7 MAY 24, 15:48
City of Cape May, NJ &
TRACEN Cape May, NJ – Base Housing
Checking the area of the case took most of the afternoon. The warm sun was moving across the sky making the shadows longer with each passing minute. Erin and Roe were moving from site to site of reported vandalism, checking the place, and talking to people. As they did so, Erin had a growing feeling that these events might be disconnected. Talking to people who reported each case provided nothing new. Each of the eleven cars had scratches of the paint, deep enough that they required a proper auto body shop visit. One of the vehicles had cracked side glass but not broken, so no one actually got inside the car. Another one had visible signs of someone trying to pick the booth and scratching everywhere around the lock as it was an older model still having a lock allowing opening it with a key. In the process, someone broke a picklock inside the lock, which stuck making it impossible to proceed.
By the time they finished checking everything, the afternoon turned into the evening. Their duty actually finished and Erin expected they might need to come back tomorrow and continue. Resting against the hood, with a cup of coffee next to her hip on the hood, she was flipping through the pad in her hand finishing for today. Then it struck her. She quickly opened a new tab to check her gut instinct.
“Sir.” Her green eyes switched from the screen to her partner and boss. “I just noticed that apart from the car with the cracked window and the one with a picklock in the booth’s lock, nine other cars have only scratches all over the body that require repair.” She flipped the screen showing the name of the local garage. “Guess what, there is only one auto body shop nearby. Is that a coincidence? Or am I paranoid?”
Roe considered this for a second and shrugged, “coincidence likely. My instinct says there is a pissed off kid living in base housing… but I’m not sure what is with the lock picks or why suddenly that was thrown in,” Kevin said. “I would encourage you to always follow every angle if you think it is worth it. Your instincts will be your best guide a lot of the time.”
Erin shrugged slightly and bounced off the hood. She flipped the cover for the pad with a move of her wrist and picked the coffee with the other hand. “Do you want to go there now, or we call it a day and come back tomorrow?”
He glanced at his watch, “not quite quitting time yet… might as well get it in there. Would you like to drive?” he offered.
“Sure.” Erin confirmed and walked around the hood toward the driver position. She raised the cup to her lips finishing the rest of the coffee from the cup before stopping at the door. She looked around but seeing no trashcan nearby she just shrugged and got inside, putting the empty cup in the cup holder. “So this is the kind of case we work on the day-to-day basis?”
“No, not even a little bit,” Roe said, before getting into the passenger seat of his official vehicle. When they were settled and seat belts applied he continued. “Most people in my position would have scoffed at these cases and told the PD to handle it. However, they are short staffed and clearly the leadership is a bit less than we’d desire. This is a major command and one of the cases for some reason the CO took a personal interest in. We’re winning points here… we’ll deal with the BS and we’ll move on to better things next. Our team is brand new it was very easy for the SAC to draw the short straw on our behalf.”
“So, it is all politics.” Erin sighed, turned on the engine and switched gears. The car began to roll. ‘Key Auto Body Shop’ was just round the corner. “It is just sad at this point. I’ve seen it time and time again so it doesn’t bother me anymore. At least not as much as it used to.” She shrugged. “But it is just sad that a group of potentially skilled police officers are wasting their time on things police recruits could do as part of their training.”
“It is what it is,” Roe said, flatly. “Sometimes you have to play the game.”
The drive didn’t even take five minutes. Erin turned off the main street and drove into a small parking lot outside of the shop. Switching off the engine, Erin looked at the garage and the main building with big windows. There were two people inside. “How do you want to proceed, sir?”
“You tell me,” Roe said, turning to her. “This is your lead how do you think it should be handled?”
“Talk to the owner, ask him about similar cases, move through the garage, ask him to explain what he will do with such damages and how much it would cost.” Erin said slowly looking at the garage through the windshield. “Be visible. If this is his doing, or someone in his crew, two federal officers might cause some stir.” She slowly turned her head to face Roe. “Beat the bush a bit, sir. See what happens.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Kevin said, with a nod. “Raid jackets?” he asked. Two federal agents showing up in their nice clothes badge and gun on display was intimidating but the famous blue windbreakers with the gold lettering brought it to a whole new level in his experience.
