At one time or another, we’ve all experienced those moments when everything seems to go to pot. That time or two when we find ourselves in situations where, instead of going as planned, they get worse and more confusing.
Such was the case for yours truly early in the morning of Nov. 12, 1983. After a long day and half a night of patrolling and, in serious need of sleep, I dropped off my working partner, Scott Sienkiewicz, at his house.
I was anxiously headed for the barn, myself, desperately trying to stay awake during the short trip home. The thought of finally crawling between the sheets and catching up on the rest I was craving was the only thing keeping me going. I rolled down the windows so cold air could blow in my face, and I had the radio blaring to stay awake on the ride home.
I couldn’t wait to climb out of the cruiser, creep into my house, and hit the hay. The previous several hours had been active, and I knew it was time to recharge my batteries for another few days of chasing aberrant hunters and fulfilling my official duties.
As I clipped along the country road between Freedom and Brooks, in those wee morning hours, there was absolutely no traffic on the road. The police radio, usually squawking, was deathly quiet, indicating that most folks were home in bed where they belonged. And just where I soon hoped to be.
Turning on a side road I normally took to go home, I caught a glimpse of car headlights in a field to my left. The lights quickly went out as I approached.
There was no plausible reason for anyone to be out there at that time. Seeing as though their lights went out when mine approached indicated the possibility that these folks might be up to no good.
I thought that this couldn’t be happening. The chance of someone in the act of night hunting and me happening upon it would be way too easy.
I really wanted to get home for the sleep I so desperately needed, and the last thing I wanted right then was to get mixed up in yet another mess.
After all, in just the previous few hours we’d apprehended several hunters for violating a wide variety of the rules of play. We nabbed one for having a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle, six for driving deer, and three for late hunting.
The day’s patrol had been quite productive and I’d experienced about all of the violations I cared to for the time being. But I simply couldn’t drive by without doing a little investigative work to find out what these folks were up to.
I continued past the area, acting as though I was a normal motorist so as to not tip my hand that I suspected something was going on far out in the field. At the top of the hill, I shut off my lights, turned around and returned in stealth mode to where I could observe the entire field.
Sure enough, the headlights came back on and a light began sweeping the area. It was obvious there was a little night hunting going on.
The adrenaline began pumping in my veins, but I wasn’t quite as revved up as I usually was when I was about to confront poachers caught committing their dastardly deed. I was simply too tired and unprepared.
When the vehicle shot back onto the road and headed away from me, I quickly fell in behind it and signaled for the driver to stop. Inside the vehicle were two young men from the Belfast area, a large hand-held spotlight, and a loaded rifle — all the elements legally required to establish a night-hunting case.
I placed the young men under arrest and read them their constitutional rights. Both were extremely cooperative, admitted their sins, and fully realized and accepted the consequences for their actions.
In order to expedite the process, and hoping to get home as quickly as possible, I informed my detainees that one of them could ride with me to the county jail. The other could meet us at the lockup with their vehicle. That way, they wouldn’t be stranded at the slammer without a means of transportation once they posted the required bail.
They both admitted as to knowing where the jail was located; apparently they had visited the facility a time or two in the past.
Justin climbed into the cruiser alongside of me and we struck out for the correctional facility some 15 miles away. I followed behind Justin’s buddy like a wart on a toad’s rump as we hit the main highway heading for Belfast.
In my haste to get going, I foolishly never bothered to obtain his identification. I had no clue who the man was poking along in front of us with gobs of mud falling off the vehicle. I simply figured I’d follow him to the jail and get the information I needed when we arrived.
Admittedly, it was sloppy and careless police work on my part. I blamed my lack of normal protocol processing the individuals on my fatigue. As we drove along the road heading to jail, a front tire on my cruiser went flat, forcing us to the roadside.
Justin’s buddy continued on up over the hill completely unaware of the problem unfolding behind him.
“Great, just freaking great,” I grumbled. There I was at 2:30 in the morning, with a prisoner seated alongside of me, sitting at the edge of the road with a flat tire and unable to proceed. A detainee — whose name I didn’t even know — was driving away from me and, to top it off, I didn’t have a spare tire. Now that’s what I considered bad timing!
We watched as Justin’s pal drove out of sight. “What’s your pal’s name,” I calmly asked Justin.
“I’m really not sure,” he wisely smirked, “I just met him a few hours earlier at a bar in Belfast.”
Somehow, I didn’t get the feeling he was being quite truthful, but at that point what more could I do?
Grabbing hold of the police radio, I inquired from the sheriff’s office if any deputies patrolling in the area could head my way. I asked if someone could intercept the prisoner I had been escorting to the facility and, secondly, if anyone might have a spare tire kicking around the office that would fit my truck.
It was a rather embarrassing message to have going out over the airways, but what choice did I have? Hopefully, my boss was home in bed and wouldn’t hear the radio traffic.
Fortunately, Warden Dave Allen happened to be cruising in nearby Waldo. He quickly responded to my desperate request. “I’m close to the area, John, I’ll swing out to see if I can intercept him. What kind of a vehicle is he driving,” Dave asked with a chuckle.
I could tell from the tone of his voice I was going to be in for some heavy harassment from my fellow brothers in uniform over this latest fiasco. But for the time being, my intentions were to make sure that Justin’s buddy continued heading to jail, as I’d instructed him to.
“Be on the lookout for an old green Pontiac covered with mud,” I informed Dave. “You can’t miss it, the mud clinging to the sides of the car is quite obvious. There’ll be a lone male occupant driving the vehicle.”
A few minutes later, Dave chuckled a response. “I just stopped that vehicle and talked to the driver, John,” he said. “I asked him where he was going at this time of the day. He said he was under arrest and heading for the jail.”
“I asked him if he wanted me to follow him there and he said he could find it all right. I’m sure he’ll be there when you arrive,” Dave said, snickering, obviously amused at my predicament, as he offered to bring a spare tire my way.
A few minutes later, the radio crackled again. It was the sheriff’s office. “Warden Ford, a man just walked into the jail claiming that he was under arrest by you. Are you familiar with him and, if so, what might the charges be?”
Obviously, they too were quite amused that a man would commit himself to jail without an officer accompanying him. It was a rarity, indeed.
In a few moments, Dave arrived at my location with a spare tire and a twisted smirk on his face. His arrival was like the second coming of Jesus, the way I looked at it. It was my saving grace, for sure.
Soon, Justin and I were once again headed for the jail. There, we met his companion and a highly surprised turnkey, who was quick to say, “As long as I’ve been here at this jail, I’ve never had a man come in off the street at 2:30 in the morning all by himself saying he was under arrest and voluntarily turn himself in.”
Jokingly, he added, “I don’t even know if the poor guy realizes what he’s under arrest for.”
I couldn’t wait to get home and go to bed. I hoped that when I awoke the next morning all of this would have been nothing more than a bad dream. But it wasn’t to be.
Timing, I had found, was the most important factor in the great profession I’d chosen. Being in the right place at the right time seldom happened.
That night, my timing for getting a flat tire was bad. But I think Justin and his buddy’s timing was much, much worse. They had to suffer a few days at the Waldo County Crowbar Hilton, the loss of a weapon, and the draining of their pocketbooks. Overall, I’d say the bad timing was much more severe on their ends than mine.
The personal lesson I learned from that awkward night was to always be aware of whom I was dealing with and to always carry a spare tire. I pledged from that night forward that a similar scenario would not happen again.
In the end, the events created yet another memory for the diaries. Life in the wild was very good.