It’s 2 a.m. and Don Tapper is the only driver on the road, though he would prefer the highway to be vacant. He’s en route to see a human being who has been turned into a body that died badly.
But that’s the business he’s in, so he continues on to work.
Don Tapper has been doing criminalist and CSI work for 33 years, mainly for the Sheriff’s Department. His has been a career where most every day is different, and — if you’ll pardon me — so is every body.
Since becoming crime lab manager of the Chula Vista Police Department nine months ago, Tapper no longer does the gathering of evidence per se. However, he regularly goes to crime scenes in the role of supervisor. But still ...
Tapper is a tall man whose 63 years do not appear to have aged him. It’s a wonder his job hasn’t. Read on and also wonder why:
March 26, 1997. Tapper was getting his motor home repaired when his pager went off. It was from George Gardner, then the evidence deputy he often worked with. He phoned back and was told “eight or nine” bodies had been found.
“I thought he was giving me a hard time. I said, ‘Come on, George. Don’t mess with me like that.’ ”
Well, Gardner was wrong. There were not nine bodies at the Heaven’s Gate house in Rancho Santa Fe. There were 39. Those people had committed mass suicide by ingesting poison in hopes of journeying to an alien spacecraft to avoid the end of the world.
“It was a huge house, closed up and stuffy, and nothing seemed amiss when I entered except a gagging smell coming from all those bodies. Some had been dead for days.
“Then you just start going into the rooms,” he remembers. “They were laying on the beds with the same type shoes on, and dressed the same. Their faces were covered. Some of them were already decomposing; others seemed freshly dead. You go to a crime scene and you expect to see one body, but now you see two, now you see three, now you see four, five, six, seven, eight.
“The medical examiner’s facility couldn’t handle all the bodies, so they had to bring in refrigerator trucks.”
Tapper spent more than 24 hours at the house. Although mass suicide was the eventual determination, until that decision was reached, it first had to be handled as a crime scene.
“They’re all laying there, and there’s 39 of them. It was just unbelievable. It was overwhelming.”
Tapper started out in the laboratory of Grossmont Hospital after graduating from UC San Diego. Eventually, he wanted more excitement in his life, and that’s the last thing the hospital was eager to provide. It was an easy decision to apply to the sheriff’s crime lab, where he was hired in 1982.
Through the years, he met some interesting folks, you might say. One woman in her 40s that he tested for a DUI delivered a blood-alcohol measurement of 0.45. Now granted, that’s just a number, but if you or I blew half that level, we quite possibly would be dead. Consider that 0.05 can be evidence of inebriation and 0.08 will guarantee you a free ride in the back seat of a cruiser.
Tapper says the woman was actually sitting upright and talking coherently because an alcoholic can build tolerance before the liver and assorted other organs cry uncle.
“We used to run tests to see how drinking changed behavior. However, most people, when they reach 0.15 would get sick. We quit doing that.”
The janitors must have approved.
Tapper is a thoughtful guy who not only knows his job, but has a sense of what it all means.
A crime scene for cops and criminalists is in some respects another day at the office. While taking care of rote business, the conversation might turn to Sunday’s Chargers game or what kind of mileage you get with that new Toyota. But in the course of uncounted crime scenes and scores of talkative detectives, Tapper has picked the brains of experts and gained insight into the murky rationale of criminals.
He says, for example, that while some sex criminals kill victims in an effort to avoid detection, he also thinks that each successive incident can demand more of the perpetrator to find gratification. The end result is that the repeat offender might find his sexual release only by the death of the victim.
“Before I got into the business, I thought that people died for reasons like in the movies and stuff. What you find out is most people get killed over nothing. It’s like you have two guys sitting around drinking and one of them says something the other guy doesn’t like, they get into an argument and he kills him. Often, thanks to alcohol or drugs.
