Writing a Blue Streak
With the NYPD 10 years behind
him, Wellfleet police chief pens a fourth book
By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff, 8/23/2000
WELLFLEET - Whales splash off White Crest Beach on
a postcard-perfect Cape Cod morning. Wellfleet Police
Chief Richard Rosenthal, parked atop the dunes in his
cruiser, squints through the windshield. A discussion
about serial killers and book publishers - Rosenthal,
the author of four books, is a credible authority on
both professions - is briefly put on hold.
''The fact that we're sitting here, in my town, watching
whales breaching, is pretty neat,'' says Rosenthal slowly.
Not what a New York cop would expect to see in the East
River? ''No,'' says Rosenthal with a gruff laugh. ''Maybe
bodies floating, though.''
No stretch there. Rosenthal, 54, has seen just about
everything, including floaters, during his 32 years
in law enforcement. Ten years ago, after serving in
New York as an undercover cop, robbery detective, firearms
expert, homicide investigator, and chopper pilot, he
moved to this quiet Outer Cape community (population
3,000) to run a police department cut more in the mold
of ''Mayberry, R.F.D.'' than ''NYPD Blue.'' Hell's Kitchen
this is not.In Wellfleet, organized crime is two teenagers
conspiring to shoplift asix-pack of Coca-Cola.
There's a curious thing about the town's men in blue,
though, and one befitting its reputation as a seasonal
arts colony. Besides Rosenthal, two former officers
are also professional writers. Alec Wilkinson, a longtime
summer resident and New Yorker staff writer wrote the
first of his five books, ''Midnights: A Year With the
Wellfleet Police,'' after working as a cop here in the
early 1980s. His book was reissued this spring. Lucas
Miller, who also summered here for many years prior
to donning the Wellfleet badge and uniform, now writes
a monthly column for Slate from his current vantage
point as an NYPD detective and former narcotics officer.
Miller recently fielded several book-contract offers
as well, which for the moment he says are on hold.
And then there's Rosenthal, who just published ''Rookie
Cop: Deep Undercover in the Jewish Defense League''
(Leapfrog Press). With a novel (''The Murder of Old
Comrades'') and two nonfiction books (''Sky Cops'' and
''K-9 Cops'') already to his credit, Rosenthal has taken
writing well beyond the hobby stage and made it a serious
''I don't have writer's block. I don't even know what
that is,'' says Rosenthal, who has also written two
unpublished novels and plans a future nonfiction book
about a serial killer whose grim dominion included the
Outer Cape. If that doesn't sound like the resume of
a typical small-town New England police chief, neither
does Rosenthal. In fact, he speaks both German and Russian
with passable fluency and sprinkles conversations with
terms like ''conundrum'' and ''sobriquet.''
''Rookie Cop'' revisits Rosenthal's first year on the
force, when he was plucked fresh from the police academy
and assigned to infiltrate the JDL, led by Rabbi Meir
Kahane (whose inflammatory slogan was ''Every Jew atwenty-two'').
At the time Rosenthal joined the NYPD's Bureau of Special
Services, in 1969, Kahane and his followers were suspected
of at least one fatal bombing in Manhattan. New to police
work, Rosenthal, a Brooklyn native, was cast as the
spy who came in from left field. Some JDL members immediately
fingered him as a likely informant, not the taxi driver
he claimed to be. Despite this, Rosenthal was put in
charge of the group's weapons arsenal. Much of his book
reads like outtakes from ''The Gang That Couldn't Shoot
Straight,'' with JDL members retreating to a makeshift
terrorist camp in upstate New York, trying to manufacture
explosives that would actually work. Soviet officials
were their principal targets, but African-American groups,
the PLO, and even the Ku Klux Klan drew their attention
too. Kahane comes across as a forceful if flawed leader,
while Rosenthal, as portrayed in the book, walks a fine
line between helping the group and thwarting its efforts.
Overlooking the obvious
''They were a fairly dysfunctional group,'' Rosenthal
avers. ''They take a guy like me, a nonreligious,
secular Jew who doesn't dress or act like them - that
should have been a flag that something was wrong.''
Yet they were so in need of a weapons expert, according
to Rosenthal, that JDL members overlooked obvious clues,
including the fact that Rosenthal was married to a German-born
woman who isn't Jewish. Disorganized, maybe. Even delusional
on occasion. But dangerous nonetheless, Rosenthal contends.''They
only killed one person, to the best of my knowledge,''
he says. ''But they blew up a lot of places. It was
only a matter of time before they killed somebody else.
And as the organization evolved, they became very paranoid.''
Kahane and others were arrested on weapons and bomb-making
charges in May 1971, ending Rosenthal's undercover role.
More than 100 firearms were recovered by state and federal
agents. Rosenthal subsequently testified against JDL
members during a trial that slapped Kahane with a five-year
prison sentence. Kahane later emigrated to Israel; he
was assassinated in New York City in 1990. Rosenthal
wound up socializing with a group of fellow cops who
had infiltrated groups such as the Black Panthers, Students
for a Democratic Society, the Communist Party, and others
deemed security threats in the '60s and '70s.
