One day in October 1978, my husband, Hal Hilliard, and I were living in a tacky, depressing 2nd floor duplex on Mason Street quite near Hurley Hospital in Flint, MI. It was 10 pm, Hal and I had just run out of words during yet again another argument and I had run out of cigarettes. So that gave me the excuse to take a break while I drove to the nearest Mary’s Sunshine Dairy store 10 blocks away from us.
The Mary’s Sunshine Dairy stores in Flint were little corner stores that were primarily for drive-up customers. There were sliding patio doors on both sides of the tiny buildings and the cashier’s command post was right between those pairs of doors. Walk-up customers could come in as well, but only a few at a time because the stores were so small.
They were meant to be the McDonald’s of convenience stores: drive-up, ask for a few items, clerk gets them, takes them out to your car and the quick transaction of exchanging items for money would be achieved in just a few minutes. No muss, no fuss.
I drove up to the closed sliding doors, put my car in park, rolled down my car window, and waited patiently for the clerk to open the doors so I could ask for a pack of Kool cigarettes. Inside I could see three men. One of the men opened the sliding door and said, “The store is closed right now,” then he began to close the door again.
My husband was working at a different Sunshine store on the other side of Flint and so I knew that all of those stores closed at 11pm. I was still angry from my latest argument with Hal and because I was in dire need of a cigarette to help me calm down, I was not in the mood to put up with anybody else’s bullshit at that time.
I loudly told him, “Excuse me, but I know damn good and well that you don’t close until 11 so could you please get me a pack of Kools and get them right now!” The man looked at me, gave me a grin, and said “Okay, hang on.” I began to then rummage through my purse to get the money together when he immediately came back out to my car and handed me 2 packs of Kools through my open window.
I protested that I had only wanted one, and I held out the money and the other unwanted pack of cigarettes. He refused to take anything, just turned around and went back inside, saying over his shoulder, “Don’t worry about it, the cigarettes are free tonight.”
Puzzled, but not wanting to look too close at an unexpected gift horse, I put my money back into my purse and began to quickly unwrap one of the packages of cigarettes and light one up. Aaahhh!!
Just then two of the three men, including the one who had just given me the free cigarettes, ran out of the opposite sliding door of the little store and took off as fast as they could down the street. The remaining man in the store, evidently the clerk, then looked at me with fear in his eyes. I quickly realized, “Oh holy shit, those two other guys were robbing the store!” and without thinking about it, I quickly jammed my car into drive and took off after those two guys.
I didn’t clearly think about exactly what was I going to do, run them over or what? Or maybe I was just trying to see where they went. But as I went speeding down the street after them, I did make them drop several bags of potato chips just before they went dodging in between two houses.
I quickly drove around the block, trying to figure out where they had gone, but I gave up when I couldn’t find them and drove back to the store. The clerk was still standing exactly where I had last seen him, clearly in shock and in fright. So I called the police from the store phone, closed up the doors and asked him if he was okay.
He gave me a little nod but since he looked close to fainting, I made him sit on the chair that was behind the cash register. I had to tell several people who had then driven up that the store had just been robbed and that the police were on their way so nothing could be purchased at that time.
Two police officers soon arrived and after I had quickly told one what I had seen and done, he left to go get the bags of potato chips that I had made the robbers drop. I had helpfully suggested that maybe there would be fingerprints on the bags.
Meanwhile the clerk was telling the other officer how the two men had walked in and demanded that he open the cash register while one of them pointed a gun at him. While the clerk was busy putting the cash into a paper bag, I had driven up at that point.
I turned white as a ghost when I heard that the robbers had had a gun. I said, “Oh my god, they could have so easily turned around and shot me when I chased after them!” That police officer gave me a haughty frown as he told me, ‘Maybe you should have thought of that and left the chasing to us instead of endangering yourself.”
Meekly I agreed, as I still didn’t know what had made me speed after them like that. By that time the cop I had spoken to had come back with the bags of potato chips which he then put them into another larger, clean bag from the store. He told me that maybe my suggestion would work out and that fingerprints might be found on them.
The clerk then told both police officers that he was glad I had interrupted the robbery like I had, because he had been so afraid that they would shoot him after they had taken the money. But that they had seemed amused after I had ordered one of the robbers to get me a pack of cigarettes and get them now in such a firm voice. They had thought it would be funny to just hand them over to me for free. So that maybe I had saved his life after all. And that I had also been a big help to him afterwards by closing up the store and immediately calling the police.
