Accidental Contact

an excerpt

The words to the Joni Mitchell song about paradise being paved were running through my mind as I drove my truck from Waikiki into downtown Honolulu on a crisp winter Tuesday morning. The sun shone brightly over the green mass of the Ko'olau mountains and palm trees swayed in a gentle breeze. But everywhere I looked, construction cranes had sprung up, like giant monsters devouring the landscape.

My radio crackled to life when I was still a few blocks away from my office at the Honolulu Police Department, where I was the only openly gay homicide detective. It wasn't a distinction I aimed for, but rather one that was thrust upon me, one I tried to honor as much as I could.

Dispatch directed me to an alley off Lauhala Street, in the shadow of the H1 highway, where the body of an unidentified male had been found in a construction dumpster. It was a few blocks past police headquarters down South Beretania Street, and as I passed the four-story building, I thought ruefully of all the paperwork on my desk that I still wasn't going to get finished.

I pulled up behind a patrol car on Lauhala, next to a medical office building under construction by The Queen's Medical Center. The sun was rising over Mount Tantalus and the central business district was beginning its day. The weatherman had promised us rain later in the day, but the trade winds were blowing off the ocean and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

The responding officer was Lidia Portuondo, a no-nonsense patrol officer I had known for years. Her dark hair was coiled in a bun, her uniform neat and crisp. "What have we got?" I asked, as I walked to where she stood talking to a scruffy-looking guy who I guessed was Samoan, about six-four and close to 350 pounds.

To the Samoan man, she said, "This is Detective Kanapa'aka, from homicide." Then she turned to me. "Morning, Kimo. Mr. Momoa here is a laborer on the site over there." She motioned toward the half-built building. A four-story steel skeleton had been clad in concrete block, and a flat corrugated steel roof was in place. I could see that they had already begun framing out the office space on the first floor with metal studs and drywall.

"I clean up before the guys get started," Momoa said. "At night, stuff blows around in the wind, and sometimes kids or bums get in. I took a load of stuff out to the dumpster. I get the lid up, and I'm about to pour the crap in when I see the guy there."

"A Filipino male, approximately forty years of age, resting on his side," Lidia said. "Big stab wound to the back. Noted this thing, might be the weapon, next to the body."

"What do you mean, thing?"

She shrugged. "I don't know what to call it."

"Show me."

She and Momoa walked me over to the dumpster, which had been propped open. The crime scene team arrived, so she went to brief them, and I stepped up to the dumpster and looked inside. The body lay on a bed of drywall debris, the legs curled in a partial fetal position. Next to it was the bloody weapon Lidia had mentioned.

I recognized it immediately. When I was a teenager I spent my summers working for my father, a general contractor. I did everything from cleaning up, like Momoa, to hanging drywall, and I could still recognize the sharp-pointed rigid blade of a wallboard saw. It was used for things like cutting out a hole in drywall for an electrical outlet or phone jack.

I stepped back from the dumpster and let the crime scene techs do their work. I called the ME's office and asked them to send out a wagon, then took a detailed statement from Momoa, finding out he had left the site the day before at three-thirty. A number of carpenters had still been working when he left.

Then I joined Lidia in taking statements from each of the other workers-what time they had left the day before, had they seen anyone around the site, and so on. It was tedious work, and the cool morning air burned off quickly. Even in a blue-and-white aloha shirt, khakis, and deck shoes without socks, I was roasting. I moved the interviews to the shade of a big kukui tree, but that didn't help much.

When the ME's van arrived, Doc Takayama was with them. "Slow day today?" I asked. It was rare that our ME came out for anything less than a high-profile homicide. Then I saw the way he was looking at Lidia and it clicked. I'd had a feeling the two had a relationship that was more than professional.

"Just wanted to get out in the sunshine for a few minutes," Doc said. He was carrying a short yellow plastic stool that I wondered about. Was it part of some new forensic technique?

I watched as he walked over to the dumpster, where he met and talked to Lidia. Then she gave him a leg up and he climbed into the dumpster with his plastic stool. I stood in the shade of the kukui and waited until his head popped up again. I realized he'd carried the stool into the dumpster with him so he'd have a way to get out. The things you learn working with a pathologist.

