“I try not to ogle women when my daughter’s around,” I overheard my father say to his pal Tommy Dimigglio. “Unless of course we’re at a fight and it’s two of my favorite female wrestlers,” he laughed. In fact that was the last thing I ever heard him say.
My father, Mickey Capparelli, had a gambling problem. He was also a womanizer who drank too much and never paid his child support on time. It was the combination of the former that led to the latter. He used to tell me that going to fights together was our “thing”. It didn’t matter which weekend I went to spend with him, we went to a fight. Truth be told, there was always a fight somewhere and he always had a bet riding on it. That particular Sunday he went to the men’s room and never came back. Police later concluded he was jumped and killed by one of his bookies. It was the only time I saw Tommy cry.
True, my father had problems but he was still my father and I loved him. Even though it meant spending time at the arena at least I got to see my dad, and as a ten year-old that was enough. I can’t explain it, because I never begrudged him for his vices. But somehow, the life of my father played a big part in my career to become a homicide detective for the city of
“What do we got here?” I asked as I entered the house on
Sergeant Knox motioned for me to follow him. “Seventy-two year-old white female. Name’s Rita Wagoner. Found at the bottom of the stairs by her step-daughter Sandra Collins.” I followed Knox through the kitchen to the basement stairwell.
“Where’s the step-daughter now?” I questioned.
“Dining room,” Sergeant Knox replied. “Officers are getting a statement.”
I walked down the narrow staircase to the body lying on the cement floor below and was greeted by my long-time friend and colleague Lana Gertsch. Lana had been the chief medical examiner long before I became the Supervisor for the Homicide Unit. I didn’t need to work with anyone else to know that she was the best.
“What’s it look like Lana?” I asked. “Cut and dry fall down the stairs?”
“Or a push,” Lana began with a questionable tone in her voice. “She’s got a huge bump on the back of her head,” Lana continued. “But there’s also skin under her nails –“
“Which indicates a struggle,” I finished. “All right. See what you can find out once you open her up and let’s get a skin sample to the lab for DNA testing. I’m going to talk to the step-daughter and see if she knows anything.” Knox and I headed back up the stairs letting the coroner’s office prepare the body for transport back to the morgue.
“Miss Collins?” I asked the seemingly distraught woman sitting at the dining table.
“Yes,” she sniffled. “Please, call me Sandra.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your step-mother,” I started. “Were you two close?”
“Not until recently,” she answered, wiping her nose with the tissue in her hand.
“How long were she and your father married?” I proceeded.
“Just a few years ago,” she replied between tears.
“And he’s passed?” I presumed.
“Yes,” Sandra said. “About six months ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me what happened tonight?”
“Well, I came up from
for a visit. I rang the doorbell and knocked several times. When there was no answer, I let myself in with the spare key under the mat and found her at the bottom of the stairs.” Miami
“Did she know you were coming?” I asked.
Sandra nodded. “Yes. But my flight was delayed so it was much later than I had planned.”
"What time did you arrive?” I questioned.
“Just after 9 pm,” she answered. “If only I had been here sooner–“ Her voice trailed off and once again the tears started to flow.
“Don’t blame yourself,” I reassured her. “I don’t know that you could have stopped whoever did this.” To that Sandra’s expression changed. She took a minute to gather her thoughts before speaking again.
“What do you mean ‘whoever did this’?” she asked in disbelief. “I assumed she had a heart attack or stroke or slipped or something and fell down the stairs.”
“Although we won’t know the cause of death until the autopsy, we have reason to believe there was foul play.” Sandra nodded, taking in the information I was presenting her. “Do you know if she was expecting anyone else?” I asked. “A friend, a maid, a neighbor perhaps?” Sandra shook her head before blowing her nose into her tissue again. I couldn’t put my finger on it just yet, but something seemed a bit off with her. “How long will you be in town?” I questioned.
“I was supposed to spend the week with her. We were going to finalize my father’s estate.”
“And you’re staying…?”
“At the Courtside Inn over on Broadway,” Sandra replied. As she left I handed her my card and told her to call me if she needed anything else.
“Check this out,” Knox motioned for me from across the room. “The paramedics told the officers that when they arrived the basement was dark.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Like whomever did this turned out the lights before leaving?” Knox led me back over to the top of the basement stairs.
“It’s pretty dark down there,” Knox pointed out, turning off the light switch for effect. “If Sandra had been looking for her, wouldn’t she have had to turn on a light?”
“You’re thinking she didn’t need to turn them on because she already knew the victim was down there,” I guessed. “I was thinking something seemed off about her as well. She told me she wasn’t really close to the victim until recently and yet she cried as if she had just lost her own mother.”
“So you think it’s either all an act or they’ve recently had a ‘Come to Jesus’ reunion,” Knox interpreted, practically reading my thoughts.
“And look at these photographs,” I said, directing his attention to the wall in the living room. “Sandra’s in none of them.”
“So?” Knox answered.
“Well look,” I pointed to one picture in particular. “It’s our vic with her husband and a younger man. A son maybe?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Knox realized. “He’s in all of these ones too.”
“Right,” I confirmed. “But she’s in none of them.”
“Well she did say she wasn’t close to the victim until recently,” Knox pointed out. “It’s possible she was estranged from her father and only came into the victim’s life after he passed.”
“Time to find out what happened between Miss Collins and her daddy and what exactly it was that reunited her and the victim.” Turning to leave I added, “Have the uniforms check with the airlines. See if there was a delayed flight from
Miami to and see if she was on it.” Boston
Knowing that Lana would have the autopsy done by morning, I stopped by the morgue before heading into the station the next day.
“She has a skull fracture and the brain is severely swollen,” Lana said leading me to the table where the victim was lying. “There’s a bruise on the back of her head, right around the hat rim area on her right posterior aspect. This is where the impact occurred. But over here on the front left, is a contusion and an acute subdural hematoma. Definitely not natural causes. This woman died from blunt head trauma.”
“And the skin under the nails?” I asked.
“I told the lab to push it and we should have the results in about seventy-two hours,” Lana replied.
Back at the station Knox and I started putting our case together. The uniforms had confirmed that not only was there one delay, but due to thunderstorms in Miami, nearly all flights the prior evening had been delayed. Police still needed the judge’s signature to get flight manifests. While waiting for those pieces of the puzzle to come together, Knox and I figured it was time to start taking the pieces of Sandra Collins apart.
“Do you realize how many Sandra or S. Collins there are in the
area?” Knox asked later that afternoon pouring over the computer data base. Miami
“Keep checking,” I encouraged. “I sent the uniforms back to the house to see if there’s a name on the back of the photographs. If he is a son, we need to find out what he knows about Sandra.”
Knox nodded and rubbed his eyes a bit. The poor guy looked like he could use a break. But he didn’t ask and I didn’t offer. That’s how we worked cases. We worked them backwards, forwards and inside out, figuring something’s got to give at some point.
“Capparelli,” one of the uniforms called to me entering the station.
“There were only two flights from Miami that landed around 9 pm, and Sandra Collins wasn’t on either,” the officer explained.
“Check earlier flights and check Ft. Lauderdale if you have to,” I directed.
The officer put a stack of manifests down on the desk in front of me. “Did that,” he replied.
“And?” I pushed.
“There was an earlier flight that landed around 7:30pm. On it were two different passengers with the last name Collins,” he explained with a glimmer of excitement in his eyes. “A Mr. Scott Collins and a Ms. Heather S. Collins.”
“Husband and wife?” I asked.
“Not from what we can tell,” he explained. “Mr. Scott Collins had a middle seat in the back of coach and Ms. Heather S. Collins was in first class.”
“Well an arrival of 7:30pm would have given the killer plenty of time before dispatch took the 9pm call,” I responded. “Let’s look into this Heather and see if by chance her middle name is Sandra.”
As I was mapping out the case on the white board, Knox took a quick phone call and then joined me. “That was Officer Burke,” he stated. “You’ll never believe what the name on the back of the photographs say.” He was beaming at me like a kid in a candy store just waiting for the go-ahead to make a purchase.
“What?” I questioned.
“Scott,” he stated while waiting for my reaction.
“Hmm,” I replied trying not to get too excited. “What are the odds that the son was on his way to visit our vic the same time as the daughter?”
“I don’t know, but it’s certainly a bit too coincidental,” Knox replied.
“Well there are a lot of Scott Collins,” I stated. “See what you can find out about that passenger.”
“Shouldn’t we ask Sandra what she can tell us about her brother?” Knox asked.
“Not yet,” I replied wanting to get my proverbial ducks in a row first. “But, get some uniforms outside of her hotel. I want her under surveillance 24/7 in case Scott decides to make a visit.”
In this case, as typical with any other, it seemed like a lot of “hurry up and wait”. It was common to get bits and piece of new information all at once and then go for a period of time with nothing. It was during the periods of waiting that seemed to make the day drag on.
“Well first of all, it turns out only one room is registered to the name S. Collins,” Knox reported a few hours later. “And secondly, Heather S. Collins is not our same Sandra Collins. Heather Sylvia Collins lives here in the Boston area with her husband and two children. She was returning home after visiting her parents down in Boca Raton. Because of the weather, her flight out of Ft. Lauderdale was cancelled and she was moved to the Miami flight.” Knox explained.
“So, either Sandra knows that Scott is in town and they are sharing a room, or one of them has checked in under an alias,” I surmised.
I added the new information to the board and continued wondering how all of this was connected. If Scott the son was the same as Scott the passenger and he arrived at Rita Wagoner’s house prior to the arrival of Sandra Collins, then he may indeed be our killer, I thought to myself.
Unlike instant events that unfold in the movies or on television dramas, the information I needed was held up by court orders and lab results. It was another two days before I could retrieve anything new.
“Well, Sandra isn’t your killer,” Lana told me over the phone. “The DNA under Rita Wagoner’s finer nails belongs to a Caucasian man, not a woman.”
Almost as if he could read my mind, Knox appeared with the latest report on Scott Collins. “It appears our passenger purchased his tickets through a discount website and get this,” he started. “He also booked a hotel room at the Courtside Inn. Should we send the uniforms?”
“Not yet,” trying to put the pieces together in my mind. “Maybe Sandra and Scott were in this together. Either way, we’ll need the judge to authorize us to swab Scott for DNA testing. And if he is the killer, the chances he’ll do it voluntarily are slim. I don’t want to alarm him that we know anything just yet. But find out what room he’s in and alert the uniforms to keep an eye out for him too.”
As I lay in bed that night, I tossed and turned trying to figure out the details of the case I had so far. I kept asking myself why a brother and sister would both come in to see their deceased father’s wife and what a possible motive for killing her would be. And furthermore, if Sandra knew her brother was in town, why would she not have mentioned it? There were only two possibilities; either she was covering for him or she had no idea he was there. Knowing that Sandra had been estranged from her father, I remembered the old saying that nothing tears a family apart faster than money. I decided to check the probate court in the morning to see if Sandra’s father left a will.
“Yes, I remember that file,” attorney Robert K. Jones stated as I sat in his office the next morning. The elderly couple came into my office a little over six months ago and seemed in a bit of a hurry to get their wills changed. I remember, because he died just a few weeks later. Talk about timing,” the gruff attorney stated.
“Why did they want to change their wills?” I asked from across the big oak desk.
“Well, they wanted to remove Mr. Collins’ son from the will,” Mr. Jones stated.
“Why did they want to do that?” I questioned.
“Now those matters I never ask,” answered Mr. Jones. “But I do know that he kept saying he was dis-owning his son because he was nothing but a disgrace to the family name.” Taking the new information I decided to see if Knox had found out on Scott Collins yet.
“I used the credit card information from the airline purchase and finally found a match after pouring through every Scott Collins in Florida,” Knox said, setting a stack of papers down on my desk. “He lives alone and works for a call center in Miami. Here are his financials,” Knox continued as he thumbed through the paperwork. “The only thing that really stands out is that about four months ago he paid a ton of money to stay at the Baltic Hotel right there in Miami.”
“The Baltic Hotel?” I asked, wondering why that sounded familiar to me.
“Yes,” answered Knox. “I thought that sounded a bit odd myself. I mean, why would you spend ten days in an upscale hotel just a few miles from where you live?”
Suddenly, it hit me like a ton of bricks. “Call the uniforms. See if they still have Sandra Collins under surveillance at the Courtside Inn.”
“What? Why?” Knox asked.
“Because,” I answered grabbing the paperwork and my purse. “He is really a she.”
“Wait,” Knox called as I started heading towards the elevator. “Where are you going?”
“I need to get a warrant,” I called over my shoulder. “We’ve got an arrest to make.”
It was only a few hours later when I got to read Sandra Collins her rights and the uniforms were putting her in back of their squad car. She had confessed to everything on the spot. When Scott came out of the closet to his father just over six months ago, the father became upset, disowning him and removing him from the will. But Scott, not aware of the change, scheduled his gender reassignment surgery shortly after his father’s death, expecting to pay for it with his inheritance. Later, when Sandra learned she would not be receiving a dime, she came to Boston to try to renegotiate with Rita. They argued and struggled and Sandra pushed her down the stairs.
“But how did you figure all of that out?” Knox asked.
“It was the hotel,” I answered.
“The hotel?” Knox questioned.
“The Baltic is where a lot of celebrities go to get plastic surgery,” I explained. “The waiting list is a lot shorter than in Hollywood.”
“And you know this…how?” Knox teased.
I chuckled. “Hey, I watch the news,” I responded. “Seriously though, it just suddenly made sense. The DNA report revealed the skin under Rita’s fingernails belonged to a man. There was only one Collins checked into the hotel, and we never did confirm that a Sandra Collins was on any flight. The manifests showed only a Scott Collins. Florida’s DMV database did not contain any Sandra Collins that matched our suspect either; only a Scott Collins in Miami.”
“Well, I still don’t see how you made it all come full circle,” Knox said scratching his head.
“Once I realized that Scott had been at the Baltic for surgery it made sense that Sandra was the killer. You can’t legally change your sex on your birth certificate until six months after surgery, which explains why her credit cards, driver’s license and airline tickets were all in the name of Scott. I am sure working at a call center does not bring in the sort of income that she needed to fulfill her medical expenses and I’m sure that learning her father has disowned her had really upset her. Sandra was desperate and desperate people do desperate things, especially when it comes to love or money.”
“I guess she hoped that her new identity would throw us off,” Knox added.
“Well I guess she didn’t realize that even though you can change the way you look, you can’t change your birth DNA.”
“You’re brilliant,” Knox praised while shaking his head.
Just like Knox, some people have called what I do a gift. But I never really felt that way. To me, it’s more about watching, listening, learning and trying to identify with the case. That’s all I really did with this particular case.
I remember when I went to fights with my dad. I never really said much, on account he was always really into the match and I didn’t want to disrupt him. But I learned a lot by just watching him. I never cared that we were there at the arena. I never cared that he didn’t talk much to me. He was my father and I wanted his love and affection so bad I would take anything I could get.
I am sure that Sandra felt the same about her own father who had went so far as to disown her. I guess all a girl ever really wants is to be loved by her father.
COPYRIGHT 2011. Emma C Miller. Any reproduction of this story may not be made without express written consent of the author.