Mariano Albano entered this life 44 years ago on a pool table in downtown Phoenix, a few yards from where America West Arena now stands. Two decades or so after that auspicious debut, Albano joined the Phoenix Police Department as a skinny rookie patrol officer.
Last week, the incurable iconoclast--who always was more comfortable on a soccer field than within the semimilitary confines of a cop shop--retired from the force. His legacy is a fine one; many won't soon forget his empathy toward crime victims and his uncanny ability to wrest confessions from wrongdoers.
"Al was unconventional, but he got exceptional results," says Lou Marotta, a veteran Phoenix sex-crimes detective who was Albano's partner for several years in the 1980s. "He was a thorn in the side of some of our more paramilitary, my-way-or-the-highway types, but he was a winner where it counted--with victims, getting confessions, with doing his job right. He always had a way of getting right to the nitty-gritty."
That Albano completed a successful career as a police officer is a source of amazement to some who knew him when--and to himself.
"To make it in life where I came from was not to get killed or spend too much time in prison," he says dryly.
Where Albano came from was the poor, now-demolished Golden Gate neighborhood, located between 16th and 24th streets north of the I-10 freeway.
His parents, now deceased, came from different worlds: Mariano Albano Sr. was a Filipino who came to this country in 1921 as a teenager; Albano's mother, Ruby, was raised in the northern Arizona town of St. Johns.
In the 1950s, the couple owned the Luzon Pool Hall at 101 South First Street in Phoenix, at the Madison Avenue intersection. Mariano Albano says the hall was a front for a popular, well-concealed gambling room to its rear.
Albano learned as a young man that he had been born at the pool hall on December 19, 1951.
"My folks told me just before my wife at the time had our first child," Albano recalls. "They were laughing. Dad had been in a game, and he didn't want to leave. Mom was with him, and she told him that now was the time. It apparently happened pretty fast."
Albano grew up fast on the streets of the Golden Gate. As a diminutive 10-year-old, he was nabbed for stealing a pint of ice cream from a local store. His older half brother gave him a memorable whipping after learning about it.
"For some reason, a lot of people saw me as the one who was gonna make good," Albano says. "They kept pushing me not to screw up, to be somebody. I'm not sure to this day what they saw in me."
Albano would be what's gently called a late bloomer. He only occasionally attended the old Phoenix Union High School, choosing more often to shoot pool at Jake's, a ratty establishment in downtown Phoenix.
With his winnings, he says, Albano bought his first car--a 1965 Mustang fastback. Some experiences with police officers during his teenage years infuriated and radicalized him.
"I could not drive north of McDowell without getting stopped by the cops," he says. "I had to be up to no good. After all, I was an Hispanic. That led me into Chicanos por la Causa and to protest the crap that was being directed toward minorities. Then, eventually, I tried to figure out what to do with my own life."
But that wouldn't be for a while. Albano dropped out of school, got married at 18 and worked a series of menial jobs--as he continued to hustle pool games around Phoenix.
When he was 22 and already shouldering the responsibility of a growing family, Albano had an epiphany.
"I was watching Police Story on TV," he says, "and I told my mom, 'I'm gonna do that. I'm gonna be a cop.'"
Two years, many tests and a GED later, Albano joined the Phoenix Police Department. His first assignment as a patrol officer included his old Golden Gate neighborhood.
"It was a blast," he recalls, "because I did a lot of what's now being called 'community police work'--you know, dealing with people who weren't assholes and trying to help fix things before they got worse."
After several years on patrol, his supervisors assigned Albano to the SWAT team. He later worked undercover for a time, before he was transferred in 1985 to sex crimes.
Being a sex-crimes detective is demanding, gut-wrenching work. Albano was fortunate to be teamed with Lou Marotta, a soft-spoken officer with a disarming smile.
The team of Albano and Marotta worked dozens of molestation cases together, earning great respect inside the police department and at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
"I had a knack for being able to talk to kids," says Albano, who still coaches several youth soccer teams in the East Valley. "I saw some of the most appalling things a person can see. In my eyes, a molested child is your absolute true victim, more than a homicide victim in some ways. They live with the crime forever."
Albano managed to suspend his personal feelings toward suspected bad guys during his interrogations.
"Victims, witnesses, suspects and actual perpetrators can tell when you're trying to bullshit them," he says, "and you may hate a guy's guts, but you want them to tell you everything. It's possible to feel compassion temporarily for someone you may hate. And I did hate these molesters and these mothers who would say, 'Woe is me,' rather than, 'Woe is my daughter.'"
The ironclad confessions that Albano elicited from untold numbers of suspects made him popular with prosecutors in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
"Mariano is one of a kind, that's for sure," says Dyanne Greer, a prosecutor nationally known for her work in child-abuse cases. "You could see how the kids--the victims--trusted him, and you could see the hurt in his eyes when he was doing his job."
In turn, Albano speaks fondly of several sex-crimes prosecutors, naming Greer, Kenna Fitch, Vince Imbordino, Laura Reckart and Cindi Nannetti as favorites.
"To keep your mental health in sex crimes is a tough trip," he says. "There is awful case after case after case. A sense of humor is very, very necessary. The best prosecutors are the ones who are professional, but can laugh at the weirdest shit that comes up."
The rigors of investigating sex crimes finally caught up to Albano a few years ago.
"I was in an interview with a kid," he says, "and I realized I wasn't listening to word one. I knew what she was going to say before she said it. I realized right then that I no longer had the edge I needed to make it work in sex crimes."
Albano informed his supervisor, who reassigned him to the vice squad. After only a few months, Albano asked for a transfer back to patrol.
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He spent the final three years of his career patrolling the streets of East Van Buren, the perennial home of pimps, prostitutes and assorted scoundrels.
"It was just like when I started in the Golden Gate, other than I was older, slower and hopefully a little smarter," he says. "It was like this: Be firm but stay cool, tell the truth, don't push people around, show respect, be quick on your feet. That's playing policeman."
After 20 years, two months and two days, Albano retired. He says he plans to earn a teaching degree, after which he hopes to coach soccer on the high school or college level.
"I'm glad I retired in one piece," he says. "Now I got a lot of life ahead of me--I hope. I haven't done that bad for a guy born in a pool hall.