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The Fallen Angel Murder

An Ace Female Reporter and a Forensic Sculptor Team Up to Solve a Prostitute's Murder

By Lacy Loar-GruenlerPublished 3 months ago 17 min read
Runner-Up in the Whodunit Challenge
10
The Fallen Angel Murder
Photo by Hannah Gibbs on Unsplash

A 10-year-old boy they call Hams found the body in a shallow grave in a wooded area just outside Norman, Oklahoma. It wasn’t a body really, just picked and bleached bones scattered among the fallen autumn leaves, as if scavenging animals had smelled the buried offal and made short work of digging up the meal. The incessant heat in late August had burned off the marrow and shrunk the bones, so it was difficult to know much about them. Hams picked up the skull with a hole in it and intact, almost perfect white teeth that the medical examiner later determined showed early signs of ravage from drug use. Tufts of dyed blonde hair clung to the top of it. Unearthed nearby, police discovered a patterned vinyl backpack, bright aqua with a worn handle, filled with moldering pictures of two children, a toothless newborn and a toddler, drooling and smiling. They also found a lone piece of what looked like a gold earring glittering under the late sun. It had been separated from its backing, and a few worn scratch marks caked in dirt may have been a faint initial, indistinguishable as a D, or B, or P.

“Call Miss Betty Pat!” Hams hollered, his nose and mouth tinged with the cloying smell and taste of dead things. He was dressed like a little cowboy, in dark red boots, jeans, a plaid cowboy shirt with fringe, and two Mattel Fanner 50 cap pistols holstered low on his hips. He pushed his oversized Stetson away from his forehead. Betty Pat was a friend of Hams’s aunt Mackie. He secretly loved her and planned to marry her when he grew up, even though she was pretty old, maybe 50 or 60. She dressed like a cowgirl, drove a red Corvette that matched her lipstick, and brought dead people back to life, not like other grownups who were too stuffy for Hams. “Call Miss Betty Pat! She’ll find out who this is!”

***

The man in the dark blue suit and starched white shirt was shuffling and signing papers when he looked up and rolled his eyes at the tall redhead decorating his gray metal desk. “Well, if it isn’t Lois Lane. Don’t you have anything better to do than to bother me in the middle of the night?”

“The name is Laurel Lane, Dennis, and since you are the police chief of this sparkling city and I am the crime reporter for its esteemed little daily, then no, I do not have anything better to do than to bother you.” Laurel leaned closer. “C’mon, help me out here.”

Laurel explained that she was working on a follow-up after covering the police department’s big sting in early summer. A dozen prostitutes and 45 johns had been netted, including a Baptist preacher who tried to pay for oral sex with a fishing pole. One of the prostitutes, an angelic-looking thing, had agreed to tell Laurel her backstory, but Laurel had not been able to locate her to confirm some details.

“What do you and that mullet wrapper you work for want to know?” Dennis asked.

He had draped his suit jacket over the back of his chair in the stifling Florida heat. September was always the worst of it. Laurel noted that Dennis never sweated, his control over body functions probably perfected during his military service. He had been stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in the 1970s. In the 80s, he had traded his military uniform for a cop’s, and now in the 90s for a suit -- the uniform of a cop in management. At first, he wore shirts with French cuffs, but recently traded those for short-sleeved ones that were cooler. Someone had nicknamed him Dapper Dennis and he hadn’t liked it much.

Laurel explained. The girl had been arrested during the sting. Laurel had paid her bail on the condition that she tell her story for a sidebar to the news coverage. It was a sad story.

A man had been with her. He was doughy, with thinning, mouse-colored hair. His thick-lensed glasses magnified unfocused, misty eyes that he couldn’t keep off her. He was in love with the pretty prostitute, and he was a sensitive simpleton who probably thought he could save her and live happily ever after. He’d said he was a local accountant but asked that his last name and where he worked be kept confidential because being linked to a prostitute could get him fired. Laurel obliged after she verified his identity and employment. Gulfview Herald policy did not allow anonymous attribution, and ‘Duke’ would do with an editor’s note.

Laurel ticked off what the girl had and then lost: a husband, some little kids, a split-level ranch in Merritt Island, and once upon a time her own hair salon. “She had this aqua backpack filled with her kids’ pictures. She showed me a picture of her house. She and her kids were clowning by the front door, holding hands like nothing bad could ever separate them.”

“Geesh, what happened?” Dennis asked.

“The crack cocaine epidemic happened. She gave it all up for the next high, which helped her cope with having to screw any man who would pay her enough to buy the next high.” She had agreed to meet Laurel again for an in-depth profile of her sad, new life. She also promised to name her drug supplier. “I would have shared that name with you, of course,” Laurel said. “I guess part of me wanted to save her, too.”

