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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Chapter Nine - Links and Knots


***

Every other year, I came back to Kalamazoo from Phoenix to visit the family, and to escape the broiler oven heat of Arizona. I am one who enjoys the journey as much as anything else, literally a matter of planes, trains and automobiles. And taxicabs. And shuttle buses. Rarely would I spend the extra bread for a flight directly into AZO - it was almost always a lot more complicated than that.

In '08, I flew into O'Hare and rented a car for the week, a brand new Dodge Avenger (the smaller cousin of the 4-door Charger). It had sky blue paint, satellite radio and a V6 engine to stomp on... Sweet!

You miss the growing up of your nieces and nephews when you move away from home. They're bigger every time you see them. One of the first things I wanted to do was take Theresa and Charlie to the beach, because it looked to me like he was big enough. On windy days, Lake Michigan gets more than a little choppy; it becomes outright crashing surf, with pipelines and shit, six-foot whitecaps throwing you around in our fresh-water inland sea.

It was a very windy day. Charlie, then five years old, had a "floatie", a big duck-shaped ring with a saddle-seat in the middle that he could put his legs through. It kept him from going through the ring or getting thrown out of it by the indifferent violence of Mother Nature. Theresa and I teamed up. I towed him out to the waist-deep water where the waves break the hardest, and Theresa played backstop behind me if Charlie were to get tumbled... It happens.

We would wait for a wave, just the right one, with Charlie's reddish cheeks bunched up above his tight grin as he watched the waters pitching and rolling toward us. When one reared its monstrous white head, Charlie would pull all the breath into his lungs that he could, and grab ahold tight of his duck as I started to push him toward the irrevocable onslaught.

"Be Brave, Charlie!" I would yell as the swells would suddenly lift him high above the waterline, sending him floating and flying at the same time in an exhilarating upward heave into the air and the spray, his laughter and Theresa's carried away by the screeching gulls battling with the turbulence. "Be Brave!" 

And he was. Absolutely. Every day of his life, Charlie Wolf was the bravest little kid I ever knew.

***

Oneonta, Alabama: October 11, 2014: "A 10-year-old Blount County boy died Friday night in what police say appears to be an accidental hanging... The boy lived with his mother and three younger sisters. They had only been home about 10 or 15 minutes, and were getting ready to go to a birthday party... His mother called out to him that it was time to leave, and the boy didn't answer. When she went into his room, she found him hanging from a rope tied to his top bunk bed... The mother got him down and ran outside screaming for help. Neighbors called 911 and began CPR until paramedics arrived and took over the resuscitation efforts." Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2014/10/10-year-old_oneonta_boy_dead_i.html

***

Stockton, California, January 23rd, 2014: "A big-hearted California 8-year-old boy died Sunday after his play-acting went too far and he hanged himself in his parents’ Stockton home... When the teen went to check on his younger brother, the boy was slumped over near his parent’s closet, one side of a scarf tied around his neck and the other end to a doorknob... The teen called 911 and his mother, who rushed home and tried CPR on her unconscious son. Paramedics also tried to revive the boy before he was flown to a medical center in Sacramento... Police called the heartbreaking incident 'a very tragic accident.'" Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/parents-grieve-8-year-old-california-boy-accidentally-hangs-article-1.1589671

***

Watton, Norfolk (UK): January 10, 2014: "A nine-year-old boy has died after accidentally hanging himself while playing in his bedroom with his three younger brothers." Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2537112/Schoolboy-9-dies-accidentally-hanging-playing-bedroom-younger-brothers.html

***

Lancaster, California, June 18, 2012: "But it became a reality for Evelyn Briggs, who entered her Lancaster, Calif. backyard over the weekend to find her 7-year-old son dead, hanging from a tree, as CBS reports in the video below... Briggs explained that she was in the house, and her son went into the backyard to play. Twenty minutes later, the yard fell silent, and she and her other son went outside to check on (him). That’s when they saw his body, hanging from a tree... 'I was screaming. But I realized I have to go grab my baby and so we got him untangled. He fell and I shook him. I did chest compression, CPR,' Briggs said. 'Words cannot explain the way I feel after losing a 7-year-old child. He was so full of life. He had so much more to do and accomplish,' she continued." Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/18/boy-hanged-on-tree-aaris-conway_n_1606198.html

***

Those are just some of the ones I took from the first page of my Google search. All in all, "accidental hanging little boy" pulled up approximately 995,000 results. So Charlie's was just a few thousand tragic stories shy of being one of a million, at least where Google is concerned. It took the search engine 0.54 seconds to get me the information.

It's not rocket science. It's common sense: Accidental injury is the leading cause of death for boys under the age of 14.

***

Charlie slept in the car the whole way home that day, 45 minutes down M-43. He always did that. Fell asleep in the back seat. Every time.

pH 4.3o.16

***

NEXT WEEK: Chapter Ten - "Alphabetical Order"

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Chapter Eight - Dennis the Menace

***

We bought the house right about the time the housing market took a turn for the worse. Hellers frequently have awful timing. It isn't much, but it sits atop the hill on the Bel Aire Platte, not far from the old metal walkway bridge that crosses Westnedge, so it won't ever flood. And it has a double lot, nice and flat for easy mowing, big enough for all the stuff that kids like to play with.

So what if we're still under water, even with an entire presidency having nearly gone by since the turn for the worst? What mattered most was the Kalamazoo Promise, the guarantee that Charlie would get a free ride to college (more or less; it only kicks in after scholarships and grants) anywhere in Michigan, even the Mighty U of M if he got good enough grades.

But he didn't want to move away from home. He wanted to be a Bronco. My Dad taught there. Three of my siblings got degrees there, including Charlie's Mom, who was the first WMU grad to get a post-Baccalaureate certificate in GIS, and a Masters Degree in Geographic Information Science, the first woman ever to get one. She could have made bank if she'd ever had the gumption to tear up roots and go where the money is in GIS, the Gulf Coast, or Florida, California, where they pay people well to hunt for things like oil and natural gas.

She didn't want to, though, she wanted to be a stay-at-home Mom to Charlie. She always said she waited 20 years for Charlie , since as an unwed teenager, she gave up for adoption her daughter Courtney, who went on to become a law librarian. They reconnected right around the time Theresa found out she was pregnant with Charlie. Two miracles came true for her at the same time, and that after three other pregnancies that ended with medical problems. She didn't want to work full-time and miss out on her son's life, she said.

And it's a good thing she didn't, because The Lord, He Giveth... And He Taketh Away.

Charlie was beloved in the neighborhood. Not that his Mom let him "roam the streets", like we did when we were in those pre-teen years. Far from it. If he was outside playing in the yard, she would listen to his singing or whistling or adventure-pretending. She always told him to make noise when he was out of her sight so that she would know he was okay.

Recovering from surgery in bed that day, groggy from pain and the medication prescribed to ameliorate it, she still knew her son was playing outside, and she became aware that she had not heard him for a while. She asked Renee what Charlie was doing. Renee said he was just outside kicking rocks in the yard. She asked again a few minutes later, and Renee said with one of his friends maybe, and an alarming knock hit the door.

Who the hell knocks like that, Theresa thought. It was a neighbor lady whose dog, Bruiser the Pomeranian, Charlie sometimes walked for money (that was Charlie the Merchant for you, always raising funds for his own endeavors). She was in speechless horror at the sight right there in the front yard, blocked from the inside-the-house vantage point by a large desk which was anti-serendipitously placed in front of the window.

The rest, you already know, sadly... We don't have the desk anymore either.

Anyway, everybody knew Charlie. He was a fixture from the age of three. One of his best friends in the world was Jim across the street. Jim, the American Classic. Worked for Checker Motors right here in Kalamazoo, making those big iconic yellow taxicabs of yesteryear. Cigarettes, beer, motorcycles, pool table in the garage, basketball hoop above it, American flag next to it (on the appropriate days).

Jim's laconic speech and deep voice, combined with his mastery of observation, made him a joy to talk to every time you got the chance. That's the neighbor everybody needs to have. His general attitude: Call it like you see it. When the guy next door's wife left him, and he stopped mowing the lawn in his understandable funk, Jim was the one to mutter, "Everybody's got problems, mow your fuckin' lawn."