“I still remember one case in Lakeside. There’s a trailer with a window and when we get there the guy is lying outside and beneath the window with his arms outstretched, like he fell backward, and he’s got a bunch of holes in him. He’s dead. He had walked up to that window and demanded to be let in. He was mad at some guy for something and he was told to go away. They said, ‘Get away. You’re drunk. Just get away.’ He wouldn’t go away so the guy inside comes up with a shotgun and points it at him, and says, ‘Get away.’ The guy’s last words were, ‘What are you going to do? Shoot me?’
“He’s laying out there like that, dead. For what? They didn’t even know what the argument was about. Nobody even remembered.
“It’s just strange what people get killed for. They get into an argument over just the most unimportant stuff. There’s also a lot of that where a wife and a husband get into a fight.”
A common myth Tapper puts to rest is the certainty of fingerprint evidence. He says that burglars usually don’t wear gloves, but it doesn’t result in their arrest as often as you might think. Lifting fingerprints depends on the right amount of body oil on the fingertips and a receptive surface, and one or both are frequently missing. As often as not, crime scenes don’t produce usable prints.
Tapper explains that CSI work at a murder doesn’t start at the body. Instead, the criminalist goes to the far edge of the scene and works toward the body so as to gather all evidence before it might be disturbed. Also, the body is never moved or covered until forensics are completed. That’s why passers-by on a public crime scene are often offended that a body is left lying in plain sight until the work is done. Even a tarp covering a body can disturb evidence.
DNA, of course, has been the big game-changer in crime detection the past couple of decades. As the process has streamlined and a greater number of labs are doing testing, more and more crime-scene evidence is being submitted. However, results can still take a lot of time to turn around. DNA from property crimes, for example, can still require weeks or months for results because they are a low priority. With emergency requests, results can be gained in two or three days. But for that to happen, the overtime bill goes up and police rainmakers on the highest level have to make some phone calls.
I ask: How do you find satisfaction in a job dealing with the dark side?
Tapper thinks about it carefully. “It sounds kind of corny, I suppose, but it’s a job where you make a difference. Take burglaries. If somebody breaks into your house, tears it up and takes your valuables, it is very traumatic. That’s something that you don’t want the people that you serve to have to go through.
“If you process 100 burglaries, those go into the database and if 50 of those guys are arrested and put away, there is actually a positive difference for the community. We’ve had cases here where we’ve broken some burglary rings.
“It’s a good feeling to know there are people that are alive, or people who have their property intact, or maybe people who didn’t die in a DUI collision because of something you did.”
I say to Don: Let me ratchet up the question. After decades of making those “house calls,” what footprints has tragedy left on Don Tapper’s psyche?
“I was on call for 20 years. When a phone rings at home, even to this day, it does something inside of me. If it rings in the middle of the night, I get a really bad feeling. I don’t like to answer it. I obviously will, but I don’t like to.
“When I was doing (criminalist work), I didn’t think it had that much of an effect on me, but I know when I finally stopped (gathering evidence), I was relieved. It was then I realized the cumulative effect it had on me over the years.
“It definitely changes the way you look at the world. I never leave a door unlocked anywhere. I don’t like my kids or grandkids going anywhere because in this business you see how dangerous everything is. Still, crime scenes are interesting. That’s where people who work in this field want to be. That’s where it’s happening.
“But death gets old. I have images in my head of most of the dead people I’ve seen. Most of the time I don’t think about them, but they pop up at strange times. I can’t drive around the county without passing by a place where I processed a scene. When someone’s in the car with me, I tell them, ‘Oh yeah, we found a body there.’ Weird. But overall, I can’t complain. I’ve had a great career in law enforcement working for the best people in the world.”
A midnight jangling of the phone puts the mind in a vise of apprehension. Don Tapper and others doing his work grope sleepily for the bedside phone well aware that the caller could be standing over a murdered body and their presence is required.
Such people are willing to leave a warm bed so that the rest of us can sleep soundly.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org