Retired LAPD detective Frank DiPaola never thought he’d be a guy who could connect with kids — they just weren’t his “thing.” He never imagined his life revolving around saving kids from delinquency and crime and leading them to a life of hope and values.
DiPaola’s journey was charted out by his Catholic faith, but required many nudges from God along the way. He takes us on that journey in his book, “From Hell to Hail Mary: A Cop’s Story.”
Growing up in a Catholic family in New York, he learned the basic tenets of Christianity, like the Ten Commandments. He saw these values exemplified in his own family, and as the foundation of our society.
In 1923, Salvatore DiPaola, a hard-working Sicilian immigrant providing for his family in New York City, was gunned down by the “Black Hand” of the Sicilian mafia while trying to help a friend. Frank learned that, “In reality, when the good confront the bad and the ugly, the good don’t always win.”
At his grave, young Frank DiPaola vowed to become a cop and “make things right.”
It wasn’t always an easy path. A Sicilian kid in New York, DiPaola had other options. Some mobsters saw potential in the ambitious young Frank and offered him a job. DiPaola turned them down.
“The mafia made more money, but the cops had a better pension plan,” DiPaola said. He moved from New York to Los Angeles to join the LAPD, then regarded as the nation’s finest police department.
DiPaola pulls no punches in describing the seedy underbelly he worked and lived in each day, calling Hollywoodland “dangerous to the body and corrosive to the soul” and “like Dante’s ‘Inferno’ on steroids.”
The book reads like a hard-boiled detective drama from the pen of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, complete with colorful nicknames and cop lingo.
“I was really trying to create a film noire of the 1970s, the era I lived in,” said DiPaola. “On the surface, it’s just a cop book. It sucks you in because there’s no God stuff at the beginning, but it slowly gets you there. By the time you get to the end, that’s what it’s all about.”
He eventually found himself working undercover in the administrative narcotics division in Hollywood, busting dope pushers. His undercover persona “Frankie Apollo” was a New York hustler who flashed cash and drove a Porsche 911.
There was a bit of Frank in “Frankie.” DiPaola was living on the edge. “For good cops there is a very fine line between good and evil,” said DiPaola. “My faith wasn’t that strong, but there was enough of it that I would never cross the line.”
The degradation and depravity they experienced turned many cops into cynics or worse. For DiPaola, “It was always about right and wrong, good and evil. You have to be a force for something in this world,” he said.
Meeting his wife, Yara, changed his world. “A chance meeting was not chance. She was sent by God,” DiPaola wrote. He went through a conversion. A God nudge.
A “chance” meeting with an old friend landed him in the position of dealing with the graffiti problem, busting taggers. Another God nudge. Some were gang kids marking territory, some were just troubled kids looking for attention.
The LAPD Juvenile Impact Program was born in the “paint-splattered alleys” of Los Angeles. With DiPaola, it was about consequences — dealing with kids wasn’t really his thing.
He developed a “you play, you pay” approach, bringing kids back to the scene for a “paint-out” of neighborhood graffiti. Kids put in hours to pay for their crime. DiPaola and his partner were “tough but fair,” earning respect by offering respect.
Then came another big God nudge.
On a parish retreat, “Father Steve” transformed DiPaola’s faith. Father Steve convinced Frank that his faith demanded he see the face of Christ in each kid. He also had to love his neighbor, and every one of these kids — they were his neighbors.
Father Steve asked Frank the magic question, “Why don’t you reach out to these kids?” He thought saving souls was the priest’s business, not a cop’s. Father Steve said, “Saving souls is everyone’s business.”
An invitation and a challenge. DiPaola started teaching kids the basics — the Ten Commandments, love your neighbor, love one another.
“It’s a two-pronged approach. Be good because you’re good people with character, integrity and living by a moral code guided by your conscience,” DiPaola said. “Also be good because you’re afraid to be bad. The consequences are death or jail, or the third consequence … hell.”
DiPaola stated these things, once commonly taught, are what’s now lacking in our culture. “These kids are removed from God. They don’t have that moral foundation of the Ten Commandments,” DiPaola said. “If nobody taught you this value system, then you succumb to the media pop-culture, which is all about sex, drugs, violence and self-gratification.”
DiPaola surmises that if these kids heard “love one another” at an early age, they wouldn’t be so easily seduced into killing one another. “The faith teaches there is good in everybody. Sometimes that good becomes grossly clouded. Our objective, not only as cops, but as good people, is to recognize that good and bring it out.”
Yara went through the Police Academy to work with young women through Impact.
DiPaola relates several powerful personal success stories of kids in the book. Juvenile Impact Program’s success attracted media and led to roles for DiPaola on shows like “Jake and the Fat Man” and “NYPD Blue.” Twenty years later and the Impact program is still going strong. The program expanded to include juvenile offenders referred by the courts.
Over 20,000 kids have gone through the Impact program. An untold number of lives have been positively affected.
Because of Frank DiPaola, the journey “From Hell to Hail Mary” became not just a journey for him, but for thousands of people.
“They are still doing the work of the Holy Spirit,” said DiPaola.
Frank DiPaola is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at [email protected].
For more info on the Juvenile Impact Program, visit http://www.lapdonline.org/juvenile_division/content_basic_view/6290