A Bleak Prospect

A Sam Jenkins Mystery

by Wayne Zurl

A serial killer dubbed The Riverside Strangler by the Knoxville press corps has murdered eight Internet prostitutes in East Tennessee, the most recent found floating in Prospect’s Crystal Creek.

Chief Sam Jenkins joins a task force led by the county’s chief deputy, Ryan Leary, a cop known for his flamboyant police work and questionable methods.

When investigators hit a stone wall in the case, the killer strikes again—or was it a copycat? The type of victim and location follow the Strangler’s pattern, but some details are significantly different.

During the investigation, Leary is charged in a bizarre and seemingly unrelated case of police brutality and relieved of duty. Sam is faced with assuming command of the task force or turning over responsibility to the FBI.

The outcome of the case and subsequent actions taken by the Prospect City Council affect everyone at Sam’s police department and suggest that life there will never be the same.


Chapter One


Police officers who work in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains occasionally require equipment not often needed by cops in cities or semi-urban neighborhoods.

Crime scene investigator Jackie Shuman and I were standing waist deep in the briskly moving waters of Crystal Creek wearing our police issue rubber waders.

Deputy Medical Examiner Morris Rappaport, his assistant, Earl W. Ogle, four other police officers, and a partially controlled crowd of tourists stood on the bank as Jackie and I approached the fallen tree that snagged a very dead body as it floated downstream, adjacent to the Creekside RV Park in Prospect, Tennessee.

“Go easy when you remove her from those branches, Sam,” Morris said. “If she’s been underwater for a few days, you might get surprised.”

From the color of the corpse, it seemed like Morris was giving us sound advice. The once light-skinned female, now only partially clothed, looked roughly the color of a blue Italian plum.

“Jackie, block the moving water with your body,” I said. “It’s forcing her into the tangle. I’ll see if I can free her arm from this branch.”

“Times like these, I ask m’self why I didn’t volunteer fer the traffic division.”

I understood his complaint but ignored it. “Okay, go slow, and pull the branch down while I lift the arm.”

“Oh, Lord have mercy.”

It took us almost ten minutes of finessing the body out of the gnarled branches of the dead sweet gum before we could float her to a spot clear of debris. Jackie’s partner, David Sparks, met us on dry land with an aluminum-framed rescue litter. Once we maneuvered the body and secured it onto the litter, we pushed, while Sergeant Stan Rose and Officer Junior Huskey pulled her onto the grassy shore.

Several spectators appeared to be getting more curious and began inching their way closer to the action, craning their necks for a better look.

“Junior,” I said, “Help Johnny keep the gawkers back.”

“Glad to, boss.”

Stanley covered the body with a yellow disposable blanket as the doctor set up his workspace.

To Shuman and Sparks, I said, “Get your stakes out, and cordon off the area.” To Stan Rose, “I think you three can move that herd back toward the parking area. Let’s give Mo and Earl a little privacy.”

“Piece o’ cake,” Stanley said.

All three went about their business.

I stood over the body as Morris and Earl attempted to gain a little preliminary information and prepare her for a trip to the morgue and her post-mortem examination.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, “I count twenty-three stab wounds to the torso alone.”

“Look at the bruises across the carotid arteries,” Mo said. “Strangled. That either killed her or rendered her unconscious. I’m only guessing about these wounds, but I think the killer wanted to get air out of the stomach and lungs, so she’d sink.”

“Cold and crafty bastard. Only it didn’t work. This is a pretty shallow body of water to think she’d make it down to Davy Jones’ locker.”

Morris nodded. “After the autopsy I should know if there was any forcible sex.”

“That leather miniskirt and one remaining knee-high boot might indicate she worked in the sex trade.” I shrugged. “Or she just liked to look the part.”

“I’ll let you know what I find, Samilah. But offhand, I’ll bet you’ve just joined the lucky investigators looking for the Riverside Strangler.”

I shook my head and blew out a large volume of air. “Just what we need in beautiful downtown Prospect.”

Earl zipped up the black vinyl body bag.

