"Almost mythic, Marlene Dietrich's 'Blue Angel' in Boston."
- The New York Times Book Review
"A terrific work of crime reporting..."
- Library Journal
"An outstanding piece of crime reportage..."
- Kirkus Reviews
"Compelling, wonderfully told. Don't miss it."
- Robert B. Parker, Author of the Spenser novels
from "The Discovery"
Joseph Plotegher's sweet, moon-faced wife, Cissy, warned him to stay away from the highway, but he wouldn't listen. Every winter he got laid off road construction and had to find odd jobs to support her and their little son. Joe's father had gotten him a job at the car auction in Walpole, where he drove the clunkers around for prospective bidders to look over. It was there he met Bob Jewell, a retired state worker, who invited him to go out scavenging. Even before the bottle bill went into effect, seven years earlier, Plotegher had discovered that you could bring in about $200 a week with cans. Combine that with unemployment, and it was pretty good money.
Plotegher liked scavenging. You could find incredible things up there on Route 95, rummaging through the trash at the rest stops. Cissy and his father had a bad feeling about the highway. No good, they felt, could come of poking around the stuff that strangers discarded in the night. He'd be better off sticking to the side roads and back streets. But Plotegher knew the stakes were higher around the blue barrels on Route 95. Sometimes people dropped their jewelry. Once he found a ten-dollar bill.
During the first week of March, Plotegher and Jewell had turned up more than seventy-five cases of bottles and cans between them. They set out on the morning of Sunday, the sixth, to salvage what they could before the barrels were emptied the next day. It was about 9:00 A.M. when they arrived at the Mansfield rest area, one of the better-appointed stops on the northbound lane between Boston and New York.
Jewell agreed to take the right side of the lot, and Plotegher took off to the left behind the tourist information pavilion. Just past a fleet of sleeping truckers lay several blue barrels. Plotegher peered into the first. Lying on top was a brown garbage bag secured by a neat, tight knot. As he lifted it, the weight excited him. That probably meant he had scored a cache of bottles. He tore into the side of the bag and examined its contents. There was a woman's corduroy jacket and a man's blue shirt. Both were spattered with what appeared to be blood. Lying loose among those garments was a hammer.
"Come over here quick," Plotegher called to Jewell. When the older man arrived, he showed him the bag. "Put it back," Jewell directed, "and let's get the hell out of here."
For the rest of the morning the bag and its contents tormented Plotegher. When he got home, he was so pale Cissy thought he might be ill. He finally decided he ought to let someone know what he'd found. It was nearly one o'clock when he phoned the state police barracks in Foxboro and told his story to the desk officer, Frank Mendes. There was nothing particularly alarming in the report. What appeared to be blood often was not. On a busier day, Mendes might have disregarded the call. But on a Sunday afternoon there was rarely much to do at the Foxboro barracks, unless there was a Patriots game at nearby Schaefer Stadium, So Mendes turned to a fellow trooper.
"Got one for you, Paul," he said. "Guy from Foxboro just called saying he found some clothing and a hammer in a trash barrel in the Mansfield rest area. Said they had blood on them. Can you check it out?"
Trooper Paul Landry took the report and read it with casual interest. He was not actually supposed to be any real work. Although he was relatively young, only thirty-two, his health was poor. A short man, about fifty pounds overweight, he suffered from hypertension. His head often ached, and sometimes he woke up in the middle of night short of breath, his heart pounding. Police work had always excited him, but that was the problem. The excitement made him feel worse. Now and again he ran into a situation that sent his blood pressure soaring.
Early one morning the preceding spring, he had pulled into the Mansfield rest area to make a routine check and had become suspicious of two men sitting in a car. He called for backup, and as he and another trooper walked toward the car, the driver opened fire. The marksman escaped into the woods, but Landry managed to grab the passenger and disarm him. The two turned out to be members of a terrorist gang suspected of murdering a New Jersey state trooper. Landry emerged from the fracas a hero, cited by the governor for "swift and courageous" action. Unfortunately, he just didn't have the constitution for heroism. His condition continued to deteriorate, exacerbated by problems at home. He and his estranged wife were locked in a struggle over their young son. Landry decided it was best to take early retirement so that he could concentrate on winning custody of the boy.
On that Sunday afternoon in March, Landry had only twenty-five days left on the job. He had promised his station commander that he would just wind down, get his paperwork in order, and not get involved in anything complicated. When Mendes handed him the Plotegher report, it seemed routine enough. Landry drove out to Mansfield and into the truckers area, where he found the bag that Plotegher had described lying undisturbed on top of one of the barrels. Inside were the blue shirt and the hammer. The jacket which Plotegher had mentioned was apparently hidden. Landry figured it was probably innocuous refuse, but on the off chance it was significant, he called down to the Rhode Island border to Trooper Bud Petrucci, who always kept a camera in his cruiser. When Petrucci arrived, they spread the items appeared to have been ripped at the armpits and mended with a darker blue thread. The woman's jacket was brown corduroy with a stand-up collar and high nap. It emitted a strong floral fragrance. The hammer looked like about a two-and-a-half-pound sledge. It had an iron head with blunted ends mounted on a lacquered wooden handle about ten inches long. It was large enough that a man would probably need two hands to hoist it. A mounting hook had been screwed into the end. Near the hook was a drop of reddish residue that was still wet and sticky.
Landry's curiosity was aroused. His first impression upon hearing about the items in the barrel was that they were probably the cast-off belongings of someone who had put a dog out of its misery. But seeing the shirt and jacket lying there beside a bloody hammer caused him to reconsider. Paul Landry had an odd tick that impelled him to pursue a routine assignment further than the evidence might seem to warrant. It was a habit that had started when he was fresh out of the State Police Academy. He was riding radar with his trooper coach when a car cruised by slightly over the speed limit. It was Landry's inclination to let it slide, but his coach said, "That could be the murderer, and you let him get away. Maybe he has a girl tied up in the backseat. Maybe there's a body in the trunk. Maybe it's the big grab. "The big grab" came to mean the case that makes your reputation. Nabbing the terrorist at Mansfield had caused a pleasant flurry of attention, but twenty-five days away from retirement Paul Landry still felt something missing. His career, exemplary by most standards, still lacked the crowning distinction that makes a man feel his life has been worthwhile. Landry decided to follow this Mansfield thing a ways to see how far the trail would lead.
Landry took the barrel items back to the barracks where he logged them into the contraband journal. Then he called Joseph Plotegher and asked him to come in for questioning. Plotegher was clearly sorry he had gotten himself into this predicament, particularly since he now seemed to be considered a suspect. Landry had him fingerprinted, read him his rights, then asked him to tell his story from the beginning. Plotegher explained how he had seen the corduroy jacket and, not realizing it was a woman's, lifted it out thinking to try it on. When he saw the blood, he dropped the whole bag. Landry called Bob Jewell, who verified this account; then he put both of their names into the computer to see if there were warrants for their arrest. The search turned up nothing. Landry decided that Landry was just what he just what he appeared to be - a scared kid grubbing for bottles to keep his family fed - and he sent him home.
But the items in the barrel continued to intrigue Trooper Landry. Later that day he sent a teletext message to the New England states, requesting receiving departments to check their files for missing persons, homicides, or assaults. The following morning he sent the coat, shirt, and hammer off to the State Police Laboratory at 1010 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Common sense told him this was probably a lot of fuss about nothing. Every now and again, however, he would check the wire for replies...
Copyright (c) 1988 by Teresa Carpenter