At 6:30 p.m. on April 6, 1998, two rookie patrolmen from Cleveland's Sixth Police District, Christopher Gibbons and Matthew Putnam, answered a call from social-service workers to pick up a six-month-old child whom they believed was suffering from neglect. By the time Gibbons and Matthews entered the house of the infant's parents on Glencoe Road in northeast Cleveland, the mother, Josette Bivins-Banks, had fled with the baby out the backdoor. This left the two rookies facing her belligerent husband, an ex-con named Darrell Banks, who told them they could not have the child. "You're gonna have to arrest me," Banks said. So the cops obliged him, reading him his rights as they cuffed him for "obstructing official business."
As Putnam walked Banks to the squad car, Gibbons stayed behind to search for the infant. At one point, he says, Banks's seven-year-old son pointed upstairs and asked, "You know who's up there?"
"No, who?" said Gibbons.
"That's Jimmy Bivins up there," the boy replied.
Gibbons vaguely recognized the name, but it meant little to him until he saw the boxing pictures lining the walls of the stairway as he climbed to the second floor. Moments later, he was approaching an open bedroom door. The room was almost dark, with blankets thrown over the windows and a single socket hanging bulbless from the ceiling. The only light came from a small television screen on which was playing an episode of The Simpsons. Gibbons stood at the door, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He winced at the foul, acrid odor that suffused the air.
Stepping inside, Gibbons glanced about the room, from the TV to a single bed off to the side. There, through the reek, he saw a pair of bony hands. He drew closer until he made out the emaciated figure of a man in repose. "I thought he was dead," Gibbons recalls.
"Jim?" Gibbons whispered. "Jim? What's goin' on?"
The 78-year-old Bivins raised his head, brightening when he saw the uniform. "Oh, hey!" he said. "How are you?"
The patrolman asked him how he was doing. "Oh, not too good," the old man said. "I haven't been eating too well lately."
Gibbons leaned over and looked closer. Bivins was covered with bedsores; his clothes and blanket were soaked by urine and flecked with excrement. Frail and sticklike, with sunken cheeks and with skin as dry as parchment, he looked to Gibbons like a Somalian refugee or a death-camp survivor. The middle finger of his right hand was cut to the bone and crudely bandaged, and Bivins kept cradling it in his lap as though in pain. His legs were swollen, and he did not have the strength to rise. He knew his name and Social Security number but not what year or day it was. "I was kind of horrified," Gibbons says. "I'd never seen a person alive in that condition."