Twenty-three miles east of us, by the corner of Dexter and West Chicago, in Detroit’s near north side, several black Wayne County sheriff deputies were facing something much more ominous than freezing weather. They were experiencing a cop’s worst nightmare.
It was a hot summer afternoon in 1971, and I was a 22-year-old undercover narcotics officer in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, with a year and a half on the job. I was also a former US Army Ranger with a year in Vietnam. We were in Detroit’s east side, getting ready to make a raid.
Deputy Inspector Jellyfish owned a major police equipment and uniform distribution center in Metropolitan Detroit and because of that he was given the rank of deputy inspector in our department without attending a police academy or having any scout car experience. With no shortage of cash, Jellyfish rode his own Harley Davidson complete with lights and siren and would strut around our station wearing brown motorcycle britches, gold helmet, and a 6 inch barreled Colt Python strapped to his waist, perhaps thinking that long barrel and six powerful .357 rounds in the cylinder portrayed something he didn't have in his britches.
On Monday, February 10, 1975, my partner, Ken Crowley, and I were assigned to a sixteen-square-mile area in the City of Romulus, a large suburb ten miles southwest of Detroit. Romulus’s most noteworthy attribute, other than hotels and crime, is that it surrounds Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Every shift, four sheriff’s cars patrolled the city, and Ken and I were working the eleven p.m.‑seven a.m. shift.
I love doughnuts! Especially big cream-filled ones covered with powdered sugar. And that’s exactly what I was having, while chatting with Joe Porcarelli, the owner of Amy Joy Donuts on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, when I glanced outside and saw a raggedy blue Chevy with a defective brake light pull up next to my scout car.
I had worked this location before as an undercover narcotics officer on a motorcycle. It wasn’t difficult to find people selling marijuana, LSD, or heroin. Overdoses weren’t all that uncommon in the park. Neither were gang rapes. It was the early 1970s, and the drug culture was in full swing, with violent crime and property crime soaring nearly fivefold in the past ten years. People from my age group were self-destructing every day.
I came in first place only once in my life. That was for physical fitness at the Wayne County Sheriff Police Training Academy. It was fall 1971, and I had already been working as an undercover narcotics officer for nearly a year when they sent Gerald Scotti and me from the Narcotics Bureau for training. When we were hired in 1970, there wasn’t a state law requiring academy training. We were young officers of not purely Caucasian ethnic descent, and that’s what the department urgently needed to make narcotic buys in the spiraling drug culture in and around Detroit. The county and feds trained us in two criminal and narcotics investigation courses, and when space came available in the next police academy class, they sent us, with the understanding that we would return to the Bureau upon completing our training.
Every year, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department’s Patrol and Investigation Division put over a hundred thousand hard miles on each of its cars. It wasn’t uncommon for a car to work nonstop from shift to shift. Exposed to all weather conditions as well as high-speed chases, sudden braking, and roads that varied from frozen dirt ruts to interstate highways, our vehicles served as the ideal test cars for the Motor City’s auto industry. And so each year, along with the many cars and utility vans they sold to the department, the Chrysler Corporation and Ford Motor Company donated dozens of scout cars.
“Bobby, I’ll live through your eyes,” my mother said, holding my hand shortly before she had a stroke in the spring of 1989. She passed away that November, but those words haunted me long afterward. I was always drawn to the edgy side of life, and through it all, my mother struggled to surround me with love and safety. I lived life as a juvenile delinquent, then as a soldier, then as a cop. I raised my family and then, in 1997, completed a PhD in criminology.
I was a cop for fifteen years, but I took my first ride in a scout car long before that, on a beautiful spring day in 1959. I was 10 years old, in fifth grade at Bennett Elementary School in southwest Detroit. Leaning against the tall chain-link fence that enclosed the playground, my two friends Randy McCoy and Jimmy Smith and I were singing Wilbert Harrison’s new hit song “Kansas City”:
“Well, I might take a train, I might take a plane,
but if I have to walk, I’m going just the same.
I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come . . .”