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After 31 years of 'hairy situations,' Donald retires

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The undercover narcotics agent, with hair down to his shoulders and a full, scruffy beard, was trying to buy 1,000 hits of LSD.

It wasn't going very well.

For one thing, the wire he was wearing wasn't working.

Two, his back-up, the take-down team that was supposed to rush in on his signal and arrest everyone and make sure he got out safely, had somehow gotten lost, leaving him alone.

Three, the woman selling the drugs was particularly paranoid, and was quizzing him about his made-up phone number and his made-up father's name.

"So, I knew this was a hairy situation," says Vance Donald, recounting a decades-old operation as he prepares for his pending retirement. "I knew this buy wasn't working, so I pulled my gun and said, 'Police, everybody down.'"

Donald, commander of the Clayton County Police Department's Drug Task force, joined the police force 31 years ago, on April 18, 1977. He spent most of that time in narcotics, he said, first going undercover in the early 1980s.

Recalling some of the situations and some of the operations, sitting in his office on Thursday, Donald had to shake his head and laugh a little.

"We were stupid back then," he says. "My first undercover deal, I was buying Quaaludes, if you remember those. I had one guy backing me up and he was three blocks away. That was it. A lot of times we wouldn't even wear a wire, back then. It was like, 'Throw a chair out the window and we'll come in 10 minutes' .... Now we put safety first."

Donald didn't always know he wanted to be a police officer, though. He joined the United States Navy with his brother in the mid-70s and spent the end of the Vietnam war on an aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk. When he got out of the Navy, he was 22 and didn't know what he wanted to do.

He picked up part-time life guard work, did a little construction and worked on a truck line, before his father convinced him to become a police officer.

He doesn't remember, any more, exactly what his father said to convince him to try and join the police department, but part of it might have had something to do family tradition.

Donald's father, M.H. Donald, Jr., was a Clayton County Police Department officer from 1963 to 1965, until the financial pressure of a growing family forced him into a better-paying job in construction. Donald remembers being a child and seeing his father in a uniform covered by swamp mud.

"I remember him talking about chasing bad guys in the woods," Donald says.

The elder Donald was following the tradition of his own father, M.H. Donald, Sr., who served with the county police department until he died, in 1961, of brain cancer. At the time, he was an assistant chief.

Vance Donald has his grandfather's gun, badge and handcuffs in a shadowbox above his desk, with a black-and-white photo of his grandfather standing next to an old-fashioned police car.

The gun, a .38 Special revolver, was used by Donald's grandfather and passed to his father. When Donald joined the department, back in 1977, back when officers bought their own guns, he carried the same .38.

"Yeah," he says. "I was carrying that third-generation gun with the bone handle and that John Wayne look."

The tradition of Donald men fighting crime in Clayton County is nearing a close, though. Donald is using up his stockpiled sick days and he and his wife are preparing to move to Florida, where his brother lives.

Today, Donald is thinking back, taking stock, and considering his many years spent cleaning up Clayton County. After 31 years in the department -- and most of those fighting the county's war on drugs -- he's dealt with pretty much everything, he says.

He's stopped and seized more large loads of illegal narcotics than he can remember, gone undercover more times than he can count and lived through more than a normal share of "hairy situations."

He's served five police chiefs, helped train generations of new agents, and watched the drug task force become better trained, better equipped and better educated.

"But it's still the same," Donald says. "They got to have that drive, that enthusiasm. We work days, nights, lots of hours... Not all officers can do undercover. Some are just not cut out for it, but I really enjoyed the danger of it, making people think you're one of them. You just have to act normal. If you're nervous and paranoid, then they'll know something. It's not for everybody."

He's arrested people he knew in high school, seen several narcotics agents get caught stealing and dealing drugs, and seen the world of drug-dealing develop into the 21st Century.

He says being a narcotics officer isn't like it looks in the movies, but the way Donald says it, he gives the impression that it's better.

"I've enjoyed every minute of it," he says. "I'll miss all the people and I'll miss the job, but it becomes your time to move on."