I realise that most of you come here to read about cars, which is fortunate, as that’s what I spend most of my non-eating waking hours thinking about. This story about having to bail my parents out of jail for attempted murder isn’t so much about cars as it is a strange tale of wrongful arrest, a crime, and my parents. There are some cars in it, though.
And, just so you know I’m not making this up, here’s a link to the resulting court case. Just don’t read it yet. I don’t want to spoil the exciting bits.
It all starts way, way back in low-resolution world of 1987, in Greensboro, NC, when I was 16, because, remember, I’m painfully, almost clinically old. A lot was happening in my life around this time: I bought my first car, a $US600 ($873) 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, in Wrigley’s gum/Band-Aid beige, and a few months later it was wrecked, after another driver didn’t yield at a light and ran into me.
It wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t stop my dad from screaming “JAAAASONN!” like I was in big trouble when he drove by and saw me wrecked in that intersection.
That wreck happened as I was driving home from work at my job at the Byte Shop, a computer store that sold Apple IIs. I’m mentioning all this to set the scene and the circumstances for the story, since the day it happened, I had just gotten back from work, and my car was inoperable at the time, which will factor in later.
Also important to the background of the story is that my dad had just taken an early retirement from his job with Ciba-Geigy, a large Swiss chemical company, and had attempted to start an import/export business with two partners, one of whom was a man with the evocative and alliterative name Bill Bull.
That’s likely enough background for us to get into what exactly happened, so off we go.
I remember that my dad was trying to get ahold of Bull one day, and, in that era of landlines and uncertainties, was unable to. There must have been some missed call or similar appointment, because my parents decided to go to his house to check on him.
When they got there, they found the place was a wreck: broken windows, overturned furniture, blood. As you’d expect, they were alarmed. After some amount of calling around they eventually found that he was in the hospital with a pretty severe head injury, and that he was claiming he was hit by a car.
Now, I’m not sure how much you know about what happens to a person when they’re hit by a car, but one thing I suspect you are aware of is that when a car hits you, it generally does not then proceed to break in and trash your house to, you know, finish the job. Something wasn’t adding up.
I don’t recall if my parents called the police at this point or not. What I do know is that the next day they went to visit him in the hospital sometime after dropping me off at work (remember, my Beetle was wrecked and its engine was sitting on some wood in our garden shed), and beyond that the day was a normal enough summertime workday.
I got a ride home from a friend that day, and arrived to see just my older sister Amy. My parents were still out. This wasn’t really that unusual, so I did whatever late 1980s Jason did back then when he got home from a hard day of convincing people to go ahead and get the Extended 80 Column card in their new Apple //e.
The phone rang. I picked it up, and my mum was on the other end, crying. This was in itself very unusual, as my mum is not a woman prone to cry. I’m pretty sure I once saw her slice part of her finger off with a yard trimmer and she didn’t shed a tear. Oh, wait, that was my dad’s finger, but, still, she didn’t cry about that, either.
My mum just told me that she and my dad were in jail, they were being held on the charge of the attempted murder of Bill Bull, and that I had to get something like $US3,200 ($4,655) or so for bail so she and my dad could be released, which they very, very much wanted to be.
She then told me that their wallets and keys to the big old Cadillac Sedan de Ville my grandfather left us were with the police.
Then she hung up.
They don’t teach you what to do when your parents call asking for bail in gym class, so I didn’t really have a ready-made plan for this. I knew I had to do something, as hearing my mum so upset was alarming, and, besides, I was curious as hell about just what the fuck was going on.
I called my friend Al and had him come pick me and my sister up in his baby vomit-coloured Ford Maverick, and went to the police station looking for answers.
The answers didn’t come easy; it turned out they were arrested by the Sheriff’s department, not the police department, based on some arcane reason I didn’t really understand, but eventually we figured that out and I was standing in front of a sheriff’s office desk telling the person behind the counter that some people thought my tiny, fussy parents tried to murder a dude and could I please have their wallets and car keys?
They complied, handing me their wallets and car keys, and confirming the bail amount (there were two amounts, if I recall right, a much smaller non-refundable amount I just might be able to scrounge up and a larger amount that was hilarious in its impossibility of acquisition), and sent me on my way.
