Chief John Quinn5/3/2017
Wanting to write this column with someone in law and order, I asked several people in the criminal justice system for recommendations. The unanimity amongst their responses amazed me. Waukee Police Chief John Quinn is so well respected among colleagues, and former adversaries, that phrases like “Iowa’s super cop,” “the closer” and “the real life Frank Pembleton” were used. The latter referred to a larger-than-life detective Andre Braugher created in the 1990’s TV series “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” Quinn says he has not watched TV cop shows for decades, but that he was a fan of Dennis Frantz’s Andy Sipowicz in “NYPD Blue.” “He was gruff, mean, violated the law — I loved him.”
I asked Quinn to lunch, and he chose Jethro’s Jambalaya: “The Jethro’s on the Waukee side of West Des Moines.” I had written a quite positive review of the restaurant several years ago and was yearning to return for their Creole and Cajun menu, especially etouffee. Alas, that menu had been reduced to token items. I was told that the Waukee side of West Des Moines is BBQ country.
“My family and I love this place,” Quinn said, ordering a Becky Sue salad with barbecue and corn soup. While we lunched, several people — both customers and staff — came by to say hello, or thank you. So the affection seemed to be reciprocal. One customer saw his gun and asked if he was a cop. Quinn acknowledged that he was and was then told “Lots of cops hang out at my restaurant, you should try it.”
Quinn spent 31 years at the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI), 20 as lead homicide detective.
“Local jurisdictions would only call us in on their most heinous crimes to calm the chaos. We would redeploy, work the case, and leave. Before homicide I worked in gaming, crime laboratory and all criminal investigations,” Quinn explained.
Before all that, Quinn endeared himself to Iowans as a star quarterback at Dowling High School and Iowa State University.
“My dad was a star quarterback and an undercover cop with the FBI. Sometimes we would go two years without seeing him. The FBI moved us around from Los Angeles to Detroit to New Jersey to Des Moines,” he explained.
“We moved to Des Moines before my eighth grade year. I had mostly just played soccer in New Jersey. That was a big deal there. Even though he wasn’t around much, Dad did teach me to throw a football. I went out for the eighth grade team at Dowling, and they threw all of the new kids into a long line of wide receivers. We were told to run a pattern and catch the ball. If we dropped a pass, we were supposed to pick it up and carry it back to the quarterback’s feet. The first time I dropped a pass, I was so angry I picked it up and fired it back to the quarterback. It hit him right in the face.
“Coach Bob Nizzi yelled, ‘Who threw that ball?’ I was afraid he was going to throw me off the team. I raised my hand slowly, and he said ‘Get over here. You’re our quarterback now.’ I played quarterback for a long time after that,” he recalled.
Later, Quinn and Dowling teammate Phil Seuss started against each other in an Iowa-Iowa State game. That was the only time quarterbacks from the same high school ever paired off in that rivalry. Quinn was 2-0 vs. Iowa and landed on the front page of The Des Moines Register’s Big Peach. He also was featured there when he engineered a rare Cyclone win at Nebraska.
Yet when Quinn started in law enforcement, he listed undercover work as his dream assignment.
“Yeah, that’s true. Then they asked me if I knew how stupid I was — me wanting to work undercover in Clear Lake. I was assigned to felony crimes and homicides instead. There are 60 to 80 such crimes in Iowa each year,” he recalled.
Who were Quinn’s role models?
“My dad, obviously. (ISU head coach) Earl Bruce and (ISU quarterback coach and later North Carolina and Texas head coach) Mack Brown both taught me leadership and professionalism in college. At DCI, Gary Marker taught me how to investigate crimes, Steve Bogel taught me leadership and Gene Meyer taught me leadership and professionalism,” he said.
Quinn learned well. His personal best secured confession was 1 minute and 32 seconds. Ames detectives once asked him to observe a long interrogation. When they took a break, Quinn walked in and the perpetrator confessed to him. “I heard those guys groaning ‘Oh no.’ ”
Probably Quinn’s most famous case was that of Iowa vs. Donald Piper, a serial killer who terrorized greater Des Moines between 1993 and 2000.
“He was my first serial killer, and I spent four years of my life getting to know him. I know far too much about serial killers. We would have had him a lot earlier if DNA evidence had evolved faster. That’s the biggest change in law and order in my career — the progression of DNA,” he said.
Quinn got to know Piper so well that one time he took a call from his main suspect while coaching his son’s Little League team. Quinn gleaned important information from that call, too.
“Every killer has his own personal story. An interrogator’s advantage is his position — navigating psychological minefields that reveal motivations. Sometimes they give up information they never intended to give up, even without knowing it,” he explained.
Three years ago, Quinn became Waukee’s second chief of police in 35 years. Soon after his arrival, Waukee had its first homicide in 35 years.
“Gene (Meyer) calls me Dr. Death. He really had fun with that coincidence. We solved that murder in less than a day,” Quinn clarified.
How different is that now?
“In Waukee, I invest myself in the growth of the community. It’s the first time in my life I felt a distinct connection to a community. I love going to work every day,” Quinn revealed.
But does he miss the rush of the interrogation room?
“Sure, it was such a significant part of my life. I loved the thrill, and I really loved dealing with victims’ families. Those are very special relationships,” he admitted. ♦