On the Beat on Halloween
by Lee Lofland
I’ve seen a few oddities over the years, especially during the hours after the sun goes down on Halloween, a night when both kids and adults typically dress up as their favorite characters. It’s also a night that a few ghoulish folks believe is the perfect time to commit a plethora of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
But there are a few Halloween incidents from my old case files that stand out a bit from the rest, and as it’s been said, you can’t make this stuff up. And believe me, I read a lot and I write a lot, and most of what appears in fiction doesn’t compare to, well, this:
I once arrested a young man for burglary and, while searching his pockets for weapons and other illegal items, I discovered a small, crumpled cloth pouch tucked inside his wallet. I figured the contents could possibly be drugs, probably marijuana or hash, or something of that nature, so I asked the kid to level with me, so I’d know what to expect.
I was surprised to hear him say that what I held in my hand was not what I’d suspected. Instead, he said, it was his “medicine bag,” a ground up mixture of chicken bones, tobacco, human hair, and herbs. Its purpose was to keep him safe. This was my first contact with a root doctor’s homemade medicine bag. It was far from the last.
Root doctors make medicine bags containing plant and animal matter, such as human or animal bone, sage, garlic, and even dirt from a grave. The purpose of the bag is to provide safety, heal and prevent illness, and to help ignite or halt romances, etc. The list is practically endless.
This young burglar said he’d purchased the bag from Miss Evelyn, a local root doctor. Since this was a totally new experience for me, I decided to pay this so-called woman of mystical medicine a visit. And, long story shortened a bit, Miss Evelyn “knew all and saw all,” and she soon became one of my most reliable informants.
Her customer base was massive, and many were criminals, so I basically kept her on speed dial. I also dropped off the occasional gift—a turkey or ham at Christmas, or a turkey in liquid form (Wild Turkey bourbon, her preference), as a sign of my appreciation. In return, she often said a few jumbled phrases while tossing a couple of pinches of finely ground powder into the air, a ritual she said would keep me safe while working a dangerous job.
It was, of course, a Halloween night, after costumed trick-or-treaters were long back at home gorging themselves on sugary treats—M&Ms, Whoppers, mini candy bars, Lemonheads, candy corn, and Skittles—when I knocked on Miss Evelyn’s front door, a wide plank of weathered wood with rusty strap hinges.
The purpose of this visit was to see if she could offer any insight about two bodies that had been dug up in a local cemetery. The vaults had been damaged and the caskets broken open. The grave robbers took the same thing from each coffin—bones from the lower right arms and hands. If anyone had heard or mentioned it, Miss Evelyn would know about it.
Through the square glass near the top of the door I saw a small slice of yellow light that started in a backroom to my left and stretched across the narrow hallway floor where it disappeared into another room on the righthand side of the passageway. At the sound of my door-rapping, a shadow moved across the light, first one way and then back.
As always, smack-dab in the center of the front door were three fairly fresh chicken feet that were tied together at their bloody stumps with a piece of bright red twine. The collection of gnarly toes and bony knuckles dangled from a bent 4d finishing nail. Chicken feet, according to Miss Evelyn, bring good luck and, as a bonus, they also prevented evil spirts from crossing the threshold. Nope, nothing odd at all . . . for Miss Evelyn.
While waiting for the owner of the shadow to respond to my presence, I had a look around the porch. Nothing unusual: a one-gallon vegetable can (absent its label) filled with sand and topped with a handful of cigarette butts, a rickety old rocking chair, five plastic flower pots each containing the remnants of some sort of unidentifiable plant—all dead, dried up, and crispy—a well-worn green cloth sofa, and a portable radio that was missing a knob.
A foil-wrapped coat hanger poked up from a hole in the top of the radio’s plastic casing. It replaced the former antenna that, at some point, had broken off and was either lost or discarded as trash. Either way, the radio, in its present condition, had been there for as long as I could remember. The porch “decor” hadn’t changed in all the years I’d gone there. Not a thing.
I knocked again. Evelyn yelled from the back of the house. “Just a minute!”
A beat or two passed before a young man, Miss Evelyn’s nephew, Alphonso, answered the door and led me to the kitchen where his aunt stood at the head of a red Formica-topped table, hard at work assembling her latest batch of “medicine” and other potions. Behind her, a large black kettle was at full boil on the wood stove. A foul-smelling steam wafted my way. I didn’t ask.
If I had to guess I’d say Miss Evelyn weighed just under a hundred pounds. She was so thin that the blood vessels on her arms and hands were quite visible and looked like a mass of skinny earthworms beneath tissue-paper-thin skin.
As always when working, her face was peppered with tiny beads of sweat. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick. She wore a simple and faded housedress that was three sizes too big, a Winnie the Pooh apron, age-yellowed white socks, and pink flip-flops with the rubber thong jamming a wad of sock material between the first and second toes of each foot.
When she smiled it became instantly obvious that dentists were not a part of her clientele, nor had she ever, not once, crossed the threshold of any tooth doctor’s office. Her breath smelled like a rotting animal carcass, an even worse scent than the pungent odor emanating from the pot on the stove.
Miss Evelyn was quirky, to say the least, and she was one of the nicest people I’d ever met.