Erin grinned at the proposition. “Sure thing, sir.” She agreed. Certainly this could work in their favor as proposed by her “beat the bush” approach. She stepped out of the car and went back to the trunk where she had her jacket neatly folded. She took it out and put it on. “How do I look?” She asked, still somewhat amused.
“Frightening,” he said, as he grabbed his out and donned it. “After you,” he said.
Erin made sure that her badge was visible attached to the belt of her pants and took the lead walking toward the garage. She entered through the main doors into the office part. The small space was visually divided into a smaller section in front of welcome desk for the customers and a larger one behind it, fixed with several more desks, for the staff. “Good day, Special Agent Erin Reeves, Coast Guard Investigative Service. Who is in charge here?” She introduced herself.
“Coast Guard?” the man, with the name of Mike on his coveralls.
“Yes sir, we’re federal law enforcement agents here investigating some crimes that occurred on part of our property that is outside of the base fencing. Can we speak to the manager please?” Roe added in, as he pulled out his credentials and flipped it open to his photo ID.
“Uh, in the office back there,” he said, pointing.
“Thanks,” Kevin said, nodding and then motioning Erin that way.
“Big Mike! Some feds are here for you!” the other Mike yelled.
‘Big Mike’ stood up from her chair as the agents entered her office. “Michelle Key,” She said as an introduction. She wasn’t dressed in the same overalls as her mechanics, but instead some khakis and an embroidered polo.
This was not the ‘Big Mike’ that Kevin had been expecting but he was pleased with that turn of events. If they had been meeting for another reason he’d have an entire different line of questioning for the woman. He looked to his trainee to let her take the lead.
Erin greeted the woman with a nod and pulled the jacket enough to show the badge briefly.
“Special agent Reeves…” She nodded at Kevin. “Special agent Roe.” She introduced them both.
“What do I owe this unexpected visit?” She queried as she took her seat and offered the ones across from her to her guests.
“We are here in relation to reported vandalism of vehicles in the area.” Erin said cutting right to the chase. “Have you heard anything about that?” She asked standing slightly sideways to have the rear and the offices there in her peripheral vision.
Leaving took the offered seat, recognizing what Erin was doing with her positioning but not finding it necessary. Of course, he didn’t feel the need to object either.
Michelle watched Erin intently. You could tell her demeaner changed ever so slightly. However, it wasn’t in regards to the questions being asked or the accusation behind them. Michelle was insulted that Erin chose to continue to stand.
Michelle rose to her feet, matching the mood that Erin put off. “Vandalism? No. Have we had an uptick in business? Yes,” She replied as she pointed out the monitor to her right that had security camera footage of the shop. It was a busy day and the shop was almost at capacity. “However, we don’t ask questions here. Often times we get military members coming through trying to get repairs done for things that would go against a few… regulations.”
“That’s not really the subject of our investigation,” Roe added in. “There have been an increase on base property of these incidents and any thoughts on a pattern would be helpful.”
“Indeed. Our investigation focuses on vandalism.” Erin added amicably. She saw the reaction when she ignored the offer to seat down but Erin was not going to address it. If Big Mike wanted to take it personally, it was her decision. “We thought that as the leading garage in the area you are likely to receive most of the unfortunate victims’ vehicles to repair and we are interested in your professional take on this. Who could have done that? Are there any common features?”
“Again, I have seen an increase in business. Lots of extra work dealing with insurance to get cars fixed and ordering the right paints for each car,” She said with a matter of fact tone.
“Professionally, I would assume it is some hood-rats going around. No similarities between the vehicles that come in.” She said with an ever so slight change in her tone. It was almost like it was a rehearsed line.
Kevin’s primary interest on this all was actually how his trainee reacted to all of this and not really on the content. He didn’t believe that the body shop would be able to weigh in too much on this nor did he think there was some sort of conspiracy at stake but she was leading this investigation and he would let her do so. His gaze went from ‘Big Mike’ to Erin.
“Do you know by any chance the names of those hood-rats?” Erin asked. “Or at least where to look for them? I ask because I think we would at least want to avoid such situations in the future. If all that is kids, maybe a show off of a badge would suffice to keep things in check for the rest of the community.” She explained looking Big Mike in the eyes. She was under the impression that the other woman wanted them just to leave.
“Sadly, more than a handful exist around here. I am sure you could get a list from the local police department,” She said calmly and coolly. She reached over and pulled a business card from her desk. It was the Chief of Police’s card with his office extension. She handed it over to Erin. “Hopefully they can help you.”
