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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Veteran Cop Now Solving Fire Crimes

Ask any veteran investigator, arson is one of the hardest crimes to prove. Usually there are no witnesses. The crime usually takes place at night and it is a calculated act of either revenge, vandalism or an attempt to swindle an insurance company. Usually, there is not a lot of evidence left.


Now things have gotten a bit easier for the arson investigators at the Phoenix Fire Department.

Six months ago veteran Phoenix Police Officer Jack Ballentine, was hired as director of fire investigations. Ballentine, 51, is recognized nationally as one of the best in the business. He became renowned for playing a hit man for hire, his role resulting in 24 convictions of would-be killers. After that, he put in seven years in the homicide unit.


In his new position, Ballentine is teaching arson investigators all the tricks of the investigation trade, the skills to be successful and bringing them in line with law enforcement training.


“They play the role of a peace officer and detective, but never had detective training,” Ballentine said.

 “They have been so receptive about everything I brought to the table. They completely embraced everything we are doing. They are very driven.”


In fact, Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Kahn credits this new training for raising the number of solved arson cases in the city in the past six months from 8 percent to 29 percent, far above the national average of 18 percent.


“It’s been an incredible turnaround,” Kahn said. “I would say the talent was always there, but the understanding of the court system and the law enforcement aspect of criminal fire investigation had fallen a little short. Between the training and our new director’s insight from working in law enforcement for more than 20 years, investigators are able to not only work through the cause and origin of a fire, they are able to close the case and work with prosecutors when there is a criminal element.”


To be an arson investigator in the Phoenix Fire Department, a person has to know their stuff to begin with. They must have at least eight years of firefighting experience, be certified as an Arizona Peace Officer and have specific training in fire ground investigation.


Chief Mike Berggren, who is helping revamp the investigation section, said that among other things, the new training teaches them advanced interviewing and investigation techniques and ways to do their job so they do not get hurt, he said.


“They are getting tactical training like how to walk up to a house or car and put themselves in the best position for safety,” Berggren said. “We always try to have uniformed police officers with us, but we don’t make appointments with bad guys.”


The ongoing training also teaches them how to navigate the justice system and what recourses are available to them, Berggren said.


The added collaboration with Phoenix police makes Ballentine extremely proud. He said in the past, arson investigators were tasked with doing everything him or herself, from moving debris to taking photographs. Now Phoenix police provide scene security and crime scene specialists to take photographs.


“There is great unity. When you have that support, it trickles down. It’s been a great benefit,” Ballentine said.


Ballentine retired as a Phoenix homicide detective to take the job as director of fire investigations for the fire department and has much to share about the art of investigation. He became a Phoenix police officer in 1978 and went into undercover early in his career where he worked as a street crime detective in South Phoenix, in a sting operation for stolen property and in the organized crime bureau where he investigated motorcycle prison gangs, political corruption and provided dignitary protection for about 14 years. He then took on his longtime role of a hit man for hire, his first case in 1986.


“It’s surprising, there is a lot more (demand) than you would expect,” he said. “I did four or five a year over a 15-year period.”


He said he looked into 200 cases over the years.


“The majority I walked away from,” he said.


However, 24 of the cases, he took through to prosecution and had a 100 percent conviction rate. He played multiple characters from a hit man from upstate New York for a Mafia family who was hired to eliminate the husband of a Detroit mobster’s high school sweetheart, who he had fallen back in love with decades later. The husband, a former Detroit mobster lived in Phoenix and Tucson, he said.


He also played a warlord in the Dirty Dozen motorcycle gang and a disgruntled Vietnam Veteran, a soldier of fortune, Rambo type, who lived in the hills out in the desert only coming down when he was hired to “do business.”


Ballentine gained a reputation, taking assignments from all over the state or teaching departments how to field their own “hit men.”


He knows he saved 24 lives for sure, not counting the others who changed their minds after meeting with him and scaring the heck out of them. He said he would be quite graphic about how he would slowly kill and torture the person, which would scare off the half-hearted customer.


“Everyone had the opportunity to leave and other chances to walk away. I made you come back to me at a later date so you could consider what you were about to do. They had to come back to me,” he said.


His book with the working title Ballentine: Murder for Hire, published by St. Martins Press, is slated for a spring 2009 release.


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