The End of the Road
My ex-wife used to say my job was my mistress, and I chose my mistress over everyone. Those charged conversations from long ago rang in my ears as I stood in my office, boxing up the last of my belongings. Paul, you’ve lost your way. . . . We need you. . . . Even when you’re here you’re not really here. Lori was right about a lot of things. I wasn’t there for my family— not then and not now— not in the way they wanted me to be. Not in the way I wanted to be. My work was never a job. It was a calling, my purpose, as vital to me as air and water.
For nearly thirty years, I’d chosen my cases over everything. There was always a crime scene to attend, always a predator to chase down. I was happiest when I was digging into a cold case. The challenge of trying to figure out what no one else could was irresistible to me. Now I was facing down the end of a career that had consumed my entire adult life. The time had passed in a blink.
Looking around my office, at the empty shelves, at the bare desktop, I took a deep breath. What was I feeling? Was it uncertainty? Had I been kidding myself when I decided that retirement wouldn’t be so bad? That I’d finally have the time to take guitar lessons and pedal my mountain bike on rocky trails? That I’d find some other way to matter?
My office was in the county complex in the industrial city of Martinez in California’s East Bay. The sun was just peeking up over the horizon when I climbed the stairs to the third floor of the criminal justice building. I had come in especially early to gather my things before my colleagues got there.
I’ve always been quietly sentimental, especially about endings and the past. Just the other day, I drove to the first house I owned and parked on the street. The house had been brand-new when I bought it with my first wife in 1992. It was where I’d learned how to take care of a home. I built the deck on the back and planted the saplings that now tower over the rooftop. Sitting in my car, I could almost imagine myself back there, in the family room, playing with my firstborn, Renee, still too young to sit, all toothless grin and happy babble as I prop up pillows to keep her upright. Now she has a little girl of her own.
I’ve never been a crier, but lately the tears were coming without warning, as they did that day, driving away from my old house. Yet another reason to gather my things and get out of town before my colleagues began arriving. Was I becoming a sentimental old man at the age of fifty? My dad got softer in his older years, slowly changing from the detached career military guy who raised me to the playful grandfather who made funny faces with my kids.
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I was determined to be stoic on my last day, but this place had been my life. I wasn’t sure I would have chosen to leave the job if California’s pension system hadn’t made it financially irresponsible to stay. I’d spent nearly every day since I was twenty-two years old living and working under the dome of Contra Costa County government. The most relevant chapters of my story had played out here. Every career move. All of the ups and downs of my first marriage. The births of my first two kids. Meeting my second wife, Sherrie. The births of our son and daughter. Dozens of homicides solved. Others still unresolved, but never forgotten, and now headed home with me on a hard drive.
Tomorrow, my office, historically reserved for whoever was chosen to oversee homicides for the district attorney, would be turned over to my successor. They would fill the empty shelves where my collection of books on forensics, sexual homicide, and serial killers had grown. They would sit behind the computer monitor I’d kept at an angle so passersby couldn’t see the gruesome crime scene images that were so often on the screen. Maybe they’d make the time to wipe the years’ worth of grunge off the window overlooking the Sacramento River delta. The shimmer of the water was hypnotic, but I’d barely noticed. I was always too immersed in my work.
My jurisdiction stretched over hundreds of square miles of San Francisco’s Bay Area. With a population of more than a million people, we had our share of crime. Four of our cities were on the FBI’s list of California’s one hundred most dangerous places. I’d worked on hundreds of homicides, but I’d spent the last few years almost exclusively mining cold case files.
Every casualty comes with collateral damage, those who are left to pick up their lives in the agonizing aftermath of murder, and nothing motivated me more than the idea of a killer having the freedom to live a normal life after he’d destroyed so many others.
