SIX MONTHS LATER...
It’d just hit me what was happening. I was graduating from the Orange County Peace Officer’s Academy, I’m going to be a cop.
I was able to maintain a full college schedule in addition to the full-time Academy requirements and I was worn out. I could barely see straight thinking about it—probably from my long term lack of sleep. I pinched my thigh in an attempt to get out of my head and snap into the moment.
There was a speaker entertaining the eyes and ears of a supportive audience. It was the first break for us rookies after an intense Academy. The entire afternoon was dedicated to doling out graduation certifications and enjoying our accomplishments with over 100 family members and friends.
Everyone was in uniform and looking tip-top, including visiting police management from nearby cities. So many cops in one room, I thought. The seniors looking at us with a soft nostalgia. Us returning their looks with our excitement for the unknown future. I’d been living and breathing law enforcement for the past few months, and it'd become a large part of me. I felt now fully aware of the responsibility and power that comes with wearing the badge, but then again, how much can a rookie really know at his graduation ceremony?
I could see Mom and my wife and two daughters, beaming with pride. I also saw my father-and-mother-in-law. His name was Dick, and he had the tendency to act like one. He wasn’t exactly unclear in his surprise that I’d made it this far. He once saw me dance ballet in tights and from that point forward never ascribed anything alpha to me. I was Og the leprechaun, not the college student or father figure or now police officer. He saw me as a funny, sometimes silly guy, but a guy brash enough to take his eldest daughter. I think I confused him. I don’t think he felt I had the toughness to do the cop job. Probably because I put on makeup and wore costumes.
My mother-in-law Betty seemed completely disinterested in the ceremony. And why not? Several years ago she’d put a 10 gauge shotgun on the family dining room table to shoot and kill herself. Not only was that inconsiderate to her children, but she failed. A ten gauge aimed point blank to the stomach. And she partially missed. The graduation must have been pretty dull in comparison.
I could vaguely hear the MC introduce Buena Park Police Chief Ralph Selby. The mustached man rose from his seat and walked to the podium with the posture of a ballerina (assuming ballerinas carry concealed .38’s), where he was welcomed with a nice applause.
Chief stood at the podium, his notes on top, spreading a few papers out and clearing his throat. He smiled paternally at the audience, patiently waiting for them to finish clapping. He had this way of smiling at a room and everyone present believed he was looking directly at them. I felt my face drifting into a smile in return, eager to hear what he had to say.
“Thank you very much, Don. It’s an honor to be asked to speak here today,” Selby began, giving an appreciative nod. “Orange County Peace Officer’s Academy does a wonderful job in training our young police officers of tomorrow. I sometimes sat in on classes, and I got to tell you, folks, these men graduating today know their law enforcement. Or, they wouldn't be here. We’re very happy to be associated with their program. We have four Buena Park officers graduating today, Officer Engle with honors. And we expect all these graduates will have long and honorable careers.” He nods, affirming and scans the eyes of each graduate.
Selby spoke with a soft yet firm sort of grace, making the four of us feel properly acknowledged and respected. All eyes were on him, nodding along with his words as he continued, addressing law enforcement, statistics, and 1965 social issues and conflicts, and there were many. Monumental changes in almost all aspects of this country.
Selby’s address eventually ended and everyone was given their certificate. Moments later, I was standing tall and talking with my family just like every other officer in the room. To my surprise, Chief Selby approached our group. I introduced him to everyone.
He smiled at Paula as he shook her hand, “You must be very proud of your husband.”
“I am. He worked hard. Full load at school,” Paula answered, smiling.
“And honors, too,” Selby added. I’m impressed.” He turned his attention to me, “You’re a bright young man. The type we need in law enforcement. You’ll do fine.” He patted my shoulder and gave me a friendly wink. “Nice to meet you all. Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
Dick was beaming now and not trying to hide it as if he thought I’d suddenly entered manhood. Like maybe all that tights-wearing is okay if you also have a big-ass police badge. There was of course… the actual work ahead of me.
Paula and I were seated together on the couch in our two-bedroom sparsely furnished rental duplex in Anaheim. The two girls were also in the living room/dining area. Debbie, four years was curled up reading while Lisa, two years, quietly watched television. There was a sense of peace as four very compatible people unwound from the day.
“…We still have a week at the PD with Sergeant Keeley, then they throw us out there,” I vacantly said.
Paula tilted her head up, kissing my chin, “I’m proud of you.” I squeezed my arms around her in silent thanks.
