For almost 48 years, Captain Bryant Tillery worked in the busiest fire stations and most challenging areas of the city of Dallas. We met two weeks after I was hired as the department’s spokesperson. He’d just been elected union president. Fortunately, both he and our fire chief had complete trust in me. It was an unusual dating situation, to be sure, that grew into a wonderful marriage.
He retired in 2012, ranked No. 3 on the fire department’s seniority list. As a captain, he was a station supervisor and scene commander, and was assigned to a ladder truck, which conducts rescues.
“I was fortunate to have an interesting and meaningful career, and I made a lot of friends. Unless there was already an ongoing multiple-alarm incident, I began each shift never knowing what the day would bring. Some days we dealt with routine calls–traffic accidents, heart attacks, shootings, drownings, structure fires and so on. Other shifts brought large fires, jumpers, building collapses, hazardous materials incidents or explosions, and loss of life.”
He’s seen the worst of what humans can inflict upon each other–and themselves. Calls involving children were the worst.
“One evening, we responded to a call about an unresponsive young child. Sadly, she was dead. What made it so difficult to take was that the child had died that morning shortly after she lay on the floor to watch cartoons. All day, adults had stepped over and around her, not realizing she was gone. No one had checked to see if she was hungry, thirsty or why she’d never gotten up. That child will always stay with me.”
Not long after the DFD took over operation of the EMS system, Bryant, along with fellow firefighter, D. D. Pierce, delivered the first baby in the ambulance. “Both the mama and baby were getting impatient, and we knew we weren’t going to make it to the hospital in time, so we pulled into a gas station and got to work.”
Firefighters are generally known for having a robust sense of humor.
“Well, yeah. Firemen do love to agitate each other. You deal with human crisis, tragedy, loss and pain all the time. You need that release. It keeps you healthy, and it’s another way we look after each other. There are always calls resulting from something foolish or downright idiotic and it did give us plenty to laugh about later. However, we never lost sight of the fact that all those folks were in some kind of trouble.”
During his time as president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, he helped guide the membership through complex labor issues. He also served on the board of the Dallas County AFL/CIO.
Today, when not helping me map out fire scenes on the page, he’s wrangling our two black Labradors, Miss Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, and keeping tabs on our grandchildren. He loves to fish with his retired firefighter buddies, where they do their best to ensure the area lakes don’t become overstocked.
Arson Investigation Advisor
Debra Carlin, the first female assistant chief and fire marshal for the Dallas Fire Department, almost passed on the opportunity to become a fire investigator.
“I really didn’t want to do it, primarily because I was intimidated about going through the police academy. I was 29, with a toddler and a six-month-old. However, I was also on the promotion list to make captain. It was really a wonderful opportunity and ended up being the best job I’ve ever had.”
I’m so fortunate to have Chief Carlin share her expertise with me. As one of two women in the fire investigation division when she made the squad, her gender was never an issue. If anything, she said, it was an advantage.
“Many witnesses still assume all fire investigators are men. I got more information by talking to people in plain clothes, with a notebook and pen in hand. Most assumed I was a news reporter. For some reason, people who are reluctant to talk to police are eager to share their stories with reporters.”
The most common fire-setting method, she said, remains gasoline poured in the building, and she investigated a lot of those cases. “It’s easy to obtain, inexpensive and works well. I investigated one fire where the arsonist, angry with her ‘customer’ for not paying for services rendered, bought 19 cents worth of gasoline. It was all the money she had, but it did the trick.”
The first fire fatality Chief Carlin worked as lead investigator deeply affected her: the death of Dallas firefighter Dale Rhine, killed in the line of duty.
“The on-duty investigators originally determined that the fire appeared to be accidental. The next day, my partner and I went to the scene to follow up. Captain Charlie Glen was a seasoned investigator and immediately stated, ‘This is arson.’ I still don’t know how he knew, but he did. I took samples from everywhere, and the lab confirmed traces of an accelerant. We were never able to prove the homeowner started the fire because of the rush to set a cause that first night. Once you publicly state a fire is accidental, it’s very hard to prove otherwise in court.
“I learned from the case that it didn’t matter who was demanding answers, whether it was the press or the mayor’s office, never rush. Let the evidence be examined by the lab experts and the medical examiner conduct the autopsy before making a cause determination. I’ve always felt we let Dale Rhine and his family down.”
Fires she investigated involving the deaths of children, particularly one dubbed “The Strawberry Trail” fire, were naturally disturbing.
“A Jamaican drug dealer set a house on fire because the 16-year-old there owed him money. Five children, including a 1-year-old, perished. They were trapped inside by furniture piled against the front door to prohibit escape and burglar bars covering the bedroom windows. One child survived.”
