Dr. Cop

MOUNT VERNON--At first blush, they sound like scenes concocted by a struggling writer trying to sell a television series, one that combines the two most time-honored story lines available: lifesaving doctors and crime-busting cops.

For instance:

It is in the pre-dawn hours of a quiet East Texas morning, and the lanky emergency room doctor, still dressed in his blue surgical scrubs after a 12-hour shift at nearby Mount Pleasant's Titus Regional Medical Center, is en route home when a two-way radio anchored on the dashboard of his '94 Caprice crackles. A sheriff's department dispatcher announces that there has been a hit-and-run accident nearby and the suspect has fled the scene.

The doctor, feeling a rush of adrenaline, is soon in pursuit of the suspect, following him to the driveway of his home. As the suspect steps from his car, Dr. John B. Mullen, 54, is out of his unmarked Chevrolet, gun and Franklin County deputy sheriff's badge in hand, preparing to make an arrest.

Too cheesy? OK, try...

A young couple, having recently left the urban rat race behind, are in the process of remodeling a home that had stood vacant for years. The wife, busily taking inventory of things that need to be done, suddenly screams and immediately places a call to the sheriff's department. Breathlessly, she explains that she has discovered what appears to be a body lodged in her chimney. Deputy Mullen, the department's designated crime-scene investigator, is quickly dispatched.

Indeed, what he finds are the mummified remains of a 20-something male who, records would later show, had been reported missing eight years earlier.

Too gruesome? What if that chimney-dweller was--a vampire? Never mind, too Buffy. How about this one...

We see Mullen the night he stops a carload of local teen-agers for speeding: While talking with the kids, the deputy hears muffled sounds coming from the trunk and requests that it be opened. Inside: another teen, surrounded by dozens of cartons of cigarettes. The other kids are frightened and admit to the officer that they broke into a grocery store in a nearby town. Mullen radios the neighboring police chief--who doesn't even know yet that the burglary has taken place. "I've got the kids who did it in custody if you want to come get them," says our walking tall, butt-kicking action hero, Dr. Cop.

Such stories would usually get you mocked as a weaver of the ridiculous--unless the person to whom you were telling said stories knew the real John Mullen, currently holding down two jobs: emergency room physician and law enforcement officer in Franklin County, Texas. Proving that fact trumps fiction, the life story of former Dallas neurosurgeon Mullen is as inspiring as it is unbelievable, a tale seemingly concocted by a publicity department.

Born in the small upstate New York mining town of Port Henry, the son of a banker father and a mother who was a telephone operator, he did his collegiate undergraduate work at the University of Vermont, earning a degree in chemistry, attended medical school at Southern Illinois' College of Medicine, and served his residency at Duke University. Along the way, he funded his education tending bar, working as a bouncer, and finally, as an assistant to a forensic pathologist.

His own medical career began in Dallas, where he would develop into a highly regarded neurosurgeon, gaining nationwide attention for a procedure designed to control epilepsy. Add that as a reserve officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army's elite First Special Operations Command, he took a break from private practice to participate in Desert Storm, there to stand ready to tend wounded U.S. soldiers, and that he is certified as a master scuba diver, and a licensed pilot, and a trophy-winning skeet shooter, and that he fights crime in a Batmobile--well, you quickly get the idea that Mullen isn't exactly a slacker.

In fact, he's equal parts Sgt. Joe Friday, Marcus Welby, and Quincy.

Well, maybe not equal parts. He leans more toward his role as policeman these days. Understandable, since all he ever wanted to be was a cop.

"I've always had a tremendous respect for people in law enforcement," Mullen says as he looks out his window, watching the rain fall into the lake that forms the far boundary of his back yard. "I guess it goes back to my high school days, when I'd be hitchhiking home from school in the winters, and officers from the New York State Police would stop and give me a ride."