“Lot of things going through my mind. This is a whole new world. It’ll get me through college faster and get things to where they’re supposed to be. But a whole different world now. Parts of which I didn't know existed before the Academy.”
She slowly moved her hand up my leg, “You’ll adapt. I’ve got faith in you.”
I buried my hand in her blonde hair and reached the nape of her neck, pulling her face to mine, “I’ve got faith in you, too.”
Chameleon Cop: A Memoir
The story doesn’t really start here, but nothing ever does.
Closing time at the Buena Park Kmart store. It’s a large Kmart—presumably one of the core stores where they shoot commercials or train new employees. The year is 1970. The Sunday evening September air is just beginning to crisp. The Vons market next door which will close at 7:30. People don’t have to look at a watch to know it’s almost time. It’s a feeling in the air. Customers from both stores are filtering out the front doors, making their way to the comfort of their vehicles.
Exactly 250 feet from the Kmart entrance sit a man and woman. They intensely watch the front doors side by side in a 1969 white Volkswagen bug. There’s an absurd, almost comical contrast between their eerie stillness and the movement of the customers in a hurry to get home and settle in for the night.
Through the front store windows, it’s fairly easy to see the store staff going about their closing duties. Most wouldn’t glance twice.
Twenty minutes later the majority of the staff hurries through the front door, leaving for the night. An unarmed security guard hastily locks the entrance doors, sliding the keys into his pocket as he makes his way to his Honda.
As of now, six people are still visible in the store. More than usual for a typical Sunday evening closing. More than accounted for.
ARMED ROBBERY IN PROGRESS…
Ron Corley’s face glistens with sticky sweat. His jaw twitches. He stretches it, thinking this will ebb the tremors. It doesn’t. He hunches down unnaturally as if he’s attempting to hide from someone. He’s awkwardly nestled his body in the gardening section, behind water hoses and pesticides and a storage shed facade.
Not far away, Shannon “Lucky” Garr is also contorted in hiding. Lucky is even taller than Ron, making this feat particularly difficult without taking into account he’s also Ron’s senior by 13 years. Lucky leans forward, holding a .38 caliber revolver to his chest. The tips of his fingers meet the grooves of his wedding ring as he does this, sending a wave of shock through his body. He leans forward even more so, attempting to detect any movement whatsoever. He’s strategically placed between bathroom supplies and the cleaning product aisles. Lucky has given himself plenty of room to move around without detection. He can roam around if hunching gets too hard on his very tall body. And most importantly, he has perfect vision of the store.
EMPLOYEE LOCKER ROOM…
Accessed from the store warehouse only, the employee’s locker room lies in the northeast corner of the store. For the employee's convenience (and to extinguish the threats of a lawsuit a few years back), the locker room contains a dressing area and a bathroom. The north wall of the bathroom holds the door to a broom closet, where the janitors keep all of their amenities.
Fernando Garcia slides both of his thick legs into his pants, pulls them up and tightens his belt. He yawns and glances at the shiny beige metal locker while putting on his “Kmart Custodian” Shirt. Chipped lime green walls and a wooden bench, bolted to the floor at every opportunity, running the length of the lockers. The lockers themselves echo the shade of hopelessness.
On the bright side, there is that broom closet---a room with no corporate eye, a necessity for Fernando's pre-shift ritual.
The six remaining employees pepper the northeast corner of the store. They wait at manager Bob Miller’s office for him and security to complete the register closing duties. Bob Miller has been handling deposits, going over receipts, and taking cash and checks for the armored-truck arrival for years now, and he prides himself on it. All that life or death kind of stuff is a big accomplishment for Bob, whose parents never thought he’d amount to much.
The two final employees arrive simultaneously, although from different areas of the store. The eight ceremoniously engage in small talk as they wait, end of day talk, store talk, the kind of talk they only have to be half conscious for. Bob’s been delayed but they aren’t too concerned—they’re preconditioned to wait for his arrival.
Ron is still in the gardening section, slowly squirming around in his cramped space. Careful not to make a sound, he attempts to uncurl his body for any semblance of comfort. A .32 caliber revolver is hanging out in his right hand.
TWO WEEKS LATER…
I’d been on my own for a week. My police car was hauling ass down La Palma Avenue, with flashing emergency lights and siren (“Code three”). I’d been assigned an unknown medical emergency and was making my way to 6505 San Marino Avenue. Drivers did their best to pull out of the way of my siren, but they were mostly confused. I didn’t blame them. Sometimes sirens did that. My eyes were steady on the traffic and my heart beat as would be expected in this new experience, my first home “unknown trouble” medical aid call.
