The Boston Globe

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 second career.

''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

Balancing act

''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, guys.'''

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,'' Rosenthal says.

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.

BACK TO ROOKIE COP