“Sounds suicidal. And I know who her drug dealer was. You photographed him on your ride-along last spring during the SWAT bust. The cocky guy they call The Dude. Drives a flashy Mercedes.”

The guy who had supplied all the coke in the area slithered out of town right after the prostitution sting and hadn’t been heard from since. Laurel remembered him. The ride-along had been her first. Her editor, Brett Hosie, had tossed her two quarters. “Stash ‘em in your shoes and if anybody starts shooting, duck under the police car and call me when you can,” he had said.

“Funny, the drug dealer is gone, and I tried to contact Duke the accountant, but he’s gone, too. His boss said he quit and headed out West,” Laurel said.

And now the girl was missing, Laurel had called the husband, but he said he didn’t want anything to do with the tramp and Laurel should lose his number. She needed Dennis to run arrest reports for Gulfview and Levy County. She asked him to check all hospitals, too. “Her name is Deborah Partlow.”

Dennis never found her.

***

On September 30, 1991, the following blurb appeared on Page 3 in the Norman Transcript:

NORMAN - Police are seeking information that may help identify the skeletal remains found in a wooded area east of Norman this week. The medical examiner has determined that the bones belong to a white female, about 25-35 years of age, with bleached blonde hair, average build and between 5’3” and 5’6”. A quarter-sized hole above the temple indicates that she was shot. The body has been buried for between one and four months. Nobody matching that description has been reported missing within a 200-mile radius of the city. Contact the Norman Police Department non-emergency number at 405-321-1600 with any information.

Failing to receive any tips, the Norman Police Department issued a nationwide APB, adding to the newspaper account that a backpack and an earring were found near the remains. No law enforcement agency responded.

On October 10, the Norman Transcript ran a story that made the Associated Press wire. Its lead read:

NORMAN – Local forensic sculptor Betty Pat Gatliff will assist Norman police in identifying the remains of a young woman whose bones were found buried in a shallow grave east of town last month. She had been shot in the head. With no leads in the case, Miss Gatliff will sculpt a face over the skull, using techniques she and forensic anthropologist Dr. Clyde Snow perfected over the years. About 70 percent of Miss Gatliff’s subjects are eventually identified, and police are confident that someone will recognize their homicide victim after photos of her reconstructed face are distributed to the media nationwide.

Ms. Gatliff is widely known for her 1980 reconstructions of nine unidentified victims of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, at the time, the largest project of its kind…

On October 11, Laurel scanned the Associated Press wire for stories that might suggest a local angle. “Holy shit,” she said aloud, after reading about Betty Pat Gatliff. She made some phone calls before she knocked on the newsroom’s darkroom door, littered with hand-lettered missives: SOMEDAY MY PRINTS WILL COME, GET BACK OR I’LL SHOOT, COME IN AND WE’LL SEE WHAT DEVELOPS. Behind the door, head photographer Tommy Tucker, a bear of a man, and editor Brett Hosie, an owl of a man, were reviewing pictures that would illustrate tomorrow’s stories.

“Chief, Chief, I have to go to Norman Oklahoma,” Laurel said.

Hosie smoothed his feathery hair and blinked while turning his head slowly from side to side. “You can’t say no, Chief!”

“Do I get to know what you’re working on? Do I get to tell you that your expense account would only allow bunking at the YWCA?”

“Miss Gatliff is who I’m working on. And she invited me to bunk at her home. She reanimates crime victims. Remember the girl’s body dumped in the landfill in ’76? The only unsolved murder in Levy County.” Laurel had contacted Betty Pat Gatliff with the idea that she might reconstruct the unknown girl’s face. And Laurel had talked to the sheriff, who agreed to release the girl’s skull from evidence and let Laurel take it to Betty Pat, who was about to begin a reconstruction for the Norman Police and suggested Laurel visit her and bring the skull. “Please!” Laurel begged.

“You’ll need some quarters,” Hosie said.

***

Before she left on October 13, Laurel filed a preliminary news story that began:

GULFVIEW – An unidentified young girl whose remains were discovered almost 20 years ago in a Levy County garbage dump will get a second chance to tell her harrowing tale. The Levy County Sheriff’s Office has released her skull to renowned forensic sculptor Betty Pat Gatliff in Norman Oklahoma, in hopes that after facial reconstruction, someone will come forward to identify her and help solve her murder.

Miss Gatliff since 1967 has assisted law enforcement in identifying murder victims nationwide. She is currently reconstructing the face of a Jane Doe found in a shallow grave in Norman on September 25. A gold earring and an aqua backpack were found nearby. She hopes to begin the second project later this week…

Late in the day, Dennis called the Herald and asked to speak to Laurel. He was told she was out, so he asked for the editor. “Brett, Dennis Duquesne, Gulfview PD. I’m looking for Laurel. I’m concerned about a story she’s working on, and I’d like to speak with her.”

