Come on. This is just weird. He is sitting way too close. His knee is almost touching yours. Can you tell him to back up? Is your breathing getting a little ragged? Does he notice that your eyes are moistening?
The lean of his body into yours is as intimate as a third date. Lord, you even notice the color of his blue eyes. You want to fiddle with the pen on the table just to break away from his intensity. It’s OK to look away, right? Just do it! Look away, now! Ah, but you can’t.
And then he begins to speak softly…
“Something went wrong here, didn’t it?”
Really? No kidding? You have the urge to start putting all the things that went wrong into categories to help the discussion along. Perhaps this explains how some poor schmuck in early Christianity, when faced with the same observation by some blue-eyed priest, rattled off a list of wrongs: lust, greed, envy, pride, wrath, sloth and gluttony. They are a good starting point for most of us.
“They don’t understand you, do they?”
What is this guy talking about? Doesn’t he know that you just committed murder? Your life is over. This is so the end. You’re going to prison for life. No one has ever understood you. Why should anyone start now? Is this guy saying he understands the problems you’ve had to face? Is he touching your knee with his hand?
“I see you’re wearing a Cubs hat. What do you think of their season so far?”
Whaaaat? This guy is crazy, but the Cubs season is really not going well. “Jeez, they’re having another bad year. That pitcher…”
Oops, John Quinn has you. In fact, he had you the moment you decided to stay in the room. You might as well confess because you’re going to eventually. Let me explain.
For a starter, sheer volume.
“I’ve worked over 100 death cases,” Quinn said.
That’s about 30 years worth. At the age of 24, Quinn became a special agent with the Department of Criminal Investigation. He never left except to be the assistant director and then the director and now back to assistant director. Pretty impressive. But it didn’t begin so well.
“To be honest with you, I was a good Catholic boy. I went to Dowling High School. Iowa State University playing college football. Not really understanding what the world really consisted of. And here I am working homicides in law enforcement. I wasn’t ready,” he said.
Quinn was called to investigate the murder of a young woman in 1984.
“They threw me up against a guy called Ron Gruber. I wasn’t ready for him,” he said. “He was literally an executioner for the Sons of Silence (a motorcycle gang). And he challenged me. Literally made fun of me in the interview room. He was right. I wasn’t ready to be in that room with him. I wasn’t prepared to handle someone of his evil. He caused me to go ahead and accept the challenge he laid out to me. And that was to be the best interviewer and interrogator that I could be.”
So, Quinn buckled down, went to every school he could and studied the art of interrogation. He enlisted his wife to role-play bad guys so he could work on certain techniques. (“Do I have to be Ron Gruber again?” she’d say.) As amazing as it sounds, he started doing exit interviews with suspects to find out what worked and what didn’t.
“Kind of a strange conversation you’re having with somebody that just talked about killing somebody and you’re now asking them: ‘Now, when I was asking you this, how did you feel that went?’ ”
And he latched onto any mentor he could find.
I was called to a murder scene in Dallas County in 1985. Quinn was the chief investigator, and I was the prosecutor. We had never met. Quinn, fresh from his bad experience as an interrogator, wanted to try a new technique in interrogating the murder suspect. Unbeknownst to me, he was studying and experimenting to be the best. I told him his idea was illegal and explained why. He then explained to me why it was a good idea and said it was legal. We stared at each other. He said he was going to do it. I said he wasn’t. He said he was. I then used a profanity that is not recommended in courses on nonviolent communication. He responded with his own creative profanity. We smiled. Chest-thumping as bonding.
Quinn talks in sports-speak. He is a former quarterback for Iowa State and he readily admits that his experience calling plays in the huddle shaped his entire life. So, in the jargon of sport aphorisms, here’s what Quinn discovered in his search to be a great interrogator.
“Life is filled with adversity, you’re either going to go ahead and meet the challenges or not. You can be on the sidelines or be a starter. I knew it was going to take dedication on my part to learn these interrogation techniques.”
“It’s all about just being able to talk with people. You have to be able to communicate. The best part about interrogations? God doesn’t make you an interrogator. Anybody can be an interrogator.”
“As you evaluate the suspects, they’re actually evaluating you. They’re assessing you. They can tell what they can get away with and what they can’t.”
“It is really helpful to be empathetic. The biggest issue that people have when they commit a horrendous crime is that no one will understand why it is they did what they did. Sometimes, they don’t even know. It’s not that they want to tell somebody about it; it’s just that the situation dictates that they feel the need to tell somebody. Our job is to be that conduit. To be the facilitator to make sure the environment is correct so that they can talk about it.”
“I never blame the victim as a technique in interrogation. It has nothing to do with the victim. A lot of times victims are just random objects to the suspect. It’s what’s transpired in the suspect’s life that actually leads them to that point of tangency where they actually intersect with the victim.”
“Being true to yourself is the secret to interrogation. They can tell when you’re being fake. Just talk to them in plain speak. And be honest with them even though they’re not honest with you.”
“It’s not what we do, but how we do it.”
“If they’re willing to sit in that room with you, they’re willing to confess.”
“We all have vulnerabilities.”
John Quinn moves with confidence, speaks with confidence and laughs with confidence. His confidence is so overwhelming that it is easy to mistake for arrogance.
“Humility is the key to the soul. You can be confident, but if you’re humble, you have the total package,” Quinn said.
Is that a wink? You tell me.
And Ron Gruber?
“It took me 12 years to get Ron Gruber. But I got him,” he said.
John Quinn is eight months from retiring. For 30 years, he made Iowa a safer place and raised the bar for police conduct. He will be missed. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.