Authors: Michael Connelly
Ballard did indeed recognize Carpenter. She was tall and thin and had shoulder-length blond hair. Ballard had seen her
through the take-out window many times at Native Bean. She had ordered from her on some of those occasions, though it was clear Carpenter was more than a barista and was in charge of the business. Ballard had been looking forward to the day when the interior of the shop would reopen post-pandemic and she could go in and sit at a table. She always did good work in coffee shops. It had been one of the things she missed most in the last year.
Nothing on the FI card or from what Fallon had said in the hallway had prepped Ballard for Carpenter’s physical condition. She had hemorrhagic bruising around both eyes from being choked and lacerations on her lower lip and left ear from being bitten. There was also an abrasion on one eyebrow that Ballard knew from the prior cases had likely occurred when a mask that had been taped over her eyes had been roughly pulled off. And lastly, her layered blond hair was imbalanced by a purposely haphazard cut by her attackers, an indignity that Ballard knew Carpenter would tell her came at the end, and was a creepy coup de grâce of the assault. The rapists would have taken the hair with them.
“Cindy, my name is Renée,” Ballard said, trying to be informal. “I’m a detective with the Hollywood Division of the LAPD. I’m going to be investigating this case and I need to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind.”
Left alone in the room, Carpenter had been crying. She was holding a tissue in one hand, her cell phone in the other. Ballard wanted to know who she had been calling or texting, but that could come later.
“I almost didn’t call you people,” Carpenter said. “But then I thought, what if they come back? I wanted someone to know.”
Ballard nodded that she understood.
“Well, I’m glad you did call,” Ballard said. “Because I’m going to need your help catching these men.”
“But I can’t help you,” Carpenter said. “I didn’t even see their faces. They were wearing masks.”
“Well, let’s start right there. Did you see their hands? Other parts of their bodies? Were they white, black, brown?”
“Both were white. I could see their wrists and other parts of their bodies.”
“Okay, good. Tell me about the masks.”
“Like ski masks. One was green and one was blue.”
This was consistent with the other two attacks. The connection between the three cases was now more than theory. It was confirmed.
“Okay, that is helpful,” Ballard said. “When did you see the ski masks?”
“At the end,” Carpenter said. “When they ripped the mask off my eyes.”
This was an unusual part of all three attacks. The Midnight Men brought premade tape masks they put on their victims, only to remove them at the end of the assaults. It indicated that they didn’t want to leave the masks behind as evidence. But more important, it was an indication that they weren’t masking the women to prevent them from seeing them. Their own ski masks protected their identity. It meant they wanted to hide something else from their victims.
“Did you see anything else about them? Or just the ski masks?”
“One of them was pulling on his shirt. I saw a bandage on his arm.”
“Which guy, green or blue?”
“What kind of bandage? What did it look like?”
“It was like one of the biggest ones you can get? It was square. Right here.”
She pointed to the inside of her upper arm.
“Do you think it was to cover up a tattoo?”
“I don’t know. I only saw it for, like, half a second.”
“Okay, Cindy, I know this is difficult, but I want to go through what they did to you, and I also need to take my own photos of your injuries. But first I want to ask, Did they say anything to you, anything at all, that might mean that they knew who you were before last night?”
“You mean, like, that it wasn’t random? No, I didn’t know these guys. At all.”
“No, what I mean is, do you think they saw you somewhere, like the coffee shop or where you shop or anywhere else, and decided to target you? Or was it the opposite? They targeted your neighborhood and picked you that way.”
Carpenter shook her head.
“I have no idea,” she said. “They didn’t say stuff like that, they just threatened me and said shit. Like, you think you’re so cool and so high-and-mighty. They — ”
She stopped to bring the tissue up as a wave of tears came. Ballard reached out and touched her arm.
“I’m sorry to put you through this,” Ballard said.
“It’s like I’m having to relive it,” Carpenter said.
“I know. But it will help us catch these two … men. And stop them from possibly hurting other women.”
Ballard waited a few moments for Carpenter to compose herself. Then started again.
“Let’s talk about last night before anything happened,” she said. “Did you go out or stay in for New Year’s?”
“Well, I worked till nine, when we closed the shop,” Carpenter said.
“You’re talking about Native Bean?”
“Yes, we call it the Bean. One of my girls has Covid and the schedule is all messed up. I had to work the last shift of the year.”
