If you have the misfortune to come down with cancer, really serious cancer, try to handle it the way Tom Basinski does.
In an even voice devoid of drama, he says, “I try and find jokes wherever I can about my condition. I never bring it up to people, but I will answer anything that anybody ever wants to know about my illness.”
That attitude could be called a stiff upper lip, but the description doesn’t completely fit because Tom’s is too often curled in a smile.
Tom went from studying matters celestial for the Catholic priesthood in his youth to a career studying Shakespeare’s mortal coil as a cop. During those latter years, he gathered opinions about people as he would gather evidence as a Chula Vista police officer and later as a district attorney’s investigator. Just the facts, ma’am.
Now 68 and retired, he’s working to recover from his cancer in the Chula Vista home where he and wife, Judy, raised two sons. He has plenty of time to write and consider this cryptogram called life.
And with a cop’s candor, he strips away all the soft padding shielding his opinions. He puts it out there, unvarnished.
After spending five years in a Michigan seminary, young Tom dropped out and chose police work. “It wasn’t because of some woman in fishnet stockings and high heels lurking in the shadows of the seminary. If there was one, I probably would have left earlier. I just decided it wasn’t the life for me.”
He remains a Catholic, but as a cop, is still appalled by the pedophilia scandal that scandalized the priesthood.
“I am mortified by what the church did by transferring these (accused priests) around instead of letting the hammer fall on them. In fact, in Chula Vista several years ago, there was a priest who was accused of molesting a young girl. And once it came to light that the police were investigating, the church allowed him to leave the country, and nothing ever happened.”
Do you think celibacy had anything to do with that?
“I do think celibacy should be done away with, because … they get a lot of selfish bachelors, alcoholics and homosexuals.”
Are you suggesting a tie-in between homosexuality and pedophilia?
“No, not at all. I don’t believe that.”
After 17 years with the Chula Vista department, he left in 1987 as a sergeant to take a job as investigator with the county District Attorney’s Office. There he served until his retirement in 2005, also after 17 years. He had a chance to observe up-close three district attorneys, and Tom, staying in character, did not depart and leave his opinions in a desk drawer.
He still has a soft spot for the one who hired him, the late Edward Miller, who was district attorney for about 100 years (actually 24, until he lost in 1994).
“Mr. Miller’s marching order to everyone was, ‘Do the right thing. Do the right thing no matter what.’ In the Dale Akiki case, (child molestation, 1993) Mr. Miller listened to some people and followed their advice when he shouldn’t have. I mean, the investigators would sit around and talk about what a horrible case that was.
“The case was lost, and the fact that it was filed cost him his job. I felt very bad for Mr. Miller, because he was a good and moral man.”
District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who defeated Miller, was not one of Tom’s favorites. “Probably one of the most brilliant attorneys I have ever been around, but he had his shortcomings. Because of his arrogance, he alienated a lot of people. He ran the office based on fear. In later years, I made peace with him, which I’m glad I did.”
He is fond of incumbent Bonnie Dumanis, with reservations. “Bonnie came in with real good intentions, and she has a very good public presence. I think she’s a wonderful person, but she can be vindictive (toward staff) and runs the shop with an iron fist.”
Tom was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2009 and has gone through the whole regimen of radiation and chemo, and now has a colostomy. He says the cancer recently migrated to his lungs.
“People say I’m an inspiration, but I’m not. People say I have such a positive attitude. Maybe to them I do, but I’m fairly angry with this whole thing. I did everything I was supposed to, ate right. I’m not real pleased with this, but nobody wants to hear that. Nobody wants to hear a bunch of complaining.”
Tom occupies himself by writing a twice-monthly column in the Chula Vista Star-News. He has written two crime mysteries and two true-crime books, all available on Amazon.
In his 34 years as officer and investigator, he looked into a smorgasbord of crimes, including homicide and sex offenses, many of which are a cocktail of stupidity and malevolence.
He was called to investigate a rape at Donovan prison in which a nurse was attacked by an inmate. The man beat her badly, and in the course of the struggle, knocked over a phone that activated an alarm and brought guards running.
Tom interviewed the man. “This guy is a hardened con. He’s doing 15 to life for murder. I sit down and establish rapport with him, and he looks at me, and figures I’m a dumb s---, and figures he can tell me whatever he wants and I’ll believe it.
