Why you should care
Because sometimes bravery is just dealing with the cards you’ve been dealt.
My friend Matt and I sat in his idling Volvo on the front lot of my father’s former business. The windows of the building were obscured by warped, faded blinds and sun-bleached signs, and a dozen junked 18-wheelers were strewn behind us on the white gravel. I hadn’t been here in 25 years. I needed to go inside, but I also needed a cover story.
I looked at Matt and said, “You’re scouting locations for your next film.” He raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure about this?” I nodded and got out of the car before I could lose my nerve.
On the night of September 10, 1987, my father vanished from this place. He called my mother to say he was on his way home; he never showed up. From the start, our family was sure that his business partner, Augie, had him murdered after my father accused him of embezzlement — all vehemently denied by Augie. Detectives at Baltimore City Homicide have said they had similar suspicions, but no charges were ever brought. Over the years the case first grew cold and then became the stuff of cop campfire lore. David Simon based an episode of Homicide on it in 1997 and later mentioned my father by name in The Wire. In 2008, Sergeant Roger Nolan, then head of the cold case unit, told me, “We sit around this office sometimes and wonder, Whatever happened to Eddy Crane?”
Curtis Bay is a queer little hillbilly enclave, eight miles and a galaxy or two from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the tourist be-all and end-all that politicians have long vaunted as evidence of citywide cultural renaissance. Matthew’s grandmother, my 92-year-old friend and pen pal Marie Collins, grew up here among a clan of Polish immigrants, the Tolajewskis and the Kolajewskis. Marie remembers orchards. But heavy industry — solvents and coal and medical waste, oh my — killed them off, leaving only street names like Birch, Hazel, Filbert and Elmtree as a clue to the past. A headline in the October 3, 1951, Baltimore Sun declares, “Flowers Wilt, Nylons Run in Curtis Bay Smog.” The decades brought isolation, decay — and an insular mind-set. People here knew what happened to my father. No one, however, would talk.
My dad was co-owner of a business that cannibalized big-rig trucks and resold the parts. The year that he died, the company was bringing in annual revenue of about $3 million, according to my uncle, who worked there as a salesman. For the past five years, I’d been trying to figure out what had happened to Eddy Crane, interviewing cops and old co-workers, slowly piecing together what would become a murky vision not only of the crime but also of my dad himself. This gravel lot where Matt and I now sat, it was where I hunted for tadpoles in puddles with my dad when I was little. And still it colors all my dreams. My family remains fearful of Augie’s family — my inheritance from my father’s career is 25 years of terror.
In July 2007, an alarm clock went off in my gut. It had been nearly 20 years since the morning when my mother sat on my bed to wake me and said, “Dad didn’t come home last night.” Two decades, and he was no closer to coming home or being properly buried than he was when I was 12. Waiting on a missing person over the slow creep of years instills a feral kind of patience. But that July, the patience evaporated, leaving only the feral. Despite the periodic and tepid reassurances that the cops were still keeping an eye out for leads, I knew they had long ago given up. The adults had failed the child me. But at 32, I was an adult now too. I had to do something. The fuzzy, timid, stunted, perennially semi-suicidal self I’d been since 1987 began to fall away, became a ghost. The woman who stepped in was dogged, obsessive, increasingly ruthless.
So, ice-cold and hell-bent, I ended a four-year live-in relationship. I left my job as deputy managing editor of SmartMoney magazine in New York City. I flew to San Francisco and drove back across the country with the feisty husky I co-parented — I needed some living chaperone. To get started, I spoke with my mother and uncle, who were horrified at my plans and begged me to beg off. I was sick with a nagging, oily dread that I was endangering the people who raised me on a childish whim. I kept going anyway. I initiated contact with the cold case unit and tracked down the retired detectives who had worked on my father’s case. Around the same time, I cashed in $500 of savings bonds that Augie and his wife had given me as a baby. With those funds, I hired private investigators to try to assess how much trouble I was getting myself and my family into. They didn’t have a clue.
My quest led me to funny places. For a time I chased a missing skull with a backwoods coroner’s office in rural Virginia. Then there was the wall — the one where a Curtis Bay insider told me my dad was entombed. And in late 2011, I persuaded my mother to have a funeral for Dad. In 20 years, we’d done nothing of the sort. You could say that it was technically a memorial, not a funeral. To that I say: my world, my words. My work also unearthed rumors about my father — that he was the embezzler, not Augie; that he was not the sterling family man I’d believed him to be; that his business was not entirely aboveboard. (In fact, in a heated phone conversation, Augie’s daughter told me that my father stole over a million dollars.) Yet one police detective told me my dad had been an FBI informant.
