Eventually he learned that the uncle was a CIA field agent.
“We always suspected that because he had these great stories and tidbits, though he couldn’t really go into that much detail,” Chief Helldorfer recalls. “Years later we were watching the evening news when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated on his viewing stand in 1981 in Egypt by some army officers. Right there in all the chaos we saw my uncle who had been close with Sadat. My uncle had declined his offer to join him on the viewing stand that day.”
After a 28-year career with the Memphis Police Department and 12 more in the District Attorney’s Office – including the last seven as Chief of the Criminal Investigation Division – Chief is calling it a career on March 17.
“I don’t think I’ll really have that much spare time when I retire,” he says, “with four kids, eight grandkids, our place in Greers Ferry, plus my wife’s honey-do list that gets longer as we get closer to my retirement date.”
Dist. Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich said Chief Helldorfer had a special talent for taking complex issues and finding common-sense solutions.
“I quickly learned as a young prosecutor to listen to Chief and I have been doing it for decades,” said Gen. Weirich. “I will miss his sage advice. He is that guy in the room quietly listening and quickly analyzing the situation. No matter the issue, he always leads with humility, bravery and a constant commitment to seeking the truth. He leaves behind a legacy of excellence in our office and throughout the law enforcement community.”
Chief Helldorfer saw a lot of the country before landing in Memphis. As the son of a Kellogg’s executive on the move, the family lived in Baltimore, Scotia, N.Y., the Boston area, Pittsburgh and Memphis.
Chief graduated from Ridgeway High School in 1974 when he led the city with a .485 batting average, earning him a look at Ole Miss until he blew out his shoulder.
“That ended my baseball career,” he says, “but like I always say, the only thing that kept me from playing in the major leagues was lack of talent.”
He studied criminal justice at Ole Miss where one of the visiting teachers was Capt. Tommy Smith of the Memphis Police Department sparked his interest in homicide investigation. He began his MPD career on June 11, 1979, as a recruit at the training academy and on Oct. 13, 1979, he was assigned to Uniform Patrol in the West Precinct.
“When I joined MPD, I had two goals: TACT Squad and homicide, and I achieved them both,” Chief says. “I liked TACT for the athletic challenge and homicide for the mental challenge. You’re trying to get an individual to tell something on himself that might send him to prison the rest of his life.
“I wasn’t a yeller or shouter. I’d just let them know I knew things and I’d try to give them something to save face. I’d read them their advice of rights and explain the process. I’d say ‘You can get a lawyer, that’s your right, and he’ll tell you not to talk to me now and then in trial he’ll tell you not to testify. So there’s a good chance you’ll be sent off to prison without ever getting to tell your side.”
He worked many high-profile cases, including murders with no body recovered, murders with multiple victims, and murders that turned out not to be murders at all.
In 2006, Memphis businessman and Alabama football booster Logan Young was found dead in his home in Chickasaw Gardens. Blood was everywhere – in the kitchen, on the stairs, in the bathroom, in the bedroom – so someone obviously had beaten him to death. Or had they?
With news reports already announcing the brutal murder of Young, then Sgt. Helldorfer of homicide broke his detectives into several teams and assigned each to one area of the house. When they were through, they determined the cause of death to be an accidental fall down the stairs.
“There were hair follicles on the bannister where he hit head and a large amount of blood at the bottom of the stairs because he was taking blood thinners,” Chief Helldorfer recalls. “He had a fruit drink in one hand and a bowl of salad in the other. The drink splashed on the wall when he fell and the salad was on the stairs. He hit the rail at the bottom.
“He tried to clean up the blood and then went upstairs to take a shower, which was a mistake because the hot water made his head bleed even more. He went into the bedroom where he was found dead on the floor. His bloody fingerprints were on the phone. He was trying to call for help.”
Chief Helldorfer joined the DA’s office on March 17, 2008, and became Chief of CID in 2013, succeeding Dave McGriff. He wound up working a lot of his old homicide cases as they came to trial, seeing them from a different perspective as he worked with prosecutors. He calls it “a seamless change of jobs.”
Over the many years of often seeing the worst of human nature, he said learning to “turn the switch off” at the end of the work day is a key element of keeping a healthy perspective.
“People not in law enforcement have no clue about the dark side of life we see, and I would not want kids to grow up knowing what evil there really is out there,” Chief says. “I tell people stories from work that they can’t believe, and I tell they’re true because I’m not that creative.”
Like the triple ax murderer case involving a Mississippi suspect who was 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds and had killed a 14-year-old girl, her mother and her grandmother. He was hiding out in a house in South Memphis.
As a young patrolman with the TACT Unit, Chief went in first and found the suspect in a bedroom. To Chief’s surprise and relief, the suspect was cooperative and put up no resistance. The man was in his underwear and asked Chief to hand him his shoes and coat, but Chief knew the items might have evidentiary value.
“I had to tell him he couldn’t have them back, and we tagged them for evidence,” says Chief, who never thought he’d be an administrator. “All these years I’ve said I just don’t want to be stuck behind a desk, and look at me now.”