Beyond the Western
If there was any one thing for which Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, had a soft spot, it was for dogs. Not puppies, which he hated with a passion, but ‘not-puppies’ who had been housebroken, taught not to bite to show affection and beasts which could distinguish between a leather chewy and a $150 pair of shoes. That being said, what was odd this Monday morning was his conversation with the canine coroner of Russel, Montana.
“With one l.”
“With one ‘l?’”
“Russel. With one ‘l.’ Not like Charlies Russell the painter. He had two ‘l’s’ Our town is named after the Civil War hero, Cabot Russel. He had one ‘l.’”
“OK,” Noonan said. “Now, tell me what a canine coroner does and then why you are calling me.”
“I’ll answer those questions in reverse. Second, first in this case, you are well known for resolving matters not necessarily crimes but are, shall I say, quite different.”
“I’ve been lucky.”
“Quite. As to the first, we handle deceased animals. In my case, canines; dogs. When an animal is euthanized – for you, ‘put to sleep’ – there is usually not a question of its demise. A veterinarian will have examined the animal and determined death is inevitable and the euthanizing is the best course of action. But a lot of animals simply die. No one knows why; they just pass away. What usually happens when a pet dies, the owner brings the cadaver into the veterinarian to be cremated. The vet will peruse the animal’s medical record, look for signs of abuse and if there are no red flags, the corpse is cremated. But if a dog dies on the street, it has to be examined to make sure death was of natural causes and not some disease which could spread through the community.”
Noonan started digging through the piles of files on his desk looking for a notebook. “I see. For starters, give me your name.”
“Geraldine Houghton. Fern to people here in Helena.”
“I thought you said you were calling from Russel. With one l.”
“I am. I work in Russel but I live in Helena. It’s a Montana thing, so to speak. We take jobs where we can find them. I work for the State of Montana and the animal morgue and crematoria are here in Russel.”
“OK, Fern. Until there’s a crime, I’m Heinz.”
“Heinz works for me.”
“Now, to the reason for the call…”
“It’s odd. I don’t want you to think I’m a conspiratorial type.”
“The strangest calls in America come into this office. Whatcha got?”
“We’ve received the cadaver of a dead dog. It had been pitched into a dumpster here in Russel. It was an older dog and there was no signs of abuse. But it isn’t how the dog died that’s a concern. It’s who owned it.”
“Who owned it?”
“Correct. This will take some time.”
Noonan looked at the pen in his hand and then his open notebook. “I’ve the time, pen and a blank notebook page.”
“I don’t know if you have ever lived in a small town, but Montana is nothing but small towns – compared to states like California, Pennsylvania and Florida. We refer to ourselves as living in a very small town on a very long street. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
“Nothing unusual there.”
“The dog was owned by Ernst Mayr, a rather odious individual. We know he dog was his because the dog tag was still on the collar. Mayr’s father is Mayor and his mother is the sister-in-law of the Chief of Staff of the Governor of Montana. Theirs is a very big dollar family in Montana. The grandfather made the big bucks with the Anaconda Copper Mine in Butte and socked away several sizeable fortunes before the mine closed in 1947. Family’s been living it up on the old man’s money for three generations. Ernst Mayr is a dreg at the bottom of the barrel. The family paid his way into Harvard where he bought some kind of degree in sociology and could not hold a job anywhere. So he came back to Russel where the money was. And is.”
“Living it up on the old man’s money, eh?”
“Worse. If he had just settled into a life of ease and social connections, all would have been well.”
“But he didn’t.”
“Hasn’t. Does not give a dime to charity, sets up phony nonprofits and drains them. Files bogus income tax returns. Never gets caught. He’s still at it. A heavy drinker which, in Montana, means more than a quart of hard stuff a day. Is drunk by noon and a drunk dangerous driver when the bars close at 2 am. Crashes, burns and cannot get a ticket because of who he is. Never seen the inside of a jail cell or drunk tank in Russel because the local cops take him home. He’s a drug user and is open with his cocaine. He’d be a seller of cocaine if he needed the money but he doesn’t. So he just gives it away. Openly. So far he’s never been taken to task.”
the local police won’t do anything?
