The Checkpoint

Thirteen hours after Burgess Edmonds' house had been raided, Brad was driving his red pickup with Ranya snuggling against him as they crossed the five mile wide I-664 James River Bridge-Tunnel from Newport News. They covered in only a few minutes the same water which they had sailed upon yesterday at a tenth of their present speed. It was a little past four PM on the warm Sunday afternoon when they passed back onto the northern shore of Suffolk County, almost within sight of the burned ruins of the Edmonds house. Neither one of them spoke of it, although they both stared in that direction.

Driving down from Poquoson they had been listening to the news on AM talk radio. The latest shock to hit Tidewater was an accidental police shooting. Either Virginia Beach police or an FBI team--it wasn't clear which--had shot a man in the head at a dramatic felony traffic stop. The man, whose identity had not been released yet, had been pulled over in his black full-sized pickup truck on Laskin Road, misidentified as a possible suspect in the shooting of Attorney General Sanderson.

Blocked in by their patrol cars and surrounded by uniformed police and undercover agents, the unlucky driver had been simultaneously ordered both to "freeze!" and to "get out!" of his truck. The man had slowly reached for his seat belt buckle to comply with the order to get out, and this had been seen as a "suspicious movement" by one of the police or undercover agents who had heard him ordered to freeze.

He had been shot in the face point blank through the windshield, with either a police or FBI assault rifle or submachine gun, that wasn't determined yet. This had happened two hours ago in broad daylight, in front of numerous witnesses, some of whom were already angrily calling in to the radio talk shows. Apparently the police and FBI undercover agents had been seen whooping it up and "high-fiving" over the bleeding body of the man they had thought was the sniper. No firearms or weapons of any kind were recovered from his vehicle.

As they entered Suffolk they were in a grim mood, the magic of their afternoon aboard Guajira already shattered. The news of the man's death hit Ranya with another spiritual hammer blow. She felt personally responsible, because instead of pursuing her for Sanderson's murder, the police had killed an innocent person instead. Her stomach knot twisted another turn, but of course she couldn't share this secret pain with Brad...

In a few minutes they would arrive back at Crosby's Boatyard in Portsmouth, where she had left her Yamaha the day before, and then they'd return once again to Brad's sailboat. She was looking forward to wrapping herself around the bike and snapping it into gear, using its clutch and throttle to fly over the highway at three digit speed. She hoped the wind blast and the onrushing pavement might clear her mind of its accumulation of guilt, pain and fear.

"I need to get gas," Brad told her, and he pulled over onto the exit lane for Hoffler Boulevard. The exit ramp cut through a break in the wall of pines alongside the highway, then curved off out of sight to the right and sloped gently downward. "Oh crap, what's this?" he said, braking quickly.

Ranya bolted upright and buckled her seatbelt. There was a police cruiser on the side of the ramp just beyond the trees, and a cop was standing in the middle holding up both hands, blocking Brad's truck and two cars in front of him.

"Checkpoint!" Ranya said. "One of the FIST checkpoints, it's got to be." The FIST program, the brainchild of Virginia Attorney General Eric Sanderson, was intended to stop the transportation of illegal weapons. Sanderson had come down to Norfolk to announce and promote the program on Friday, he had been shot and killed Saturday morning, and Sunday afternoon they had driven straight into one of his FIST checkpoints. There just seemed to be no escaping his reach, she thought.

Thank God she'd left her Tennyson Champion .223 sniper pistol hidden back on Guajira! But she still had her father's gift to deal with: the new .45 pistol was in her fanny pack on the floor.

Hopefully they would be able to slide through the checkpoint unmolested. The police would readily verify that the pickup carried no long guns of any kind. On the other hand, Ranya was sure that if the pistol was found, its serial number would be called in to some national data base, and she would be taken aside and cross-examined closely. She would be questioned about the legal ownership of the gun, leading to more questions about her murdered father. She would be questioned about Brad, about their relationship, their destination, what they were doing together...

Maybe they would be questioned separately, and there was no way to know how such a split interrogation session would turn out. Should she admit to the police that she had the pistol if she was asked, or deny having a firearm in the car and hope it wasn't found in a search? Fear constricted her throat, instantly turning her mouth desert dry yet again. But at least she didn't have the Tennyson, that scoped .223 pistol would have linked her directly to Sanderson's death as neatly as a signed confession.

She had to tell him she had the gun. While they had time, they had to quickly get their stories lined up together, in case they would be questioned apart.

"Brad, I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I've got my .45 with me. What should we do?"

"Ahhhh...Crap. Okay, it should be all right. I think they're just looking for rifles. I hope."

"Me too."