That made me feel better, and I smiled at him as I told him he had been very brave because I think I would have fainted if I’d had a gun shoved right in my face. He smiled a little bit back at me but his hands were still shaking in fright.
The officers then wrote down both of our phone numbers and addresses and asked us both to go to the main police station in downtown Flint to give our descriptions of the robbers and look through mug shots to see if we could identify anyone.
I protested that I had not been able to really see either of them, even the one who had come out to my car because I had been so busy going through my purse for the money. But they insisted, so I told them I would be down there as soon as I could only after I first stopped at my apartment and explained to my husband what was taking me so long to get back home.
When I got home, I told Hal what had happened and he immediately yelled at me, “Why the hell did you drive off after them like that when they had a gun? You could have been killed!” I told him, “Please stop it! The cops already yelled at me for doing that, I didn’t know they had a gun at the time, and I really don’t need any more yelling from you tonight either! I’m leaving now to go to the police station to look through mug shots before they come here and make me.”
Hal insisted on going with me and I was too tired and too emotionally drained from our earlier arguments and from the excitement of being involved with the robbery to protest at that point.
So when we arrived at the police station and explained to the police clerk at the front desk why we were there, we were escorted back to a larger room with desks all around. A different police officer asked me to sit down and told me that the police artist, I think that is what he was called, would be with me in just a minute to take down my description of the robbers.
That officer then came in, sat down with a large drawing pad and another pad of paper and asked me to tell him what the robbers had looked like. I told him I really could not be of much help because I had not paid that much attention to the men in the store, even to the one who had given me the cigarettes. But he was patient with me as I told him that all I really could say is that he had been wearing a light blue T-shirt and jeans but that was it.
He asked me how tall was that man, was he black or white or Hispanic, what color hair and eyes did he have, did he have any tattoos or distinguishing facial features? I scrunched my eyes up trying to remember anything helpful. But all I could tell him was that he was black, he might have been maybe about 5’10” tall, he did have black hair but that I didn’t see his eyes or the rest of his face because he did not bend down and look in my car window.
The officer began questioning me again, “Well, did he have a big nose, a small nose, buck teeth, no teeth, high cheekbones, big ears, little ears, could I tell him anything at all like that?” But all I could say was, “I didn’t get a good look at either of them, I couldn’t even really tell who was the clerk and who were the robbers because they were all three standing in front of the cash register. I wasn’t paying attention to what they looked like! All I wanted was my pack of cigarettes and then to just go home!”
“But you saw them when you drove off after them, right? What did they look like, what were they wearing, how tall were they?” And I replied, “It was dark, there were no street lights, they were too far ahead of my car, and they were running very fast away from me. The other guy could have been black or Hispanic, I don’t know for sure, and he was wearing dark clothes, that’s all I saw. That’s all I know! I’m sorry I’m not being more helpful.”
Hal spoke up just then and he said, “Officer, if that’s all my wife saw, that’s all she saw. She’s scared and she’s tired so could we please just go now?”
The officer looked at him, sighed, and then he asked me to go back over the little bit I did know and then he began drawing. He kept the questions up but I couldn’t accurately answer them. When he was done drawing, he handed me the picture while he asked me if that looked like the guy who had given me the cigarettes.
I said that it looked like him and a thousand other men but I would never be able to say positively and 100 percent, “Oh, yes, that’s exactly what that man looked like.” He sighed again.
“I know you’re tired and you’ve been through quite an ordeal and it’s late but could you go through mug shots because maybe an actual photograph would jog your memory. Could you please stay for just a little while longer and do that while you still have that man’s face fresh in your mind? It would really be helpful to us.”
So I reluctantly agreed and he led me to another table and pulled out a chair for me. Then he left and came back with several large scrapbook-appearing photo albums and plunked them down in front of me. Then he asked if either me or Hal would like a soft drink and he left to go get us some.
I was disconcerted when I saw how many pictures I would have to go through and I turned around and told Hal, “I’m going to be here for another while, sorry!” He shrugged his shoulders while he told me, “Just hurry up and do what you’ve got to do.”
So I began dutifully turning the pages of the photo albums, one after another, until their faces all seemed to blur in my eyes. I was yawning by this point, but I listlessly kept turning the pages of those endless photos of criminals. I turned one page and then I screamed! The officer came running up to me excitedly asking me, “Did you find him?”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have screamed like that, but, no, that’s not one of the robbers but that is one of the scariest, creepiest people I have ever seen in my life!” as I pointed to what had made me scream.
