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Sheriff’s 50 years of police work fun, sad, nerve-wracking

By MICHAEL A. FUOCO, Pittsburgh Post-GazetteFebruary 16, 2019

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh police Officer William P. Mullen didn’t have to wait long for the adrenaline rush of being a cop.

Only five minutes into his first shift ever, Officer Mullen and his partner were driving an ambulance — in those days there was no EMS — when they spotted a man stabbing two others right in front of them on Brighton Road on the North Side.

“I jump out and start chasing him. I’m yelling, ‘Stop or I’ll shoot. Stop or I’ll shoot!’ My partner’s screaming, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Come back!’ The officers tended to the victims, who survived and gave them the name of their attacker, a juvenile. An hour or so later, the freshly minted rookie had his first arrest.

“I’m thinking, ‘This is great!’ It was exciting,” he recalled. “I just seemed to be in the right place at the right time through most of my career.”

And it’s been quite a career. He recently marked 50 years in law enforcement — a rare feat. He served nearly four decades with the Pittsburgh police bureau and more than a dozen years in his current position as Allegheny County sheriff.

There were car chases and gun battles. Undercover drug buys and grisly homicides. Bad guys and worse. Dumb crooks and diligent detectives. Clever criminals and stumped investigators. And many more fascinating stories of Pittsburgh crimes and cops that Sheriff Mullen tells with an amazing recall of names, circumstances, dates and locations.

It’s the stuff of police movies and TV shows, but it’s all true.

“I would not have lasted this long without the people I worked for, the people I worked with and the people who worked for me,” Sheriff Mullen said.

He credits diverse assignments as providing him with motivation during his long tenure which began Feb. 10, 1969, when he joined the Pittsburgh police bureau.

Charles Moffatt, the retired Pittsburgh deputy police chief and Allegheny County Police superintendent, said he believes he and his former colleague are the only Pittsburgh officers ever to have worn seven different badges — patrolman, third- and first-grade detective, lieutenant, commander, assistant chief and deputy chief.

“He was on the ball, he knew the law, he knew the streets, he knew his job, he knew the personnel. I don’t know what else you can ask for.”

He and others described Sheriff Mullen as book smart and street smart. A tough cop with a sensitive side. A manager who remembers being managed. A serious man who’s quick with a quip. A proud professional yet humble.

“It’s an incredible milestone,” said Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, who considered Sheriff Mullen a mentor when he worked for him in the Investigations Branch about two decades ago. “The normal career in this job is 20 to 25 years. To double that speaks volumes of his commitment to law enforcement and to helping others.”

As is his wont, Sheriff Mullen is quick to deflect compliments.

“To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, if I had vision it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

A Father’s Footsteps

Sheriff Mullen, 72, of Banksville, followed in the footsteps of his late father and namesake. The elder Mullen was Pittsburgh “Detective of the Year” in 1968 and was among investigators chosen nationally to attend the New York premiere of the Frank Sinatra movie “The Detective.”

Sheriff Mullen was intrigued by the profession. “It was just interesting, the stories he told.”

Growing up in Carrick in the family of four, he graduated from South Hills Catholic High School in 1964. Sheriff Mullen entered the University of Dayton, becoming the first in his family to attend college. He majored in political science.

He was still uncertain of his career path late in his senior year when he took his father up on his offer to fly him home to take the test for Pittsburgh police.

Sheriff Mullen graduated from Dayton in December 1968. Less than two months later, he entered the police academy and met a fellow cadet who would become his lifelong friend, Leo O’Neill.

The men were at the top of their class — Sheriff Mullen was first, O’Neill, second. They went on to have parallel careers. Both were plainclothes detectives, worked narcotics, made lieutenant, were supervisors in investigations — Sheriff Mullen was head of Crimes Persons and O’Neill supervised Crimes Property —and were named commanders by the late Mayor Sophie Masloff on the same day.

O’Neill said Sheriff Mullen’s qualities have served him well in his long career.

“He’s very bright and inquisitive and has a good work ethic. He’s analytical, a great stats guy but very intuitive, too. And he leads by example.”

O’Neill accepted the city’s early retirement incentive in 1994 and went to work for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office as a regional director for the Narcotics Investigation Bureau. He retired in 2009.

“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing,” he said of his friend’s longevity. “Fifty years. I couldn’t imagine holding my feet to the fire that long. But he still enjoys it and he’s good at what he does.”

Danger and excitement

Sheriff Mullen doesn’t like to talk about himself, but get him going and he’ll tell tales that leave a listener slack-jawed.

Like “that crazy shootout in the Hill,” that he and his long-ago partner Francis “Skippy” Butler unwittingly became involved in when they were both undercover narcotics detectives.