“Zip. He’s a bad seed. A very bad seed with incredible connections.”
“Same the whole world over. Now, why are you calling me?”
“It was Mayr’s dog that was in the dumpster. We brought it here to the coroner’s office and it disappeared.”
“Yeah. As in ‘poof it’s gone.’ What I need to know is why anyone would steal a dead dog.”
* * *
That was such a good question Noonan did not have an answer.
“Frankly, Fern, I don’t know. Tell you what, let me think on it. In the meantime I need some background information. Do you have a pen and paper handy?”
“Just a second. Yeah, now I do.”
“Off the top of my head here is a list of answers I’ll need. I’ll call you back on, say, Thursday. Hopefully you’ll have the answers by then.”
“Again, just off the top of my head, how big is Russel, where is your office physically located, where is the crematoria physically located, how many dogs a year do you examine, how many dogs are infected with something dangerous, does your office examine other animals as well, how many of them are infected, when was the dog stolen, does the area where the dog was stolen have security cameras, how old is this Mayr character, does he have any kind of regular schedule, does he live in Russel, does he drink in any other town, is there any reason for him to want his dead dog’s cadaver, how big was his dog, how old was the dog when it died, does he have other dogs, does he have any other animals where he lives and, for the moment, that’s all I can think of.”
“I can give you most of the answers now.”
“Nope, I’ve got to do some research first.”
“Ok. I’ll wait for your call on Thursday.”
* * *
Whenever Noonan was faced with a loo-loo matter, he went back to his two primary sources of information: history and the local papers. Finding historical background on Montana was easy courtesy of the internet. Montana had been part of a massive landmass which had been parceled off into five territories which eventually became states: Oregon in 1848, Washington in 1853, Dakota in 1861 and Idaho in 1863. What was left became the Montana Territory in 1864. The capitol was established in Bannack which had been the site of a sizeable gold discovery in 1862. Bannock had been located 11 miles upstream from where the Grasshopper Creek joined the Beaverhead River. Noonan, with Alaskan in-laws and knowledge of the history of northland, accurately saw the future of Bannock before he finished the sentence on Bannock in Wikipedia: the gold ran out and the town went ghost.
Which it did two years later.
Then the capitol was moved to Virginia City and thereafter Helena.
Anytime you have a mix of gold, Natives and stampeding whites you have turmoil. That’s exactly what happened in Montana. The first notable treaty in what would be called Montana was appropriately named the Hellgate Treaty. It lead to years of discussion and animosity over the terms of the document – which continue to this day – though it created what is now known as the Flathead Indian Reservation. As there was ongoing discoveries of gold there were ongoing battles between Indians and stampeding whites which drew the United States Cavalry into the conflicts including the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Like Alaska, tension between Native people and the territorial and then state governments did not resolve many issues.
In addition to gold, copper was a huge moneymaker in Montana. But, in the case of Anaconda Copper, it was a standalone mine rather than gold nuggets and flakes scattered along streambeds where a man with a pan could make a fortune by himself. A Civil War veteran, Michael Hickey, made the initial discovery and named it after a passage in Horace Greeley’s description of how General Ulysses Grant enveloped the armies of Robert E. Lee “like an anaconda.” The Anaconda was sold in 1881 and it eventually became a global enterprise. By the time it went belly-up in 1947 it had extracted 95 million tons of copper.
Finding information on Russel – with one ‘l’ – was not that hard. This was primarily because it was created ‘for rich folks by rich folks’ – so stated a founder – as a planned community. It appeared to have originated as a retirement community around three golf courses. The golf courses drew so many retirees from both Lewistown and Helena it became a bonafide city in 2010 when ‘political wisdom’—again, so stated by the same unnamed founder – brought large, State of Montana contracts to the community.
For Noonan, the stench of politics was strong.
The city had been named for a Cabot Russel, one of the white officers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the second Civil War African-American regiment, and now famous courtesy of the movie GLORY. On July 18, 1863, as depicted in GLORY, the 54th made a frontal assault on Fort Wagner and were slaughtered. 40% of the soldiers were killed including several of the white officers. One of those white officers who lost his life was an 18 year old Cabot Russel. (with one ‘l.’) Russel came from a staunch Unitarian abolitionist family and viewed service to rid America of slavery as a holy calling. He was three days short of his 19th birthday when he was killed. For his service, the family was given land ‘in the middle of nowhere’ which became Lewistown, Montana.
