Updated: Apr 25
Note: This story was originally published in Mystery Weekly Magazine in September, 2019.
A foot chase is probably one of the most exciting things that a cop can be involved in. Though this particular foot pursuit is fictional, I did draw on the chases I've personally been in, my favorite of which involved another officer and I chasing a suspect through downtown traffic. It wasn't all that different from a movie: cars screeching to a halt, planting a hand on a hood and vaulting between bumpers, lazer-focused on the fleeing criminal. She ran into the parking deck at Hargett and Blount (if you live the Raleigh area) and we followed her in. We all three kept slowing down and slowing down until we were almost walking. I couldn't figure out what was going on. I finally realized the incline of the parking deck was straight kicking my butt. That's when I learned that running and chasing are two very different activities.
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“Baker Three-Five, foot chase!” Joshua “Country” Tumblewhite hollered into his shoulder mic and broke into a run. The driver of the car he’d stopped had a good lead, but the young deputy had an extra fifteen inches to each stride and an enthusiasm for the chase that would have done a foxhound proud.
“Heading north from the Shell station on Fighaven,” he said, broadcasting the driver’s direction of travel to all the responding units. In the near distance, a police siren roared to life. Country smiled. He had him.
It wasn’t the driver’s first time running from the police. He never looked back, not once, but made a straight sprint for the nearby woodline. The sound of the siren so close it could have been a starter pistol for the way the little man accelerated. He planted one foot on the dilapidated fence separating the gas station parking lot from the undeveloped easement and vaulted full-speed into the woods.
Country was only a few steps behind but had to slow down to climb the fence. He carried twenty-five pounds of gear and probably forty pounds more muscle than his quarry, and while that might come in handy once he finally caught the little man, it was hell on a young deputy’s parkour abilities.
Once on the other side of the fence, his focus went immediately to the runner. The ground dropped away in a steep decline dotted with new-growth pines, and the landscape was doing the runner no favors. The little man slipped and slid down the embankment, falling and crashing into tree after tree. Country’d hunted and played in woods like these since he was knee-high to a duck, and wisely made a slower, more deliberate descent.
“Baker Three-Five, my runner’s a Hispanic male, five-five, wearing a red cap, red jacket, and blue jeans. Go ahead and roll EMS and save me a place in line at the jail.”
The dispatcher repeated back the suspect description, but Country tuned it out and focused on the little man tumbling through the underbrush. “Hey, you stupid sonofabitch, stop before you break your damn neck!”
The driver crashed in a heap of flaying limbs where the ground finally leveled out. Country thought he had him there, but the little man bounced up like he’d landed on a trampoline and instantly took off again at a dead run. A twisting creek, really more of a muddy drainage ditch, bisected the easement. The driver cleared the torpid water in a single leap and started scrambling his way up the embankment on the other side. Only a few feet behind him, Country attempted to bound the ditch with slightly less momentum and significantly less success. One boot landed safely on flat, dry rock while the other sank into the creek bed up to the ankle.
“Sonofabitch,” Country cursed aloud. He clawed and crawled his way out of the ditch and started up the embankment. For just a moment, he thought maybe his waterproof Danners had lived up to their reputation, but then he felt the damp mud oozing down to his toes. The rotten stink of the muck followed him up the hill.
Ahead, the driver clawed his way through the pine needles, slipping two feet back for every five feet he gained. Country leveraged himself up the hill, latching onto exposed roots and saplings and heaved his giant frame methodically forward.
“Well, hell,” he panted when it became clear that despite his tenacity and confidence, Country was not going to catch his suspect. His heart sank, the stink of failure somehow worse than that of the putrid mud in his boot. No cop, especially not a shiny new deputy, liked losing a foot pursuit. He paused in his climb as the driver disappeared over the crest of the hill.
“Baker Three-Five, suspect’s coming out of the woods still heading north,” he said into his radio. Country got his bearings and reluctantly added, “He’s getting away from me. Looks like he’s gonna be running by the construction site across from the Walmart on Hastings.”
“Copy,” the reply came back from dispatch. “All units in the area, respond to the 6000 block of Hastings. Suspect is a Hispanic male, approximately five feet, five inches in height and wearing a red cap, red jacket, and blue jeans.”