It started at Centre and Kirkpatrick, then the epicenter for drug deals. Sheriff Mullen and Butler, who is retired, were in an unmarked car when they spotted people running out of a bar. They suspected something had happened — their instincts were right because a drug dealer had been robbed at gunpoint — and decided to follow the car. Those in the car they were tailing started shooting at the detectives.

“Skippy is shooting while he’s driving. They pass a car on the left and Skippy passes the car on the right. It was so reckless.”

The first shot fired by Sheriff Mullen shattered the suspects’ rear window and the bullet grazed the face of a woman in the car. The suspects stopped on Bedford and another bullet fired by Sheriff Mullen ricocheted off the trunk.

“One guy’s running, going through the walkway, I chase him. I’m maybe 15 feet behind him, I get into a combat stance and pull the trigger. I’m out of ammo. We find out later he wasn’t the shooter. I’m blessed I didn’t kill this guy.”

The suspects were arrested. And then Sheriff Mullen learned that a woman who lived at 706 Francis St. had been hit in the head by his ricocheted bullet. “I’m thinking,‘Oh, God.’ My adrenalin was flowing, I just wanted to know she was OK, and she was OK. What happened was she was hit either with a fragment or a piece of glass.”

Some time later, the partners happened upon a prostitute and decided to “flip” her, or get her to inform on drug dealers. The plan was that Sheriff Mullen would hide in a car trunk and when the woman got in the car with Butler and stated the price for a sex act, his partner would turn on the radio. That was the signal for Sheriff Mullen to get out of the trunk and the arrest would be made. But the best laid plans...

Hiding in the trunk, Sheriff Mullen heard the woman get in the car and then odd noises were coming from Butler. Sheriff Mullen started laughing, thinking his partner was mimicking sounds Butler made in a recent scuffle in a bar when “Crazy Lucille” attacked the undercover detective.

But when Sheriff Mullen opened the trunk, he was shocked to see the woman had a gun to Mr. Butler’s head in a robbery attempt. A scrum ensued with all three fighting on the ground, but the detectives were able to wrestle the gun away.

High-Profile Cases

Sheriff Mullen has been involved in many of Pittsburgh’s most notorious cases, including the apprehension of “Kill for Thrill” murderers John Lesko and Michael Travaglia. They were convicted of four homicides during an eight-day rampage the week after Christmas in 1979. Among their victims was rookie Apollo police officer Leonard Miller.

Acting on a tip, Sheriff Mullen and other detectives burst into a room in the Edison Hotel, Downtown.

“We go blowing in there. Travaglia was in a bed to the left. I focused on Lesko who was in a bed on the other side He had a gun. I took the gun off of him,” he recalled matter-of-factly.

The killers were sentenced to death. In February 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on executions. Travaglia, 59, died on death row in 2017.

Among many other big cases, Sheriff Mullen led the investigation of the so-called Shadyside rapist, who over nine months in 1985 and 1986 sexually assaulted seven women in Shadyside, Greenfield and Highland Park and attacked an eighth. Detectives arrested Joseph Jamieson of Garfield, a convicted rapist who had recently been released from prison. He eventually was sentenced to 233 to 466 years for his crimes.

“It was the most rewarding case I worked. It just affected me. Those rapes were so brutal and so frightening.” He recalled how the victims suffered during and after the attacks. He shook his head.

So vexed was he by the cases he and his colleagues couldn’t crack that as deputy chief he established the cold case squad. And to keep up with the times, he started a squad for forensic examination of computers.

A Change of Duties

In 1984, Sheriff Mullen developed a retirement plan, based on 401k projections, to stop working at age 59½. He only partially stuck to the schedule.

Upon retiring from the city as deputy chief, he assumed the position of Allegheny County chief deputy sheriff offered by then-embattled Sheriff Pete DeFazio, who asked him to “right the ship” in the patronage-infused office. DeFazio subsequently retired amid a federal corruption investigation that ended the careers of three top-level staffers.

Sheriff Mullen stepped into the top spot and shortly thereafter DeFazio pleaded guilty to coercing employees to contribute to his campaign fund. Sheriff Mullen went on to win three full terms.

His current term expires in 2022. Sheriff Mullen, who will then be 75, said he has no plans to run for office again.

He has been lauded for reducing overtime, restructuring the chain of command and improving standards of professionalism. His office of 169 sworn officers and 34 civilians regularly comes in under budget, which this year totals $19.7 million.

“What he’s done in the sheriff’s office is tremendous,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “He’s restored confidence in that office. Throughout his career he’s had this great reputation for professionalism. He really has distinguished himself over that half century.”

Looking back over that span, Sheriff Mullen has no regrets — but for a case here and there he wished he had solved.

“It was fun, but it was sad and sometimes it was very nerve-wracking.”

Still and all, he can’t imagine a better career. His son, Conor, 40, agrees. The third generation of a Mullen in law enforcement is a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office. He’s already spent half his life there.





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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