Authors: John Grisham
The door opened; a technician walked in and said, “We have two very good thumb prints, both from the insurance card. I just sent them to the lab at Clarksburg.”
He left and Vidovich followed him out.
Suarez said, “They’ll give them priority and ram them through the data banks. We can check millions of prints in a matter of minutes.”
“Pretty amazing,” Darren said.
Lacy asked, “So, if there’s a match, what happens?”
“Not much,” Neff said. “We’ll know for sure that Bannick killed Verno and Dunwoody, but it will be impossible to pursue the case.”
“If he were alive?”
“Still a tough one. I wouldn’t want to be the prosecutor.”
“What about the other murders?” Jeri asked.
Suarez said, “Not much we can do, really. I’m sure we’ll meet with the local police and pass along the news. They’ll meet with the families, if the families are up to it. Some will want to talk, others will not. What about your family?”
Jeri said, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll tell them at some point.”
The conversation waned as they waited. Darren went to the men’s room. Lacy freshened the soft drinks.
Vidovich returned with a smile and said, “We have a clear match. Congratulations. It can now be proven that Judge Bannick did indeed kill Lanny Verno and Mike Dunwoody. At this point, folks, that’s the best we can hope for.”
Lacy said, “I need a drink.”
Vidovich said, “Well, I was thinking about a drink followed by a long, celebratory dinner. Courtesy of the FBI.”
Jeri nodded her approval as she wiped tears.
Two weeks later, Lacy and Allie flew to Miami, rented a car, and made a leisurely drive down Highway 1, south through Key Largo to Islamorada, where they stopped for a long lunch on a patio at the water’s edge. They continued on, passed through Marathon, then stopped when the highway ended in Key West. They checked into the Pier House Resort and got a room on the ocean. They splashed in the water, walked through the sand, lounged on the beach, and had a cocktail watching a beautiful sunset.
The following day, a Saturday, they left Key West, drove an hour to Marathon, and found the Kronke home in Grassy Key, a plush, gated community on the water. Their appointment was for 10:00 a.m. and they arrived a few minutes early. Jane Kronke greeted them warmly and led them to the patio where her two sons, Roger and Guff, were waiting. They had driven down from Miami the day before. Minutes later, Chief Turnbull of the Marathon Police arrived. Allie excused himself and took his coffee to the front of the house.
After the obligatory round of chitchat, Lacy said, “This won’t take long. As I said on the phone, I’m the interim director of the Board on Judicial Conduct and it is our duty to investigate complaints of misconduct filed against state court judges. Back in March, we met with a woman whose father was murdered in 1992, and she claimed she had learned the identity of his killer. She filed a formal complaint and we were required by state law to get involved. She alleged that the suspect, a sitting judge, was responsible for the murders of Mr. Kronke, as well as two men in Biloxi, Mississippi. We don’t normally investigate murders, but we had no choice. A colleague and I came here to Marathon in March and met with the chief, who was most cooperative. We got nowhere, really, because, as you well know, evidence has been hard to come by. We eventually contacted the FBI and welcomed its Behavioral Analysis Unit, the elite team that goes after serial killers.”
She paused and took a sip of lemonade. They were hanging on every word and seemed thoroughly overwhelmed. She almost felt sorry for them.
“The judge in question is Ross Bannick, from the Pensacola district. We suspect he was responsible for at least ten murders over the past twenty years, including Mr. Kronke. Three weeks ago, he committed suicide in an addiction treatment facility near Santa Fe. A thumb print links him to the two killings in Biloxi, but there is still no evidence that he killed Mr. Kronke. All we have is motive and method.”
Jane Kronke wiped her eyes as Guff patted her arm.
“What’s the motive?” Roger asked.
“It goes back to 1989 when Bannick worked in your father’s firm as a summer intern. For reasons unknown, he was not offered an associate’s position upon graduation. Your father supervised the interns that year and wrote Bannick the letter denying him a job. Evidently, he took it hard.”
“And he waited twenty-three years to kill him?” Guff asked.
“He did. He was very patient, very calculating. He knew all of his victims, and he stalked them until the right moment. We’ll never know the details because Bannick destroyed everything before he killed himself. Records, notes, hard drives, everything. He knew the FBI was finally closing in. He was extremely thorough, quite brilliant actually. The FBI is impressed.”
They absorbed this in disbelief and said nothing. After a long pause, Chief Turnbull said, “You mentioned method.”
“They were all the same, with one exception. A blow to the head, then strangulation with a rope. The same type of rope every time, secured with a seldom-used tie-off called the double clove hitch. It’s sometimes used by sailors.”
“His calling card.”
“Yes, his calling card, which is not unusual. The FBI profilers believe he had no desire to get caught but wanted someone to know of his work. They also believe he had some type of a death wish, thus the suicide.”
“How’d he kill himself?” Roger asked.
“Drug overdose. We’re not sure of the drug because there was no autopsy, at his instructions. One was not really needed. The FBI examined his thumbs and fingers, but they were too damaged to yield any prints.”
“My father was killed by a judge?” Guff asked.
“That’s what we believe, yes, but it will never be proven.”
“And he will never be exposed?”
