Dedicated to Officer Bob Holder and the men and women of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
In the Jaws of a Dilemma
©2006 Brian G. Angevine
Randy Waters is a game warden in Trinidad, Colorado. His favorite animals are bears and he frequently gives demonstrations at Trinidad Lake State Park about bears to familiarize people with the animals. He finds himself in the middle of an investigation following the death of a young woman who appears to have been mauled by a bear. The County Sheriff and Trinidad Police turn the case over to Randy because of their opinion that it is an open and shut case of an animal kill.
Randy is not so sure a bear killed the woman. He sees signs that just don’t add up and asks for help from his friend in Colorado Springs. The detective takes some time off and travels to Trinidad to help Randy.
The case evolves into a situation that causes a great deal of trouble for the community. Some vigilantes are out looking for killer bears and shooting any bear they see, but Randy and Don focus on several suspects who seem to have something to hide, including an ex-professional quarterback.
The football player’s mountain retreat provides clues that make Randy and Don suspicious of his involvement, including a unique killing machine. Eventually the confrontation leads to a gunfight and chase in the mountains near Raton Pass. A beautiful television journalist and a taxidermist all play a role in the case that is eventually solved by Randy and Don.
This is the first in a series of stories featuring Randy Waters.
Randy Waters, chief game warden for the Trinidad, Colorado district, approached the scene near the town dump with hesitation. A small pile of leaves and twigs covered something surrounded by police officers and Sheriff’s deputies, and blocked off with yellow “crime scene” tape. Earlier today someone spotted a bright color in the litter, smelled the decay, and called the Police. Chief of Police, Diego Martinez, had news media people almost in his hip pocket and taking pictures before the investigation was a half hour old.
Now Randy had to look at the mutilated body of a dead woman. Afraid that his breakfast might wind up all over the place he glanced at the gaggle of rubberneckers kept a short distance from the scene by yellow tape stretched between trees. Bloodthirsty goons, Randy thought with disgust. I have to look at this body and I don’t even want to. They come out just looking for a thrill, maybe seeing a severed arm or something to gross out their buddies. Randy parked his Government Issue pickup and bent to walk under the yellow tape. Reporters crowded the scene with cameras clicking away. “You guys get the hell out of here,” Chief of Police, Diego Martinez yelled. “We gotta keep this site clean so we can look for clues.”
“Is this an animal kill?” someone called.
“What the hell gives you that idea?” Martinez said.
“It’s covered up like a bear does with a kill,” the newspaper reporter said.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know.”
“Looks like a bear kill to me,” said another reporter.
Martinez turned to his officers and said, “Get these people back and set up a perimeter. We gotta keep people outta here.”
“Y’know, Chief,” one of the officers said. “It sure does look like some animal killed that gal.”
“Well, if you know so damned much, whyn’t you do the inves’igation?”
“I didn’t mean that,” protested the officer. “But a murderer probly’ wouldn’t cover a body like that and dump it right here.”
“That’s why the game warden is here. After all, he’s supposed to be the expert on this stuff,” Martinez grumbled.
Right away reporters started calling in details, assuming the worst. Live radio news reports told a gruesome story; “WOMAN KILLED BY BEAR.” Onlookers started talking among themselves about the “bear kill” and radio listeners filled with fear began to call for the bear’s destruction. “After all,” one caller said. “Once a wild animal develops a taste for human blood it finds easy prey and abundant meals.”
Back at the scene Randy Waters approached Chief Martinez. “Hey, Randy,” Martinez greeted him with a handshake. “How’s it shakin’?”
“H’lo, Martinez,” Randy replied. “Guess you got somthin’ big here?”
“Yeah. We don’ know whether to call it a murder, an accident, or a feeding.” Martinez chuckled at his gruesome joke. “Welcome to the newest res’rant in Trinidad,” he added.
Randy really liked bears and could not understand why so many people feared them. In all his years as a wildlife officer he had never investigated anything that could be termed an attack by a wild bear on a human. He often told people during his educational lectures at Trinidad State Park that a sign of an imminent attack includes a bear popping its teeth, but usually an offended female bear perceives a threat to her cubs, rounds up her youngsters and runs off into the brush. The terrified human often contacts the Game Warden and demands that the dangerous bear be destroyed. Randy thought that too many people want the wilderness to be just like their back yards, safe and sound and completely at their disposal.
“Shit, Randy,” Martinez said. “This musta’ been some kind of huge bear to do this.”
Randy glanced at the body and back at Martinez. “What makes you think a bear did this?”
“Well look at how she’s all chewed up.”
“I’ll take a look, but I am not so sure a bear killed her,” Randy said.
