It was a miserable mid-March afternoon, chill and sleeting, as John Sampson and I ran to the main gate of the Greensville Correctional Center, a hexagon-shaped high-security prison in the rural, southern part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
We ducked inside the security shack, showed our badges and identifications, and surrendered our service weapons. A gate rolled back, and we walked through.
As a homicide detective with the DC Metropolitan Police and as a behavioral specialist with the FBI, I have been to many jails, prisons, and penitentiaries over the years, but I am still unnerved by the sound of steel-barred gates slamming shut behind me. We passed through seven such gates, following Warden Adrian Yates and several reporters who’d arrived before us.
One of them, a journalist named Juanita Flake, said, “Is it true, he chose?”
The warden kept walking.
“Can you— ”
Warden Yates spun in his tracks and glared at her, looking barely in control. “I don’t wish to talk any further, Ms. Flake. I’m not in favor of this, but it is my job to see it done. You want it different? Call the governor.”
Yates, who had been criticized by the media, went to the next gate, which slid back. Three gates later, we entered a small amphitheater with perhaps thirty seats.
Twenty of the seats were already taken. Despite the years that had gone by since I’d seen them, I recognized many of the people gathered there. They recognized us as well. Most nodded and smiled weakly.
A fivesome sitting together sneered and, I’m sure, spoke bitterly about us under their breath. Those three men and two women were by far the best-dressed people in the room.
The men— two brothers, both middle-aged, and their father— wore well-tailored, dark three-piece suits. The women—one in her sixties and the other in her twenties—were dressed in charcoal-gray Chanel outfits; their hair was perfect, their jewelry flashy.
Sampson found us seats facing a long rectangular window. Drapes had been drawn closed on the other side.
I started to question my decision to come here almost immediately. I had good reasons, of course, but they didn’t stop the doubts from creeping in.
“You framed him,” a woman said.
I looked up to see the older of the two fashion plates beside me. She was a petite woman with dyed ash-blond hair and the kind of tight facial skin that suggested she had a high-dollar plastic surgeon on retainer.
“Mrs. Edgerton,” I said wearily. “That was your son’s defense in his trial and during his appeals.”
“His appeal, not his appeals,” Margaret Edgerton hissed. “You get only one appeal in this primitive, eager-to-kill state.”
“And the Supreme Court of Virginia upheld his conviction and sentence, ma’am.”
She trembled with rage. “I don’t know how you did it, but you did, sure as I’m standing here. And I hope to God you carry to your grave the knowledge that you put an innocent boy on the other side of that curtain, Dr. Cross.”
“No, ma’am, your son put himself there, a long time ago,” I said.
Warden Yates said, “We need to begin.”
“My son is innocent!” Mrs. Edgerton shouted. “You can’t do this!”
“The law demands this,” Yates said. “If you’d rather not be here, I understand.”
He left the room.
She glared at me. “Remember this moment. It’s when you doomed your soul. You will burn in hell.”
Then she stormed away to her husband’s side, where she broke down sobbing.
A few states in the country allow the doomed man to choose his method of execution; in Virginia, the choice is lethal injection or electrocution. The drapes rolled back and revealed not a gurney but a heavy oak chair with arm, leg, and chest straps.
Two corrections officers entered the death chamber. Warden Yates followed them and watched his officers open the only other door in the execution facility.
A shaved-headed man in his early forties stepped out. He was tall and lanky and appeared slightly drugged. He looked not at the electric chair but through the window at us.
Michael “Mikey” Edgerton drew himself up to his full height and then walked to the chair of his own volition, as if he welcomed what was about to happen.
“Mom, Dad, Delilah, Pete, and Joe, you know why I chose old Sparky?” Edgerton said over the intercom. He took a seat, laughed, then looked straight at me. “I’m not going out like some kid going night-night. I want Cross and Sampson and everyone else who helped frame me to see me crackle, to see the smoke coming out my head and the skin on my arms and legs splitting from the lightning they’re gonna send through me— me, an innocent man.”
His mother, older brother, and sister began to sob. Only his father and his younger brother remained stoic.
“You did it!” a middle-aged woman in jeans and a Georgia Tech sweatshirt shouted at him from a seat near us. She jumped to her feet. “You did it, and you deserve this! I hope when they throw the switch, you disintegrate, you sick bastard!”
Mikey Edgerton got his macabre last wish.
I had never seen a man die in the electric chair, and the sight of two thousand volts ripping through him shook both Sampson and me so badly, we were barely able to stand after Edgerton was pronounced dead, and the curtain closed on his life.
We left the witness chamber, trying to ignore Edgerton’s mother, who alternated between emotional collapse and spitting rage.
“I will see you both destroyed for this!” she screamed at one point. “With every last cent I’ve got, I will see you both sitting in that chair for what you did to my son!”
We had to listen to that and the angry responses from the relatives of Edgerton’s victims until the final steel gate slammed shut behind us and we walked out of the penitentiary into drizzling rain and fog.
The Edgerton family came out moments later and walked to a waiting limousine. We went in the opposite direction, toward the squad car we’d driven down.
“Dr. Cross? Detective Sampson?”
I turned, expecting a journalist to shove a microphone in my face. Instead, Crystal Raider, the woman in the Georgia Tech sweatshirt, was standing there looking at us with an expression that was a rough sea of emotions and thoughts.