Erin took the card and slightly shook her head. “The reason we are here is because the local police department and their chief asked for help. Directing us back to them is not helping. None at all.” She said sadly and flipped the card in her fingers but didn’t return it. “Are you sure there is nothing else you can do to help?”
“Outside of a card and what I have already told you, you are out of luck on more information.” Michelle said as she finally got tired of them being in her office. She returned to her seat and spoke up loud enough that her employees outside the office could hear, “If you have nothing further to discuss, please see yourselves out.”
Erin sighed. She pulled a notebook from her pocket and wrote down a few things, and put the card in as a bookmark.
“Thank you for your cooperation, ma’am.” She said finally, closing the notebook and looking up at Michelle. She glanced at her boss. “Do you have any questions, sir?”
“None,” Roe said, “thank you for your time,” he said, and then motioned for Erin to lead the way out.
“I’ll drive,” Roe said, once outside, he continued to the driver seat and once inside readjusted everything. He started the vehicle and waited for his trainee to enter and close the door.
“So,” Kevin said. “Why did you tell her that the local police requested us? And have you actually spoken to them?”
Erin initially going to the driver seat but noticing Roe going for it, she slowed down and changed the direction. She passed him the keys and then as she sat in the front passenger seat she used seat belts. When he asked her, she turned her face at him and shrugged. “It is technically true. The local branch of CGPD asked us to investigate, did they not?” She replied. “It also seemed a good way to prolong the conversation and see maybe Big Mike has something extra in her sleeve to share. And to answer your second question. Yes I did spoke to the Cape May local city police and also to the New Jersey state police.”
“Historically the State Police don’t have much going on here outside of the highways,” he said. “Either way, I’m not certain that it would have accomplished anything. What did the local police have to say? Because you hadn’t mentioned that to me,” Roe said.
“I hadn’t because they had nothing to say.” Erin replied. “They claim they have no similar cases and the mo doesn’t fit anything they had so far.”
“The fact that these events have occurred only on Coast Guard property isn’t relevant to the investigation?” Kevin asked, confused, as he put the vehicle into drive and started off back toward the CGPD station.
“What?” Erin asked a bit confused herself. “If I wasn’t clear, I said that the local city and state police had nothing useful.”
“I would think that no other crimes off our property of a similar nature would be a relevant fact to our investigation. So sharing that information with your supervisor is probably something that should have come up. I would suspect, as I mentioned before, this is likely just some punk kid or a group of them who live in base housing,” Roe explained.
Erin tilted her head watching Roe for a moment not sure what he was getting at. “Like I said, sir. I contacted the Cape May local city police and the New Jersey state police. They had no useful information. There were no similar crimes in the near past neither there are such crimes at the moment. I saw no reason to mention that because there was nothing to share.”
“That is the point, Reeves,” Roe said, shaking his head. “There being no similar cases off of the property of the base means that the crime is specific to us and not just a problem throughout the city. The crime is happening in an area that anyone can wander through without a question… anyone could do this but clearly if they’re only doing it here that tilts the suspicion one way or another, doesn’t it? The information would have been helpful prior to us coming here. You share with your partner everything on an investigation no matter how much or how little you think it matters.”
“I did.” Erin raised her eyebrow. “You left me on me doing the preliminary investigation and reviewing the data we got. I did do that. Part of it included calling other law enforcement agencies and aligning with them. This is something obvious to me and I don’t see it as a matter worth highlighting if you concluded without it that this is local. Remember? I did share with you all the relevant information that I found and you haven’t guessed. Now, all of sudden do you have a problem with my approach? Is this a lack of trust and double-checking me after the fact?” She didn’t know Roe. At first, his approach was quite open and willing to accommodate her autonomy when he gave her the case preparation. Now all of sudden he switched on the spot and had problem with it. Did she miss something?
“You led me into an unnecessary meeting without all of the facts Reeves,” Roe said. “I know you are a forty year old veteran who is used to being a commissioned officer who tells people what to do. But on this team you are on day one and you report to everyone else. If you’re not mature enough to be in the place you asked for then this agency isn’t for you,” he said, flatly.
Reeves eyed him without a response she sat back and crossed her arms as the two made their way back to the base for the end of their work day.