Plain Dealer reporter
Detective James Raynard scowls as he he aims his 35mm camera at a desolate two-story house on a dead-end street in southeast Cleveland.
A child’s scooter sits abandoned on the house’s browning lawn, on a cool summer day when the sun is hidden behind thick clouds. The 4-year-old who might have been playing with the toy was taken for an interview with investigators looking into a report that the child was raped by a 14-year-old cousin.
Raynard’s job is gathering evidence. He is a real-life crime scene investigator, but his job isn’t exactly like that of his TV counterparts.
“People watch CSI and they say, ‘Cool,’ ” Raynard says. “You see the real thing, you have nightmares. ”
Raynard and his 15 fellow investigators in the Crime Scene and Records Unit have worked about 4,000 cases so far this year as they sift through the remains of broken lives.
They go anyplace in the city to investigate murders, rapes, burglaries and any other type of serious crime, and they collect the evidence needed to help put the bad guys in prison.
Some cases make Raynard bite his nails to the quick. Others ruin the appetite of the 18-year police veteran, who has specialized in investigating crime scenes for three years. But he has five grandchildren and he finds crimes against kids most upsetting.
Investigating such horrors, he keeps in mind something that someone, maybe a drill sergeant, once told him: “You don’t have to like it; you just have to do it.”
Gathering details from the scene
In the yard of the house where the 4-year-old was sexually assaulted, Raynard photographs the house. He takes a shot of the address marker that he can use in court so there is no doubt of where the evidence he will collect came from.
He moves inside, and rain pelts the house as he photographs the two possible locations of the rape – a black couch in the living room and a twin bed in a cramped bedroom, darkened by a blood-red sheet hanging over the only window.
The house is not air-conditioned and the windows are closed, making the whole place feel hot and sticky.
Sweat beads on Raynard’s forehead as he uses amber-tinted glasses and a pen-size light with a blue beam that makes the otherwise invisible remnants of bodily fluids glow white under a black light. He scrutinizes every inch of the couch and the carpet below but finds nothing.
In the bedroom, he scours the wool blanket and midnight-blue sheet with the light. Still nothing.
He checks the clothes piled on the floor, one item after another. Picking up a child-size shirt with his latex-gloved hands, he waves the light over the back, the front and finally he sees it. A splotch under the neckline. It glows: possible evidence of sexual activity.
Raynard deposits the shirt in a paper evidence bag. There is more of a division of labor in real life than on the crime shows. He collects evidence. A technician in the lab analyzes it. Other detectives interview witnesses. Raynard is a police officer and can make arrests, but it’s usually the street detectives or uniformed officers who chase down suspects.
He says he used to enjoy chasing them down, but that was before he started to get older and slow down. Now he likes to use his mind.
His search in this house took 25 minutes. The rain has passed.
“I don’t care if anyone thinks I take too long. I’m going to be thorough,” he says. “You only get one shot at a crime scene.”
No escape from the stench
Driving away, he listens to the chatter of two police radios – one tuned to the district he’s in and the other to the district he’s going to for his next assignment on this 3 to 11 p.m. shift.
He hears a Pepsi truck has been broken into so he hurries over and lifts fingerprints. He prefers fresh crimes like this one where the victim and officers are still on the scene. The Pepsi driver thanks him for taking the time to take prints.
Over a dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy at a West Side diner, he talks about one of the ghastliest cases he has investigated.
A woman’s body was found hidden under an abandoned car in a seldom-traveled area of West Fourth Street. She had been dead two weeks in the June heat, leaving the corpse so decayed the coroner would need days to identify her as a 25-year-old Cleveland woman.
(The woman’s killer has not been caught.)
The smell was nauseating. Raynard took pictures from all sides. The wind seemed to follow him. He couldn’t escape the smell. Human nature pleaded for him to get away, but the job required him to get closer.
The stench was so terrible he could taste it. He kept spitting, but could not get the taste out of his mouth.
He didn’t have to like it; he just had to do it.
A few weeks later, he went to dinner with a woman. Something in the smell of the food resurrected the stench of decomposing flesh. He couldn’t eat. The woman asked what was wrong. He said he would tell her some other time. But she coaxed it out of him. Then she wished he hadn’t told her.
Now, at dinner, having recounted the story, Raynard fills his fork with gravy-glazed turkey, then pulls it out. He scoops mashed potatoes then dumps them back onto the still mostly full plate.
“I wish I hadn’t said that,” he says.
The memory has ruined another meal.
Refusing to surrender to the dark side
Raynard could steel himself so no crime – no matter how horrific – could affect him. But that would make him as cold as the worst criminal: too callous to enjoy the other side of life, including his five grandchildren.
So he accepts the vile sights, the sickening stenches, the nightmarish memories. Someone has to stomach close contact with the inhumane acts and bear witness to the dark side. Otherwise, killers and other criminals would never be caught and incarcerated.
Outside the heavy clouds blot out the setting sun and early evening moon.
“Customers are waiting,” Raynard says.
He puts the container of leftovers in the back seat of the unmarked car and starts toward his next assignment, listening to the two police radios broadcasting the latest dispatches from the dark side.