John J. Wiley's memory returns to the frigid December night four years ago when his life fell apart.
Once again he wears the navy uniform of a Baltimore cop. And once again, he stands in the mouth of a narrow alley, his heart pounding, his eyes searching. In one hand, he holds a gun; in the other a flashlight, flicking its beam from side to side. He sees nothing. He hears only the crackling of the radio on his shoulder. Finally, he returns the puddle of light to the ground and the young man who lies gasping and bleeding and dying before him.
What had happened in the preceding moments defines John Wiley.
They render him either a killer, a liar, or an innocent, living casualty of that death and its aftermath. He either fired a shot into the back of John Randolph Scott, a suspected car thief pursued by more than two dozen cops, he covered up for the police officer who did, or he had the misfortune of being first on the scene after the shooting.
Which role he played remains a riddle to city homicide investigators. That continuing mystery, John Wiley says, has been his curse. Others may say it is his protection from prison.
Indisputably, though, Mr. Scott's death is the demarcation in John Wiley's 33 years. Before, he was strong and cocky, full of promise and possibility. After, he was scared and despairing, his career destroyed, his thoughts untrustworthy.
Before, he was "one of the good guys," decorated and promoted for valor. After, when the taint was on him, he did not know what he was.
He was never charged with murder or anything else, but neither has he ever been exonerated or Mr. Scott's death solved.
"I have this thing over my head, and I can't get rid of it," he laments, drawing on his cigarette, his eyes bloodshot.
Under the pressure of suspicion, he crumbled. Twice in the past six months he tried to kill himself, once with a gun, once with a razor blade. "Sometimes, I've gone to put my gun away and suddenly the urge to kill myself would be right there like that," he says, snapping his fingers.
In the dying light of an autumn afternoon, he sits in his living room in Southern Maryland, where he has escaped with his wife and their two young daughters. His eyes are moist, the hand holding his cigarette unsteady. Your instinct is to sympathize, but something stops you. What is the true source of his anguish? A wrongful accusation or a guilty conscience?
If John Wiley -- Jay to his family and friends -- had pursued hiyouthful ambition to become a priest, he would have been an imposing figure in the pulpit. His hair is curly blond, his body muscular. His booming voice would have resonated in the back pews. By his junior year in his Virginia high school, though, he knew the priesthood was not in his future. "Girls," he explained.
He began thinking about becoming a cop then. The image appealed to his black-and-white sense of the world. "It made perfect sense to go from wanting to be a priest to a cop," he said. "I wanted to help people. I always had intolerance for anyone abusing people smaller or weaker than they were."
In 1980, at age 21, he spotted a Baltimore billboard soliciting police recruits.
Two weeks later, he was issued the khaki uniform of a Baltimore police cadet. The following spring, he traded in khaki for blue, and began patrolling the streets of Northwest Baltimore.
"I knew right away"
"I loved it," he says now. "I knew right away that this is what I wanted to be. I used to joke that I was going to be a captain or a major within 20 years. I expected to be doing this for the next 30 years."
The Northwest was a rough training ground. "You had to get smart quick," he said. "You had to learn fast who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. If you were going to survive, you had to learn not to go around like you were the baddest guy on the block. You can't fight every day."
He learned to be tough and shrewd, and excelled at his job. He received 11 awards, including two bronze stars, one silver star and a commendatory letter from the police commissioner.
He gravitated to narcotics undercover, and in 1986 was assigned to a drug task force investigating Jamaican traffickers in Northwest Baltimore.
"He was a great cop," said Katharine Armentrout, now head of the organized crime drug task force unit for the U.S. attorney's office. She said he often worked dangerous surveillance and arrests and never lost his head.
"I don't like cowboy cops," she said. "I know cowboy cops when I see one and I saw nothing that indicated he was one. . . . We need good cops and he was a great cop."
In September 1987, he was promoted to sergeant at age 28. He was sent to the Central District, where his aggressiveness quickly established him as a favorite.
"The younger cops thought he was God," said Officer Charles Bealefeld, who worked under Sergeant Wiley. "With him it was like 'Screw the paperwork. Let's get out there and kick ass and take names.' That's my impression of a good cop."