The storm had passed, Toddy was dead and I was clinging to the overturned hull of my yellow skiff. I pulled down the hood of my rubber survival suit and looked up to see gulls circling the tangled mess my life had become. There was no help, and there wouldn’t be. Light dazzled on the tip of every gray-green wave, but there were no ships. I was wide awake in the empty sea wishing I could go back in time, back to the dock before I had pushed away, back to the unsolved homicide, back to the recurring nightmare of murder, gasoline and children screaming.
It could be argued that being a private investigator in a small Alaskan town is one of the worst career decisions a person with a high-school diploma can make. But there’s lots of opportunity for free time. In that regard, the summer started off well. I had spent six wonderful days catching a few of the early king salmon, all thanks to the money I’d made working for a rich herring boat captain who had crushed some fool charter fisherman’s face in a bar brawl. The case was my dream come true: a rich client with serious felony charges. The summer was looking up, but summers are short here. The skipper settled his case long before trial; I had spent most of his money on bait and boat repairs before September came around.
I would never have gone out into that storm willingly. The weather radio had been tracking two low-pressure systems on a collision course in the north Pacific. If the systems joined forces it would become the kind of storm that would crack the limbs off alder trees and churn the shoreline white. I still remember the feeling of those few days as the storm moved in: black clouds like bags of anvils rolling up over the horizon, and the trees along the beach standing motionless as if they were trying to hide from what was coming. I remember the expectation and the dread before the storm hit.
It was two days before the peak of the storm when Patricia Ewers walked into my office and asked me to find her husband Richard, who had gone missing with fifty thousand dollars of their money. Richard Ewers’s case may have been my greatest success as a defense investigator. Three years ago he had stood trial on four counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson, and had been found not guilty.
He had been accused of killing two adults and two children on board a fish-buying scow, soaking the deck with gas, and setting the whole mess on fire as he escaped in a red tin skiff. This was Richard Ewers. My client.
A five-month murder trial is an ordeal that forges loyalties that only come out of combat. All the subtle conflicts boil down to “us” against “them.” I thought of Patricia Ewers as an old army buddy. Captain of the “us,” Patricia provided the strength and calm presence during the wildest part of the ordeal. All through the halfhearted police protection, the ugly phone calls and the reporters digging through her garbage, she never wavered in her support of Richard. She and her parents had stood by him; they had lost both their houses and their savings accounts to legal fees. The not-guilty verdict was some vindication, but nothing could pay them back for what they had been through.
When I saw her walk up my stairs unannounced three years later, I knew something more serious than a multiple murder count had to be bothering Patricia Ewers.
“Cecil, he’s gone. I think they killed him this time.”
I put my hand on her back and moved her to my sagging couch near the woodstove. “He took the money. In cash. A large amount of cash,” she said as she flopped herself on the old couch. Dust rose up in a plume. “I told him not to take it.”
“What money?” I asked her as I offered her a towel to dry her hair, for she had been caught in a rain squall walking to my house.
“The tabloids. They kept offering Richard money for his story. I told him not to take it. We were through the worst of it. We had made it through the trial and things were beginning to calm down. But they kept offering more and more money. He’s had trouble finding work, you know; no one would hire him in the fishing industry. Anyway, when they finally offered a hundred thousand dollars for an article, book, and film rights, he told them he would take it.”
“One hundred thousand dollars?”
“We had only gotten half of it. There was fifty on signing the deal and the rest after he did the interviews. I know, we shouldn’t have taken it.”
“I wasn’t going to say that, Patricia. I was just wondering if they wanted my story.”
“Have you been found not guilty of mass murder?” She said it sarcastically.
“No,” I said, “but I’m close friends with some people who were. That should be worth a couple of grand at least.”
“You can have it, Cecil. I mean, jeepers, we have no control over the story. They could print anything.” She held her hands up as if framing the headline in the air. “Mygirl
Murderer Beats the Rap.” Then she buried her head in her hands.
I could understand her concern. Richard’s story had everything for the tabloids: drama, sympathetic victims, terrific color photographs. It had everything except a killer behind bars.
The murders occurred in late August of 1995. The Mygirl
had been anchored in Kalinin Bay just north of Sitka. It was just after dark, past midnight on that Alaskan summer evening, when a man got into a skiff and pulled away from a conflagration. He left behind the bodies of a father, a mother, their nine-year-old daughter, and a teenaged boy who had been visiting the scow.
The parents, Charlie and Edna Sands, were each shot once through the chest before the fire started. Their daughter Tina had been clubbed over the head and almost surely died in the blaze while she was semiconscious. Albert Chevalier, the fourteen-year-old visitor, was shot repeatedly, in the arms and legs and once through the skull. His body was the most charred because the arsonist had doused the boy’s body with gasoline before spreading the accelerant throughout the rest of the scow. The two Sands boys escaped the fire. The boys told investigators they had heard a commotion up in their parents’ quarters and just as they went to investigate, the scow burst into flame.
Across the bay, Albert Chevalier’s brother Jonathan had seen the first signs of the fire, rushed over in his skiff, and pulled the Sands boys off the burning scow.
Later, in trial, Jonathan Chevalier swore he saw someone leave the Mygirl in one of the scow’s three tin skiffs. According to Jonathan, whose little brother, Albert, died that night, the driver of the tin skiff “could have been” Richard Ewers.
