When I lived in Tempe, Arizona, one night I think I might have witnessed someone loading a dead body into the trunk of their car. This was in 1991. It was around 10 at night and I was walking back from my boyfriend’s apartment across the street. My apartment complex was called Riviera Palms and it was actually a converted motel that consisted of three 1950s-era two-story brick buildings that were arranged into a “U” with a swimming pool in the middle.
That night, as I approached my apartment, I could see a car with an open trunk around the corner of my building. I lingered out of sight in front of my corner apartment’s door and watched two people lifting something wrapped in a white or a light-colored sheet between them into the trunk of the car. The two people struggled to lift the heavy load.
At the time, despite its cumbersome size and the fact that it really looked like a body, I still didn’t believe it could be a human inside the sheet. I rationalized that it could have been a couple of large dogs (still a very strange scenario) wrapped up due to the bulges and bumps that protruded from the sheet. Or maybe one of the people was moving from their apartment and this was the easiest way to get their kitchen appliances, their guitar, and a lamp into the car.
These ideas sound ridiculous now. Looking back, what else could it have been but a body? But, really?
After they closed the door on the trunk, I turned away and quickly ducked back around the corner and into my apartment. And then, I assumed, they drove away. I got ready for bed, and drifted off to sleep. While dozing off, I reasoned that I probably hadn’t witnessed a crime. From a small, Midwestern Kansas town, I had not, up to that point anyway, experienced first-hand much of any serious physical violence. In fact, peering around the corner of my apartment building, I felt as if I was watching a movie or TV show like an old “Starsky and Hutch” episode. Things that happen on-screen don’t actually happen in real life, right?
I also, and perhaps more pragmatically, thought that it was simply too early at night for people to be sneaking dead bodies around. Tempe is a college town, and at 10 p.m. the streets are still busy with cars and people out in the cooler temperatures.
I went to work the next day. And the next. And the next. Occasionally, the episode would cross my mind and it wasn’t until a full month later, when I finally acknowledged my unforgivable failure: I should have reported what I saw that very night.
So I called the police. After listening to my story, the first thing the officer asked was, “Why didn’t you call sooner?” I told him I didn’t really know.
And I still don’t. It surprises me how quickly I was able to dismiss what I had seen. What if it was the culmination of a murder? What if upon leaving Riviera Palms that car then made a left onto Rural Road, and then continued out of Tempe into the deserts south of Phoenix, and then stopped at the end of a quiet, sandy road? What if those two people had earlier packed a shovel so they could dig a grave for the body?
My casual dismissal of what I witnessed causes me to wonder why I didn’t trust my first instincts. Why didn’t I immediately go with my gut feeling that I had seen a crime in progress? Why did I doubt myself? Would I still do that today?
Has the passage of twenty-three years imbued me with a confidence I lacked in my mid-20s? Or could it be simply that the advent of 911 emergency service has made reporting suspicious activity easier to do and more common now?
I’ll never know if I witnessed a crime or not that night. I hope I didn’t and all this retrospective analysis is for nothing. But it does make me wonder why some people, myself included obviously, automatically dismiss a danger signal as needless worry.
It reminds me of the phenomenon present in some school shootings when witnesses report their first response to hearing gunshots. Often they assume the sounds are something benign, such as a balloon popping or a textbook falling to the floor. Does this happen because they are unfamiliar with what gunshots sound like, much like I would be? Those people presumably aren’t attuned to the sounds of gunfire. Maybe that’s why I was so quick to dismiss what I saw on that warm Arizona night. Violence simply wasn’t a part of my prior experience.
Now I know the next time I find myself in an unknown experience — especially one that involves doubt and fear — I should trust my gut even if it feels wrong, silly, presumptuous, naive. That night, I could have truly been in the right place at the right time to help someone or provide a lead. Before ending the conversation, the police officer said there was really nothing he could do at that point, but he would make a note of my call. Too much time had passed, he added. He told me to call sooner if I ever saw anything suspicious again.
“Okay, I will,” I said, and then I hung up the phone.