Monday, May 16, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Shirley Ballard — a lie detector in reverse


IMG_1095-e1502816455839Shirley Ballard died the other day. Most of you didn’t know her. Honestly, she would have been all right with that. Not because she didn’t want to know you, but because she preferred to be behind the scenes. A little off stage. Far down in the credits.

But it would not be true. From the very beginning, she stood out. A female cop working back when women cops were rare. A deputy with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Then with the Ankeny Police Department. Smart, tough and fair. Eventually, the Polk County attorney hired her away as an investigator for his office. Someone to work the serious and complex cases. A seasoned veteran who knew how to get things done.

She and I started working together when I arrived at the county attorney’s office years later as a prosecutor. I suspect the county attorney recognized that I was a bit too young and a bit too sure of myself and needed someone to keep an eye on me. Shirley was it. The first time we went out on a drunk-driving death case, she was chain-smoking, tough and no-nonsense. It was obvious that she had years of experience and knowledge, while I had difficulty finding the location of the accident on a map. On top of that, she had handcuffs and a gun.

I was in way over my head.

We talked to witnesses, walked the accident scene, visited with the police and viewed the body. I was nervous and faking it. As we were driving home, she said, “Joe, I want to show you something.”

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A little bit later, we pulled up to some obscure cafe in some obscure part of Polk County. She ordered chocolate malts. Then, in her deep, raspy voice, she told me that she refused to drive on the interstate because of all the death cases she had seen from accidents — and, by the way, she didn’t like heights. She poured malt into my glass.

“So, Joe, what about you?”

OK, Shirley was the mom we all wanted. Tough and kind and on your side. But still, what was I supposed to do with this snoopy questioning of my life? Just because she shared her personal stuff, did this mean I had to share mine? Should I really trust her? I mean, who was she, with her raspy voice and tough demeanor?

I told her everything.

No kidding. I told her my fears and concerns and worries. Yup, I was shameless. And what did she do? What she always did with all of us — she listened. It was heaven.

Over time, we worked together more and more. Who was at fault when a young man died when he fell off the side of a car as a bar fight spilled onto the street? Did that police officer have to shoot and kill when confronted down in a dark basement with a knife-wielding man? And did that old lady really pack her husband’s body in lime and bury him in the garden?

“Joe, I want to show you something.”

And then Shirley would take me to another obscure cafe that served chocolate malts. And we talked. Every time.

By the way, my experience with Shirley was not unique to me — well, maybe the sitting-down-with-malts part of it was. Generally, cigarettes or a can of pop were Shirley’s go-to choices. Wherever we were, Shirley would always end up outside. Smoking, of course. Or drinking pop. Or both. And there you would see the witness or victim or concerned parent smoking or drinking pop by her side. And, in case after case, they would tell her their fears, their worries, their concerns. Before long, Shirley knew the whole story from what just looked like a casual conversation next to the driveway, or outside the apartment complex, or on the busy sidewalk. She was a lie detector in reverse; she detected the truth. A skill hard to list on a resume or to recognize at an awards banquet or to post on Facebook after a rescued puppy video. But in a job where we were supposed to be “doing justice,” it’s not a bad card to have up your sleeve. By the way, knowing the truth was only half the discussion with Shirley. She always preferred compassion and constantly reminded me that things were never just the facts. “Joe, she’s lying about what happened because he beats her and we can’t protect her.” “Joe, these families go way back, and these two sons are just pawns to their fathers.” “Joe, the police officer did what he had to do in shooting this guy with a knife, but the mom has to blame someone besides herself for calling 911.”

And so life went on. Case after case. Death after death. We did our job.

“Joe, I want to show you something.”

Shirley was retired. She was fighting the disease that would eventually kill her. Her raspy, deep voice was a whisper or nothing at all. I came to visit. Her husband, Denny, loaded her into the car, and Shirley took us to an obscure location in her town.

We all sat in the back booth. She looked at me and smiled. And, lo and behold, there was my chocolate malt.

One last time.

“Joe, I want to show you something…”

I believe she did.

May she rest in peace. ♦

JJoe Weeg mug bwoe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.


One Comment

  1. Mary Kundrat says:

    Lovely column, Joe. Thank you!

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