Every year, Charlie would be showered with Christmas gifts, from all sides. The best ones always came from Jim. A T-Rex that walked and screamed on its own. A two-wheeled flexible skateboard. A remote-control off-roader that ran faster than a raped ape. Once a year, Jim spared no expense on Charlie.

Because of Jim, young Dennis Charles Wolf will always be a member of the Young Eagles, a program run by Jim's friend, a pilot named Jim Butcher, who every year takes kids up in his small airplane at the Air Zoo. (Charlie loved to go to the Air Zoo. After he passed away, they were kind enough to allow his year-long membership to be transferred to one of his cousins.)

Not that Jim and Charlie didn't have their issues once in a while, as boys who are friends will occasionally do. Charlie once knocked over Jim's beer with his bike tire, which pissed him off (he tried to make it look like an accident, Jim said). Another time, he and one of his friends broke Jim's dog run by using it as a zip line. On that one, he implored Theresa to get Charlie into baseball or something, so he wouldn't turn out to be a bad kid.

"Like I was," he said. I don't know, though... Even if Jim was a bad kid, he sure turned out to be a great man. That's why he was listed as the emergency contact person with Charlie's schools for his entire life - officially, through the sixth grade.

Their affection for one another was not hard to spot. Charlie sometimes would introduce himself as Dennis (at school, in particular, he preferred to go by his first name), and Jim knew that. Charlie had also seen all the cheesy Hollywood send-ups of Dennis the Menace, so he would gleefully holler at Jim as he ran past, or biked past, or scootered past, or even when we drove past, hanging out the car window, "Hi, Mister Wilson!"

Jim would always hold the one hand up over his head and intone, "Hi, Dennis." Quite a character... Just three weeks before it happened, Jim and Lori came to the schoolyard with all of us on the 4th of July, the schoolyard where all us Heller kids had attended from Kindergarten to Third Grade, to set off a good, long run of magnificent fireworks. Between Larry, my brother Vince and me, we probably exploded $600 worth of stuff.

They also came to our party on the Sunday before Labor Day, which was our Celebration of Charlie's Life Party. Larry was there, too, and so was Mick, honking on the harmonica to my 12-bar blues in E. We had fireworks on that occasion, too, but there weren't as many, and they didn't seem as loud.

Last I saw of Jim, it was on a police car dash-cam video (Officer Stolsunburg's, I think). The view is from the South, looking at the scene from over their shoulders. Jim is holding my sister in the road as the police and EMT's frantically work on Charlie in the front yard. He stays with her, keeps her upright with his big hands, until our parents arrive.

The detectives and the police interviewed most of the people in our neighborhood that night, but for some reason, they didn't ever interview Jim. I know this in two ways. One, his wife told me so. Two, I have all of the police reports from July 26, 2015 in my possession. And none of them mention any interview with them, even though they knew him most of his life and could have spoken volumes to his nature and character.

Well, they sure can't ask him anything about it now. Jim Yonkman died a few days after Thanksgiving, 2015, losing a long and painful battle with cancer. He held on long enough for his son to come from California for the holiday with the twin grandkids. He had never seen them before.

After he had lost so much weight as to become heartache thin, Jim asked me to mow his lawn for him last summer, because he was too weak to do it anymore. I did so, religiously, even after Charlie died. He always gave me twenty bucks and a 12-pack of cheap beer, no matter how hard I tried to refuse. I'm doing it again this year too, looks like. No charge, Lori.

Because I already hear Jim's words of wisdom on these increasingly warm weekend mornings, when I awake to sunshine, the sound of birds... Soon enough, cicadas, buzzing in voices almost as low and rich as Jim's:

"Everybody's got problems, mow my fuckin' lawn!"

pH 4.28.16

***

NEXT WEEK: Chapter Nine - "Links and Knots"

Pick Six

We've Got Mail!

In the old days, the Inbox was always empty, because readers had the good sense to understand that I would take their emails and make great sport of them online.

I'm not going to do that this time. I'm just going to share, that's all, the disturbing thing that was sent to me last night at 9:14 pm by Tom Zavitz, Compliance Officer and Dean of Finance at Homer H. Stryker School of Medicine.

***

"Hal,

I know he doesn't have a lot of readership, but Joyce and my name are laced throughout the blogs the past several days. This is out on the web, and we've both been highly disparaged.

Will you consider some type of legal notice or action at some point? I really don't appreciate this out in the public sphere......

Tom."

***

No, I'm sure he doesn't.

Tom was trying to get that email to go to Hal Jenson, I suppose. That's the Dean at WMed. But Tom's not that bright, so he sent it to me instead. Do you see what we are dealing with here?

My sister's little boy, who I was raising like a son, died in our front yard. My sister and her childhood friend gave him CPR, to no avail. Every cop in the city was here trying desperately to bring him back to life. He was left laying in the dirt for almost three hours.

Then these vultures come along, lie about the circumstances, steal his body and mutilate it. Then they ignore our pleas to change it for nine months...

And then a push for legal action to be taken against me for writing about it. That's how they want to treat a family who has been in this town, and tied to WMU, for over 50 years.

Tom Zavitz's email address is tom.zavitz@med.wmich.edu

pH 4.28.16

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Chapter Seven - Scalpel

***

WARNING: Graphic content to follow.

***

An Open Letter to Joyce DeJong,

Hey, how are ya? This is Uncle Paul, one of the leftovers from Case No. ##-####. I know, a lot of corpses have piled up at work since then - especially that late-night rush with the Uber driver shooting, no? So I am not at all surprised if the details of Dennis Charles Wolf have somehow been swept along through your transom. Raised to be a gentleman, I am perfectly willing to refresh them for you.

Despite the fact that the cause of my nephew's death was utterly obvious, you chose to dig a little deeper - literally, I'm saying. Oh, I suppose it was possible that Charlie had also been bitten by a Tsetse fly on the same day, or maybe one of those nefarious Russian spies dropped a radioactive isotope in his Spaghetti-O's that afternoon - it could have happened. I'd even say that I can't blame you for trying...

Except that I totally blame you for trying. Considering the evidence, it looks more like you were doing a la carte work on the County's dime than anything resembling due diligence. After reading the public account of your, um, work, I came to understand a lot of things.

For instance, I now know why Charlie's collar was pulled up all the way up to his ears as he lay there in his casket; it's due to the fact that you had peeled all the skin off his neck. I now know that you found his pituitary gland to be "grossly unremarkable", and I also know what you had to do to make that determination.

I know the precise weight - to the gram - of his vital organs. His heart. His liver. His pancreas. All together, those were roughly equal to the same weight as 30 pieces of silver.

I know how the surface of his liver felt through your rubber-gloved hand, kind of pebbly, like the surface of a football. I know what color his heart was, how it was smooth and shiny and healthy with the vigor of youth. I know these things because I have gutted deer and hogs. You see, Joyce, you and I are not so much different after all in our grotesquery.

Your school's Compliance Officer (oh, and Dean of Finance), Tom Zavitz, told us that it was your "professional opinion" that the cause of death could not be changed. Never mind the part about the obvious oxymoron; we were told earlier by WMed that you had based your determination not on your opinion at all, but on the reports of your Investigator and the police department.

However, the police reports don't say that anywhere - I've read them all, as has our attorney - and two of the officers who were here, Sgt. Treu and PSO Pittelkow, have personally told Theresa that they believed Charlie's death was an accident. Just like everyone else told you.

As far as the near-delusional reports generated by your crack Investigator Kai Cronin (a guy who has had his own run-ins with the law, it turns out), they are so demonstrably false as to be laughable under any other circumstances. Between him, you, Jo Catania and Tom Zavitz, I can't even begin to figure out who's really the ringleader in this morbid carnival of stupidity - nor do I care to. I'm not trying to solve a mystery here. I'm setting the record straight, because you got it wrong, and you have steadfastly refused to fix your egregious and hurtful error.

