An assignment to serve papers pulls a private investigator into a family’s private tragedy.
by Susan Waller Lehmann
I built my business by serving legal papers. It was the first work I got as a private investigator, and I’ve found it to be the best way for me to meet lawyers and their assistants. I’ve found that befriending secretaries—the gatekeepers—has been essential to my success. Many times, I’ve never even met the attorneys I’ve worked for, and wouldn’t know them if I saw them. Many secretaries have become close friends of mine.
Early one morning, I received a telephone call from a friend, Paula, who was the secretary of the first Alabama attorney to give me work.
“Jacqui wants to know if you can serve some papers either today or tomorrow,” she said.
“I think I can, today probably. What am I serving?” I pulled out a notepad with my list of tasks.
“There’s a woman here in Wetumpka who’s been taking care of her great-niece. She needs to come to court next Tuesday and bring the child with her.”
“Okay. Go on.” I knew there would be more to the story. Most attorneys filed papers through the court clerk’s office and paid the $8 fee to have off-duty sheriff’s deputies serve papers. I charged $50 plus mileage, but I had an advantage: No one expected me to be serving court papers, so they were much more likely to open the door. In all my years of serving papers, only once was I unable to complete a service. I knew some tricks.
“The sheriff’s office has tried. No luck.”
“So, she’s expecting the papers and doesn’t want them, correct?”
“Correct. The great aunt is quite attached to the little girl and doesn’t want to turn her over to the mother. She’s afraid of what might happen.”
“Because of what happened before?”
“You could say that.”
I sighed. “Okay, I’ll be over after lunch.”
“Jacqui wants you to get into the house.” Paula hung up the phone before I could say anything else. I knew what I had to do.
– – – – – – –
On my way to Jacqui’s office I stopped at Winn Dixie. I went to the floral section and asked the clerk if she could make me a selection of cut flowers.
We picked out some carnations and daisies and one yellow rose. She included a spray of baby’s breath and wrapped the flowers in lavender paper with a bow. I also picked out a brightly colored helium balloon. The flowers and balloon cost less than eight dollars, a business expense.
I picked up the papers and drove to a neat little house off Alabama Highway 170. I parked my car in the driveway. The grass was cut and the bushes were trimmed and tidy. I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. I had one shot at successfully putting the papers into the woman’s hands.
I gathered the documents, flowers, and balloon and stationed myself in front of the peephole, making certain the flowers were visible. I rang the bell and counted slowly to myself.
“Who is it?” a woman called.
“Ma’am, my name is Susan and I have a delivery for you,” I said, smiling brightly.
Within seconds the dead bolt was thrown and the door was opened.
A middle-aged black woman stood before me. She was dressed in a neat cotton blouse and slacks.
“Come in,” she smiled.
“Ms. Williams, I actually have some papers for you,” I said as I walked into a spotless living room.
“What kind of papers? Do I need to sign something?” She eyed the flowers and balloon.
“No, ma’am. These are regarding your niece and your great niece.” Her hand trembled as she she took the papers.
“What’s this about?”
I explained to her that her niece, Alysha, had petitioned the court to have the little girl returned to her. She’d have to bring the girl to court. I pointed to the date and time on the document.
“She’ll miss school, then. That’s a school day.” Her voice broke. Her eyes filled with tears. I patted her shoulder.
“What are you afraid of?”
“What am I not afraid of?” Ms Williams said. “Her mama, my niece, she ain’t nothing but a baby herself, got in with a bad bunch, a bad man, and they was getting high and stealing things, and that baby wasn’t in school.”
She was crying now, but her voice was angry. “If my niece wants to go down that path, she’s welcome to go, but I will not let her take this baby with her.”
When I asked Ms. Williams the little girl’s name, the whole story poured out. She was named Shantell after her grandmother (and Ms.Williams’ sister), who’d been murdered by a boyfriend ten years before. “Happened in the kitchen,” she told me. “He didn’t like the way she was cooking chicken. He was drinking and acting crazy and carrying on. She gave him some lip. He picked up his gun and bang! Shot her in the head.
“My niece, Alysha, was sitting at the kitchen table, doing her homework. She was just a little bit of a thing, like her baby now.”
Ms. Williams had raised Alysha while caring for her own dying mother and holding down two jobs. “My niece found the streets pretty quick. She liked the men,” she said.
