“Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.” -Dashiell Hammett from “Red Harvest”
November 13th, 2014
Three Kansas City Kansas Police Department squad cars, an ambulance, and a couple of unmarked police vehicles barricaded the Vega Park, at the corner of 24th Street and Metropolitan in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. The park was located right across the street from the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, which just opened a couple of months ago. There was a big celebration on that Walmart’s grand opening, headlined by the JC Harmon band playing as well as Mayor Mark Holland and Third District Commissioner Angela Salazar speaking about the supermarket’s opening being a sign of the economic progress in the Argentine and Rosedale neighborhoods (both part of Salazar’s district). Balloons, street vendors selling fruit, duros and ice cream bars, and a DJ blaring Banda, Bachata and Reggaeton music further added to the festivity of the event, which felt just like yesterday for many of the residents not just in the Argentine neighborhood, but in the general KCK area as well.
Now, it was 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday night. There were no balloons. No vendors. Not much of anybody really other than police officers, the medical examiner and some assistants taking photos, EMT workers, and a social worker writing details as people tried to scramble for a positive identification on the body.
She was young. She had light brown skin and long straight black hair. She was naked laying face down in the grass underneath the tree adjacent to the playground. And she was dead. Bruised, likely beaten and strangled. No signs of any bullet or knife wounds.
Somebody had anonymously called the police over an hour ago. They were coming back home from the Missouri side, and they noticed somebody lying underneath the tree in Vega Park. They figured it was somebody drunk. Drunks tended to wander around this area, especially with a gas station that sold beer right across the street from the park.
From the sound of it, the callers had no idea that the woman was dead, perhaps for hours from the look of it.
Detective Mike Simonich parked his unmarked navy blue Crown Vic squad car right by the entrance of the Walmart. He wore a brown blazer with a tan heavy duty work shirt underneath, unbuttoned at the top with no tie. He complemented his attire with dark heavy denim jeans, unmatching with his get-up, but at this hour, it was likely he just threw the outfit together in a rush to the get to the crime scene. His short dark brown haircut, speckled with gray, was slightly combed, but still somewhat disheveled, demonstrating that he had just woken up from his slumber less than an hour earlier.
Simonich had been in the KCKPD for nearly 18 years now, with the last eight being in homicide. After six years in patrol, he worked in narcotics/vice for another four before being promoted to the homicide/violent crimes division.
Late nights. No notice. Throwing clothes together. Cluster fuck crime scenes where people were standing around, all holding their dicks, with no direction or plan on what to do next.
These kinds of nights had become all too familiar to him in his eight years on the homicide beat.
Simonich noticed a couple of officers standing near the hood at one of the cars that was barricading the scene. The officers were dressed similarly: dark blue winter jackets, light blue uniform shirts, and complementing dark blue slacks and black shoes. The officer on the right was familiar to Mike, and probably the head officer on the scene: Sgt. Santiago Moreno. Moreno had been in the force just as long as Simonich, but while Simonich went the detective route, Moreno stayed in patrol, became a Sergeant and now was mainly responsible for training officers-in-probation. The officer to the left of Moreno looked young, fresh out of college or junior college, and probably one of the many Moreno mentored for that year-long introductory period to the KCKPD.
“What’s it look like Sergeant Moreno?” Simonich said as he walked up to the two from behind.
Moreno, a Quiktrip coffee in his left hand, turned and shook Simonich’s hand with his right. He had a big grin on his face, and sported a confident, chest-out demeanor. Moreno was well-liked not only Simonich, but in the department: always cordial, always respectful, and always with a story or two when the time was right.
Murder scene in the Argentine late at night wasn’t the time for a story though, especially with someone like Simonich, who had grown less and less patient on the beat in these kinds of scenarios over the years.
“How’s it going Mike? Thanks for coming out. From the look of it, it’s a female victim, and she looks young. Maybe in high school or just recently graduated. We’ve been on the scene for maybe 20-30 minutes now. Nobody was around the body when we got here, and we were first on the scene. Just her body, in the same position as it is now. Sandra is over by the scene, so you can ask her more details.”
Sandra Dominguez. She was one of the two main medical examiners for Wyandotte County. Mike knew her pretty well, as she had been a medical examiner in Wyandotte County for nearly six years now.