In hindsight, I think it’s kind of amazing that no one offered to help or explain the situation to the somewhat stunned looking short, skinny kid standing there, and instead just sent me off into the night, very much Not Their Problem.
I had to figure out where the Cadillac was, first. After checking some of the tow lots, we realised it was probably still at the hospital, where they were arrested while visiting Bull.
Al dropped me and my sister off at the hospital. My sister didn’t drive, by the way. I think she mostly complained that whatever I was doing was probably wrong? I don’t really remember. Anyway, we found the Cadillac and got in, which felt like the first small victory of the night.
At least now I had a clear goal and plan, though that goal wasn’t easy. Banks were all closed by now, but I did have my parents’ bank card, though the way those cards worked then isn’t really the same as it is today.
See, back in 1987, ATMs were still a relatively new thing. They existed, though not in the numbers we know today, and, back in that pre-cell phone, pre-internet, Compuserve-at-best era, the various bank ATMs were not connected via shared networks.
That means the NCNB (a long-dead bank consumed by Wachovia and then Bank of America, I think) card I had from my mum and dad only would work on NCNB-bank-owned machines. And, there was a $US200 ($291) limit for every withdrawal from an ATM. That meant that to get to the $US3,200 ($4,655) bail amount (again, I’m not exactly certain if that was the number, but it was around there) I’d have to visit 16 NCNB machines, meaning that would be pretty much every branch around the town where we lived, Greensboro, NC.
It was going to be a long night.
I spent the night in a purposeful sort of daze, finding every NCNB bank machine I could — I don’t remember exactly how I did this, maybe a page torn from the phone book and a map? — driving that big baby blue Caddy from machine to machine, taking out those ten $US20 ($29) bills, shoving them in my wallet, heading on to the next.
Eventually, I had about $US3,000 ($4,364) in my pocket and a full-sized Cadillac and I’d be lying if I told you the thought of dropping my sister off at home and just driving to Mexico to start a bold, new life hadn’t entered my head, but I resisted.
We were about $US100 ($145) or $US200 ($291) short, I remember, so we stopped off at a friends’ house to go through the embarrassing but weirdly exciting process of asking to borrow money from his parents at 10:30 or so at night to get my parents out of the pokey.
It turned out most of my friends were there, concerned, having been updated by Al (the Maverick driver) what was going on. Thankfully, my friend’s dad had the cash I needed. So, now full of bail money, I went to go buy back my parents from the sheriff.
When I got them, they were both absolute messes. I’d never seen my dad cry before this point, so it was especially disturbing. My parents were not the sort you think of when you imagine the sort of people who’d thrive in jail. Shit, my dad put shoe trees in his sneakers.
Sure, three decades earlier he was a musclebound Marine, but 1987-era William Torchinsky’s most threatening actions were pretending to be a mannequin at a department store and then scaring a kid. My mum was under five feet tall and didn’t like water droplets in the kitchen sink. As you may guess, they didn’t really fit in in jail.
By the time I got them home, it was late, and they just wanted to go to sleep, which was understandable. I had many, many questions about just how the hell they ended up arrested for attempting to murder Bull, an over six-foot man that you would think wouldn’t find a short couple that great a threat, physically.
So, what the hell went down, here?
I found out some of what happened the next day, and, to my parents’ chagrin, all the details are now available online. I’ll do my best to explain.
First, as you likely surmised, Bull was not hit by a car. Someone tried to kill him by beating him to death, and the detective in charge of the investigation, Deputy Siwinski, cleverly ruled out the car story. As the court document states,
“At the hospital, Siwinski briefly interviewed Bull. Bull again indicated that an auto accident had caused his injuries. Siwinski, however, doubted this explanation because Bull’s injuries were consistent not with an accident but rather with an assault. A visit to Bull’s home strengthened Siwinski’s belief that Bull had been the victim of an assault. There Siwinski found evidence of a struggle including broken furniture and two sets of bloody footprints on the porch, one set noticeably smaller than the other.”
Now, another detail about Bull that’s worth noting here is that he was bisexual. It’s worth noting because in late 1980s North Carolina, this was not an easy thing to be, and as a result Bull kept this quite well-hidden. I’m not certain if my parents knew or not, but they had gay friends and relatives and always accepted them, so it’s possible that Mr. Bull felt comfortable letting them know. This will be relevant in the investigation.
