Dan Lovelace has been to the dark side of the law enforcement moon. Targeted by a prescription drug abuser who tried to run him over. Swirled into a media frenzy when he shot and killed her. Fired by his agency and brought to trial for murder by a zealous prosecutor. Shunned like a leper by a seemingly endless chain of agencies when he tried to find work after being acquitted. Reduced to cutting grass at some points to help keep his family fed. Even haunted by thoughts of self-destruction at his lowest point.
Now after nearly 7 nightmare years of struggling for a chance to rebuild what was once a shining reputation in policing, Lovelace has pinned on a badge again and is seeing a glimmer of daylight.
Last month [7/09], after graduating from a 9-week academy, he started work at the age of 44 as a detention officer for the Pinal County SO in Florence, AZ. His job, in uniform but unarmed, is to help with “the care, safety, and control” of male and female inmates in the 1,650-bed county jail. His graduation from training came exactly 5 years and 1 day after he was found not guilty of criminal charges that could have sent him to prison for 24 years.
“Vindication was a long time coming,” he told Force Science News. “I’m glad to finally have somebody [Sheriff Paul Babeu] who saw my case for what it was and will allow me to prove myself. That’s all I ever wanted.”
Lovelace’s shooting made national headlines when it occurred in October 2002 in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. Then a motor officer for Chandler PD with nearly 5 years on the job, Lovelace responded to a drive-up pharmacy window where an attractive young housewife with her infant in the backseat had tried to pass a forged prescription for painkillers. In a desperate bid to escape, she peeled rubber, knocked over his parked bike, then turned and tried to run over Lovelace himself. He fired a single, fatal round that stopped her.
“It should have been cleared as a righteous shooting,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director for the Force Science Research Center, who testified as an expert witness at the officer’s trial. “Instead, it became a classic example of a department and a prosecutor’s office hanging an officer out to dry in a politically charged atmosphere, fueled by media hysteria.”
Lovelace was charged with second-degree murder and abruptly terminated. A settlement of more than $1.94 million was hurriedly paid to the dead woman’s survivors even before his trial was held.
Today, his case is dissected during FSRC’s Force Science Certification Course for its many investigative and prosecutorial shortcomings. “Errors were made that involved profound misunderstandings of human behavior in rapidly unfolding, high-stress encounters,” Lewinski declares. “It seemed as if conclusions about the shooting were made prematurely by the powers that be and then the facts were framed to conform to their view.”
One example was the prosecution’s dogged effort to discredit Lovelace’s version of the shooting, based of where the spent shell landed when ejected from his pistol. Tests by Lewinski and other FSRC researchers proved that the prosecution’s premise was bogus—and aided materially in Lovelace’s acquittal at a jury trial in 2004. [For details, see Force Science News Transmission #1, sent 9/17/04.]
Lovelace characterizes the case as “wrongful prosecution. They had evidence of my innocence right before them,” he says. “They wanted me to take a plea. If I’d say it was an accidental shooting and plead to negligent homicide, there’d be no jail time—but I’d never work as a police officer again. I’d have to lie to protect myself. I wouldn’t do it.”
Despite his full exoneration in court, Chandler refused to rehire him after the trial and the prosecutor still kept him on a list of “police officers deemed to be untruthful.” The Arizona POST board, however, after conducting a thorough investigation of its own, maintained his peace officer certification. So he figured he’d be able to land somewhere as an LEO before long. After all, he had graduated first in his academy class, had been named Rookie Officer of the Year, and had racked up an impressive record of achievement as a hard-charging, 5%er professional since then during his career in Chandler.
His optimism was soon shaken, and a disheartening pattern of rejection set in. “When I applied to the Highway Patrol,” Lovelace says, “I passed the physical, a written test, a commanders’ review, a ride along, a polygraph exam, an IQ test, and a psych exam and I heard that I was at or near the top of the list to be hired. But then I got a letter that said I didn’t meet their requirements. No further explanation. I could reapply in 6 years.”
More applications…more rejections. At a major sheriff’s office he was told that “the sheriff said not to hire fired officers,” even though there were already fired officers on his roster. “I went to a whole bunch of smaller agencies, some in little mining towns,” he says. “Some told me to not even bother filling out an application, which violates equal opportunity employment laws.”
He tried departments out of state, tried departments on Indian reservations, even tried to volunteer as a reserve officer, thinking that might be a foot in the door. Nothing. “I told myself, ‘Just be patient, keep trying, and persevere. If you keep trying, someone will give you a chance.’ ”
Meanwhile, he scrambled for whatever work he could get to bring in money. He bought a lawn mower and started cutting grass, “just like I’d done in high school”—and just as Karl Hettinger, the surviving officer in the infamous Onion Field case had done in L.A. decades before. He hurried over with his chainsaw when he heard of people with dead trees. He taught history to “at-risk” kids on one of the reservations (but not until parents had skeptically ok’d his hiring in a special meeting). He put together safety and legal manuals for a repo company. He peddled services for cleaning cooking grease out of exhaust hoods in restaurant kitchens. He moved furniture, he painted, he fixed roofs.