Besides, police work and medicine mesh well. "In many ways," he says, "they are similar. I've always felt that the medical profession and law enforcement are both a matter of detective work. As a doctor, you're trying to solve the mystery of whatever illness or injury a patient is suffering from. In law enforcement, you're trying to figure out who committed a crime."

Which still doesn't explain fully how he came to be Dr. Cop.

"Having grown up in a doctor's home," says Franklin County Sheriff Charles (Chuck) White, whom Mullen works for when he's not practicing neurosurgery in Dallas, "I naturally questioned why someone would give up the kind of salary a neurosurgeon makes to do the kind of work I do. But, the more I've gotten to know John, the better I understand. Law enforcement is a passion for him."

Mullen, enjoying a rare evening off, is returning from Dallas after attending a book-signing party for friend and mentor Roy Hazelwood, a famed FBI profiler. Before he reaches the turnoff that will take him to his lakeside home near Mount Vernon, Mullen's attention is drawn to a car that passes him at a high rate of speed. The off-duty deputy follows the car until it enters his Franklin County jurisdiction, then pulls it over.

Not only does the young driver receive citations for speeding and driving without a license but also gets a visit to the county jail, where he is asked to explain what he was doing with 10 pounds of marijuana in his car. A computer check later reveals that he was also wanted on an aggravated assault warrant that had earlier been issued in Dallas County. And that bust, Mullen says, is almost as satisfying as the one that resulted after he'd stopped to question a hitchhiker during a routine patrol of the 11 miles of Interstate 30 that runs through Franklin County. The man, it turned out, was wanted in Oregon for seven sexual assaults. Just another day on the job for the surgeon/officer, one that shows how big-city crime often follows Mullen to his country retreat.

Despite the joy he gets from such work, it didn't seem early on that his life would cross that thin blue line into law enforcement. In truth, as a young man, Mullen considered a variety of vocations. There was, of course, the medical profession, which his parents and several teachers back at Ticonderoga (N.Y.) High encouraged him to pursue; a possible career in the military; or maybe an application to the FBI Academy. Ultimately, he would opt to become a doctor, but only after a series of unexpected events.

It was while participating in ROTC drills during his third year as an undergraduate that he suffered a knee injury so severe that it made it necessary for him to drop out of school for a year. During his academic sabbatical, he began working as an assistant chemist in the state medical examiner's office in Burlington, Virginia. In time, Mullen estimates, he assisted in at least 1,000 autopsies--and developed a fascination for the forensic science.

"After I graduated [in 1970]," he recalls, "I went to work full time in the M.E.'s office. I did that for three years before my boss finally talked me into going to medical school. He told me about a new program at Southern Illinois University where you were offered a board exam which, if passed, amounted to completion of the first couple of years of med school. The bottom line was that if you could pass the exam and were accepted, you could be in and out of medical school in only two years."

Mullen drove all night from Burlington to Springfield, Illinois, stopped for a quick shower at a truck stop, reported for the exam, and was one of four candidates selected. By 1975, he was beginning his internship at Duke University Medical Center. In 1981, Mullen made the move to Dallas.

First as an instructor at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center of Dallas Southwestern Medical School, then as co-director of Parkland Hospital's Epilepsy Center, and finally in private neurological surgery practice, he enjoyed a steadily growing reputation and all the financial trappings his profession made possible. He worked long hours to afford such lifestyle amenities as his own plane.

In time, however, came what he describes as "the burnout." "Cutting on nerve tissue is extremely stressful," he admits. "It was exacting and demanding, the kind of thing that appealed to the perfectionist in me. But, unfortunately, there was also a lot of routine work. Frankly, I became more than a little weary of treating people with back pains. Hearing the constant complaints of patients became monotonous." His bedside manner, he admits, was deteriorating swiftly.

"I'm not sure," he adds, "that I fully realized it at the time, but working around the clock, doing the same thing over and over, had begun to wear on me." In truth, he says, the fame and fortune of the medical profession had never been the driving force in his career choice. It was the challenge that motivated him. And he had begun to feel that motivation slipping away.

