By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The photo is a timepiece, harking back to days when crooks were smalltime and cops walked with an easy swagger. It says a lot about how the younger Ensley likes to see the world, and something about how he fell out of sync with the Southwest Border Task Force. Most cops are committed people who identify with their work and believe in it, but Skip -- he shares his father’s name, but he never uses it -- seems to take it to an extreme, like someone afraid you won‘t believe him.
He keeps the evidence in plain view. Aside from the photo of his dad, the walls near his desk are crowded with snapshots of Skip in various uniforms and Skip in undercover guise -- on a motorcycle, by a pool table in a bar. They share space with badges, framed certificates and ID cards. It would pass for collected memorabilia, but it might also suggest a certain degree of obsession, especially considering his dogged quest to arrest the trafficker who now haunts him.
Outside the confines of his office, Ensley is always quick to make it clear where he’s coming from. ”I felt he carried his badge on his shoulder all the time,“ said Dick Volkman, a newspaper editor who got to know Ensley in the middle 1990s. ”He was very much into the culture of law enforcement.“
His friends describe Ensley as ”a very driven person,“ so driven that ”I don‘t know why his wife puts up with it.“ Skip himself has a ready explanation for what goads him. Of his drive to land work as a police officer, he said, ”I had to do that for my own sense of who I was.“ Of his pursuit of Luis Valenzuela: ”I asked myself, how am I to honor my father’s memory?“
Skip Ensley started hanging around police stations before he started shaving, tagging along with his dad, and with his stepmother, who he says was the first female police officer ever sworn to duty in California. By the time he was 14 years old, Skip was filling in weekend shifts as a dispatch operator. He laughs as he recalls watching through a peephole while detectives conducted interviews -- ”This was back before civil rights.“ And he learned to admire his dad‘s ability to rationalize and dissemble. ”He could talk his way into or out of anything,“ Ensley said.
It’s a trait that Ensley‘s father passed on to his son. ”Skip is a real talker,“ said one a former cop who’s kept in touch for more than 20 years. ”He calls, and he tells me his stories. I don‘t say a whole lot. I just listen.“ Some regard Ensley’s stories with skepticism. As Volkman put it, ”He always had some tall tale of what he had accomplished.“
The wall of words, and the constant element of doubt, make Ensley hard to pin down. He talks a lot about principles -- ”I thought people in law enforcement were supposed to keep their word,“ he groused at one point -- but his own record includes a 1987 judgment against him for back child support. And he complains about ”all the times they put me in danger,“ but freely admits prodding the FBI to authorize risky, solo trips to Mexico.
Still, the bluster and the easy self-assurance made Ensley a natural for working undercover. He‘s changeable, brave to the point of reckless, and relentless. ”He just keeps on going,“ said his longtime friend, describing Ensley’s ability to ingratiate himself with potential targets. ”He can take a lot of abuse and a lot of rejection, and he doesn‘t even realize it’s rejection.“
Ensley learned another lesson from his father that helped prepare him for the treacherous business of befriending, and then betraying, the subjects of criminal investigation. ”My father always told me, there are no sacred cows,“ Ensley said.
Skip demonstrated what that mantra meant to him during his first stint as a police officer, in Brookings, Oregon, a small coastal town just north of the California border. His father was up visiting and had driven out on his own to find a bar. Late that evening, Skip got a call at home -- a fellow officer had stopped Ensley senior for driving under the influence; as a favor, the officer called to let Skip handle the transgression. Skip donned his uniform, headed out to the scene, took a look at his father and promptly placed him under arrest. ”No sacred cows,“ Ensley said as he recounted the tale. ”Dad taught me that, and it was good enough for me.“
But if Ensley modeled himself after his father, his career in law enforcement took a more tortuous path. Around 1982, after eight years on the job, Ensley left Oregon under a cloud. ”He was asked to leave or he would have been terminated,“ said Ken Owens, a fellow patrol officer with Ensley and now the county sheriff there. ”There was an allegation that he was romantically involved with a young dispatcher. It was one of those kind of departures.“