“Sounds good,” Simonich said as he pulled his hand away. He put his hand out to the new guy next to him. “And you are?”
“Officer Adam Tomasic, detective,” he said as he shook Simonich’s hand.
“Officer Tomasic is in probation. He’s a Bishop Ward graduate.”
Simonich nodded his head as he pulled his away.
“Great. Last team to have a winning football season at Ward.”
Moreno and Simonich laughed softly, while Tomasic played along with a fake chuckle. They understood. This was probably the kid’s first murder scene. After so many years on the force, and so many scenes like this, Moreno and Simonich found levity whenever they could to help them keep things in perspective with the job. They had seen officers and fellow detectives let the work get to them, push them out of the profession altogether, or worse, into various addictions, be it alcoholism, drugs or adultery.
Fortunately, the job hadn’t gotten to Moreno and Simonich just yet. They partially credited it to the jokes.
“That’s right sir,” Tomasic responded as the laughs died down.
“Well, welcome to the force, kid. Class of 1992 myself. Great school. Appreciated the memories there. You related to Jim?”
Jim Tomasic graduated a couple of years before him. He was also a police detective but on the Missouri side in KCMO. He worked in the vice/narcotics task force, and they tended to cross paths on cases from time to time.
“Yeah he’s my uncle.”
“Well tell him hello for me the next time you see him. I’ll catch you guys later. I’m going to the scene. Only believe 90 percent of what Moreno tells you. The other 10 percent is just to fuck with you.”
Moreno laughed, shook Simonich’s hand one last time and patted him on the back as the detective made his way to the scene. The young Tomasic just nodded in agreement and stood with his hands in his pockets. Simonich figured he was overwhelmed. He probably didn’t expect to experience a murder scene and somebody who knew his uncle all on the same night.
Portable lights and rays from officers’ flashlights flooded the scene. A squad car also had its headlights on to give extra light at the scene. Vega Park didn’t have any lights, as the park closed at sunset, and much like many pockets of Kansas City, Kansas, the light from the streetlights on the adjacent streets were either spare in number and/or dimly lit. As Simonich approached the body, he noticed Sandra standing by the head area, writing down notes in her notebook.
She noticed him when he was about 15 feet away.
“How you doing Simonich? Why is it that you always seem to get the late night calls?” she said, still writing notes in her book.
“Just luck of the draw I guess, Dominguez. How’s the single life?”
Sandra had been divorced now for almost a year. They had a pretty close relationship, but more as friends than anything. He had met her ex-husband at a couple of law enforcement convocations in the past. He worked as a financial analyst for the main Security Bank off of 7th Street and Minnesota avenue, right across from the KCKPD Headquarters. From what Simonich recalled, they had been married for nearly 10 years. That probably was 10 years too long, considering the guy was an arrogant prick in Simonich’s opinion. Then again, he had gone through a divorce himself, so he tended to be pessimistic when it came to marriage.
“Working, raising my son, repeat. You know the drill.”
“You’re still relatively young. What? 33, am I right? You should get out there.”
“Kinda hard when you’re examining dead bodies for a living to find time for drinks or dinner with a man, especially when you live in Wyandotte County. And besides, I’m not ready for Tinder just yet.”
“You know, the dating app where you swipe right on profiles you like, swipe left on ones you don’t like. If somebody also swipes right on you, you match and then you can talk with one another. My girlfriends have told me about it. My friend Tina has been on a couple of dates with the app and she’s been using it for about a month now.”
Simonich wasn’t old by any means, only 40, and he found himself comfortable navigating a smart phone. However, the idea of that kind of “dating” technology (swiping one direction on random people) confounded him.
“Doesn’t sound like my scene.”
“I figured it wouldn’t be Simonich. That’s why I didn’t suggest it to you.”
Simonich smirked and took a squat next to the body. He examined the right side of her body and noticed her brown skin slightly bruised and scratched around the shoulders and back on both sides. From his jacket pocket, he put on some disposable gloves and put his fingers to the flesh of her back. Her body felt cold.
“How long you think she’s been dead, Dominguez?”
“Definitely hours. My guess is about three hours, but I won’t know officially until I get her back to the lab.”