I have read your employer's Professional Code of Conduct. None of you seem to be, in any way, familiar with it. (We'll get into that later... Not just WMed's rules, but also those set forth by the AMA.)

I look at this horror show that you have perpetrated upon our family, which you, in your supreme arrogance, say you won't reverse. I look at the scale(s) of the "professional" company you keep.  I think about you looking at yourself in the mirror each morning, and it occurs to me that you have missed your true calling in life - proctology.

Still, I thank God you laid off going to medical school when you did, before reaching the point where you would be allowed to work on the living because if Charlie had been a live patient, what you did to him would have unquestionably been called malpractice.

We again implore you to do the right thing and reverse your hideous mistake (I am so giving you the benefit of the doubt by calling it that) that has become a part of the public record, a part of Kalamazoo's history books. It's wrong, unacceptably wrong, and some would say it reflects terribly on your record as a professional, others would say as a person.

Good day,

pH 4.27.16

***

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER Eight - "Dennis the Menace"

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Chapter Six - Do The Math

***

Okay, students, sharpen your Number Two pencils and bust out some scrap paper. We're going to do the numbers. Now, don't make a bunch of noise - this isn't going to be new math, or fuzzy math, or anything even approaching algebra. It's just straight up arithmetic, just like when you were a yonker under pressure to get your homework done while there was still some light left in the sky on a mid-May weeknight.

I got these numbers from the Internet, Yo, because I believe the stuff I read online, absolutely - especially when it's data that I find on websites that end with Dot Guv. These are statistics provided by Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, like that.

***

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, at 3.2 incidents per 100,000 people. (That is, essentially, the population of the Kalamazoo area.) However, suicides among the age group of 10-14 year olds is 1 per 100,000. One in one hundred equals one percent, follow me, so one in one-hundred thousand is one one-thousandth of one percent. Suicide among children Charlie's age occurs one one-thousandth of a percent of the time.

Now, this thing here I'm about to demonstrate is called a "subset". Actually, the reduction of 3.2/100,000 to 1/100,000 by way of age grouping is already a subset, so the following are sub-subsets. (Some people prefer to call them "sublets", but then you've gone off into the weeds talking about real estate and such, you dig, so let's stick with subsets, please.)

Subset #1:  Two-thirds of the above-described one-in-a-hundred-thousand youth suicides are girls, savvy? Therefore, without getting out a compass and protractor, we can take Isosceles' Leap of Faith and say that one-third of the above-described youth suicides were boys, and I'll thank you for taking me at my word that my nephew Charlie was, in fact, a boy.

Subset #2:  Per HHS statistics, 50 percent of all "teen suicides" (For you philosophy majors, that's roughly half) are in whole or in part related to substance abuse - whether it was a causative factor or a contributing one. Charlie's toxicology report showed only a trace of caffeine in his system, which would have come from either candy or a soft drink. His system contained zero percent of anything else on their battery of tests... And, ah, he wasn't a teenager.

Subset #3:  25 percent of all suicides occur by way of "suffocation", according to the CDC. I'm sure there's a much smaller subset of kids who may tie plastic bags over their heads or entomb themselves in old refrigerators, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that one out of four people who kill themselves use a rope or a belt as their methodology... I think that's what that means.

I could parse this further if you wanted me to - by ethnicity, for example, or by ZIP code - but (A) you don't want me to, and (B) I don't think it's mathematically necessary at this point.

If you've been following along, you understand that (by reverse order of subsets) WMed's grim fairy tale is something that only takes place one-fourth of one-half of one-third of one-thousandth of one percent of the time, if that. To get to an actual decimal percentage of the chances of their story being factual, I'd have to use a slide rule, an abacus, and IBM's Deep Blue. Pythagoras shakes his head.

Based on what they actually profess to believe, what they would have the public swallow, WMED should specialize in looking for needles in haystacks. And I would advise them to definitely start playing the lottery. Oh, wait, I know - they should go exploring for Unicorns. In Narnia.

(At the very least, could they please tell us what happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Because, like, they're the only ones who could possibly know.)

***

Meanwhile, in the real world, accidental injuries are the leading cause of death among boys age 14 and under (if the National Institutes of Health are to be believed). Even with all age groups considered, any person who turns up dead, absent definitive evidence, is four times more likely to have died by accident than by suicide, and that percentage of likelihood declines drastically with every rung down the subset ladder.

In fact, if you do the minimum required homework, you'll find that there have only been a handful of 12-year old boys who have ever committed suicide by hanging in the last 5 years in the entire country, out of a pool of some 30 million subjects. All of those tragedies were bullying-related, an issue Charlie did not have.

So now, according to WMed, Charlie belongs to a subset all his own. He's one out of an infinite number, a freaking miracle discovery made by an otherwise obscure and unimportant pathologist named Joyce DeJong.

Why, that's like a scientist finding a new species of insect (in, say, Central Park). You could call it the DeJong Beetle, like "dung beetle", only different.

Those are facts. That's why you won't hear them coming out of anybody who works for WMed.

***

So. What factor might make a privately-paid "coroner" decide that something with a fourth of a half of a third of a thousandth of a percent chance of being true is more likely to have happened than the leading cause of death in the age group of the deceased? Especially when all testimony provided lends itself to a respectfully requested reconsideration?

I don't know... What made D.B. Cooper jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Profit motive is the only thing I can think of (well, in their case, a "nonprofit" motive). My inner voice says, it's the money, Stupid. The clams, the cabbage, the Simoleons. The Moolah. The Benjamins. C'mon.

They pull down millions of dollars doing this every year. It's the ultimate Body Shop. The contracts are locked in; St. Joseph County alone poured $337,355 into WMed's coffers in 2014... They kinda had to after WMed hired away their county coroner. Nice, eh? So St. Joe gets to send us their bodies and their taxpayers' cash.

Cold cash. So cold they keep it in a cooler.

And now that we've established that my nephew's tragedy has been twisted so nastily, and ostensibly done so for nothing more than mere mammon, I'd have to assume that there's almost nothing bad enough that could be said about these greedy bastards.

Charlie died nine months ago today. My sister could have had another baby by now for all of the dicking around that these bloody ghouls have done, with rotting flesh wedged up in their fangs, gold coins spilling out of their overstuffed pockets. Don't blame me if it's ugly. I'm just recording the events that I have witnessed...

That you, too, are going to witness.

pH 4.26.16

***

NEXT WEEK: Chapter Seven - "Scalpel"

Monday, April 25, 2016

Chapter Five - In Other Words

***

Most of the letters begin with, "To Whom it May Concern", meaning, at the Kalamazoo County Coroner's Office (aka WMed, aka Homer H. Stryker School of Medicine). They say so many things between them all, like fragments of glass or tile that come together in a mosaic that eloquently portrays the happy life of a normal kid. I've written plenty thus far and have a lot more to say. 

The following words are nothing but the truth, told by people who knew and loved Charlie and our family, who took up the pen of their own volition to advocate for one who cannot advocate for himself. These were hand-delivered to WMed Investigator JoAnne Catania. Whether she passed them along to her superiors, I do not know. Whether she did or she didn't, they went completely ignored.

Read 'em and weep.

***

"When Charlie was first discovered hanging from an inherently dangerous rope ladder and swing, the table upon which one would stand to grasp the rope was toppled to the side. He was hanging in one of the several long existing loops in the old climbing rope. The nurse staying with Theresa Heller and Charlie at the time began and, along with Theresa, continued CPR until help arrived.