“He did that to torture us,” she said. “To stick the knife in us after all that he did to my sister and the others.”
“He did,” I said. “And he succeeded.”
Crystal raised her head defiantly. “Maybe. But I think somewhere my Kissy is thinking it was a good thing, how he went. I bet the other girls think so too.”
“Go home now,” I said softly. “Find Kissy in her son and let this all be a bad memory that you rarely visit.”
She cried at that and gave us both a hug. “Thank you for standing up for her, Dr. Cross, Detective Sampson. Neither of you ever judged her, and I’m grateful for that.”
“Pole dancers are people too,” Sampson said. “Good people. Like your sister.”
She cried through a weak smile, then she gave us a weaker wave and walked toward a waiting pickup truck with Florida plates.
The three-hour drive north was quiet and uneasy, both of us lost in our thoughts.
It wasn’t until we were almost to Washington, DC, that the rain stopped. Sampson cleared his throat. “I wasn’t expecting that, Alex,” he said in a hoarse voice.
“None of us were expecting it. Except Edgerton,” I said, suppressing a shudder.
My lifelong friend glanced at me. “Alex, right now I don’t know whether I should be satisfied at justice served or praying for my sins.”
My stomach soured, but I shook it off, said, “Mikey Edgerton did the dirty work on the eight and maybe more. There’s no doubt about it in my mind.”
There was a long pause as Sampson took the exit off 95 onto the Beltway, heading toward my home on Fifth Street in Southeast DC.
“No doubt in mine either,” Sampson said at last. “But still, you know?”
I swallowed hard. Before I could respond, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out, saw a familiar number, and answered. “This is Cross,” I said. “How are you, Chief?”
“I should be asking you that,” said Metro Police chief of detectives Bree Stone, my wife. “But I don’t have time, and neither do you.”
I sat up straighter, said, “What’s going on?”
She gave me an address in Friendship Heights and said to go there immediately. Then she told me why, and the sourness that lingered in my stomach became the worst kind of nausea, that terrible taste you get at the back of your throat just before you say goodbye to everything you’ve eaten all day.
“We’re on our way,” I said, then hung up.
“What’s the matter?” Sampson said.
“John,” I said in a hoarse whisper. “What in God’s name have we done?”
We drove to Friendship Heights, in the far northwest corner of DC, parked on Forty-First Street, and ran up the sidewalk to Harrison Avenue, where a patrol car with lights flashing was in front of a barrier.
“Which one is it?” Sampson asked the patrol officer.
“Third on the right, sir. There’s a few plainclothes there already.”
“And I imagine there will be more,” I said, moving around the barrier toward a gray Craftsman house with a tidy front yard and a medical examiner’s van parked out front.
On the scene, there were three uniformed officers and two in plainclothes whom I recognized as junior homicide detectives Owen Shank and Deana Laurel.
They were talking to two very upset women in their late thirties. Laurel spotted us, excused herself, and came over.
She told us that the two women—Patsy Phelps and Anita Kline—were neighbors of the Nixons, who owned the Craftsman. Gary Nixon, the father, was a successful attorney on K Street. Mr. Nixon had taken his two young children on a four-day trip to see his ailing mother in San Diego. Katrina, his wife of fifteen years, had a successful speech-pathology practice and couldn’t make the trip.
“They said the Nixons made it a point to talk twice a day, no matter where they were,” Detective Laurel said. “So when Mrs. Nixon didn’t answer her phone this morning or this evening, Mr. Nixon called Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Kline to go over and check on their—“
Detective Shank came over and cut her off. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Dr. Cross, Detective Sampson. But are you sure it’s okay for the two of you to be here? I mean, isn’t this kind of a conflict of interest?”
“We’re here on orders,” Sampson said. “Take us inside.”
Shank, a tough, wiry guy who’d once served in a Marine Force Recon unit, didn’t like it, but he understood orders. “Straightaway, sir.”
Detective Laurel returned to the neighbors. We followed Shank into the house, which had been decorated by Pottery Barn and Toys R Us.
Shank told us there were no signs of forced entry, and although the house was in the disarray you’d expect with a young, affluent family, we saw no indications of a struggle as we moved down a short hallway to the type of kitchen you see in gourmet ads.
There were kids’ drawing taped to the stainless-steel fridge along with a calendar page where the Nixons kept track of babysitters and doctors’ appointments. It wasn’t until we got past the stove that we saw evidence of a fight.
A kitchen chair had fallen over. A glass vase lay shattered on the floor by a breakfast nook. Beyond it was a family room. The television was on, blaring the news about the police presence currently building on Harrison Avenue in Friendship Heights.
The body of Katrina Nixon, who’d been a pretty brunette in her late thirties, was on the far side of the room, naked and slumped in an overstuffed chair. Her skin was bluish and coated in a thin white film. Her mouth was stretched wide, as if she’d tried to scream, and locked in rigor. Her eyes were open and dull.
The air reeked of bleach. The instrument of her death, a red and purple Hermès silk scarf, was wrapped impossibly tight around her neck.
A piece of plain white paper lay on her lap.
As I walked over to look at it, I felt as if something foundational was cracking inside me. I read the note and felt a chunk of myself break free and fall.
You messed up big-time, but don’t sweat it, Dr. Cross, it read. Ultimately, for his past sins, Mikey Edgerton got what he deserved when he rode old Sparky right into the great hereafter.—M