Ring, ring. Ring, ring.
It’s 3 a.m. and Angie Birdwell is jolted awake.
She knows exactly what’s about to happen.
Lakeland police Sgt. Jeff Birdwell, Angie’s husband of 26 years, answers the phone.
A person was murdered.
He gets details and starts dialing more numbers.
A detective answers his call.
“You can hear the disgust in some people’s voices when they answer because they know I’m not calling them to invite them over,” Birdwell said. “They know that I’m calling them to go to another one of these scenes.”
No matter what time of day it is, or where they’re at, or who they’re with, Lakeland police homicide detectives are expected to answer Birdwell’s call.
They’re expected to leave family dinners, cancel plans and miss out on holiday celebrations to help investigate.
“When you get called, you get pulled away from your family, pulled away from whatever you’re doing,” Detective Scott Kercher said. “Every time you drive out of Polk County, you’re always thinking, ‘How long will it take me to drive back, get dressed, get my car and go?’”
The same goes for vacations, when most just can’t disengage from their cases. But they try, with support from their bosses.
Detective Brian Wallace and his wife, who works in the communications department at LPD, had planned a cruise well in advance when a homicide occurred. “My wife has repeatedly told me that vacations are to get away from what we are so used to during daily life and I always was stubborn in letting work invade time off,” he said. “Even before we left this time, I was telling (Assistant Police Chief Mike) Link of how I was developing quite a bit of information on the March homicide that I was a bit apprehensive in being away. He simply told me to ‘leave it here.’ ”
And he did, for the most part – an effort at trying to keep work at work, he said. “I can say it was a much more comfortable time away from work.”
But he still had a concern, that “I was able to have a relaxing time away from work while a family was still grieving for the loss of their loved one.”
Homicide detectives see some of the most gruesome and heinous deaths people can experience, and they have to continue re-seeing those deaths every day until a case is closed.
Dr. Berney Wilkinson, a licensed psychologist at Psychological Associates of Central Florida, said police officers – especially detectives – are under an enormous amount of stress with each new case they take on.
He said the officers will carry that stress with them until a case is solved, if it ever is. Many don’t realize the damage that stress does to their bodies until after they retire.
Detective Brad Grice has been working in LPD’s homicide division for 17 years. He’s seen deaths too horrific to describe, but when asked about them, he still remembers every detail.
He said that when he gets the phone call to go to another scene he puts his emotions aside and just deals with it.
“I think it (takes) its toll; we just don’t know in what capacity because we’ve been doing it for so long, you just deal with it. Somebody has to,” he said. “And you can’t say that it doesn’t affect you somehow — you just don’t know in what way.”
Tammy Kercher, Scott’s wife of 22 years, said she’s seen the toll being a detective has had on her husband. She’s seen how upset he gets when he misses important events for his children or isn’t able to make definite plans for family get-togethers.
But she’s also seen the love he has for his job.
“He’s just really good at being a detective,” she said. “He puts 150 percent into his job. He’s been doing this (policing) since he was 19. He loves it.”
Kercher said it’s the drive to bring closure to one more family, to bring hope to another and to make sure a killer pays the price that keeps him going each day.
Through it all, the detectives continue to get out of bed in the middle of the night or leave dinner sitting on the table to help solve another case. They do it, Birdwell said, because they love it.
“I’ve been doing it since 2007 and I cannot tell you how many dead bodies I’ve seen,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many families I’ve told that a loved one has died — seen their reaction, seen the shock, seen the actual emotional denial that we’re even there.”
“I take my emotions and put them in a saddlebag, put them in a box… and we go to work for that dead body. And we go to work for that family because no one else is there to do it.”
If you have any information on any cold cases handled by Lakeland Police Department, please call the department or email detectives at firstname.lastname@example.org.