Death On The Beat

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His shift about to begin, Phoenix police officer Marc Atkinson asks his wife if she knows something he doesn't, the way she keeps telling him to be careful. Yes, maybe she does. Maybe they both know something, but it has no shape. It is the same thing officer Scott Masino's wife feels when she tells him at about the same time that she doesn't want him to go to work. Something unknowable haunts the day.

It is March 26, 1999, the day Atkinson's seven-month-old son Jeremy will learn to drink from a cup, and Marc's wife Karen will page him with the news. It is the day Atkinson, 28, will call old friends out of the blue, uncharacteristically skip lunch and return a long-ago borrowed book to a Maryvale Precinct squad mate--a book on street survival, with a section on ambushes. And then he will ask his sergeant if he can be freed from radio calls to keep an eye on a west Phoenix dive that is a magnet for drug dealers.

At about 5 p.m., Atkinson pulls into the parking lot of the bar along with two other squad cars, and three young men run from the vicinity of a white 1988 Lincoln Town Car. The cops tail them into the bar and ask questions, but the answers lead nowhere. The other two officers peel off, and Atkinson waits, alone, watching the dive from a distance, in a neighborhood gone to hell. This is exactly where he wanted to be.

Atkinson is a former marine, and the well-groomed north side of Phoenix was too quiet for him. Three years ago, he asked for a transfer to Maryvale, where the action is. No white-haired Sansabelts in golf carts here. Drugs rule; gang bangers shoot each other out of boredom; and third-generation Mexican Americans join Anglos in grumbling about the illegals who pour across the border four hours to the south and come here to live, 10 and 20 to a house.

Atkinson, widely regarded as the best cop in his squad, believes he is needed in this precinct. He hands out police-badge stickers to children and tells Karen chilling stories abut the conditions he finds them living in. His sense of frustration grows with each shift, but he is still young enough to think he can make a difference for thousands of residents who sweat the mortgage payments and fear for their kids' safety.

Now he runs the license plate on the Lincoln, and it comes up suspended, and when three young men, possibly the same three from earlier, emerge from the bar and drive away, he follows. He radios in that he is heading east on Thomas Road, planning to pull the car over. The Lincoln speeds up, and Atkinson goes to his lights and siren. His next radio transmission is one word--bailout; it quickens the pulse of every cop who hears it. Across the west side, squad cars bearing the raised-wing symbol of the mythic Phoenix change direction like birds in flight.

At 30th and Catalina, a colorless flatland marked by the concrete cake boxes of light industry, the driver of the Lincoln has jammed on the brakes and is bolting on foot as Atkinson turns the corner in pursuit. The backseat passenger hotfoots it in the other direction, and the front passenger slides cleanly across the seat, perhaps unseen by Atkinson. That passenger stands at the door, levels a .357 magnum at the squad car and fires several rounds. He is wearing a SAY NO TO DRUGS SHIRT. There is $7,000 worth of cocaine in the glove box and a shotgun in the backseat.

A security guard driving to work comes upon the scene and opens fire on the shooter as Atkinson's car rolls ahead aimlessly and plows into a utility pole. The guard, a red-haired, 300-lb. Irishman named Rory Vertigan, wings the shooter, who drops the Lincoln into reverse, slams into Vertigan's car and comes out flashing metal. Vertigan, his gun empty, rushes the driver, rips his gun away, throws him to the pavement and hands the weapon to another civilian just on the scene, ordering him to stand watch while Vertigan rushes to Atkinson and sees he has been shot.

The first officer on the scene is Masino, whose wife had not wanted him on the street today. He kicks a hole in the passenger window, unlocks the door and tries to revive Atkinson with help from another officer. She is Patricia Johnson, Atkinson's best friend on the force--the one who had lent him the book on street survival. Atkinson has taken two bullets in the right side of his head. Says Masino, 28: "It's almost like Marc's spirit was standing there next to him."

With the help of civilians, including two Hispanics who followed one of the fleeing suspects and used cell phones to report his location to police, all three suspects are in custody within minutes. All three are illegal aliens.

And now the commander of the Maryvale Precinct, a man who was born in Mexico and became a naturalized citizen at 24, is on his way to the murder scene. Manny Davila lives in two worlds, one the color of his uniform and the other the color of his skin, and he knows those worlds have collided on this horrible day. A day in which a brilliant, falling sun glints across the sprawling desert city, catching the top of the utility pole that Atkinson plowed into and casting the shadow of a perfect cross onto the side of a building across the street.

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