All of the physical evidence and virtually all of the investigatory work conducted by the police leads one to conclude that the death was nothing more than a tragic accident." - (Our Attorney)

***

"Having thought about this for the past several weeks, I do not believe that a twelve year old is capable of making a voluntary decision to end their life. While kids today are exposed to more toxic sights and sounds than other generations, there is still a matter of cognitive development. Parts of the brain continue to develop well into a person's twenties. Charlie could not have fully understood the consequences of his acts and I am certain that he had no intent to end his life." - Dr. Dan Farrell, Professor, WMU

***

"First, the Medical Examiner states in the subsection 'Suicide Circumstances' that there was a 'recent suicide of friend/family'. To my knowledge, this statement is completely false. The Medical Examiner also states there was a 'crisis in past 1 week', and again to my knowledge, nothing radically out of the ordinary in Charlie's life happened during the week prior to his death. The Medical Examiner then states that there were 'other relationship problem (sic)'. What is such a vague statement doing in a report about a person's death? It is meaningless." - Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr., Professor Emeritus, WMU

***

"While making plans for his funeral, I was shocked to find that the Death Certificates I was given listed his death as a suicide. Along with many others I was at his home while emergency personnel were trying to revive him and remained there until after midnight. At no time was there any suggestion that Charlie had intentionally been hung by himself or anyone else; everyone there knew it was the result of a terrible accident, a young boy acting out his fantasy - of who knows what - who had slipped and fallen." - Rita V. Heller

***

"In April of 2015 I saw him for a rash. I also saw him in May of 2015 on two occasions for an injury, a puncture wound to the heel of his foot. I should also note that he was seen in April of 2015 by Ann Sheehan, our pediatric nurse practitioner, for a routine physical examination. Other than eczema and allergic rhinitis, no other concerns were noted." - Mark A. Blazek, MD

***

"Charlie was FULL of life - every single day." - Irene Milbrandt (Charlie's Aunt)

***

"Upon hearing of Charlie's death, and the manner in which he died, we were absolutely shocked. We think the natural tendency upon hearing how he died is to assume it was intentional, but when you think about who Charlie was, you know that is absolutely not the case, that it was a tragic accident that occurred while he was playing in his tree fort. We do not for one second believe that Charlie committed suicide, and are appalled that is how his death was ruled." - Richard and Katrine Nichols (Uncle Rick and Aunt Trini)

***

"Charlie and I began fishing together a few years ago, and I became his  outdoor mentor, teaching him and planning future excursions. We looked forward to an Autumn full of adventures, and many seasons to come, and made many plans." - Larry Haffner

***

"I am a family friend of the Hellers and have been closely associated with Theresa Heller, her son Charlie, his father Dennis Wolf and most of Theresa's nuclear family. Before retiring from a 31 year career with the Kalamazoo County Probate Court in 2012, I worked in the area of adoption search and reunion with Theresa, while her parents Charles and Rita Heller volunteered to visit many of the approximately 1,200 persons under legal guardianships or conservatorships." - Patrick Neal

***

"There is no way that Charlie committed suicide in my opinion. He had an awesome relationship with his Mother, Father, Grandparents, step-brother and -sister, his uncles, godparents and friends. He was not alone or isolated, he was not depressed in any way; he had so much happiness in his life. He had plans, dreams and goals outlined for his life. Those are not signs of someone with intention to commit suicide, or emotional problems." - Denise Booms-Pepin, Godmother

***

"When Charlie was 11, just a few months before his tragic accident, I stopped by his house to say goodbye because I was moving to Florida. During my visit I was talking to Charlie, both of us sitting at the table where his mother and I both helped him with homework assignments, served him meals and had many conversations. Charlie said to me, 'I have the coolest life.'"  - Tina Swanson

***

"In the rush to bring closure to the circumstances surrounding Charlie's death, I feel that the conclusion that Charlie died willingly by his own hand as a suicide to have been premature and misguided. Like many young boys, Charlie was a wholehearted, even reckless, adventurer. He was also very imaginative and played out elaborate scenarios and schemes given time and opportunity. It has seemed to me that the classification of his strangulation death as a suicide, in the same terms in which we hold adult suicide, is inaccurate and premature." - Kathryn White

***

"In the case of Charlie, he was a remarkable 12 year old who always possessed a zest for life and the next adventure. As a young boy he was always a bit behind in maturing, however this was not of concern because he was innocent, imaginative and full of life. We all grow up at our own pace and become wise to the ways of the world. I am 100 percent sure Charlie was not able to commit suicide in any way, for Charlie was blessed with a positive world with roles of fantasy and not the roles of today's reality." - Kevin Fallon

***

"I would request that his cause of death be changed, as we all know it was NOT suicide. I truly hope that the decision to change this will happen sooner than later, so that we may all complete the grieving process, without something that we know not to be the truth hanging over our heads." - Irene Milbrandt

***

"In the autopsy report, it is stated that Charlie had a close friend commit suicide by hanging only days before. I find this the most disturbing bit of misinformation." - Vincent J. Heller

***

"Ruling his death a suicide is a serious mistake. I am left feeling that his tragic accidental passing is being mislabeled to distract attention from the fact that the investigating detectives were over two hours late arriving at the accident scene. From that dismal beginning, the focus has been misplaced." - Patrick Neal

***

"Of all the reasons people commit suicide, because they are depressed, psychotic, impulsive, crying out for help or trying to achieve some kind of high, none of these are remotely descriptive of Charlie. Based on logic, suicide does not add up." - Denise Booms-Pepin

***

"In summary, there is nothing in any of the contacts that we have had with Dennis in the year prior to his death that would have caused concern on our part for his death to have been self-inflicted." - Mark A. Blazek, MD

***

"I think Charlie's is an accidental death, and I see no clear evidence to the contrary." - Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr.

***

"I would like to know why this report was sent out with so many untruths and why the ME wrote/authorized this report. I want to know why the Suicide Circumstances are made up. I want to know why 'unknown persons' are quoted on page 3 under Ante-mortem Events - seriously, a ME is going to quote unknown people in such a serious case in the death of a child?" - Rita V. Heller

***

"For everything my son Charlie did and was... to be blackened this way breaks our hearts." - Theresa Heller

***

"Charlie lost no close friend or anyone for that matter in the prior days/weeks. This is horrifyingly irresponsible and absolutely must be stricken." - Vincent J. Heller

***

"I carry Charlie with me, so he'll still go to the woods and the river." - Larry Haffner

***

"This is a request to correct the erroneous conclusion of 'suicide'. 'Suicide' is not supported by a fair reading of reports and listening to the tapes. It is not only factually incorrect, but it brands the life and memory of a remarkable and happy young boy with failure and waste. It results in an unfair social pronouncement of failure by the immediate and extended family's supportive involvement in Charlie's life. It is a painful scar that is neither accurate nor justified by the evidence." - (Our Attorney)

***

"In closing, the people close to him know it was an accident. My only wish would be for you to spend one day with Charlie and you would understand." - Kevin Fallon

***

All right, that's enough. Those are just a few shreds of the testimonials that WMed didn't care about. They say everyone who knew Charlie all of his life is wrong. We don't know shit, and they, who knew him not at all, are the only ones who figured it out.

The case is closed, and if we don't like it, we can call the cops. That's what some clown named Tom Zavitz at WMed sent in a room-temperature email to my sister. Before we're done, you'll have his email address so you can respond to him with your own thoughts. Be sure to add lots of grunting and squealing, though, as he may feel more comfortable conversing in his native accent.

(By the way Tommy Z, we did call the cops. And guess what? They're investigating. But they won't have to do much, because we already did it for them. If you had paid any amount of attention at all to what we've been saying, you'd already know that.)

However, this stack of missives doesn't at all quote the letter that Renee sent. As the first responder at the scene, and as the most qualified medical professional here that night, she told the police that Charlie's death was an obvious accident (I have the audio). She reasserts such in her letter, and demands to know who overruled what she considers to be her authority on the matter. She vows to testify against whoever did so once this thing gets to court, which is where it looks like it's headed, given WMed's cruel, senseless and pig-headed stance.

They failed the citizens of Kalamazoo County, big-time, in almost every aspect of this case. And I am here to prove it. The story isn't just heartbreaking. It's also disgusting, seamy, a story that will expose you to the worst elements of society.

You can't make this stuff up. What has been done wrong must be put right. What was done in the dark will be dragged to the light.

Here it comes.

pH 4.25.16

***

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER SIX - "Do the Math"

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Chapter Four - A Short Walk (Part II)

***

We are uplifted by the people of our community.

