Feb. 17—In those first delirious minutes, the dead are mere "victims" — just faceless men and women described in hard voices floating from the police scanner.
For the reporter tracking the call, thoughts are not yet colored by personalities, characteristics or family histories. It's all about facts alone at this phase of things and that's just fine. One can write about Victim A and Victim B in a passionless way, tossing in the "culprit," "suspect" or "perp" where the situation calls for it.
Just the facts, ma'am. Who killed whom? How'd they do it and when, why and where?
Covering killings is like putting puzzle pieces together. In the early hours, there are few pieces to be had, so it's a straightforward affair. We're still limited to victims and perps and all the other generic terminology from the grim vernacular.
In the wee hours Friday morning, I was managing these kinds of cold and faceless facts. I knew that a man and women had been savagely attacked in their home and that chances were good their wounds would prove fatal.
Yet at this hour of darkness, it was easy to remain detached. I wasn't dealing with a husband and a wife, a father and a mother, a brother or a sister. The story was in its embryonic stage and I knew the players only as victims, and the anonymity of that is comforting.
But things change in the harsh light of morning. In the morning, names emerge and with those names soon come faces. Personalities. Histories. And community connections as far as the eye can see.
Your victims become people and more often than not, you discover that they were people who you would have quite liked had you had the pleasure to know them.
A hardworking farmer, a hunter and a fisherman, a man had recently switched from milking to excavation to keep his family comfortable. A dedicated and gifted teacher, adored by students and colleagues alike.
Two people who most of us didn't know the night before, are suddenly taking shape before your eyes. Describing the horrors that were visited upon their home is not so easy when those victims are suddenly filled with a rich array of human qualities that make them real.
You hear about the dead couple's daughters and how well they were raised. You learn about the tightness of the family and about all the cousins, nephews and nieces sprawling across this little town.
The more you explore, the more you learn, and the God-awful senselessness of it becomes more profound by the minute. Now you are not some indifferent crime writer, you are a participant in that sprawling community heartbreak. You are outraged, just like the men talking over the atrocity in the hardware store out on Route 4, or the ladies discussing it in hushed tones at the plant shop a few miles back. You're disgusted. Baffled by the illogical nature of the killings and the dubious motivations of the alleged killer.
Yet, the accused is becoming human, too, now that the story is advancing. Here we have an honor student, a young man from a good home who held a good job and who seemed to have no real qualms with anybody until very, very recently.
In a story as terrible as this one, we want to see a fiendish madman snarling out from the jail mugshot. We want him to have soulless eyes, a face full of scars and a history of violence stretching back through time.
We want our bogeymen to look like bogeymen so that we can assure ourselves that we'd know such a monster if ever we laid eyes on one. There's comfort in that.
Yet the face of Patrick Maher did not do that for us. What we saw staring back from this mugshot was a young man who looked like so many others from that demographic. If anything, the accused killer looked bewildered. Haunted. Maybe a little bit sad.
There is understandably little sympathy rolling around in the community for this unlikely bogeyman, but as the strange case further unfolds before us, there is perhaps room to commiserate with his mother, who is quite likely asking herself the same questions we are, with the unhappy bonus of wondering what went wrong with the son she loves.
It's all very frustrating and crushing in a variety of ways. It's no longer the simple whodunnit that was found only in the earliest moments, and only through anonymous voices murmuring over the radio airwaves.
What happened in Turner on that cold morning was a tragedy of monumental proportions, and while, like you, I'm still trying to get my head around it, I find myself admiring and even missing these two people I never even got a chance to meet.