There was never a shortage of bad guys in our slice of the world, and for whatever reason, some of the most sensational crimes in contemporary history occurred in Contra Costa County. In 2003, the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, washed up a day apart on our shores, four months after Laci’s husband, Scott, dumped her body into the freezing cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. I met mother and child in the morgue, and even with all of my experience with evil, it’s something I’ll never forget. Conner was less than a month from birth when Laci was murdered. What kind of monster kills his eight-and-a-half-months pregnant wife and goes about his life knowing she and his unborn son are anchored to the cold ocean floor with concrete blocks?
Six years after that, Jaycee Dugard, who’d been famously grabbed at her school bus stop in South Lake Tahoe in 1991, when she was eleven, was discovered 170 miles from home, living in a run of tents and lean-tos in the fenced backyard of her captors, sex offender Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, in our jurisdiction. By then, she was twenty-nine and had given birth to two of Garrido’s children. For eighteen years, she had been right under our noses. My detective buddy John Conaty was at the scene with me shortly after Jaycee and her young children were rescued. “How the hell did we miss this?” he asked, looking around at the cruel, filthy environment that she’d been forced to live in for eighteen years. I just shook my head. I had no words.
I’d caught so many strange cases over the years. Even when a case wasn’t mine, if I thought I could contribute, whether with my forensics expertise or investigative doggedness, I always found a way to insert myself. I always thought maybe I could see something that the last guy had missed.
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It wasn’t arrogance; it was just that I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Both my wife and my ex-wife have ribbed me about being overly confident in myself and my abilities. I’d say that’s about half-right. I can put on a good show when I have to, but I’m an introvert by nature and painfully reluctant when it comes to personal interactions. Put me face-to-face with a neighbor at a cocktail party, and my insides are twisting in knots. Sitting with a group at a restaurant, I shrink from the conversation. I am Paul the wallflower. And speaking in front of large groups? When I first started, it was paralyzing. It’s better now that I’ve had so much experience talking about the high-profile cases I’ve been involved with, but it still requires a shot of bourbon before I take the stage.
I’ve always been most at home when I’m working on a case, my head buried in a file. I know I’m good at what I do and that I have a fighting chance at solving even the toughest cases that may have stumped others. Before I ever earned the right, I never trusted anyone else’s hunches about a homicide. “I’ll think about it,” I’d say skeptically. My instincts were made for this kind of work, and I almost always follow them. It takes a lot of time before I feel comfortable accepting someone else’s impulses and ideas. I can see how that could be construed as egotistical, and there were times, especially when I was starting out, that I wasn’t always popular. The veteran criminalists never hesitated to let the rookie know when they thought I was overstepping my boundaries. I regularly heard, “That’s not your job,” then shrugged as I dove headfirst into an investigation.
So many cases, now reduced to files on a hard drive the size of a pack of cigarettes. It was kind of funny when I thought about it: the last vestiges of my long and distinguished law enforcement career fit into a single fifteen-by-twelve-by-ten-inch storage box. I tossed in the drive, along with the book on serial predators my parents gave me as a birthday gift twenty-five years ago when I first started, the bowl, fork, and spoon I’d kept for all the meals I ate at my desk, and the tan leather coaster with the logo of a lab equipment company that came in handy for those long days that ended with a nightcap at my desk.
Ripping a piece of packing tape from the roll, I prepared to seal the box when something caught my eye. The morning sun reflected off the glass of a picture frame, drawing my attention to the small cluster of family photographs on the credenza beside me. I almost forgot them. They were happy memories, long ago faded into the background of administrative paperwork and homicide case files. My favorite had been taken a decade earlier, when my youngest son, Ben, was a toddler. It was shot from behind as the two of us walked away from a formal ceremony called Inspection of the Troops, me in my Sheriff’s Office dress uniform—Smokey Bear hat, green jacket, and khaki trousers—my boy in a striped polo shirt and shorts, his little arms swinging as he tried to keep up with me.
I paused to study the image, now faded with time. My oldest son, Nathan, from my first marriage, had recently turned twenty-three, and I’d only just begun trying to get to know him. I was learning how hard it was to foster a relationship, even when it was with my own kid, during weekly phone calls that began and ended with stories about video games.
