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'You Have the Right to Remain Silent' : A videotape. A revolver. A jealous ex-boyfriend. All of this--and none of this--explains how a teen-ager from a family of selfless public servants came to be a suspect in a brutal robbery and a murder.

September 25, 1995|FRANK AHRENS | THE WASHINGTON POST

PONCHATOULA, La. — The pictures were taken by the convenience store's three automated surveillance cameras. They are shot from on high, in stark black and white. They are on a videotape but they are stills, snapped three seconds apart to conserve film. The mind reads the images like a child's flip book--individual frames that, when viewed quickly one after the other, form a surreal, herky-jerky semblance of motion. They move like a bad dream.

A wide view of the store. Display racks, bright fluorescent lighting, broad, clean aisles--the familiar tableau. A slight figure in a wide-striped hooded shirt appears. A candy bar materializes in her hand. She arrives at the counter as if to pay. A female clerk is tidying up nearby. She walks behind the counter to accept the money.

Now, a view from behind the counter. It is tighter, more intimate. For the first time, we see the face of the figure in the hooded shirt. She is a young woman, her features expressionless, her face downcast. She is waifishly pretty. Her eyes rise under heavy lids and lock on the clerk, who is now behind the cash register. The clerk is tall and thin and wears her hair in a businesslike banana clip.

The next frame comes. The customer's eyes are wide, her mouth agape. She is pointing a handgun at the clerk, who is looking down, toward the register, and does not appear to see the gun.

For what comes next, you must remind yourself that this is not fiction, not a re-enactment in a TV docudrama. You are about to watch something terrible.

Next frame: The assailant has stiffened and fired. The clerk is frozen in recoil. The impact of the bullet is snapping her backward, like a fist in the face.

Then: The customer leaves the store. Now she is gone. Click. Click. Click. Fifteen shots of a nice, clean, empty convenience store, eerily normal, the body on the floor hidden by the countertop. And then, suddenly, the assailant has reappeared. Now she is behind the cash register, attending to unfinished business. She is leaning over the woman she has shot, trying to jimmy open the register.

The clerk is paralyzed, her spinal cord severed at the neck. She is 45 seconds into what will be a lifetime of quadriplegia. She will never again walk. She may never breathe again without mechanical assistance. Lying there on the floor of the convenience store, she cannot speak. But she can hear.

This is what she hears:

"Are you dead yet? No? How do you open this?"

This happened here on March 8. For months, the FBI and police had no clues other than that videotape. Then a break, the kind that occasionally happens in the most sordid of cases: In Oklahoma, a jealous ex-boyfriend was pulled over for speeding and ratted to the police.

That brought the FBI to the front porch of Jim and Suzanne Edmondson's large gray house at the quiet corner of Martin Luther King and 13th streets in Muskogee, Okla.

Some agents rustled in the pyracantha bushes below the porch. It was 5 p.m. on June 2.

"Where is Sarah?" one of the agents asked Suzanne Edmondson.

Her daughter, Sarah, wasn't home. Suzanne felt panic. The Edmondsons were used to trouble with Sarah, and it never got any easier to face.

But this was different from having to pick her up at a police station at 2 a.m. for some juvenile escapade. These men produced a warrant for Sarah's arrest on charges of attempted first-degree murder in Louisiana. They showed Jim Edmondson faxes of the pictures from the convenience store. One looked a lot like Sarah. The gun looked a lot like Jim Edmondson's .38, the one Sarah had borrowed without permission a few months before when she drove off with her boyfriend for a trip through the South.

The lawmen sat in their unmarked cars and waited out the day.

At 11:30, Sarah and a Jeep full of friends pulled up out front. Out of courtesy, the officers had agreed to let Jim Edmondson turn his daughter over to them.

Father and daughter stood alone, alongside the bushes in front of the house they had lived in for all of Sarah's 18 years. Up walked an FBI agent. Sarah Edmondson--a perplexed look on her face--was locked in her father's arms.

Jim Edmondson spoke in his quiet, steady Oklahoma drawl.

"The FBI is here, and they want to question you."

Then, Jim Edmondson said this to his daughter:

"You should be brave. No one is going to hurt you. And you should never forget . . ."

He took a breath.

" . . . that you have the right to remain silent. You have the right to have an attorney with you at all times, and anything that you say can be held against you as evidence."

*

Sarah Edmondson is the daughter of an Oklahoma judge. She is the niece of the state attorney general, the granddaughter of a former congressman and the great-niece of a former Oklahoma governor. The Edmondsons are a political dynasty in Oklahoma--something like the Kennedys, except without the scandals, until now. Their record is the old-fashioned one of genuine, selfless public service.

Because of the defendant's lineage, the case has attained national notoriety.

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