Even with his wife working full time, it was a struggle. Ironically, she was employed then—as she still is—as a dispatcher for Chandler PD. “It was tough on her,” Lovelace says. Officers on the department tended to choose sides regarding the controversy that clung to him, with even some he considered close friends lining up against him.
“They’d tell her, ‘You should divorce him. How can you live with a man like that? He’s a killer, a rogue.’ She’d hear one thing at work, and I’d tell her another at home.
“She didn’t know how to deal with what I was going through. I was battling with emotions I didn’t even know I had. I was afraid for my family. What’s going to happen to us? Why don’t people believe me?” In one stretch of 38 days, he says, “I got no real sleep.”
In his darkest hour, Lovelace candidly admits that he considered taking his own life. He dug out old notes on suicide he’d saved from his academy days and realized he fitted the symptoms. He mulled “ways and means” and says he could “easily have done the deed 10 times over. You want to just crumble to the ground and give up.”
But then, he says, in a supernatural moment “God talked to me. He said, ‘I love you. Stay the course. Stay tough.’ And I did.”
Given all that the job has cost him, why did Lovelace so fervently pursue reentry into law enforcement? Why not just “back off and hide?” as he puts it. He was so successful selling the hood-cleaning services, for example, that the owner of the company wanted to bring him into partnership. So it wasn’t a matter of money.
“I took an oath to serve and protect in November 1996 when I was first sworn in as a police officer,” Lovelace explains. “When I took that oath, I meant it. It explains why I do what I do. No one should be astounded that I want to get back in. Criminals are still out there, and I’m a man of my word.
“If I give up, then the people who broke that oath for me win. They took something away from me that I treasure, when I didn’t do anything wrong. That has to be rectified. Good should always triumph over evil. And for good to win, you don’t give up, you don’t run away. You do what it takes to come out on top.”
The break Lovelace had longed for came at the ballot box last November. Paul Babeu, who’d been a new officer on Chandler PD at the time of Lovelace’s trial, was elected sheriff of nearby Pinal County, the fastest growing county in Arizona, with the motto “Wide open opportunity.”
Like Lovelace, Babeu is an achiever, voted #1 Overall Police Recruit in his academy class and eventually elected president of the Chandler Law Enforcement Assn., the police union. As candidate for sheriff, he campaigned on a platform of reforming the Office with “honest, independent, and accountable” service. He took command in January, and Lovelace applied for a job. He’s lost count of how many applications he’d submitted to law enforcement agencies across the years before that.
With slots open for detention officers, Babeu was more than willing to give him a shot. Out of curiosity and support, he had attended portions of Lovelace’s trial and as the evidence unfolded, he’d become convinced that the case “resulted from a prosecutor that was overzealous and an investigation that was clearly flawed. The department’s command staff, the prosecutor, and the media were all singing in a chorus that was contrary to the evidence. It was a train wreck from Day One.”
He told Force Science News: “I tried to take out all the emotion and just look at the facts, and I believe if I was in the same place as Dan Lovelace in that shooting I may have reacted in the very same way he did.”
In giving Lovelace the nod, Babeu told him that he expected him to graduate at the top of his corrections academy class. The first day of firearms training, Lovelace shot at the expert level. He scored highest in the class on DT. He won honors for physical fitness. He was selected to be class speaker at commencement. And he missed graduating as valedictorian by 1 percentage point; he came in second.
At this writing, his assignment is in the maximum security section of the jail, overseeing homicide arrestees and other violent offenders. “It’s a slower pace than I’m used to,” he says, “but I like it. I’m serving the public by preventing escapes, and I’m a police officer per se in the facility by preventing crimes between inmates.” Even so, he would welcome the opportunity eventually to get back to his first love, uniformed patrol.
Predictably, the media have caught up with him. Arizona papers have run worrisome stories about his “controversial” hiring, with concerns expressed about his liability and reliability. “It’s old hat to me,” Lovelace says. Babeu is prepared to withstand the heat. “Dan will do an exemplary job,” he says. “I know in my heart and mind that hiring him was the best thing to do. I hope his worst days are behind him.”
FSN asked Lovelace what he would like to share with other officers, in terms of lessons learned from his long ordeal. He offers these suggestions:
- “Don’t assume that your department is looking out for your best interests” in a controversial situation. Study your rights, know them well, and take a proactive role in defending yourself.
- “Excel in everything you can, so when your time comes your reputation precedes you. When the jury heard me testify, my word still carried some weight, even with everything that had been done to discredit me.”
- Be prepared to find out who your true friends are. “It really hurt to see some officers turn their backs on me. I’d been to their weddings, visited their wives in the hospital when they had babies, backed them up on calls. On the other hand, there were some friends who stuck with my wife and me from the very beginning up to this moment. I could never put into words what that has meant to us.”
- “It’s important to have a life outside of law enforcement. When you come home at the end of your shift and take off that uniform, be a husband, be a father, not a cop. Some people attach themselves to the badge so fanatically that if they have to leave it, it takes their life with it.”
- Have faith. “When my career failed me, some friends failed me, I still had God and my family. If I had had to go to prison, God would have gone with me and my family would have helped me do whatever I had to do to survive.”