The exit ramp made a slight right then left "S" curve as it descended through brush down to Hoffler Boulevard. There were large stop signs on both sides at the end of the ramp at Hoffler, which passed under the I-664 overpass off to the left. Halfway down the ramp, parked along the right shoulder, there was another police car, then a line of eight or ten civilian cars and SUVs, then two more police cars. Orange traffic cones divided the wide asphalt ramp down the middle. Police and camouflage-clad soldiers were walking alongside the row of parked cars; some of the cars had open doors and trunks. A single slow-moving motorcyclist was being waved past the line of cars to proceed on his way, a fact which Ranya noted with great interest. Obviously, the police did not think a motorcyclist could be concealing a banned semi-auto or sniper rifle.

Two hundred yards away at the bottom of the ramp, parked off to the left in the weeds and facing uphill towards them, was a desert-painted Army humvee.

"Damn, look at that!" said Brad. "The humvee's got a machine gun on it. I've never seen that before, not in America."

"I've seen it up around DC sometimes, they put them near the Pentagon and Reagan National during security alerts. They were there all the time after 9-11." A helmeted soldier's head and torso was visible, sticking out of the humvee's roof behind the pintle-mounted machine gun.

"They picked a perfect spot for a checkpoint. I didn't see anything until it was too late," said Brad.

"Yeah, they can be damned sneaky. I've seen them set up this way a few times when they're searching for drugs. It's just like a trap: by the time you see it, you're caught in it."

"I wonder if they're checking every car, or if they're letting some pass around? I wonder if they're going to hassle us?"

"A thirty year old white guy in a red pickup truck? What do you think Brad? They're not looking for guys named Mohammed down here; they're looking for guys named Bubba."

"I guess we'll find out in a minute."

The young father in the white Ford Taurus, the second car from the front of the line, said, "No sir, I won't open my trunk, not without a warrant, and I do not 'consent' to be searched."

The even younger Virginia National Guard corporal standing outside his driver's side window looked around, confused. This situation had not come up before. Could this guy just refuse? Was that allowed?

The holdout's young blond wife said, "Martin, please, just do like he says. Don't make trouble; the girls are frightened."

"Honey, it's the point of it. This is still America, and there's still a Constitution."

"Daddy, why are there soldiers here? Is there a war?" asked seven year old Danielle from the back seat. Her four year old sister Ashley, next to her in her booster seat, sucked her thumb, afraid without knowing why.

"No sweetie, there's no war. The soldiers are helping the police to look for some bad men."

"Criminals daddy?"

"That's right sugar plum, criminals."

Another man walked up to their window. Martin Powell could not tell if he was from the military or the police: he was dressed in black from his helmet to his boots, with no badge or insignia in sight. The man in black rapped on his driver's side window with the steel muzzle tip of his black submachine gun. "Open up! Get out! Now!"

"Officer, do you have a warrant? What's your 'probable cause' to search our car?" Martin Powell was trying very hard not to show the fear he felt, holding onto the wheel to keep his hands from visibly shaking. He hoped he did not sound as afraid as he felt. He remembered reading about the Eagle Scout in Maryland, who had his face shot off a few years ago by an FBI agent with an M-16 rifle, after a mistaken traffic stop. Powell had not yet heard about today's accidental police shooting in Virginia Beach of the man in the black pickup truck. His wife could not stand listening to news talk radio and they played soft rock music CDs instead.

"My 'probable cause' is you're an asshole who refuses to give consent for a search, that's what! Now get out! Out! Out!"

ATF Special Agent Alvin Bogart was having a bad day, and now he was angry enough to chew up barbed wire and spit out nails. He was angry because it was Sunday afternoon, and he was pulling the absolute shit duty of all time manning a FIST checkpoint, instead of kicking back on his recliner in his den, with a cold Budweiser in his hand, watching the Eagles play the Carolina Panthers. For this he had become a Federal Law Enforcement Agent?

He was angry because he was pulling his second consecutive day of twelve hour checkpoint shifts, which really meant a 14 hour work day, only with no overtime pay like the State Troopers were raking in. And worse, he knew that he had to do it again tomorrow and the next day and it looked like forever. If he had wanted to pull this kind of shit duty, he would have joined the Border Patrol like his brother Daryl!

He was angry because he had to walk around all day in full tactical gear in almost 90-degree heat, including his Kevlar helmet and black body armor, carrying his MP-5 as if they were expecting a head-on terrorist attack right here in Hicksville Suffolk Virginia! This had been at Sanderson's direct orders. Sanderson, that preppie douche bag who was not even in his Federal chain of command. Sanderson, who had never sweated like a pig beneath heavy body armor and tactical gear on a hot day in his life. Just for this alone, Bogart was glad that Sanderson had had his head blown off on the golf course yesterday! But unfortunately, the FIST checkpoints had not died with the state Attorney General; instead they had been stepped up.

