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Cop Out


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT - the Unforgiven episode. Today, we're exploring when to extend an olive branch. In our next story, it does reference violence against women. And as such, listener discretion is advised. It comes from a former rookie cop in the New Orleans Police Department who, at first, thought he was signing up to be one of the good guys.

ROBERT DAVIS: I was fresh out the academy. And while you're in the police academy, you're taught your basic rules and regulations. You know, I had no problem with them, but unfortunately, at that time, there was a lot of officers bent on doing a little criminal acts themselves sometimes, you know, doing a lot of wrong. It's funny because I went to my commander, gave him a letter making an official complaint. He took the letter, and he told me - he said, let me tell you something. Either I can ignore that you brought me this letter, or I can file the charges, in which case, you won't ever again be safe on the streets.

So eventually, you know, being a young kid at the time, I eventually let it go and sort of joined the club. I realized that it wasn't what it's supposed to be. I guess you might say it was one of those things where if you can't beat them, you join them. And I got to be just very cold with it. Well, I'll just put it like - I'll put it to you this way.


DAVIS: Myself and another partner of mine were riding around one day, and they had two females that were from Boston. And they came down, rented a car - and I guess they were sightseeing in New Orleans - stopped them and gave them tickets and threatened them with going to jail and so forth. Listen, if you want to get out of this, you're going to have to have sex with us. Get in the police car. And we put them in the back of the police car, and we went to an old warehouse district.

We had sex with them and stuff, and they were petrified. We took them back to their car, and we still wind up arresting them for some bogus charge. And I remember looking at my partner and asking him, why did - why - come on. You know, let these girls go. And so he told me, he said, no. He said, I always cover your back. This was systemic. It happened, you know, many times. You know, I can think about at least maybe four or five occasions, you know, that I personally - if it was a male, I would shake him down for money. If it was a female, it would be sex.

Anyway, I got a call one day, and this day I was alone. This woman, she was riding in the stolen car. So immediately, I went...


DAVIS: ...You know, behind her and turned on my lights - my emergency lights - and so forth and pulled her on the side. She had a whole mound of charges that was going to be placed against her, all felony charges - probably 20 years in jail. So I made a deal with her, or I tried to make a deal with her. And I said, listen, you know, I can get you out of these charges, you know, for blah, blah, blah - for sex. She agreed to it. And later that evening when I was off duty, we met. But unbeknown to me, she had instantly went to the internal affairs department and told the officers then, you know, what I had done. The sting operation was set up where she and I was going to meet again, and I was arrested.


DAVIS: The word had came down at that time through me through some of the sheriffs that I knew there that the inmates had a special party for me. And (laughter) I knew instantly what that meant. Of course, today is different. When a law enforcement officer get arrested now, there's a separate facility that they put him in. But back in the '70s when this happened - in 1979 - you were just put in general population.

I mean, just think about it. You know you're going into a facility where you know that there's at least 40 people you have personally arrested and put there for years. And, you know - and the word is getting to you that they're going to kill you, you know? And what does one do? Do you just go there and die? I have one of those kind of Type A personalities where I just - you know, I'm not a person that just give up very easily. You know, I'm going to give you a run for your money, so to speak, you know? And so I decided to run, to be a fugitive.


DAVIS: I knew that the U.S. Marshals Service and probably the FBI would get involved with it because I was a cop. And so you know, I mean, where do you run? How do you run? And I had figured out that I could never make it in the cities 'cause I would be too hot. And the only place I could figure I could go at would be in the woods.

I would go into the library every day and read stuff on how I could survive, how to hunt animals, trap them, eat them, cook them. You know, I wanted to learn about weather techniques. I wanted to learn about first aid, you know, because I knew I would be somewhere, you know, by myself. Well, I was giving up everything. I had a girlfriend at the time that I cared about. I was giving up my home. I was giving up my car. Essentially, I was - you know, it was going to be a solo trip.

I knew I had to cool off and I had to get out the country, so I went to Canada. I had my camping gear with me - little, small plastic tent, canned goods. You know, what I had was probably going to only last me for about two weeks. I remember distinctively taking a bottle of vitamins with me, a pistol. You know, I was going out there for the long haul.