For the first year, I lived mostly on savings as I conducted an investigation that often felt pointless, harebrained. I was working with a literary agent and diligently writing and rewriting a hundred pages of book proposal for a book no one ultimately bought. When the money ran out and the pit of debt cracked open, I went back to my professional version of bartending — copy chiefing. Some freelancing, some staff jobs. In all those years, I had tried to come to Curtis Bay twice before, both times with Gordon Porterfield, Matt’s father, whom I’d claimed as adoptive parent with the zeal of a barnacle when Matt and I were teens. Both of those forays concluded in panic attack.
I followed Matt into the business, and two things assaulted me: the smell and the size. Motor oil and metal — home. This fragrance has never left my nose or my throat. But this place was a dollhouse. How was it possible for a building to shrink, and so dramatically? As Matt asked to speak to the daughter — let’s call her Margaret — for a split second I was 12 again, shy and tubby. It was me who’d gotten bigger, not the business that had gotten smaller.
I barely noticed as Margaret emerged and Matt gave her his filmmaker speech. They bantered about Matthew McConaughey and Curtis Bay as film set; my eyes wandered over every inch. The back hall, where I’d taught myself to type at the secretary’s desk, where police had found a mop bucket full of bloody water. Beyond that, my father’s office, where he’d dole out fresh pads of yellow legal paper for me to write stories on, and where the cops had discovered puttied-over bullet holes in his desk. And off to the right, the cheap brick where crime technicians had pried a bullet and brain matter from the wall. His attackers had likely tried to force him outside, detectives said, but he was a huge man with a temper, and so they suspect they had to kill him right here. The cleanup was a rush job by rednecks with pistols, one detective told me, not criminal masterminds.
“How come you don’t say anything?”
Margaret was talking to me. Oh. I’d been hiding behind my old friend’s black-clad, heavily tattooed frame, my reddish-brown hair in curtains over my cheeks, worried my face would speak my name.
“Oh … I let Matt do the talking,” I said quietly, doing my best dumb-girlfriend routine. Her father, whom I’d called Uncle Augie for the first dozen years of my life, had died, reportedly by suicide, the previous May. Hanging, according to dispatch records. I didn’t sleep for a week, and for the first three feverish days, I did everything I could to locate the funeral. I was frantic to look him in the eye — to see the bogeyman who’d been fouling the family closet for all this time. To make sure he was dead. I called 12 funeral homes; I called the medical examiner’s office; I begged the current cold case unit to help me — and was rebuffed. Gazing into Margaret’s eyes, sharp and framed in glinting blue eyeshadow, wasn’t the same, but it was something.
Matt asked her what the neighborhood was like. “We’re friendly down here,” she said. “Not like other parts of the neighborhood. It’s not safe, and the cops are useless.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. I stared at her, both petrified that she’d recognize me and longing for it. What did I think was about to happen? What would I say to her — “I’m Kate Crane. I’ve wondered all these years if your father killed mine”? And then what? Nothing passed between us; not even a flicker of recognition crossed her face.
Matt and I left, through a glass door that opened into a narrow space that led to a cheaper storm door. At the time of my father’s disappearance, he weighed close to 300 pounds. It must have been hellish to haul his dead or dying person down those little wood-paneled stairs, through the gap in the service counter, and then through this two-door combo — a stretch for two slender members of the living. I banged my hip and felt a flash of smug. If you’re going to get away with murder, it should take some elbow grease. I hoped my father’s killers banged their hips at least as hard as I had. That killing him had marked them somehow.
We headed over to Taylor’s 5000, a bar a few blocks away that’s been in Curtis Bay since the ’60s. Matt gave his card and his filmmaker spiel to the wizened 70-something in the camo jacket and Orioles cap behind the bar. “We were just around the corner at that trucking company,” Matt told him.
“Oh, that place?” His face lit up. “Them guys were crooks,” he said in a trademark Baltimore accent. “You’d take your truck in for an oil change and it would come back missing an engine. One of them partners hanged himself last year,” he added.
I asked him what happened to the other one.
Nobody really knows, he said. “His partner knocked him off. People say they took ’is body down the road to Valley Protein. Ground the bastard up!”
The cabbage soup here is famous. Matt and I sat under the faded Ravens pennants and photos of John Wayne and ordered some. Wordless, we exchanged glances at the gnarled shreds of fatty meat, murky and motionless in the bottoms of our bowls.