What a Murder Sounds Like, Twice Over

One of the things for which I am grateful is that I survived my tumultuous childhood and teenage years.  I grew up in a good family in safe neighborhoods but somehow I occasionally managed to find myself in or near violence.  I was a free-roaming kid, and often snuck out at night to “go exploring” simply because I was curious about what the world was like out there.  It’s hard to explain what it means or feels like to be insatiably curious in a world where everyone is constantly asking you where you have been, who you were with, etc.

When I was 7 years old I jumped out of my bedroom window one night to “go exploring”.  Not far down the street I turned into an alleyway that ran beside an apartment complex’s parking lot.  This was a good neighborhood with middle class families.  Everyone’s parents had jobs or were homemakers.  You rarely saw police cars in this part of town.  In fact, my brother and I had a friend named Steve Stitt who lived in the apartments I was walking by.  We sometimes camped out with him in the big common area between the various buildings. There was a huge tree there and he would build a makeshift fort (which seemed to be of palatial proportions to a 7-year-old) around the base of the tree.

A so-called Black Panther cat

A so-called Black Panther cat. This is NOT what I saw.

So I turned into the alleyway, feeling perfectly safe (and going who knows where — I wandered pretty far on those nights).  There were bushes or hedges lining the right side of the alley.  As I stepped fully into the drive I heard a loud hiss beside me.  Looking down I saw what seemed like the hugest black cat you could ever imagine.  It was twice the size of any “house” cat I had ever seen.  I froze and stared at it in fascination (I was not afraid because I was always on friendly terms with cats).  When I bent down to get a closer look the cat jumped up and ran away, looking even larger than before.

I always loved telling my family and friends about that cat (yes, I was grounded for sneaking out that night).  Years later someone suggested to me that I might have seen one of south Florida’s elusive “black panthers”.  There is a long-running debate about whether these sightings are legitimate, people mistake house cats for something larger, or maybe they are jaguars or some other wild cats who wander into the city (maybe escaping from an exotic pet collection).  Having looked at many leopards and jaguars in zoos and pictures I am pretty sure the cat I saw was nothing like their species.  When you are 7 years old everything looks big.  It could have just been a huge alley cat and nothing more, or maybe some sort of young hybrid.  I don’t know if a startled young jaguar would hiss and run away (maybe it was raised in an exotic collection?).

A feral black cat from a domestic breed.

A feral black cat from a domestic breed. The cat I saw was about twice this size.

However, that neighborhood was nowhere near any homes that might have contained an exotic animal.  There were some pretty nice houses only a few blocks away but I never saw any exotic animals around those homes when my friends and I would go visit their yards at night (we were kind of wild kids, but we didn’t break things or steal — we were just “exploring”).  You can tell whether a cat is from a domestic breed by looking at its head (particularly the ears and cheeks).  They just have a very different shape from wild cats.  Whatever I saw, it was larger than the average house cat but it was not in any way a wild cat.  It may have been feral in an urban way, but we just called those “alley cats”.  My family sometimes took alley cats into our home.  Some of the cats had obviously lived in homes before because they were almost immediately comfortable in their new surroundings.  But the more feral cats were always uncomfortable when you took them inside.  It would take several weeks for them to become accustomed to living with people, learn to use litter pans, and start acting like “normal” cats again.

So what does the black cat have to do with murder?  Technically, nothing.  But the incident was typical of how I managed to wander into all sorts of strange situations when I was a kid.  A few years later, while living in a different apartment close to the one where I had lived at age 7, I became best friends with a kid named Keith Murphy.  We were inseparable and always wandering across the city, “exploring”.  Sometimes we took friends with us, sometimes it was just the two of us.  We invaded construction projects, abandoned buildings, vacation homes, large hotels, and just about anything and everything we could reach.  Back in those days we kids believed we could go just about anywhere in south Florida and we would be safe if we just kept to ourselves.  That was most likely not true in many ways, but no one ever tried to kidnap me.  I was lucky that way.

The most famous building we wandered into was the Fountainbleau hotel.  My mother and her friends nearly went into cardiac arrest when she learned my brother, I, and several of our friends went “swimming” at the big hotels downtown one day.  I was never sure if she was worried the police would come after us or if she was afraid we would wander into the wrong corner.  There were rumors that organized crime hung out there, you know?  Well, we were kids and we only wandered that far away from home during the daytime and in groups.  We did our best to stay together.