I felt like my eyes could see at a 360-degree angle. It was a huge rush.
The voice of Sam the Dispatcher continued from the auto speaker, the soundtrack to my unknown. “… Confirmed head shot. Victim reported as four-year-old white female. Possible accidental shooting by six year old boy, but unknown at this time. Ambulance in route. Your ten-twenty (location)?”
“Westbound on La Palma at Western. ETA one and a half.”
I recognized Sergeant Coovert's voice as it crackled on the air, “twenty-three ten, following up at Beach and Orangethorpe. ETA about three.” I was slightly pacified by the news Coovert was close behind me. I’d also been doing this just about long enough to know a world can change in a second.
I arrived near the scene to find a woman frantically pacing back and forth on the curb. As soon as she noticed my black and white, she began waving her arms, motioning for me to come forward. I accelerated up to her and parked, exited the car and grabbed my first aid kit from the trunk.
The woman moved up to me in anguish, looking about ready to melt at my feet. She had to clamp a hand over her mouth to quell her hiccupping sobs for just long enough to blurt, “A-a little boy sh-shot her. It was a-an accident. You-you-you’ve g-got to h-help her. It’s really b-bad.”
“Where’s the gun, Mam?” I asked firmly, moving toward the front door of the home.
“I - I don’t know. It’s in there. The girl is in th-the last b-bedroom.”
“Please stay put and tell the next officer where I am?” I said, turning and locking eyes with her right before I disappeared inside.
I walked down the hallway, filled with a newly found caution, going over all the information in my head. I still didn’t know where the weapon was or who was now in possession—important to know if you’re in police uniform.
I pushed my inexperience aside and act as though I knew exactly what I was doing. Oh, a little girl was shot? I’ve had about three of those calls this week alone. No problem, I rambled to myself. Yeah right, Engle. You’ve got no clue what you’re fucking doing, yet.
I forced myself out of my head and into the present, determined to make a positive impact on the situation. If not to prove something to myself, then for the sake of this hysterical woman and the poor, unlucky little girl. Thoughts of my two young daughters flashed before me as I picked up my pace, whipping my head from left to right to rapidly check the state of each open door. All was peaceful until I reached the last bedroom. Before I had the chance to peer through the doorway, a hysterical woman with dark blood staining her blouse and arms and hands hurried through, almost running into me in the process. I felt the heat of panic and sweat and blood on her and the chaos within the room.
“You have to help my baby girl. Please. She’s dying!” the woman gasped through sobs.
I stared at the woman incredulously as she spoke, hit with further learning that this was life. One minute you could be sitting down watching television, wondering what you’re going to cook for dinner, and the next minute you’re covered in your toddler’s blood, wondering whether or not she was still going to be alive to eat dinner.
It’s an old speculation that there are two ways a person could react in a crisis. They could spring into action, or they could freeze up. I don’t know how Bill Engle would have reacted in this situation, but Officer Engle (rookie as he may have been) began seeing everything clearer than ever before.
I gently and quickly moved past the woman and entered the room to find a tiny girl lying on the floor bleeding. There was no confusion. She’d been shot in the head. The blood pooling beneath her head was now married to the shag carpet. There were two other women in the room who looked as though they were in a daze and a teenage boy, his entire body shaking, tears streaking his face.
Police training made it almost autonomic for a glinting .38 revolver to catch my eye. It was lying about a foot from the girl’s head wound. In one fluid motion, I moved the gun to the corner table and opened my first aid kit, getting supplies to treat the wound. As soon as I’d finished dressing her the best I could, I gently touched the girl’s small, smooth chin and looked into her childlike eyes, growing glassier with each passing moment, each drop of blood leaving her head.
“You’re going to be okay, darling,” I said quietly, as though we were the only two people in the room. “Can you do me a favor?”
The girl managed to flicker her eyelids, imitating a nod.
“Just breathe very slowly. It’ll all be okay soon.” I turned my head to the women, still standing in the same spot and staring at us. “Where’s the boy?”
A woman seemed as though she was opening her mouth to speak when Coovert burst into the room. He knelt on the other side of the child, quickly checking the head wound.
“Shit, we don’t have the time here to wait for the ambulance. You hold her, I’ll drive. Let’s move.” The last two words were said over his shoulder as he disappeared back into the hallway.
