Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Fork in the Road

Jack Burch, circa 1978.
Every newsie likes to know how a story ends.  And for years, there was one story that I just couldn't get out of my head. That's why when I finally had some time on my hands in 2006,  I contacted a public library in Northern Minnesota to follow up on a story that always left me wondering, "so then what happened?" It involved a big-ticket burglar who was discovered living a double life right in the midst of the good citizens of Duluth. The research librarian, Ellen Pioro, gave me some leads on  newspaper articles connecting the burglar to the murder of a prominent Washington, D.C., heart surgeon. They detailed the shooting of the doctor during a burglary and the shocking chase and capture of a murderer whose trail lead the police to this bucolic port city at the southern tip of Lake Superior. Career criminal Bernard Welch was clearly more than just a Duluth, Minnesota, cat burglar.

I learned that Welch had been systematically burglarizing homes in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding communities for five years, all while he was an escaped convict on the run from a New York state prison. The murder trial garnered a lot of publicity on the East Coast and the D.C area because of the fame and character of a noted heart surgeon, Michael Halberstam, brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. But in the Twin Cities and national media, the whole story was never told because attention went to the larger stories of the shooting of John Lennon, and then an assassination attempt on president Ronald Reagan. One of the most interesting elements of the story that was covered was the almost incredible amount of stolen treasure Welch had stored in his million dollar home in a toney D.C. suburb when he was arrested. It reflected proceeds of just two months of theft, and still the dozens of boxes of high-end merchandise filled an entire 12 foot truck. Experts placed a retail value of the stolen goods between four and five million dollars. A partial listing of the items filled two-plus pages of the Washington Star newspaper.

James King, December 1980.
Clearly, the "Duluth cat burglar" story I had set out to investigate suddenly became a lot more interesting.  Wanting to know more, I traveled to Washington, D.C., later in 2006 to speak with Welch’s defense attorney, Sol Rosen, and a number of Welch’s neighbors. During that trip, I made it a point to visit Detective Jim King to see what light he could shed on a story that was looking much bigger than I originally realized. Right after the murder in December of 1980 and up through the 1981 trial, Jim King was the go-to guy for background and opinions on Welch and his criminal activities. Jim expressed an interest in working on the project, and I thought his background and insight into what made Welch tick could be invaluable. We forged a partnership and started working up a manuscript in 2007. I was fortunate. Detective King was a great choice because of his expertise in police and investigative work and insight into the psychology and motivation of this escaped convict millionaire, Bernard C. Welch, Jr.  Together, we were able to see a much bigger picture as we pieced together elements of a complicated and far-ranging story of a criminal whose activities strained the boundary of credibility. 

Today in Duluth, a mention of Welch's name among the over-50 crowd still brings knowing nods or uncomfortable snickers. His neighbors and those he had business dealings with are still embarrassed to the point of refusing to talk about it. Those who should have been on to him run the gamut from jewelers to county attorneys, from furniture store owners to coin and antique dealers, realtors, stock brokers, postmasters and chiefs of police. In reflecting on how this all began, I can't but help thinking about the wisdom of that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, who recommended, "When you get to a fork in the road, take it."          
                                                                                           ― Jack Burch

Monday, June 18, 2012

Where Are All the 'Old' Cops?

Have you ever wondered what happens to old cops? Whenever we think of police, we conjure up images of young, flat-stomached men and women in uniform stopping speeders, chasing crime-doers in high-speed chases, or walking a beat in a retail area. Police officers are seldom thought of as old, pot-bellied, or grandparents. But, of course, we age and do other things.
The primary thing to remember is that police work is a young person’s job. One has to be in good physical shape, able to run and work nights, weekends, and holidays. Sometimes the hours are long. One does not break off an intensive investigation because it’s quitting time. The first 48 hours in a major investigation are the most important. Whether it is a murder, rape, missing child, or some other major incident, the primary investigator continues to work the case as long as humanly possible― or until it’s solved. I’ve known investigators who have worked 18, 24 and even 48 hours without going home. I’ve done a few of those stints myself.
Police work can be hard, dirty and physically and mentally exhausting. For me, it started to take its toll by age 35. It took longer to recover from injuries received in a fight with a PCP user. Changing work shifts each week was like being in a constant state of jet lag. People telling lies, domestic abuse, child molestation, and other repulsive actions made me leery of anything anyone said. Decomposing bodies; drunken kids mangled in car accidents; telling parents their child, wife, husband or close relative was dead― all of these things are burdens carried in the back of an officer’s mind.
To be an active street officer requires a young, agile person in mind and body, and that’s why most police retire after 20 or 25 years, if they can last that long. But to retire at age 45 or 50 is too young to stop working. Police retirements are not overly generous. Most officers have families who need food, clothes, orthodontists and college educations. So, retired cops go into other things. Due to contacts, training and experience, most go into security or investigative occupations. Some start businesses. I know of outstanding police officers who went into landscaping, home building, window blind manufacturing, and horse breeding, to name a few second careers. I asked one old cop why he started an auto repair shop. He said because it had nothing to do with police work.
Every police officer eventually has to face the prospect of retirement and becoming a normal human being again. For some, it’s hard to leave behind the excitement, respect, or even the power of being a police officer.
For others it is a relief.
                                                          ―James King