Morris looked up at me but spoke to the corpse. “Welcome to the peaceful side of the Smokies, young lady.”

* * *

For almost two years, detectives from the Blount County Sheriff’s Office have been looking for a serial killer the media tagged The Riverside Strangler. So far, seven bodies were found in publicly accessed rivers and streams—all in county patrolled areas, but off the beaten path. These victims were young prostitutes, two male and five female, who posted their services with an on-line classified advertising site. Each had been sexually violated and murdered. Some were strangled manually, as it appeared with our current victim and others with a ligature. All were stabbed multiple times, usually, but not always, post-mortem. On four occasions, cheap, but sharp kitchen knives were recovered somewhere near the spot where investigators determined the body was dumped into the water.

All the knives could be easily purchased in most of the discount stores in most of the communities of the state. So far, no fingerprints were found, and no other trace evidence of the killer had been discovered. In essence, the killer sanitized the crime scenes and the victims before disappearing.

Our murdered woman, found in Crystal Creek by a vacationing RV owner taking his son fishing, bore all outward appearances of victim number eight. The last previous body showed up a hundred yards east of a boat-launching ramp along Topside Road in the town of Louisville, only eighteen miles from Prospect.

With luck, we’d get a fingerprint match and identify our victim. From there, we’d backtrack and conduct a complete background investigation on her. My operations aide, honorary Detective John Gallagher, excelled at this type of job.

* * *

Jane Doe number 118, the name Morris Rappaport gave the murdered girl, began her journey to the morgue to patiently await her autopsy. I stripped off my waders and used a cleverly conceived wire device to hang them upside down to dry from the raised tailgate of Jackie Shuman’s Ford Explorer.

I walked over to where Stan and Junior were assisting PO Johnny Rutledge contain a crowd of almost thirty onlookers who preferred to gape at the scene than go about their business as some of the nine million tourists who visit the Great Smoky Mountains annually should do.

“Stanley,” I said, “have you got your large scale map handy?”

“In the car, bwana.” He pointed to the crowd. “What do you want to do with the huddled masses here?”

“I’ll call the county duty officer and get a couple of deputies to hang around and keep them back while the ETs do their thing. As soon as they get here, I’ll need people to find every spot where someone could have easily accessed the creek and dumped the body.”

“Might be a lot of work,” he suggested.

“Soon as we check the map, we’ll know how much.”

“I’ll call Bettye and see how many 9-1-1 calls we’re getting. You might have to pull in a couple of off-duty guys and send Junior and Johnny back on patrol.”

“Okay, call her while I touch base with the D.O. I’ll ask him to round up a bunch of auxiliaries, too. We’ll send one of our guys out to supervise each group of them and start checking the spots along the creek. If we can’t turn up something, I’ll call Sevier County to check their end of Crystal Creek.”

“We need a bigger department.”

“Back in New York, the squad dick would call in an eight-man homicide team and a sergeant to do the dirty work.”

“Yeah, but we’re not in the big departments anymore.”

Stanley had worked for LAPD before following his homesick wife back to Tennessee and landing a job with Prospect PD.

He called Sergeant Bettye Lambert, while I spoke to the Sheriff’s duty officer, Lieutenant Ollie McClurg.

* * *

Assuming our killer wouldn’t tote a dead victim on his back through a thicket or take a scantily dressed hooker for a hike through the brambles looking for a secluded spot to get romantic, our wisest move was to search out a piece of shoreline accessible by vehicle.

An hour after Stan and I made our phone calls, I had four Prospect cops dressed for woods work and a dozen auxiliary deputies willing to tag along and perhaps get their boots dirty.

I sent out four four-man teams to eleven access points used by fishermen and kayakers.

I left the evidence technicians to finish processing the scene and returned to the PD to wait for their reports, photos and diagrams, the autopsy results and any clues the search teams might turn up—or not.

My big priority was identifying the victim. If her fingerprints were in the system, our job would be easy. If not, I’d need a forensics artist to sketch a facial likeness to post in the newspapers and on TV news broadcasts.

"A Can of Worms" by Wayne Zurl



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