She’d had been caring for her great-niece for almost a year, after collecting her from Family Services. And now, after a stint in rehab, Alysha wanted the little girl back.
“That baby was dirty,” said Ms. Williams. She was angry, her back ramrod straight in the chair. “She had scabies, and it took me weeks to get her scalp clean and her skin healed and her hair fixed. She was left in all that filth and God knows what happened to her with those people. I’m afraid to think about all that.
“Poor little thing, she was so afraid when she came here.” She looked at the paperwork. “I don’t have much, but I keep a nice home, and I can take good care of this baby.”
“Yes, you do, Ms. Williams. I see that you care very much for Shantell.”
“Come see her room,” she said. I followed her down the hallway and peeked into a little girl’s room swirled in pink. Her bed was decorated with a fluffy pink comforter, hand-knitted pink afghan, and a tidy arrangement of pillows, dolls and stuffed animals. A small white dresser stood in one corner with a matching white desk and lamp in another. A neat row of pretty dresses hung in a closet. A picture of Jesus hung on the wall.
“She was quiet as a little mouse when she got here,” said Ms. Williams, smiling. “She’s still quiet, but I hear her singing sometimes, in the bath, and in her room. Her little heart is calmer now. We go to church and she’s starting to sing out loud during the services. At night, when she says her prayers, she asks Jesus to take care of her mama, and me. She didn’t even know about Jesus until she came to live here. Will you tell the judge that for me?”
“No, ma’am, I can’t, but I will tell the attorney as soon as I leave here. You can speak to the judge yourself.
Everything I saw suggested that Shantell was thriving with her great aunt. Family Services had checked up on her and found no problems. She’d had a tough time adjusting to school—after a rocky start in first grade, school officials had started her in kindergarten instead. But she was catching up fast. She was reading a little bit now and making friends.
“She’s getting to be a happy little girl,” said Ms. Williams. “Please don’t let them take that baby from me.”
I didn’t know what to say. Most of the legal papers I served were routine court actions. Divorces, money owed, requests for documentation for on-going cases were pretty normal. But this was different.
I stood up, ready to leave. I held out my hand to shake hers. She grasped my hand, pulled me close to her, and looked me straight in the eye.
“What would you do, if this was your mess?”
I sat back down and thought for a moment. How much should I insert myself into this legal battle? I decided to make a suggestion.
“You have a third bedroom here. Perhaps Alysha could come here to live, and the three of you could learn to be a family.”
“I don’t trust her to live here,” Ms. Williams said. “I don’t think I can allow myself to be heartbroken again.” Conflicting emotions ran across her face.
I told her it seemed to me that her heart would break more if the judge turned over Shantell to her mother.
“Oh, Lord! That will surely kill me. Would the judge do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But if Alysha moved in here with you, you could keep Shantell here in the house, and see how Alysha is doing. You’ll know if she’s working, and how she’s living, and if she’s hanging around with the wrong people. You can help her learn how to take care of Shantell too. And you’ll be here for the little girl, always. I think the judge, and the social workers from Family Services may like that idea very much.”
“I don’t know. I can’t trust that girl to not take the baby and leave again.”
“I understand. I know this is a hard situation. Here’s my card. Why don’t you give this idea some thought and call me if you want to talk again?”
“I appreciate your time,” Ms. Williams placed the card on the table, next to the papers. “I’ll be in court. I’ll bring Shantell, but I don’t know if I can do what you said. I need to pray on it.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” I said. “I hope this works out well for you, Ms. Williams. It was a pleasure to meet you.” I picked up my paperwork, sunglasses, and car key from the coffee table.
I looked up at her. “May I keep the flowers?” she asked. “No one’s ever given me flowers before.”
I smiled. “Yes, of course. I brought these flowers for you. The balloon is for Shantell.”
Ms. Williams watched from the doorway as I got into my car. She cradled the flowers in her arms. Tears flowed down her cheeks.
I fought my own tears as I backed out of the driveway.
About the author:
Susan Waller Lehmann has been an investigator for nearly three decades and specializes in criminal defense investigations and capital murder mitigation. She is also the author of two true crime books, Visions of Ted Bundy: The Psychic and the Chi Omega Murders and Echoes from the Mind: The Psychic and the Gainesville Student Murders. She is currently working on her next book, The Art of Skip-Tracing and the Injustice System. Her books are available on Amazon and through her website at https://www.whiterhinopress.com/.