Even in the early days of his medical career, Mullen would enjoy the occasional brush with another world that had long fascinated him. In 1985, a man named Abdelkrim Belachheb burst into a fashionable Dallas restaurant called Ianni's and opened fire, killing six people and wounding another. When his defense attorney made it known he would suggest the tragic event had been triggered by an epileptic seizure, assistant Dallas County District Attorney Norm Kinne went looking for an expert witness. The man he found to testify why the accused killer had not suffered a seizure was Mullen. "My role was very small," he says, "but being involved in the case was fascinating." Though he does not boast of it, it was, in fact, that case that would ultimately make judicial history. Shortly after the Ianni's bloodbath, lawmakers ruled that the murder of three or more victims would qualify as a capital murder case, subject to the possibility of the death penalty.

It was in January 1991 when Mullen exchanged his scrubs for a military uniform as he and fellow reservists were mobilized to Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm. "I had a lot of downtime while I was over there," he recalls, "and did a lot of thinking about my life." There, in a foreign desert, he pondered an unsatisfactory life that had, during a 20-year career, become far too work-consumed, examined a marriage that was fast heading toward divorce, and arrived at a decision that would send him in a new direction.

"I decided that when I got home, I would enroll in the police academy and see if I could get into law enforcement," he says. His plan also included leaving the relentless pressures of the Dallas medical community behind. Several years earlier, after purchasing a "getaway" home on picturesque Lake Cypress Springs, he'd opened a second office in nearby Mount Vernon. The clinic, which soon demanded all the rest-and-relaxation time he'd planned for his trips into the Piney Woods, would, he decided, have to be closed. The lakeside home, however, would eventually serve as his year-round residence.

Lest one think his dramatic career change was impulsive, understand that Mullen has never been one to proceed through life without a plan. Because of his responsibilities to patients, he realized that completing the demanding requirements of the Northeast Texas Police Academy would likely take as long as a year. Only when that step was nearing completion did he pay a visit to the Titus County Regional Medical Center and apply for a job as an emergency room surgeon. He was hired immediately. Then he stopped in on longtime Franklin County Sheriff White and offered his services as an unpaid deputy. "When he didn't immediately show interest," Mullen says, "I told him I'd even furnish my own car."

"At first," says Sheriff White, "I was more than a little surprised to see him sitting in my office, making the proposal he was making. I can't honestly say that I immediately took him seriously. But, the more he talked, the more I realized he wanted to give it a try. I figured, why not?"

That the doctor was an honor graduate of the police academy spoke to the seriousness with which he approached his task. Texas peace officer certificate in hand, he went looking for a car. It was, in fact, Sheriff White who tipped him to the fact that an almost-new Caprice with a souped-up Corvette engine was available at a modest price. Purchased originally by the Plano Police Department, it had been in use only three days when it was rear-ended and insurance adjusters ruled it a total loss. It had been sold to a mechanic in Oklahoma who specialized in the restoration of wrecked police cars then resold them.

"The car--which all the kids around here call the Batmobile--had fewer than 700 miles on it," Mullen says, "and I bought it for $12,000." It is that same car, now with 130,000 miles on the odometer, that he continues to drive when on patrol. "The fastest I've ever had it," he admits, "is 145 during a chase."

His dual-job juggling act works like this: At the beginning of each month, his 12-hour emergency room shifts, which begin at 7 p.m. and end at 7 a.m. (or vice versa), are scheduled. Once aware of what his hospital routine will be, he then reports to the sheriff's department to schedule the 40 hours per month he averages as a deputy.

While Sheriff White has routinely offered him a salaried position on his eight-man force each time an opening has occurred, Mullen insists he is content with the current arrangement.

