell around them. Liu had stepped inside the coffee shop to buy something, and he slid it across the table to him. I wasn’t close enough to see their faces. They talked for fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. The other officers weren’t clear on why I was waiting and though they were patient I could tell they were getting restless. Eventually, I had to go in for the kill.
I called in the other officers and in minutes the storefront was surrounded by cruisers. I alone got out, having already instructed the other officers to allow me to make the arrest, and approached Liu and Jeff. As soon as he saw the police cars Jeff shot up from his chair and his hood came off. I stared at his pale white face and black-ringed eyes. It was every bit as surreal as I’d imagined it would be. I advanced slowly, my pistol leveled at him. As soon as I had gotten within thirty paces his arm moved to his waist lightning fast and he drew something from a sheath there that glinted and glimmered in the neon light of the storefront sign—his knife. Suddenly, Liu screamed. “No!” He shoved his brother hard and sent the knife clattering to the ground. Liu knew that if we saw him as a threat we might shoot him.
I looked at Liu “I’m sorry,” I said. Liu just stared at me, his eyes filled with fear and sorrow. Jeff looked from one of us to the other before turning on his heel and running into the coffee shop. I’d expected him that, and I followed him inside. I elbowed my way through alarmed patrons as I
chased him down a hallway and through a pair of double doors into the kitchen. I knew my fellow officers were on my heels. “Put your hands behind your head.” I said plainly. Surprisingly, Jeff complied. He knew he was caught. When he did what I asked, something dropped from his hand and fell to the floor. I looked at it. It was one of those cheap Hallmark Christmas cards.
If you’ve read my official report on the incident, and I assume you have, you’ll know that I claimed Jeff managed to evade us in the end by slipping out the back entrance. That was a lie. I said I was good at lying, but I never said I liked it. The statute of limitations for admitting to what I’m about to admit to is long expired, and I don’t want to lie anymore. Maybe telling you what I’m about to tell you was the main reason I agreed to give a statement in the first place—I can’t say. You can decide whether or not you want to believe me:
When I saw that card everything changed. It was from Liu, obviously. I took a step back, and looked at Jeff again. I looked past the scars and the unkempt hair and the hooded sweatshirt and realized this was a kid of no more than 16. He was a murderer, there was no doubt about that, but he was still a kid. Moreover, he was a kid someone loved. Absurdly, standing there, the man I’d been searching for for over a month in my grasp, it hit me how unfair it all was. Jeff was a disturbed kid who’d never gotten the help he needed, and had suffered cruelties no one his age should have. He’d never had a fair chance to be a good person. If he’d turned into a monster, could he be blamed? Certainly he’d murdered people, but his victims were hardly innocent. Did their crimes warrant death? Maybe not. But in light of all he’d been through, did his? Handing him over to the Cromwells was the same as putting a bullet in his head.
Aware that I had only moments until my fellow officers burst through the doors and narrowed my options down to one, I made a decision. “Hide. I’ll tell them you got out. Wait fifteen minutes and then leave through the back entrance.” He seemed uncertain at first, but I urged him to do what I said and eventually he did. No sooner had he crouched behind a storage rack than two officers burst through the kitchen doors, guns drawn. “He’s not in here,” I said. “I think he circled around to the back entrance.”
I had a cruiser stay out front and the other three comb the surrounding area, but of course we didn’t find him. Eventually we were forced to give up the chase and accept that he’d disappeared into the night just as he had so many times before.
After that, I was off the case. The chief was appalled that I’d allowed our chance to catch Jeff to slip through my fingers, and Maurice Cromwell called me an incompetent to my face. I had to live with that, and watch as some other detective take over the investigation. It was over, though. We never saw Jeff again, and there was never another murder. It took a long time for Cromwell to drop the chase, but eventually even he conceded that Jeff was gone and the case went cold.
I managed to salvage my reputation at LCPD as time went on, and the chief didn’t hold my failure against me forever. I never spoke to Liu again, though I did succeed in reducing his sentence. Randy Cromwell eventually left the state and I don’t know what happened to him since then. Jeff’s abandoned knife was put into the local police museum, but it was stolen a while back. Culprits were never caught—I guess the local punks finally wised up enough to stop leaving their fingerprints at the crime scene. I’ve done a lot of cases since, but none quite like this one. I still wonder some nights if I did the right thing. I’ll never know for sure, but that’s life, isn’t it? Is there a lesson to be learned here? Maybe not, but if I took one thing from this experience it was this: there are two sides to any story. What you choose to take from it, if you choose to take anything from it, is up to you. That’s really all I have to say.