Head in a Box

by longformphilly


Pete Dexter | Philadelphia Daily News | 1981

The boss’s name is Tony Scarduzio, and Tuesday afternoon he goes out on the job with Jose Colon. Just to keep his hand in. “To make sure that things are being done to my specifications,” he says.

Jose Colon is a parking-meter repairman. Somebody gets drunk in Camden and runs over a parking meter because he put a dime in and didn’t get any bubble gum, Jose fixes that too.

It doesn’t matter to Jose, he likes his job. “You don’t have to go to school or nothing, and it’s very enjoyable,” he said.

So Jose and Tony are out on the truck, going up Broadway, when they come to a broken parking meter. It’s broken in a way that they can only fix back at the shop, so Jose gets out a wrench to replace the head. While he is doing that, though, he happens to notice a white paper sack leaning against the stem.

“It’s a nice paper sack,” he said later, “got a label on it from some store on Germantown Avenue in Philly. It looks almost new, you know, a real nice paper sack, and somebody stapled it up. So I pick up the sack and it looks to me like there’s a coconut in there. I say, ‘Hey, Tony, we better look inside. I think we found a coconut.'”

Tony shrugs, and Jose opens it carefully, not wanting to damage a real nice paper sack, and looks inside. Tony waits, Jose just stares inside the sack. “Hey, Tony,” he says after a minute, “there’s a head inside this paper sack.”

“A what?”

“It’s not a coconut, Tony. It’s a head.” And Jose sees that his boss doesn’t believe him, so he reaches in the sack and pulls the head out. A human skull. The jaw bone is missing and so are the teeth, but outside of that it is perfect. “It’s not a coconut,” Jose says again.

Tony says, “Oh my God!” and as soon as they fix the parking meter, they take the head over to Juvenile Division, where Tony has a friend who is a detective.

Tony and Jose go into the detective’s office and put the sack in his hands. “I think I found Jimmy Hoffa,” Tony says. The detective smiles and looks inside.

Then he stops smiling.

“I can’t do anything about this,” he says. “You better take it over to the administration building.” And he hands the almost-new white paper sack with the head inside back to Tony, who gives it to Jose, and tells him to carry it over there.

On the way over, Jose stops to see his friend Kevin McKeel, who is also a supervisor for the city, and tells him to look inside the sack. Kevin does. “Surprised, huh?” Jose says.

And then he walks it the rest of the way to the police administration building, and has a short talk with the detectives’ receptionist. “I bring in the bag and say, ‘I found a head in the street,'” Jose says. “She says, ‘This is serious. Do you really want me to go get a detective and tell him you got a head?'”

“I tell her I’m not joking. I say, ‘You want to look inside?’ She don’t want to, but another woman comes out of the office and she wants to look inside. I don’t know who she was, she didn’t say nothing after she looked. She just went back where she came from.”

The receptionist, meanwhile, has located Sgt. Albert Handy, who comes out and takes the sack from Jose and checks inside, and then thanks him for bringing it over.

Sgt. Handy puts a tag on the skull and gives it to a detective to take over to the coroner’s office in Cherry Hill. “We can’t do anything about it here,” he would say later.

So the detective drives the skull over to Jerry Healy, who is an investigator, and Jerry Healy puts another tag on it and sends it to Newark. “There was nothing we could do about it here,” his wife would say later. Jerry was out collecting a body and couldn’t be reached for comment.

And so, as the day ended, Jose was back at work in the street. Tony had gone back to work in his office. The skull was on a bus for Newark, and Sgt. Handy was working on new cases. “A man brings in a skull in a paper sack,” Handy said. “It’s nothing to stop work for.” Sgt. Handy has been with the department fourteen years.

“Hey,” he said, “this is Camden.”

Writer bio: Pete Dexter, winner of the National Book Award for his novel “Paris Trout,” is also generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history. He wrote for the Daily News, mostly as a columnist, for 12 years.