There was an old abandoned house at the eastern end of 81st street around Collins.  We called it the 81st Street House because it was there at the end of 81st street.  There used  to be a row of houses on the beach in that area (now it’s the North Shore Open Space Park).  I don’t know when the 81st Street House was abandoned; maybe in the early 60s, maybe in the 1950s.  It represented a time frame that predated the memories of the kids in our area.

The house had two storeys.  The driveway ran on the south side of the house.  On the south side of the drive was an open beach area.  Kids would walk from our neighborhood down to that beach and spend an afternoon there.  Most of the kids ignored the creepy abandoned house but those of us who explored it would just wander in through the beach-front bay window (the glass had long since been broken out).  We’d run up and down the stairs and climb through a hole in the ceiling of one room.  And the master bedroom had a balcony that faced Collins.  The yard still had tall trees, too.  I think there was a huge coconut palm right beside the house that some of my friends would climb (I never could go very far up the trunk).

This was the location of a murder in 1969 or 1970. My friend Keith Murphy and I decided to go down to the beach one afternoon.  As we approached the house we saw a hooded figure standing on the balcony.  I didn’t know what the Ku Klux Klan was then but when I eventually saw pictures of klansmen I recognized the robe style right away.  This hooded figure was wearing a light brown or tan-colored outfit.  He pointed something in our direction, which creeped us out, so we crossed the street and went onto the beach further south.  But after running around and playing for a while we ended up near the abandoned house.

There was a “seawall” there running parallel to the water.  I guess you would park your car behind the seawall and walk onto the beach.  All I remember clearly is playing around when suddenly Keith stopped and said, “Michael, did you hear that?”  I hadn’t heard anything because we were making so much noise.

So I stopped and listened.  Right as I was about to say nothing was happening I heard a POP in the distance, followed by another.  We turned and looked at the house.  There was a red car sitting in the lane beside it.  Keith immediately had a really creepy feeling and he suggested we go take cover by the seawall (which was not very high).  After about a minute a man in a white shirt came around the corner of the house from the rear.  He was dragging another man (also wearing a white shirt).  He put the man into the car in the left front seat (where in an American car the driver would be seated).  The limp man’s head was hanging over the door, and as the living man walked around the car to get in on the other side Keith and I saw blood coming down the back of the limp man.

1962 Sunbeam Alpine sports car

1962 Sunbeam Alpine sports car

The driver pulled the limp man into the car and drove off.  Keith and I freaked out, ran home, and reported what we had seen to some neighbors, who called the police.  The police took us back to that house and searched it but they never found anything.  People didn’t believe me when I told them that story mostly because of the fact that the driver was on the right-hand side of the car.  All the kids were convinced I was making this up.  In fact, it was an import car.  I knew it was an import car the day I saw it; we had seen all sorts of odd cars driving around Miami Beach in those years.

I did not know what kind of car it was then but it had an unmistakable profile.  It was a Sunbeam Alpine.  Here is a picture of a 1962 Sunbeam Alpine.  Notice that the steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car.  I will never forget that car or the sight of the man hanging over the left-hand door with blood running down his back.  The driver was so calm and confident as he made his escape from the scene of the crime I have always wondered how many other people he might have killed.   As far as that crime goes, I have never heard that it was solved.  I don’t know that the body was ever found.  I doubt it was.  Whether it was a klan-related murder or something else, I don’t know, either.

Partially restored Sunbeam Alpine sports car.

Partially restored Sunbeam Alpine sports car.

Collectors still find and restore old Sunbeam Alpines in the south Florida area.  It could be that the murderer’s car has been sold and resold many times.  I was reminded of the murder when I stumbled across a listing for a partially restored Sunbeam Alpine that had been kept in storage in Miami Beach since 1973.  That’s just too creepy to ignore.  Maybe this article would make a better Halloween story, but I didn’t think about it on Halloween.  Besides which, someone’s son died that day.  Was he a good man?  Was he a despicable criminal?  Did anyone miss him?  I just don’t think murder victims (even nameless and faceless victims) should be relegated to Halloween stories.