“I like your shop. I moved over to Finley a few months ago and I’ve been getting my coffee there. Your blueberry muffins are fantastic. Anyway, so you closed up at nine and then you went home? Or did you stop somewhere?”
Ballard guessed she would say she stopped at the Gelson’s supermarket on Franklin. It would be on her way home, and one of the other victims had shopped there the night of her attack.
“I went right home,” Carpenter said. “I made dinner — leftover takeout.”
“And you live alone?” Ballard asked.
“Yes, since I got divorced.”
“What did you do after dinner?”
“I just took a shower and went to bed. I was supposed to open this morning.”
“You open most mornings, right? That’s when I’ve seen you.”
“That’s me. We open at seven.”
“Do you usually take your shower in the morning, before going to work?”
“Actually, no, I’d rather sleep later, so I — Why is this important?”
“Because at this point we really don’t know what’s important.”
Ballard’s disappointment in not getting the Gelson’s connection had disappeared when Carpenter mentioned taking a shower. The two previous victims had said they showered before going to bed on the nights they were assaulted. With only two victims saying this, it could be coincidence. But three out of three became a pattern. Ballard felt her instincts stirring. She believed she might have something to work with.
Cindy Carpenter refused further medical attention to her physical injuries. She told Ballard she just wanted to go home. It was a long ride back from the RTC to the Dell, and Ballard used it to go through the story again. By now Carpenter was wrung out and tired but she cooperated, telling the story again in all its humiliating detail, telling what the rapists made her do, what she had heard, and what she had managed to see when the mask taped over her eyes began to come loose. From the first telling at the RTC to the second in the car, Carpenter told the same story, adding or subtracting a few details here and there, but not contradicting herself at any point in the narrative. This was good, Ballard knew. It meant she would be a good witness in terms of the investigation and at trial, should a case ever be made.
Ballard complimented her and told her why. It was important to keep Carpenter cooperating. Often victims grew reluctant when they started to weigh their psychic recovery against trusting the system.
Ballard had purposely not recorded either session. A recording taken in the hours after the assault could be gold in a defense lawyer’s hands. She — yes, smart rapists often employed female
attorneys for jury optics — could take any inconsistency between court testimony and a first recounting to tear a hole in the case wide enough for a bus called reasonable doubt to carry the jury through. Ballard always had to think about the moves ahead while trying to solve the present case.
Carpenter had supplied numerous details that incontrovertibly connected her assault to the two previous cases. Chief among these were the time of the attacks, the specific acts of sexual assault the women endured, and the measures taken by the rapists to avoid leaving evidence behind. These efforts included wearing gloves and condoms and, notably, bringing with them a Dustbuster, which was swept over the victim and locations in the house before the suspects exited.
A couple new details did come up in Cindy’s telling of her story in the car. One was that Mr. Green, as they had taken to calling the suspect with the green ski mask, had red pubic hair, while Mr. Blue had dark, near-black pubic hair. Assuming their body hair matched their scalp hair, Ballard now had partial descriptions of both perpetrators. The previous two victims had never seen anything, because the tape placed across their eyes had never come loose. While all three of the victims had said that they could tell by the touch of the rapists that they wore gloves, Carpenter revealed during the drive that she had seen their hands when the tape had come loose, and the gloves they wore were disposable black latex. Ballard knew such gloves were widely available. It wouldn’t be strong evidence of guilt, but it was one of the many details that could be important if suspects were ever identified.
There was another piece of evidence connecting the three cases as part of the MO. During the car-ride questioning, Ballard had focused on how the men spoke and the instructions they gave Carpenter. Ballard did not prompt Carpenter with specific
examples because that might lead to a false confirmation of connection. She had to ask Carpenter more generally to try to remember what had been said to her, but the young woman came through with a key connection.
“At the end, before they left, one of them — I think it was Mr. Blue — said, ‘You’re going to be all right, doll. You’ll look back on this one day and smile.’ Then he laughed and they were gone.”
Ballard had been waiting for this. The half apology at the end. The other two victims had reported the same thing, right down to the throwback vernacular of calling the victim “doll.”
“You’re sure he said that? He called you ‘doll’?”
“I’m sure. Nobody’s ever called me that before. It’s like 1980s or something.”
Ballard felt the same way, but that played against Carpenter’s estimate, based on what she had seen of her attackers’ bodies through the loose tape, that they were in their late twenties or early thirties.