Barely a minute after Mick left, there was another knock on the door. All I could see, through the glass before I even opened it, was a gigantic pink geranium in a pot. It was so big that it completely obscured the person delivering it - because the person delivering it was a little kid. 

It was Torin, who used to live just down the street from us. His mom's car was idling in the driveway. I took the flower pot from him, and his face was so sad... A little kid should never have that look on his face. Theresa thanked him, and he was a very brave boy just to talk to her. She looked as bad as you might expect.

After Torin and his mom dropped off that beautiful gift, which still grows to this day, my sister Trini stopped by, with her husband Rick, and my sister-in-law Simone. (My brother had come by very, very late the night before, the night it happened, and that was rough.) They said all that they possibly could say to Theresa - which is nothing - while she cried and moaned, in both physical and spiritual agony at the same time.

As they were leaving, my old buddy Larry showed up. Charlie called him Uncle Larry, a point of pride in both of their lives. Larry had shown Charlie the real world: The woods and lakes of Southwest Michigan. He took him ice fishing, even took him out hunting once, and on that occasion Charlie got to carry my grandfather's .22 rifle in his hands. He did not fire a shot, but he took it with him into the shadowy world that lives beneath the canopy. I'm forever grateful that he got to do that.

Larry knew that something had gone horribly wrong, because he heard so from his Dad, who heard so from Papa Pete's. All he had been told, though, was that I had lost a nephew. And Larry imagined that something had happened to my oldest nephew, who hasn't been driving very long, especially when he saw a teary-eyed Simone coming out of the house when he pulled up. He was devastated to learn what had really happened.

Larry, who has gone through personal tragedies in his own family, is as tough as nails but he has developed over time an aversion to wailing, keening grief. But that's the sound that filled our house. Even so, he stayed a long time, supporting us, being a friend, like Lenise had. She came back, too, and so did my folks, and the neighbors, and just about everyone else who ever knew us or even know of us.

Later that day, while my sister cried in her bed, a group of children gathered around the tree in our front yard. Each one put a hand on the trunk and they said a prayer for their fallen friend. This is as much a part of Charlie's life as anything else that ever happened to him. Those kids still come around, just to see how Charlie's Mom is doing, or to walk Charlie's dog, Snoopy. They visit his grave as much as anyone else. Sometimes they leave coins. Other small treasures.

We are uplifted by the people of our community.

Tuesday morning, my oldest sister Marian had flown in from New York - and it felt great to have another hand on the family deck. She tasked herself primarily with helping my parents pick up our shattered pieces for us, because we could do very little in our grief. Renee being there the whole time is, I'm sure, the only way we possibly got through it. She was able to maintain her senses, and make sense to my bereaved sister.

Per Theresa's request, Father Al Camp came up from Mississippi. He's from the Catholic order of Octogenarians, yet he was driving up this way anyhow for a family reunion. The Lord works, he would tell you, in mysterious ways. I haven't seen Father Al since I was a little kid, and when I mentioned that to him, he replied, "My, how you've grown."

The next few days were a blur. What I distinctly remember, though, is the food. When an unspeakable tragedy occurs, people don't know what to do, because they know intuitively (if not personally) that there's nothing that can be done. So they bring food. Platters of food. Buckets of food! Good food, too. And they leave envelopes. With cash. I would say there is no way to ever thank them. They would say there is no need to.

By Friday, the day of the funeral, everything had been prepared. I don't know how. It was a monumental effort of love, a bold-print statement in the face of death. His clothes had been picked, the obituary had been published, and somewhere in there, Charlie was sent from WMed to Redmond Funeral Home. One of his uncles on his Dad's side arranged for us to have the funeral plot right next to Charlie's grandmother and her husband, and the next plot over, too, for Theresa someday.

Charlie's life truly was a fairy tale, and maybe it was the half a Valium I took that morning, but his funeral seemed that way, too. 

We are uplifted by the people of our community!

Seemed like half the town was there. There were not enough seats in the biggest viewing room to hold all the people that were arriving, that much was clear just from the parking lot. There were people I knew well, and others I had not seen in years or decades, and others I did not know at all. It was a serious crowd.

As Theresa and Dennis (Charlie's Dad) were saying goodbye to their son, my brother and I stood and blocked people from going in. They didn't mean to intrude, there just wasn't any room to put them all.

Then my brother and I went to pay our respects, before everyone could watch us do it. Vince went first. He murmured something to him and kissed his head. It was my turn.

I had never been right up close to a dead person before. Never touched one. But to me, it was Charlie. He looked a little funny - I know the procedures used in preparing a body for viewing, so I understood mostly what I was looking at.

"Okay, listen," I said to him. "I have some things for you." I pushed two pennies under his folded hands. They were cold and stiff, which was very alien to my sense of touch, hard to reconcile. "You give those to the ferryman," I said quietly. "He'll take you to the other side." Cover all the bases, I figured. 

"And I'm giving you my Winchester," I said. "I know you always wanted it. And Charlie always gets what he wants." I placed my Winchester pocket knife, which he had long coveted even after I had given him a Buck for Christmas, by his side. "I'll see you when I get there, kid."

I kissed him on his cold forehead, turned, and marched out of the room. 

I've done harder things in my life.

No. I haven't.

We are uplifted by the people of our community. 

It was standing room only. We told everyone NOT to wear black. Most people wore white. Our whole family did. Courtney (Theresa's grown-up daughter) and Marian and I had worked on singing two songs for the funeral, "Be Not Afraid" and "Amazing Grace". We nailed them both. Marian later told me that she listened while singing, and when neither Courtney nor I broke stride in the first line of "Be Not Afraid", she knew we could get through it. I'm not that strong - I told her about the half a Valium. She said, oh... Well, that explains it.

Father Al did a great job. He always does. When he hit me with a blessing before the service, it was the first time I allowed myself to believe that I might be able to get through this.

The funeral home is just across the street from Charlie's new real estate at Mt. Ever Rest Cemetery, and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety blocked traffic on Kalamazoo's main thoroughfare with their SUV's while a spontaneous parade erupted. Hundreds of mourners crossed on foot in front of the flashing red and blue lights. Theresa made the walk with another of my nephews who is about the same age as Charlie. He held her hand as they crossed the street.

Vince and I were on the middle handles of Charlie's casket. It was light enough that we could have carried it ourselves, but Charlie had two big families, and so many good people wanted to be pall bearers that I felt a bit honored when I was among the final six selected. We did our jobs as his Uncles. We carried him until the very last step.

Upon reconvening at our parents' house, the home my siblings and I all grew up in, we were bowled over to see that the entire street had set up tents and tables, and laid out all of the food and drinks. It was the closest thing to a party anyone could have pulled off. There was even some humor, as it turned out Father Al had left his car engine running for the entire gathering. He was down to a quarter-tank.

Charlie's Ranch, as we call it, is located a few golf shots away from our driveway. If you walk to the end of Park Street, where it ends at the cemetery just south of Buchanan, you can see it. There's a beautiful granite bench sitting there that makes it easy to spot. He is as close to home as we could get him. We are uplifted by the people of our community.

***

The following Monday, my Dad calls Theresa on the phone. He does not sound like his normal self, not even his sad-as-the-new-normal self. He sounds kind of distraught, which he almost never is.

"I just got the Death Certificate from Redmond," he tells her. And he asks if she needs it for any legal purposes. 

Almost distractedly, my sister asks him if they listed a cause of death.

"Yes," he says.

"Well, what does it say?"

My Dad draws breath and says, "Suicide."

pH 4.24.16

***

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER 5 - In Other Words

Friday, April 22, 2016

Chapter Four - A Short Walk (Part I)

***

I didn't even try to go to sleep until 5:30 in the morning. I fell into Charlie's bed, wiped out, and so a few hours of unconsciousness went by... Maybe three.

I got up and started the coffee sometime before 9:00. It seemed impossible still to fully comprehend the magnitude of what had happened. Renee slept downstairs in her room. Theresa stayed down only because of Lenise's midnight grief medication run. Shortly after nine o'clock there was a knock on the door.

