Monday, March 19, 2007

A Comedy of Terrors

Drug Busters in Action

Back in 1992, the Daily Times ran a story on a botched drug bust at the home of an elderly couple, Mary and Joe Warren, 68 and 73 years old, of 1805 Harrisonville Ave., in Portsmouth. Reporter Jennifer Moorhead did so good a job of reporting telling details that we can relive the experience fifteen years later. Perhaps that’s because the more things change in Portsmouth, the more they stay the same. What happened fifteen years ago, could have happened yesterday or could happen tomorrow. Austin Leedom has done a public service by reproducing that story in the online Shawnee Sentinel.

If Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife, Inspector Clouzot, Inspector Lastrade, and Maxwell Smart had been involved in the botched bust, it could not have been more half-assed. First of all, the Warrens were not only elderly, they were god-fearing, patriotic Americans living in a small neat house behind a white picket fence. They had just returned from a meeting at their church – there were and still are two churches almost directly across the street. Mrs. Warren was perhaps a little apprehensive when she locked the front door when they came home from church, because earlier that evening, around 8 PM, she had noticed a man in a car across the street looking through binoculars. Who was that in the car? Barney Fife, Inspector Clouzot, or perhaps Sergeant Horner himself?

Mrs. Warren later learned that Horner and others had been staking out the house for several days. Which house? Hers or the real drug house a couple of doors down? Who knows? I’m not even sure the Emergency Response Team knew. I don’t know if there were miniature American flags flying on the fence in front of the Warrens neat, small house, but there are now. It is not likely flags would have stopped the Emergency Response Team from mistaking the Warrens’ house for a drug house anyway. Horner and his team had already obtained a search warrant for 1721 Harrisonville Ave., but the address of the Warrens’ house is 1805. Those numbers, 1805, are displayed prominently above the mail box, just next to the front door of the Warrens’ house. If Horner and his men had a warrant for 1721 Harrisonville Ave., and the prominently displayed 1805 numbers on the Warrens’ house did not stop them from breaking in the door, it is not likely flags on the fence would have given them pause.

Sergeant Horner didn't sleep here

The arthritic Joe Warren, who walked with a cane, was in the bedroom. His wife Mary had come out to get his medication. It was while she was in the living room that she heard someone on the other side of the door shout, “We’re coming in!” Whoever he was, he began breaking the door in. Mary rushed to the phone. She knew she would not have time to call the seven numbers of the police department, never dreaming that it was the police who were breaking in her door. She dialed the operator instead, but before she could complete the call, the three members of the ERT were inside and demanding that she drop the phone. They were in plain clothes, or so it was reported, so she had no way of knowing who they were. The ERT team continued to act as if they were dealing with some low-life drug-dealing couple when what they were doing was frightening to death a couple who had a combined age of 141 years. In an effort to protect his wife from the intruders, Joe Warren came out of the bedroom swinging his cane. One of the men twisted Joe’s arm behind his back and forced him face down on the living room sofa. According to the Daily Times story, Mrs. Warren “begged them not to hurt her husband and kept telling them they had the wrong house.” Finally, it dawned on them. It was the wrong house! Maybe somebody went out and looked at the number 1805 next to the door. Mrs. Warren said the commotion ceased only when “they finally realized they had the wrong house.”

Sergeant Horner was supposed to be in charge of this bust. Where was he? His explanation of the mix-up only adds to the Keystone Cops character of the caper. Apologetically, he later explained to Mrs. Warren how the thing got botched. “They were told to go one house past Little Nick’s,” a small eatery on the other side of the street. The Daily Times reported that “Horner had been part of the stake out, which lasted more than two days, and while doing this he was to the north of the house.” Ah, Horner was to the north of the house. Now, we’re getting somewhere. But when the drug raid took place, “they came from the opposite direction,” Sergeant Horner explained. You see, “They” were at fault. They came from the opposite direction. Who told them to come from the opposite direction? Who told them to go one house past Little Nick’s? Who gave them such hare-brained directions in the first place? Was it Maxwell Smart, Inspector Clouzot, or was it the guy in the car, the one with the binoculars? Was it Sergeant Horner?

