Jack Mullen of Laguna Woods writes whereof he knows in his 20-year police career.
Jack Mullen of Laguna Woods writes whereof he knows in his 20-year police career. Times of San Diego photo illustration

Jack Mullen’s third work of fiction returns to the San Diego police beat — with details from the 1950s through the 1970s that would impress any historian.

  • How one officer got a 45-day suspension for drinking on duty with murder suspects in his custody.
  • How an elderly ex-con left clues to his armed robbery since he wanted to return to prison.
  • And how San Diego Union crime reporter Pliny Raymond “Cass” Castanien was the one who informed the patrol room on Nov. 22, 1963, that President Kennedy had died.

Mullen should know. They all happened to him.

A San Diego Police Department officer from 1961* to 1979, Mullen is an 88-year-old resident of Laguna Woods in Orange County. His third book — “Dear Jerome: Letters from a Cop” — may be his most autobiographical.

But about that suspension.

“The [Tribune] carried the story on Sept. 27, 1967,” he told Times of San Diego. “Regardless of what my suspension said — or what the Trib may have said — the prisoners never were allowed a drop of booze.”

Despite the copyright page’s obligatory “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” Mullen says his alter ego, the book’s Billy Considine, reports incidents that happened in real life.

“Without rereading ‘Letters,’ I can only estimate that maybe a quarter of episodes came straight from my experience,” Mullen says.

Published in 2019 by CopWorld Press, the book alters names of police chiefs from Mullen’s era.

“Chief Hale” is based on Chief Adam “Elmer” Jansen (1947-1962). “Chief Steele” is a play on the real Chief Wesley S. Sharp (1962-1968). And the novel’s “Chief DeFreese” dealt with issues confronting Chief Bill Kolender (1975-1988).

Jack Mullen of San Diego Police Department in Old Town in 1963.
Jack Mullen of San Diego Police Department in Old Town in 1963. Photo courtesy Mullen

In “Letters,” Mullen reprints snail mail from the fictional Billy to his older brother Jerome of Youngstown, Ohio, between January 1958 and August 1991.

The missives include such fictional revelations as Mullen being accused of rape and his helping track down a serial killer.

Some incidents were based on real events, such as a 23-year-old man who “walked on to campus at the University of San Diego carrying a five-gallon can of diesel oil,” who lit himself and died protesting the Vietnam War in May 1970.

(In fact, 23-year-old George Winne Jr. lit gasoline-soaked rags on his body May 10, 1970, at UC San Diego’s Revelle Plaza and died a day later.)

America’s racial, social and cultural changes are reflected in “Letters,” with the fictional Billy Considine changing with the times. But the book reflects the conservative mores of the SDPD over the years.

True Cop Jargon

Billy at one point is named to the vice squad, or “pussy posse,” as the book puts it.

“Like Billy, I was at a patrol lineup when the sergeant read off transfers and said Mullen is going to the pussy posse,” he said.

A letter of August 1977 tells how Chief DeFreese explained why the SDPD would not hire homosexuals — saying they lacked the emotional stability required of police work.

That prompted a cop colleague of Billy’s to come out publicly as gay.

In real life, Mullen says, Chief Kolender once put out a press release saying SDPD would not hire gays as San Francisco PD had because “they lacked ‘emotional stability’ or words to that affect.”

That caused quite a stir, says the author and former homicide sergeant.

“Very soon thereafter, maybe a day or five, a San Diego cop went on TV and announced he was gay. He had with him his performance evaluations showing what a good cop he was. Nothing in the evals to suggest lack of emotional stability.

“Then as I recall, he resigned immediately because it just would have been too far out to continue as a cop given the culture of the moment. … Not long after, Kolender hired gays.”

Grandson of NYPD Cop

Jack Mullen was born in New York City but grew up in Pasadena — his dad a World War I sailor and later a U.S. Customs agent. His mother served in WWI as a yeomanette, “uniformed women who did clerical work at naval installations. Then she raised three kids,” including his two sisters.

Mullen’s grandfather, an Irish immigrant, was a New York City cop in the late 1800s.

Unlike the book’s Billy, signed out of high school by the Yankees to minor-league ball, Mullen has no professional sports record. But asked about his childhood sports and hobbies, he said: “Baseball baseball baseball. Some football and basketball and boxing thrown in. Did read an occasional novel.”

At San Diego State University, Mullen earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and joined the Marines while the Korean War was raging.

But Sgt. Mullen, who attended boot camp at MCRD in 1953, wasn’t sent to Korea until after shooting stopped “and spent 14 months up near the 38th Parallel” and was honorably discharged in 1956.