One way it was relevant was that an early suspect was a man Bull had been allegedly involved with, and the fact they had been sexually involved was enough for Detective Siwinski to question Bull if that was who assaulted him.
Bull was still heavily concussed at this point and not making a lot of sense. While the detective was asking him about the possible suspect, Bull mentioned my dad’s name. It may have been in context of questioning who assaulted him, but I don’t think it was very clear, and Bull wasn’t making a lot of sense.
I also remember that around this same time period he claimed the nurses were only feeding him peanuts.
Anyway, it was enough of a lead for Siwinski to follow up. Let’s go back to the official record:
On the morning of August 1, Siwinski conferred with his supervisor, Sergeant Richard Jackson. He told Jackson that Bull had identified Bill Torchinsky as his assailant and that no activity was apparent at the Torchinsky residence. In addition, Siwinski informed Jackson that Bull had earlier given differing accounts of how he sustained his injuries. Jackson directed Deputy Siwinski to reinterview Bull to determine whether he adhered to his implication of Bill Torchinsky. If so, Jackson instructed Siwinski to tape record Bull’s statement.
I think the “no activity” at our residence part had to do with the fact that they cased the house after midnight and we only had the one car at the time, since mine was out of commission? I’m not sure what the guy was expecting.
OK, the next day the detective returned to the hospital to talk to Bull some more, and here’s where it gets really good:
Based on these instructions, Siwinski returned to the hospital later that same morning. Siwinski interviewed Bull with a nurse present. Bull stated that Bill Torchinsky as well as his wife Sylvia had beaten him. Bull also stated that he was involved sexually with both Torchinskys. The nurse confirmed that Bull identified the Torchinskys as his attackers and as his sexual partners. Siwinski next turned on his tape recorder and attempted to have Bull reiterate his statements.* At this point, however, Bull began to tire and become drowsy. In addition, Deputy Siwinski apparently had problems operating the tape recorder. Consequently, the detective was unable to record a complete version of Bull’s statement.
Woah, woah, woah. I’m willing to bet there’s one part in there that sticks out more than the rest, yeah? They claimed he was having an exciting, lurid three-way affair with both my parents.
Now, I get that nobody likes to think of their parents in sexual contexts, but this doesn’t even creep me out because it is so gloriously, deliriously absurd. I knew exactly what my parents did in their off-work time, and while I’m sure they occasionally had sex, I’d say at least 90 per cent of their nighttime activities revolved around an ongoing competition to see who could fall asleep in front of the TV first. And they were both winning.
In fact, I think my mum said almost exactly that when she was being interrogated. They were interrogated separately, both lied to and told the other confessed, and my dad was so nervous and upset he kept burping and farting, which the cops felt was a sign of guilt, not a sign of a man wrongly accused of attempting to murder his friend and business partner and being held in jail.
After I bailed my parents out of jail, it didn’t take long for them to be cleared, which happened a couple days later when the police informed the now-more-coherent Bull that they had arrested my parents:
“One or two days later, Bull was informed that the Torchinskys had been arrested. Bull responded that the Torchinskys were not actually his attackers. Upon learning this information, the County District Attorney dismissed the charges against the Torchinskys.”
So, a few days after the arrest, my parents are cleared of all charges, but this really wasn’t over. Since I could only get the lesser amount, we never got any of the bail money back, and while I grew up comfortably middle-class, we certainly weren’t rich, and that money was a very significant amount to our family. If the amount I’m remembering is even close, that’d be about $US7,000 ($10,184) in today’s money.
My dad’s business venture fell apart after the whole mess, with the third partner getting freaked out and bailing, and, of course, Bull wasn’t really able to work effectively for quite a while.
Even though cleared, my parents were mortified that people would find out they were arrested, and were not fond of talking about it for years. I mean later, sure, it became a favourite party story, but it took them a while to get over the shock and trauma of it all.
My parents attempted to sue the Sheriff’s department for wrongful arrest, and this is where the lessons of law enforcement immunity come into play, because they lost, quite decisively.
