Lombard resident Mark Rusin acknowledges that there's a lot of himself in Marco Novak, the protagonist in his new crime novel "Justice for Dallas."
Rusin was a rookie agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when he was assigned to a case in northern California of the quadruple homicide of a former motorcycle gang member and his family. The 5-year-old daughter, Dallas, had had her throat slit. Like Novak, Rusin slid the crime scene photo of the slain little girl in his pocket.
"That photograph had so much emotion involved in it for me to look at. It's really what compelled me to want to find her killer," Rusin said. "Everything that happened in this book happened to me."
The search for Dallas' killer takes the fictional Novak on a wild ride that pits him against the outlaw Iron Cobras biker gang, their ruthless and unstable leader Butch Crowley, and Butch's girlfriend, Angel, who flees her boyfriend's clutches but fears for her life too much to talk.
Chance, circumstance, modern-day investigative tools, and dogged police work finally enable Novak to bring the killer to justice.
"From an investigative standpoint, it was a very difficult case because of the code of silence (and intimidation of witnesses) among bikers," Rusin recalls.
In the book, Novak is a dedicated crime fighter, but no Mr. Straight Arrow. He finds relief from the stresses of his career in a party-boy lifestyle of drinking, gambling and womanizing. Rusin freely admits that he did, too -- at least until he found the woman of his dreams.
"Not any more," he says. "Now, I'm in bed by 9 o'clock."
Rusin married the love of his life, his wife, Marcie. Novak's dream woman, Marnie, leaves him with a "Dear John" letter at the end of the book. The ending leaves open the question of whether Novak will simply return to partying or win over Marnie at a later date, possibly setting up a sequel.
Sports nut to cop
Rusin's own 28-year law enforcement career took him to the higher echelons of the ATF. Like his protagonist, Rusin grew up on the South Side of Chicago watching cop shows on TV -- "Dragnet," "Hawaii 5-O," "The Untouchables" -- he loved them all. He put aside his first love, hockey, when he figured out his skating wasn't good enough to let him fulfill his dream of playing with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Pursuing dream No. 2, Rusin graduated with a degree in law enforcement administration from Western Illinois University. He was sworn in as a Las Vegas Metropolitan police officer in 1980.
Rusin still remembers his four years with the Las Vegas police as the best job he ever had.
"My beat was The Strip. The Strip is 24 hours, so there's always something going on," he said. "You get to handle some crazy, wild, funny, emotional things."
A rookie officer when the MGM Grand Hotel fire occurred in November 1980, Rusin was assigned to pull dead bodies from the hotel. That fire inspired his first published work when the Las Vegas Review Journal printed his remembrances of the fire on the 25th anniversary in 2005.
Rusin, who began writing at an early age, found it served as therapy to help him process the tragic events he experienced as a law enforcement officer.
"I was able to feel better when I could put it down in writing," he says.
Rusin left Vegas to join the ATF, just as fictional protagonist Novak did. He enjoyed his years as a field agent; then promotions took him into more administrative positions. He monitored major arson fires and bombings across the U.S., addressed gang activity in Manhattan and supervised a law enforcement group responsible for a big cocaine bust in Philadelphia. Gratifying as the promotions were, they took him further from the action on the streets.
"I didn't like the bureaucratic end of it," he says.
However, Rusin did enjoy the four years he spent as the ATF's representative to the White House during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
"I think they were both great guys," he says. "It was a good four years."
Rusin ended his career in Tucson, Ariz., as the western regional coordinator for the ATF's ballistic imaging program, which uses technology to match cartridges and bullets with weapons from which they were fired. In his novel, the gun used at the murder scene is positively identified that way.
Retired ATF agent David Krieghbaum, who served as Midwest regional coordinator for the ballistic imaging program, said he wasn't at all surprised to learn his former colleague had turned his experiences into a novel.
"Mark is a very colorful person," Krieghbaum said. "It's (the book) true to life."
Chuck Sarabyn, another retired ATF agent who worked with Rusin in Washington, D.C., agreed that Rusin captured the highs and lows of being a federal agent.
"A lot of times when you are in law enforcement, it becomes personal," Sarabyn said. "He really did a good job of putting the feelings of the agent into the book."
The best part of being in law enforcement is being able to help people, Rusin says.
"When I say 'help people' that also means helping them to find closure to the criminal act that was committed against them," he says.
Retired in 2007, Rusin and his wife moved to Lombard this past January to be with his ailing mother, who died in August. He now works security at Lexington Square of Lombard where his mother lived, still dreams of playing for the Chicago Blackhawks and continues writing.
He's working on a nonfiction book titled "Metro" that he says will contain vignettes of his wildest, funniest and most memorable experiences as a cop in Las Vegas.
Rusin doesn't rule out a sequel to "Justice for Dallas," a book he worked on six years with the help of professional writer Priscilla Barton, with whom he shares author credits. Self-published in October, the book has won praise for its fast-paced action and authenticity.
The reviews are a good sign that he got the story right, Rusin says. He's been in contact with some people about turning it into a screenplay.
"I believe this eventually will be a movie," he says.
"Justice for Dallas" is available in print and Kindle versions at amazon.com.