This interview was conducted via email.

TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: When did you start writing for publication?

JACK MULLEN: 1979. The year I medically retired from SDPD. It took me until 1991 to get an agent. “In the Line of Duty” sold in 1995. (a crappy title. Avon’s marketing division named it.)

Did you take any writing classes?

No. But I caught a break. Got involved with “the padres” who-whom I acknowledge in my first book. Eight or nine writers, all older than me, mostly guys that had written short stories for the “big slicks” back in the day. Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, etc. We met every two weeks. I learned a lot from those guys.

Your biggest influence as a police writer?

Joe Wambaugh.

Meet him?

One discussion with him. I was on my way home from work, stopped at the Stardust Hotel to see if I could locate a witness, saw a sign in front of a meeting room saying Joe was speaking to county probation workers. I popped in, stood at the rear.

When he was done and finished with the handshaking, I said: Can an S.D. cop buy you a drink? I didn’t have to ask twice. We had a couple. Talked for maybe an hour.

This was just after “Onion Field” had been published, his third. Very cordial guy. He told me he had the idea for “Onion Field” for a long time but hesitant. Sat down with [Truman] Capote at Capote’s house in the Palm Springs area and told him about it.

Capote said if you don’t write it, I will. That set Joe on fire and he went to work on it. At that time, I had no ideas of writing a novel.

How long did it take to write “Letters”?

I got the idea for “Letters” in 1993. Started organizing it and by 2000, I had completed the ms. But I was working on a third novel, trying to get it published. So “Letters” was a hit and miss at that time. I couldn’t get any agent or publisher interested in “Letters.” So after much revising, Tim Smith and CWP took it on and it was published in late 2019.

How many copies printed? How many sold?

It was publish-on-demand. I would be surprised if more than 200 have been sold.

Has it been reviewed outside of TB Smith’s CopWorld blog?

I do not think so. I sent a copy to the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator along with a blurb and cover letter, thinking they may do a review because of the local flavor. But I never heard from them.

Did you do a book tour, or personally market the book in San Diego?

No, did not do a book tour and did not market it in S.D. I learned, via contacts and book store phone calls, that most book stores were not ordering quasi self-published books.

Did you send any review copies to anyone at the Union-Tribune?

Yes, to Karla Petersen. It had been a huge disappointment in 1995 when the Union-Trib would not review my first novel, “In the Line of Duty.” The paper said they do not review paperbacks. I thought: Shit, oh dear, here I am, a retired S.D. cop homicide detective, local color, local setting. I am almost positive I was the only S.D. cop to have been published by a major publisher.

I thought that would make the Union-Trib take notice. And Wambaugh [of Rancho Santa Fe and later Point Loma] came out with a novel at damn near the same time “Line of Duty” came out. And S.D. had adopted Joe by then. But I cold-called at least 50 S.D. book stores, did a few signings.

As for Karla Peterson. I had learned the U-T did not review self-pubs. A friend with U-T contacts suggested I send to Petersen. She had worked police beat and courts at one time. So I did. Kind of with a begging letter as I recall. Heard nothing.

How many episodes in the book come straight from your personal experience? Some examples?

Some examples:

  • The murder-suicide of the elderly couple who tied plastic bags around their heads.
  • The Golden West Hotel where a guy in lobby dies watching TV and they cover him up and go on watching.
  • And the old guy in the lobby who says they can cut his nuts off but he won’t vote Republican.
  • The 40 or 50 Hells Angels we arrested coming into San Diego on 101. Chief Sharp asked Captain Devore: “Who gave you the authority to set up that roadblock?” Devore said: You did, Chief, when you made me a captain.
  • Hector Morales was based on Hector Cortinas, a 10- or 12-year old rascal on my Old Town beat.
  • Pliny Castanian coming into the patrol report room and telling us JFK was dead.
  • I was undercover in the zebra on the west side of 500 block of Fifth when tanks were rolling through Watts in 1965.
  • Valentine McCauliffe — the elderly ex-con who left clues to his armed robbery as he wanted to go back to prison.

Billy remarks on racism elsewhere, but says: “I’m sure glad we have no Negro problems in San Diego.” Was that a common SDPD belief in the early 1960s?

Billy was comparing San Diego to L.A. and Detroit and Newark when he said that. I believe the common SDPD belief was that working Southeast was rougher than other beats because it was probably 90% Black and due to lower economic status there were more troublemakers. More drinking on the sidewalks, more people out of work. More fights and shootings and stabbings.

