In June 2011, I received a telephone call. The source of the call was as unexpected as the call itself. The caller identified himself as a deputy prosecutor from a small northern Colorado town and he asked me to confirm I was indeed who I was. Hesitant, I asked why before I said, “I am.” I had not been to Colorado since I was thirteen on a family vacation, and I am certain anything I did there was past the statute of limitation. I am still, however, very wary of prosecutors from anywhere. What he related to me was nearly unbelievable.
Seems the authorities had arrested a fella for rape. As abhorrent as that is, it did not really shake me, until he told me the name: Stephen Morehouse. I actually said the last name in unison with prosecutor, as the memory came flooding back. He did not need to ask if I recalled my encounter with Morehouse. He did ask, however, whether or not I would be willing to fly back to Colorado to testify against Morehouse. Here’s why.
In late 1981 to early 1982, I was a patrolman in the San Diego Police Department and assigned to Western Division. While I typically worked the beach area in the summer, autumn and spring months, I would ask for an annual break and work beat 615 in the winter. Beat 615 was the geographic patrol area for Hillcrest, and in the early 80s was nicknamed the “Gay 90s;” the residence of the area being either generally gay in sexual orientation or 90 years in age.
Post Stonewall and 70s disco fever, the district was experiencing a renaissance and an uptick in the economy as San Diego’s answer to San Francisco’s Castro district. Long vacant shops and restaurants were re-opening with a new flare. For a fairly progressive young patrolman, it was a great place to take a break from OB for the three month long winter shift. It was generally a quiet place in the afternoon, and I was allowed to play old-time beat cop; parking my cruiser and walking the beat.
It was a good thing too. Not only did I meet and help patch up some very strained relationships between the community and the police department, but I could barely walk a hundred feet without a restaurant owner inviting me in to his or her establishment for a taste du jour. If I had not been walking, I would have gained a hundred pounds from the soups, sandwiches, quiches, sweets and other delights offered at every turn.
Walking the beat also gave me the opportunity to make acquaintances with the owners of the increasing number of gay bars in the area. It was always good to be in simpatico with the bar owners anywhere. At some point your services will be summoned to their establishment, and it is best to have them on your side when you arrive. It tends to make things go much smoother and in some cases, less painful in executing one’s duties.
One such bar was (and still is) the Flame on Park Blvd. As I recall, it was a lesbian bar and the couple of calls I had taken there had been somewhat tenuous until I befriended the manager; assuring her I would only show up there when summoned. I had become a bit anxious responding to a designated lesbian bar after having the crap kicked out of me several months earlier breaking up a fight at another lesbian bar, the Eagle. Seems despite the fact I was called there to keep the peace, I was viewed as a lone enemy and easy pickings. When my cover arrived, she found me curled in a ball holding on to my holstered pistol while several women pounded away on me, trying to relieve me of my pistol, actual and metaphorical.
The Flame was a bit more upscale, but I was still eyed it with suspicion when I happened by. After the incident at the Eagle, I was determined to befriend the management at the Flame. So when I got a call to see the manager on early New Year’s Eve, 1981, I assumed it was an ushering in of a new era of cooperation…because it was still too early for drunks even on such a celebratory night.
When I arrived, the manager was waiting for me. She had just fired one of her employees, but he was still hanging around in front of the bar. The fella had been a dishwasher, but had been showing up late. Tonight he not only showed up late, but was in quite a state, talking to himself and acting very “strangely.” When I arrived he was still hanging around the front of the bar, talking to himself and making the arriving patrons a bit nervous.
Odd behavior in Hillcrest was not that unusual in the 70s and 80s. County Mental Health was attached to the UCSD Medical Center, which was also the hospital for the county’s indigent, and was located in the heart of Hillcrest. There was over crowding back then, but at least there was a place to take those who were “unable to care for their safety or the safety of others,” for a 72-hour mental health commit. Unfortunately, the best the staff could do most times was load the patients up with Thorazine and before putting them back on the street. At the time, Hillcrest had the one of the highest density of the mentally ill in San Diego. Working in the immediate area, in a very short time I had learned to talk with the delusional, although not necessarily understand them. I could generally calm them enough to preclude a trip back to CMH, if only temporarily.
