Killer for hire: can be biker, mobster - or cop

Jack Ballentine - aka 'Officer Friendly' - acts real mean when he poses as a hitman for police stings. Tim Cornwell on Phoenix's finest
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The Independent Online
It Is easy to recognise Deborah Mounla in a Phoenix jail, where she is awaiting trial for conspiracy to murder. An ordinary-looking woman in a floral blouse and skirt, with blondish hair, she stands out from the usual line-up of drunks and rowdies. She looks like a law-abiding soccer mum, like "somebody you would have coffee with", as one prosecutor says.

The Tennessee mother came to Arizona looking for a way out of a nasty marriage, and not through a quickie divorce. She had accused her husband of molesting their three children, but had failed to make the charges stick. So she allegedly asked a friend in Arizona to find someone, maybe a Vietnam veteran, who was willing to kill him.

The hitman Mrs Mounla came to meet was tall and well-built. He told her he'd just come down from the mountains, and didn't like people much, but was ready to help her. "I went through a whole series of things," says Jack Ballentine. He proposed not merely killing her husband, but beating him up, breaking his arms, cutting off his testicles, then dropping him down a mineshaft full of snakes. "Which she was just ecstatic over," he says.

But Mr Ballentine is a detective with the Phoenix police department, and over the past 10 years he has had more than 20 people attempt to hire him to kill business partners, love rivals and, not infrequently, inconvenient husbands. All have ended up in jail, serving terms ranging from five years to life. A celebrity in Phoenix crime circles, though his photograph has never been published, he poses most often as a biker and ex-convict, but comes to our interview in jeans and a clean T-shirt, with stark white trainers and a middle parting in his hair. "I don't really have a complaint," he insists. "I love my family. I love my job." One Phoenix reporter has described him as "Mr Middle America"; another as "Officer Friendly".

One might expect to find someone who walks on the dark side, haunted by the characters he impersonates. He is an actor for the small screen, in routines captured time and again on police surveillance cameras. He has interviewed ex-Mafiosi and ex-gang members to perfect his technique. In his biker role, he says, he knows it all - "head movements, stance, squats, words, dress". For details he watches TV. "That's what people believe is real, not what is real. That's the role I take on, that's how to act. I watch what a Mafia guy is supposed to be, and what he says and does, I do." Sometimes he plays it "like a nut", but always with a likeable streak.

Usually an informant comes to Mr Ballentine or a fellow officer with a tip that someone is looking for a killer, and a meeting is arranged. This summer the organised crime squad turned out in force to pull off his most elaborate hoax yet. Jan Solomon, an electronics consultant, had met his teen sweetheart after 40 years and started an affair. He allegedly wanted her husband dead, and told Mr Ballentine on the phone that he was looking for a real Mob terminator.

For their meeting at Phoenix's Biltmore Hotel the fake hitman rolled up in a stretch limo with slicked hair and a blond woman on his arm, wearing an expensive suit and jewellery borrowed from Phoenix shops. Police extras acted as Mafia bodyguards, and Mr Ballentine's sergeant dined at a neighbouring table.

Mr Solomon claimed to have been a Mafioso himself in his younger days, but he was overawed. At one point, Mr Ballentine pointed to a gold bracelet on Mr Solomon's arm and told him to hand it over if he was serious. The suspect did so. After mulling over methods, they agreed that as the target was a regular cyclist, Mr Ballentine would simply run him over. Like Mrs Mounla, Mr Solomon has been charged with conspiracy to murder.

Mr Ballentine, 40, started work as an undercover officer in the world of motorcycle gangs, particularly an Arizona group called the Dirty Dozen which is now merging with the Hell's Angels. He grew his hair, pushed his weight from 155lb to 285lb, learned to ride a Harley Davidson and posed as a dealer in stolen goods and dope. His middle-class upbringing has helped him stay straight, he says; he has never done drugs, and only has one drink at a time.

The detective also infiltrated and became an acknowledged expert on an Arizona prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, dealing drugs and weapons inside jail. Twice named Officer of the Year in Phoenix, he was recruited to the hitman cases as his reputation spread. This year alone he has handled three of them, including Mrs Mounla's.

Americans of all classes - certainly in Jack "Jake" Ballentine's experience - turn to hitmen. Murder-for-hire cases are said to involve more women than men, because men are more apt to do the deed themselves, but Mr Ballentine's would-be clients have run from a commodities broker who fantasised over killing and eating young boys to a postman who wanted his ex-wife dead 11 years after their marriage ended.

There are many legal pitfalls in charging people with procuring a crime that is never committed. It is easy to be accused of entrapment, so over several meetings, Mr Ballentine will normally offer suspects chances to change their mind and walk away. If they don't, the detective argues, they will find someone else to do the job. He strengthens the case by supplying the most gruesome details - he promised the postman, for example, to batter his wife to death with a fire extinguisher and then slice her up into tiny pieces.

Hitmen exercise a continuing fascination for Hollywood as both protagonists and heroes, most recently in the movie Grosse Pointe Blank. Mr Ballentine has already been approached by several film producers wishing to buy his story, but so far he has turned them all down.

"They come up with such hokey things," he says. "They come to you with these proposals that you are going to be having an affair [in the movie], and doing this, and doing that.

"Personally, I don't want to have an affair. I don't want my children to see that." His children, the older one adopted, are 21 and seven.

Greed, says Mr Ballentine, is what drives contract killings - people who cannot deal with their own problems, who want something done at any price. But stings are enormously time-consuming, and the publicity has brought death threats. A member of the Aryan Brotherhood was arrested recently carrying plastic explosives and remote detonators: the suspicion is that a car bomb was to be planted for Mr Ballentine and his partner.

The imaginary hitman says he would like to retire from the business for a while, or at least lie low. "I thought after about 10 of these that it would be over," he says. "But they just keep coming. One right after another, and I don't know why."