Not that it is much of an issue in Wellfleet, but Rosenthal
defends domesticsurveillance of so-called radical groups
as a necessary evil in a free society - more so in the
wake of incidents such as the Oklahoma City bombing.
Yet even in a community like Wellfleet, he says, there
are built-in tensions about what townspeople do and
do not expect from law enforcement
''They want us to protect them and their property,
but they don't want us to interfere,'' he says. ''They
want us to make sure inappropriate people are controlled,
but they don't want us to bother people walking down
the street. It's a matter of finding the right balance,
and that's difficult to find.'' The difficulty was underscored
earlier this year by two incidents of alleged racial
profiling on the Outer Cape, one involving Rosenthal
and a fellow Wellfleet officer. In each case, a gun
was drawn on an unarmed black man - one a Cape Cod Times
reporter, the other a Senegalese college student. Rosenthal
won't discuss the Wellfleet incident in detail except
to say his department's actions got a ''bad rap.'' His
13-member force, he says, has two black officers. He
does admit to suffering from professional culture shock,
though, in moving to a place like Wellfleet. ''It took
me a while to become comfortable with the dynamics,''
he says, shifting his bulky frame in the cruiser's front
seat. ''I came from a big city, where officers are basically
anonymous. You're a technocrat there. You enforce the
law or not. In little towns there's an intertwining
of citizens and authorities. If you antagonize the citizens,
it has a negative effect on your budget. That's the
reality.'' Every summer, when Wellfleet's population
swells to around 20,000, the police department hires
eight or nine temporary officers. Even with the seasonal
influx, however, violent crime is practically nonexistent
out here, Rosenthal says. Wellfleet police have logged
no murders and one armedrobbery during his tenure.Miller,
one of the town's other writers in blue, was a full-time
officer in 1990 when Rosenthal took over the department.''The
other cops had no idea what to make of Rich,'' Miller
recalls. ''It's traditional for regular cops to look
down on administrators. Yet here was a guy with 100
times the experience they had, and they couldn't get
him worked up about anything. He'd come in and listen
to their grievances and basically say, `Suck it up,
Says Rosenthal: ''In a small town you can get away with
almost anything so long as you're not perceived as a
liar. If people think you lie, you're dead in the water
and might as well move on.'' Rosenthal wrote his first
novel after meeting author J.C. Pollack through a mutual
friend. Pollack, the author of ''Mission: MIA'' and
other thrillers, encouraged Rosenthal to try writing
fiction. Rosenthal's previous writing had been limited
to technical articles on police work. The result of
meeting Pollack was ''Old Comrades,'' a Cold War novel
set in Manhattan that draws on Rosenthal's background
as a Russian-language specialist in the US Air Force.
After reading a draft of the novel, Pollack steered
Rosenthal toward Simon & Schuster and helped him
find an agent.
A novel approach
Published in 1992, ''Old Comrades'' earned Rosenthal
a $10,000 advance and sold a respectable 20,000 copies.
But a second novel never did get published - even Rosenthal
calls it ''terrible'' - and he turned to nonfiction.
It took him nine months apiece to write his next two
books, Rosenthal says, each based on one of his passions:
flying helicopters and raising dogs. He and his wife,
Frauke, a Wellfleet firefighter, also enjoy taking motorcycle
trips together. They have no children.
''Only after my first book did it dawn on me how hard
it is, that this is more of a business than an art form,''
Rosenthal says. ''I'm very methodical now. I don't write
on spec. I do a proposal. If it gets bought I write
the book. ''Writing and selling fiction is much more
difficult than nonfiction,'' he continues. ''Nonfiction,
and I may regret these words, is simple. It's a matter
of finding an interesting subject, researching it, and
putting it in words other people want to read.'' After
''K-9 Cops,'' Rosenthal switched publishers, moving
from Pocket Books to Leapfrog Press, a small Wellfleet-based
enterprise. Mid-list authors like him get lost at big
houses, he explains. ''If you get no publicity, no one
knows you exist - no matter how good the book is,''
Hadden Clark, a serial killer with a history of mental
illness and a penchant for cross-dressing, could be
Rosenthal's most commercial subject yet. Rosenthal guesses
that Clark, convicted in Maryland in 1993 on a single
murder count, may have killed as many as 20 people dating
back to the early '80s. Clark also pleaded guilty to
a second murder and has admitted to a dozen more, although
investigators have had trouble confirming his confessions.
On three visits to the Outer Cape, Clark, a former Provincetown
cook, has led law enforcement personnel - including
Rosenthal - on fruitless searches for the remains of
additional victims. That only lends more spice to the
tale, insists the chief, who has also been shadowed
by Wilkinson - Wellfleet really is a small town - for
an upcoming New Yorker piece on the Clark case.Clark
is unique, Rosenthal says, ''only in the length of time
he got away with his crimes. And anyway, everything
is a mystery until it's solved.'' Ironically, Rosenthal
says he steers away from books and films like ''The
Silence of the Lambs.'' ''Being a homicide detective
really had an impact on my personality,'' he says. ''It
hardens you. It is not a healthy thing. It desensitizes
you, yet stories about serial killers and homicidal
maniacs do fascinate people. I recognize that.''
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
This story ran on the front page The Boston Globe
Living/Arts Section on 8/23/2000.
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