There was still an hour or so of light by the time they pulled to a stop in front of the small bungalow where Carpenter lived on Deep Dell Terrace. Ballard wanted to check the house to see if she could find a point of entry and determine if it would be worth calling for a full forensic examination of the premises. She also wanted to walk the neighborhood in daylight and then return after midnight so she could judge the lighting conditions and vigilance of other residents of the hillside neighborhood.
Once inside, Ballard asked Carpenter to sit on the couch in the living room while she conducted a quick sweep of the house.
“You think they’ll come back?” Carpenter asked.
There was the tightness of fear in her voice.
“It’s not that,” Ballard said quickly. “I want to look for
anything the patrol guys may have overlooked. And I want to figure out how the bad guys got in. You’re sure nothing was left open or unlocked?”
“Nothing. I’m OCD about locking the doors. I check them every night, even when I know I haven’t gone out through them.”
“Okay, just give me a few minutes.”
Ballard started moving around the house alone, pulling on a pair of latex gloves from her pocket. There was a door in the kitchen that she assumed led directly to the attached single-car garage. It had a simple push-button lock on the knob and no dead bolt. The door was currently unlocked.
“Does this door in the kitchen go to the garage?” she called out.
“Yes,” Carpenter called back. “Why?”
“It’s unlocked. Is that the way you had it?”
“I don’t think so. But I may have missed it because the trash cans are in the garage and the garage is always locked anyway.”
“You mean closed? Or closed and locked?”
“Well, closed and locked. From the outside you can’t open it without the remote.”
“Is there also an outside door into the garage? Besides the overhead door?”
“No. Just the overhead.”
Ballard decided not to open the door to the garage, even with gloves on, until Forensics checked it. It could have been the means of entry. She also had to consider that either McGee or Black had opened the door while checking the house during the initial callout. She could ask them but she knew that neither would admit to such a gaffe. She would only know for sure whether they had opened the door if one of them had left fingerprints on the knob.
Ballard decided she would view the garage last, coming in
from the outside. She moved into a hallway that led to two bedrooms and a bathroom. She checked the bathroom first and saw no evidence of intrusion through the small window over the bathtub.
She moved into the master bedroom, where the assault had occurred. There she found a window that had been sealed shut by several coats of paint applied over many years. She looked at the bed. Carpenter had said she had not known of the intrusion until she woke up with one of the men on top of her and putting tape over her eyes and mouth. He then tied her hands to a railing of the bed’s brass headboard. He told her not to move or make a sound and then she heard him leave the room and open the front door for his partner.
Ballard got down on her knees and looked under the bed. It was clear except for a few books. She slid them out and saw that they were all written by female authors: Alafair Burke, Steph Cha, Ivy Pochoda. She slid them back under and got up. She swept her eyes across the room again but nothing stood out to her. She stepped back into the hallway and checked the second bedroom. This was neat and spare, obviously a guest room. The closet door was four inches ajar.
Ballard opened the closet all the way without touching the knob. Half the space was crowded with stacked cardboard boxes marked as Native Bean supplies. The other half was empty, apparently for the use of guests. She got down on her knees again to study the carpeted floor. She saw nothing on the carpet but there was a distinct pattern in the weave that was indicative of recent vacuuming. Still on her knees, she leaned back on her heels and called for Cindy to come to the room.
She came right away.
“What is it?”
“You said you have no Dustbuster, no vacuum at all, right?”
“This closet was vacuumed. I think this is where he hid.”
Cindy stared down at the carefully manicured carpet.
“We put that in because the previous owner had stored paint cans there and some had spilled on the floor. It looks awful underneath.”
“My husband and I. We bought the place and then after the divorce, I kept it.”
“The door — do you leave it open? Like, to keep air circulating in there or something?”
“No, I keep it closed.”
“You’re sure you closed it after the last time you got stuff out for the coffee shop?”
“Okay. Listen, I’m sorry, I know you probably just want to be left alone but I want Forensics to come here and process the closet and maybe the rest of the house.”
Carpenter was crestfallen.
“When?” she asked.
“I’ll call them right now,” Ballard said. “I’ll get it done as fast as possible. I know it’s an intrusion but we want to get these guys and I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. I don’t think you do either.”
“Okay, I guess. Will you be here?”
“If they can come now, I’ll stay. But in a few hours I start another shift. I’ll have to go check in at the station.”
“Try to get them to come now, please.”
“I will. Uh, you mentioned your husband. Is he still in L.A.? What is your relationship with him?”
“He’s here and we’re fine because we don’t see each other. He lives in Venice.”
But there was a clear tension underlying the way she said it.
“What’s he do?” Ballard asked.
“He’s in the tech industry,” Carpenter said. “Works for start-ups and stuff. He finds investors.”
Ballard stood up. She had to take a step to hold her balance. She realized that sleep deprivation was manifesting.
“You all right?” Carpenter asked.
“I’m fine — not enough sleep,” Ballard said. “How was your ex with you getting the house?”
“He was fine. Why? I mean he didn’t like it, but … What is this about?”
“I just have to ask a lot of questions, Cindy, that’s all. It’s not a big deal. Is he the one you were texting?”
“When I came into the examination room today, you looked like you were texting or making a call.”
“No, I was texting Lacey at the shop, telling her she had to hold things together till I got back.”
“You told her what happened?”
“No, I lied. I said I was in an accident.”
She gestured to the injuries to her face.
“I have to figure out how to explain this,” she said.
This gave Ballard pause because she knew that what Carpenter told people now could come back around to haunt the case if it ever went to trial. As crazy as it seemed, a defense that the sex was consensual might gain support in a juror’s mind if there was testimony from the alleged victim’s friend that she had never mentioned being assaulted. It was a far-fetched possibility but Ballard knew she would need at some point to school Carpenter on this. But now was not the time.
“So, will you tell your ex about this?” she asked. “About what happened?”
“I don’t know, probably not. It’s not his business. Anyway, I don’t want to think about that right now.”
“I understand. I’m going to call Forensics now, see if I can get them out. You’re going to have to stay in the living room, if you don’t mind. I want them to do your bedroom.”
“Can I go get my book to read? It’s under the bed.”
“Yes, that’s fine. Just try not to touch anything else.”
Carpenter left the room and Ballard pulled her phone. Before calling for a forensics team, she squatted down and took a photo of the closet carpet, hoping the vacuum pattern would be discernible in the shot. She then called Forensics and got an ETA of one hour.
In the living room Ballard told Carpenter that the forensics tech would be at the house soon. She then asked if there was a remote in the house that opened the overhead garage door. She explained that she didn’t want to touch the knob on the door from the kitchen. Even a gloved hand might destroy fingerprint evidence.
“I use the garage for storage and just park out front or in the driveway,” Carpenter said. “So I have a clicker in my car that opens it, and there’s a button on the wall just inside the garage next to the kitchen door.”
“Okay,” Ballard said. “Can we go out to the car and use the clicker?”
They stepped out and Carpenter used a remote key to unlock her car. The parking lights blinked but Ballard did not hear a distinctive snap of the locks.
“Was your car locked?” she asked. “I didn’t — ”
“Yes, I locked it last night,” Carpenter said.
“I didn’t hear the locks click.”
“Well, I always lock it.”
Ballard was annoyed with herself for not first checking to see
whether the car had been locked. Now she would never know for sure.
“I’m going to enter from the passenger side,” she said. “I don’t want to touch the driver’s door handle. Where is the garage clicker?”
“On the visor,” Carpenter said. “On the driver’s side.”
Ballard opened the door and leaned into the car. She had pulled her own set of keys from her pocket and used the end of her apartment key to depress the button on the garage remote. She then exited the car and watched the garage door open with a loud screeching of its springs.
“Does it always make that sound?” she asked.
“Yeah, I have to get it oiled or something,” Carpenter said. “My husband used to take care of things like that.”
“Can you hear it from inside when it opens?”
“I could when my ex still lived here.”
“Do you think it would wake you up in the bedroom?”
“Yes. It shook the whole house like an earthquake. You think that’s how they — ”
“I don’t know yet, Cindy.”
They stood on the threshold of the open garage. Carpenter had been right. There was no room for a car. The single bay was crowded with boxes, bikes, and other property, including three containers for trash, recycling, and yard waste. It looked like Carpenter stored more supplies from Native Bean in the garage as well. There were stacks of cups and snap-on covers in clear plastic sleeves as well as large boxes of various sweeteners. Ballard went to the door leading to the kitchen. She noted the button that operated the garage door on the wall to the left of the doorjamb.