09/06/1999 at 01:00 AM EDT
Driving home in the early morning, still wearing his surgical scrubs after a 12 hour shift in the ER, Dr. John Mullen is alone with his thoughts. That stops the moment a two-way radio on his dashboard barks out a message: There has been a hit-and-run accident a couple of miles away, and the suspect is driving a Camaro. Mullen spots the car and follows; when the suspect pulls into his driveway and steps out, the doc—with a badge in one hand and pistol on his hip—immediately places him under arrest.
What sounds like a FOX TV executive's Holy Grail fantasy—an ER doc who is also a gun-totin' small-town lawman—is in fact the chosen lifestyle of Dr. Mullen, 52, who is both a physician at the Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant, Texas, and a local deputy sheriff. Exotic as his career combination might seem, it's even more noteworthy when one considers what Mullen gave up for it. Before moving to the piney woods of East Texas, he had been a nationally renowned neurosurgeon in Dallas, earning about three times his current salary. "He's one of those rare people who has found the best of both worlds," says Steve Jacobson, 48, CEO at Titus Regional. "I used to kid him some about the midlife crisis thing, but I've come to understand that he's had a long and burning desire to be in law enforcement."
Indeed, Mullen has been on something of a dual career path since his college days. After graduating from the University of Vermont at Burlington with a B.S. in chemistry in 1970, the Port Henry, N.Y., native went to work for the state medical examiner, assisting in more than one thousand autopsies. Three years later his boss urged him to try medical school. Mullen attended Southern Illinois and went on to do his internship and residency at Duke before beginning his high-powered neurosurgery career in Dallas. By the late '80s, Mullen had a sterling reputation, the financial trappings his profession made possible—and a lot of angst. "All I did was work and think about work," he recalls. In January 1991 the surgeon, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, was called up for Operation Desert Storm. In the Saudi Arabian desert, he did a lot of thinking about his career, his third failing marriage—and resolved to shake up his life.
Within six months he had. By then the doctor—who had begun taking forensics courses while still a full-time neurosurgeon—had completed the Northeast Texas Police Academy's yearlong course with honors. He had also lined up the ER job at Titus County to pay the bills, purchased a home on picturesque Lake Cypress Springs—and, most importantly, persuaded Franklin County Sheriff Charles J. White to use him as an unpaid deputy. "I can't say I immediately took him seriously," says White, 42. "But we're very fortunate to have someone with his expertise. Having a medical doctor working a violent crime scene is a big plus in this business."
During his eight years on the job, Mullen has made a mark. Now an instructor at the police academy, he has become the go-to guy to investigate all major crime scenes in his jurisdiction. (Although the sheriff's office has offered to put him on salary, he says he's happy with the current arrangement; it has allowed the department to hire an additional deputy.) Some criminal investigations have begun while Mullen was on the job in the ER. Once, a mother brought in a child she claimed had recently stopped breathing. Mullen quickly realized the boy had been beaten to death. His careful documentation of the injuries helped make the murder case against the mother and her boyfriend. And it's not unusual for fellow lawmen to drop by while Mullen is in the ER, hoping to discuss a particular case of theirs.
These days the doctor has an eager sounding board himself—fourth wife Martha, 42, whom he married in January 1998. They struck up a conversation one night at Titus Regional after Mullen spotted the divorcée, who was then working as an oncology nurse, reading former FBI agent John Douglas's book Mind-hunter. Now retired from nursing, Martha is taking correspondence courses in forensics—and looking forward to one day working with Mullen at crime scenes as a husband-and-wife consulting team. Imagine the TV possibilities: Cops meets ER meets Hart to Hart meets Quincy, M.E. Could be an even bigger ratings grabber than Deputy Doc.
Carlton Stowers in Mount Pleasant