Without knowing who to expect, I groggily (and warily) approached, but no one was there... Because he had gone around the house, let himself in, and was now coming through the back entryway into the kitchen. It was my dear old friend, Mick the Mechanic, who I used for years as my common-sense foil on Heller Mountain. At various times in our lives, we had been roommates, co-workers, band mates, motorcyclists and general partners in crime. That morning, he was in our area picking up some parts for a car he was working on.

Mick was an astonishingly good harmonica player, but you wouldn't know that unless you had been in one of the handful of bars that our blues band, Poor Odis, played in during that gauzy winter of '94-95. I can name three, maybe four guys that were better on the harp than Mick - Sonny Boy Williamson for sure (because he had no "teef", and you can't teach that), Little Walter, Junior Wells... That's about it, really.

He patiently taught Charlie to play the harmonica in the year before he died. One-hole, four-hole, five-hole. Breathe in, breathe out. Not that hard to do... Okay, now start saying 'we' and 'you' while either sucking or blowing. 'We. You. We-you.' Simple. And while he strummed out Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Matchbox Blues", Charlie played. He closed his eyes, put one foot up on the chair, folded the Jailhouse harmonica up in his young hands, brought it up to his face and played so soulfully... By the third time through it, the kid was even making his bends as the progression rolled over. Pretty neat.

"Hey, you got any coffee?" He said as he filled my kitchen doorway. He could smell that I had some on. And he could tell by the look on my face that it didn't much matter.

"What's wrong?" He asked. I had a hard time getting my brain to kick-start the idea that he actually didn't know, that he had in fact just bumbled into this thing looking for a cup of Joe. But that was the case.

I somehow told him. I don't remember the words I used. Theresa heard us talking and came out, and when she saw Mick, and could tell by the look on his face that he knew, she practically fell toward him. That big man stood there and held her up, and we all cried.

Mick stayed for a while, but he had to get going, and promised to return. He did, later that afternoon, only to tell us in despair that Charlie's funeral was scheduled for the same day that he had college visits with his kid. We absolved him of that, no problem. But I could tell he felt so bad.

He was always the one who helped us whenever something went wrong. He was always the one who could fix the problem, no matter what it was. And now here was something that nobody could fix, not even him.

"These next few days," Mick told me before he left, "Time will feel like it doesn't move at all, like each day is an hour, or a minute, or nothing. Time ceases to exist. Don't worry about anything. Everyone will take care of you."

And he was right, just like he always was. They did... And he did, too, for nearly six more months. Mike Frank, Mick the Mechanic, passed away at his Prairie Ronde home on January 22, 2016 at the age of 45. He is survived by his wife and daughter and an otherwise huge, loving, incredible family.

He is one of the only truly human beings I have ever known and he will be forever missed.

***

pH 4.22.16



Thursday, April 21, 2016

Chapter Three - War on the Floor

***

I'm a Cold War Baby. My childhood memories are backlit by the reassuring glow of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I was vaccinated against smallpox - not because it was much of a problem in the late Sixties, but because they knew it would be unleashed on us by the Soviets if things ever went too far. (Because, by then, they already almost had.)

In elementary school, we had "disaster drills", where all the kids would practice kneeling against the walls in the hallway with our textbooks opened up and held over the backs of our necks... The grown-ups probably figured that would make it easier for THEM to panic in the streets. This environment, this death pact that our governments had made with each other, was very much reflected in the toys that we played with.

Long before Star Wars and Gene Simmons made it socially acceptable for boys to play with dolls, there was G.I. Joe. But he was kind of expensive, because of the elastic guts and the rotating joints and the Kung Fu Grip, the uniform... Until a kid displayed enough responsibility to receive a nice toy like G.I. Joe, most of us had to make do with good old Army Men.

Army Men have been around since 1938, when a company called Beton Toys acquired all the molds from lead toy makers who were going out of business. World War II revolutionized the plastics industry in general, and by the 1950's, Army Men were a staple in any American household that had children hollering in it.

My little brother and I both enjoyed them, even though the Vietnam War had soured the public on war toys. I just saw them all, in a cardboard box, in Mom and Dad's basement, replete with tanks. Did it have any effect on us? I mean, maybe... My brother served in the United States Army as a tank driver, and a grateful nation (by way of the G.I. Bill) paid his tuition, and he graduated from Western Michigan University.

For those who would argue the relevance of Army Men in today's CGI world, all I can say is, well... Just go to YouTube and search for Plastic Apocalypse... And buckle your helmet on.

Charlie was like every other kid who has been born since the turn of the millennium: He liked video games, movies, digital stuff. I'm not saying he lacked outdoor activity. Every year, his grandparents and aunts would chip in to send Charlie to golf lessons, or judo lessons, or swimming lessons, soccer, bowling league. He attended Derek Jeter's baseball camp two years in a row. He even did his time in the Boy Scouts.

In the winter time, though, it is not really fair to bundle the children up and shove them outside anymore (although that was fine in my day). Sub-zero temps dominated our environment in the early months of 2015, with air so cold that you could see water molecules sparkling like fiberglass before your eyes as they formed and collapsed to the ground.

I saw the Army Men at Walgreen's. It cost me $3.99 to get about 45 green Army Men and a couple of tanks in a single plastic bag. I brought them home, but didn't unleash them yet. A couple of days later, at the local Dollar Store, I found some brown Army Men. Then it was time. When I heard Charlie profess to be bored, I pounced.

Our first battle was fairly straightforward. After Theresa had swept the wood floor of the living room to her satisfaction, Charlie and I built a dividing wall with his wooden blocks. Then we each set up our fortifications. Mine consisted of some play set, a castle from another toy of his (he was blessed with an abundance of games and toys, spoiled boy). His was a farm play set. Pretty heavy duty, so I got the tanks and he got artillery.

It would have been too easy to simply set up Army Men and knock them down using rubber bands as ordnance. Plain old rubber bands were used for rifle fire (red and green ones for tracers!) with heavier ones used for bazookas, and the really big industrial ones were used for tank and artillery rounds. Grenades and mortars were a pair of dice lobbed at the target. I folded up about 30 paper airplanes (wings emblazoned in red Sharpie with 'P' or 'C') for airstrikes.

But this would not be mayhem. I wanted to take this opportunity to teach Charlie important lessons - about history, strategy, geometry, math... and bravery. Each move, I explained, would be predicated by a roll of two dice. If you rolled a 4 and a 3, that's a 7. So the player would be able to move any 7 of his pieces a distance of 7 inches each (as measured with a ruler), and then be able to take 7 shots.

With the tanks, I had a strategic advantage offensively, but with the heavy plastic barn from the farm play set, he had an impenetrable fortress. With the capture of each other's flag being the victory milestone, I would have to roll good enough numbers to get one of my tanks all the way across the living room, around the back of the barn, and then get it in through the double doors. From there, the endgame was fairly obvious.

What we did not know (couldn't have known, as it was our initial battle) was that the tanks were as impervious as the barn. Even at point-blank range, his artillery rubber bands simply displaced the tank's location. It could not be upended, so it could not be destroyed. Further, it did not need to fire a weapon to inflict casualties. It could just run over enemy Army Men in its path (or even livestock).

As soon as Charlie saw what was happening, he adjusted his tactics. He kind of had to anyway, since my opening salvo was a series of paper airplane airstrikes that decimated his troops, which he had in formation out in the open (he never made that mistake again). Upon rolling an 11, he sent a lone soldier sprinting through enemy lines, past my tanks and battlements, right up to my flag, using up all but two of his shots on the way. With two moves left, he was already there. So that meant two shots.

The only ones left defending my flag against this bullshit Rambo move were a useless radio man and a captain holding a pair of binoculars in one hand and his .45 1911 ACP in the other. Approaching full gloat mode, Charlie pulls back his rubber band and blasts the poor beggar working the radio.

But something goes wrong. My camp is tucked behind a table leg, up against the baseboards, and the shot blows my radio man up against the wall with a great THWACK and he wobbles... but he doesn't fall. Charlie looks up at me.