“Hello, Dennis. She isn’t here. She’s in Norman Oklahoma. I assume you saw her story this morning.”

“Yes. That’s what I want to talk to her about. Two unknown victims, two unknown killers. Do you know where she’s staying?”

Brett Hosie gave Dennis Betty Pat’s address and phone number.

***

Betty Pat and Hams drove the 20 miles to Will Rogers World Airport in less than 12 minutes, the Corvette purring effortlessly beneath them. Laurel recognized Betty Pat immediately; the Oklahoma cowgirl wore pointed-toe alligator boots, a white Stetson, jeans, a turquoise-studded bolo tie, and a shirt embroidered with skulls and birds under a buckskin jacket. The little boy by her side was also dressed like a cowboy. “I’m Hams. Welcome to Okie country,” he said, drawing one of his Fanner 50 cap pistols and shooting in the air, the pop! pop! pop! accompanied by wafts of acrid smoke.

“Welcome, my dear!” Betty Pat tipped her hat. Laurel returned the greeting with a hug for each.

Betty Pat’s home was a warm mix of native woods and overstuffed sofas and chairs draped with sheepskins and plaid blankets. Steer horns and deer heads hung beside good paintings flanking the huge stone fireplace where Hams stoked the dying embers and fed it more logs. Laurel walked out onto the back patio and gasped. Betty Pat had designed the backyard like an Old West town, with a dance hall, a jail, a saloon, and other buildings it was getting too dark to see. In front of the saloon, a full-scale replica of the Flintstones cartoon car was hitched to a post. “I like to sit in the car and drink a Coke,” Hams explained. I’m too young to drink in the saloon.”

“It’s enchanting!” Laurel said, liking this eccentric lady more each minute.

“When you work with the dead, it’s important to remember that you are alive and life can be a big kick,” Betty Pat said as she poured tequila into two shot glasses and slid Hams a Coke.

***

The following morning, Betty Pat handed Laurel a paper on which she had scribbled two messages: Call Brett Hosie with update. Call Dennis Duquesne. Both were out of their offices when Laurel returned the calls.

Meanwhile, Betty Pat transformed the skull Hams had found. Laurel watched as she pinched off bits of clay, which she used to cover the skull, smoothing the clay with her thumbs. Her deft fingers shaped plump lips using a rolling pin and ruler. She created the illusion of pores around the nose and chin by lightly sandpapering the clay. By afternoon of the second day, a niggling sense of gloom descended over Laurel. It was as if the dead girl would soon cry out from those plump lips and name her murderer. It was as if she were coming back to a horrible life that had tossed her violently at its end. It was as if Laurel knew who the girl was.

At last, Betty Pat inserted prosthetic eyes and chose a blond wig from the collection of them lining the shelves of several glass-fronted cabinets. Laurel stared in disbelief.

“Do you know anything about the articles found with the bones? The backpack and earring,” Laurel asked.

“Why, yes. I have them here.” Betty Pat rifled through a cabinet beneath the stainless-steel table and from it pulled a paper police evidence bag. “But it isn’t an earring, after all. It’s a cufflink, with the letter D. And here is the backpack.” Betty Pat handed Laurel a patterned aqua vinyl bag with a worn handle, filled with damaged pictures of children Laurel recognized.

“Oh my god. It’s Deborah Partlow!”

“My dear, it’s late. I am going to drive Hams home and when I get back, we’ll crack a couple of Coors and talk more about it. You know, they never look exactly like the person. A skull will just tell you so much.”

***

Laurel helped herself to a beer, opened the sliding glass doors to the patio, and settled into the Flintstones car to make sense of how her very alive Florida prostitute could be found dead and buried more than 1,000 miles away in Oklahoma. She would call Hosie to let him know, although it was midnight in Florida, and he was surely asleep. Perhaps she should wait until morning. The noise from behind the patio doors was almost imperceptible, and even when her brain registered it, Laurel thought it was Betty Pat, although not enough time had passed to drive Hams home and return.

“Betty Pat?” she whispered. Nothing.

Weak flames still lapped from the fire Hams had stoked earlier, the only light in the room, casting faint shadows that danced in and out of Laurel’s sight, one larger than the others. “Is someone there?” she asked again, as the shadows shapeshifted. The yard was black as tar, and if someone was there, she wouldn’t be seen, but by calling out, she could be heard. Laurel didn’t call out a third time. She noiselessly climbed from the Flintstones car and crouched beside it for cover. The quarters in her shoes pressed uncomfortably against her heels.

***

“Miss Betty Pat! I forgot my holster. Please. Can we go back to your house and get it? I sleep with it you know. If a bad guy comes in my room at night, I can shoot him.”

Betty Pat turned the Corvette around, spraying dirt and stones in its wake. Hams had left his holster on a chair near the fireplace. Betty Pat told Hams to stay in the car while she ran in the house for his guns.

***

“Laurel. I know you’re out there. Come to the patio so I can see you and we can talk.” Someone flipped the patio light on, and Laurel was shocked to clearly see it was Dennis. His face was shiny with sweat, and the armpits of the shirt he wore bore crescent-shaped stains. She saw them because his arms were raised in the classic stance law enforcement used to fire a weapon. He was scanning the backyard with his gun although the light didn’t reach and only sunk it deeper in darkness.

“Dennis, what the fuck!” she called.

“Don’t swear, Laurel, it doesn’t become you.”

“It was you.”

“I knew you would figure it out when I read your story. The aqua backpack would clinch it. And the earring was actually my cufflink. Careless of me, but I’m only human. I had to kill her, Laurel. That girl looked like an angel, all warm and golden and smiling, like she belonged on a pedestal next to the Virgin Mary. But she was rotten, Laurel, from the drugs and the whoring, a rotten fallen angel. All you dames are fallen in one way or another, I guess. I just wanted to protect her, take care of her, and she laughed at me.”

“Well, you took care of her all right. But if you drove here with her, somebody will remember. You had to buy gas; they’ll find your credit card receipts. Dennis, put the gun down and let’s talk this over.”

“She was already dead in the trunk Laurel, nobody saw her. And I paid cash for gas.”

Dennis shut off the patio light to let his eyes adjust to the pitch-black yard, scanning it for movement. Betty Pat had come in the front door quietly enough that he had not seen or heard her. She slipped off her shoes and tiptoed to the chair on which Hams had left his holster. Three feet more to the fireplace, before an about face, and like a cat, she worked her way behind Dennis.

“Enough talk, Laurel. I have a long drive ahead after I dispose of your body,” Dennis said, raising the gun again and firing once near the Flintstones car under which Laurel crouched.

Betty Pat stood directly behind Dennis, poking the barrel of a Mattel Fanner 50 cap pistol into the small of his back. “Drop the gun or I’ll blow you apart,” she said. Dennis, surprised, faltered slightly, lowering his gun about six inches. Betty Pat with all her might raised the poker above her head and brought it down squarely on Dennis’s skull, the cracking sound reverberating even after he was dead. Laurel crawled from under the Flintstones car and walked unsteadily into the house. She sat down at Betty Pat’s desk and pulled the quarters from her shoes, throwing them beside the phone before dialing her editor’s home number. Betty Pat cracked two Coors and sighed.

fact or fiction
10

About the Creator

Lacy Loar-Gruenler

Lacy Loar-Gruenler worked for a decade as a newspaper journalist and editor. In March 2023, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature at Harvard University.

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (12)

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  • Lamar Wiggins17 days ago

    I finally got a chance to come back to read this. I love detective stories. Your character development was outstanding. Felt like an episode of Fargo, the series. Excellent read, Lacy! I see why it was a contender.

  • Novel Allenabout a month ago

    Wow! I kind of forgot that I was not watching a movie. I def will need to reread this gem. So beautifully written. !7 minutes was kind of daunting, but def worth the read. Congrats.

  • Babs Iversonabout a month ago

    Re-read and left a ♥️

  • ✍️ My Accomplished Friend, Kudos! I stopped by during a break from a tiring schedule and found this treasure. I must return to reread this work I admire by an individual I adore. BTW, I have been less than well, but life goes on. Lacy, I am so proud of your work and You!!! 💙

  • Brilliant! The adrenaline is still pumping from reading this realist story! I hope this & others like it end up for sale in a book store!

  • Raymond G. Taylor3 months ago

    Wow fantastic read Lacy and congratulations on your win.

  • D.K. Shepard3 months ago

    Well done! Loved the news report pieces and your storytelling sucked me in right away!

  • Wooohooooo congratulations on your win! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Babs Iverson3 months ago

    Congratulations on the runner up win!!!!❤️❤️💕

  • Caroline Craven3 months ago

    Wow. This is ace and completely deserved to be placed in the challenge. Can tell you were a journalist - it feels completely real and natural. I love the characters and your language. On point!

  • Brett M. Rhyne3 months ago

    What an exciting story, Lois, er, Lacy. "SOMEDAY MY PRINTS WILL COME"; "COME IN AND WE’LL SEE WHAT DEVELOPS." God, how I miss analog photography and print journalism. I see a future for you expanding this into a series of crime novels.

  • Catherine Dorian3 months ago

    " 'When you work with the dead, it’s important to remember that you are alive and life can be a big kick,' Betty Pat said as she poured tequila into two shot glasses and slid Hams a Coke." You capture Betty's honesty and spunk with such admirable precision. Written like a journalist and an artist. Ah, Lacy, how I love your writing.

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