The call could have been a classic filmnoir moment but for the fact it was real—and that lives truly hung in the balance. Picking up the phone one night in February 1997, James Schuman, who worked at his family's Galesville, Wis., seed business, heard the unfamiliar male voice he'd been waiting for. "I understand," said the caller, "you have a job for me."
Indeed he did. Then in the midst of a bitter divorce, Schuman had confided to a former employee days earlier that he would pay well to have his wife killed. But unknown to him, the caller that night was no hit man; it was Eric Szatkowski, a special agent with Wisconsin's Department of Justice who specializes in posing as one. Though murder-for-hire cases are hardly commonplace, Szatkowski, a former TV news reporter, is among an elite corps of investigators who earn a living preventing such crimes. "This," says Szatkowski, 37, "is the most exciting, rewarding job anybody could have."
Szatkowski's assignment in the Schuman case began after the concerned ex-employee, a former motorcycle-gang member, told police what Schuman was proposing. Posing as a gun-for-hire, Szatkowski then arranged to meet Schuman in a La Crosse motel. "I was shocked that he was as clean-cut and well-to-do as he appeared to be," says Szatkowski, who noticed that Schuman had difficulty using the word kill. "He would talk about the corpse and say he wanted her 'gone,' " he recalls. Schuman offered $10,000 for killing his wife and another $20,000 for murdering her father and boyfriend. It was arranged that Szatkowski would pick up a down payment on the contract in a frozen field near Schuman's hometown of Galesville.
Wearing a bulletproof vest, Szatkowski—with another agent hiding in his car—drove to the spot only to find the money wasn't there. When Szatkowski telephoned, Schuman explained that he had been trying to reach the agent to warn him not to harm the wife's boyfriend's young daughter, who might be home when the murder happened. "I told him not to worry because I didn't do kids," recalls Szatkowski, who notes that no matter how his would-be clients might hate their spouses, they are solicitous of children. "The scheduling always has to be done when the children are away," he says. Of course if his "clients" were truly concerned about kids, he believes, they wouldn't go the hit-man route in the first place. "Murder for hire just rips a family apart," he says.
Szatkowski and his partner returned to the field at 1 a.m. to find a $1,500 deposit in a paper bag in the snow. That was enough to prove intent, and the next morning police arrested Schuman, who was sentenced in July 1997 to 35 years in prison for attempted murder and solicitation of murder. "A lot of people going through a bitter divorce may wish their partner was dead," says Szatkowski, who has done undercover work since 1991. "Schuman wanted to go to the next level."
Whatever might drive a spouse to such extremes, Szatkowski's objective is always to prove that suspects are serious in their intentions. "I'm not trying to entrap somebody," he says. "My job is to determine...do they really intend to hire me to kill someone, or are they just fantasizing about it?"
Mary DeAngelis, for one, was serious. The 42-year-old mother had told two handymen working at her Glendale, Wis., house that she wanted to get rid of her husband. The handymen's tip to police led to a meeting with Szatkowski, during which she gave him $50, photos of her husband and a suggestion to kill him in his barbershop, making it look like a robbery. "She told me she was strapped for cash, but once he was dead, she would sell the house and give me 10 percent of the sale," he recalls. She never got the chance. Arrested two days later, she pleaded no contest to solicitation to commit second-degree murder and received a four-year sentence, thanks in large part to Szatkowski. "What makes Eric good undercover is that he's hard-working," says Robbie Lowery, who supervises him as director of the Special Assignments Bureau at the Department of Justice. "He thinks on his feet."
That was just as true when he was growing up in a predominantly Polish neighborhood on Milwaukee's south side, the youngest of the three children of Polish-born Waclaw Szatkowski, a carpenter, and his French-born wife, Lucy, a homemaker. After studying communications at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee—where he met his wife, Joyce, whom he married on Christmas Day in 1983—he found work in local TV news, first in Oklahoma City and then in Madison, Wis., where he was an on-air reporter assigned to the crime and courts beat.
While reporting on a series of arson fires, he noticed a man who always seemed to be a spectator at the blazes. His tip led to the man's conviction on multiple arson counts. He began thinking seriously about trying police work. "I thought, 'Hey, instead of reporting about these cases, maybe I could try and solve some of them,' " he says. "Investigative work just got into my blood."
At the same time, he was growing anxious about the instability of TV-news careers. Since he and Joyce were considering children, he decided to look for something more reliable. "Joyce is fantastic," he says of his wife, now a homemaker caring for Marie, 9, and Joseph, 7. "I could have said, 'I want to pick up garbage,' and she would be with me."
As it happened, he wanted to be a cop. He began working in 1990 as a fraud investigator for Wisconsin's Department of Transportation. A year later, after 16 weeks of police training, he became a narcotics agent for the Department of Justice. (Curiously, he worked his first cases in Madison, where he had been a familiar face on TV. It proved no handicap. "I guess drug dealers just don't watch the news," he notes wryly.) By 1994 he was investigating homicides for the Division of Criminal Investigation and had proven so adept that he was assigned murder-for-hire cases. "When you work in a job like this," he says, "you realize that people are capable of doing anything."
In dealing with such people, Szatkowski goes to considerable effort to achieve the desperado look, going unshaven and unwashed and wearing cowboy boots and a leather jacket. "Appearance does matter," he says. But not as much as attitude. "You have to pretend in your mind that you are actually going to go through with the hit," he says. "If you convey that attitude to the person you are investigating, then they are more comfortable with you."
Yet in some cases, Szatkowski doesn't even meet the suspect. Timothy Schuette, owner of a Manitowoc trucking business, asked an employee to help him find a hit man to kill his wife. Since Schuette was cagey about sharing the plan with someone he didn't know, Szatkowski—with recorders placed in the apartment—hid in the adjoining bedroom while the employee himself met with Schuette, who was arrested when he spotted Szatkowski and tried to flee. (He got 12 years for conspiracy to commit murder.)
For someone who encounters so many nightmarish marriages in his work, Szatkowski is a committed husband and father. Though he sometimes spends days on the road, he delights in the time he can manage at the family's suburban home, where the children look after a hamster, a parakeet and a large collection of Beanie Babies. Joyce takes the dangers of her husband's work in stride. "He's a perfectionist," she says. "It keeps him safe."
And it has made him a hero to the people who appreciate him most—would-be-victims. "It's a godsend," says Susan Toussaint, ex-wife of James Schuman. "If Eric hadn't been able to convince him, I probably wouldn't be here today." Results like that, says Szatkowski, make his work worthwhile. "No amount of money in the world," he observes, "can give you that feeling that you really helped someone."
Lisa K. Greissinger in Wisconsin
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