The dishwasher was still pacing back and forth in small circles in front of the Flame when I finished talking with the manager. He was young and slight, probably not much more than a hundred pounds and barely more than five feet tall. He had the appearance of just this side of homeless; disheveled, in need of a shower, and he had been living in his clothes for several days. Despite his small size, I still did not relax my guard. Crazy does not mean weak, and the last thing I wanted on New Year’s Eve was to tangle with someone who might be akin to an angry cat on a leash. As I approached, I could see he was engrossed in a conversation with himself. Part of him was apparently justifying something he did and another part was chastising him for the action, as he rubbed his hands together in a sort of Lady Macbeth washing motion. Without getting too close, I asked him, “What’s up?” He looked up at me surprised, but not terrified. The demons in his head had a lock on that emotion.
Doing the standard cop thing, I asked if he had any weapons and if it was okay to pat him down…for my safety of course. Finding none, I asked for his identification which he retrieved from a worn leather wallet in his back pant pocket. His ID indicated his name was Stephen Morehouse and he had just turned eighteen years old. What a shame, I thought, barely an adult and already gone in the head. Questioning him I found he was not so upset about losing his job, but more about a missing friend. He had not seen her for a few days. What’s her name, where does she live, I asked. He did not know her name, and only had a general idea of where she lived.
My head and eyes did that sort of puzzled look dogs do when they are trying to figure out what we humans are talking about.
Trying to get somewhere, I asked, “If you don’t know her name or where she lives, how do you know she is missing?”
He did not know, but thought she might be hurt.
“Hurt how?” I asked.
“I think she might have a cut on her hand,” he replied.
“How do you know about the cut, did you do it?”
“Oh no, not me, I just think she has a cut,” he replied.
A few more minutes of this and I was no closer to finding out who she was than when we started, if in fact “she” even existed in this reality. It was clear he was delusional, but no danger to himself or others…just a nuisance. As kindly as I could, I explained he could no longer hang out in front of the Flame, and he would have to move along. After completing a field interview form, I had him move along, which he did without objection. I told the manager to call if he came back and went back in service.
Fast forward about ten days, and I am back on patrol on a late winter afternoon. Dispatched assigned me a call regarding a dispute over a car break-in at one of the hospital parking lots off of I-163, approaching Hillcrest. Typically someone would flag me down when I arrived at the location. I drove through the lots on the west and east side of I-163, but saw no one.
If you remember watching Tom Selleck in the 70s and 80s television show, Magnum, P.I. , you might remember how his character always made reference to “that little voice,” which told him to be aware something was amiss. Real live cops have that little voice too, but rather than referring to it as a voice in their head and drawing a potential psychiatric evaluation, they just say things don’t add up. I was getting ready to clear the location, but things just did not add up. I inquired of Dispatch where the call had originated and the reporting party had given an address at the end of Seventh Avenue. That threw me for a moment, and then I remembered the retirement apartment complex on the cliff overlooking the east parking lot had an address on Seventh Avenue. I looked up, and there on a fourth floor balcony was an older couple frantically waving and pointing to the far end of the parking lot at the edge of the canyon and on-ramp to I-163.
Turning my cruiser around, I again scanned the parking lot. There in the far corner was a small car with all its windows fogged up. That was what made it stand out, because all the other cars in the lot had clear windows. I parked a few feet away, and as I approached, I could see shadowy figures moving around in the backseat. It was too open and too daytime for what might have otherwise been a romantic encounter. But it was the movement in the backseat which put me on an even higher alert. The movement looked like a struggle, not passion. Once again, the voice told me to approach with caution.
Unsnapping my holster, I gripped my revolver and approached the car. I tapped on the driver side rear window with the knuckles of my other hand. The movement stopped and nearly instantaneously the rear passenger door flew open and she burst out. She was young, 20-something, her brunette hair completely disheveled and her face red from where she had been struck, blood running from her nose. She ran toward me, her dress torn and panty-hose tattered and hanging from her knees. I had stepped back from the car and she ran to me, clutching me and whimpering two words, “Help me.”
