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The Tuscarawas covered bridge is a Painters Mill icon. In spring and summer, tourists flock to the little-used back road for photos, for lunch with the grandkids, or just to spend a few minutes strolling the ancient wooden structure to ponder who might’ve walked the very same spot a hundred and fifty years earlier. Couples have been married here. Children have been conceived. High school yearbook photographs have been snapped. The Amish regularly set up their wagons on the gravel pullover to sell baked goods and fresh vegetables to Englischers anxious to fork over their cash for a sampling of the plain life.
I’ve passed through the old bridge a thousand times over the years, and I’m ever cognizant of its beauty, its historic significance, and its importance to the tourism segment of the town’s economy. The magnitude of the latter echoed loud and clear in Mayor Auggie Brock’s voice when he called me earlier this morning. In addition to the bridge being a favorite of locals and tourists alike, the place has recently become the target of graffiti artists and home base for a multitude of other illicit activities. I know that by the end of the day I’ll have the town council breathing down my neck.
I park in the gravel pullover, take a final swig of coffee, and shut down the engine. As I get out of my city-issue Explorer, the whooit-whooit-whooit of a lone cardinal echoes among the treetops of the hardwoods that flourish in the greenbelt of the Painters Creek floodplain. Through misty shafts of sunlight, I see the footpath that leads down to the water’s edge.
My boots crunch through gravel as I approach the bridge. Shadows envelop me as I start across it. The smells of ancient wood, the muddy dankness of the creek below, and new spring foliage greet me as I traverse the structure. Pigeons coo from the rafters above, their droppings marring the sills of the half dozen windows that run the length of it.
I’m midway across when I spot the graffiti. A tinge of indignation rises in my chest at the utter mindlessness of it. It’s the usual fare. Fuck you. Eat me. Panthers suck. (Panthers being the name of the high school football team.) There’s even a swastika. All of it haphazardly spray-painted in colors ranging from royal blue to safety orange. To my relief, there are no gang symbols. That’s one segment of the criminal element that hasn’t reached Painters Mill despite the recent emergence of a booming meth trade.
I cross to the nearest window and look down at the creek fifteen feet below. The moss-green water swirls as it meanders south. I see the silver flash of a sunfish. Large stones a few feet beneath the surface. The olive-green hues of the deeper pools in the center of the creek. I know the depth there because eighteen years ago, I jumped from this very window on a dare. I walked home in a soaking-wet dress and stinking of creek water. Mamm didn’t understand why I did it, but she allowed me to change clothes before my datt came in from the field. She knew that sometimes his punishments were too harsh for the crime.
A pigeon takes flight as I reach the opposite end of the bridge, the high-pitched whistle of wings harmonizing with the birdsong in the forest. I turn and look down the length of the bridge. Beyond, my Explorer bakes in the sun, the engine ticking as it cools, heat tendrils rising off the hood like steam from a cup.
I should be baffled by the advent of graffiti in such a revered, bucolic place, but I’m not. I might’ve grown up Amish, but I was not as separate from the rest of the world as my parents wanted to believe. I was certainly not immune to bad behavior. For a short period of time, I was one of those mindless, angry teens, bent on making my mark—any mark—however self-defeating or destructive.
I stroll to the center of the bridge, look up at the rafters where a huge red swastika grins down at me. I shake my head in disgust, imagining some drunken idiot standing in the bed of a pickup truck, a can of spray paint in hand and a head full of rocks. Whoever did this wasn’t in any hurry; they took their time and reached places that required some effort.
I continue on to the other side of the bridge and I can’t help but wonder about all the things this place has witnessed over the years. When I was a kid, my grossmuder told me some places have memories. At the time I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about and I didn’t necessarily care. Only now, as an adult, do I appreciate her wisdom.
As I pass by one of the windows, my eyes are drawn to the dozens of initials carved into the ancient oak beams and planks. Most of them have been painted over multiple times. A few of the initials are familiar to me. My own, along with those of my one-time best friend, Mattie, are there somewhere, though for the life of me I can’t remember where.
I’m standing at the window with my elbows on the sill when the sound of an approaching vehicle draws me from my reverie. Straightening, I glance over to see the mayor’s Cadillac coupe pull up behind my Explorer. The driver’s-side door opens and the mayor struggles out and slams it behind him.
Leaving thoughts of the past behind, I start toward him. “Morning, Auggie.”