I walked over to him as he was peeling off his blue rubber gloves. "You have anything for me yet?"

"From the angle of entry, the victim was most likely kneeling on the floor, the knife thrust into his back from above," he said. He still looked incongruously young to me, though at thirty-two we were the same age. Doc, however, had already gone through medical school, a residency, and internship, as well as a fellowship in pathology at Claremont. He joked that he had chosen to be an ME because his patients couldn't complain about how young he looked.

"Consistent with someone begging for his life?" I asked.

"That would be a reasonable interpretation," Doc said.

"And any idea about time of death?"

"Without opening him up, I can only say sometime in the last twelve to eighteen hours. I'll try and narrow that gap once I see what's what."

His techs lifted the body out of the dumpster and waited while I took a bunch of digital photos of the victim's face. He was neatly dressed, in lightweight scrubs and an orange t-shirt that read "Hug a Pineapple." No wallet or other identification. His shoes were interesting; white, rubber-soled clogs, which made me think he was a nurse at Queen's, that perhaps he'd been mugged leaving work the night before.

Once the techs were gone and the carpenters had all gone back to work, I headed for the cool, air-conditioned interior of the medical center. I started at the security office, but no on one duty recognized the victim's photo. After trying a couple of floors, I found a haole, or white, woman in the medical-surgical unit who said, "Oh, my God, that's Miguel," covering her mouth with her hand.

"I'm sorry," I said. "Do you know Miguel's last name?"

"Bohulano. Oh my God, he's dead, isn't he?"

I asked her to spell the name. "We worked together sometimes, but not recently," she said. "Let me check the computer." She leaned toward the monitor and hit a couple of keys. "He was on yesterday from seven a.m. to three-thirty p.m. Marta was here, too."

She introduced me to Marta, a young Filipina nurse. "He say anything about where he was going after work?" I asked.

She shook her head. Miguel was a sweet guy, she said, always cracking jokes and singing funny songs in Tagalog. Patients liked him. He was neat and his case notes were clear. No one else I spoke to on the floor had much else to contribute.

I went to the personnel office and spoke with a middle-aged Chinese woman named Helen Lau. She looked up his records on her computer. "He's originally from the Philippines," she said. "He went to nursing school there, and he had a current nursing license."

"Next of kin?"

She gave me an address for his mother in Quezon City.

"How long had he worked here?"

"According to this, just under a year," she said.

I asked what kind of employee he had been. She was apologetic; it was hospital policy not to divulge anything from an employee's personnel file without a court order, even in a case like this, where the records might help lead to his murderer.

"There is one thing I can tell you," she said. "Good nurses are hard to find, and hospitals work hard to hold on to them. Mr. Bohulano's record indicates he moved around a lot more frequently than a good nurse would. When you get the subpoena for our records, get one for each of the places he worked before, too."

I wrote down the information I needed, thanked her, and said I'd be back when I had the paperwork. By the time I got downstairs, the rain the weatherman had predicted had arrived, a heavy shower that lasted only long enough to drench me as I ran to my truck.

It was already past lunchtime, so I grabbed some takeout to eat at my desk while I put together the information the DA's office would need for the subpoenas. While I waited for them, I finished the paperwork on a couple of outstanding cases-a college girl shot by a jealous boyfriend as she came out of the downtown office building where she had a part-time job, and a tourist knifed in a late-night mugging a few blocks from the Aloha Tower.

By the end of my shift I didn't have anything new-the ME's report wouldn't come through ‘til the next day, and the DA's office was still processing all those subpoenas. The weather had cleared up, so after I drove back to my apartment in Waikiki, I pulled out my surfboard and walked down to Kuhio Beach Park.

The longer I remained a homicide detective, the harder it got to contemplate the parade of victims, and surfing was the only way I could stay sane. Outside the breakers, I focused on watching the waves, choosing the one that would carry me to shore. I could forget the senseless deaths, the innocent and guilty victims, the pain of those left behind.

The beach was crowded and it was hard to catch a good wave, and as the sunset cruises began to leave with their colorful sails unfurled, I rode one last wave to the shore. I walked up the sand toward home, but like a homing beacon, I felt the Rod and Reel Club signaling to me.