How could I expect my son to talk to me about things that mattered when I wasn’t around for the things that mattered? Nathan once told me that he didn’t even remember me living in the house, he was so young when I left. Ben was from my second marriage, but I feared I had been just as emotionally absent with him and his sister, Juliette, as I had with my first set of kids.
Did I have regrets about not being there when they were learning to ride a bike or awakening from a bad dream? On my last day on the job, I was just beginning to realize the consequences of putting my career before everything else. I knew more now with the children I had with Sherrie than I did when Nathan and Renee were growing up, the kind of knowledge that comes with age and maturity, but in many ways, I had not changed at all. My second wife, Sherrie, had some of the same grievances that my first wife, Lori, did twenty-five years ago. Like Lori, Sherrie interprets my reticence as not caring, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
She’s told me she never knows what I’m thinking. Even when I’m home, I’m not “present,” she says. I’m always “in my head.” Why can’t I take some time in the evenings to join her and our kids playing board games? I’ve tried, but within minutes of sitting down, I’m squirming in my seat. I move the little pawn around or toss the dice a few times, and my mind drifts to one of my cases. I can’t even hide it. My lips move with my thoughts. “You’re gone again,” Sherrie said the other night when she and the kids were talking at dinner, and I was pretending to hear. “You’re not listening,” she said. “You look like a crazy old man with your lips moving.”
The only way I knew how to bond with my younger kids was the same as it was with my older two. Take them outside and throw the ball. It’s like “Cat’s in the Cradle,” that Harry Chapin song, the one where the father is too busy making something of himself to pay much attention to his son. The kid grows up, and the father retires. He calls his son to say he’d like to see him. The son responds, I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time. . . . And the father realizes, He’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me. I choke up whenever I hear it. It hits too close to home.
My older daughter Renee and I were hiking recently, and she asked me questions about my marriage to her mom, Lori. “Why did you leave us?” she asked. “Where did it go wrong?” I tried to reassure her, telling her that I would always love her mother, but we’d simply been too young to get married and eventually grew apart. It had nothing to do with her or Nathan, I said. I hoped they knew how much I loved them. “But Dad,” she said, “you were just never there.”
Tucking the framed photo of Ben and me into the side of the box, I took a last look around my office. Fighting back all of the feelings that come with endings, I flipped off the light and closed the door behind me. This has been my whole life, I thought. With my box under my arm and a lump in my throat, I walked down the hallway to the stairs and onto Ward Street in the government district of the city.
It was now part of my past. The Sheriff’s Office, where I’d gotten my start. The forensics library, where I’d slept on the floor after working a long night at a crime scene or reading case files into the wee hours of the morning. The courthouse, where I’d testified dozens of times. The jail, where I’d lifted weights during lunch hours. The district attorney’s office, where I’d spent the last few years. Every law enforcement position I’d ever held was in Martinez, the birthplace of hometown hero Joe DiMaggio. The city was a little rough around the edges, and night and day from where I lived in rural Vacaville, but it was home.
Tomorrow I’d fill out a bunch of paperwork and be debriefed by the FBI about what I could and couldn’t do as a private citizen. You cannot divulge “top secret” information. You must protect your sources. I’d turn in my gun and my county car and officially retire from law enforcement. After that, there’d be time to think about the next chapter in my life. But there was still one thing I had to do before I closed this one.
From “Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases” by Paul Holes. Copyright (c) 2022 by the author and reprinted with permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.
Paul Holes is a New York Times bestselling author, podcaster, and true crime media expert. During his 27 year tenure as an investigator, Holes developed and applied investigative, behavioral, and forensic expertise in notable cases such as Zodiac, the Golden State Killer, and Jaycee Dugard. He currently resides in Colorado Springs, where he enjoys mountain biking and off-road Jeeping.