Utah police pioneer Charles Illsley dies, but his stories and contributions live on

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9 2014 5:55 p.m. MST

Charles Illsley demonstrates how the new laser technology is used to find victims of Charles Manson.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News Archives

SALT LAKE CITY — When Craig Black saw Charles Illsley, he didn't believe there was any way he was looking at an actual police officer.

"The first time I ever saw Charles, I was a brand new detective in West Valley," said Black, currently the chief of the North Salt Lake Police Department. "And I came walking into our report-writing room one night, probably about 11 or 12 at night, and here is this long-haired guy with an earring and a beard sitting at the typewriter. And I remember thinking, 'Whose prisoner is sitting in there typing up a statement without a cop watching him?'"

The stories of Illsley in law enforcement circles are legendary. From using the latest in laser technology at the ranch formerly occupied by Charles Manson, to arresting a drug dealer after convincing him to set up a meth lab inside the Salt Lake City Police Department, anyone who knew Illsley has a story of him to share.

Illsley, 60, who suffered significant health problems in recent years, died Sunday from a heart attack.

"Charles was probably one of the most talented law enforcement officers I have ever known in the area of undercover investigations, regular investigations, and certainly excelled even further in his level of expertise in forensics as it dealt with fingerprints," said Layton Police Chief Terry Keefe, who worked with Illsley in West Valley during their days of undercover narcotics investigations.

"Just truly a phenomenal individual."

Illsley could be grouchy and gruff. Keefe recalled at times he was "difficult to supervise. He was somewhat of a free spirit." When Illsley worked undercover, he looked more like a hippie fresh from the Woodstock Festival or a Sturgis motorcycle rally than a police officer.

But Illsley will also be remembered as one of the hardest working men the state has ever seen, both while in law enforcement and after he retired until the day he died.

"He was probably one of the smartest people I ever worked with in law enforcement," said Dwayne Baird with the Utah Department of Public Safety.

He was a pioneer in the fields of undercover work, busting methamphetamine labs and police forensics.

But Illsley was more than just a proficient officer. He was a unique character. He loved working and loved talking about forensics. And was always quick with a one-liner.

Illsley worked in law enforcement for more than 25 years, 22 of them in West Valley City. He began his law enforcement career in 1976 with South Salt Lake police. In 1981, he joined West Valley when the department was just getting off the ground. Soon, he found himself wearing long hair and a beard rather than a uniform while working "deep undercover" operations.

"There hasn't been that kind of deep undercover work to the level Charles was involved with since those days," remembered Black.

"His ability to gain the trust of the criminal element was unsurpassed," Keefe said.

That ability to gain the trust of criminals made Illsley very succesful at catching drug suspects. He also worked with metro narcotics and with the Drug Enforcement Administration during his career.

Illsley's most famous bust may have come in May of 1990. Keefe said Illsley met a man who had come from a prestigious pharmacy school back East. He convinced the man to set up a meth lab for him. But to do it, he had to drive him to a "secret location."

"We were able to talk this meth cook into getting into the trunk of a car. Charles got in with him, and I drove us over to this 'secure facility,' is what we told (the suspect)," Keefe recalled.

That location was the headquarters of the Salt Lake City Police Department.

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