Country restarted his climb as multiple units replied. Up ahead, he heard a chorus of sirens and the frantic barking of a K9 still in its truck. Country smiled, hope returning like a wind as his back. Oh no, he though, you ain’t got away yet, you sonofabitch.
Country stumbled out of the woods, his shoulders, like a big Belgian Blue’s, heaving with the exertion of the chase. Everywhere he looked, blue lights flashed. The bulk of the deputies working had responded and the construction site was completely surrounded. Workers hung from the building, frozen at the sudden arrival of so many law enforcement officers. The runner, a hundred feet ahead, flung something from his pocket into a pile of scrap wood and stumbled headlong into the building. Deputies rushed to take positions on every corner of the fenced construction site, forming a beautiful ring of blue lights, beige uniforms, and brass badges.
“What do you got?” Sgt. Henderson asked as she calmly exited her Charger and walked up to Country. The smoke from her car’s burning brakes scented the air. A dozen voices fought for airtime on her radio, and she snapped the volume off while she checked on her deputy.
Country straightened up and tried to catch his breath. Despite the mild temperature of the early spring afternoon, sweat poured down his forehead and stung his eyes. He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve and gave his report.
“Just a jump and run, Sarge. I stopped the car for expired tags. Little girl in the passenger seat, little fella driving. Didn’t have no license. Soon as I got back to the car to stroke out a ticket, he took off running like he was trying to catch a bus. I was all over him, but he’s slicker than goose poop.”
Sgt. Henderson grunted noncommittally.
“Blake’s with the car right now,” she said. “He said that little girl in the passenger seat was the one reported missing this morning. Your big dumbass somehow fell face first into the middle of a human trafficking case.” She paused expectantly.
Country thought through what Sgt. Henderson was telling him, but couldn’t quite work out the implications. In his defense, he’d been pretty busy recently, and Country’s mind was still fixed on the chase. His suspect was cornered in a building and every fiber of his being wanted to run in there and snatch up the little man.
Sgt. Henderson’s patience faded when she saw her newest deputy wasn’t getting it.
“You are a box of rocks, Tumblewhite. You just saved that girl’s life and don’t even know it. Your rabbit was taking her across state lines, probably for prostitution. If you didn’t stop that car today, her parents were never going to see her again.”
“But,” Country said, working through it, “she couldn’t be but thirteen. She ain’t no older than my niece.”
Sgt. Henderson nodded, her eyes tightening. Understanding dawned on the young deputy. Country’s teeth ground together and his giant hands, like a bear’s paws, clenched into fists.
“Well, hell,” the young deputy said. “Why are we out here having an afternoon social? Let’s get in there and apply the habeas grabus to this living turd.”
The sergeant held up her finger and turned her radio back on. “Hold tight. There is no sense charging in there and getting someone shot. They’re calling them out now.”
Country looked towards the building. The men who were crawling all over the building when he emerged from the woods had disappeared inside. Eventually, the structure would become a three story office with large, floor to ceiling windows divided by wide columns, but for the time being the skeleton of the building consisted of four steel stairwells and thousands upon thousands of wooden studs. Tyvek wrap covered most of the exterior walls, giving the building shape and sheltering the suspect from the open air and the view of the assembled deputies.
Someone got on a patrol car’s PA system and started calling out the occupants. “Winston Sheriff’s Office! We have you surrounded. Come out one at a time with your hands empty and above your head!” Rosario, one of the senior deputies, repeated the instructions in Spanish.
Cautiously, the construction workers emerged from the building. Their hands, held as far above their heads as possible, trembled. Several of the men looked on the verge of tears. Their eyes darted about, taking in all the uniformed deputies, flashing lights, and above all, the guns pointed at them. One by one, they were walked away from the building to where other deputies waited to search and handcuff them. The process repeated a dozen times. When no more people came out of the building or responded to Rosario’s repeated calls, a pair of deputies went into the building with a K9 to search the building.
An older deputy approached Sgt. Henderson. He held up a clear plastic bag. The low afternoon sunlight glinted off the silver revolver inside. “We found this in the scrap pile,” he reported. The sergeant nodded and waved Country towards the group of handcuffed men.
“You think you can pick out your man?” she asked.
Country scoffed. “Hell, I’ll paint you a portrait. Black hair, brown eyes, mustache like if my Aunt Linda don’t go to the beauty parlor for a week. Red jacket, red hat, and blue jeans.”
“Okey-dokey,” Sgt. Henderson said. “It’s your time to shine.”