But as Billy said: Most of the people who lived there were working stiffs and just wanted peace and quiet. I found that the cops who worked Southeast realized that. There were some damn good patrol cops working there.

Billy doesn’t shoot anyone in the book, which is probably common to most police careers. Did you ever discharge your service revolver?

Yes. Two separate incidents. Wounded one guy. Killed another. And you are right. Most cops go through a career without firing off a round.

Billy visits a bar called Bernie’s throughout his career. What was Bernie’s based on?

Bernie’s was based on Bernie’s. A bar on Harbor Drive at the foot of Broadway. It was just north of Broadway, on the east side of Harbor and faced the water. Cops liked Bernie’s. Close to the police station.

Alcoholism becomes an issue for Billy. How many of your fellow cops had drinking problems? Did you ever fight this issue?

A lot of cops had drinking problems. I don’t know how much a lot is. Higher than the general population, I am sure. I flirted with AA once but decided I could ease up on my own. And it worked. Today I am a social drinker. And not much of one at that.

One of Billy’s colleagues commits suicide. Did you ever lose a friend to suicide?

Yes. Two cops that worked for me committed suicide after they left the department.

You served under six chiefs. Which did you draw on for Billy’s chiefs? Chief Steele seems a play on Chief Sharp.

Yes, Steele was a play on Sharp. Billy’s other chief, DeFreese, was a play on one of my heroes, Lloyd Lynn Devore, who was a captain when I came on and rose to rank of inspector. Which at the time, was one rank above captain.

Devore never became chief. Did land a good job with the Nevada Gaming Commission or control board. He was in charge of it. Devore ran away from home at age 17 in South Dakota. Joined the Navy. Became a hospital corpsman and was with the Marines on those terrible battles in the South Pacific.

You weave many actual events into the story — the first Padres game (against Houston in 1969) and the Patty Hearst saga in the mid-1970s. How much time did you spend Googling news events or visiting a library?

I spent a lot of time on Google. The Padres game was from memory because my family attended. Google saved me from going to the library. Google was so, so valuable.

How did you know so much about Youngstown, Ohio, and the steel industry?

My son, now a retired professor emeritus from Purdue, taught at Youngstown State from 1990 to 2000. Literature and American and Black Studies. On visits, I was stunned by the boarded up windows of this once thriving steel town. I only had general knowledge of the steel industry so spent a lot of time on Google to flesh it out.

Billy tells about the PD-5 — a rock band of police officers and detectives. The real name was PD5 and, with different members over the years, lasted 17 years. Did they ever really rip their wigs off to reveal themselves as cops?

I knew two original cops well. The late Bill Allen and happily retired Bill Campbell. Allen told me the story about ripping off the wigs at one concert. Campbell said it did not happen during his time with the band.

(Side story: Bill Allen had never played pro ball. But he believed he knew how to teach the Bill Allen method of hitting. He installed a real batting cage in his yard with a pitching machine. Eventually, Ozzie Smith and Johnny Grubb (a .300 hitter) came to Bill’s yard to hit. As you may imagine, Buzzie Bavasi and the Pad’s front office went batshit crazy. Called Bill in. Please stop.). He did not. It faded out on its own. Bill committed suicide.)

In a late 1972 letter, Billy says he’d drive his son Jimmie to the Canadian border to avoid being drafted when he came of age. Did your family ever face such a situation?

No. My son was born in 1959. But by 1972 I was so sick of it all I told my wife if Nam was still going on when he was of draft age — if he wanted to enlist — I would drive him to the recruiting office. If he wanted to take it on the heel and toe, I would drive him to the Canadian border.

I was one of many cops both in patrol and as a detective who had rocks and bottles coming our way. But in the end, the protesters were right. They just went at it the wrong way.

In a 1976 letter, Billy writes that defense attorneys don’t have to worry about the truth and even have a legal right to conceal it. Was this a common SDPD belief?

I suspect it was. As a detective, I made friends with two prominent criminal defense attorneys. I knew they could not be a party to perjury — could not knowingly put on a witness they knew was lying. But unlike prosecutors who had a duty to reveal exculpatory evidence, the defense lawyer had no obligation to do so.

Billy describes a cop trying to stop chest bleeding in a burglar and calls for towels. But the apartment manager responds that he has towels — but is instead using them to blot out blood on the carpet. Did this ever happen?

Yes. When I taught criminal investigation at Miramar College, I used that as an example of priorities.

Billy responds to the 1978 PSA crash on Dwight Street. What was your role that day?

I was off on injury leave.

