Crime and Publishing

Before he became a crime writer, Chuck Hustmyre spent 22 years as a violent crime investigator for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms—recruiting and using informants, tracking down armed drug dealers, and dismantling gangs. He now spends his days as a journalist and a novelist in Baton Rouge, covering crime for newspapers and magazines, and writing novels and true crime books.

How did you get into law enforcement?

I've been in law enforcement my whole life. My great grandfather was a sheriff for 30 years, and my uncle was in law enforcement too. I was only 18 when I got a part-time job at a sheriff's office. That's how I worked my way through college. I was hired as a full-time criminal investigator with the DA's office in the town where I lived. And then a few years later I was hired as special agent with the ATF.

What was your job while working for the ATF?

I was on different task forces doing violent crime investigations. Such as the FBI's gang task force, the U.S. Marshall's Fugitive Task Force, the New Orleans Violent Offender Warrant Squad—looking for violent criminals, armed robbers, and murderers. When I was doing ATF investigations, we targeted armed drug dealers, mainly working in housing projects in New Orleans.

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What was your day like?

I was an investigator. I recruited and used informants to work undercover. A couple times I did some undercover work myself, but I look too much like a cop. I wasn't very successful at undercover.

My day-to-day job—besides filling out reams of useless federal paperwork—was to put together cases. When you gather enough information, you execute a search warrant—and these warrants were dangerous. We were looking for guns in high-risk housing projects. Naturally, we were looking for guns, we were the ATF. We hoped the people we were going up against were armed, which is a little strange.

Do people think you're a cop, even now?

Everybody says I look like a cop, even though I'm a reporter now. I have short hair; I'm clean-shaven and stocky. I went to a city council meeting here and apparently the president said: "Is he a reporter? He looks like a cop!" I even hear this in bars. I might be sitting with a beer, and people will say, "Hey, are you a cop?" Cops just have a certain way of looking and walking. I can spot another cop pretty easily. Usually they have sport watches, short hair, they look like they lift weights or keep in shape in some way. They look very similar to military people. Nowadays, many young cops shave their heads; some are even completely bald. If you look at a SWAT team, half of them have shaved heads.

What happened when you worked undercover?

The two deals I tried to set up undercover didn't happen. Some retired coastguards wanted to smuggle weapons and ammunition into the states from South America. Me and another agent met with one of them several times. We were posing as former military men looking to make some money—since we both were former military men it wasn't much of a stretch. The deal never went through though. The guy never actually put it together for us. He might have gotten suspicious.

Another time, I was going to meet with a crooked bail bondsman. I was posing as a bounty hunter. He wanted to sell some stolen weapons. It never happened. I figured he must have gotten suspicious, too. That's why you recruit informants. You get them to do the work. It's easy for them to act like criminals, because they are criminals.

Can you identify people who are more likely to be the targets of crime?

Criminals target people who are not paying attention or those who look lost. Other easy targets are those who walk around drunk, people alone, and people in dark places. Take New Orleans, which is where I was involved in police work. In the French quarter, Bourbon Street is real active, but you can't park there. You have to park on side streets. Late at night, you have to walk down little narrow side streets to get to your car—that's where people get robbed. You don't hear about people getting robbed on Bourbon Street, just on the side streets.

Have you ever been the target of a mugging?

No. Either I'm lucky or I just have a certain air. Also, I weigh 215 pounds and lift weights. People just don't bother me.

I've read news accounts of policemen who've been robbed. It doesn't do you that much good to be a cop if a guy sticks a gun in your face. But if you look like you might be a hard target, the criminal will let you walk on by. If you look kind of geeky, your odds of getting robbed are probably greater. Statistically, military and law enforcement people don't get robbed as much as CPAs.

What in this surprises you?

Armed robbers get robbed a lot themselves. That's because they're on the street hustling all the time. They get stuck up themselves. But they don't have the traumatic experiences that regular victims have. They get over it. They're sturdier because they're exposed to it.

Those in law enforcement are the same. When I worked in New Orleans, it was no big deal to run after a guy through some dark ally and fight with him to get him in handcuffs. We were used to violence. Most people go their whole adult life never hitting someone in the face, or kneeing somebody in the crotch to get him down on the ground. That was a nightly thing for us. If your lifestyle is sticking people up with a gun, then it's not that big a deal when you get stuck up with a gun.

How did you make the transition from law enforcement to writing?

It was a fluke. I've always been interested in writing but I never considered doing it professionally. Several years ago, I was in an accident while on the job, which laid me up for six months. So I wrote a nonfiction story about a shootout I was in.

After that, I wrote two novels, one of which sold to a small publisher. I also wrote an article about the shootout, and I sold that. But after all this, I still felt I wasn't a writer. So I wrote about a crime I had no involvement in—this series of articles later became my first book, Killer With a Badge. Now I'm giving fiction a try again.

There is no deadline in fiction.

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