“The thumb print was left behind in the Biloxi murders. The sheriff there plans to meet with the victims’ families and decide what to do. There is a chance they will release the information that the murders have been solved and that Bannick was the killer.”
“I certainly hope so,” Roger said.
“But no prosecution?” Guff asked.
“No. He’s dead and I seriously doubt they will try to convict him in absentia. The sheriff believes the families, at least one of them, will not want to pursue the matter. Any prosecution will be complicated, if not impossible, because Bannick will not be around to confront his accusers.”
Jane Kronke gritted her teeth and said, “I don’t know what to say. Are we supposed to be relieved, or angry, or what?”
Lacy shrugged and said, “I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”
Guff said, “But there will be no report, no news, nothing to let the public know that our father was killed by this guy. Right?”
“I can’t control what you might say to a reporter, but, without more evidence, I’m not sure anything can be printed. It might be problematic to accuse a dead man with insufficient proof.”
Another long pause as they struggled to make sense of it. Roger finally asked, “These other victims, who were they?”
“People from his past, people who had aggrieved him in some way. A law school professor, a lawyer who screwed him out of a fee, a couple of old girlfriends, a former client who filed a complaint, a reporter who exposed a shady land deal. A scoutmaster. We believe that Bannick was sexually abused by his scoutmaster when he was twelve or so. Maybe that’s where it all started. We’ll never know.”
Guff shook his head in exasperation, stood, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and walked around the deck.
Jane asked, “If he was so brilliant, how did you catch him?”
“We didn’t. The police didn’t. Chief here can attest to the fact that there was almost no evidence left behind.”
“Well, it’s a long story, and an unbelievable one at that. I’ll skip the details and cut to the chase. His second victim, or at least the man who we think was number two, was Bannick’s professor at law school. He has a daughter who became obsessed with her father’s murder. Eventually she became suspicious of Bannick, and she stalked him for twenty years. When she became convinced, and when she mustered the courage, she brought the case to us. We didn’t want it, but we had no choice. It didn’t take long to get the FBI involved.”
“Please tell her we say thanks,” Jane said.
“I will. She’s quite remarkable.”
“We’d like to meet her one day,” Roger said.
“Maybe, who knows. But she is quite timid.”
The chief said, “Well, she solved the case that we couldn’t. Sounds like the FBI should hire her.”
“They would love to. Look, I’m sorry to deliver this news, but I thought you would want to know. You have my phone number if you have any questions.”
Guff said, “Oh, I’m sure we’ll have a thousand questions.”
“Anytime, but I can’t promise all the answers.”
Lacy was ready to go. They thanked her again and again, and walked her to the car where Allie was waiting.
Late in the afternoon, the resort was hopping with music from the bars, a rowdy volleyball game in the sand, kids splashing in the pool. A reggae band tuned up under some palm trees. Sailboats crisscrossed the crystal blue water in the distance.
Lacy had enough of the sun and wanted to go for a walk. At the point, they happened upon a wedding being organized around a small chapel on the sand. Guests were arriving and sipping champagne.
“What a lovely chapel,” she said. “Not a bad place for a wedding.”
“It’s nice,” Allie said.
“I have it reserved for September the twenty-seventh. Are you busy that day?”
“Uh, well, I don’t know. Why?”
“You can be so slow at times. That’s the day we’re getting married. Right here. I’ve already paid the deposit.”
He took her hand and pulled her closer. “What about the proposal and all that?”
“I just proposed. Evidently, you couldn’t do it. And I’ll take that ring now.”
He laughed and kissed her. “Why don’t you just go ahead and buy one yourself since you’re taking charge?”
“I’ve thought about it, but that’s left for you. And I like oval diamonds.”
“Okay. I’ll get right on it. Anything else I should know?”
“Yes. I picked that date because it gives us four months to wrap up our careers and begin our new life. I’m quitting. You’re quitting. It’s either me or the FBI.”
“Do I have a choice?”
He laughed, kissed her again, and then laughed some more. “I’ll stick with you.”
“And I’m sure the honeymoon is planned.”
“It is. We’re leaving for a month. We’ll start on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, bum around there, take trains to Portofino, Nice, southern France, maybe end up in Paris. We’ll play it by ear and decide as we go.”
“I like it. And when we come back?”
“If we come back, then we’ll figure out the next chapter.”
A barefoot groomsman in Bermuda shorts, pink shirt, and bow tie walked over with two glasses of champagne and said, “Join the party. We need more guests.”
They took the champagne, found seats in the back row, and felt right at home watching two complete strangers exchange vows.
Lacy was already taking notes on how she would do things differently.
When last seen in
Lacy Stoltz was recovering from injuries and struggling with her future. I've thought a lot about her since then and always wanted to bring her back for one more adventure. I could not, however, find a story that would equal such a dramatic success as her first, until I found a judge who's also a murderer.
You gotta love fiction.
As I point out in one of the few accurate parts of the book, every state has its own way of dealing with complaints against judges. In Florida, the Judicial Qualifications Commission has been doing a fine job since 1968. The Board on Judicial Conduct does not exist.
Many thanks to Mike Linden, Jim Lamb, Tim Heaphy, Lauren Powlovich, Neal Kassell, Mike Holleman, Nicholas Daniel, Bobby Moak, Wes Blank, and Talmage Boston.
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