When I was about 12 and old growing up in Cheyenne, WY my parents owned a 1955 blue plymouth. We didn’t have a garage so it was always parked on the street in front of the house. One morning my step father went out to go to work and saw that the left rear of the car had been crashed into, presumably by another car. No note was left, no other notification given. It had been a hit and run.
I guess we called the police to report it, I don’t really remember. Behind our house was an alley and across the alley was a one-story building containing a few party-wall apartments. The occupants of the apartments parked their cars in a parking lot near their back doors. I always walked to school, leaving from our back door and walking down the alley to the street.
That morning as I traversed through the alley I noticed a car parked at one of the apartments with its right front fender smashed in. I went over for a closer look and saw that it must have hit a blue car because there were smears of blue paint all over the smashed up fender. It was the same shade of blue as our car. I was excited. I had solved a crime.
As I squatted down to get a closer look a Wyoming Highway Patrol car came rolling up and parked beside me. The officer got out and asked me what I was doing. I explained that our car had been hit overnight, that it was a hit and run, and this car seems to have a smashed fender in just trhe right place to have been the one that hit our car, and it even has paint on it that appears to have come from our car.
Officer friendly told me that he was investigating this accident and that I should not get involved. Don’t worry he said, he was covering it and someone would be in touch with my parents.
No one ever called us. We never heard another word about the crash. My step father happened to be an engineer with the Wyoming Highway Department at the time and through his contacts he found out who the officer was that interrupted my boyhood crime fighting. He also found out that the car across the alley was owned by the officer’s girl friend. Then we found out the girl friend’s car had been repaired. All traces of the smashed fender with our car’s paint on it were gone. So now instead of that direct evidence, we were left with only the circumstantial evidence of recent repairs.
One piece of direct evidence is powerful. One piece of circumstantial evidence is weak. Circumstantial evidence becomes powerful only when there are multiple instances of it, too many to have been a coincidence. Eye wtiness testimony of a 12-year old would be direct evidence, but it would also be a contest between the word of a boy and the word of an officer of the law. We had to bear the cost of getting our car fixed.
That experience has stayed with me and may have played a part in my world view as an adult.
A recent news story from the Casper Tribune brought that experience back to mind, Trooper Arrested on Suspicion of Violating Protection Order.
I’ve learned a couple of things about life since that experience. First of all, most cops are very good people who try earnestly to do the right thing in every situation. Second, some people have criminal minds and some of those people aspire to be police officers because of the power over others it gives them. Police departments use psychological testing in their hiring process to hopefully weed out the potential criminals from joining their ranks. The tests aren’t perfect and occasionally a bad apple skates through.