He was extremely angry because earlier today he'd heard through unofficial federal law enforcement back channels that a brother ATF agent had been killed in the line of duty last night, shot in the neck by some punk-ass redneck during a raid not three miles from here.

And now Alvin Bogart was positively livid because this curbside Allen Dershowitz in the old piece of shit Taurus wanted to give him a lecture on the 4th Amendment, consent searches, and probable cause. As if he needed to hear that shit! Like all ATF men, Alvin Bogart held a special burning hatred for "Constitution fanatics."

"So, you refuse to give voluntary consent for a search of your vehicle, is that correct?" Bogart smiled pleasantly at the man in the car.

"Yes sir, that is correct. Under the 4th amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution..." The driver's side window was rolled halfway down. Turned slightly sideways, ATF Special Agent Alvin Bogart had casually slipped the small can of pepper spray from his tactical vest unnoticed, and then he snapped it up and sprayed Mr. Martin Powell, U.S. citizen and taxpayer, straight in his shocked face.

As Martin Powell screamed and dug at his eyes, Bogart snaked his arm down inside the half open window, grabbed the handle, and jerked open the door. As Powell's wife and daughters screamed both in terror and from the effects of the pepper spray being released inside the car, Agent Bogart grabbed Powell by his hair and shirt and pulled him halfway out, until he snagged up on his seatbelt. Bogart unsnapped the belt, and then used both hands to jerk Powell all the way out onto the asphalt, where his head landed with a satisfying smack.

Active duty Navy Lieutenant Commander Ira Jacobson was sitting in his mint-condition 1971 red Mustang Mach One just behind the Taurus. He was not in uniform, returning from a visit to his mother's house in Alexandria. His ship, the Burke class destroyer Winston Churchill, was at the Norfolk Naval Base. He was the ship's Operations Officer.

He had sat patiently in the line awaiting his turn, fully intending to cooperate. But seeing the black-uniformed policeman, (if he was really a policeman, it was hard to tell), abuse the civilians in front of him was getting him steamed. When the black-clad policeman had pepper sprayed the interior of the car Jacobson couldn't believe it; he clearly heard a woman and children screaming!

When LCDR Jacobson saw the man in black pull the driver out of his car and slam his head down onto the ground, it was time to take action. LCDR Jacobson would have intervened automatically if he had seen a Chief Petty Officer abuse a junior sailor even half as severely; he'd write the Chief up for Captain's Mast in a heartbeat! For assault! So Navy LCDR Ira Jacobson, not in uniform, stepped smartly out of his red Mustang. It was his nature and his training to take action, to render instant decisions and intervene in such a situation. LCDR Jacobson did not skate away or tap dance around when dealing with out-of-control junior personnel, and he did not shrink from his perceived duty today.

"Just what the HELL do you think you're doing to that civilian?" he barked, using his strongest officer's "command voice" to impose order and gain control of the situation.

ATF agent Alvin Bogart was kneeling on Martin Powell's chest, one hand around his throat, getting ready to pepper spray him again with the other.

The other ATF agent was at the uphill end of the line of cars when he saw and heard the fracas. He was working with a State Trooper K-9 dog handler and his German shepherd, searching the trunk of a Volvo.

Six National Guardsmen and women and three other state troopers were spread out along the line of cars and past it in both directions, directing traffic and generally trying not to be jerks, avoiding actually searching the cars as much as possible. None of them wanted to be there. The two ATF agents were the gung-ho ones, pushing them to search more cars, to find contraband weapons.

None of the state troopers or soldiers was certain about what had happened in the white Taurus, to cause the driver to be pepper sprayed and pulled out, but they assumed an illegal weapon or maybe drugs had been spotted: after all, that's what they were there for. Suddenly they saw a tall civilian with short black hair jump out of a red Mustang and go after ATF Special Agent Bogart, screaming something. Bogart's ATF partner shouted, "Turn the dog loose!" to the K-9 handler. He immediately did as he was told, pulling the 100 pound beast back short on his leash, crouching down close to his canine partner to direct his attention, aiming the dog like a missile, and releasing him with the command "Hansie! Attack!"

The German shepherd cleared the thirty yards to Jacobson in a blur and knocked him down from behind, biting him viciously on the buttocks and in the groin area. Ira Jacobson screamed, Martin Powell was still screaming, and Powell's wife and little girls in the car kept screaming as shocked state troopers and soldiers converged on the scene of the melee.

From Bogart's first rap on Powell's window, to the dog attacking LCDR Jacobson, only sixty seconds had passed, but they had been a long sixty seconds! The next sixty seconds were going to be far, far longer.