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Corrupt Cops in Sturgis, South Dakota
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We entered the town of Sturgis. We saw a black sign that said, “Welcome to Sturgis” in orange. In gray text it said, “Legendary City of Riders.” It was a big motorcycle town, Ray said. He’d been through the town before, during his four years off the grid in his teens. He’d been everywhere.
Ray sat in the passenger seat. I sat in back. Jackie drove. Our windows were down. Cool morning air rushed in. We had an ambitious day planned: A nine-and-a-half hour drive west to Missoula, Montana. That was the goal anyway. Ray and Jackie talked up front. She told him about growing up in Maine, her mom’s death when she was thirteen, her dad’s sheep farm, moving to San Francisco in 2008, city college.
I reached down in the back seat and pulled out one of the four Budweiser cans left from last night. It was still mildly cold.
I popped the clip quietly. They didn’t seem to notice. I chugged. The air rushed my face through the open window. I held my arm out the window and felt the cool air against it. I sighed. This was good. Young and alive and free. Driving west through South Dakota. Soon we’d be in Wyoming.
I took another glug of the beer. My morning medicine.
“Fuck!” Jackie cursed, out of the blue.
“What?” I said, suddenly alert.
“Cops,” she said.
Ray looked through his side-mirror. I glanced behind me out the back window. Sure enough, there was a gray police car. Red and blue lights flashed on the bar above the roof. In yellow on the side it said, “South Dakota Highway Patrol.” They had one of those red, white and blue government license plates.
“Shit,” I muttered.
Ray looked at me. “Stow the beer, dude.”
Jackie slowed the car, starting to pull onto the shoulder. Suddenly the morning had swung violently from mellow and cool to…this.
I glugged the rest of the beer. I crushed the can with my foot, on the floor of the car. I jammed the crushed can with the three remaining full beers deep under Jackie’s seat.
We’d stopped on the shoulder. Cars rushed past on I-90. Fuck. Damn it. The gray squad car had pulled over about fifty feet behind us. Their windshield was fully tinted so we couldn’t see the cops. It felt eerie. A shiver jolted my shoulders and zipped down my spine. It tingled.
The minutes passed. “What’s he doing?” I said.
“Just wait,” Ray said. “He’s trying to intimidate us.” He faced Jackie. “Do you still have Maine plates?”
“No,” she said. “I got my California plates a few months ago.”
“Fuck,” Ray said.
Ray shrugged. “We’re in South Dakota. They hate Californians. Most of the country does.”
The door to the gray squad car opened and a big, tall man stepped out from the driver’s side. Then a man equally large from the passenger side. My heart started thumping. My breath surely reeked of beer. Shit. This was one of those nightmare situations. Dumb California kids get pulled over in the middle of the country.
The two cops lugged themselves slowly to the car. They took their time. The guy from the driver’s side walked over to Jackie. The other guy walked to Ray’s side. They both wore black uniforms with the duty belt holding mace, handcuffs, black holstered pistol.
Jackie rolled her window down. The cop on Ray’s side told him to roll his window down, too.
The cop said to Jackie, “License, registration and insurance.” His tone was intense. He did not sound kind or nice. He ogled me in the back seat, holding my eyes for a moment; we stared, and then I blushed and looked away. Don’t speak, James. Stay silent.
Then the cop next to Jackie said, “You, too, both of you. Licenses. I.D.”
Ray and I dug around in our pockets and handed over our driver’s licenses. The cop next to Jackie said, “Be right back.” He nodded to the other cop, who stood next to Ray.
The cop with our I.D. cards walked back to the gray squad car and sat, his door still open, doing background checks. I wasn’t worried about myself—unless the DUI from seven years ago made a difference—or too much about Jackie (although I thought of her pot-sales) but I was worried about Ray.
We waited. The cop by Ray leaned down and looked at each of us in turn. He had short spiky hair and menacing blue eyes. He looked like a corn-fed Midwest boy.
“You all from California?”
“I’m from Maine,” Jackie said. I could tell from her voice that she was trembling, trying to stave off fear. “I moved to California a year ago.”
He faced me. “I’m from California,” I said.
“What part?” His voice was oddly high, but masculine and tough.
“Born and raised north of LA. Moved to San Francisco in 2008.”
The cop smiled, wide, exposing jagged, chipped yellow teeth. “San Francisco, huh? Isn’t that where all them faggots live?”
Maintain, James. Calm down. Leave it alone. Don’t respond.
He faced Ray. “What about you?”
“Born and raised in Boston.”
The cop nodded. “What’re you all doin in Sturgis, South Dakota?”