“He’s telling me that this was consensual, that this nurse liked him and wanted to have sex with him. I say, ‘OK, that could very well be, you’re a pretty charming guy.’ I say, ‘Let’s not even talk about the ripped clothes. How about the fact she was bleeding from the nose.’ He says, ‘You know, sometimes when womans get aroused, they do bleed from their nose.’ I’m thinking, ‘This is great, the jury is going to love hearing this.’ ”
Explaining the art of interrogation, Tom says, “A lie from a suspect is just as good as the truth, because when they tell you a lie, you just let them spin the story. You put a mental check mark by the lie, and when they’re all done, you say, ‘OK, let’s go over your statement again. Now what about this … ?’ Then, of course, he’s got to tell another lie to cover that lie. They just keep telling lies to cover the previous lies.”
How about child abuse? What did you learn about those who abuse children?
“Well, to tell you the truth, not much. I just investigated the case. I never figured out why, because sometimes they (perpetrators) have two or three kids, and only one of them would get abused, and I don’t really know why.”
Sometimes solving a crime is a long relay race, the baton passed from one cop to another. Tom says, “When I was working homicide, sometimes the dilemma you’re faced with is you have no idea who did the murder. You got a body there, but you have no idea who did it, and you never do get an idea who did it. Or you think you know who did it, but you can’t prove it.
“You do the best investigation you can, then hopefully when you retire, some detective in cold cases will go over your report and say, ‘This guy did a good job. He was looking at this suspect, but couldn’t prove it. I’ll see what I can do.’”
People love cop humor. What’s your favorite?
“Things that people do to get themselves in horrible fixes, that are not life-threatening. You look at somebody who did something stupid and ended up getting a little messed up, that makes for great conversation around the coffee pot the next morning.
“Cop humor is very dark, and doctors, nurses, firemen and newspaper people all have it. Part of that is, we laugh because we can’t afford to cry.
“When I worked at Chula Vista P.D., we had a narcotics informant who had some guys who wanted to sell some marijuana. Of course these guys with the marijuana were stupid because you only sell to people you know.
“The undercover cop had the informant bring the crooks to the (unmarked) back door of the police station and into the station library. They didn’t know where they were. The undercover guy was fixed up like a janitor with a broom and a red rag out of his back pocket.
“Of course, all the other cops were told to stay away. They thought it was hilarious.
“The informant brought two crooks in, and the cop comes down the hall with his broom. They make the sale to him. Then six uniforms come walking in and make the arrest. To me, that was one of the funniest.”
Should marijuana be legalized?
For recreational use, too?
“Yeah. I worked undercover in narcotics. I know there are some cops that can’t sleep at night if there is one marijuana cigarette out there. I never cared. I did my job. I mean, I bought the dope, looked dumb, acted stupid and played an undercover role. I just never got that fired up about it.
“I enjoyed working prostitutes because I just like play-acting. I enjoy being somebody I am not. I really liked working prostitutes.
“The crime of prostitution is a crime of words, I mean as far as arresting goes. It’s money for sex, and the (undercover) cop cannot bring it up. It’s got to be the girl who names the act and the price. I was always very, very careful about never doing entrapment.
“I’ve had prostitutes walk away from me because I wouldn’t say the magic words. But by looking dumb and acting stupid, others might think, ‘Well, this guy is stupid. He doesn’t look like a cop.’ Then they would say the words.”
Do you remember one particular prostitute?
“Actually there were a couple I arrested twice. I used disguises, and that was even more fun. I used a fake hearing aid, and a speech impediment. I used lots of disguises. I might have on a shirt and tie with a fake real estate magnetic thing on the door of the car.
“Once they said the magic words, then I would do away with my speech impediment and disguise and say, ‘All right, Roxanne, you’re under arrest.’
“Actually, the girls liked me. I was always pretty nice, even when I was arresting them. I didn’t make fun of them or anything like that.”
Tom never loses perspective and certainly never his sense of humor. But it’s always there, the cancer.
“Because of the breathing problems, I’m getting quite concerned. I don’t know if I’m going to drown or suffocate. I mean, within the past few weeks my breathing has been an issue. It’s not been an issue before. I’ve been coughing more. I’m really having a problem.”
He also says to save your euphemisms for someone else. “If anyone would ever say of me, ‘He succumbed after a long, courageous battle with cancer,’ I’m going to come back and haunt them. It’s been long, but it’s not been courageous. It’s been an annoyance.”
When his time comes, Tom will ignore poet Dylan Thomas and won’t “rage against the dying of the light.” He’ll brace himself and deal with it.
But his battle (Oops! Sorry, Tom) is not over. We can hope the medical profession serves Tom Basinski as well as he served us.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]