Tilting At Windmills: The Case That Started It All
Published: March 11th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Case That Started It All

Writing about juvenile fire setters got me thinking about how few arson cases I had investigated over the years that involved young people. And that got me to questioning if my “how few” estimate was really true. Finally, my mind flung itself back to a fire long ago and far away in Manhattan, before I had embarked upon the research that eventually plopped me into Charlie King’s life.

Then, as now, I loved to read newspapers, and often found articles that would make fine fodder for stories I might later want to write. Once, while flipping through the pages of The Daily News, I came upon this item headlined: FIRE HERO IS SEIZED AS BURGLARY SUSPECT:

“Less than an hour and a half before Roberto (Coco) Diaz, 19, was to receive a hero’s award from Mayor Beame yesterday for a daring tenement fire rescue on August 19, cops grabbed him in connection with a burglary yesterday in another tenement on the same lower East Side block….A telephone call from Detective John O’Kane to Detective John Scott of the City Hall Police Detail stopped the presentation ceremony at which Beame was to have given certificates of appreciation for ‘conspicuous heroism’ to Diaz…” (and a friend, who was not implicated), “in the rescue of four children from a six-story tenement.”

I shook my head in awe as two thoughts immediately occurred to me:

One. “A boy who had set a fire in a tenement, was about to be given a hero’s award for saving the very children whose lives he put in jeopardy.”

Two. “If this isn’t an incident just waiting to be turned into a novel, I don’t know what is!”

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I clipped out the newspaper story, and determined to write that book.

But…as very often happens with writers, an idea may present itself, but the timing isn’t right. So it wasn’t until four years later that I tracked down arresting Detective John O’Kane, who by then had retired and moved to Upstate New York.

John agreed to meet with me and discuss the case.

Thus began an illuminating journey with many stops along the way. These included interviews with Mike Correa, a great newspaper man who had covered the story for El Diario la Prensa, research at a drug rehab called Project Return, and referrals to police department officials, who referred me on to others who could help me with whatever might come next.

Somewhere early in this process, I came to realize that even though Detective John O’Kane made the arrest, much of the investigative work that led to that arrest was done by fire marshals.

Fire marshals? What were they?

Well, it turns out that FDNY fire marshals were not figures out of the Wild West (like Matt Dillon), but sworn New York State law enforcement officers, empowered to carry weapons, make arrests, issue subpoenas, and – without first having to get a court order – seize evidence at a fire scene.

Pretty heady stuff.

Obviously, I would have to interview a fire marshal.

This brought me to Dr. Michael Baden, Assistant Chief Medical Examiner (later Chief Medical Examiner) of the City of New York. Dr. Baden, who had helped me previously to do research on an article about teen runaways, was writer-friendly and said he knew someone at the fire marshal’s office who “owes me a favor.” He put me in touch with the deputy chief fire marshal, who assigned me to ride with the FDNY’s new surveillance squad, created and headed by (okay. We’re finally getting here!) Supervising Fire Marshal Charles G. King.

So, there you have it.

An article I had read four years earlier began a long series of events that brought me to Charlie.

On the very first night that I rode with his squad, I watched him sauntering down a dark alley behind a building under surveillance, and right then, I knew he was extraordinary, unique … larger than life. He walked with the most non-confrontational confidence that I had ever seen in a law enforcement officer. His hands were loose at this sides. He looked un-menacing and relaxed.

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But looks can deceive.

Early in our relationship, we were walking up East 84th Street very late at night. Lumbering toward us from the opposite direction were two very tough, very scary, very big, men. They came closer. Closer. Closer. My hand was on Charlie’s arm at the time, and without transition, I felt that arm go rock solid and turn icy cold.

I could not see Charlie’s eyes, but the approaching thugs did, and whatever it was they saw delivered whatever message he wanted to send. So it was they who crossed the street to avoid us, instead of the other way round.

Charlie’s arm returned to normal.

Life went on.

We went on more surveillances together. He made me laugh. He took me to dinner (a real date!). He proposed. We got married.

And that was how a teenaged arsonist who almost got honored instead of arrested, affected the rest of my life.

Had it not been for the article I read about him in The Daily News, I would never have met Charlie. I would not have become a fire investigator. I would not have become a private detective. I would not have written arson crime novels. I would not, finally, have written The Boys of Sabbath Street … which fictionalized that incident reported long ago in The Daily News.

And I would not be writing this story today.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com