Simonich examined the park around her. For the most part, nothing really stuck out around her except leaves, two trash cans, and playground equipment. He noticed nothing out of sorts around her. No picnic table turned over. No bark from the playground dragged onto the grass. No mud debits or obvious footprints.
It’s like she just fell from the air exactly onto this spot.
“Anybody find anything on the scene?” Simonich asked.
“Neither the officers on scene nor my assistants found anything. Trash cans just had a couple of Old English bottles and Go Chicken Go boxes. Nothing was found on the ground, though we still have officers scouring the park a second time, maybe hoping to find something after another go-around. Not easy considering the shitty lighting, though we may try again in a few hours in the morning.”
Simonich took out a black moleskine from his pocket and a black pen. He opened up to a clean page and began writing down notes. Simonich had developed a skill for writing while standing and sitting in different uncomfortable positions.
He started taking notes from his conversation with Sandra. He started writing notes about the body.
- Woman, anywhere from 16-24 years old. Dark hair, tan skin.
- Body is naked. Bruises and scratches around the shoulders and back. Heavy bruising around the neck.
- Eyes brown and dilated.
- Scratch marks on both buttocks. Could be from nail or external item.
- Hair is long and tangled and messy. Probably a sign of struggle before her death.
- Further bruising on arm. Especially around elbow region. Could be a sign of drug use.
- No clothes or personal items
“Do we have an ID on the victim yet?”
Sandra squatted down next to him.
“We have nothing so far. No identification was found on the scene. No purse. No wallet. No clothes even.”
“So the murder took place elsewhere. She was killed somewhere else, and the body dumped here. Fantastic. Do it a park with a playground in the Argentine. I’m sure Commissioner Salazar will love this.”
“Well, that’s not something for you to worry about, Simonich. The Chief will hear that earful.”
“Or my Captain, who will let it out on me. Classic kick the dog chain of command shit. Was she raped?”
“I took a vaginal sample. I won’t know for sure until we get back to the lab. My guess is yes by the marks on her body and the bruising. Typical sign of sex, in this case, rough sex.”
“I noticed the bruises and scratches. I noticed the extreme bruising around the neck. Asphyxiation?”
“Yeah, that would be my guess as well. But her eyes are unusually dilated. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some kind of narcotics in her system when we do the test at the lab.”
Simonich stood up, finished writing the last bit of what Sandra said, and closed his moleskine, putting it in his pocket. He took a deep sigh and put his hands in his coat pocket, looking around him, the scene starting to tail off a bit. There was only one squad car and one unmarked car now, and the ambulance had been replaced by a white Wyandotte County coroner vehicle.
No use in having an ambulance when the victim was already dead. Might as well keep it available for people who would actually need it.
“How long do you think you will have results?” Simonich asked.
“A couple of hours. I’m wrapped up here. Just going to talk to my people, and then be on my way to the lab,” she replied, now standing with him.
“Give me a call on my cell when you have the test results. Immediately, please. I’ll be up.”
“You sure? I can have them ready in the morning to let you get back to bed.”
“No, I’ll be up, believe me.”
“Okay, you got it Simonich.”
Simonich walked away toward his car. He took his gloves off and tossed them in a garbage can near the entrance of the park. Moreno and Tomasic were gone now. It made sense. They probably had the night shift, and things were probably getting more interesting now. They needed to be available and on patrol.
As he reached his car, he took out his phone and scrolled through his contact list. He found “Big Matt’s” contact and called it.
He picked up on the second ring.
“What’s up Mike?”
“Hey Big Matt. You want meet for a drink. At the spot?”
“Sure. You bring the beer. No foreign or craft shit, okay?”
“I got it.”
The view from Mejak Hall, the parish center to Holy Family Catholic Church, provided a beautiful image of the Kansas City, Missouri skyline. Frank met “Big Matt” at this spot when he was out late on a case and he needed a drink and someone to talk to. “Big Matt” lived around the corner, on Ohio and 5th Street, a long time resident of the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas with his wife Tammy.
“Big Matt” was Matt Dordevic, the former district attorney of Kansas City, Kansas and now a practicing defense attorney. Frank’s father used to be friends with him, and he had kept a close relationship with “Big Matt” even after Frank’s father passed away six years ago. Frank’s father worked for BNSF on the railroads, and was a blue collar type who didn’t say much. “Big Matt” had a career in law who helped Frank understand the system, both criminal and political, in Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri, to help him be more effective as a detective.