I was looking at a picture of an albino black man. He had a large, pale-pink Afro with a pale pinky-tan complexion, with dim freckles across his nose. He had a big nose and a big mouth that tried hard to cover his grotesquely protruding yellow buck teeth. He was staring at the camera with blank almost completely white eyes with faintly pink eyelashes and eyebrows. But the vacant stare in his eyes, like he was a dead man, was what made him look even creepier than the rest of him did.
“Oh, that’s just Bunny. He lives in the north end with his old mother but he takes the bus downtown every day while he wanders around, begging people for money so that he can get drunk. He’s very harmless, just like an over-grown kid really, but sometimes he has to be locked up while he’s intoxicated if we try to drive him home and his mother’s not there.”
“Bunny cannot be his real name, can it?” “No, that’s just the nickname the police have given him.” “That’s mean to call him Bunny! He can’t help looking like he does! Please don’t tell me you call him Bunny to his face, do you?” I asked the officer. He looked a little ashamed when he replied, “Well, sometimes that little nickname does slip out but most of the time when we have to deal with him, he’s too drunk to know about it.”
That didn’t comfort me much as I sat there staring at Bunny’s face. I now felt bad that I had screamed when I turned the page and saw his picture. I felt so sorry that this poor man had to go through life looking very much like a half-dead rabbit. I guess I’d get drunk too.
So I continued going through those three large albums of mug shots but I didn’t see anybody that I recognized as the guy who had given me the cigarettes. So after I was through, the officers thanked me for coming down and asked if it would be okay if they called me in the future if they were able to arrest anybody they thought were responsible for the armed robbery. I told them, yes, they could call me, thinking I’d probably never hear from them again and hoping I never would.
But over two years later, even after I had long divorced Hal, I received a phone call at my new job. The receptionist excitedly told me, in a very loud voice that could be heard all over the office, “It’s the Flint police department on the line for you!”
I gave her a very annoyed look as I answered the phone, while wondering what this could be about since I’m a very law-abiding citizen.
It was an officer who told me that they had arrested two people they believed had been responsible for the armed robbery I had witnessed over two years back. And he asked me if I could go to the downtown police department sometime today and look at a line-up to perhaps identify them.
First off I asked the officer, “How did you know how to reach me at my new job?” He explained that he had called the number I had given to the police at that time and spoken to my ex-husband. Hal had told him we were now divorced and that I had gone back to using my maiden name and he gave the officer the spelling of my last name. Hal didn’t have a current address or phone number for me.
The officer had then checked in the phone book for other Behmes and my parents are the only ones listed with that name. So he had called and spoken to my mother and she had given him the telephone number at my new office job.
I told him if I thought I could be of any help at all, I would gladly go and view a line-up but that since I had barely seen those two men the night the robbery had happened, I really didn’t think I could be of much help to the police now so long after the event.
The officer asked me, “Are you sure you wouldn’t be of any help? Can’t you come down and try to identify them?”
I then asked “Weren’t you able to get any fingerprints from the potato chip bags I had made the robbers drop?” And the officer told me that there had been too many fingerprints on the bags, some most likely from the robbers, and some most likely from the distributors and the clerks who had unpacked them at that store. But there were no truly identifiable fingerprints that the police could have used in a trial.
Then I asked the officer, “Look, let’s say I went down and I picked two men out of the line-up. You would want me to appear at their trial and officially point them out then too, right?” And he agreed that that could possibly happen.
“Well, because I hadn’t been able to positively pick them out of all those mug shots your officers had me look at that night, and because I couldn’t even give an adequate description to your police artist that night either, I sure wouldn’t be able to do identify either of those men after all this time. I would not be put in a position of quite possibly sending two men to prison when I know I am unable to positively and absolutely identify anybody, especially now so long afterwards. That clerk who was robbed would be better able to identify them since he was the one nose-to-nose with them, looking at their gun in his face. Find him because he would make a better witness than I ever could.”
The officer then said, “That’s the problem. We can’t find him now and you were our last hope. So could you please come down and help us?”
I replied that as much as I would love to help the police put people behind bars for breaking the law, in this case, I was very sorry, but I would have to refuse to go down there and even attempt to try to identify anyone, especially knowing that it would be just mere guessing on my part.
So the officer thanked me and told me to give him a call if I changed my mind and he gave me his telephone number.
I had always felt bad that I couldn’t have been more help to the police after the armed robbery and after that phone call several years later. But I had done my best.
Now if only Bunny had been one of the robbers, I would have been able to identify him as quick as a, well, as a bunny!