I am sure most of the people whom I told this story to as a kid will never remember it.  They didn’t take us seriously.  Even Keith eventually stopped talking about the murder.  I never understood that, but I guess some people just bury disturbing information rather than integrate it into their waking memory.  I am not criticizing Keith (he was only 10 years old) for moving on but I would never want to be forgotten if something like that happened to me.  I hope justice was eventually done in that case.  If the murderer was about 35 years old at the time, he would be in his 80s now.  It is entirely conceivable he is still alive (or that someone killed him).

The other murder that I heard occurred at 9:45 PM on January 5, 2004.  I was living in the west Houston area at the time in an older apartment community called Chateau Dijon.  This may sound familiar to anyone who is familiar with the life story of former US President George W. Bush.  I was renting a townhouse apartment that overlooked the swimming pool, and I used the poolside bedroom as an office.  The pool faced the street, which was a cul-de-sac.  People did not drive back there unless they had some business in the area.

George W. Bush lived somewhere in the complex in the early 1970s, and though news stories describe it as “exclusive” it was not really so when I lived there.  Maybe in the 1960s and 1970s it was exclusive but I just thought it was a nice place to live in 2003 when I was forced to find a new home (the previous place where I had been living was sold to a commercial developer who put a bank in my former living room).  I was sitting in my office that evening, working on a Website or something, when I hear what sounded like 3 or 4 pops.  I looked up and out the balcony toward the pool.  “That sounded like gunfire,” I said to myself.  For a moment I wondered if I should dive for cover, call 9-1-1, or go see what made the sound.  But then I decided I had heard a car backfire or something.

Approximate location of the Beverly Hill Street murder.

Approximate location of the Beverly Hill Street murder that took place on January 5, 2004 in Houston, TX.

Not much later I started to see blue lights flashing in the street.  Fortunately someone else had called 9-1-1, although it was too late for the victim.  He was a man who had been shot in the face and thrown out of a car onto the street.  The killer drove in there to perform the execution and then drive away.  I read about the murder the next day but I have never heard since whether the killer was found or who the victim was.  I have occasionally tried to look up the story but cannot find anything.  There are just so many murders every year that the search engines cannot sort through all the details.

I grew up in a family that owned guns and enjoyed shooting.  I first learned to shoot from my grandmother, who was an expert in firearms (she had once worked as a parole officer and her father was a police officer for the Indianapolis Police Department).  I am familiar with the sound of gunfire, but there are so many other things that — at a distance — can sound like it that if you feel safe you may mistake it for fireworks, a car backfiring (which does not happen much any more), or some other sounds.

At the time I did not know that I was living in a community where the then President of the United States had lived.  How odd is that?  If anyone ever mentioned to me that he had once been a resident, I quickly filed that information away where the sun don’t shine and moved on with my life.  But knowing that someone was murdered right outside of my home in what was supposed to be a “safe” neighborhood, and that I didn’t bother to do anything, has always weighed on my mind.  Not that I knew someone had been killed.  I just feel like I should have done something.  But I didn’t know my neighbors and I was just trying unwind that evening.  I was not happy about the situation at work and was wondering if I should leave (I did quit a few months later).

There are times when I am just in my own little world and whatever happens out there doesn’t affect me much.  But in retrospect I do realize that the second murder affected me.  I remember it with regret.  I remember the pop sounds clearly, and looking up from my computer.  Now, nearly 11 years later, how many people care about what happened that night?  How many even remember it?  I am sure some of my neighbors will never forget it, but who else will remember it?

I don’t know what triggered this macabre walk down memory lane.  Maybe it has something to do with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  Brown had just committed a very minor crime of theft but apparently responded violently when stopped by officer Darren Wilson.  And yet, based on Wilson’s own testimony I keep asking myself why he could not wait another 30-60 seconds for backup before getting out of his car.  No matter what state of mind Michael Brown was in, Wilson was obviously not capable of containing the situation by himself.  He says he has a clear conscience but Brown’s family and friends will have to live with the consequences of Wilson’s decisions for the rest of their lives.

I have wanted to say something all week but it just feels like there is nothing to say.  In a few more years most people won’t remember Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.  For Wilson that may be a blessing; he may be able to go on with his life and perhaps do something constructive.  But for Browns’ family, what does the future hold except memories of someone they loved?  It’s up to us to give these senseless deaths some meaning, to bring about some sort of change.  You do that by remembering, not by forgetting.  That’s the way I feel.