It wasn’t surprising to identify who Frank was closer to, especially in his adult years.
“Big Matt” about six-feet, four inches tall with light gray hair and a goatee that matched the color of his short-cropped haircut, wore a blue Kansas sweater and black sweats. They both leaned on the hood of Frank’s Crown Vic as they stared out on the Kansas City skyline at night. The tall buildings, the lights, the bridges in the distance.
The sight never got old.
“I wonder where this city is going ‘Big Matt’. Young. Latina, supposedly. Found dead and naked, probably raped, in Vega Park. Right next to a playground. It is just happening more and more.”
“Murder rate is going up in KCK. And KCMO. That’s the reality we live in.”
“It’s not going to help Jerry’s case anytime soon. He’s going to be up for re-election, and there are already rumors of people challenging him.”
Jerry Novak was the current District Attorney of Kansas City, Kansas. He replaced “Big Matt” nearly three terms ago.
“Jerry will be fine. It’s you I’m worried about. You blur the line between jadedness and anguish. I can’t tell if this fazes you, or you just internalize it so deeply that it is even more piercing than it ought to be. That’s not good, son.”
Frank took a pull of his bottle of Miller Lite. “Big Matt” preferred American lagers, and Miller Lite was his lager of choice. He didn’t like Budweiser, mainly because it came from St. Louis, and he disliked almost everything with that city.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, ‘Big Matt’. I’m fine.”
“We’re doing this more often. I enjoy having a beer with you on the Hill, don’t get me wrong. But I’m worried about you. I’m just ready for one of these nights for you to tell me you’re done with all this.”
Frank smirked and took another drink, killing the bottle. He put it back in an empty-sick pack slot, and grabbed a full replacement. “Big Matt” took a drink himself, though he drank a lot slower than his younger counterpart. He still had half a beer left.
“I’ll be fine. It’s just the job. I’ve been a detective for about twelve years total, eight in homicide. I’ve seen plenty of murders. Plenty of bodies. Plenty of people confess to all kinds of shit. I feel like I’ve seen it all and then some. The job doesn’t fire me up anymore like it used to, sure. But the job is all I got. I’m satisfied with that.”
“Being satisfied doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy, Frank. And a job is just that: a job. You got to find more.”
“Kinda hard to do that when you’re investigating murders for a living.”
“Bullshit. I was district attorney for nearly 16 years. And I had a wife and three kids. The job is never an excuse…unless you make it an excuse.”
“Well, maybe I’m making it an excuse, maybe I’m not. But right now, I really don’t want to worry about anything else but my job. Because as you know, I don’t have a whole lot of luck outside of the job.”
Once divorced. A wife who is now re-married with an Indian-American doctor. A son he rarely talks to and lives in Johnson County; Leawood to be specific. An on-again, off-again mistress who is over a decade younger and works as a cocktail waitress at Hollywood Casino by the Legends and Kansas Speedway.
The job, as depressing and grinding as it could be, really was the high point of his life. He wished he could make “Big Matt” realize that. He wished he could get “Big Matt” out of his old-school thinking that a wife and kids and stability automatically made everything better. Made a person better.
He tried. It didn’t happen.
He didn’t want to go through that shit again.
“You ever think about starting something serious with Mandy?”
Mandy. The 30-year-old cocktail waitress who worked at the casino. Another divorcee with two kids who lived off of 78th street in Western Wyandotte County.
“I don’t think either of us are ready for that. We like what we have.”
“Suit yourself. But you need something. That’s why Wyandotte County is going to shit. Nobody stays stable anymore. And in order for a community to thrive, you need stability. Goddamn shame. It’s why you’re right, Frank. It’s why Wyandotte County and KCK is going to hell and a handbasket. And it don’t matter who is mayor, who is on the board of commissioners, who is district attorney, whatever.”
“So you’re saying we need more married couples staying together to make Wyandotte County better, ‘Big Matt’?”
“Big Matt” laughed and took a long pull, finishing his beer. He replaced it quickly with a fresh one before responding.
“What I’m saying Frank is people in Wyandotte County need to get it together. Once people personally get it together, then our city collectively will get it together. Simple as that. Strong households make strong communities.”
Frank laughed, nearly spitting up some of his beer. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Sounds like you should run for mayor.”
“Big Matt” shook his head and waved his hand in deference to the idea. He had his run as an elected official before. After 16 years, four terms, as district attorney, he had his fill of Wyandotte County civic community and life.
“I’m close to retirement, Frank. Three, four years tops. Even one term as mayor would screw that up. I’m not willing to dive back into the shit after finally crawling out of it.”
They both shared a jovial laugh for a moment and then both sighed, looking directly back into the Kansas City, night skyline. It was a clear, mild night for November. Not frigid, but not exactly warm. It felt more like September weather in Kansas City, not November.
Frank had no complaints about that. Some yearned for the cold winters, the snowfall a sign of the coming holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, considering how often the side streets in KCK were plowed in the winter, the longer snow first fell, the better, in Frank’s opinion.
The phone in his right coat pocket buzzed. He checked it and saw it was Sandra.
“What’s up Sandra?”
“Got the results. Official cause of death was asphyxiation by strangulation. However, she had a considerable amounts of cocaine in her system as well at the time of death. We also found semen in her vaginal and anal regions, so there was some kind of sexual activity involved. Considering the combination of the semen and bruising and scratches on her body, I think it can be a safe diagnosis to say she was raped.”
“I think it would be safe to say that indeed. Then again though, we’re so far off from making a case at this point considering the lack of evidence at the scene. Do you get a name on her?”
“Yes, we did get an identification on the body. We ran her thumbprints and they matched someone who was charged for a minor in possession of alcohol and marijuana about two years back here in KCK.”
Frank put the bottle on the hood and frantically took out his Moleskine and pen from his coat pocket. He placed the phone on his right shoulder and tilted his head to hold and talk on the phone while keeping his hands free to write notes.
“What’s the victim’s information?”
“Her name’s Stefanie Barreto. 19 years old. Lives at 925 Scott Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas.”
He wrote the information shorthand on a clean page. Stefanie Barreto. From the Armourdale neighborhood. Not even of legal drinking age yet.
“That’s all we got for now. Apparently she lives with her mother. The legal guardian’s name is Marisol Ramirez. She is also registered at that same address.”
He wrote down the mother’s name and circled it. He knew that telling Ms. Ramirez that her daughter was found murdered in the Argentine wasn’t going to be an easy conversation.
But after eight years in homicide though, he had gotten used to those visits. He needed to make sure in the morning to bring a female officer along to soften the blow, perhaps one that was Spanish-speaking as well if the mother didn’t speak English.
“Thanks. Let me know if you find anything in connection to the semen sample or Stefanie. If I get any names of any potential suspects tomorrow from the mother, I’ll try to shoot you some names so you can do a DNA test on them.”
“That sounds good, Frank. I’ll let you know if we find out more from the tests. Have a good night.”
“Thanks, you too.”
Frank put away the pen and Moleskine, and hung up the phone and slid it back in the opposite coat pocket. He noticed “Big Matt” staring at him.
“What did she say?”
“Strangled to death and raped.”
“Shit. And her name?”
“Stefanie Barreto. 19 years old. From Armourdale. I’m going to talk to her mother in the morning. Her mother lives at the same address.”
“Shit. That’s…I don’t know. I don’t know…”
Frank and “Big Matt” paused for a moment, maybe thirty to forty-five seconds. Young girl. Strangled and raped. Those thoughts were hard to stomach and contemplate for them, no matter how long they worked in law or law enforcement.
19 years old. Just too damn early, in both their minds.
“Where was she found?”
“Vega Park. Off of 24th Street and Metropolitan. Across from the new Walmart supermarket.”
“Big Matt” nodded a couple of times and then paused, seeming to have a “light bulb” moment. Frank didn’t really notice. He got distracted by the muffled sounds of a police helicopter in the distance, probably going over the West Bottoms.
“That’s funny. This story is going to cause some noise tomorrow for sure,” “Big Matt” said.
Frank turned, his arms crossed, piqued by his statement.
“What do you mean? How so?”
“Well…that’s just a block away from Commissioner Angela Salazar’s house.”