DAVIS: And I remember when I was going off the main highway, going back into the woods, yeah, I was afraid. You've done research, but you haven't actually applied anything yet. I looked down the highway to the north. Then I turned and looked to the south. And this is an old, worn highway. And I remember distinctly, you know, saying, goodbye world. And I began to step into the woods. Every step was a very difficult step because I knew I had to go deep in there.

The first night was rough, I mean, as you can imagine, because I was scared to death. I remember lying down in my tent. You know, I began to fear the darkness, the strange sounds. And I was tucked up underneath the sleeping bag, and I thought, really, that I had - something had touched my leg. I got up with the pistol ready to shoot, and I actually found out that I was so scared that it was - I had touched my leg with my other leg. (Laughter). Now, that's what you call scared.

I distinctly remember looking up at the sky at night and seeing an airplane headed south, and I began to think of my siblings back home. I had a son that was just born during that time. I began to think about home in general. I mean, it was just like - it was like traveling to the moon, you know? I had nobody that I could call or anything. And I - a couple of times, I thought about pulling the trigger, you know - just shoot myself, and that would be it. Eventually, I mean, I got better and more comfortable being out there.


DAVIS: It's remarkable what a human mind, I sometimes think, how it will adjust to certain conditions because throughout the day, I had routine things that other people would do too. Like, for instance, I had moments where I would call go and look at TV. And that essentially meant climbing a tree and looking at the animals, at the birds, how they hunt. And that was TV to me. I became an expert tracker. I could look at tracks and know what this was, whether it was a raccoon, whether it was a bear, a wolf. About maybe the first year in the woods, I wasn't scared anymore. And you got to keep in mind, as the months and years are passing, I am leaving what I am used to.

Every day, I would walk about a mile or two from my camp to go hunting. Usually, I did is I trapped them - raccoon, possums and dear and all kind of other animals. Actually, I camped in every state on the mainland except Vermont. The only reason why I remember Vermont is because I remember thinking about staying there - maybe your listeners don't know right now, but I'm a black guy, OK? (Laughter). And they didn't have no black people there. If they did, I didn't see any. So it was like - I said, you know what? I need to get up out of here (laughter). That was one thing I couldn't improvise on. That's the tactic. I mean, you want to keep moving.


DAVIS: Only two things I had missed, and it had nothing to do (laughter) with conversation, women - nothing. I missed coffee, and I missed a toenail clipper because my toenails had gotten so long that I had to make myself - you know, curl myself up to bite them off.

DAVIS: After five years, I was heartless. After 10 years, I was a true animal in the true sense of the word. No feelings at all. After 15 years, being a fugitive felt normal.

Well, I was sitting down, and I was making some tea. I think at that point I had been out for about 18 years. And I heard something rustling in the woods, but this sound was just, like, just crazy. I'll describe it at times. So naturally I got up in a defensive position and hid behind a tree. And I look and this guy comes fumbling in there, falling down, trying to chase insects off his head while also trying to hold a bag around his shoulder. It was just a person that didn't know what they were doing.

I could kind of see he was scared. He was frightened. We began to talking, I could tell instantly the guy was on the run or that he was wanted. He's coming through there, you know, and the hardware he has - he almost has, like, suitcases-type, like, bags with him. You know, like you're going to Disney World or somewhere. I'm like, man, you got to lose all this, you know what I mean? I had already had a camp set up where, you know, everything was good for me. I mean, I was living life in the woods. Yeah, if you can imagine a person like just, you know, way out of place.

That night we were burning a fire, and he was just, you know, we were sitting at the fire. And he began - I began to tell him what I had been through, what he was going to be having to go through also in order to get away permanently. You're going to have - and he had a mom and a dad, and he loved them. And he had a son and siblings. And I told him, I said you're never going to be able to call them. You're never going to be able to call them, especially never call them on holidays. I said you're not going to see your son again. You're done with your wife. She'll probably be filing divorce in two years or so forth. I was just letting him know, you know, prepare yourself.

And this guy began to cry and so forth. Oh, I wasn't hard. I thought he was, you know, I mean, he started crying. I mean, I know you're not going to make it out here. He was - he lead into it. I mean, he was just really upset, very, very upset. We're talking big sobs. He wound up giving himself up the next - the very next day because he was more afraid of what I was telling him to look forward to than the law enforcement, and I always wondered what happened to that little fellow.