“Hey, Chief.” Mayor Auggie Brock is a corpulent man with hound-dog jowls and eyebrows invariably neglected by his barber. He’s wearing a JCPenney suit with a lavender shirt that’s already wrinkled and a tie I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
“Sorry I’m late.” Holding a tall coffee cup from LaDonna’s Diner, he enters the bridge. “Got caught up in a council meeting already. Would have ended an hour ago if Janine Fourman hadn’t gone on about this graffiti problem. The woman can talk a blue streak.”
Thinking of Councilwoman Turner, I frown. She and I have gone a few rounds over the years and not a single one of them was pleasant. “You have my sympathy.”
He stops next to me. I can smell the coffee in his cup and the Polo aftershave he slapped on after his morning shower. He’s a scant inch shorter than me and looks as harried as a fox surrounded by hounds.
“The director of the historical society was there, too, Kate. Needless to say, she was not a happy camper.” Looking past me, he gestures so abruptly some of the coffee squirts from the opening of his cup. “Did you see all of it?”
“Kind of hard to miss.”
He slants me a look as if trying to decide if I’m messing with him. Which I am. Usually, even when we’re dealing with some unpleasant topic or problem, I can drag a smile out of him. This morning he doesn’t bite.
“For God’s sake, swastikas?” he says. “Who the hell does stuff like that?”
“Young people with too much time on their hands.” I shrug. “Too little responsibility or guidance or both.”
“Don’t kids have jobs anymore?” He strides to the window and gestures at a particularly vulgar carving. “Kate, we just spent eight thousand dollars painting this bridge for the second time in three years. We don’t have the budget to do it again. The folks over at the historical society are shitting bricks.”
“I understand,” I say diplomatically.
“We’ve got to put a stop to the graffiti. I mean, for chrissake, the elementary schools bring little kids here for field trips. Can you imagine a kindergartner seeing some of those four-letter words? I didn’t know what that word meant until I was in the army. Good God, some six-year-old starts talking like that and we’ll probably get sued and then where will we be?”
“Auggie, we might be able to get some volunteers out here to paint over the damage,” I offer. “I know some of my guys would show. We can get this covered up.”
“It’s those little shits out at the Maple Crest subdivision,” he grumbles. “Those high school kids have no respect. I think we need to make some kind of stand here, Kate. Some kind of concerted effort to catch them.”
“I could sic Pickles on them,” I say. My most senior officer, Roland “Pickles” Shumaker, has a reputation for taking a hard line with anyone under thirty. It was a running joke up until a year ago when he handcuffed a twelve-year-old boy for tossing a pop bottle out the window of a moving vehicle. The boy just happened to be the grandson of Councilwoman Fourman, who failed to see the humor.
“You can’t be—” Realizing I’m kidding, he bites off the words and gives up a chuckle. “I’m glad one of us has a sense of humor about this.”
“I can step up patrols. Work with County, persuade Sheriff Rasmussen to do the same.”
“That’s a start, Kate. I want those little bastards caught. I want them arrested. Forty hours of community service ought to show them the error of their ways. Let’s see how they like spending their Saturdays out here painting over swastikas.”
I consider pointing out the fact that the last time I caught someone out here defacing the covered bridge—a senior at Painters Mill High and a football player to boot—the boy’s parents lodged a complaint and eventually the charges were dropped. But I don’t mention it. It’s part of being a small-town cop. It’s my job to arrest people for breaking the law. The rest is up to the courts. I’d just as soon stay out of any back scratching that happens along the way.
Making a sound of irritation, Auggie crosses to one of the ancient oak beams and slaps his hand against the wood. “Could you imagine driving all the way from Columbus for some wholesome sightseeing and instead getting that?”
“There are quite a few teenagers out here just about every weekend,” I tell him. “I’ll park an officer down the road at that little turnaround. If we can catch them in the act and make an example of them, it’ll stop.”
Even as I say the words, we both know it will be me who parks down the road and stays up all night. My small police department consists of only four full-time officers, including me. Pickles is getting on in years and went part-time last summer. That’s not to mention my budget, which leaves me no funds for overtime. And even if we’re lucky enough to catch some numbskull artiste in the act, chances are—if he or she is a juvenile—Judge Siebenthaler will cave when the parents complain.
I make eye contact with Auggie. “I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence as chief if I didn’t remind you that a budget for OT would be helpful.”
