He’d just worked third shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. His wife of two years was at home too, on leave from work, expecting their second-born. They were starting a family. That’s why he’d gone into law enforcement. In the nineties he’d worked as an extradition agent privately contracted by Sheriff’s and Federal Corrections facilities to transport inmates from state to state. He carried a badge and a handgun. Dug the job, but the business went under. Then he bounced at various bars in Louisville, Kentucky, managed a sporting goods company but got worn down by the constant nagging of customers; went to work in a factory that produced cabinets and watched a lot of fingers get cut off or smashed. Age was coming on strong. He wanted to marry and start a family with all his digits intact. Police work seemed safer and it had early retirement and good benefits.
‘In bed?’ I question him as I write his words into my notebook.
‘Yeah.’ He’d just gotten to sleep when his wife woke him, ‘You won’t believe what is happening!’ The first plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.
Half asleep, Merritt sat up in bed. On the television, a news station had cut from the footage, they were talking back and forth. When the second plane hit, it was live. Merritt thought it was an instant replay of the first crash. Then the newscasters said, ‘A second plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center.’ One of the newscasters started to tear up. That woke Merritt up. He had a gut feeling; the crashes were no accident.
He called the police station.
The Assistant Chief told Merritt to get dressed. Be prepared. They didn’t know if cities all across the US would get attacked. They were seven miles from Louisville. If Louisville got hit, they’d maybe get called seeing as it was just across the Ohio River in Kentucky, seven miles away.
Merritt tells me, ‘An ounce of preparedness is worth a pound of cure.’
Merritt didn’t see any of the other attacks on the news. He got dressed. Grabbed his gun. Radio, cell phone, everything he normally carries. Told his wife to lock the doors. To phone him if anything out of the ordinary happened. He got in his cruiser and drove to the police station. Passing the local Jay-C grocery, he saw the parking lot was packed with vehicles and people.
‘Of course two or three days later,’ Merritt says, ‘the town was depleted of bottled water and ammunition.’
By the time Merritt made it to the station IDACS (Indiana Data and Communications System) and NCIC (National Crime Information Center) had issued a statement: There was a possible suspect in the local area. Be on the lookout. His vehicle was registered in New York. A man of Middle Eastern descent. He’d been trained to fly planes at the Clark County Airport in Sellersburg, Indiana. That was just down the road from the police station. For several hours of intense investigation, they were at the centre of the things.
The possible suspect turned out to be a false lead. Days later, they’d get information that the guy had been living near Vincennes, Indiana with two or three other men, but had moved a few weeks before 9/11. He’d disappeared with no trace nor leads. ‘Two or three Arabic dudes cashing out a bank account or taking flying lessons now sure wouldn’t go unnoticed,’ Merritt tells me. ‘But it did then.’
Hours later Merritt and another officer met back at the station parking lot. The shift sergeant came out, leaned on one of the patrol cars, glanced up and down the road that ran in front of the station. Wasn’t a car in sight. Merritt remembers the shift sergeant’s exact words: ‘It’s eerily quiet.’
As years have passed, the town Merritt protects and the surrounding areas have changed. The most visible change is the new immigrant population, from Mexico and Central America. We’ve got much better Mexican restaurants now. Most of the immigrants come to the States for jobs, to raise families and to send money back home. Some work a few months, take the money they’ve earned and go back.
Driving through a large section of apartments in Clarksville, brick corners are marked up with numerals, crooked and jagged lines of graffiti. A STOP sign is tagged with the number 13. It marks a gang’s turf, such as Sur 13.
Why would gangs settle in Indiana? It’s the heartland. Indianapolis is the crossroads between the Southwest and the East Coast. Gun control is lax. Housing is cheap, there’s easy employment, no harsh gang laws, and there’s a language barrier with law enforcement (there are almost no Spanish-speaking officers).
We cruise Eastern Boulevard in Clarksville, Indiana. There’s a truck stop diner that’s boarded up. The local businesses have been replaced by stores with signs not in English. A hotel my wife once worked at while going to school has turned into a pay by the week for a room.
‘You don’t wanna be out here at night,’ Merritt says. ‘It’s crawlin’ with gangbangers hustling drugs.’
We drive down Vincennes Street, the main drag in New Albany, Indiana. From Vincennes, the area appears safe. But cruise the side streets around the high school and S Ellen Jones Elementary School and it’s turf. Houses are tagged with gang graffiti. Every block is marked as territory. He points out a pair of sneakers hanging from their laces on a power line. ‘It marks the area. It means a drug dealer is living at one of these houses. Sells right out here.’
‘These gangs sell meth?’ I ask.
‘They do,’ Merritt tells me. ‘And crack, marijuana, various prescription meds.’
We grew up with biker gangs – what law enforcement types like Merritt call OMG, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Talking to Merritt, they seem almost quaint. They trafficked marijuana, guns, and, more recently, meth, which has ravaged southern Indiana in the last ten years, the same way it has torn apart so much of the heartland. I asked Merritt if the biker gangs are still active in the meth trade.
He tells me, ‘It’s definitely more competitive. Biker gangs still distribute it. But the Latino gangs have begun infiltrating areas that have never been tapped. The rural areas. The small towns.’ The National Drug Assessment of January 2006, conducted by National Drug Intelligence Center, found that increased meth distribution in the Northeast, Southeast, and Great Lakes Regions of the US could be traced directly to the California- and Texas-based gangs Latin Kings and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). These gangs obtain mass quantities of meth and move it to these areas for distribution.
‘What about the local cookers? Do they still exist?’
‘Oh yeah, they’re still around. In 2010 Indiana State Police busted more meth labs than any other year.’
‘Between bikers, local meth cookers and Latino/Hispanic gangs, do you feel that law enforcement is outclassed or overwhelmed?’
‘Not outclassed. Overwhelmed. My department has fifteen officers. That includes my chief, myself, three shift sergeants and a detective. Cut that by three shifts. That doesn’t leave many patrolmen on the street. We’re undermanned for what is an ever-changing landscape. Handcuffed by politicians and bad administrators. We know what we need to do, but politics gets in the way.’
I asked if he thought that we were safer now, ten years on from 9/11.
‘Yes and no. Flying is safer. But shopping malls and sports arenas aren’t. They don’t have metal detectors.’
‘You get patted down when going to a sporting event, right?’
‘Soft pat downs. If someone wanted to do something they could.’
‘But they haven’t.’
‘Not yet. It’s like we’re window dressing things. You know, make it look good from the outside, but inside, the infrastructure is still weak.’
‘Give me an example.’
‘The water tower in your town, is it protected?’
‘It has a – ’
Merritt cuts me off. ‘A chain link fence around it and maybe some razor wire across the top. The gate is chained and padlocked.’
‘If someone wanted to they could get over that fence or cut the chain. Climb that tower and poison your town’s water supply one night. There’s no cameras. No one watches or guards it. The protection is dated. It does not keep up with today’s crimes. We’re not living in our grandparents’ era.’
‘You think 9/11 changed that, how crimes are committed?’
‘9/11 changed how Americans live. Period.’
Photograph by Shaun Versey