It was late in the third shift on the first night of the long Memorial Day weekend and Officer Jeff Postell was running through his routine business checks along Highway 19 in Murphy, North Carolina. At about 3:30 am, Postell cruised through the alley behind the Save-A-Lot grocery store and the Sears appliance retailer, past a random cluster of old, one-story shops with their backs to the marshy bottomland of the Valley River. Then he turned his patrol car back into the deserted parking lot. Postell was short and slight, a 21-year-old rookie with less than a year on the Murphy police force. But as his colleagues had already noticed, Postell managed to compensate for his size. More seasoned police officers might slide through the bottom of the third shift, waiting for trouble to call itself in. Not Jeff Postell. He was flush with the optimism of inexperience, and he wanted to catch himself a burglar before he switched over to working days.
Murphy is the largest municipality in the mountainous western tip of North Carolina. The town has 2500 people in a county with 25,000 scattered residents, a population that almost doubles in the summer months. Locals like to boast that the area is "two-hours from anywhere," which is the driving time to the nearest city in any direction: Asheville to the east, Chattanooga to the west, Atlanta to the south. Due north is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Appalachian heartland. Now that the textile factories and other light industries have packed up and moved to Mexico, Murphy's main industry is tourism. The visitors come for the clean air and long mountain views, fishing and water sports. Four counties, Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Swain are interspersed with the 500,000 acre Nantahala National Forest. If you don't count the transgressions of marijuana growers in the mountains or the crank syndicates that exploit the area as a regional distribution center, crime rates are pleasantly low. The most common police blotter items involve DUI's. Restaurants close early and the streets empty out after dark. People sleep soundly in the velvet warm nights of late spring, windows open to the breeze.
As soon as Postell was clear of the lot, he cut off his lights and swung the car around the corner and back into the alley, hoping to surprise any prowlers. It was then that he spotted the figure of a man crouched down and scurrying toward the supermarket loading dock. The rookie saw something long tucked under the subject's arm, like a rifle or a shotgun on a sling. The man heard him coming and darted behind a stack of milk crates. Postell turned on his "alley lights" while he radioed dispatch for backup. Then, using his open door for cover, he got out of the patrol car, drew his sidearm and shouted, "Come out! Put your hands where I can see 'em!"
Which is just what the man did. "Okay, drop to your knees." The man complied. "Now, down on the ground. Arms out. Cross your feet…" The subject seemed so docile that Postell felt comfortable enough to approach and cuff him.