Faces from the Past: an Officer Looks Back

A retired police Lieutenant looks back at a criminal he helped lock up 12 years ago, and is given pause at the face of a man worn down by prison.

There is a term used in law enforcement: “career-enders.” What it refers to are cases you worked where the defendant was sentenced to enough jail time that your career would be over and you would be retired before they got out.

I have worked many of these types of cases. Looking back over these investigations, I can say I was proud of the work my team and I did on them. In some of them, I was the lead investigator. In others, I was only a bit player, but all in all, they are a part of my history and career.

When cops get together the conversation will eventually turn to police work. They talk about the good arrests they made, the horrible things they saw; they laugh at the sometimes hysterically ridiculous situations they have seen people in, and they talk about the bigger cases they have worked.

As these stories are told, you can see the faces of the other cops; smiling, frowning or otherwise reflecting the mood of the story and living vicariously through the other officer’s tale.

No matter how many times you are involved in a serious fight or foot chase, and regardless of the reality that almost everyone’s stories are virtually identical, there is still interest in the specifics of the job.

As I was thinking about this story sharing activity that most cops engage in, I was reminded of several big career-enders I worked over the last 25 years. The more I thought about those cases, the more the specifics came to the surface, leading ultimately to the bad guys who ended up in prison.

It was at this point that I began to think about the human side of this drama, the real-life people on the other end of the career-ender stories.

12 years after

The New Jersey Department of Corrections has a public website that anyone can view. Part of that web site is an offender search. You can look up people in the system by name.

Last week I had a need to check something on that site. Before I left it, I checked on a couple of people I knew were in the system; some career-enders. As I searched for them, I was shocked by a reality that presented itself to me.

I popped in a name of young man who had been sentenced to life without parole for his criminal actions. When I last saw him at trial in 1998, he was a healthy 26-year-old man, intelligent and quick-witted.  

When he was arrested, I interviewed him several times. His crimes were bad, no doubt, and he was in the position he was in due to his actions and decisions, but he was congenial enough.

Part of the game for both sides involved in a criminal investigation is to win over the other person, to work the situation to your best advantage. For the police, that is to get a truthful and complete confession; for the defendant, that is to gain the sympathy of the officers and mitigate their problems as much as possible.

That being said, he was not the monster in the closet you would imagine. He confessed, went to trial, was found guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. That was the last I had thought about him until last week.

I said a prayer

As the computer screen flickered and the different web pages appeared, suddenly there he was. In my mind, I pictured the 26-year-old man from the interviews. What I saw on the screen was completely different.

He is now 38 years old. The rough edges of the street had been worn away from him. The look of youth was gone. What I saw now was a man who was struggling, a person adrift on the sea of life, going nowhere.

As I looked at this picture, I could feel the smile on my face fade away. His eyes were dull, his body language, even in the photo, revealed he was spiritually beaten up. I could sense the loneliness of his existence and I felt pity for him.

As I hit the exit key and left the web page and that image behind, I thought what a great tragedy it is for those people who commit such acts that require the rest of us to lock them away. What a loss for their families and what a desperate situation it must be for them.

This experience, seeing this face from the past, and the realities of his day-to-day life caught me off-guard. I can’t say it caused me some type of soul-searching grief; it did not. I did what was right, I did what was necessary to protect many other innocent people by taking this guy off the street. His actions and our system of justice did the rest, and I sleep like a baby at night.

Seeing that picture, that moment frozen in time, did give me pause, though. Seeing any person, regardless of how deserving, having to live such a life is a terribly sad situation.

I put the experience in its proper place. I said a prayer for him, his victims and all the cops out in the street doing the hard work that needs to be done.

Let me know what you think. Email me at jpangaro194@yahoo.com      

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Danielle Halbig January 27, 2013 at 08:46 PM
Thanks for sharing this story from your perspective Mr. Pangaro. It was actually reassuring to read these thoughts (and brief feelings) from someone on the good side of the law. As a mental health Therapist, I work in the NJDOC and have these thoughts often. How do they survive living behind walls for years on end ? Just Friday, a man also highly deserving of his sentence, was released after 12 yrs. I also compared his photos and have heard and read of what prison life does to individuals. Although usually deserving of their various sentences, the idea that someone's life is spent there behind those bare walls is very sad. I listen to their grief, years of it, usually a lifetime of sadness and negative situations. Yes, in prison there are programs and counseling and friendships made, but it's no real life. It makes me more interested in what happened to them in real life, usually as children, that led to their criminal and antisocial tendencies. Sad stories all around. Luckily, there are individuals like us that have dedicated our careers to protecting others in society, Thank you!! Hopefully, those insightful enough to utilize the services offered accept the help.
Joseph Pangaro January 27, 2013 at 09:10 PM
Danielle, I'm glad you're out there too. After so many years dealing in the system I try to do what I can to be as humnitarian as I can. My first thought is always to the vicitms, but humanity demands we have concern for the people our socisety judges. Unfortunately our world is so cought up in political correctness that we often cannot deal with problems directly. There is always someone who gains from drama and throwing acusations. There is much that could be done to save so many from a life behind bars, but we are not strong enough to overcome the uphill walk. JP
Don S. January 27, 2013 at 11:53 PM
To be truthful I admire your work and all the first responders who dedicate their careers to serve us the public. I guess I find it hard to feel remorse for those who take the lives of innocent people because of their ow n ignorance. They get 3 meals a day, many get visits from family where the victims families get to visit cemetary 's and never see their loved onrs again. Don't know if you were blessed to have children but imagine if one of them were taken early in your life. No graduations, no weddings, no grand baby 's, no anniversary's etc. Please don't get me wrong I feel your pain. I am a Viet Nam USMC veteran 66-67, but an eye for an eye is biblical. I enjoyed you story and may you and your family be blessed.
Aaron Kuhn January 28, 2013 at 02:45 AM
Joseph, I appreciated reading this thoughtful account that as a former law enforcement officer you really did think of the people you put away as human beings, not just a number, and you still feel for them today.
Christy Vita-Olah January 28, 2013 at 02:35 PM
I can appreciate the insight from someone on the good side of the law we are all human, there is also the other side which is the victims families that are left behind. The hard look these criminals have the light that has gone from them , the soulless face you see also appears on the family members left behind from their crimes. Seems very appropriate I should see this story today which would have been my Mother in laws 71th birthday, would have been had she not been victim #10 in 2004 in Camden City. She was shot by a bullet meant for someone else innocent by stander exiting her car. You say they are not just numbers well in court the victim is hardly ever refereed to by name , the papers report victim #10 they have no name! This is the sad reality of it. The boy that shot her was 18 at the time I have never cared to look where he is or what he might look like now a man, but I will tell you about the light gone from my then 10yr old sons face as he witnessed this, Ill tell you of a man who could barely function for 7yrs after having to give the order to terminate his mothers life. Ill tell you of walking into a court room 10 hours after that order was given to see the criminal with " Not guilty" written on the back of his orange jump suit. My husband was raised on the same streets as this man only difference is he had a good mother who taught him education is the only way. Elsa C Olah 1/29/42 - 3/1/2004 The investigators who worked this case were compassionate men.


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