"He survived," I said. Obviously, he had. So he took his last shot and the radio man fell. That just left Cappy... and his Colt. After that groaning disappointment, my tank made it into the barn, and that was that. Charlie's enthusiasm for Army Men was not diminished in any way by his loss. He loved it, and so did I, even though my knee was sore for days.

Charlie told his Mom that night that he and Uncle Paul were closer because of it. And the next time we played, he won.

Over the course of the next six months, which were the last six months of his life, we played many more times, playing out important scenarios that he might someday have to really deal with. There was the Train Trestle Crossing the River Battle. The Amphibious Assault on the Fort. Godzilla Attacks Tokyo... This is critical stuff when you're 11 years old.

As I write this, there are 18 Army Men guarding Charlie's grave: A 6-man mortar team, 7 riflemen, 2 bazookas, a minesweeper, the Captain... and his new radioman. There's also a state-of-the-art Hot Wheels surface-to-air mobile missile launcher. I rotate the men out regularly so they can get some R 'n R. Charlie and I sleep equally well knowing they are there.

pH 4.21.16

***
NEXT WEEK - CHAPTER FOUR: "A Short Walk"

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Chapter Two - The Body Snatchers

***

I am three years old in the summer of 1971. Gasoline costs a few dimes a gallon. Pro football actually has an off-season. Richard Nixon has yet to do anything wrong. With my corn-silk hair and average teeth, I am swinging away with a big red plastic whiffle ball bat at a big white plastic whiffle ball that my Dad, the esteemed Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr, is throwing at me in the front yard of our house on an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac. Before each throw, it’s the same thing. “Eye on the ball,” he says each time, “Big swing, now.” After a few errant windmills, I finally get ahold of one of those big, juicy grapefruits he was serving up – with a big swing. The ball sails over his head, like a comet, just beyond his outstretched fingertips. In obvious delight, he runs the ball down in the driveway while I stand there, bat still clutched in my wee grip. He turns around, holds the ball up in his big, strong hand before his vastly smiling face, and yells, “That’s the ticket!”

***

Absolutely, Officer Stolsonburg had been to my house before… Twice, in fact. The second time was on a door-to-door meet-n-greet that the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety conducted in order to better get to know the residents of our neighborhood. It was then that Stolsonburg recognized me from our first encounter.

Sergeant Treu was actually with him on the door-knocker campaign, an outreach program in which KDPS sent public safety officers out into the community to introduce themselves, ask if the folks have any concerns or questions for them, basic stuff. Of course, I was only a few minutes removed from rocking out on the electric guitar, so I must have had a pretty guilty look on my face when I answered the door. But they quickly explained that this wasn’t about that.

As our brief conversation looked to be nearing its finish line, Stolsonburg looked at me carefully and asked, “Aren’t you the guy whose truck rolled backward into the neighbor’s yard?” The guilty look returned – yeah, that was me, all right. Forgot to set the parking brake, came out of the house to find the truck not in the driveway, called in a stolen vehicle, found it a minute later leaned up against Shane and Erin’s swing set, right when the patrol car arrived… See, no big deal.

Stolsonburg, Treu, Shanks and Officer Kelly Pittelkow took over the CPR that Charlie’s mom and her life-long friend, Renee, were furiously and professionally performing on him. And they worked like the pros that they are, all of them and then more, refusing to give up, trying desperately to give Theresa what she was begging them for. The ambulance arrived, and the EMT’s went to work with the paddles and the breather bag, and they too gave it everything they had.

The fact that they were unable to revive Charlie is proof-positive to us that it was his time. If those men and women couldn’t do it… then it couldn’t have been done. The other officers had to literally force Kelly Pittelkow to stop compressing his chest.

My sister lays there in the dirt and the ants near Charlie, as close to him as they allow her to get (because it’s a crime scene now), a sound coming from her that only a mother who has lost a child would recognize. To everyone else, it is too much to bear. It is the sound of a soul letting go of a life.

Officer Pittelkow gently says something like, “Come on, Honey, the ants are crawling up your shorts.” She says that she does not care. Charlie has ants crawling on him, too. He, too, does not care.

***

It is a strange thing indeed to watch oneself on a police car dash-cam video. But there I am, in my shorts and tee-shirt, hair buzzed down to a quarter-inch for the hot summer nights working in a pizza kitchen. I cross the front yard from right to left, over to the play fort, where my poor sister is sitting at the foot of the slide with my father. Officer Pittelkow is standing near her.

I fall to my knees. My head bobs up and down. The car that is filming has its windows rolled up, so the only sound is that of the air conditioner running. I stay down that way for about five minutes.

By the time I stand up, all manner of people have started crowding in. One is introduced to me as a precinct chaplain. Another is billed as the Medical Examiner’s Investigator. I don’t catch his name – quite probably because he doesn’t bother giving it to me – but there’s something vaguely familiar about him; hardly the moment to go skipping down Memory Lane.

He hands Theresa some kind of pamphlet like you’d see in a rack by the counter at a veterinary clinic. She demands to know what is going to happen. She insists she does not “want them carving him up.” The ME guy assures her, in a soft, low, even voice that they have to take him to the County Coroner because it is an unnatural death (or, as the paperwork states, “death by violence”). He says that if there is an autopsy, it would be minimal, only to ascertain the cause of death.

I heard this conversation. My Dad heard this conversation. So did Officer Pittelkow, and it is due to the fact that her body microphone was recording everything (with the audio feeding back to the dash-cam on her police cruiser parked in my driveway) that I have no problem saying all of that. I can even link up the audio file with the video footage of this conversation taking place, shot through the windshield of another police cruiser that was parked on the lawn, pointing right at the fort… Hell, a 12-year old kid could do that.

That paltry attempt to quell my sister’s horror would turn out to be grotesquely false, but over the course of this nightmare, it turns out that a lot of the things that came bubbling up out of the ME’s office were pretty much bullshit.

***

It is getting dark. The crickets are chirping. The mosquitoes are biting. And the detectives are taking their sweet time. I guess that’s easy to do when the primary subject of your investigation is already deceased. Numerous times through this time frame in the police videos, one cop or another will periodically (by which I mean many minutes apart) mention this. What’s taking so long? Where are they? Because none of them get to leave until the detectives figure it out. And they sure can’t do that when they aren’t even there.

So we wait.

In the meantime, the midsummer heat and humidity have already rendered Charlie’s organs unfit for donation, so no part of him will live on. It’s unforgivable.

Anyway, backstory: Theresa, on this night, is two days removed from gallbladder removal surgery. That’s not nearly as invasive as it used to be, but it is still no picnic. She was in bed, on her prescribed medication, when the terrible discovery was made. For the purpose of her recovery from surgery, her friend since childhood was staying at the house to both assist her and to help care for Charlie.

Renee Corwin is a Michigan native who had the good sense to get an education and move to someplace where she could make a good living. She’s a Psychiatric Nurse who is employed by the California Department of Corrections. Not only was she perfectly qualified for the task, she was also a regular summertime visitor. She would use her vacation time to visit her family in the Great Lakes region, and to visit Theresa and Charlie.

So it is a damn good thing that she was the first one to fly out that door.

***

At 10:20 pm, nearly two and a half hours after the first 911 call was placed, the first detective flounces across the screen of Pittelkow’s dash-cam. I’ll call her Sheila Goodell, because that’s her name. She interviews Renee, which is kind of interesting, since the report of Renee’s interview ends up being written by the other detective, Kristen Cole. (I later found out through various news articles that Cole is one of our better homicide investigators.) I never saw her interview anybody, actually. I was interviewed by Goodell. So were my parents – but Cole is the author of those reports, too.

(Shrug.) Whatever. It was their tardiness that was more offensive to everyone at the scene anyhow. Goodell asked questions, some tough ones, pretty much the same ones to each person. She did her job. They took Charlie’s cell phone, even though it was without service and therefore not a communication device, a fact we conveyed to them again and again. We still don’t have it back, come to think of it.

My first duty came, a phone call, a very hard call to place. Lenise Williams is Charlie’s Godmother - well, one of his Godmothers, he has two. And she was there in no time. She, along with Officer Pittelkow, got my distraught sibling back in bed.

