That muggy morning in July my partner, Rich Conklin, and I were on stakeout in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s sketchiest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods. We had parked our 1998 gray Chevy sedan where we had a good view of the six-story apartment building on the corner of Leavenworth and Turk.
It’s been said that watching paint dry is high entertainment compared with being on stakeout, but this was the exception to the rule.
We were psyched and determined.
We had just been assigned to a counterterrorism task force reporting back to Warren Jacobi, chief of police, and also Dean Reardon, deputy director of Homeland Security, based in DC.
This task force had been formed to address a local threat by a global terrorist group known as GAR, which had claimed credit for six sequential acts of mass terrorism in the last five days.
They were equal-ethnicity bombers, hitting three holy places—a mosque, a cathedral, and a synagogue—as well as two universities and an airport, killing over nine hundred people of all ages and nationalities in six countries.
As we understood it, GAR (Great Antiestablishment Reset) had sprung from the rubble of Middle Eastern terror groups. Several surviving leaders had swept up young dissidents around the globe, including significant numbers of zealots from Western populations who’d come of age after the digital revolution.
The identities of these killers were undetectable within their home populations, since GAR’s far-flung membership hid their activities inside the dark web, an internet underground perfect for gathering without meeting.
Still, they killed real people in real life.
And then they bragged.
After a year of burning, torturing, and blowing up innocent victims, GAR published their mission statement. They planned to infiltrate every country and bring down organized religion and governments and authorities of all types. Without a known supreme commander or national hub to target, blocking this open-source terrorism had been as effective as grasping poison gas in your hand.
Because of GAR’s unrelenting murderous activities, San Francisco, like most large cities, was on high alert on that Fourth of July weekend.
Conklin and I had been told very little about our assignment, only that one of the presumed GAR operatives, known to us as J., had recently vaulted to the number one spot on our government’s watch list.
Over the last few days J. had been spotted going in and out of the dun-colored tenement on the corner of Turk and Leavenworth, the one with laddered fire escapes on two sides and a lone tree growing out of the pavement beside the front door.
Our instructions were to watch for him. If we saw him, we were to report his activities by radio, even as eyes in the skies were on this intersection from an AFB in Nevada or Arizona or Washington, DC.
It was a watch-only assignment, and when a male figure matching the grainy image we had—of a bearded man, five foot nine, hat shading his face—left the dun-colored apartment building, we took note.
When this character crossed to our side of the street and got into a white refrigerator van parked in front of the T.L. Market and Deli, we phoned it in.
Conklin and I have been partners for so many years and can almost read each other’s minds. We exchanged a look and knew that we couldn’t just watch a suspected terrorist pull out into our streets without doing something about it.
I said, “Following is watching.”
Rich said, “Just a second, Lindsay. Okay?”
His conversation with the deputy was short. Rich gave me the thumbs-up and I started up the car. We pulled out two car lengths behind the white van driven by a presumed highlevel terrorist known as J.
I edged our sharklike Chevy along Turk and turned left on Hyde, keeping just far enough behind J.’s van to stay out of his rearview while keeping an eye on him. After following him through a couple of turns, I lost the van at a stoplight on Tenth Street. I had to make a split-second decision whether or not to run the light.
My decision was Go.
My hands were sweating on the wheel as I shot through the intersection and was blasted by a cacophony of horns, which called attention to us. I didn’t enjoy that at all.
Conklin said, “There he is.”
The white van was hemmed in by other vehicles traveling at something close to the speed limit. I kept it in our sights from a good distance behind the pack. And then the van merged into US Route 101 South toward San Jose.
The highway was a good, wide road with enough traffic to ensure that J. would never pick our Chevy out of the flow.
Conklin worked the radio communications, deftly switching channels between chief of police Warren Jacobi and DHS deputy director Dean Reardon, who was three time zones away. Dispatch kept us updated on the movements of other units in our task force that were now part of a staggered caravan weaving between lanes, taking turns at stepping on the gas, then falling back.
We followed J.’s van under the sunny glare on 101 South, and after twelve miles, instead of heading down to San Jose and the Central Coast, he took the lane that funneled traffic to SFO.
Conklin had Jacobi on the line.
“Chief, he’s heading toward SFO.”
Several voices crackled over the radio, but I kept visual contact with the man in the van that was moving steadily toward San Francisco International Airport.
That van was now the most frightening vehicle imaginable. GAR had sensitized all of us to worst-case scenarios, and a lot of explosives could be packed into a vehicle of that size. A terrorist wouldn’t have to get on a plane or even walk into an airline terminal. I could easily imagine J. crashing his vehicle through luggage check-in and ramming the plateglass windows before setting off a bomb.
Conklin had signed off with Jacobi and now said to me, “Lindsay, SFO security has sent fire trucks and construction vehicles out to obstruct traffic on airport access roads in all directions.”
I stepped on the gas and flipped on the sirens. Behind us, others in our team did the same, and I saw flashing lights getting onto the service road from the north.
Passenger cars pulled onto the shoulder to let us fly by, and within seconds we were passing J.’s van as we entered the International Departures lane.
Signs listing names of airlines appeared overhead. SFO’s parking garage rose up on our right. Off-ramps and service roads circled and crossed underneath our roadway, which was now an overpass. The outline of the international terminal grew closer and larger just up ahead.
