Published: Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Chapter V: Flash Bang
The dope-skinny man in the black leather vest wasn't happy when detectives showed up at the bar on Everett's Hewitt Avenue.
His drinking buddies weren't happy either.
When the two plainclothes detectives moved in with handcuffs, the roomful of angry people pressed near. There were shouted curses. Some brandished empty beer bottles and pool cues.
It was May 1988. I was watching detectives wrap up an investigation into drug trafficking in downtown Everett. I'd asked to tag along to watch the final arrests inside the Horseshoe Saloon, then the toughest bar in the city.
Suddenly that didn't seem like a good idea.
A man loomed too close for comfort and unleashed a blast of beer breath. He thought I was one of the cops.
"You are so (bleeping) obvious," he said.
Another man, a self-styled barroom lawyer, waved a meaty fist under my nose.
"You (bleeping) guys know this is illegal as hell," he said. His hand hung in front of my face long enough for me to get a good look at the tattoos scrawled there, jailhouse style, with ballpoint ink and a razor blade. O-Z-Z-Y, one uneven letter on each knuckle.
More people crowded around. I realized they outnumbered the police and weren't so drunk that they couldn't count.
I thought for sure I was going to get to know Ozzy.
Then a uniformed Everett police officer strode through the door.
He had a broad smile, a big, metal flashlight tucked under his arm and a half dozen other officers in tow.
At that instant, it seemed the most beautiful word in the English language.
The crowd scattered. I headed for the door. It was no fun being mistaken for a cop.
I later wrote that I'd never been happier to see a uniform.
"Now you know a bit what it is like for us," said Jerry Burke, one of the Everett police detectives raiding the Horseshoe that night.
It was the beginning of a professional friendship. In the years that followed, Burke and many others in the police business here found ways to expose me to their world. I showed up to watch dozens of drug raids. I monitored stings that arrested people for all manner of vice. I rode with the anti-gang squad and spent time peeking over the shoulders of detectives investigating burglaries, robberies, homicides.
I was always the observer. Each time, there was a moment where the gulf between what I did and what police did came into sharp focus.
The clearest may have come while at a training session for a story about the SWAT team. Burke was one of the unit leaders. He invited me to participate by tossing a "flash bang" stun grenade.
He handed me a small bomb with a cardboard exterior and a metal grenade spoon.
"Squeeze, hard," he said. "Don't let go."
Burke pulled the pin. It was armed. On command, I should lob it underhand, not throw it, he told me.
I stood there holding a live grenade.
It seemed to take a long time for officers to form up. Longer still for the drill to start.
When the time came, Burke gave me the order and I tossed the flash bang.
By then the cardboard casing had sweated to my palm. Instead of arcing safely away, it went almost straight up in the air. It hung there, maybe two yards away, before detonating in a blinding flash.
Nobody got hurt. The SWAT cops went about their drill, then regarded me with pity.
Burke rose in the ranks to become a deputy police chief in Everett. He just retired at the end of June, after 26 years with the department.
Over the years, younger reporters fresh on the police beat told me he was still talking about how Scott North nearly blew up the SWAT team.
Between us, though, that moment became a touchstone. Burke helped me learn about police work. I tried to help him understand more about journalism.
We reduced our shared experience to a simple gesture.
When he or I pantomimed tossing a flash bang, it signaled a moment when we could learn by stepping into the others' shoes.
Burke silently made that gesture not long after I began looking into Mylo's death.
When the records about Mylo were available I picked them up at the sheriff's office and gave them a quick read. Although there were details in the reports that didn't perfectly square with what we'd received in press releases and interviews, the bald facts tracked closely with what we had reported to the community.
Mylo had eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms. He wound up naked in public. He apparently traded blows with a bystander before he walked into a convenience store. He knocked merchandise off the shelves and tossed cans of beer around. He went outside, struggled during arrest, collapsed into a coma and died.
Not long after I got the records I got a call, asking me to come talk about my interest in Mylo's case with Everett Police Chief Jim Scharf.
The meeting was a sharp reminder of my role as an outsider in the part of the world police occupy.
When I arrived, there were seven people waiting, mostly the department's top brass. There also was Bob Christie, a Seattle lawyer hired by the city to represent its police officers in lawsuits.
Scharf took charge.
I've known him for almost as long as I've been a reporter. Before taking charge of Everett police, he was the longtime county sheriff. He won that job around the same time I came to work for The Herald. I covered his years in office, including one of the saddest stories of my career, involving the shooting death of a young deputy. For several years, Scharf and I lived in the same Marysville neighborhood. He's usually greeted me with a warm smile.
Not that day.
Scharf started the meeting by crossing his arms and laying down the law.
First, he said, Christie would be the only person authorized by the department to answer questions about Mylo, and it would be up to the lawyer to decide whether I got answers.
Second, Scharf said he saw no reason a reporter should be poking around at all; local prosecutors had already cleared the officers.
Third, I was to consider the meeting off-the-record, meaning if I chose to stay and listen, I would be bound by a promise to keep what was said in confidence.
I stayed. I stayed because going off-the-record often is the opening round of a negotiation that gets sources to speak for publication. I stayed also because sometimes those sorts of discussions lead to other sources who can confirm information I otherwise may never learn.
Before agreeing to Scharf's terms, however, I pushed hard for access to the officers who were involved the night Mylo died.
I knew two of the men well enough to know they are good, honorable cops. I wanted to hear why they'd made the decisions they had.
No. Request denied.
Christie did most of the talking. His positions were later outlined in court pleadings, offered as evidence that the city would be able to prove officers had done their best in a challenging situation not of their own making.
I'm no stranger to conflict. In the mid 1990s my beat included covering the far-right "patriot" movement, including guys who then were forming militias and their own "common law" courts.
I showed up alone at some of their meetings, unnoticed amidst the other middle-aged white guys. I took lots of notes, and wrote numerous stories detailing their racially stunted vision of how life should work around here. I kept writing, even after my photograph showed up one day on their "unwanted" posters hung on telephone poles and newspaper boxes around the community.
There were death threats that police took seriously enough to place a special alarm in my house that could summon help even if some lunatic decided to cut the phone lines.
So I was more disappointed than intimidated during the meeting with Everett police.
Strike that. I was pissed.
I could tell that some of the men around the table were uncomfortable, too. Like Burke, I'd known most of these guys for years. Allowed to speak freely, they no doubt would have pointed out that no cop wants to wrestle in the street with a delusional, naked man. They likely would have talked about how Everett long ago put in place rules requiring paramedics to be summoned immediately during confrontations like the one involving Mylo.
During the meeting Burke silently made the "lob the grenade" gesture. There was something he hoped I'd learn, even though it seemed pretty clear that was going to be next to impossible under these circumstances.
I resolved to keep an open mind.
In the following weeks, my phone rang as police sources who knew about the meeting asked to meet over cups of black coffee. Christie came by my office for a more formal interview. The next time I met Scharf he smiled and shook my hand.
I made clear I still was pursuing the story. The city's reaction to my questions convinced me the only outcome would be a legal showdown between police and Mylo's family. It was like watching a car sliding on ice down a steep hill.
The officers would wait to tell their side under oath, in depositions and in pre-trial motions. Experts would be lined up to divine meaning and offer educated spin. If the case went to trial, there would be an open airing of all the facts. Competing versions of truth would collide. A neutral judge would instruct jurors on what the law allowed them to consider.
There would be a lot of talking, a lot of testimony to absorb.
Only time would tell how well anybody listened.
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