The law is absolutely on the side of law enforcement here, as you can read in the Court of Appeals statement:
“This appeal illustrates the importance of qualified immunity in protecting law enforcement officers from litigation that could impair their ability to protect the public. In this case, Deputy Sheriff E.L. Siwinski sought the arrest of appellants William and Sylvia Torchinsky after the victim of a brutal assault identified them as his assailants. Siwinski’s supervisor corroborated his judgment that he had probable cause to believe the appellants committed the assault. A magistrate confirmed those judgments by issuing arrest warrants against the appellants. In addition, the district court upon reviewing the evidence in this case determined that probable cause to arrest was present.
Under these circumstances, Siwinski acted with objective reasonableness and is thus entitled to immunity from appellants’ § 1983 claim against him. We also conclude that appellants cannot recover against Siwinski’s municipal employer under § 1983 because they have failed to prove that a policy or custom of the municipality caused the alleged deprivation of their rights. Finally, we hold that the district court properly declined to exercise pendent jurisdiction over appellants’ state law claims. The judgment of the district court is thus affirmed.”
What’s galling about this is just how much leeway the Sheriff’s department got here for that “qualified immunity,” because any way you look at this, there’s some extraordinarily sloppy police work happening.
There’s so many places where you would think any reasonable person would have probed deeper, or asked more questions, because the narrative of my parents committing this attempted murder is just absurd.
There’s the obvious physical evidence, first. My parents, as I’ve mentioned, are, like me, tiny people. My mum’s 4’11” dad was 5’6″ or so. We’re from that kind of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish background that seems to have evolved into a special kind of diminutive Shtetl Hobbit. I’m always amazed at how small I am when I see myself pictures, and I tower over my mum.
I’m not saying we’re frail people — we’re tough in our way, I promise — but the idea that this small late-40s/mid-50s married couple would pick physically beating a tall adult male to death with their bare hands as their preferred method of murder strikes me as wildly unlikely.
Then there’s the why. What would have been the motive here? My dad was trying to start a business with this guy — his immediate financial future depended on this guy not being dead. There was nothing to gain, financially, from killing him.
And that whole three-way affair business — if my parents actually were involved with something like that, if they were both into it, what’s the advantage of murder? How would a menagé-a-trois turn into the married couple deciding to beat the third partner to death?
Aside from the fact that in no way were my parents cool enough to even be aware that those kinds of relationships existed, I’m pretty certain no three-way whatever was happening. I know this because every one of my parents’ conversations was held at a decibel level that would make the airport call and ask us to keep it down, already. I absolutely would have heard them talking about it, because I could hear them talking about everything, always.
Hell, half the reason I bought my first car at 15 and drove it the day I turned 16 was to save my hearing.
Perhaps most egregious, though, has to do with the interviews with Mr. Bull. I knew people who visited him in the hospital in this time, and I recall hearing part of one of the recordings — he was in no way coherent.
I don’t really believe there were tape recorder issues that prevented that initial interview from being fully recorded — even in the ‘80s, tape recorders were pretty foolproof things — I think Bull was clearly not making sense, and not in any way a reliable source of information.
His head injuries were really bad. I remember seeing him at least once after all this happened and seeing the injuries to his skull. They were alarming. It should have been clear to the detective that Bull was not ready to be questioned, and certainly not to the point of using his words as evidence to actually arrest people.
Why weren’t my parents questioned before being arrested and detained? Wouldn’t a bit of investigation and assessment regarding who my parents were, what the overall situation was, or any corroborating evidence of, well, anything, have been reasonable?
In the end, it really didn’t matter what any of us thought about the quality of the detective work, because law enforcement is protected, even when it seems they did a shitty job that affected people’s lives negatively.
And, since so much is going on in the world at the moment regarding policing in general, I’m not suggesting this story is even remotely in the same league as any number of the police brutality stories you’ve heard recently; nobody died, for one, and while there are severe injuries and damage to property and loss of money and resources, in the end my family came out of it relatively unharmed, a luxury certainly not enjoyed by many others.
As for me, I always figured that bailing your parents out of jail would mean a free never-get-grounded pass, but that didn’t work out, either. I still got grounded, plenty of times, and every time I tried to bring up, that, hey, your asses would still be rotting in jail if it weren’t for me, it never really worked to my advantage.
Up until very recently, I just thought of this as a funny story to tell people. With all that’s going on now, though, I’m seeing it recast in a different light, and it makes the story less funny.
I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to tell it and end with something like “thank god that shit doesn’t happen anymore.”
Until then, I think I’ll just keep telling it.