I scooped up the girl and we hurried to his squad car through a parting crowd of horrified people, he behind the wheel and me in the passenger’s seat, holding the child on my lap.
A squeal of tires and a shriek of the emergency lights as we peeled out of the neighborhood, bound for the emergency room. I continued applying gentle pressure to the girl’s head. She simply watched me with fear in her eyes. For the first time, I noticed the name “Jenny” sewn onto her shirt.
“You’re going to be okay, Jenny. We’re going to the hospital, you’re going to be just fine,” I said, convincing myself as much as I meant to convince her. A tiny hand reached up to touch my face but didn’t quite make it, so I met it halfway and grabbed onto it with my own, which was heartbreakingly larger. I couldn’t cry for her benefit. That took effort.
Coovert grabbed his radio mic, “twenty-three ten, we’re taking the victim. We can’t wait for the ambulance. Have two units preserve the scene.” He put his radio back in the cradle and sighed, glancing out the window as we sped past traffic. “So Engle, what happened to the little boy at the scene?” Silence.
“I’m talking to you. Hello?”
He looked over at me, annoyed I was ignoring his question, but I hadn’t heard a word he’d said because I was busy staring at the little girl’s eyes. They looked different, something didn’t feel right. I squeezed her little hand which was still in mine. It felt limp, lifeless. I closed my eyes. Suddenly, I knew it didn’t matter how quickly we got to the hospital. It didn't make a difference that we didn’t wait for the ambulance because Jenny couldn’t wait for us either.
FIVE YEARS EARLIER…
I was wearing my only suit, sitting on a hard visitor’s bench in the lobby of Stanton city police department. Two other guys in their mid-twenties waited with me. We’re all quiet and pensive, waiting for the oral interview part of testing for Police Officer. Each of us knows only three people will be selected out of a remaining ten, from an original field of over a hundred. That showed in our lack of conversation and our body language.
I felt good about my chances. I had a background in theater and was comfortable in front of groups and the board had three members. That’s a group, I reassured myself. My written exam scores were the highest. I’d studied to get there. Seemed to have the right stuff.
Most importantly, I was passionate about my need for this particular job. All the remaining applicants had their own passion for the job. Mine was a desperate passion. This was one of very few jobs I could work, act, support a family and complete my education full-time. And to do so in a timely manner. I had serious catching up to do and it was making me anxious.
The life of a police officer was honestly not very attractive to me. At that age, I was a little anxious about the unknown—untested in response to blood, violence, and tragedy. But, there wasn’t much of a choice the way I saw it. I needed this job. The other guys there probably fantasized about catching bad guys when on the playground. For me, that was just part of the job description. What I was fantasizing about was support.
For as long as I could remember, my goal was to teach college speech and drama and expand into acting and directing. That was my playground fantasy. My dreams (which I completely shattered with teenage, premarital sex and pre-adult marriage), could only be put together again with hard work. And everything I was dreaming of required time and money. Time spent studying for college exams and memorizing lines. Money given to the school for my courses, costs of starting my career, to acting workshops. My battle was definitely uphill.
The mysterious door to the interview room opened and a young man exited into the lobby. He didn’t look at any of us, walking directly out the exterior door sweating quite a bit on his forehead. The slightly widened eyes of those of us still waiting, fluttered around the room and nervously made fleeting contact, wondering who’d be next.
Minutes later, police Captain Hawks opened the door, “William Engle, please.”Hawks was a very large man with thick white hair and two thick catcher’s mitts for hands, his right one extended in welcome. I lost my hand somewhere in his while he shook both, and entered the room. Two other men were standing behind a long table, watching my entrance. In front of the table only a folding chair, which I’m sure was symbolic of how they wanted the interviewee to feel.
I’d never been in front of three police officers of any rank, in a room before. I thought,this is designed to be intimidating. I perceived a spotlight glaring from the ceiling. The single chair was now glowing to me. For one ludicrous second I was afraid my ass would be scorched the second I lowered myself into it.
I was already feeling guilty of whatever they were going to accuse me of as I tentatively took the seat facing them. I didn’t do it! I shouted to myself.
I looked around the room, less like an interviewee and more like I was the victim of an interrogation. Not my usual audience. These people don’t like your show, they can put you in jail. Stifle those thoughts and focus on the Captains, I commanded.
