By the time Ness and Chamberlin arrived at the county sheriffs office, the press conference was already under way.
“… and so my men began looking for links between the victims- the three that the Cleveland police have managed to identify, at least tentatively-looking for someone who might have known them and might have had some reason to kill them. This was no easy chore, but perseverance and hard work always pay off in the end, and this case…”
Ness made his way forward, trying to get close enough to see what was going on without attracting the attention of the reporters. He did not want to appear to be basking in reflected glory; in fact, in this instance, he’d just as soon not be noticed at all.
The county sheriff, Martin O’Donnell, stood behind the podium reading his report in a deep gruff voice. The fact that he mispronounced several words suggested to Ness that he’d gotten someone else to write it. He was a middleweight man in a beige uniform that almost blended into the podium, but his shock of white hair glimmered in the noonday sun like a halo.
Just behind him, six of the sheriffs men flanked a seated man who clearly was not a member of the sheriffs department. He looked dirty and tired. His hair was greasy and he sagged forward in the chair, almost limp. He hadn’t shaved for days. Ness noticed that his shirt was torn and soaked with sweat. Perhaps even more telling, he was clutching the right side of his rib cage.
But the most noticeable attribute of the man was his stare-straight ahead, penetrating, but at the same time, strangely vacant. He reminded Ness of a hypnotist he had once seen on vaudeville. As creepy as his expression was, it was difficult to look away.
“… and so I sent my men to a bar at the corner of East Twentieth and Central frequented by all three of the identified victims, as well as a horde of other prostitutes and pimps and petty criminals. One of my agents learned of a person named Frank who supposedly knew all three. In fact, he once lived with Florence Polillo. Expert investigative work soon led him to the man we now have in custody-Frank Dolezal.”
O’Donnell gestured broadly, directing everyone’s attention to the man seated behind him. The man-apparently Dolezal-took no notice. He continued to stare straight ahead with his spooky wide-eyed glare. Ness wondered if he ever blinked.
“The preliminary investigation into Mr. Dolezal revealed that he worked as a bricklayer-but previously worked in a slaughterhouse.”
The reaction from the reporters was immediate. Pencils sailed across their notepads.
“Subsequent investigation revealed that he kept a stockpile of butcher knives in his home. We have obtained several reports from people indicating that he threatened them with the same knives. He lives in an apartment at 1908 Central, which as I’m sure you all know is very near where the remains of Flo Polillo were found, neatly wrapped up and placed in baskets. At this point, my men obtained a warrant and searched his apartment. What they found, gentlemen of the press, is nothing less than horrifying.” He paused dramatically. “On his bathroom floor, and particularly in the bathtub, they discovered disturbing dark stains.”
Ness had to give the man credit for at least one thing: He was spinning his yarn like a master storyteller.
“The conclusion seems inescapable. He knew the victims; he frequented the same bar. He had the weapons, the opportunity, and the violent nature. He killed these people in the bathtub, hacked them to bits, then washed away most of the evidence. But you don’t have to rely on my reasoning, because after two days of intensive questioning by my officers, he confessed.”
Once again, O’Donnell gestured toward Dolezal. “This man seated behind me has been the subject of the most intensive manhunt in Cleveland history.” He paused looking straight out into the throng. “The Mad Butcher is Frank Dolezal.”
No reaction from Dolezal himself. As soon as O’Donnell stopped talking, a dozen hands flew into the air. The sheriff recognized a reporter from the Plain Dealer.
“Is it common for the sheriffs office to be involved in local murder investigations?”
“No,” O’Donnell said, providing the answer everyone attending already knew, “but extraordinary crimes call for extraordinary measures.”
“Did you inform Chief Matowitz that you were investigating the murders?”
“Is it appropriate for the sheriffs office to independently supplement the city police’s ongoing investigation?”
O’Donnell took a deep breath. “Under the circumstances, I thought they could use all the help they could get.”
Broad grins spread through the throng of reporters. There was no need to explain what that meant.
“What I don’t understand,” another reporter said, “is how you were able to catch this man so quickly, when the Cleveland police have been investigating for more than a year, and they haven’t even produced a viable suspect.”
“You’ll have to answer that one for yourselves,” O’Donnell said. “Or perhaps you could ask our esteemed Safety Director, Mr. Eliot Ness.” He pointed out into the audience.
All the reporters whirled around.
Great, Ness thought. Serves me right for coming here.
The reporters began to swarm.
“Mr. Ness!” someone shouted. “What do you think about the sheriff solving your case?”
Ness’s brain raced. There were two ways he could handle this. He could tell them what he really thought, or…
“The sheriff is to be commended for his investigation,” Ness said. “The leads he has uncovered will, of course, be followed up.”
“But the man confessed!”
Ness nodded, smiling. “My department and I stand ready to make available to the sheriff any information or facilities that could be of assistance.”
The reporter from the Plain Dealer scratched his head. “But the killer has already been caught.”
Ness kept his expression steady and unresponsive. “I hope so.”
“C’mon,” one of the other reporters said. “Tell the truth. This has got to stick in your craw. You’ve been looking for this guy for so long-and now the sheriff swoops in and puts him behind bars.”
“Doesn’t matter who does it, or who gets the credit,” Ness said firmly. “What matters is that the killer is put away.”
“And preferably before the elections, right?” O’Donnell said, bringing the attention back around to himself. “Perhaps the next time our Reform mayor decides to go reforming, he should look a little closer to home.”
He folded his script and tucked it inside his coat pocket. “Now if you’ll excuse me, my friends, we’re going to continue interrogating this murderer.”