A torn up sweatshirt and pants partially covered the woman’s body. Randy gagged as he saw her crushed skull. Dried blood covered her dark hair and mangled face. Randy looked quizzically at a cop who said, “Go ahead. We’ve already taken pictures and everything.” Pulling gently on the woman’s shirt Randy looked closer. He could see that something had lacerated the skin. He lifted the sweatshirt and peered underneath, acutely aware of all the eyes watching him. He felt guilty as a “peeping tom” looking at a young woman’s body and getting caught in the act. She had undoubtedly been lovely when alive, but not now. Her skin was a warm tawny brown shade even in death, the beautiful caramel color of a young Hispanic woman. Claw marks, more pronounced in the flesh, showed the shallow entry of each claw with the slashes gouging deeper as they angled across her torso. The white bone of ribs showed through the gaping wounds of five claw marks, with two center ones a little closer together flanked by three outer claws.
Randy pulled on a rubber glove and stuck his finger into the deepest of the slashes, wincing as he did so. Very close to being sick Randy gritted his teeth. He felt that if he opened his mouth words would not come out, but something else certainly would. He didn’t like looking at a cow killed by a bear, and now he had to look at a dead human. He could disassociate himself from the life of the cow, but this was what was left of a young, beautiful, Latina. Judging by the depth of the wounds in the softer part of the torso it appeared the claws might be up to four inches long. Randy could see that the force of the blow broke one rib. But there was no evidence that the bear had bitten into the woman’s abdomen at all. Randy didn’t think a feeding bear would leave the best parts uneaten.
Randy straightened his back and looked away leaving his eyes unfocused as he gazed at the nearby mesa called Simpson’s Rest with the big “TRINIDAD” sign on top. He couldn’t look at the woman again right away.
“Wha’ you see, Randy?” asked Martinez. “Got the bear spotted up there already?”
Finally he got control of his emotions and stooped again to look at her destroyed skull, clearly a bite mark. He knew that bears usually grab their prey by the back of the neck or head and with a couple of shakes the fight is over. This had to be a big bear to be able to get a person’s head in its mouth. Unsure of the crush force of a bear’s jaws Randy knew they could mash a skull. The woman’s brain had spilled out of her skull but was mostly intact. Randy rubbed his chin thinking, a hungry bear would most certainly eat that organ. Jerking his gloved hand away he wondered if he had blood on his chin.
A helpful officer touched Randy on the shoulder. Embarrassed that he could not hide his feelings more easily Randy flinched at the touch. “The top of her skull is right over there,” the young man said. He pointed with a shaky finger. Either the guy was as grossed out as Randy or Randy himself was so dizzy from the experience that his eyes registered shakily.
Randy saw a bloody mass on the ground. With his gloved hand he picked up the piece of skull. Holes spaced about the size and placement of a bear’s jaw showed on the edges of the bone. Randy had seen enough bear bites to recognize that pattern. But once again it was clear that this bear was much larger than any black bear.
Walking back over to the group of officers Randy asked, “Did you find tracks?”
“Yeah, a couple right over here,” the young officer pointed. “This soft dirt left a pretty good pair of prints.”
A front paw print clearly showed the five toes and claws of a bear and a back print looked almost like a very large man’s footprint. Again the characteristic of claw marks showing at the front of the track indicated a bear.
“Y’know,” Randy said to the nearest person. “Cats can retract their claws so a mountain lion track would show no claw marks. Bears can’t retract their claws so they always show in a track. Likewise if a cat had attacked the woman, the claw marks would have been deeper at the entry point and the sharper, curved claws would have made much cleaner wounds. Cats usually hit their prey from above or behind. Her neck would have been broken and the wounds would have been on her back and neck, not the front side of her body.” Nobody replied and Randy realized he was thinking out loud.
“Make a plaster cast of those tracks, please.” Randy directed an officer. “Do you know how to make a good cast?”
“Sure. We do that kind of thing all the time with tire tracks and stuff. I’ll get on that right away.”
Randy walked around the scene looking for more tracks but something seemed strange about this whole deal. He turned to Martinez and said, “Why would the woman be attacked right here? Do you see any signs of a struggle?” He asked an officer, “Has anyone seen a big bear roaming around here?”
“We really haven’t questioned anyone yet,” the officer said.
“Well, maybe that is a first step,” Randy said. “This has to be a grizzly, the paw prints and claw marks are just too big to be a black. Black bear claws are rounded and close to the pads while grizzly claws are straighter and stick out maybe two inches or more in front of the pads.”
A reporter standing nearby pestered him to answer some questions. “Mr. Waters,” she called. “What do you think killed this poor girl?”
Randy hesitated. He wondered if the reporter had heard what he said about a grizzly. He was afraid that whatever he said would be sensationalized into something he didn’t intend to say.
“Come on, Randy. Give us a statement. You know everyone is going to call you anyway,” the reporter pleaded. She had a point. He guessed he had to answer a few questions in spite of her pushiness.
“Can you tell us what happened here?” she asked.
“A woman is dead,” he answered in resignation.
The reporter looked exasperated. “I know that Randy. Tell me what you found!”