Behind him, off the shoulder, on the grass off I-90, a second gray squad car pulled up. Immediately the car stopped and the doors opened and two more cops—younger—stepped out. One laughed.
“Well well, what-do-we-got-here?”
The cop talking to us turned and said, “Couple a Californians.”
“Goody goody,” the young cop said. The other young cop stood back behind the squad car, the gray paint shining in the morning sun.
God what I wouldn’t do for a beer right now, I thought. I actually reached down for one, under Jackie’s seat, but then halted. Idiot.
I glanced back behind us. The door of the squad car was still open. The cop was still hidden in there, behind the tinted windshield. What was he discovering?
“Where were we at?” the cop by Ray said again, scratching his head. “Oh…right…whatcha all doin in Sturgis?”
Silence. I swallowed. Tingles of raw fear and nerves tinked against my prickled skin.
Jackie said, “I was visiting my father in Maine. James here, in the back seat, was in New York City. He and Ray are friends and they were in New York together and I picked them up because we’re all heading back west to California.” Her voice sounded quavery, nervous, uncertain.
The cop smiled. He tapped the door. “That so?”
No one answered. He pointed to Ray. “You and…what was your name?”
“James,” I said.
“You and James know each other a long time?” he asked Ray.
Ray glanced back at me and winked. Oh, no.
“A few years,” Ray said, confidently.
“A few years,” the cop repeated. “Uh huh.”
“That true, James?”
My mouth was bone-dry. My throat was tight and constricted. I needed water. I was literally shaking. Cops terrified me. Especially these ones.
“Yep,” I said. I corrected myself. “Yes, sir.”
The cop chuckled. He eyed Jackie. “This all accurate, Ms.?”
“Far as I know. Yes.”
“So you’re all friends and you’re all headed across the country to California?”
I was about to answer when I saw the cop behind us finally step out. He slammed his door shut. He approached. When he reached Jackie he said, “Ok. Everybody out of the car.”
“What?” Jackie said. I heard the fear in her voice.
“I don’t want any trouble,” the cop said. “I’ll arrest you in a wet hot second. Now get out of the car.”
Without another word we got out of the car. The cop who’d stood by Ray walked Jackie, clutching her elbow, back to the squad car behind us. He put her in the back of the car, behind the metal cage, where they put people they arrested. But they hadn’t arrested her. What was going on?
The cop came back. He told us to stand off to the side of the shoulder. The young cop by the other car—he was chewing tobacco now—grinned nastily at us. He was clearly enjoying himself. He spat a gob of brown juice.
A third squad car pulled up. I’d seen the first cop radioing for backup. From that car a cop stepped out with two dogs.
The cop with the dogs walked over. He chatted quietly with the first cop. They stood by the Nissan. I couldn’t see Jackie behind the tinted windshield. God she must be scared. I thought of jail in South Dakota. Sturgis, land of hardcore bikers. And corrupt cops.
The first cop walked over to me and Ray. To me he said, “You’re clean. No record. But you,” he said to Ray, and my heart sank. I felt the pounding in my ears, and along the back of my head. “You have a felony from 2001. Assault and battery. You served five months in Boston county jail.”
Ray nodded. “That I did.”
I waited for the handcuffs. But the cop said, “Well. That was eight years ago. Record looks clean since then.” He paused. Then he said, “We’ve got narcotics-sniffing detection dogs. Are we going to find drugs in the car? You can save yourself a headache by being honest now.”
Ray and I looked at each other. We didn’t speak. Our eyes seemed to signal to each other. We faced the cop.
Ray said, “We have nothing to hide, sir. Look away.”
The cop crossed his arms and leaned against the Nissan. He grinned at us. “Three kids in their twenties. Driving across the country from New York. California plates. What’re you transporting? Pot? Heroin? Crystal?”
To my shock Ray laughed.
“Something funny?” the cop said.
Ray shrugged. “We don’t have anything to hide. Speaking of that, don’t you have to have probable cause?”
“We’re the Law. We can do anything we want. I could take you to the Sturgis County Jail right now, for fun. Just to do it.”
We didn’t speak.
The cop said, “We have probable cause. I explained it, chief. Cali plates. Three youths. You look filthy. Where you been?”
Suddenly the younger cop at the other squad car chuckled. They were all enjoying the show. I glanced at I-90; I saw a truck drive by and the people in it gawked at us, also enjoying the entertainment. I thought, People are entertained by other people’s suffering. It’s just the human condition. We rejoice when others get hurt.
Ray didn’t answer the last question. It hung in the air like electricity.