Late in the book, Billy’s grown son remarks that he learned from reading his letters “what police work does to a cop’s soul.” How was your soul changed by your police experience?

Well, three of my four grandparents were from Ireland, so I have the crying genes. And it doesn’t take much to make me teary-eyed. I think of some of my young homicide victims and calculate how old they would be today. I think of how on some of my cases, if I could have been a little better, someone would have been saved from being a victim.

I am more compassionate today. More tolerant with people who misbehave. Some cops retire and they are hard-line. Want the world to be the world they grew up in. I don’t want that. There were a lot of nice things about that world. But Blacks rode in the back of buses and couldn’t eat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and it was easy to get lynched.

Women were supposed to be either teachers, secretaries or nurses getting paid less than male counterparts. People born with deformities or emotionally deficient were basically told tough shit. Once a crooked cop and/or a shifty prosecutor locked up an innocent person, they rotted in prison. (I know. It doesn’t happen often, but once is too much.)

And today’s world gives us medical science achievements that combat diseases we would have once given up on.

An old cop friend tells Billy: “Police work is drama without a script.” Did you coin that phrase or hear it from someone else?

No, I stole it from somebody or somewhere.

You cite former Seattle Police Chief (and author) Norm Stamper in the Acknowledgments. How did Norm influence your writing career?

Norm influenced it by reviewing my stuff and encouraging me and critiquing me. As did former ink-stained wretch Steve Casey.

What role did a former Union investigative reporter play in your writing career? Or police tenure? Know any other Union or Tribune writers well?

Only know two well. The late Jon Blanton Standefer and Steven J. Casey. Like Stamper, both encouraged me, and when I wrote a piece of crap they would be quick to tell me it was a piece of crap.

Police-writers.com lists 20 authors from San Diego. Did you influence or mentor any of these?

No, did not influence or mentor. In fact Tim Smith (I call him Tim Wordsmith) is the only one that I know.

You told TB Smith: “I learned to make fact out of fiction and fiction out of fact.” With so many factual incidents, can you blame readers for thinking many of your incidents are true?

Cannot blame them at all. After “Line of Duty” came out, a reader whom I did not know wanted to have coffee. We did. He started crying. Said his wife committed suicide, too. Knew what I went through. Holy cripes! To tell him or not. Well, I decided I had to.

So I told him my wife was alive and well. The guy got genuinely mad. Said I had betrayed him and other readers.

Plan any more books based on the Vincent Dowling homicide detective character? Did any real-life cases inspire “Behind the Shield” and “In the Line of Duty”?

No more Vincent Dowling books in the works. And yes, both “Duty” and “Shield” were based on actual cases.

What’s the answer to declining police numbers?

I don’t have an answer. Higher pay, I suppose, though it seems SDPD cops do pretty well now. In my day, we would lose a cop to the CHP from time to time for higher pay and probably better retirement. Of course, you had to be ready to move your family to Humboldt County or thereabouts.

I believe that if every law enforcement agency in the country went to the lengths SDPD does for recruiting and selection, it would be a better police world and everybody would benefit. I am talking mostly of small departments and small sheriff’s offices in the U.S.

I do not know San Diego’s current chief [David Nisleit], but if he is as good a cop and person as his father, Randy, whom I worked around, then David is a good man.

Should policing be redefined? Should some functions be reassigned to social workers?

It’s always good to look at functions cops are performing that could be handled by others. I mean, S.D. cops used to work full-time writing parking tickets downtown; and a S.D. sergeant was in charge of animal regulation — reported to work every day on Sherman Street at the foot of Linda Vista Road.

Look at Eugene, Oregon, for many years a social (crisis) worker and medic have responded to some calls coming into the police switchboard. “My son (husband) is going bonkers. He’s naked on the front lawn” would be an example. Sometimes a uniformed cop escalates things just by their presence. Reportedly, it has worked out well for Eugene for a long time.

Should gun laws be changed?

Uh, oh! This answer will be unpopular with a lot of my cop pals. Yes, I would outlaw assault weapons. You know, the kind favored in mass shootings. The old saw, if we let them take our assault weapons, next thing they’ll be coming for our handguns is a horseshit counterargument.

Should retired cops like you be a resource for current police agencies? How would your wisdom help?

I would say about the only value I would be to SDPD would be to do telephone work, legwork and research on cold cases. And if I did not live 75 miles away I would volunteer to do that. The emphasis is on forensic, but there would be a lot of nonscientific work to do.

*An earlier version of this report incorrectly said he started work in the late 1950s.