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September, 2013, Page 30
Photo by Richard Maack
“It was a cool world to be in. But I’d never want to be
undercover again.” — Jack Ballentine
Former undercover homicide cop Jack Ballentine sparks up a second career as a fire marshal – and a TV hero?
Jack Ballentine. It already sounds like the title of a cop show. Can’t you hear it? “This fall on CBS, action has a new name: Jack Ballentine.”
It could quite possibly happen. Over a three-decade career, the Jack Ballentine in question became perhaps the most celebrated homicide detective in the annals of Valley law enforcement. The Phoenix Police Department legend drew particular acclaim for his undercover work, in which he posed as a hit man for people looking to engage the services of such a professional – like convicted felons Debra Mounla, who wanted to be rid of her husband, and Jan Solomon, who wanted a mob hit on the husband of his mistress.
Ballentine compiled these and other tales of such exploits in a book, Murder For Hire: My Life as the Country’s Most Successful Undercover Agent, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2009. Unsurprisingly, it was optioned by Hollywood.
“It’s in the hands of a production company called eOne Entertainment. They’ve developed it as a script, and they’re pitching it,” says Ballentine, who adds that Munich star Eric Bana has been bandied as a possible lead.
Ballentine’s current gig, though maybe a bit less juicy as TV material, is at least as significant to his legacy of public service. Since 2007, Ballentine has been the city’s Fire Marshal, overseeing both the Fire Investigations and the Fire Prevention divisions of the Phoenix Fire Department. It’s a position Ballentine intends to keep, even if his early life becomes a TV show. “I’m not leaving here,” he says. “I’m not at all caught up in this Hollywood thing. The only benefit I see from it is, it could benefit the 100 Club.” The charity is the sole recipient of the proceeds from his book.
Ballentine is a tall man, physically imposing, but he doesn’t project an air of menace. His manner is unassuming, almost sheepish. He comes across as sincere; ironically, this may be how he deceived so many murder-minded folks into believing he was a hired killer.
The son of a Sears-Roebuck executive and a homemaker, Ballentine was born in Iowa but came to Arizona while a toddler. He grew up on the west side, attending Maryvale High School, then majored in Business and Public Administration at U of A, with a minor in Corrections. “I wanted to work with abused children and convicts,” he says, “because I think there’s a direct correlation. I still think I’m right about that, but at that age, when you’re in college, you know you’re going to fix the world.”
He was accepted by Phoenix PD soon after college, and thus began his TV-worthy career. Six years ago, at the urging of PFD Chief Bob Khan, Ballentine retired from the police to take over his current position. “I had the opportunity to rebuild the Fire Investigations division,” Khan recalls. “Jack has a national reputation for law enforcement. I got to know him through a friend, and through an interview I told him my vision for the section, and he told me his vision, and it was a shared vision.”
Ballentine’s Mobile Command Center –coming to an arson investigation near you.
“The [PFD] had a study done to identify their weaknesses,” Ballentine says. “They had great people who were investigators; they just didn’t have anyone who could provide the support, oversight and training they needed.”
Khan isn’t reserved in his praise of Ballentine: “He hit the ground running. I can’t think of anyone more invested in the safety of fire investigators or police officers than Jack.”
Ballentine has overseen a number of notable investigations, perhaps the most famous being that of the 2001 Southwest Supermarket blaze in which Phoenix firefighter Bret Tarver was killed. “When I came in, it was cold,” Ballentine says. “So I took an officer, and taught him how to do a cold case investigation, and he took to it like a duck to water.”
A decade later, in 2011, Christopher Benitez was convicted of starting the supermarket blaze. Ballentine cites the deadly Young Champions of America fire and the fire that destroyed the Biltmore home of former Wall Street hotshot Michael Marin among his division’s other high-profile successes.
“I’m not an arson investigator,” says Ballentine, 56, a father of two – his son Geoff is a Phoenix police officer; his son Cody is an actor in L.A. “My job is management.” But the 16 men and women under his command certainly are arson investigators. After passing an interview process, they enroll in the Phoenix Police Academy.
“They have all the authority of police officers, so there’s no disconnect,” Ballentine explains. “On every desk is a Fire Department computer and a Police Department computer. They can carry firearms, execute search warrants. They’re sworn peace officers – fire captains with police powers.” Investigators also attend a 17-week detective school. The reasoning behind all this rigorous training, Ballentine says, is simple: “The whole key, for me, is that they go home to their families.”
As to the differences between arsonists and the kinds of murder suspects with whom he previously dealt, Ballentine says: “A criminal’s a criminal.” But then he goes on to qualify: “You can’t put arsonists in a bag. The majority of our fires are related to juveniles. And we get lots of people with mental health issues. Why? The best answer I’ve ever gotten is that fire is very primitive, and when you have mental health issues you revert to primitive ways of dealing with things.”
Ballentine also heads Fire Prevention, the domain of inspections, code enforcement and the like. Out the back doors of the headquarters, in a garage, is a relatively recent addition to his domain: a 34-foot, lavishly-equipped Mobile Command Center (see photo). “The community got us this,” Ballentine says proudly. “It’s a great tool.”
However, the section’s most useful tool, according to Ballentine, is its relationship with Phoenix Police Department, which goes against the grain of the traditional enmity between police and fire departments.
“The relationship that Phoenix police and fire have is really good,” he asserts. “They help locate suspects, we send them all our lab stuff, [our investigators] have access in and out of the stations. It’s a unique relationship.”
The inter-department amity has made Ballentine’s adaptation to the new environment fairly easy: “Even though it’s a different culture, it’s the same people. People in police and fire services have a strong desire to help the community. It hasn’t been a difficult transition.”
But does he ever long for the thrill of undercover work? “It was a cool world to be in,” he admits. “But I would never want to be undercover again... It’s a world where you change everything about yourself. You’re living in violence, in a very morally unsound environment, and it takes a toll.”
Still, he says, “Listening to other undercovers come and talk to me... I enjoy the old thrill of that.” With any luck, he’ll have another opportunity to vicariously enjoy undercover work – his own, on TV.
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