"We're fortunate to have someone with his expertise," the sheriff says. "For instance, having a medical doctor working a violent crime scene is a big plus in this business. John is excellent with virtually all aspects of forensics. More important, though, he is good with people. He's well-liked because he's a very compassionate person. When you're working a domestic situation or dealing with victims or the family of a victim, that's one of the most important parts of the job.

"I'd say the majority of the people he meets on the street or while on patrol have no idea he's a doctor as well as a deputy. It isn't something he flaunts. When he's on duty, he's just another law enforcement officer doing his job, whether it is working a homicide, patrolling, or helping a farmer get a stray cow back in the pasture."

Among those inspired by Mullen's career choice is Sheriff White's father, a general-practice physician in Mount Vernon. Dr. Robert White, 66, recently followed Mullen's path and now serves as a reserve deputy on his son's staff. "He'd never have considered it had it not been for what John has done," the sheriff says.

Still, to make the switch from full-time medical practice to the life he now leads, Mullen admits, demanded a major scale back. "I'm probably making about a third of what I earned in private practice in Dallas," he admits. The first thing to go was his plane.

Yet he insists he's enjoying life like never before. Even the routine work of a rural sheriff's department--stopping speeders along the interstate, calming domestic waters--hasn't dulled his enthusiasm for the job.

Dallas neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Jackson has known Mullen since the early '80s, when the two worked together. "John," he says, "has walked to a different drummer for as long as I've known him."

Still, he admits he was stunned when his friend announced his decision to leave his Dallas practice for the unique lifestyle he now leads in East Texas. "He walked away from a sizable investment of time and work--medical school, internship, building a reputation. Not many people are willing to take that kind of step. He was very skilled, and his patients loved him. But there came a point where people who came to him with imagined pains increasingly frustrated him. He had a low tolerance for that sort of thing."

"Intense," Jackson says, is a good description of the Mullen he worked alongside. "He was never one to sit around and chitchat. He didn't play golf or go to the symphony. He didn't seem to have any outside interests. He didn't laugh a lot. In fact, I always felt he was a little too serious."

Recalling Mullen's call to Desert Storm, Jackson says he occasionally sent him care packages and notes. "I recall one letter I received from him in which he expressed his frustration at being there only in the role of a doctor, with so much time on his hands. John wanted to be a soldier, to be in on the action."

Mullen, it seems, has constantly searched for new ways to be certain that neither boredom nor apathy visits. Fascinated by the forensic phase of criminal investigation since his days as a medical examiner's assistant, he began taking law enforcement courses even while still a full-time neurosurgeon. Since 1989, when he attended a seminar on Ritualistic/Cult Investigation, he has studied everything from the analysis of bloodstain patterns to forensic hypnosis, child abuse to forensic etymology.

Today, it is Mullen who is called on to investigate all major crime scenes in his jurisdiction, as well as many in neighboring counties. Within a year after earning his Texas peace officer's certification at the Northeast Texas Police Academy, he was asked to serve as one of its instructors. Among the courses he has taught are classes on sex offenders, serial killers, and a unique course in forensic nursing (in which he instructs emergency room personnel on techniques for detecting child abuse and sexual assault and the collection and preservation of evidence).

He also serves on the Texas Major Crimes Committee, which gives law enforcement officers from around the state the opportunity to take a fresh look at a case that has been worked by others. Recently, Mullen looked at a murder case in which the investigator had several suspects but nothing that would single out the actual killer. A technique that Mullen has long followed in the course of his own crime-scene investigations was to check date books and calendars found at the scene or residence of a suspect. "We were going through all the evidence that had been collected on the case," he remembers, "and among the material was a calendar belonging to one of the suspects. He was obviously a compulsive type who logged everything on his calendar, from a trip to the grocery store to movies he'd seen. The only date with no entry at all was the one on which the crime had occurred." In time, it was Mullen's observation that led to the arrest and conviction of the killer.