He makes a face I can’t quite decipher. “I know you’re operating with a skeleton crew, Kate. You know I’m in your corner. I’ve been trying for years to get the council to increase your budget. Rest assured, I’ve got the bean counters working on it.”
That’s one of the things I like about Auggie Brock. While he is a political animal, I know he cares.
“In the interim,” he says, “let’s get some volunteers out here.”
I nod. “I bet Jim over at the hardware store will donate the paint.”
“Good thinking,” Auggie says. “Jim and I are in Rotary together, so let me get with him on that.”
My phone chooses that moment to erupt. I check the display. Curiosity sparks when ODRC pops up on the screen. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
“I gotta take this,” I tell Auggie.
He looks at his watch. “I’ve got a meeting, anyway.”
“Don’t forget to talk to Jim.” Giving him a wave, I turn away and answer with, “Burkholder.”
“This is Jerry Murphy, Chief Burkholder. I’m the deputy warden out at Mansfield.”
The Mansfield Correctional Institution is a maximum-security state prison about a hundred miles north of Painters Mill.
“What can I do for you?” I ask.
“There was a security breach involving an inmate last night,” the deputy warden tells me. “You’re on our notify list, Chief Burkholder.”
A notify list contains the names of individuals—law enforcement, officers of the court, witnesses that testified during trial, family members, and victims—that are to be contacted when the status of an inmate changes. For example, when an inmate is paroled. I suspect this call has nothing to do with a formal discharge.
“Who?” I ask.
The name impacts my brain with a solid punch that leaves me breathless. I was eight years old when I met Joseph. He was Amish and lived on the farm next to ours. My older brother, Jacob, and sometimes my sister, Sarah, and I would meet Joseph and his two brothers after our chores were finished. There was a wooded area and a creek between our farms—prime real estate for a group of bored Amish kids.
Joseph was full of mischief, a born explorer, and a master teller of tall tales. He was funny and ornery and always ready for fun and games. Even with our many chores, we somehow always found time to play. Cowboys and Indians in the woods. A swim in the deep part of the creek. When I was nine, Joe set up a baseball diamond in a paddock, and I learned how to play baseball. In winter, we’d meet at nearby Miller’s Pond to skate. When I was ten years old, Joseph taught me how to play hockey. I was competitive for an Amish girl—a trait that was frowned upon by my datt and brother. Not Joe. He liked me all the more because I was a tomboy, a sore loser, and I never shied away from a little rough-and-tumble.
I was twelve when I fell in love with him. It was an innocent Amish-girl crush, but to me it was a mile wide and as deep as the ocean. I never told a soul; not even my best friend. It was my secret, and I held it tightly. But it was the first time I had my breath taken away by a boy. It was my first bittersweet taste of love, and it was as powerful and formative as my first steps.
Joseph’s datt was killed that fall when a drunk driver plowed into his buggy. He stopped coming over, and I didn’t see him much after that. But I heard the stories. The rumors that said he’d lost his way. He’d lost the light in his eyes and opened his heart to some waiting darkness I had no concept of. They said he’d traded his happy-go-lucky persona in for a new model of brooding—and sometimes rage.
Two years ago, I received word that Joseph King had shot and killed his wife in their farmhouse while she slept. I’m not easily shocked, but I had a difficult time believing that the boy I’d once known could partake in such a vicious act. I’d actually been tempted to go see him, but life intervened and I never got around to it. I followed the media blitz of a trial. In the end, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
“Chief Burkholder? You still there?”
The deputy warden’s voice jerks me from my reverie. “Yeah.” I mumble something about our connection. “What happened with King?” I ask.
“He escaped custody sometime after headcount last night and as of this time, we’ve not been able to locate him.”
I almost can’t believe my ears. It’s rare for an inmate to escape. There are too many layers of security and even more in the way of checks and balances. Without help from the outside, it’s an almost impossible feat.
“I was on the notify list?” I ask.
“That’s correct,” he replies. “He’s got ties to Painters Mill.”
After Joseph’s conviction, I remember hearing that his five children went to live with his wife’s sister here in Painters Mill. “Rebecca and Daniel Beachy adopted them.”
“Since the kids are living near your jurisdiction, we wanted to give you a heads-up in case he tries to make contact. We’ll be notifying Holmes County, too.” He pauses. “I understand you’re part of the Amish community there.”
“I used to be,” I tell him. “I know where the Beachys live. They don’t have a phone, so I’ll drive over and let them know about King.”
“Has King made any threats against any of them?” I ask, knowing that when kids are involved, emotions can run high.
“Not that I know of,” he tells me. “That doesn’t mean he won’t try to make contact. Or harm them or the family. From what I’ve heard, Joseph King is a cold-blooded son of a bitch.”
The words disturb me more than they should. In some small part of my brain, I still think of him as the footloose boy who couldn’t bring himself to scale a fish without first knocking it unconscious.
“We’ve got a BOLO out with the highway patrol. Richland County Sheriff’s Department is all over this. We got dogs on scene. I suspect BCI will get involved, too.”
Which means that my live-in lover, BCI agent John Tomasetti, will be getting a call, too, if he hasn’t already.
“Can you text or e-mail me a recent photo of King?” I rattle off my e-mail address.
“We’re blasting his mug shot to all law enforcement agencies in the four-county area, including Cuyahoga.”
“I appreciate the heads-up.”
I disconnect and slide my phone back into my pocket, troubled. I haven’t seen or heard from Joseph King in twenty years, but I heard the stories. Not only from the Amish, but from law enforcement as well. Evidently, King was a troubled man with a marriage on the rocks, a litter of kids he didn’t want, and a loose interpretation of his marital vows.
I vividly recall the day I learned his wife had been found dead—and Joseph was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. I couldn’t believe the kid I’d known—the one with the toothy grin and big laugh—could do something so horrific. But no one knows better than me how profoundly life can change people—and that too often those changes are not for the best.
I’d wanted to talk to him, ask him myself if he’d done it. But I knew it was only that tiny part of my heart that remembered what it was like to be thirteen years old and in the throes of my first crush. The part of me that was loyal to a fault and still believed people were fundamentally good. I never went to see him.
I did, however, follow the investigation and trial. Joseph King, his wife, and their five children lived on a small farm near Middlefield, Ohio, which is about two hours northeast of Painters Mill. The night of the murder, King claimed to have gone fishing on Lake Erie. Since his destination was too far to travel via buggy, he’d paid a local Yoder toter to drive him to a cabin. During the night, someone walked into his unlocked home, picked up his shotgun, and shot his wife in her bed while their five children slept across the hall. Come morning, the children discovered their mother’s body. Two days later, Joseph was arrested and charged with murder.
Throughout the trial, Joseph proclaimed his innocence. He claimed to love his wife and swore he’d never harm her. No one believed him. His temper was common knowledge around town. Worse, he had a criminal record that included two domestic-violence convictions. His prints were on the shotgun and the shells. One of his jackets, found at the scene, had gunshot residue on it. No one at the lake remembered seeing King at the cabin. The crime scene was a virtual smorgasbord of evidence—both circumstantial and physical—and the prosecutor offered up every juicy morsel.
The trial lasted three weeks, a spectacle that drew tourists from as far away as New York. In the end King was convicted of first-degree homicide and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence right through the day he was led from the courtroom in shackles. No one believed him, including me.
The case was high-profile not only because King was Amish but because of the level of brutality—and the fact that the children were in the house at the time of the murder. It brought to light the reality that domestic violence transcends culture and religion. And it drove home the fact that all the warning signs had been there, but for whatever reason everyone missed them, including law enforcement, family, and the Amish community.
Naomi King had been just twenty-nine years old. A pretty Amish mother whose life was cut short by a jealous, controlling, and sometimes violent husband. A family destroyed, countless lives ruined, and for what?
Graffiti forgotten, I walk to the Explorer, slide behind the wheel, and call dispatch.
My first-shift dispatcher, Lois, answers with a perky “You didn’t throw Auggie off the bridge, did you?”
I can’t help it; I laugh, and the cloud that had been hovering over me dissipates. “I need you to call everyone in for a quick meeting.”
“This about that BOLO for Joseph King?”
I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s already heard; news travels fast in a small town. And with the police radio, it’s not unusual for my dispatchers to know things before I do.
“Meeting in an hour.” I tell her about my conversation with the deputy warden. “I’m going to head over to the Beachy farm to let them know.”
“ODRC think he’s coming here?”
“I don’t think so, but the family needs to know he’s out, and we need to cover all our bases just in case.”
Copyright © 2017 by Linda Castillo