Noonan could find no Russel newspaper and there was no specific information or news coverage of Russel in either the Lewistown or Helena newspapers. So he called the Russel Police Department.
An office of six, four patrol officers and two ‘office personnel.’
It took a while to reach the “Chief of Police” as she was on patrol. When Andrea Remley got on the phone the first thing she said was, “A cop from North Carolina. Let me guess, Ernst Mayr and the dead dog.”
“Word travels fast,” Noonan said.
“Small town, lots of tongues,” Remley said. “I’ve got nothing other than what you already know. Dog was discovered by trash collectors in a dumpster behind the Granger Tavern and taken to the doggie morgue. Then it disappeared. No crime in stealing a dead animal. Around here, it’s called subsistence hunting.”
“A dog?” Noonan said flatly.
“Got all types in Montana. What else can I tell you?”
“I guess you’ve said just about all there is to say about the dog,” Noonan yawned as he spoke. “Tell me about Mayr.”
“Bad egg. What do you know?”
“Harvard graduate. Bright with no future. Living off granddaddy’s money. Society man who doesn’t give to charity. Drunk, druggy, disorderly. What else can I say?”
“All accurate but you left out the orgies on his riverboat and cocaine parties. He’s insulated in town. We don’t have a judge, only a magistrate, and she’s connected to the family. Three of police officers are related and the Mayor’s his father. We don’t even bother to try to arrest him in town. Anytime there’s trouble, I get the call. What can I do? I resolve the issue.”
“How about out of town?”
“We only have jurisdiction to the city limits. Then it’s up to the Montana State Troopers. They’re stretched thin. Every once in a while they pass through Russel but it’s on the way to somewhere else. Unless they actually catch Mayr committing a crime out of town, he’s broken no law so there is no arrest.”
“Do they know about him?”
“Captain! This Montana. Everyone knows everyone and their business. Yeah, they know. But until they happen to be on scene when he breaks the law there’s nothing to be done.”
* * *
When Noonan called Geraldine “Fern” Houghton on Thursday, she didn’t have much more information than Noonan could have guessed on his own.
“OK,” she said as Noonan heard paper crinkle over the phone line. “Here’s the information you wanted. Russel is a small town of 475 people, about 1/3 are children. My, our, the State of Montana Facility for Animal Control, FAC for short, is located in the city of Russel but on State of Montana land. It was one of those corrupt little deals Montana is famous for. Putting a state building on private land means someone makes big bucks on the land sale. Technically we are on State of Montana land but within the city limits of Russel.”
“But you are a state facility, correct?”
“The crematoria is on State of Montana land too but this time beyond city limits. Health regulations and all. Last year we handled 72 dogs but almost all were runaways or rescue animals. Of those, ten were dogs which had died of natural causes and six were euthanized. Of the six which were euthanized, four had incurable medical conditions and the other two were a threat to the community.”
“You mean they bit people?”
“OK. Go on.”
“We examine a lot of animals but our caseload is mostly dogs. The Mayr dog was discovered in the dumpster Monday morning and was gone from the FAC by noon the next day, Tuesday. We have security cameras in the FAC but there was no one on the footage who does not work here. Animals and staff move around a lot so identifying who took the dog is not possible. Mayr is, maybe, 45. He has a regular schedule in the sense everyone knows he will be drinking at one of four taverns until they close. In Russel, that’s 2 am. Then he drives from wherever he is home. He and his family have a large spread – and we call it a spread because it is a collection of massive homes on 300 acres. It’s about three miles out of town, on the other side of Russel from the crematoria.”
She paused for breath and then continued. “Following your questions in line, he drinks wherever he wants but it is usually in Russel, probably because he does not want to be caught drunk driving out of town …”
“But he lives out of town, doesn’t he?” Noonan asked.
“Yes, but we’re talking, maybe three miles. It’s a straight shot,” she chuckled. “Excuse the pun.”
Noonan chuckled too. “So, getting home drunk is not a problem for him. No one will stop him in town. And on the road out of town, he’s only vulnerable for about 180 seconds.”
