My buddy Mark A. Ward is the inspiration for Officer Bell in my novels “Crystal Meth Cowboys” and the soon-to-be-released “Beer and Gasoline.” He was a rookie cop in Needles, CA in 1968-69. He told me a cautionary tale from his time there.
Ward and a senior officer – let’s call him Hank Jones – were called to the Needles Hospital in late November of ’68. A man in his late twenties and a three-year-old girl had been involved in a solo car accident. The man suffered broken ribs but the little girl was unharmed. Trouble was, reported the attending nurses, the girl was acting strangely. She wouldn’t speak and refused to be in the same room with the man who claimed to be her father.
Nowadays that would raise a big red flag but those were more trusting times. The man was about the right age for her father and even bore a resemblance to the little girl.
Enter officers Jones and Ward. The man swore up and down the girl was his daughter and the girl wouldn’t answer their questions. Jones, whom Ward describes as a nice fellow but a lousy cop who was just putting in time to retirement, concluded the girl was simply traumatized by the car accident and that was that.
Rookie Ward wasn’t so sure. He took the little girl for a walk and tried to coax her to speak. No luck. Finally he asked her a question no three-year-old could resist. “Would you like some ice cream?”
Her quiet “Yes” at least told him she wasn’t deaf and dumb. Ward returned her to the hospital after the ice cream and the cops left. Ward, still sensing something amiss, got on the police teletype and described the situation and the parties involved. In short order he got a phone call from the Las Vegas PD.
“Don’t you rubes down there in Needles have TV?” asked a detective. “This is the biggest crime story in the country! That girl was kidnaped in New Orleans three days ago!”
As Ward describes it, “One minute there was nothing, and the next minute there were FBI agents in white shirts and black ties everywhere.”
So case closed, right? Well, the little girl, Brenda Ann, was returned to her parents, blessedly unmolested. And the man was arrested for kidnaping. But the media wanted a hero. And Hank Jones, as the senior officer on the call, was more than willing to step up.
The front page New Orleans Times Picayune article stated that Jones “kept plugging until he single-handedly established Brenda’s real identity.” They went on to describe Jones’ sleepless night following the initial encounter and his tireless efforts to solve the case.
Ward was surprised, even amused, but, as a rookie, kept his mouth shut. Then it got worse.
Hank Jones became a national hero, interviewed by the TV networks, flown to New Orleans and given the royal treatment. But the most bizarre part, recalls Ward, was what happened next.
Jones, a simple family man, became besotted by his celebrity. He received bags of adoring mail every day. Some envelopes contained cash, some held homemade cookies. As Ward tells it, “He got to the point where he would sit down on the floor of the Needles Police Department and paw through these bags and laugh himself silly.”
The Chief of Police made Jones take early retirement shortly thereafter. And the lesson of this cautionary tale? Beware of fame, for she is a capricious mistress.
Or maybe just, ‘Don’t believe everything you read.’