15 | Conflict

That man was out to kill me. Duane Frye, 2005

ambush/1: a trap in which concealed persons lie in wait to attack by surprise. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Conflict starts before antagonists meet. It is rooted in character and shaped by upbringing, fortune and pursuits. Character is destiny; by the time conflict bursts full-fledged onto page or screen, the outcome is ordained. At the crime scene in 1973, lead cop Sendle knew Betty’s killer was no burglar before he even met the man.

In the Frye master bedroom, two drawers stood upright on the floor. That was strange: burglars dumped drawers out to rifle through their contents quickly. The ones in the dresser were pulled out the same distance. That, too, was odd: to look inside, a burglar had to pull each drawer farther out or push the previous ones back in. The game was on. But it had begun in Depression Era Kansas and east-central Oklahoma.

Bob Sendle was born and raised in Oklahoma. The only time he and his big brother heard from their dad was at Christmas, when they’d get a piece of candy or maybe a pair of Levis. When Sendle was nine, their mom died and maternal aunts took them in. But they were country boys, throwing rocks and breaking church windows, and they wound up in an orphanage. One night they snuck out to a movie. The next day the superintendent summoned their dad to pick them up. He took them to a filthy trailer in Clarendon, Texas. There was a fight, and the boys pooled their money for a bus out of town. Sixty years later, Sendle could draw a map of every room in that orphanage but couldn’t say he knew his father.

Sendle dropped out of high school to join the Marines because his brother said he’d never make it through boot camp. He got his values from his brother, boxing and the Marine Corps, and being thrown out of an orphanage and forced to live with a father he’d never laid eyes on in the middle of nowhere. In 2014, I met him and Ginny, his wife of 51 years, and their toy poodles Elvis and Rocky. Sendle had retired as chief of police in a town in Minnesota. Barely thirty in 1973, he wasn’t intimidated by a suspect twenty years older.

Duane grew up in Atwood, Kansas, the Rawlins County seat. His father, a depressed and gentle man, owned Frye Auto & Electric. His mother had a gift shop in town and despised “Bohunks,” the Czech farmers in the valley. During World War II, Duane enrolled in the V-12 Naval College Training program but flunked out of midshipmen’s school because he was too busy partying. He got an engineering degree from CU and worked at Honeywell and Stanley Aviation. He believed in Ayn Rand, for whom the individual exists solely for his own sake. He was an avid hunter. His dogs were working animals, not pets. He kept them in a run behind the garage.

Shortly before Betty was killed, Duane was laid off from Martin Marietta. At the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office with his lawyer days after the murder, he gave Sendle two business cards. One said he was Executive VP and Treasurer at land development company Leisure Villas. The other identified him as Director of Corporate Development at Data Corp. Both companies had the same address and phone number.

Sendle was Duane’s worst nightmare because Duane prided himself on the very things for which Sendle had no use. From their first encounter, Sendle was in Duane’s head. He never left.

Does character always win out?

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