She also investigated many high-dollar loss fires, including the $60 million damage to a single-family home, Chateau Du Triomphe. Construction was being completed when fumes from varnish were ignited by equipment. The 47,000-square-foot home was a total loss.
For Chief Carlin, the department is “the family business.”
“My dad was the first in our family to join the DFD. He started in 1958 and retired with 25 years as a battalion chief. My husband, Jim, started his career in 1964 and retired as a captain with 38 years. I then came on board in 1978 and retired after 34 years. Our son, Kevin, now a lieutenant, joined the ranks in 2008: 50 years to the month after my dad.”
Although she’d promoted to assistant chief and fire marshal, she continued to respond to scenes as an on-call investigator if the other investigators were working another call.
“Being fire marshal is more political. You deal much more with the chief of the department, the city manager’s office, the city council and mayor. Being a fire investigator was way more fun. I loved conducting fire scene investigations. It was like putting a very dirty puzzle back together.”
PHOTO Dallas Fire Rescue
Crime Scene Investigation Advisor
My CSI advisor, Scott Pena, is a former senior crime scene detective with the Galveston Police Department. Detective Pena joined the department in 2003, one week from his discharge from the military, where he was a police officer for almost 11 years. His deployments included Egypt, Johnston Atoll, Kuwait on the Iraq border, Haiti and Afghanistan. Although now a full-time photographer, he still consultants with law enforcement on crime scene investigations.
Crimes scenes, Detective Pena said, have stories to tell. “Bloodstain analysis, I find it incredibly fascinating. With a skilled eye and documentation of blood stains, you can almost see the act occurring in your head, providing, of course, there is enough blood to tell the story.”
He often finds himself taking some good-humored ribbing from fellow officers for his approach to a crime scene investigation. “I’m a slow, methodical person. I can just stand there and study a scene for quite some time, letting it tell me what happened before I start to work it. Of course, sometimes I wouldn't have the luxury of time. Weather, for instance, could be a challenge. I find the longer I can absorb the scene, the more I see, it opens up to me.”
The most challenging and frustrating part of a CSI’s job is scene preservation. “There is usually a lag of time from discovery of the crime and my notification and arrival,” he said. “Normally, patrol officers are already there and working to clear the scene from danger, deal with witnesses and such. EMS and paramedics, whose only goal, understandably, is preservation in life and treating injuries, can also already be present. However, they can all make a huge mess in a crime scene.”
Detective Pena, now a full-time photographer, saw his minor hobby of photography grow into a passion after a CSI training school, where he was introduced to high-quality equipment. “Shortly after my return, I received an entry-level DSLR camera and decided to teach myself the equipment. So, I researched and practiced until I knew the equipment inside and out, and it just kind of blossomed from there. The more interested I got, the more expensive it got so, I decided to do simple shoots for people to earn money to help support my quickly growing obsession with it. Today, I have a strong side business with clients that have taken me to destination weddings, calendars, family shoots and specialty shoots.”
Galveston Island, Detective Pena said, can be a place where strange people come to do strange things. “A large number of the bigger cases I have worked occurred at the hands of folks not from the Island. From homicides to suicides, it’s been a suspicion among all of us that it’s considered the end of the road – where Interstate 45 ends. I have worked cases where nothing similar had been reported elsewhere, like the Microwave Baby case. There have also been cases where the actors came from across the country to commit a heinous homicide, only to flee back to where they came from. The baby homicide took me to Philadelphia. Then there was Robert Durst, but that wasn’t my case.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about justice. “I love catching a bad guy before he knows he has been had,” he said. “I’m a puzzle solver, and I love the process of putting the puzzle pieces tightly together. Now, with photography, I'm telling a different kind of story.”
PHOTO Lacy Dagerath www.morethananimage.com
Terry Bentley Hill
Terry Bentley Hill is a Dallas Criminal Defense Attorney who joined me several times at my favorite restaurant in Highland Park, Texas where we created legal entanglements for my characters. She’s a storyteller herself. Her first career was as a crime beat television news reporter, which took her to crime scenes more bizarre than fiction.
“Back before metal detectors at courthouses, a prisoner appeared at a hearing before the federal judge in the Northern District of Texas,” she said. “Dressed in prison stripes, he calmly sat in front of the judge, waiting. At just the right time, he jumped over the defense table and ran toward the bench brandishing a smuggled shiv. A quick-acting bailiff pulled his weapon and shot the prisoner before he reached the judge. It’s not every day that there’s a shooting in the courtroom. However, the prisoner was on death row, so I guess he figured he did not have a lot to lose.”