Former FBI Behavioral Science Unit expert Hazelwood recalls first meeting the doctor at a law enforcement seminar in New Orleans in the late '80s. "When he came up and introduced himself and told me he was a neurosurgeon, I didn't believe him. Even after he convinced me, my reaction was much the same as everyone else: Why would a person consider leaving a profession where he was earning a tremendous amount of money to get into one like ours?

"I have tremendous respect for him. As a law enforcement officer with a medical background, he brings an insight to criminal investigation that others of us simply don't have. His understanding of the human body, how it reacts to various degrees of assault and trauma is invaluable. He's a very open-minded individual, something vital to any crime investigation. Add the fact that he has a great deal of common sense, and you have all the ingredients for an outstanding law enforcement officer."

Although the police work has added new energy to his life, Mullen makes it clear that his enthusiasm level does not drop when he reports to the emergency room where, over the course of any shift, he finds himself dealing with everything from heart attacks and strokes to accident injuries and broken bones. "Life in any emergency room," he says, "seldom offers a dull moment."

Too, more than one criminal investigation has begun while he was on the clock at the hospital. There was, for instance, the out-of-towner brought into the emergency room by ambulance, complaining that he was suffering the kind of chest pains associated with a heart attack. Upon examination, the doctor judged the man to be in perfect health. In truth, his trip to the hospital was a scam the inventive "patient" was using to skip out on a sizable motel bill he had no intention of paying. "After I had thoroughly examined him," Mullen recalls, "I phoned the sheriff's department and asked them to run him on the computer. Up popped a felony warrant, so they came and got him."

On a more serious note, there was the time a distraught mother brought her child in, saying it had recently stopped breathing. The badly bruised infant, Mullen quickly surmised, had been dead for more than an hour. "It was pretty obvious that the child had been beaten to death," he says, "so I had photographs taken, and we measured the progress of lividity in order to help determine the actual time of death."

Ultimately, a murder case was made against the mother and her boyfriend.

And, of course, in the small county in which he works, there is always going to be some overlap of professions. Once, he remembers, he arrested one of his former surgical patients. "He was drunk and passed out in his car on a service road just outside town," Mullen says. "When I tried to help him out of his car, he became belligerent and wanted to fight. He didn't recognize me as his doctor until after I got him to jail and he'd sobered up a little. Once he realized who I was, he was surprised and apologetic."

Today, it is not unusual for fellow lawmen--local police, Texas Rangers, or fellow deputies--to stop by the emergency room while Mullen is on duty, hoping to find him not busy so they can discuss a particular case they're working on.

"He's one of those rare people," says Titus Regional Medical Center CEO Steve Jacobson, "who has found the best of both worlds. We're just as happy to have him working for us as the sheriff's department is. Dr. Mullen earned a great deal of respect during his career as a neurosurgeon and now has that same kind of respect as an emergency room doctor.

"I used to kid him about all of this being some kind of midlife crisis thing, but the truth is that had nothing to do with the decision he made. He's obviously had a long and burning desire to work in law enforcement and now that he's realized that dream, he takes it very seriously. Just as he does his work here at the hospital."

Only Mullen, it seems, fails to see anything unusual about his dual careers. "My whole life has been spent in some kind of public service," he says, "and I get a strong sense of reward from that. Just as I've done as a doctor, my work as a deputy sheriff has provided me an opportunity to help people. I enjoy what I do, and I'm comfortable with who I am, whether I'm in scrubs, a uniform, or jeans."

Who he is, then, is a crime-fighting doctor, a man whose Joe Friday sensibilities guide him in every aspect of his life.

One final example: When a teen-ager was brought into the emergency room, bleeding profusely and weakly explaining that he had "fallen on a knife," Mullen quickly examined the young man and detected four stab wounds to the chest and stomach. "Son," he told the patient, "nobody falls on a knife four times."

By the time the patient was wheeled from the operating room, his wounds tended, the doctor had switched hats and, as a deputy sheriff, begun his search for the assailant whose name and address he'd coaxed from the victim. Dr. Cop was on the case.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers