Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sgt. Bob, thanks to a great source

"Who do you think I could ask about getting the front clip off that pick-up truck?," the man asked me on Dort Highway.

The question caught me off guard because I was covering a double fatal traffic accident during my first summer of night police reporting in Flint.

Not quite understanding the question, I asked the man again what he said. He repeated the question and added that he had been looking for the front end of that pick up truck for a long time to replace his damaged truck.

At the time he asked, one of the bodies was still squashed inside the car that had slammed into the back of the pick up truck. But, yes, the front of the truck was unscratched.

I suggested he wait for the tow truck (which was still hours away from being called) and follow it back to the storage yard.

The memory is clear because this was the accident I met a police sergeant that would become a longtime source of mine in the Flint Police Department. Not one of those "pssst, you didn't hear this from me" sources, but a guy who laid it on the line every time I asked a question.

At this same accident, I waited until it appeared the rush of activity, always present at a fatal wreck, was over and walked up to the police officer with the chevrons on his shirt. I extended my hand and introduced myself and he reciprocated.

What happened next was so unusual that I never forgot it. In dealing with police, one learns that it almost always takes time to build up a mutual trust and the expectations for getting a lot of information during those early encounters is low. At least it was for me.

I figured I would get a body count, a brief description of what happened and then a terse, call me later to get the names. After all, one of the victims was still wedged in one of the vehicles and the other victim had just arrived dead to the hospital.

"Any chance you could give me the age or cities where the victims are from?," I asked Sgt. Bob.

He looked right at me and then did something that he would do many times again, but that I wasn't prepared for during my first meeting with him. He handed me the two driver's licenses of the victims.

"Mr. Smith, take down their names, ages and cities, please don't use the addresses in the story and make sure I get them back before you leave," Sgt. Bob said. "Oh, and don't run those names until I call you later tonight and let you know I've reached their families. Give me your number."

So I scratched down the information (I wrote down the addresses so I could contact the families later, but I kept my word not to use the street addresses in the paper) and handed the licenses back. Three hours later, just before I was going off shift, my phone rang and Sgt. Bob called and said, "feel free to use their names, I've talked to their families."

Sometimes Sgt. Bob would hand me his notes as he worked at an accident scene, complete with a rough sketch of the wreck.

During my career, when other police administrators ran the other way when asked for a quote for some story my editors wanted, Sgt. Bob would volunteer a good quote and be willing to put his name on it.

Because he was honest, it often got him in trouble with his superiors, but he never held that against me. It wasn't just me either, Sgt. Bob was open to all the reporters at the Journal and treated them with an extraordinary openness.

Over the years, I would sit with Sgt. Bob and he talked to me about his family. One of his daughters was an airline pilot and he was incredibly proud of her. Sgt. Bob later rose through the ranks and because my beat changed we didn't cross paths much after 2001, but when we did see each other it was always fun reliving old times and crashes.

"Remember that Mustang that was torn in half over on Chevrolet Ave?," that kind of thing.

Those are the people and times I miss the most post-reporting. More on some other sources later. But where ever you are Sgt. Bob, thanks.


Anonymous said...


Sgt. Bob lives in Flushing, and I see him often. Just bought him a drink at By the River the other night.

Your description of him is spot on, and he hasn't changed a bit.

I'll tell him you said hi, the next time I see him.


Jim of L-Town said...

Feel free to give Sgt. Bob my cell number. I'd love to talk to him and get together for lunch.

I'll buy.

Anonymous said...

I was starting to suspect that By the River was the "in" spot in town. Now that I see Todd is a customer, that must be the case!

Dave F.