Lenise stood by Theresa's bed while the detective peppered her with questions. She called in her cousin, a police captain, to better manage the scene. She rounded up the emergency prescriptions that were called in. She took care of so much of this awful business. That’s what friends do. Even when it’s too terrible to look at.

Outside, the Medical Examiner’s Office is making their move. I stand in the driveway with Ryan Shank and other officers and watch it happen. My nephew’s death is not an abstract to me, not in any way. They zip him up in a blue nylon bag and load him into the back of a white cargo van with blue letters on the side of it. At that moment, for all I know, they could be dry cleaners. At 10:55 pm, he arrives at WMed, 1000 Oakland Drive.

Before the first police reports are typed up. While there are still cop cars with their dash-cam videos grinding away footage of our property. To them, he isn’t anybody’s little boy. To them, he's a stack of cash. And if you’ve ever seen anyone grab for money before, you know what that looks like.

***

Mike Treu and Kelly Pittelkow are the last ones to leave. It is well past 11:00 pm. Their cameras keep recording. They drive north on Westnedge, over the hill, where Westnedge and Park split into one-ways. They are in no hurry as they keep driving north, through the empty heart of a child’s hometown.

The Heller Family has nothing but love and admiration for the men and women who are charged with serving and protecting this city. That’s why Theresa and I, for the past two years, have picked up donations for the Fraternal Order of Police in both Kalamazoo and Ottawa Counties. And it’s why we were so honored to receive from FOP Lodge 98 a very generous contribution to our nonprofit organization, Flowers from Charlie the Merchant, which you can find here:


pH 4.19.16

***

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER THREE – "WAR ON THE FLOOR"

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chapter One - Never Trust a Normal Day


Sergeant Mike Treu’s dash-cam video starts rolling right about eight o’clock that night. It is a typical late July evening in southwest Michigan, where the rustbelt forces an interface of sorts between the pastoral and the industrial. It’s hot out, but not too hot, and the length of the day has leavened the sun down near the hazy horizon. The few clouds that are in the sky, set out in a swath of diminishing Morse code, find the time to produce a few none-too-serious droplets of rain, which are visible on the windshield of Sergeant Treu’s Ford Crown Victoria.

The call comes in. A child is down, non-responsive, on South Park Street. That’s a few miles from the station, which is located at Howard and Oakland in Kalamazoo, just down the road from the shiny new Homer Stryker School of Medicine, a private enterprise that is located on the campus of Western Michigan University. It is the place where just about every county in the region sends its bodies when the events surrounding anyone’s death is deemed suspicious by investigators for the de facto coroner. It receives compensation to the tune of $2,500 for each unfortunate soul that winds up on their cold slabs.

What is most striking about the dash-cam video is the powerful sound of the Police Interceptor engine in Sergeant Treu’s cruiser; he has the throttle mashed all the way down, and it is clear that the Crown Vic cannot go any faster than it is going. He slows only to make the right turn onto South Westnedge Avenue. Several other police cars are visible in the frame, also going (literally) as fast as they can. When it came to my nephew Charlie, Kalamazoo’s Finest did not dally.

Treu barrels over Westnedge Hill at top speed. He impatiently works his way through the intersection at Whites Road and then roars the rest of the way up to the 3800 block. Park Street is the first street East of Westnedge, at the corner of Parker Avenue. His very long night has just begun.

Officer John Stolsonburg came from East of Westnedge. He flew down Kilgore Road, coming in from the south onto Park Street. He mutters, “I’ve fucking been to this house before.”

***

It is a typically slow Sunday night at Papa Pete’s, a longtime mainstay in downtown Kalamazoo, on the corner of Cedar and Burdick, just down from the venerable State Theater. Sometimes there’s a pool league in there on Sundays, in which case the pizza kitchen would be busy, because pool players sure do like to eat pizza during their tournaments. But not this night, July 26th, 2015. For me, the guy making or not making those pizzas, it was a perfectly normal night. The ring of the telephone didn’t sound any different than it should have.

“Papa Pete’s,” I say. (What else needs to be said?) The very familiar voice, in the very familiar Kiwi accent, asks me if I can leave work right then, at that very moment. It’s me Mum. “Maybe,” I say. “What’s up?”

“Can you?” She asks again.

“If there’s a good reason,” I say. “Don’t be the Oracle at Delphi. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Can you come home now?” She asks again.

“What for?”

She draws a breath, and says the last thing I would have ever expected anyone to say. “Okay. Charlie’s dead. They’ve been trying to revive him, but they didn’t, and they’ve just now stopped. You need to come home and take care of your household.”

For some reason, this makes me angry. “Goddammit, what’s really going on? That’s sick. What do you want?”

She pauses before saying, “I can send a police car there to get you if you don’t think you can drive yourself. You need to come home now.” So I say I will be there soon, and I hang up, and I go tell the bartender what all that was about, and that I have to leave, and that I’m sorry I can’t even get the floors done before I take off.

And she says just go. Just go.

***

Charlie was my sister’s beloved son. He was 12. Built like most of us Hellers – none too tall, a little thicker than necessary. As I would write in describing him to the coroner much later, he was ebullient, effusive, had a zest for life, and had many loving people around him. He reminded me very much of myself when I was his age.

My sister, Theresa, had Charlie kind of late in life. He was effectively an only child, but not her only child. She gave up a daughter in her teenage years, with whom she had reconnected by the time Charlie was born, but still… as so many women like to say these days, her son was her world.

She and I and my parents all agreed to go in on a house together in Kalamazoo, despite all evidence that the housing bubble was at its most swollen, so that Charlie would have a stable home – not to mention the fact that he would be eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise: Those who graduate with a sufficient GPA from Kalamazoo Public Schools will get a free ride (more or less) to any college in Michigan. It is the only thing in decades that has given this town any hope for the future - an initiative that may or may not have been supported by the uber-wealthy Stryker Family (the donors to the Promise remain anonymous).

Charlie was set on attending Western Michigan University, and why not? His mom graduated there with a Master’s Degree. My father is a Professor Emeritus at the school as well. My brother graduated from Western… WMU Bronco blood flows in our family’s veins. When I came home to Kalamazoo after living in Phoenix for 15 years, I moved in with Theresa and Charlie. It made sense, as I had been sending up a third of the mortgage every month since 2007.

In the course of living there over the years, my sister’s son became very much like my son. I have no kids, and found that helping to raise Charlie was both a learning and a teaching experience for me.

Now I'm about to learn - as with most things, the hard way - that life is a precious and fleeting thing. I have no choice but to ponder that for the few miles it took me to get back home.

I approach from the south, as Officer Stolsonburg had. I park my car in the bask and strobe of the red and blue patrol car lights – so many. I duck under the yellow tape extending from the end of my driveway across the street and tell the first cop who looks at me that I'm Paul Heller, and that I live there.

The officer's name is Ryan Shank. He is about my age, with a clean-shaven head, and he is wearing the saddest look I’ve ever seen on a cop’s face. “I’m sorry to tell you, sir, that your nephew Dennis Wolf has died. We tried very hard to revive him, but we were not successful.”

Dennis Wolf is Charlie. Everyone called him that (his middle name), even his father, after whom he was named.

I nod, swallow, look over at my Mom’s stricken face, and say, “So I’m not gonna wake up?” I look at my right forearm, as if pinching it might somehow help, even though I know better.

“No, sir,” Officer Shank says. “I’m afraid you’re not.”

“All right,” I say. “Where’s my sister?”

He motions over toward Charlie’s wooden play fort, where I see my sister Theresa, destroyed in every sense of the word, sitting on the end of the little yellow plastic slide. My father, fresh off hip replacement surgery, is with her, gently rubbing her back because, what else can he do? The yard is swarming with police and emergency personnel. The sun is setting. Charlie is behind a black placard that has been placed between him and his family. A police photographer is fiddling with his camera nearby.

“Okay,” I say. And I head toward the rabbit hole down which we are all about to go.

pH 4.17.16

***