Sunday, December 13, 2009

Malicious mischief

The shooting began and ended quickly – six to eight shots fired in rapid succession from a moving vehicle perhaps 200 yards north of my house. It was, alas, a Saturday afternoon drive-by.

It’s not unusual to hear gunfire in rural Mississippi. For one thing, the woods are crawling with hunters this time of year. Added to that, one family near me has an obsession with firing large automatic weapons for fun, sometimes at night. And as readers of these posts may recall, I encountered a young man this summer who stopped his car in my driveway and began firing a pistol, apparently on a lark.

But gunfire from a moving vehicle is a deeply disturbing phenomenon because it almost invariably indicates criminal activity, and it can be lethal whether it’s focused or random, as evidenced by the young girl who was shot in the head when a bullet passed through a wall while she was doing homework at the Boys and Girls Club in Jackson last week. So when I heard the shooting along the Edwards Road, I immediately jumped in my truck to see if I could catch a glimpse of the vehicle. The perps had apparently anticipated such as that and were speeding off down the road by the time I got there, out of range. All I could tell was that it was a dark green pickup, a Ford or a Chevy. Then it was gone.

Living in Mississippi, these sorts of episodes are a sad fact of life, and I didn’t think much more about it, other than to keep an eye out for the truck as I was driving on Sunday morning, when I thought I saw it parked on Northside Drive, near a house that is a sort of font of trouble in the area – a derelict place surrounded by junk, open dumps, a squalid paddock for a few pathetic, poorly cared-for horses, and occasionally, large, suspicious bonfires that billow heavy black smoke into the air, indicating, I suspect, an illegal dumping operation. There is almost always a group of wayward men hanging out at this godforsaken outpost, typically drunk at 8 a.m. It would be no surprise if the drive-by were linked to the place.

Still, I was surprised when the shooting erupted again at the same spot on Edwards Road at around 1 p.m. on Sunday, at a point where my house is partially visible from the road. Again, six or eight shots fired in rapid succession. Again, I jumped in the truck and tore out down the drive, passing Daniel, who rents the cabin on my place, who had also come out to see what the shooting was about. The green truck passed my drive just as I got to the road, speeding away. Perhaps stupidly – considering these guys were obviously armed – I gave chase. I wanted their tag number.

They drove extremely fast but I was aided by a slow-moving car that impeded them as they reached the intersection with Northside Drive, and I was able to get the tag number and see the perps -- three black guys -- and get a good description of their vehicle – a dark green, older model Ford F-150 with a large dent in the driver’s side. The driver was a sort of stocky guy with a shaved head.

I couldn’t write the number down while driving and I have a poor memory for numbers, so I called my land line to leave the tag number on my answering machine. As I did this I found that even after getting the tag number I for some reason kept chasing the guys, and that they were still running. I’m not sure what I’d have done if they’d have stopped, but the fact that they were running made me want to continue chasing them. They sped through the church parking lot, went the wrong way down a one-way street, and tore through a little residential area, trying to outrun me, then ran a stop sign. At this point I dialed 911 but immediately hung up, thinking it would be better to call when I had the tag number in front of me. Also, at this point, I decided it would be best to let go. There was an old man in a suit walking in the road, and I wasn’t going to terrorize the neighborhood the way the F-150 guys did.

Then, as I was headed home, my cell phone rang. It was the 911 dispatcher. This impressed me, that the guy had followed up. I told him what was going on and he gave me another number at the sheriff’s office to call when I got home and had the tag number in front of me. The tag number, by the way, was HP2-638. Hinds County.

Within 30 minutes a deputy was at my door. The first question he asked was whether there was anyone who had a grudge against me, such as an employee that had been fired. I said I didn’t think it was personal, that I suspected these guys were just thugs and perhaps were taking pot shots. Not that that isn’t a big deal in itself. I halfway expected the deputy to be dismissive, as the police in Jackson – and sometimes the county – can be, but he wasn’t. He ran the tag number, told me whose name it was registered to, and said it had a Clinton address that doesn’t exist (I later checked the phone book and found a man by the same name with a different address in Jackson).

The deputy said he would speak with the folks at the house where I thought I’d seen the truck and try to track the guys down. He felt like his investigation would probably be enough to stifle any future shooting, but he really wanted to see them face-to-face. “People know I’m serious. They call me the troll in Edwards,” he said, proudly.

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I had to laugh, and he smiled. When you meet a committed law enforcement officer, it’s inspiring. I wouldn’t want their job, and in Jackson, at least, it’s hard to put much trust in them, so when you see someone who is clearly trying to do the right thing, you’re grateful. There’s not much standing between normalcy and anarchy, and these guys patrol the most crucial terrain. Unfortunately, in Jackson, the criminals control the dynamic. I like to think we have some immunity out in the country, because everyone knows everyone, but you can’t live in proximity to a major crime spot and not feel it breathing down your neck from time to time.

The sheriff’s office appears to be working hard to take up the slack outside the city’s boundaries. I was impressed by Officer Hammill’s dedication to solving this particular drive-by. On his report he wrote “malicious mischief,” and he said it was probably just someone firing off a few shots with their new pistol. But he clearly understood that there’s a fine line between malicious mischief with a gun and killing someone, and I have no doubt he’ll follow through. I just hope he’s right about these guys. Idiots with guns open way too many possibilities.