“Three minutes, yup, that’s right.”
A distant gong went bong in the deep recess of Noonan’s cranial cavity.
“How often are there State Troopers on the highway between Russel and Mayr’s home?”
“State Troopers are on the highway 24/7 but that specific stretch of three miles, maybe once a day. But on their way through. The Troopers do not even stop in Russel for lunch. If there isn’t a reason for them to stop, they don’t.”
“Not bad people. We’re a small town with no problems. The last person to be killed was Cabot Russel during the Civil War. We don’t have a bank in town because everyone uses credit cards and the only cheating is on the golf cards. The magistrate marrys and burys. Traffic tickets, parking tickets and bikes with no license are ten bucks each. Drunk drivers, poachers and people smoking weed before next January go to State Court in Helena. We’re a quiet town.”
“Sounds like it,” Noonan said. “No robberies?”
“No money in town, as in cash. Cybercrime, sure, but they end up in State Court too.”
“OK. Finish with the dead dog.”
“Deceased. We use the term deceased.”
“Works for me.”
“Mayr’s dog was an Airedale and there is no reason for him to want the animal cremated. If he had wanted it cremated, he would have brought it in. My guess, he doesn’t care about anything but himself. The dog died and he tossed into the Granger Tavern dumpster. Like so much trash.”
“Finishing up with your questions, I can think of no reason he would want the dog’s body. If he had he would not have tossed it into the dumpster. The dog was old enough to have died of natural causes but without the cadaver, I cannot say for sure. The dog was 60 pounds. The Mayr family has about a dozen dogs on their estate but everyone owns them, so to speak. I don’t know that Ernst has any other dogs of his own.”
“Just a couple of other questions. Excuse my ignorance but how long before the dog’s body starts to smell?”
“Pretty quickly. As you know, there are three stages of rigor mortis. The last stage, for a human body, peaks at 12 hours and can last for two days. Dogs are smaller so the rigor will pass more quickly. I figure the dog’s been dead since Sunday. That’s four days ago.”
“If the dog’s body was frozen that would stop the process of rigor, correct?”
“Well, yes. If it were frozen. But why freeze a dead dog?”
Now the clang in Noonan’s cerebellum was clanging!
* * *
The next week Noonan was not enjoying his weight watching, carbohydrate-free lunch of celery stalks, canned tuna and tomato juice when Harriet, the office administrative assistant and common sense guru, came into his office with a letter and a photograph, She gave him a stern look and then shook the photograph.
“I thought people didn’t send photographs anymore. Email is cheaper.”
“Could be. Who’s the photo of?”
“Some woman in Montana. Andrea Remley. Not much of a photo. Just a woman standing beside a pond with flashlight in one hand and an empty net in the other. That’s it.”
“Anything written on the back of the photograph?”
Harriett flipped the photo over and showed Noonan the back. Noonan read aloud, “Searched all night and caught nada.”
“Nada?” Harriet said shaking her head. “What was she looking for?”
“Frogs,” Noonan said and looked back at his unappetizing repast.
“Frogs?” Harriet was perplexed. Then she looked at the envelope. “Montana. They hunt for frogs in Montana?”
“Apparently,” Noonan said without looking up. “Not a lot of them though.”
“No, no, no,” said Harriet as he used her right index finger to lever Noonan’s eyes to her eye’s level. “Tell mamma why someone in Montana did not find any frogs.”
“I’m good ‘till five. Give.”
Noonan stretched, took the photograph from Harriet’s hand and looked at the woman smiling in the photograph. Then he looked up at Harriet and said, “Do you know what Bicycle Chain Justice is?”
“The penalty for speeding on a bike?”
Noonan chuckled. “Not quite. See, if you get the cuff of your pants caught between the bicycle chain and the sprocket, you can’t get free until your cuff has been dragged completely through the cycle. Bicycle Chain Justice is when someone gets caught for something and then dragged through the legal system. There are no shortcuts. When you are charged with something, you have to go through the whole legal process even if you are innocent.”
“And you are telling me this …”
“See, Harriet, sometimes truth, justice and the American way need a little help.”