A murder on Halloween night in the early 1980s proved to be her eeriest story and one that would change her life.
“In the middle of the night, a 17-year-old boy broke the kitchen window of the local convent, crept down the residential hall where the sisters slept, entered the room of a 76-year-old nun, sexually assaulted, and then strangled her. It was during that trial I decided I wanted to be an attorney.”
A later-in-life attorney, Ms. Bentley Hill wasted no time practicing law in the Dallas halls of justice. Her clients are often first-time offenders who suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues.
“I always wanted to practice criminal law,” she said. “However, I thought it would be as a prosecutor, not as a defense attorney. Working with the accused and their family–trying to address the underlying problem of their criminal behavior–and providing a justiciable solution, is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.”
Ms. Bentley Hill is admitted to practice law in the Northern District of Texas and before the United States Supreme Court.
“My life is never dull, and it has never been dull,” she said with a laugh. “Now, through Carolyn Tillery and her fictional creations, I get to step into her ‘dull-less’ world of imagination.”
PHOTO Danny Campbell
Homicide Investigation Advisor
Helping me keep my fictional detectives’ investigations on the right track is retired Galveston Police Department Lieutenant Michael Gray.
Gray was a member of the GPD for more than 13 years, joining the department in 2001, just one month after his 21st birthday: “I constantly worked around police officers in my security jobs during college, and felt a calling to enter the field. I remember watching the officers rush from the property to respond to a priority call, and how much I disliked the feeling of sitting on the sidelines. It was then that I decided to enter law enforcement to seek the welfare of my city. My Basic Peace Officer license was completed on September 11, 2001–a rude awakening for our Nation that solidified my resolve.”
That calling would lead him to be awarded his state academy’s Top GPA, the in-service academy’s Top Gun award, the department’s Medal of Valor, be named Officer of the Year, receive a Meritorious Unit Citation, and be voted “Best of Galveston” as the city’s top cop. In January 2015, he entered city management as Special Projects Manager.
During his time at City Hall, Gray was appointed as the Galveston City Marshal and tasked with building a new police agency, The Galveston City Marshal’s Office. As City Marshal, Gray was responsible for code, zoning, and parking enforcement throughout the City of Galveston. In 2019, Gray left the City Marshal’s Office to pursue a law enforcement career in Colorado, where he is currently employed.
The root of all investigations is quite simple: “It’s all about finding the evidence,” he said. “The evidence should be your guiding light. It’s easy to make assumptions about what happened prior to learning all of the facts; this should be avoided. Find the facts and let them tell you the story.”
However, in this era of 24-hour news broadcasts and highly inventive television dramas, what goes into gathering that evidence can be greatly misconstrued.
“The public often thinks that a homicide, or any crime, can be solved by finding that one piece of evidence and having the lab return results almost instantly,” Gray said. “And, of course, this must happen within hours of the murder, with a confession to boot.”
Galveston’s diverse and transient population ensures there’s never an average day at the office for the city’s detectives.
“What makes us unique is that we are a tourist destination,” Gray said. “Our main attraction is the beach, but we also have the fourth largest cruise port in the United States and a bustling cargo operation. All this makes for an interesting mix of people to police.”
During his tenure on the department, he worked in patrol, criminal investigations, warrants, special operations, and commanded the internal affairs unit, the property room, records division, and the crime scene unit. He was also a SWAT team member and maintains a Master Peace Officer license. Gray is a class of 2002 graduate of Texas A&M University at Galveston with a degree in maritime administration.
He has also served as the department’s Special Olympics Coordinator, Public Information Officer, and is president of The Yaga’s Children’s Fund.
In his free time, he enjoys photography, particularly landscapes: “I am an avid elk hunter, fly-fisherman and hiker; I guess what you would call an all-around outdoorsman. I always brought my pocket camera with me into the mountains but was never satisfied with how the point-and-shoot pictures came out. It just wasn’t how I remembered the scene.” This grew into his exploration of camera equipment. “I wanted to be able to present the scenery how I saw it and bring those memories back for others.”
The best and most challenging job for a detective, Gray said, is quite simply success.
“Nothing satisfies you like closure,” he said. “That ‘ah-ha’ moment is when you can finally put the case to bed. The only sad thing about this is that you will be moving right on to the next one. There is a never-ending stack of cases on every investigator’s desk at our department. Each represents a person’s grief, hardship or injustice.”
Gray’s favorite quotation is from King Solomon: “Justice will only be achieved when those who are not injured by crime feel as indignant as those who are.”