Known Dead

Donald Harstad


My name is Carl Houseman. I’m a deputy sheriff in Nation County, Iowa. I’m also the department’s senior investigator, and senior officer, to boot. I’m getting a little sensitive about senior and elder being interchangeable terms. I turned fifty, recently. It’s gotten to the point that people ask me whether AARP sells cut-rate ammunition to older cops. Anyway, I’d like to tell you about the killings we had in our county in the summer of ’96, and the subsequent investigation that stood the whole state on its ear. This is my version of what happened. It’s the right one.

It all started for me on June 19, 1996, about 1500 hours. I had pretty much assigned myself as pickup car for a team of two officers who were conducting surveillance on a cultivated marijuana patch we’d located in Basil State Park. Basil’s a large park, about twenty-five square miles, in steep hills, and just about completely covered with thick woods.

At 0458, Special Agent Bill Kellerman, Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement, and our Deputy Ken Johansen had been inserted into the park, being dropped off by one of the night cars. The patch itself was located some distance from the road, in a little valley. I’d never been there, but I knew the general location. I’d done surveillance on patches in the past, and was very glad not to have to do this one. It was hot, it was dull, and it was seldom successful. Bill and Ken were good officers, although they both had only a couple of years dope experience, and were pretty anxious to bust this patch. The cultivated area had been observed during a fly-over by a Huey helicopter provided by the Iowa National Guard, under a marijuana eradication program. Ken had been in the chopper when they first discovered the patch wedged in a deep valley, and reported the event to Bill, the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement agent assigned to work undercover in the area. They’d gone in, discovered over a hundred plants, and decided to go for the bust.

The whole purpose of the exercise was to lie in wait and catch the owner of the patch as he or she came into the area to water and tend the plants. We had no idea who that was, though there was some speculation.

I’d picked a hilltop location for my car, about a mile and a half from the two officers in the patch. I couldn’t see them, but I could see a large chunk of the park, and the height of my location would ensure that I could receive their walkie-talkie transmissions in the hilly terrain. I’d gone up a long farm lane to an abandoned barn and parked in the bit of shade the barn offered. It was a slow day, and I had gotten into position early. Been there for over an hour, in fact. Quality time. It was ninety-four degrees, and the humidity was about 95 percent. I’d turned off the engine, and air conditioner, so I would make less noise, and sat there trying to use thread to rig a spar for a ship model I was building. I’d given up smoking, and was wishing I hadn’t. I had started sweating, and was wishing I hadn’t too. I’d opened one of four cans of soda pop I’d brought with me, in a small ice-filled cooler. One for each of us when I picked them up. And a spare for now. I had the driver’s door propped open, hoping for a little air. Not even a hint of a breeze. And they shouldn’t be ready for pickup for a good half hour yet. I started the first knot in the thread that attached the stuns’l boom to the spar.

I heard a faint pop, then another. Then a whole lot of popping noises, almost like an old lawn mower. I put down the spar, and looked over toward the valley where the patch was. It was very quiet. The slight haze caused the distant features to dance. I checked both sides of the thin ribbon of graveled road that wound toward the pickup point, but I couldn’t pin down where the sounds had come from. There were lots of farms surrounding the park, and I thought it was probably a tractor. I was just starting to pick up my spar, when the popping began again. A lot of it. I dropped the spar, and got out and stood alongside my car. I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. It got very quiet again.

‘‘MAITLAND, FOUR!’’ my car radio blared, and nearly scared me to death.

No answer. Dispatch probably hadn’t heard him, down in his tree-filled hole. Four was the call sign of Johansen. He was transmitting on the AID channel, as instructed. He sounded out of breath and excited. Did they have the suspect? I began to suspect that the popping sound had been a four-wheeler.

I picked up my mike and went on a different channel from Four. ‘‘Maitland, Three,’’ I said, ‘‘Four has traffic on AID.’’

‘‘Unable to copy him, Three,’’ came the soft, feminine reply.

I was starting my engine and closing the door. I figured they’d need transport now, for sure.


He sure sounded excited. I headed the car down the rutted lane as fast as I could. Maybe the suspect had fled, and would be heading toward a vehicle parked somewhere on the gravel road that snaked through the base of the hills.

‘‘He’s got traffic, Maitland,’’ I said. He couldn’t hear me on the INFO channel, which was fine, as I didn’t want to interfere with his talking to the base station on the AID channel.

She heard him on his third attempt.

‘‘Go ahead, Four…’’


A brief pause.

‘‘Four,’’ she said, pretty calmly, ‘‘I copy ten-thirty-three, ten-thirty-two, one officer down?’’


‘‘Maitland… all cars… ten-thirty-three, Basil State Park, ten-thirty-two, officer down, possible automatic weapons…’’

I punched up AID as I slid out of the farm lane onto the gravel. Shot? 688 shot?

‘‘FOUR, THREE’S ON THE WAY, ABOUT A MILE OUT!’’ I hit the siren and lights on my unmarked car, and floored it, while trying to fasten my seat belt. The siren was to let anybody who was thinking about doing any more harm know help was on the way. Just maybe they’d back off. The little red light on the dash was for insurance purposes, in case I hit anybody. So was the belt.

I heard a garbled transmission, with the word Three in it, from Johansen. The damned hills were giving me problems as I came down into the valley. Shot? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

It hadn’t rained for a while, and the dust plume behind my car was extremely dense. If somebody shot a cop, they were going to leave, and in a hurry. I thought I should be able to follow their dust. I slid around the biggest curve, onto the old wooden bridge deck, just about lost it on the wood, came off into a dip that just about broke the shocks, and got into the short straight stretch where the marijuana patch valley met the road. I slid to a stop. No dust. Except mine, which came boiling up from behind me, and blocked my view up the valley. No dust. I could see for almost an eighth of a mile. No dust, no cars, no four-wheelers.

‘‘Three’s ten-twenty-three,’’ I said, letting both Maitland and Johansen know I was at the pickup point. I grabbed my walkie-talkie and shut down the car as I got out.

‘‘Come up the valley, Three,’’ said Johansen, sounding unnaturally quiet. ‘‘Be careful, they got machine guns, I think they’re still around…’’

Christ! I opened the trunk of the car, and got out my AR-15, and three thirty-round magazines. Dopers with machine guns? Around here? What the hell had the team gotten into?

I was in blue jeans, blue tee shirt, and white tennis shoes, with my handgun on my right hip. Not exactly camouflage wear. I grabbed my dark blue ball cap with the logo ‘‘USS Carl Vinson, CVN 70’’ in yellow letters. Not my choice of clothes to sneak through the woods after heavily armed suspects. I reached back into the trunk and pulled out an old rubberized green rain jacket and put it on. That’d help. SHOT? I fumbled with the little first-aid kit they give us. I’d need that. I looked at the ballistic vest in the trunk. It was white. Its strap-on carrier was white. And, as a joke, I’d drawn a series of concentric circles over the middle, in red marker. It was too hot to wear on days like this, so I kept it in a garbage bag in the trunk. I hesitated a second… if I were to put it on, I’d have to do it under my shirt and raincoat…

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