You'd think I would stay away from the place, after the trouble I had run into there in the past, but it was the closest gay bar to my apartment, and the bartender let me run a tab. It was a friendly place, and the mix of gay and straight patrons made it easier for me as I took my first steps out of the closet. I'd met other guys there who felt the same way.

Still damp, I pulled up a stool at the bar and ordered a Longboard Lager. It was the tail end of happy hour, and the patio wasn't too crowded. A couple of tourist clusters filled the round tables, and a smattering of gay men sat at the bar or lounged in small groups under the big kukui tree. I didn't see anyone I knew, or anyone I wanted to know, so I finished my beer and went home.

Wednesday morning I was at my desk at seven. The DA's office had prepared the subpoenas and gotten them signed late the day before, and then faxed them to the appropriate hospitals. Our department fax started ringing with their responses, and I spent most of the morning looking at Miguel Bohulano's personnel records.

At each hospital, male patients had complained of inappropriate touching, often when they were partially sedated. And in each case, Bohulano had first been disciplined, then warned, then finally fired. But because of the confidentiality of personnel records, the next hospital down the chain knew nothing of his previous problems. At Queen's, he was already on probation for two offenses. In one case, his statement read that his mouth had "accidentally" come in contact with the patient's penis while Bohulano was changing a dressing on the man's leg.

Thinking back on all my sexual experiences, I knew my mouth had never "accidentally" come in contact with another man's penis, nor vice versa. I looked at the employee photos that had been faxed over as part of Bohulano's records; he wasn't a bad-looking guy. A bit skinny and ten years too old for my taste, but there were certainly enough rice queens-non-Asian men who preferred Asian male lovers-in Honolulu to keep him busy on a Saturday night. Or sticky guys-Asian men who liked Asians.

I sat back in my chair to contemplate Miguel Bohulano's life. He grew up in Quezon City and went to nursing school in Manila. Had he been abused as a boy? How had he come to associate power with sex? Surely in jerking off male patients under their flimsy gowns, he was asserting his power over them. A clear abuse of his ethics as a nurse-as well as behavior that was unlikely to result in the patient asking him out on a date.

There was no way to find out what had happened in his childhood; the only person who might have a clue was his mother, and he probably never told her anything about it. He had left the Philippines ten years before, and I had no doubt that patient abuse had caused his departure. I didn't know what privacy laws were like in the Philippines, but it was possible he'd been blacklisted for an incident, or else had simply seen the handwriting on the wall and left for Hawai'i.

In the last ten years he had worked for five different hospitals, each one passing him on to the next employer without a negative word. Indeed, the folders were filled with praise-he was skilled, caring, a patient favorite-except for those complaints.

Because I'm a cop, and I look for patterns, I went back over the incident reports. Had Miguel Bohulano picked a particular type of guy-by age, ethnicity, ailment? I couldn't find one. A couple of the victims self-identified in their complaint as gay, while several others made a point of asserting their heterosexuality. Another group made no mention.

Shortly after noon, the ME's report came in. It confirmed everything Doc had told me the morning before-Bohulano had been on his knees, and the knife blow to his back had come from above. The wallboard saw was the weapon, but the killer must have used work gloves, because there were no prints on it.

One fact stood out. Traces of dried semen had been found around Bohulano's mouth. I picked up the phone and dialed the morgue. After I bantered for a few minutes with his merry receptionist, Doc came on the line. "The position of the victim and the murderer," I said. "Is that also consistent with the possibility that Bohulano had just given a blow job?"

"I thought you'd come to that conclusion, detective," he said. "That hypothesis is supported by the presence of dried semen at the edge of the victim's lip. I put the DNA sample on ice in case you find someone I can match it to."

"That's cold," I said. "I mean, what kind of a guy has an orgasm, then immediately plunges a knife into the back of the guy who gave him the pleasure?"

"That's what they pay you to find out, isn't it? Let me know if you find some semen for me to match."

I hung up with Doc and I walked to my boss's office. Lieutenant Sampson was a big, burly guy fond of polo shirts; that day's was a bright ruby red. "I've made some progress on the dead nurse," I said. I sat down across from his desk and laid the evidence out for him.