For Jack Ballentine, balancing work and family was sometimes a life-or-death struggle.
The former Phoenix undercover officer remembers a “client” calling during his son’s batting practice. As several kids waited nearby, the detective launched into his hitman persona, discussing how he could help his client wipe out his targets with two pounds of C-4 explosives.
“It’s so hard to keep your head straight on who you are,” Ballentine said, adding later, “they’re always looking to see if you’re really who you are.”
That was Ballentine’s life for more than 15 years. Dubbed a chameleon by local media, he masqueraded as a hitman.
He wrote about his juggling act and the arrests in “Murder For Hire: My Life As the Country’s Most Successful Undercover Agent,” which was released in June. He said he hopes his “travelogue” will show the public the struggles of undercover work.
In between meeting with Hollywood producers interested in his story, Ballentine is still catching suspects as head of the city’s fire investigation unit. Since moving there two years ago, the rate of solved arson cases has gone up, officials said.
Tom Colbert, a producer who’s been helping Ballentine handle pitches from other producers and studios, said people have been interested in adapting the 52-year-old detective’s history with police and fire departments into a feature or TV series.
To be a believable hitman, Ballentine would mold himself into the kind of killer-for-hire each client would want. He bulked up and wore outfits tailored to the part. Sometimes he simultaneously took on as many as seven personas – including a mobster, a soldier of fortune and a member of the white supremacist group Aryan Brotherhood.
“The Aryan Brother guy is a character that made me ill,” Ballentine said.
Once Ballentine – who rarely carried a gun – began meeting with a client, he would make sure the idea to arrange a murder was the person’s own idea. Otherwise, a client could cry entrapment. He offered alternatives to killing and ways the suspect could call off the plan, but he could only recall one example of someone actually having a change of heart.
There was a married socialite from Canada who wanted to be with her lover but divorce was against her religion. There was a couple who wanted their son shot because he was getting them evicted from their trailer park, and offered Ballentine their boy’s $1,000 stereo as payment.
“Every single one of them had a common thread and that was greed. They wanted something so bad that it didn’t matter. There were no other ways around it. Taking somebody’s life was their only answer to get what they want,” Ballentine said.
In each case, Ballentine would set up a final sting with video and audio surveillance teams. He would describe in detail how he would kill the target. Once money and pictures or a map relating to the would-be victim was exchanged, a SWAT team would swoop in for the arrest.
While maintaining his undercover identity, Ballentine managed to court his wife, Patti. She said her husband was always careful to shelter her, and later their two sons, from his work. The family learned to deal with the occasional threats from people in the criminal world Ballentine had to network with.
And if a case was frustrating him, he didn’t show it. “He made it just seem like everybody’s job. You leave in the morning and that’s just (his) job,” she said.
Ballentine’s role-playing led to 24 conspiracy to commit murder convictions. In Arizona, the charge carries a sentence of life in prison with chance for parole after serving 25 years. By the late ’90s, he was emotionally ready to stop undercover work and moved to the homicide unit.
In 2007, Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan approached him about moving to the fire department after getting funding for a director of the arson investigation unit. In the department, experienced fire captains are typically assigned to investigate fires. According to Khan, there weren’t any resources before to train them in the law enforcement side of solving and seeing a case through.
Since becoming director, Ballentine has trained fire captains on handling the scene of suspicious fires with a detective’s eye. Investigators now attend an 18-week “detective school.” They know how to collect evidence, do interviews and write up a search warrant. Ballentine emphasized that firefighters had the smarts and the desire to do this sort of work.
According to the fire department, the unit’s clearance rate for arson cases used to be 6-8 percent and now is 55-60 percent. “The numbers speak for themselves,” Khan said. “In Phoenix, if you had a sinister fire, it might go unnoticed. I would say those days are long gone.”
Though Ballentine’s undercover days are long past, he said those characters still linger with him.
“I never lost who I was,” Ballentine said.