Rich and I were leading a group of cars heading to the airport when I saw cruisers heading away from the terminal right toward us.
It was a high-speed pincer movement.
J. saw what was happening and had only two choices: keep going or stop. He wrenched his wheel hard to the right and the van skidded across to the far right lane, where there was one last exit to the garage, which a hundred yards farther on had its own exit to South Link Road. The exit was open and unguarded.
I screamed to Conklin, “Hang on!”
I passed the white van on my right, gave the Chevy more gas, and turned the wheel hard, blocking the exit. At the last possible moment, as I was bracing for a crash, J. jerked his wheel hard left and pulled around us.
By then the airport roadway was filled with law enforcement cruisers, their lights flashing, sirens blowing.
The van screeched to a halt.
Adrenaline had sent my heart rate into the red zone, and sweat sheeted down my body.
Both my partner and I asked if the other was okay as cop cars lined up behind us and ahead of us, forming an impenetrable vehicular wall.
A security cop with a megaphone addressed J.
“Get out of the vehicle. Hands up. Get out now, buddy. No one wants to hurt you.”
Would J. go ballistic?
I pictured the van going up in a fiery explosion forty feet from where I sat in an old sedan. I flashed on the image of my little girl when I saw her this morning, wearing baby-duck yellow, beating her spoon on the table. Would I ever see her again?
Just then the white van’s passenger door opened and J. jumped out. A voice amplified through a bullhorn boomed, “Don’t move. Hands in the air.”
J. ignored the warning.
He ran across the four lanes and reached the concrete guardrail. He looked out over the edge. He paused.
There was nothing between him and the road below but forty feet of air.
Shots were fired.
I saw J. jump.
Rich shouted at me, “Get down!”
We both ducked below the dash, linked our fingers over the backs of our necks, as an explosion boomed, rocking our car, setting off the car alarm, blinding us with white light.
That sick bastard had detonated his bomb.
Rich and I sat parked in the no-parking zone outside the terminal, still reeling from what had happened an eighth of a mile from the airport terminals.
We had seen J. jump from the departures lane to a service road and knew that he had detonated his vest before he hit the pavement.
We had tried to guess what he had been thinking. Our current theory was that he hadn’t wanted to be captured. He didn’t want to talk.
Conklin said, “Maybe he figured jumping off the ramp, he’d land safely on a passing vehicle, like he was in a Jackie Chan movie.”
I jumped when someone leaned through the car window. It was Tom Generosa, counterterrorism chief, keeping us in the loop.
He said, “Here’s what we know so far. The guy you call J. had a plan to kill a lot of people inside a crowd, that’s not in doubt. His vest was of the antipersonnel variety. Packed with nails and ball bearings and rat poison. That’s an anticoagulant. The explosion was meant to propel the shrapnel, and it did. But the van contained the blast. The only casualty was the jumper.”
I nodded and Generosa continued.
“The nails and shit shredded his body and any information he may have been carrying on his person. He left a crater and a roadway full of human tissue and shrapnel.”
“And the van?” I said.
“Bomb squad cleared it. The FBI is loading it onto a flatbed, taking it to the crime lab. For starters, J. stole the van from the market on Turk. Maybe his prints will be on the steering wheel, but I won’t be surprised if he can’t be positively ID’d.”
Generosa told us that federal agents as well as SFPD’s Crime Scene Investigation Unit were at the site of the explosion now, that the CSI was processing it, and that after it was measured and photographed, the remains of the man known as J. would be transported by refrigerated van, along with explosive samples, to the FBI’s and the SFPD’s forensics labs.
Of course we knew that J.’s bomb had shut down SFO.
All airline passengers had been bused to other locations. Outbound flights had been grounded, and incoming flights had been rerouted to other airfields. We could see for ourselves that the terminal buildings were crawling with a multitude of law enforcement agents from CIA, FBI, DHS, and airport security, as well as their bombsniffing dogs.
Generosa couldn’t estimate with any certainty how long SFO would be out of commission, but as bad as that was for the airlines, their passengers, and traffic, GAR hadn’t scored a hit in San Francisco today.
We thanked Generosa for the report.
He told us, “Take good care,” and walked over to the next car in the line behind us. We were about to call in for further instructions when our radio sputtered and Jacobi’s voice filled our car. Both Conklin and I had partnered with Jacobi before his promotion to chief. It was so good to hear his voice.
He said, “You two are something else, you know? You cut J. off from his target. Thank God for that.”
I said, “Man, oh, man. I can’t stand to imagine it.”
But I did imagine it. I pictured an airport in Paris. I pictured another in Turkey. I could easily see what might have gone down at SFO if J. had gotten into or even near a terminal. When I first started in Homicide, an airport bombing had been inconceivable. Now? These horrifying bombings were almost becoming commonplace.
Jacobi’s voice was still coming over the radio.
He said, “Effective as soon as you turn in your report, you two are off duty. Boxer. Conklin. I’m proud of you. I love you both.
“Thanks from me and from Deputy Reardon and a lot of people who’ve never heard of you and never will. Many lives were saved. Stand down. Come home. The Feds are going to take it from here.”
I was shaking with relief when I turned the car keys over to Conklin. I got into the passenger seat. I leaned back and closed my eyes as he drove us back to the Hall.