They walked around the car with the dogs. They opened the doors and the dogs went in, sniffing like fiends. I worried about the Budweiser.
A few minutes later—finding nothing—the first cop said, “Open the trunk.”
“You can pop it under the driver’s seat,” I said.
The cop did. He pulled out my and Ray’s packs. He pulled out Jackie’s black bag, her red bag, her blue backpack. He unzipped her bags and turned them upside down and shook them vigorously. I was shocked. Her blouses and skirts and pants and panties fell out. A pair of pink panties lay on the shoulder, on the gray faded asphalt.
The younger cop laughed again and said, to the cop who’d been questioning us, “Look, Sam. Pink panties.”
They howled with laughter.
“Enough,” the first cop said, not bothering to look at them. He unzipped and dumped her black bag. More of the same. Then my pack, my extra jeans and my moleskin notebook and my extra socks and my Jet Boil and my pens and my bagged food fell out, onto the road. Motherfuckers, I raged in my head. James, James, stay cool, man, I told myself.
It took every ounce of my will-power to remain silent.
He did the same with Ray’s pack. I watched Ray for a reaction but he seemed cool, calm and collected. Like everything else related to rugged travelling, he’d probably been through this, too. I watched his square face and square jaw and his experienced eyes and his tanned skin.
“Well, What-do-we-have-here,” the cop said, a look of angry victory on his face. He held up a dirty glass pipe. Oh, Christ.
“Come here,” he said to us.
We walked to him.
“Whose is this?”
“Mine,” Ray said. He looked at me. Now he seemed anxious.
The cop smelled it, close to his big nostrils. “Smells like marijuana.”
Ray said, “I forgot it was even in there. I swear to God.”
“We don’t swear to or at God in this state, Bub.”
“Sorry,” Ray said.
“Hey Sam,” the cop yelled. Sam approached.
“What do we got, boss?” Sam said.
“Marijuana,” he said.
Sam smiled. He looked at us. “Which one of you?”
“Me,” Ray said.
Sam said, “Where’s the rest?”
“There isn’t any more. It’s just that old pipe. I swear to…I swear,” he corrected himself.
Over the next twenty minutes they went to town on the inside of the car. They lifted and opened everything. They searched in the front and back seats, all through the trunk. They used flashlights and searched under the car and in the wheel wells. They opened the gas tank flap and lid. They were absolutely certain we were transporting drugs across the nation.
“Well,” the first cop said, pulling his hat off and wiping sweat from his brow. He plunked the hat back on his head. “We couldn’t find anything.”
Sam said, “But, with the pipe and the felony we could jail all three of you. It’s Friday afternoon so you’d be inside until Monday afternoon.”
Sam and the first cop grinned at each other. They thrilled at the idea.
“But…” the first cop said. “We’ll let ya go. This time. You better not be found in South Dakota for no reason again, though. Understand?”
“Yes,” I said, firmly.
“Yes, sir,” Ray said.
The first cop said, “Good.” He glanced at Sam and they nodded at one another. The first cop walked back to his squad car and a minute later Jackie stepped out. Thank God. He walked her back to us. He handed each of us back our licenses. He gave her back her insurance card and registration.
“Stay safe,” he said. I realized in that moment that he hadn’t even given us a reason for pulling us over. I hadn’t thought of it. I’d been too scared.
We didn’t say a word. The cop and Sam got into their car, flipped a slow U-turn, and drove off. Then the third car left after he put the dogs in the back.
The younger cop from the second car gaped at us disgustingly, spat a gob of brown juice again, and said, tinted aviator shades on now, “Have a nice life, assholes.” He smiled as widely as South Dakota.
He got in his squad car, did a U-turn like the others, and drove off.
Jackie looked at me. She ran into my arms and hugged me. She was still shaking. “You alright?” I asked.
“Oh my God, I thought they were going to kidnap me or something,” she said. When she pulled back she rubbed her wet eyes with her thumbs.
“You ok, Ray?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He grabbed the glass pipe. He threw it on the asphalt a few feet away; it shattered into pieces.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Jackie said.
We quickly picked up all our stuff, strewn across the shoulder of I-90. We bunched it into our packs hastily. Shut the trunk. Jackie got behind the wheel. She wanted to drive again. I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was about control. They miraculously hadn’t mentioned the beer.
She pulled onto I-90. We headed towards Wyoming.
Jackie turned the radio on. Bob Dylan singing, “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man.” She turned it up. I reached under the seat, pulled out a Bud, popped the clip very carefully, so as not to make a sound over the music, and, as if my life depended on it, I drank.