I’ve been asked dozens of times if I thought Ewers was guilty of four killings, and I always say the same thing. “I don’t know who killed those people.” But the truth is I believed wholeheartedly in Richard’s innocence. I just couldn’t prove it.
Ewers was the only hired crewman on board the Mygirl
. Richard had been hired by Charlie Sands off the docks in Ballard, Washington. He had worked the Alaskan fisheries and Charlie needed a seasoned hand to help bring the scow up the coastline. It seemed incontrovertible that seconds after this mysterious man who could have been Richard Ewers pulled away from the Mygirl
in a skiff, the scow went up in a bonnet of flame. Most of the usable evidence was lost in the fire and almost everything else of forensic value was washed overboard as local fishermen battled the fire.
A day and a half later, heat and smoke shimmered off the charred remains of the beached scow. There was little in the Mygirl
’s hulk left to tell the story of the four murders. Because of that lack of evidence, a major crime investigation was based only on fragmented witness statements. All the investigators were left with was grief and a collection of wispy memories.
Richard’s memory was bad. Particularly bad when he was first interviewed and he couldn’t quite decide where he had been or what part he had had to play in the fire. Finally he confessed to stealing some money from Charlie Sands’s till that night and heading to town in the scow’s skiff. When he left the Mygirl
, Richard said, everything was quiet and everyone on board was sleeping soundly. This was his final story and he stuck to it.
His clothes bore some trace elements of gasoline, but he said he’d had to pour gas into his fuel tank from a jerry jug. This was a reasonable story. But the fact that all three skiffs from the scow were accounted for, plus his guilty demeanor when questioned and the theft of the money, made Richard the trooper investigators’ only viable suspect.
I liked Richard Ewers. I had sat with him through some of the worst days of his life. I was with him when children spat on him while walking to court, and when each day’s mail brought new death threats. I never saw him bristle or clench his fist. In short, I never saw the kind of explosive personality it takes to commit these kinds of killings. Or so I thought. As has been pointed out to me many times, I don’t have a large pool of people to compare him to. How many mass murderers does anybody get a chance to know?
“He took half of the tabloid money. He said he was going to end this whole thing one way or the other,” Patricia told me and started to cry. “He was coming up here. Ketchikan first, then Sitka. It’s been a week and I haven’t heard from him. He hasn’t called. He always calls, Cecil. You know that. He always calls.”
She looked up at me with pleading eyes as if my just acknowledging the truth of that would bring her husband back.
“He always calls,” I repeated lamely. I had been getting dressed to go out the road on a job when she arrived. I looked at this woman who had done so much to calm everyone else during her husband’s trial. Her hands were cupped around her nose and mouth and her collar was wet where tears soaked it.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said, and I winced at the insincerity of my voice. “What was he going to do with the money?” I asked, trying to cover for myself.
“He wouldn’t tell me,” she said, wiping her nose on her sleeve, as I reached for a napkin that was inexplicably resting on the banister. “All he would say was he was going to straighten some things out. He said not to worry about taking the money from the tabloids because we weren’t going to keep it.”
I sneaked a look at my watch. I had to get out on the road. I had been offered a ride, but I had just missed it.
“Did he ever take large sums of money before?” I asked while putting on my coat.
“No, no, he didn’t.” She was breathing hard now, no longer weeping but on the verge. “I don’t think he was being blackmailed, Cecil. I don’t know why, but it seemed like he wanted to do something with the money. He didn’t act angry, like he was being forced. He was acting relieved.”
“Why do you think someone has killed him?” I asked her. She would not look at me.
“Oh ... I don’t know really. It’s all this ... mess.” That was how Patricia had always referred to the trial, the charges, the accusations of multiple homicide and arson: this mess.
“It was worse after he got some of the money. New people were angry and the old people -- you know, the families -- are furious now. We had calls. Mostly Richard hung up. But more and more he would talk to them. People saying he deserved to be shot and burned along with his blood money. Cecil, you know how people are.”
How people are. Every time I begin to think I know something about how people are, I find out I am wrong.
My stomach hurt as I watched her because I knew she was right. The list of people who had wanted Richard Ewers dead was extensive. What concerned me most was that some of those on the list were quite capable of making it happen.
“Cecil, I want you to find him. I want you to start right now. I want you to go out to see some of those people in the families. I want you to ask them point-blank what they’ve done to my husband.” The families she was referring to were those of the victims, the Chevaliers and the Sandses. Her blue eyes brimmed with tears and she stared at me as if there was something I could do.
“I will, Patricia, but first I’ve got ... I’ve got a job to do for a person.” I backed away from her and put my work gloves in my coat pocket.
“Cecil, we’ve got to start on this now. I can pay you, for gosh sakes.” She dug into her zippered jacket pocket and fanned out some twenty-dollar bills. “I want you to start now. Please.”
I said nothing. I wasn’t going to tell her who I was going to work for, because I knew just saying his name would send her into a rage.
“Listen,” I said as I fussed around with my work gloves and keys, “you can stay here. I’ll ask a few questions around town and then I’ll be back, okay? You just make yourself comfortable here. I’ll be back tonight and then we’ll get started looking for Richard.”
Patricia stood up and without speaking walked down the stairs to the street. She slapped her money against the banister as she walked. “I can’t believe you’re making me go to the police,” she hissed as she slammed my door. After she left I straightened a picture on the wall in an effort to assert the correctness of my actions.
Excerpted from Cold Water Burning by John Straley. Copyright © 2001 by John Straley. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.