Pushing her behind me, I told her to get in my car. Using the radio in my free hand, I immediately advised Dispatch to send me back-up and that I had happened upon a possible rape in progress. It did not sound that articulate. I am certain in fact it was probably not nearly as calm and nothing but excited radio codes.
Drawing my revolver from my holster, I moved around to the open passenger side door. It dawned on me I failed to ask the young woman if there was weapon. The movement inside had stopped, but I could still see the shadow of a figure in the back seat. Being a lefty, however, I had to expose a lot of myself before I could effectively follow my revolver. I did one of those quick peeks you have probably seen in cop shows; the one where the cop looks round the corner quickly and pulls back, just in case someone is waiting on the other side of the corner. When I did, I could see the bottom portion of male figure, sitting in the middle of the backseat, his pants down to his knees and very erect member exposed. His hands were in his lap, one of which was holding a knife.
Pointing my revolver, I stepped across the open door. As I yelled, “Freeze,” the face I saw was too familiar. It was Morehouse who I had talked to on New Year’s Eve. Our eyes locked, and he smiled, not an I’m-glad-to-see-you kind of smile, but what I can only describe as an evil grin. My gaze went to the knife in his hand and I calculated whether or not I could react if he lunged at me. Despite my command to “Freeze,” he very slowly began to turn toward me, the knife still clutched in his hand. I was aware of squeezing the trigger of my revolver and sensed the hammer coming back. Two and a half pounds of pull was all it would take to fire a round. I was at about two and quarter pounds of pull. The world had slowed, I was aware of everything. I heard my voice calmly say, “Don’t.” For a second, his eyes showed fear. We both knew an inch or two more and I would begin shooting. He stopped, his grin widened, and he dropped the knife to the floor of the car.
Believe it when I say I have played that scenario over and over again in my head. Even as I write this, I am there again deciding whether or not to take a human life. Clearly under department guidelines I could have shot Morehouse up until the point he dropped the knife. I probably would have received a commendation. Even after he dropped the knife, no one would have known except me…and another rapist would have been off the street permanently.
Except me, I would know. Even if justified, I will never know how it would have been to take another human being’s life. And for that, I am glad.
Ordering Morehouse out of the car, one would reasonably think if your pants were around your ankles, escape would have been out of the question. But as he came out of the car, my revolver still pointed at him, Morehouse turned as if he was going to make a run for the canyon. I had been completely focused on the situation and neither Morehouse nor I had noticed the two motorcycle cops arriving to assist me. Neither had we noticed as they circled around either side of the car and now came at Morehouse like a couple of linebackers going for the sack. As I recall their nicknames were “Dusty” and “One Punch.” Morehouse was rather forcefully taken into custody.
With the arrival of more officers, the scene became simultaneously stabilized and chaotic. My buddy, Danny who shared beat 615 with me, took the victim, a speech pathologist at Mercy hospital to another hospital for treatment and to take her statement. Someone was sent to interview the older couple from the apartment complex. The motor officers by now looked like a couple of pit-bulls with a favorite toy, but they eventually relinquished a rather subdued Morehouse. I took custody of him and drove to Western Division. Typically, Morehouse would have been turned over to the Sex Crimes Detectives, but for one reason or another they were unavailable. So I interviewed him. I learned my interview techniques from the some of the best. Forget all the good cop-bad cop bullshit, it is all about developing a relationship. I began by putting Morehouse in an interview room, taking off his handcuffs, and getting him a soda.
Now anybody, and I mean anybody, who hears, “You have the right to remain silent…” is an idiot if they do not remain silent. Cops and prosecutors are not your friends. They are not working in your best interest. Confessing may be good for your soul, but it is not going to afford you the best deal, and cops certainly are not in a position to make you a deal. If a cop offers to do so for you, he or she is lying. That is why the remainder of the Miranda warning talks about right to counsel. I had learned, by uttering those infamous words, “You have the right to remain silent…” it could be the death knell to a confession. I had, however, developed a technique to avoid those words.