She said she’d heard about a couple who used human bones as part of their religious rituals. Before exhuming remains, though, they had sex atop the grave sites. Coincidentally, the man and woman visited Miss Evelyn earlier in the night to ask if she knew where they could get their hands on a fresh corpse because, in order to complete their ritual, they needed blood and they knew that to get it they’d need to reach a body prior to embalming. Well, Evelyn was having no parts of their nonsense and sent them on their way.
I finally caught up with the couple when I discovered their car parked near a local funeral home. They’d planned to break in to steal someone’s dearly departed loved one. Fortunately, we stopped them before they committed the act.
This particular couple, the grave robbers, were as normal as your neighbors—professionals with public jobs. They lived in a typical neighborhood and drove a normal car. However, the contents of their trunk were a bit different than most—shovels, picks, tools for prying open caskets, and a few human and animal bones scattered about.
I wish I could say this couple were the oddest humans I’d encountered on Halloween night, however . . .
Elvis and Other Extraterrestrials I Have Met
There was the guy from the red planet (Mars) whose all-important goal was to return home. “You see,” he told me as I was arresting him for hacking his sister-in-law to death with a rusty ax, “she wouldn’t allow the mothership to return. I had no choice. She’s evil, you know.” Then, the man whose clothing was spattered from neck to boot tips with his sister-in-law’s blood, pointed to the top of a nearby steel-frame radio tower and continued. “They told me to do it. Besides, she wouldn’t give me no money for a pack of cigarettes.”
Then there was the time I responded to the call of an oddly dressed, weird-acting man walking in the median between the north and southbound lanes of a major interstate highway. When I finally located the gentleman, I pulled my patrol car onto the shoulder and approached on foot.
He stood waiting for me in the center of the median strip. The buttery-soft light of a near full moon served as his backdrop. The effect was, well, it was nothing short of angelic.
My gaze was immediately drawn to his sandal-clad feet and long, wavy brown hair fluttering gently in the night breeze. He held out his right hand for me to shake and, in an unusually soothing and calm voice, introduced himself as Jesus.
I must admit, I paused for a second before moving along to serious questions, such as the typical, “Do you have any identification?”
Of course, when I did ask, he gave me that look. You know the one. The “Seriously, you need to see my identification?”
Needless to say, the guy wasn’t really Jesus after all. Instead, he was a slightly out of touch homeless man who merely thought he was the Messiah.
This revisiting of Halloween encounters must include Elvis, the King of Rock, the legendary singer whom I have had the pleasure of removing from one elderly lady’s refrigerator.
Elvis didn’t limit his visits to just Halloween, though. He’d appear once or twice a month around two a.m. at which time she’d dial up 911 to have us come by to have him leave the building so she could watch TV in peace. After all, we all know how annoying it can be when “The King” slips in behind the cheesecake and starts stealing our radio and TV signals.
A Halloween Safety Checklist
for Police Officers
Working as a police officer on Halloween poses special challenges. First, in a world where someone wearing a mask is normally thought to be up to no good, you’re suddenly faced with scores of masked, disguised citizens. Of course, due to COVID concerns, nearly everyone wears a mask of some type and, unfortunately, wanted criminals are able to avoid capture by simply blending with other mask-wearers.
Kids are out and about darting in and out of traffic. They’re excited and may not listen to guardians as well as they normally would or should. Practical jokes go horribly wrong. Parties end with shootings or stabbings. Needless to say, Halloween is often a wild and trying night for cops.
Here’s a short list of tips for officers working the streets on one of their busiest nights of the year.
1. Stay alert. If it looks wrong, then it probably is.
2. Carry copies of outstanding warrants for the offenders you’ve been unable to locate. This is the one night when they will probably answer the door thinking you’re a trick-or-treater.
3. Carry treats in your patrol car. It’s the perfect time to show kids that you’re really one of the good guys.
4. Watch for lone costumed adults, or those walking together in rowdy and loud groups. There’s a good chance they’re up to no good.
5. Watch out for people tossing things from overpasses. For some reason, Halloween seems to be the favored night to bomb police cars with bricks, rocks, and pumpkins.
6. Be alert for kids and adults who wear actual guns as part of their costumes.
7. Park your patrol car and walk for a while. Mingle with the trick-or-treaters and their parents. Keep them safe. Walking your beat once in a while also keeps the bad guys guessing your next move. It’s a good idea to mix things up. Patrol your areas in a different order. Never get into a regular routine. Doing so makes you and easy target for ambush.
8. Drive slower than normal. Watch for kids!
9. Keep an eye on the registered sex offenders in your area. They aren’t allowed to pass out candy. In fact, they shouldn’t be opening the door for any kids. In many areas, sex offenders may not display Halloween decorations in their yard or on the house. It’s a good idea to stop by their homes to remind them of their court-ordered restrictions.
10. I preferred to patrol with my driver’s side window down, even during winter. I felt that doing so allowed a more personal connection to the people on the streets. And it made it easier to hear calls for help, gunshots, and “howdy-dos” from folks doing yardwork or sitting their front porches. Halloween was the only night of the year when I didn’t dare have my car window down. Too many flying objects!
11. If possible, assign extra officers working the streets on foot, in plain clothes.
12. Bring extra handcuffs. You’ll probably need them before the night is over.
13. Please, please, please wear your vest!
And to everyone else . . .
Copyright © 2020. Lee Lofland