Murder in Winnebago County follows an unlikely serial killer plaguing a rural Minnesota county. The clever murderer leaves a growing chain of apparent suicides among prominent people in the criminal justice system. As her intuition helps her draw the cases together, Winnebago County Sergeant Corinne Aleckson enlists assistance from her mentor and friend, Detective Elton Dawes. What Aleckson doesn’t know is the killer is keeping a close watch on her. Will she be the next target?
Christine gives an overview of the book:
Oak Lea Memorial Hospital sprawled both inside and outside the city limits, so law enforcement service was shared by the Oak Lea Police Department and the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department. Calls for assistance were assigned to whichever department was available and jurisdiction was considered equal.
As I steered my squad car along the hospital drive, I noticed a group of people huddled together at the bottom of a hill, about one hundred yards from the south side of the hospital. They were standing at the edge of a drainage collection pool. I guessed they were hospital personnel, but it was difficult to see much in the black of night through the rain.
I radioed communications I was “10-6”, slipped on my rain gear and grabbed my umbrella. I was about to close the car door, but instead, reached in to grab the thirty-five millimeter camera, in case my instincts were correct.
Quiet pandemonium was the best way to describe the scene by the pond. People were moving, but no one uttered a word. Like a colony of ants, intent, knowing what to do without being told.
A nearby street lamp was an angel’s halo glowing inside the rain, offering little light. Scanning the group, I counted three women in medical scrubs along with Doctor Nordstrom, whom I recognized from the emergency room, and another man in jeans and a rain slicker. One of the nurses and the street-clothes guy were shining flashlights onto a figure on the ground. I pulled the magnum light from my duty belt and directed it to the ground for better illumination.
An elderly man stared up at heaven, seeing nothing.
“The judge?” I asked. I hadn’t seen Judge Fenneman for several years and didn’t immediately recognize him in this condition. The group looked at me collectively. Two of the nurses were crying and the third was shaking almost uncontrollably. Everyone was a muddy mess, especially the poor judge who had presumably been pulled, lifeless, from the mucky water.
Doc Nordstrom’s solemn, dripping-wet face nodded at me.
“Anyone know what happened?”
I opened my large umbrella and handed it to one of the nurses. The three of them gathered under it in a group hug.
“He wasn’t in his bed--he must have ripped out his IV and gotten out the back emergency exit door in B-Wing . . . I suppose he got locked out and probably couldn’t find his way in the rain and ended up going down the hill . . . we found him . . . floating . . . face down in the water.” The small brunette was the one to speak.
I flashed the water, my light dancing between raindrops across the surface. “How deep is it?”
“Umm,” the brunette touched the top of her thigh, “maybe two and a half, three feet.”
“Okay. Let me take some photos and we’ll talk more inside. If you could hold the umbrella over me.” I directed the brunette nurse. “Doc, will you hold my light?”
Water had collected in the natural low land, covering an area of perhaps ten feet by twenty feet. Normally half that size, the pond had swelled with all the recent rain. Cattails lined the opposite side. Where we stood, the grass of the hospital lawn disappeared into the water.
We moved as one while I snapped pictures of the corpse, the pond, and the mess of footprints along the edge. Any prints on the wet grass of the hospital grounds were erased by the downpour. The judge’s bare footprints could never be separated from what had become a mass stomping ground in the mud around the pond. So much for the preservation of the scene.
As I took the last photo, I caught sight of a large male bulk barreling toward us. Behind him were two paramedics carrying a stretcher. I tried to stretch my five-foot-five inch height as The Bulk looked down at me from his at least six-foot-four-inch vantage point.
I often admired how easily, almost gracefully, this man carried his three hundred pounds, but also wondered why he didn’t take the time to comb his short gray curls, or smooth his rumpled clothes. Whether in uniform or not, his disheveled appearance left the impression he didn’t care, and I knew that wasn’t true. I spotted brown polyester pants where his yellow rain slicker ended, just short of his knees. Fashion and preening were not on his list of priorities--not even close.
“Chief Becker, what are you doing here, at this time of night?” I asked the head of the Oak Lea Police Department.
“This is my town.” He gave me the predictable response he used for just about any professional question he was asked. Not that he needed to remind me--Oak Lea had been his town as long as I could remember.
Police Chief Bud Becker was never off-duty. He always spoke warmly of family, but being in charge of Oak Lea’s finest was clearly the essence of his life. He spent evenings at home listening to his police scanner, not even turning it off even when he went to bed. He said routine calls are “white noise” to help him sleep. I wondered if his wife felt the same way.
“I heard the call and phoned the hospital.” Chief Becker explained, after all. “Got here as the paramedics were on their way down to the pond here.”
Becker knelt beside the body and moved his flashlight around, then stood and shook his head at the stomped down mess of footprints around the pond. “Who found him?” he asked the group.
“We did,” the middle-aged blonde told him. Penny pulled him out.” She nodded at the nurse who was shaking so badly.
I probably had the least medical training of any one in the group, but even I could see Penny was going into shock.
“Sir, perhaps we can move our investigation inside.” I suggested to Becker. “These nurses need to get out of the rain.”
“Oh . . . right,” Chief Becker sounded distracted and shoved his hands in his pockets. “You got pictures?” he asked me.
“Yes, a twenty-four exposure roll.” I patted the camera to be sure it still hung at my side.
The group trucked up the slippery wet, grassy hill. By now the wind was whipping and the umbrella did little to protect the three nurses. Doc and I followed with the paramedics and the stretcher carrying the judge. We made a loop around the three blue spruce pine sentinels, standing straight and tall, guarding the main entrance of the building.
You let your guard down tonight, old boys.
Christine Husom lives in Minnesota. She is the author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River in the Winnebago County mystery thriller series. Husom is a small business owner, former corrections officer, mental...