Bart Foster was homeless. He slept under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which runs along the waterfront in downtown Seattle. One night, while sleeping, Foster became another statistic of the dangers of living homeless. Someone crushed his head with a cinder block across from the downtown ferry terminal where tourists and commuters take boats to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton.
I was next-up for a murder. My partner was Sonny Davis.
I arrived for work in May 1997 to learn that a murder had occurred the night before.
We weren’t called to the scene of this murder; a horrible thing for a detective trying to solve a case like this. Tom Pike and Paul Suguro were the on-call detectives who went to the scene. Foster was taken to Harborview. They didn’t think he was going to die, so they didn’t call us out.
They were wrong.
After he died, I called Richard Harruff, the Medical Examiner, who had conducted the autopsy on Foster.
“He had injuries to the left side of his head,” he said. “It’s consistent with being hit with a large block. It caused a fracture to the base of his skull. There were also abrasions to his knees and his right cheek.”
We (actually I, since Davis had little to do with this case) were behind the eight-ball from the beginning, but I caught a break early on. Keith Kzmirski, a cab driver, was reportedly a witness to the assault. I tracked him down to a West Seattle address. He wasn’t very cooperative at first, but I got him to tell me what he knew. I have a way with people like him. This is a murder, not a Goddamned car prowl. I let him know I wasn’t going away. If I had to drag him before a judge to tell me what he knew, I was going to do that, and I’d do it on my schedule, when it was convenient for me, with no consideration about imposing on him. He decided to cooperate.
I knew he would.
He was working for Pioneer Cab Company as a supervisor.
“Where were you between four fifteen and four twenty-five in the morning, on May 20th?” I asked.
“I was near the power plant,” he said, “down on the waterfront.”
“Is that across from the ferry terminal there?” I asked.
“Tell me what you saw there,” I said.
“Well, I was pulling right up by the power plant. I saw a black gentleman, twenty-five to thirty. He had a cinder block, and he brought it down on something behind the dumpster.”
“Was it a full cinder block?” I asked.
“No, a half cinder block.”
“So, you saw it was up over his head?”
“I saw it up over his head,” he said, “and then he was bringing it down.”
“With both hands?”
“Did he bring it down hard on something?” I asked.
“Well, he didn’t bring it down soft,” he said.
“Could you see where he was standing?” I asked.
“He was standing right behind the dumpster,” he said. “I had a shot of him from the waist up. There’s two couches there. I didn’t realize at the time what he was doing, or I would have called the police myself.
“But then I realized that there’s two guys sleeping on those couches and that he must have been doing something to one of them.”
He’d gotten a good look at the suspect, so I had him help create a composite drawing.
Betty Kincaid was the forensic artist I used. Betty was a civilian employee of the police department and a very accomplished artist. I’d had excellent results from her before. It wasn’t just because she was a good artist—she was. Her drawings always look like real people, not the alien-looking drawings I see other police departments put out. She was also an excellent interviewer. She had a hypnotic way about her that drew extra information from the witness she was working with. On several occasions, when she developed a sketch of an unknown suspect, the drawing looked just like him once the suspect was identified and arrested.
I set her up with the cab driver. After about three hours, she had a sketch. She gave it to me.
I made up a bulletin using the sketch. I walked it down to the SWAT office on the third floor of the old headquarters building.
When not training (which is most of the time), SWAT officers drive around in plain cars. I gave them the bulletin.
“Do you think you could grab this guy by seven?” I asked jokingly.
I was back in the office at seven-thirty when my phone rang. An operator in the 911 center was calling.
“There’s a Zebra Unit (the designation SWAT uses) who have a person stopped at 2nd South and Washington Street that matches a bulletin you put out tonight.”
“I’ll be right there,” I told the operator.
I pulled up at that location. Officers Joe Fountain and Rudy Gonzales had two people stopped.
“We saw this guy,” Fountain said. “He looks like the sketch you put out tonight. The guy he was with said he told him he’d assaulted a guy down on the waterfront a few days ago.
That was all I needed.
“Hook ‘em up and bring them to my office,” I said.
Once there, I put the guy that looked like the sketch, whom we had identified as Nathan Payne, in an interview room. I walked in and advised him of his rights. Then I took out the sketch and laid it on the table in front of him.
“That’s me,” he said.
After three hours of intense but quiet interrogation, he’d confessed to the murder. I was getting ready to book him into jail when Sonny came in.
“Who’s that in the interview room?” he asked.
“That’s the killer in our latest murder. I’m about to book him.”
Sonny had a sheepish look on his face.
“I wasn’t’ there to help you with this at all. Good job.”
I appreciated the comment, at least.
Fifteen years later, after an appellate court decision that affected his case, I saw Payne again in court, where he was for a resentencing. He greeted me like we were old friends.
I get that a lot.