Utah police pioneer Charles Illsley dies, but his stories and contributions live on
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.
"Once the lab was set up and we were ready to introduce the chemicals, we had enough to charge him. I think that's probably the first and only time a meth cook agreed to teach two undercover cops how to make meth in a police department facility."
In another case, a man broke into a house to steal items, but called Illsley before he left to see if he wanted anything. Illsley delayed the man long enough for police to arrive and arrest him while he was still on the phone.
In one sting operation, Illsey set up a fake store to buy stolen merchandise. A single car thief brought 132 stolen vehicles to Illsley, while other suspects brought him a total of 115 pipe bombs, 511 sticks of dynamite, two machine guns taken from inside a Rolls Royce, checks and IDs from 44 different accounts, a home burglar alarm system stolen right out of a home, a car full of stolen meat and a fake eyeball.
All of those cases resulted in arrests.
After his days of undercover work were done, Illsley got an entirely different position and became the face of the West Valley Police Department by being appointed its spokesman.
But Illsley also continued to work with forensic science.
"He was amazingly dedicated to the value of forensic science in police work," Black said.
Illsley didn't just study fingerprints, he helped with advances in looking at collecting palm prints, shoe prints and even fabric prints.
"He was ahead of his time in a lot of that stuff," Black said. "Then it evolved into the more high tech forensic things, mainly forensic light, laser light."
The small department became known as being on the cutting edge of forensics. Illsley was invited at one point to the set of the CBS show "CSI" to be a consultant.
In 2001, Illsley took his laser technology to Uintah County where Roosevelt Police Chief Cecil Gurr was killed in a gun battle. Ken Wallentine, who was the county attorney's chief deputy at the time and a close friend of Gurr, remembered Illsley worked tirelessly, with little pay, to help put together the case for prosecutors.
"It was like one call solves all. Charles came out and spent days and days and days and gave me an education on how to teach a jury about ballistics," Wallentine said.
Illsley's laser reconstruction of the gun battle helped determine bullet trajectories and located spent rounds. Without Illsley's contributions, Wallentine said he wouldn't have had as strong of a case to present to the jury.
"Charles Illsley gave me the tools to inject humanity into otherwise cold hard facts of a situation. I don't know how you can thank anyone for that," he said. "Charles Illsey was the guy who made sure I didn't stumble and fall."
But Illsley, while hard-working and dedicated, also went about his business as only Illsey could. Wallentine remembers the day he was to meet with him and other detectives to prepare for trial.
"They'd gone to Wal-Mart the night before and had all bought matching Hawaiian shirts to show up to this dignified trial preparation meeting," he said.
Those shirts soon became a trademark tradition.
In 2008, Illsley was sent as a consultant with a team from the Utah Attorney General's Office to the Barker Ranch in Death Valley, Calif., to use their expertise in forensic technology to help search for human remains — possible additional victims of Charles Manson.
"Same deal, everybody had to have Hawaiian shirts," Wallentine recalled.
During his career, Illsley worked on other high-profile cases including murderers Richard Allen Davis, Elroy Tillman and Ralph Menzies. His work helped catch criminals profiled on "America's Most Wanted" and some who were on the FBI's most wanted list.
Black remembered Illsley obsessed over trying to help in the case of murdered gas station clerk Bradley Newell Perry in Box Elder County — a case that went unsolved for 21 years.
"Charles was just so focused on that," Black recalled. "He was just obsessed with bringing justice to that situation and bringing closure to that family. Studying old pictures and taking measurements and getting old pictures blown up where he was pulling out these real precise rulers and taking measurements.
"Once he got hold of a case, the guy who did it had no chance," Black said. "If you opened the door an inch for Charles, he was going to get in that door."
"He could sit down and type out, without any aides, a search warrant faster than anybody I've ever worked with, without errors. It was just phenomenal to watch him work," added Keefe.
"Charles was kind of gruff, but once you became his friend, there was just no one in the entire world that was more dedicated to making sure you did a good job. That you got the credit and he was in the background," recalled Wallentine. "He did the right thing, and he didn't ever need to be the guy getting the award. He didn't need to be the top guy in the credits."
At speaking engagements and other presentations, Keefe said Illsley always spoke with eloquence and was never caught off guard by any question.
What surprised many about Illsley, a man who busted drug dealers for a living, was that he was also once a member of the BYU Folk Dancers and specialized in Native American hoop dancing.
"It was just amazing to watch this guy and his level of proficiency in performing and representing Native American dance that he picked up on his own," Keefe said.
During his final years, Illsley would go to convenience stores at night and just sit and write. Wallentine believes there are about a dozen books Illsley has written sitting around his house unpublished.
He suffered many health problems in recent years. Many believe his years of being a pioneer in the world of busting meth labs — going into a home with an active cooking operation in progress wearing no protection — took its toll.
"He didn't get shot down and we're not going to give him a 21-gun salute. But in a very real sense he paid with his life for protecting the public. It took longer than a bullet to stop and it took something much more powerful than a bullet," Wallentine said.
Illsley is survived by his wife and son and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
A celebration of his life will be held at the LDS Stake Center, 13085 S. 300 East, on Sunday from 6 to 8 pm. Funeral services will be held Monday at noon.
"The world is a sadder place that he is no longer here," Keefe said.
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