By Louise Ure
I’m no stranger to violence. I’ve found dead bodies. I’ve seen guns and knives drawn. Bar fights. Fatal car crashes. A rape in progress.
But I’d never seen an attempted murder until two weeks ago.
It was 6:30 on a Sunday night. Still broad daylight in my quiet residential neighborhood in San Francisco. My young friend, Maya, and I were sitting in the living room having a glass of wine. I heard two loud bangs of metal on metal – not the kind of thing that sounded like either a car crash or a home repair – and glanced out my third floor window to the street below.
Four white men in their mid-20’s circled a black Dodge 4 X 4 truck parked in front of my house. Two of them held black metal bars three or four feet long and swung them with full force against the knees, shins and arms of the other two.
One young man, disabled by the blows to his legs, got wedged in the gutter between the curb and the back tire of the truck and was unable to move. They struck down with overhand blows to his head – again and again and again — cracking black metal again his skull. His teeth littered the sidewalk. Blood ran down the driveway.
Maya dialed 911 and handed me the phone.
“What do they look like?” the operator said. “How tall? What’s he wearing? Is that assailant Number One or Number Two?”
The picture was unfolding in front of me and yet I know I was unclear in my description. How could I tell their height from three floors up? Based on where their shoulders were next to the truck? “Number One is about six feet. Number Two is a little shorter.”
“What’s Number One wearing?”
“Oh, God, they’re killing him.” I couldn’t take my eyes away from the weapons — the metal poles. I knew exactly what they looked like. I could describe them in my sleep. But apparel? My eyes had skipped right past their clothes. I think Number One had a blue and white striped t-shirt on. But maybe that was Number Two.
“Hey, I see you! I’ve called the cops!” I yelled out the window. The striped t-shirt guy looked up at me in the window then turned back and smashed the metal bar down one more time on the man’s face.
I heard sirens in the distance and apparently so did the bad guys. They took off around the corner on foot. Slowly. Lazily. Just out for a stroll, folks. They took the metal poles with them. How do you disguise those as part of a Sunday afternoon walk in the Richmond?
I tried to memorize everything. The truck’s license plate (although why that would be important is beyond me, the truck was still sitting there, the victim stuck beneath the tire when the police arrived and it turns out it was the victim’s truck anyway), Number Two’s hairstyle (blond, below the ears and shaggy), the high Slavic cheekbones on assailant Number One, the limping path the second victim had taken to the south as he wrapped a sweatshirt around his head to staunch or hide the bleeding and disappear before the cops arrived.
We may write about crime and murder, but as much as we try to imbue our work with verisimilitude, I have never read any crime fiction that could completely replicate the ferocity and time-freezing horror of actually watching a murder occur. Yes, time stands still. But so does rational thinking and response. Breathing is impossible. Skills we thought we could count on vanish. The civilized world as we know it disappears.
“Russian gangs,” the female officer told me three hours later as they finished the investigation and took down the crime scene tape. “And the victims aren’t talking.”
Mine is a multicultural neighborhood, with lots of Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian immigrants pretty much cheek-by-jowl with fairly upscale Caucasian residents. There’s a huge Russian Orthodox church just a couple of blocks away, but I hadn’t realized the power and presence of the Russian mafia and gangs within the community.
It stunned me two days later to realize that I’d had my cell phone right there in my lap and never once thought to take a photo of any of this as the attack continued or the assailants ran away. Maybe it’s a generational thing; maybe a younger witness would automatically have grabbed the camera to record the moment for YouTube or Channel 7 News posterity. Or maybe it’s part of the frozen-moment of horror, when I couldn’t seem to take action with either my words or my limbs.
A detective called Friday night asking for clarification and more details than I’d given in my shaky-hands statement. Both victims are still alive, although the one pinned beneath the wheel may not make it. They’ve got the two attackers. There may have been a gun involved as well.
“Will you testify at the trial?” he asked. You bet. Although I wish I’d had the quick-wittedness and sure-handiness I would have given one of my protagonists and grabbed the cell phone camera rather than rely on my memory. I wish I had the courage and physical prowess I would have given her: she would have come up with a way to thwart the bad guys… to stop the beating…to track them to their lair…to break up the Russian gang.
I may write about murder all day, but it’s different when it shows up on your own doorstep. In broad daylight. On a quiet Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.
How about you guys? Has violence ever come home for you?