DAVIS: I spent a great deal of time out there, and I think, you know, things changed for me. They just changed. I began to regret all that I had did. I had missed my family. So when that 22nd year came, I began to test God, and I began to question the universe where I'm challenging things, and they seemingly are responding to me. And I remember distinctively looking at a plant. The bloom would - it would just, you know, spread out like a rose, you know, like in the beginning, it would be closed like a pod. I said that this plant - if there is a God, when I come back from hunting, this plant should be closed, and it was closed. And then I would do it again and say at a certain time it should open if you're God, and it would open.

And then lastly, what I did was with the rock and the can. And I can see that can now. It's like, you know, the old 5-pound coffee cans, and I remember putting it on the ground and turning it upside down, and it was towards the twilight, and I remember taking a pebble and putting it on top of the can. And I said if there is a God, when I wake up, that pebble will be gone. When I woke up the next morning, it was gone.


DAVIS: It scared me so. I've never been scared like that my life. I remember urinating on myself, and it scared me so bad I left everything. I was so afraid that I just walked out of there. I turned around and just began to walk towards the city. I was going to catch a train. That's what my mode of traveling was, was riding trains, freight trains, and I was going to be down in New Orleans and give myself up.


DAVIS: When I gave myself up to law enforcement, going to the district attorney office to give myself up, and they're running me through the computers, they can't find me. He says you're not wanted, sir. Now, keep in mind, it's been 22 years. He says you're not wanted. Look, I mean, this is the district attorney himself, and he's telling me you are free to walk out of here because you are not wanted. And I had an instant choice to make. I could've walked out, or I could've told him how to prove that I am.

Instantly, I thought - I said we weren't in the computer system then. You're going to have to go down in the basement archives. I even pointed across the street where it's at because I remembered when I was a law enforcement officer, I used to walk through there and put files up and get files. And surely we all went over there. They looked at the file. They showed that I was wanted, and so at that point he had to put me into custody. They set a court date up real fast.


DAVIS: That particular judge, I didn't know that she was the toughest judge they had with all the stuff that we had - police officers had done wrongly to females, she wasn't going look too kindly. You know, there was a lot of press there, news people blah, blah, blah, you know, that kind of stuff. And people were in the hallways looking at me and whispering and so forth.


DAVIS: She - the first question she asked me I think was, are you guilty of the crime? And I told her not only I was guilty of that crime, but many other crimes. I wanted to account for everything, everything that I had did wrong. And I remember her saying something like, I'm going to give you so much time, but I heard a word that is just so common, a three-letter word that just completely flipped me. And she said, but I'm going to suspend the sentence because I think that you did enough time when you were out for those 22 years.


DAVIS: I was sitting there stunned because I was expecting to be handcuffed and taken to Angola. And now you're telling me that after all this that I'm free? Yeah, I certainly deserve much worse, you know, than I got. After I was freed, I think that's where the shame had came in at, you know, that I had done so many wrong things, you know?

There's not a day come by that I don't feel sorry about what happened. Because I didn't serve time, I'm still never satisfied in paying back, you know, what I had done. When I was first freed and was as a free man, I still seriously considered going back out into the woods, but I can't do nothing for the community by being in the woods.


DAVIS: I still do some things that are wood-type, you know, forest-type living. About 80 percent of my meal today is still wild food - coon, opossum, that kind of stuff. I never eat it out of a plate. I always eat out of the pot I cook in, and I don't use utensils, unless I'm outside, I'm a guest of somebody. I mean, I know how to act (laughter). I know how to play it off (laughter). But I don't think I'll ever quite not being to a point where I miss the woods. I think that'll always be in my heart.

WASHINGTON: Now, in case you were wondering, Robert Davis spends his time now helping police units weed out corruption. And all proceeds from his work go towards supporting survivors of sexual abuse. And find out more about his work on our website, That story was produced by Anna Sussman with an original score and sound design by Renzo Gorrio.

When SNAP JUDGMENT continues - a relationship closer than any you might ever imagine or might want to imagine when SNAP JUDGMENT the "Unforgiven" episode continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.