Bill Johnson, the manager and head of the Chula Vista PD crime lab, has collected 20 or so crime scenes in what he calls “The Red Book,” each scene represented by a few, and sometimes only one, photograph. Bill (and his colleagues) get there after the deeds are done. He’s worked as a crime-scene investigator and forensic specialist for 25 years, so this collection is a fraction of what he’s seen in his career. Some of the pictures are grisly, some are sad, some even funny, and some just nutty-tragic.
When I looked through “The Red Book,” it struck me as a montage, a musical suite, a poem cycle, describing in images the essence of a man’s life work. It’s a distillation, with a rhythm and implicit narrative, of the cruelties and foibles, the numbness, the bent passions, the selfishness, and the breathtaking violence we humans do to ourselves and/or to each other. The things these men and women who work here see, with some regularity, can tear your soul from your body.
Johnson’s first passion was flying, but an ear problem kept him from a military career or commercial piloting. He considered working as a crop duster — that badly he wanted to fly. But reminded that a crop duster eats a lot of crop dust in his life, he turned to other things: photography and police work. Born in Luverne, Minnesota, a few miles from the South Dakota border, Bill graduated from nearby South Dakota State College. He also has two MA degrees and a bfa in photography. His father was a dentist, a part-time rancher, and a WWII vet who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Bill said he never talked about it. When Bill was 21, his mother died. Captain of the pistol team in college, he was and still is a crack shot. He married his high school sweetheart, Sandy, a public-school teacher, and they have a son in his 20s who is also a teacher.
They moved to California in the late ’60s, and Bill entered one of the country’s top schools of photography, the Brooks Institute of Photography, in Santa Barbara. After a stint as a sheriff’s deputy, a tip from a friend led him to a job at the Chula Vista PD as crime-scene photographer. He’d had a taste of this as a deputy when someone tossed him a roll of film and told him to develop it. As he stood over the pan in the darkroom and watched the image emerge, he realized it was a young man whose face was split down the middle with an ax or machete, his eyes looking and leaning in opposite directions. “Kind of an abrupt introduction to forensic photography,” Bill said. The boy was one of two killed while sleeping on the beach. A third boy was badly mutilated. Bill said, “At that moment I realized I had the opportunity to make a difference.”
From “The Red Book”: Guy with his chin on the seat of a chair, an ordinary vinyl chair, part of a cheap dinette set. The rest of his body slumps in a loose banana-shape behind him, about half of it on the floor and the rest hanging by his chin from the chair seat. I should say: hanging by what is left of his chin. The man is dead. Dead people, people shot or stabbed or battered, always lie skewed, twisted in positions the most advanced yoga master could not duplicate. A good chunk of this man’s chin is missing, and in another photograph you can see much of his throat is also gone to pulp, rended by slugs or buckshot, at close range, from a sawed-off shotgun. Here’s the scene: one set of bad guys busts into the apartment of another set of bad guys to rip off drugs and money. The invaded bad guys are all on the floor with guns aimed at their brains. The drop, as they say, was gotten on them. One of the guys on the floor, however, not happy with this arrangement, is mouthing off, not a smart thing to do when men wired on meth point guns at your head. The boss of the invading bad guys orders one of his boys to silence the excessively verbal and negative bad guy on the floor — shut him up with the butt of the sawed-off shotgun. The boss was not yet ready to murder, or order a murder — and now the boss is dead: shotgun banging head of bad guy on floor goes off and kills bad guy who ordered his beating. And there he lies, a pile of dirty laundry rising behind him.
Bill took me on a tour of the Chula Vista PD before we got to the crime lab in the basement. We ran into a couple of swat guys outside. A very large officer, Scott Arsenault, who looked like he could bench-press one of the new Volkswagens, was modifying the swat team’s truck. He was recently appointed “first man in,” meaning if they make a forced entry, say into a building where hostages are held, he goes first. Others on the team follow quickly behind, each with a role. Another swat officer, Bruce Thiesen, joined us. He’s of average height but ripped — huge pecs and cannonball deltoids. Is it my imagination that cops are bigger, stronger, tougher than they used to be? I didn’t see many around here about whom one would make doughnut jokes. The Chula Vista swat team, founded in 1972, has never fired a shot in anger, never lost a man, a hostage, or a hostage-taker. Their record is 100 percent. I don’t know how that measures up with swat teams in other similar-sized cities around the country, but it doesn’t take a statistical genius to figure out none are better.
We stopped in the office that handles child-abuse cases. No one was in at the moment except dozens of stuffed animals — elephants, bears, monkeys, and ducks, reds and yellows and blues. I didn’t go back to that room.