This is a short story from my “Moments in Time” series. Life, real life, only really happens in moments. It is in those moments that we make choices that affect everything we are. As a cop, more often than not, I got to see people only when they made the wrong choice. These are true accounts of some of those moments. -Robert Alvarez
I wasn’t on call that night. I was out doing a follow up on a robbery case when the call came out of a runaway teen on the east side of town. Child Protective Services had called for assistance by a makeshift alleyway that separated two neighborhoods and dead-ended at a canal bank. I told dispatch I was in the area and would check it out.
The area had tall thick grass, some dumped trash, and some scattered trees. There were no lights and at this time of night the area was nearly pitch dark. I pulled up on the side of the road and met the two female CPS officers. They told me that they received a call from a client who was taking care of a 14 year old female. The girls name was Gina and the client was Gina’s aunt. Gina had been taken from her mom because of abuse and had been placed in the temporary custody of her aunt for the last year. The story was that Gina had been suspended from school for a couple of days and she did not tell her aunt. For the last couple of days she was simply pretending to go to school and spending the days with friends. Today the aunt caught on to what she was doing and texted her to come straight home. She never made it home so her aunt called CPS and they made a runaway report with us.
They were out here today because the aunt spotted her walking down the road earlier and called them. The CPS officers followed her and tried to get her to go with them and she ran into this location. I asked, “Why didn’t you follow her in?” They told me that they are not allowed to go into dangerous areas (they are not police). I didn’t blame them. The area was known for gang violence and drug addicts.
I went to my car to get my flashlight and found that it was not charged. I came back to the officers and told them I would check the area. As I walked into the area it occurred to me that I had never known CPS to come out on a runaway case like this. I asked them, “Why are you guys out on this? And two of you?” The ladies looked at each other to see which one would answer me. Finally one of them said, “She’s very suicidal. Has attempted at least 2 times in the last year. Just got out of the hospital 2 weeks ago”. Shit. “You should have led with that.” I said, “How long has she been in there?” “Maybe 20 minutes”, one of them answered. Shit.
I got on the radio and asked for the nearest officer to come by and assist and I went in. I knew the canal was maybe 50 or 60 yards from where I was and it was small enough to jump across. I just didn’t think she could do it in the dark. I crossed some high grass and nearly tripped over some old tires. I continued cautiously, my eyes adjusting slowly as I moved forward. I called out her name and she didn’t answer. All I did was succeed to wake up every dog in the nearby neighborhood. Some back yard lights went on, but they were too far to be of any real help.
I kept moving forward and saw the outline of a large tree. There was debris on the ground everywhere and I kept running into it. I heard on the radio that my back officer had arrived. I radioed for him to grab his flashlight and find me quick. I was having a real bad feeling about this. I stopped for second and got my bearings. I could see the officer park his vehicle next to mine by the roadway. I saw him coming out with a flashlight. I called out to him and he ran my direction. He was maybe 20 yards from me when I felt someone touch my shoulder. It didn’t feel right. I reached up behind me and expected to grab someone’s hand. It was a shoe. I twisted around quickly just as the officer was approaching and shown his light in my direction. I heard him stop dead in his tracks. I looked up and saw that Gina was hanging from the tree by her neck. Her neck twisted down. Her open eyes looking right at me.
We rushed to get her down. I tried pushing her feet up as the officer quickly climbed the tree and cut her loose. She had used her jacket to hang herself. We started CPR until the ambulance arrived and took her to the hospital, but I have been around the dead and the dying long enough to know it was no use. She was declared dead minutes after she arrived in the emergency room.
Officers arrived and an investigation was started. The on-call investigator was called and I filled him in on what happened. It was a suicide, of course, but those things have to be investigated also. I left the scene. I walked past the two CPS investigators. I must have given them a nasty look because they both looked away. I never said it, but I didn’t have to. They could have saved her.
Weeks later I came across the report on the case. The investigator had done a check on Gina’s phone. The last text messages were between her and her aunt. It was a big exchange about responsibility and disappointment. Gina threatened suicide. She said she felt no one understood her. Her aunt responded by asking her how many times did she think she could attempt suicide and have people take her seriously?
How many times was she going to keep doing this? The final text to leave Gina’s phone just before she climbed that tree was just 2 words.
In the report was a picture of Gina that a friend of hers had taken just hours before she killed herself. I saw a beautiful and petite girl with dark hair and one of the loveliest smiles I have ever seen on a person. Not a care in the world in those eyes.
I sometimes wondered if I had seen that picture before she killed herself, would I have guessed anything was wrong? I doubt it. I have never believed that the eyes are window to the soul. Windows are for looking out, not in. They are designed to lock from the inside. Keep things out. Looking at the picture I would have never guessed this gorgeous girl would run up a tree and hang herself just to get away from a hard moment in her life.
Of the thousand words a picture is said to be worth I would have never guessed “last time” would be among them for that picture. Not even close. But those words were there.
And a little girl said them.