Randy hunched his shoulders as if to ward off an attack. “Well, this woman was mauled by an animal, probably a bear. Whether or not the bear killed her is unknown at this time. Maybe she was mauled after she was already dead or something.”
“What the hell you mean?” Martinez said. “You just said a bear tore her up.”
“I said it appears a bear mauled her. That doesn’t mean a bear killed her.”
Martinez snorted, “Well if a bear tore her up it must have killed her.”
Randy decided to let that go for now. But he had a feeling that something was missing in this scene. Something nagged at his mind.
“Do you think a rogue bear is running around here?” the reporter persisted.
Randy glared at her. “I don’t have any idea,” he said with anger.
“How do you know it was a bear and not a mountain lion,” she countered.
“By the paw prints and the shape of the claw marks and teeth. It was definitely a bear.” Randy said that loud enough for the crowd across the street to hear. That was a mistake. A murmur of excitement quickly spread through the crowd.
A television truck from Colorado Springs pulled up to the edge of the crowd. A woman in a beautiful suit jumped out with a mike in hand, while the remote aerial telescoped up from the top of the truck. The cameraman followed a few steps behind, tape already rolling through the machine.
Randy raised his eyes to the sky in a gesture of resignation, peeled off his bloody rubber gloves and tossed them out of sight behind him. The cops quickly formed ranks to hide the body from the camera.
The Springs reporter almost shoved the newspaperwoman out of the way. For a moment it looked like a scuffle would break out, but the paper writer gave way deciding she could get quotes by listening in on the other reporter.
Turning to the camera the TV reporter said, “We are here, live, in Trinidad, Colorado where a body has been discovered.” Turning to the group of law officers she said in a commanding voice, “Who’s in charge here?”
Chief Martinez stepped forward deciding it was his time to shine on camera. He stuck out his chin in an attempt to look tough and commanding. Instead he just looked like an overweight guy showing off his double chin. “I am,” he asserted.
“What has happened here, Chief Martinez?” the TV woman said looking at the nametag and badge pinned to Martinez’ shirt. “There are reports that a woman was killed by a bear. Is that true?”
“All I can tell you aat dis time is dat a body has been deescovered and we are inves’igating the cause of death.” Martinez’ spoken English left something to be desired. He was understandable, but one had to listen closely.
“But a bear caused the death, right Chief?”
Martinez narrowed his eyes and stared straight into the camera lens, acting like a real star. “We have foun’ the body of a young woman who apparently died under suspicious circumstances. Der are some bear tracks at the scene but der are plenty of bear in this part of the coun’ry. We can’ say what the senorita might have died from yet.” Sometimes Martinez could change the meaning of a word by leaving part of it out. For instance “can’” really meant “cannot.” Randy Waters winced as he listened to Martinez holding forth to impress the TV audience. He knew there would be confusion and a lot of questions directed his way later.
The reporter was looking for something emotional. “I see a wildlife agent over there. Is he looking for the bear that killed the girl?”
Martinez wheeled and looked over his shoulder at Randy. The reporter shoved right on by Martinez and headed straight for Randy with the cameraman close behind. Pushing the mike into Randy’s face the reporter challenged, “What are you doing to find the dangerous man-eating bear?”
Randy looked at the woman like she was some kind of space alien. “Listen! In the first place we don’t know that a bear killed her. It would be very unlikely for a bear to attack a human in the first place and extremely rare this close to town. After all there are houses and dogs and other people just a few yards away from here. I don’t think a bear would be too aggressive in a place like this.”
The cameraman was jockeying for position to get a shot of the body. Officers were still trying to shield the view, but he tried holding the camera as high as he could to look over their shoulders. Then he crouched down on the ground to catch a glimpse between their legs.
Looking for more emotion and trying to catch someone off guard, the TV woman turned to the crowd. “What do you folks think about the rouge bear attack here?” she called to the line of onlookers.
One guy stepped forward and the camera lens zeroed in on him. “Do you live here?” the reporter asked.
“Yeah. I live about a block away.”
“Did you see the bear or hear anything when it attacked?”
“Nah. We didn’t hear or see nothin’ last night. It was a real dark night, but there are bears around here all the time. This dump ain’t too good a place to live close to because hungry animals are always comin’ here.” A plaid flannel shirt and greasy ball cap were centered on the viewfinder screen. A scruff of two-day-old whiskers covered the man’s face hiding some of the acne scars that ravaged his skin.
“Don’t you think the game wardens should be hunting this dangerous beast down?” the reporter asked.
A scrawny woman in a faded red housedress spoke up. “Yeah! I’m gonna go home and get my rifle loaded up. Somethin’ like that could bust right through your front door. Some ‘a them bears get real big and mean.”
Chief Martinez stepped in then and got the police officers to start pushing the crowd back. “I’z time to break up this crap,” he yelled. “We gotta get this poor gal outta here so we can finish our inves’igation.”