“Career Ender” is a term used in law enforcement. What it refers to are criminal cases you worked as a cop where the defendant was sentenced to enough jail time that your police career would be over and you would be retired before they got out of jail. I have worked many of these types of cases. Looking back over these investigations I can say I was proud of the work me and my team did on them. In some of the cases 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 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; it’s a bonding thing. 

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 I was reminded of several pretty 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. 

The New Jersey Department of Corrections has a public web site that anyone can view. Part of that web site offers an offender search where you can look up people in the prison system by name. So last week I had a need to check something on that site. 

While I was there I decided to check in on a couple of people I knew were in the system; some of them were career ender’s. As I searched for and located them- I was shocked by a reality that presented itself to me. 

I popped in the name of young man that 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 very bad, no doubt it, 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, this man was not the monster in the closet you would imagine; in person he was pleasant, funny and easy to talk to. I could not help but to think that if I had met him anywhere else I would have thought he was a nice guy.  

During our conversations he confessed to his crimes. Eventually he went to trial where he was found guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole; case closed. That was the last I thought about him until I looked him up on the web site these many years later.

I sat in my office as the computer screen flickered and the different web pages appeared showing hundreds of faces; suddenly there he was. In my mind I pictured the healthy, vital, 26 year old man from the interviews. What I saw on the screen was completely different. 

He would now be 42 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 no where. 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 and emptiness of his existence and felt pity for him. I stared at the image for a long time; its stark truth unflinchingly displayed. 

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

As my introspection session ended and the experience was put 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 every day. 

Joseph Pangaro is a retired Police Lieutenant from the Township of Ocean, Monmouth County, NJ. During his 27 year career, Lieutenant Pangaro served in many capacities. After nine years as a patrol officer, he was transferred to the detective bureau where he served for 12 years. During that time, Lt. Pangaro prepared and executed hundreds of search warrants, testified in numerous high profile criminal court cases and excelled in the area of criminal investigations including; homicides, sexual assaults, drug crimes, fraud, burglary, juvenile investigations, economic crimes, vice crimes, quality of life crimes and other crimes of violence. He has acted in undercover capacities and worked with numerous local, county, state, and federal agencies. Joseph Pangaro served as a sergeant in the detective bureau, supervising a group of highly motivated and active officers in the unit as well as the “Quality of Life” unit.