In the case of Miranda v. Arizona, the court held that a suspect must have his rights explained to him. The format, while used by most law enforcement, was not required. So when I was ready to interview, I was started with no interrogation questions; name, date of birth, social security number, etc. Then when I was ready and had the suspect relaxed, I would say something like, “I want to talk to you about what happened, but you know you don’t have to talk to me or answer any of my questions, right? And if you do decide to talk with me, I am going to be writing all of what you say down and it can be used later in court, right?…” and so forth and so on. Just a nice guy making sure you are taken care of. Defense counsel had tried to get the confessions I took thrown out of court, but to no avail. In fact one judge once said my Miranda warning was much better at explaining the defendant’s rights than just reading them off a card.
Morehouse was caught in the act, but it was still a good idea to get his statement. He actually wanted to talk to me. Well actually, he wanted to con me.
“I’m sick, I need help. Can you help me? Can you put me somewhere so I can get help?”
I told him he would probably at some point be evaluated by a psychiatrist, and that was apparently enough.
I barely had to ask a question, as he told me in detail how he had watched the young woman he had victimized and decided to get her alone in the parking lot. By the way, just before I got there it turns out she was into it. But it was not his fault. He was sick, he needed help, was I sure I could get him help and put him in a place where he could get help. Still non-committal, I told him I was positive he would be seen by a psychiatrist, because I knew all sex offenders were evaluated by a psychiatrist.
Then I asked him about the friend with the cut hand. He smiled at me again, that sort of evil grin. Oh, she was one of the others he told me. What others I replied, trying to mask my surprise. He just smiled and said no more. It was then I realized I had caught a serial rapist, and I was way out of my league. I ended the interview by telling him I had to wrap up some paperwork before I took him to County Jail. He seemed surprised that I was not taking him to a mental health facility.
“But I thought you were going to get me help?” I reassured him he would see a psychiatrist, at some point. And then he said the words I will never forget. “I didn’t get the thrill of fucking.”
A couple of months later, I was called to testify at Morehouse’s preliminary hearing. When I arrived at the courthouse, I was reintroduced to the young woman from the parking lot, and seven other victims. They gathered around thanking me, hugging me, telling me how important it was to them he was caught, all but one. She hung back until the others were finished. Then she approached me. Her eyes were serious as she asked me if it was true I had almost shot Morehouse. I said, yes, I had come very close. “You should have.” She said, turning and walking away.
There was no trial. After the preliminary hearing Morehouse pled guilty and received a thirty-five year sentence. And that was that. Morehouse went to prison, the victims were left to cope however they could, and I went back to patrolling Hillcrest and then OB for next several years before I left police work to someone else. But I never forgot Morehouse.
So when I received the telephone call a year ago from the Colorado prosecutor, a flood of memories came back. After twenty-eight years, Morehouse had been released from prison. It seems he had been out of prison for less than a year before he moved to Colorado. It was there he raped again. I offered to send the prosecutor a copy of the report, one of a number I kept over the years and he thanked me. Seems the SDPD no longer had a full copy of the report, missing was my interview of Morehouse and his line about the thrill of fucking. Not surprising, a week and a half later, the prosecutor called back to tell me my testimony would not be required. Defense counsel had convinced Morehouse it would be in his best interest to just plead guilty. He would be going back to prison for several more years.
From time to time I think about what happened. The young woman had blocked out almost all memory of what had happened when I saw her at the courthouse, I wonder if she would ever remember. Did the other victims ever recover? I know that answer: they only learned to cope. And what about the woman who told me I should have shot Morehouse, did her anger ever recede, or is she still angry today?
And believe it or not, I think about Morehouse. He spent a little more than a year of his adult life in the real world, the rest in prison. What a waste, what a terrible waste.
But as for me, well, I will keep my copy of the police report from that winter afternoon…just in case.