They asked about past and present work and school history, my accomplishments and goals, family and wife relationships, activities during leisure time, and so on. They showed interest in what I was telling them, nodding along and asking follow-up questions. I was encouraged to share my position on various social issues and they probed deeper on a few. The interest they were taking in my answers was making me feel comfortable and even starting to puff me up a bit. I was almost feeling relaxed in this sea of police captains.
It took about fifty minutes and seemed like a pleasant interview. Then there was a pause in the action and I just barely noticed Hawks and Captain Brewer exchanging glances. Hawks raised his eyebrows and I took that to mean they had what they needed.
He leaned forward, “You told us earlier you were against police brutality, right?”
Simple question I foolishly saw as the obligatory wrap-up to a successful interview.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, settling back into the hot seat.
Hawks only slightly smiled as the others now watched. I was too comfortable with myself to realize the smile never reached his eyes.
“Let me ask a few questions to see how you might react in certain scenarios...”
“Sure,” I nodded.
“Okay. You’re a police detective. And you got a few snitches working with you. You know, informants. ”
A virgin to police work, I tried hard to visualize such a possibility as Captain Brewer interjected, “If any cop needs crucial information out of any snitch and the snitch won’t give it, you okay to beat the snitch to get that info?” I did my best to mask the fact this type of scenario was unimaginable to me beyond the movies. At this point, the closest I’d personally been to a beating was when Jimmy Kendall cold-cocked that bully in the ninth grade.
“No, sir.” I thought we’d covered this.
Captain Hawks, “Right... It’s against the law. You’d enforce the law if hired, right?”
I nodded again.
“A man and his wife come to the police station to report their four-year-old daughter has been kidnapped.
Kidnappers demand twenty-five thousand dollars to return the girl, unharmed.
They give all the drop details and swear to deliver one of the child’s cut-off fingers each day the money isn’t paid.”
Brewer continued the scenario, “As they tell their story, you realize one of your snitches probably knows who the kidnappers are. Probably. He won’t just give this to you. They don’t do that. But, you’ve been working him, so you know his weak spot. He can’t take a physical beating. Not a bad one. He'll give up everything he’s got.
You beat him?”
There was a brief silence and I could feel the weight of each Captain looking my way.
“I’m against police brutality. I’d try other ways.” I thought, consistency is what they want. Right?
Brewer, “Right. That’s what you told us.”
Something seemed off. It was like they were speaking those words, but their faces were telling me something completely different. I felt in the midst of a riddle.
“You and other detectives can’t dig up a lead. You try everything. Snitch isn’t giving you shit, but you’re sure he knows. Still, you don’t beat him?” Eyes were boring into my skull from three different directions.
“Okay, then. A day passes. Parents receive a small box, special delivery. It’s their daughter’s right index finger…”
Holy shit , I thought.
Hawks continued, “Do you beat him now?”
“Well. I’d… ” I felt my face beginning to fluster. How far did they have to take this scenario before they got what they wanted? And what the hell did they want?
“Means you wouldn’t beat him.”
I stayed silent. My jaw tightened involuntarily, upper teeth clutching lower teeth.
“Another day goes by. Parents get a second finger. Now what do you do?
“We already got you’re against police brutality, and your snitch is still giving you nothing. What do you do?” Hawks pressed, leaning forward slightly.
I remained seated beneath the spotlight which only seemed to brighten. I’d been backed into a corner and it was obvious any response I came up with would be the wrong one.
What they wanted from me in the very beginning was, “I’d beat the living hell out of that snitch. I'll beat him til he can't stand up. A career is nothing compared to keeping any child safe.”
I suddenly thought I got what this was all about. It was beyond career. Beyond family. This wasn’t about being a police officer, about wearing the cool badge, about providing for your daughters. This was about quickly acting on the right decision for the greater good. Every time. As I sat in the hot seat and mulled this Don Quixote moment, my present self was unaware that realization would be with me the rest of my life. For better and worse.
The interview was soon over and I drove home still in a daze. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt about myself. There was a lot riding on a winning interview I was so damn confident I had. Instead, I blew it. I knew I did. I set my gaze on the horizon and promised myself out loud this hesitation was the first and last. This will never happen again, I thought with passion to deepen the imprint.
After a few days, I wasn’t surprised to learn I didn’t pass that exam. I would have questioned their standards had I passed. However, I gave it a second try, soon hired by the City of Buena Park as police officer William F. Engle on March 29, 1965.
I was thrilled. My goals were possible again and the jolting interview was forgotten for the moment.