“In this case, a body snatcher.”
Harriet rolled her eyes and pointed at the photograph. “What does body snatching have to do with frog hunting?”
Noonan smiled. “Let me tell you a story. In this little town there was a man who just would not follow the rules. He could do whatever he wanted because his father was mayor and half the police force was related to him. So was the city magistrate. So he could do anything except murder and the local police would keep letting him off the hook.”
“The local police could do nothing and the State Troopers would do nothing.”
“A sad commentary.”
“Then, one day, someone saw a chance to have this person get what was coming to him. See, his dog died and the man just dumped the animal’s body in a dumpster.”
“Son of a ….”
“I agree,” said Noonan. “And so did someone in the Animal Control facility. It was a simple but clever plan. First, the person or persons unknown in the Animal Control facility stole the dead dog.”
“Stole? A dead dog?”
“Yup. Person or persons unknown stole the dog. The dog’s body, cadaver, that is. They put it in a freezer and waited for the right moment.”
“When the person in question drank heavily one evening and headed home. See, as long as the person drove within city limits, there was nothing anyone could do. He had connections, so to speak. But once he was beyond the city limits…”
“Let me guess,” said Harriet, a step and a half ahead of the game. “If he were stopped outside of the city, say, by the State Troopers, he’d be arrested for drunk driving.”
“Correct,” cut in Noonan. “But there had to be a reason for the State Troopers to stop him in the first place. Otherwise the case would be thrown out of court. And, in his case, it had to be a very good reason.”
“The dead dog.”
“Yup. The dead dog. Someone unknown waited until this drunk was living it up in a tavern, As he was drinking heavily, the unknown person put a collar around the neck of the dead dog and attached other end to the bumper of his car. Then the person called the State Troopers and reported a dog had been stolen from a State of Montana facility and was reportedly on the bumper of a car headed out of town.” Noonan looked upwards with innocence, “And probably neglected to say the dog was dead.” He kept looking at the ceiling with faux innocence and then said, “Surprisingly, the Montana State Troopers were on hand to make an arrest.”
Harriet was a bit confused. “But there’s only a fine for killing a dog. And if the dog was already dead – and his dog at that…”
“True. True. But it gets a bit more complicated than that very quickly. You see, the dog may have been his property when it was alive but after it died, it became the property of the State of Montana. It was logged into the State of Montana Facility for Animal Control and was stolen. Then it shows up on his bumper. Therefore the Montana State Troopers had a case of stolen property being recovered. It is not the value of the property that was important, it is the chain of ownership. It was State of Montana property. It was stolen property. Then, when the State Troopers stopped the drunk, they gave him a sobriety test. It’s a routine procedure.”
“Which he probably failed,” Harriet cut in.
“Big time. And off he went to the hoosegow. For both drunk driving and being in possession of stolen property. Now, who knows, maybe other skeletons will come out of his closet.”
“Well, if his connections were as good as you said they were, he should have back on the street pretty quickly.”
Noonan pointed to the photograph. “Possibly. But, you see,” he gave another faux smile of innocence, “the Chief of Police, who usually pulled those strings, was out of town.”
“Hunting frogs,’ Harriet said flatly.
Noonan pointed to the photograph. “Apparently.”
“Let me guess,” Harriet said flatly. “She didn’t have her iPhone with her.”
“Didn’t want to frighten the frogs,” Noonan replied.
“So our drunk spent the night in jail. Maybe longer.”
“That would be my guess. And now he will face a bit of Bicycle Chair Justice.”
“It breaks my heart.” Harriet put both hands on her chest. “Which means he will have to hire a lawyer, post bond, maybe wear an ankle monitor and not drink until he goes to court – and all those other wonderful things.” She thought for a moment, then said, “And you, of course, never suggested to the Chief of Police to go frog hunting that particular evening?”
“Gigging. You don’t hunt bullfrogs. You gig them. There’s no season for bullfrogs in Montana so you can go anytime. I guess you could say it was just fate the Chief of Police chose that particular night to go gigging.”
Harriet was not impressed.
“And,” said Noonan with a sly smile. “Do you know what happened to the drunk’s car when he got arrested?”
“Not a clue.”
“It got toad.”