Obviously worried that the couple would sue the city’s ass off, and that he might lose his job, Sergeant Horner was practically on his knees. As the Daily Times reporter put it, “apologies flooded their household.” The old couple almost drowned in Sergeant Horner’s solicitude. He stayed for at least an hour, sweeping the floor and nailing back the door frame, as if he were auditioning for a spot on This Old House. He even offered to stay the night, as if he were a Rent-A-Cop or a live-in-maid. “What would you like for breakfast, Mrs. Warren? Eggs? Oatmeal? How about breakfast in bed, Joe?” Where would Sergeant Horner have slept if he did stay over? On the floor? Or on the couch they had pinned Mr. Warren down on. Imagine Sergeant Horner’s call to his own house if he did stay over. “Hello, Dear. I won’t be home tonight. I’ll be staying over at the Warrens. Who are they? Well, we just broke into their house by mistake. I just thought I’d sleep over to comfort them.” Mrs. Warren politely declined Sergeant Horner’s kind offer. “No, Sergeant, thank you. It’s been rather a hectic day and Joe and I would like to hit the hay. It’s way past our bedtime.”

As it was, Mrs. Warren didn’t get to sleep until 3 AM “because she kept hearing the sound of the glass and men breaking into her home,” to quote the Daily Times. Would it have comforted Mrs. Warren to know that the man responsible for this trauma was sleeping out on her couch? I don’t think so. However little sleep Horner may have gotten, he was back in the morning. Mrs. Warren told the Daily Times, he “returned again Thursday morning to ask forgiveness.” The Warrens were good Christians, but they were also human. They explained to the Daily Times that they could forgive, but they could never forget.

Horner told the Daily Times that he took “sole responsibility” for the mix-up, but he took responsibility the way Attorney General Gonzales is taking sole responsibility in Washington for firing those regional attorney generals, by implying it was somebody else’s fault. Yes, mistakes were made, but Sergeant Horner implied it was somebody else who made the mistakes, somebody who couldn’t follow directions. “One house past Little Nick’s!” What could be simpler than that, even if Little Nick’s is on the other side of the street and even if he failed to point out which direction on the other side of Little Nick’s the drug house was. Those were the days before MapQuest, so Sergeant Horner and the Emergency Response Team were operating under the technological limitations of the time. Sure, anyone now can easily print out directions so clear that even present Mayor Kalb would be able to get from the Portsmouth Police Station, or wherever the team started out from, to 1721 Harrisonville Ave. With MapQuest, Sergeant Horner would not have had to use Little Nick’s as a landmark, or to be concerned about which way was north and which south.

MapQuest to the Rescue


Sergeant Horner defended himself by saying it was the result of “plain human error.” Plain human error? A cynic might protest, “Nay, nay, Sergeant Horner! This was no plain human error. These were errors worthy of a Shakespeare comedy, like The Comedy of Errors.”If one of the Warrens had died of a heart attack, it would have been a tragedy. As it was, they suffered from post-traumatic stress for a time but they got relief from the crack staff at Scioto Memorial Hospital.

The story, as is true of comedies generally, has a happy ending. I’ve been told that the Warrens got more than just $350 to replace their door, and while Sergeant Horner got a letter of reprimand placed in his file, he went on the become Chief of Police and Mayor Kalb’s brain. There was a trying period before that, however, when it was rumored that Mayor Bauer was about to fire Chief Horner for incompetence, but the Chief blew the whistle on Bauer’s alleged violations of the law in the Marting’s deal and Bauer was history.

With all the high tech equipment and expensive fleet of high powered vehicles acquired by the police department in the wake of 9/11, Chief Horner is focusing on a group of “domestic terrorists,” posing as senior citizens with poor vision and hearing, carrying canes and portable oxygen supplies, and who are resorting to a weapon of mass distraction, the computer, to write blogs that are slandering the upright leaders of the community. “They are trying to pull a Warren on me,” the Chief is rumored to have said, meaning these alleged senior citizens are trying to act as if they are the victims of his incompetence and crazy ambition, as the Warrens of Harrisonville Ave. were on that December night in 1992. Chief Horner has already blown the whistle on the one member of the city council who stands in his way, Bob Mollette, aiming to get rid of him as he got rid of Mayor Bauer.

Writing of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, a critic pointed out that before the comic resolution of the end can occur, “violence and disorder . . . rise to a pitch that is both funny and frightening.” The sound of breaking glass and police breaking into homes. Both funny and frightening. That is something to keep in mind as our local comedy of terrors continues to unfold.