Country strode across the construction site, the swelling sense of pride in his chest barely diluted by the squelch of wet mud in his left boot. The suspects were all sitting cross-legged on a curb, guarded by four deputies. Approaching from behind, Country immediately spotted the distinct red jacket he’d followed during his little stroll through the woods. It even had a smear of dirt where the little man had slipped while going downhill. Country grinned and planted a giant hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Gotcha, mi amigo,” he said triumphantly, only to have the feeling evaporate when the suspect looked up, revealing the scarred and pitted face of a fifty-year-old man. Country did a double take, then stepped back to reexamine the jacket.
It was definitely the one the driver wore when he’d been tumbling through the woods like a misshapen pinball. It even had pine needles around the collar. Country looked down the line of handcuffed men. He spotted the driver’s red ballcap on another suspect. The man wearing it was clearly north of six feet tall.
Oh shit, the young deputy thought as the penny dropped. Stepping in front of the line of suspects, County shouted, “Hey!” and a dozen heads snapped up in unison. All of them were Hispanic, all had dark hair and brown eyes, and ten out of the twelve had some form of facial hair that Country couldn’t be 100% certain wasn’t what he’d seen on the runner’s face. Eight of the men were the right age, height and build. Every last one of them wore blue jeans. Country felt his shoulders slump.
“Well?” Sgt. Henderson asked, coming up behind him. Country felt the other deputy’s eyes turn towards him. He started sweating again.
“Um, Sarge,” he said, his voice low enough for only her to hear. “They must have switched clothes before they came out. That’s his jacket, and that’s his hat. I even think they switched shirts.”
Sgt. Henderson looked over the suspects, frowning. “That can happen. What’s your plan? We can’t arrest them all.”
“Well, I don’t rightly know. I guess we could get Rosario over here and ask them some questions. Maybe someone will give him up?”
“Maybe. Maybe they’ll all just clam up. Even if they squawk, it won’t hold up in court. All they have to do is name the wrong guy, let us arrest him, and then not have finger prints match up. You got anything else?”
“We could bring that little girl by, have her pick the guy out for us.”
Sgt. Henderson shook her head. “Blake’s sitting with her right now, waiting on the mom. The girl’s hysterical. We really don’t have any better options than re-traumatizing a thirteen-year-old human trafficking victim?”
Country hung his head. “Sarge, I don’t know. I could use a little help.”
“Now is that so hard, rookie?” Sgt. Henderson said. “I’ve been waiting since you got on my squad for some of the shine to wear off that cockiness you always seem to walk around with.”
She studied the suspects for a few seconds, and then pointed at the third one from the left. “That’s your man. Snatch him up and unhook the rest.”
The indicated man’s eyes went wide. He sucked his feet underneath his hips and shot up from the curb. Despite being cuffed and surrounded, he made a final, desperate break for freedom. Country reached out and caught him, wrapping his thick fingers around the back of his hoodie and lifting him off the ground like a puppy caught by the scruff. He looked the man dead in the eyes and recognized the same desperation he’d seen when he’d first asked him for his driver’s license a half-hour earlier.
“How’d you do that?” Country asked Sgt. Henderson, truly mystified.
She looked up at the larger man. “Oh, rookie. So much still to learn.” The wink she threw him took some of the sting out of her dig. “Don’t worry. You did good work. You’ll get there eventually.” As she walked away, she keyed up her radio to announce that they’d caught their suspect.
“Well?” Country called after her. “You’re not going to tell me how you knew this was him?”
“The shoes, rookie,” she said over her shoulder. “They had time to swap all the clothes, but no one ever switches out their shoes.”
Country looked down at his prisoner’s feet. The little man seemed to have finally resigned himself to capture. He hung limply in the young deputy’s grip. He wore loose, nondescript clothing, the kind found in swap-meets and flea-markets. His shoes were a different matter, though. Country knew less than something about fashion, but the little man’s shoes looked like they’d been shopped for: scuffed black calfskin and patent leather sneakers with what appeared to be some Italian fella’s name printed in silver real small by the laces. Country looked over at the construction workers, the one’s the other deputies were uncuffing, and saw only variations on generic tan leather work boots.
“Well, hell,” Country said to his confused prisoner. He nodded to his departing sergeant. “That woman there’s sharper than a fifty dollar haircut.”