Early in my career, I was a police reporter in Maryland. During that stint, I developed a good working relationship with a state trooper named Butch. He was a detective, with bushy red hair and a bushy beard, who typically wore blue jeans and boots. In other words, he looked and dressed like an outlaw biker, and sometimes he worked undercover.
One day we were talking about his job. Most of it was investigating run-of-the-mill crimes. The big one I had helped him with was a massive identity-theft case in which he had a pretty good photograph of the clever thief but had no idea who the guy was or where he lived. One big story on the front page about the computer-savvy con man’s lurid exploits was all it took to nail down his name and address.
Butch also told me that a less-frequent role he played was “the hit man.” Just about every state police operation has one, he informed me. And they’re responsible for most every headline you ever read about “Person A” being arrested and charged with trying to hire “a hit man” to kill “Person B.” Because the hit man is usually an undercover cop.
My thoughts flitted back to that story this week as a Franklin County elementary school teacher and school nurse were arrested and charged with soliciting murder in alleged plot to kill the teacher’s ex-husband. This happens with depressing regularity. The last time in these parts was 2009, when a son and his mother from Covington were popped for trying to hire a hit man to bump off the younger man’s father so his mom could collect life insurance proceeds.
Three things these cases have in common are:
- Person B is usually a loved one or ex-loved one of Person A;
- Person A pays money to an undercover cop and says “I want [Person B] dead;” and
- Person A has never been arrested or charged with a crime before.
It was Butch who explained to me way back in the 1980s how this game worked. Essentially, it starts with a police agency designating an undercover cop as a “hit man” and getting him some training as to how to make these cases.
Then, the cops pass the word to bartenders at dive bars and folks they arrest for more pedestrian crimes. Essentially the police trade future “brownie points” to crooks for referring murder-solicitation cases to them.
Then, the cops sit back and wait for the next upstanding citizen who tries to hire a hit man. Usually it’s somebody who’s been watching way too many crime movies and TV shows.
Because despite the enduring myth, there just aren’t that many professional assassins-for-hire out there. Sure, organized crime groups have designated killers, and there are odd cases of people who do commit murder for money. But it’s complete folly to believe that the average Joe or Mary can hire a hit man by asking around for the name of a good one, kind of like the way you’d hire a plumber.
But that’s usually what happens. Joe or Mary goes to a bar and strikes up a conversation. Or they ask a friend who has underworld connections, and the friend agrees to help. Whammo, blammo, and the next thing you know, Joe or Mary is cutting a deal with a menacing-looking character — usually in an undercover police car outfitted with hidden recording equipment.
And the next thing you know, their pictures are splashed all over the front page.