"I've had a very interesting life"
Most people’s experience with shootouts, violent crime and drug cartels comes from television, movies and videogames.
Don Nelson doesn’t need to watch “CSI” to get a taste of law enforcement.
“I did undercover work. I’ve been in two gunfights. I’ve been threatened,” Nelson said. “I’ve dealt with some hard core murderers.”
Nelson, a River Falls resident, is a retired United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent.
Though Nelson said the “cop show” version of law enforcement investigations is usually pretty far from the truth, his real-life experiences have been worthy of a CSI plotline.
“I have had a very interesting life,” Nelson said.
Wanting to share his experiences without highlighting himself, Nelson wrote a novel based on his experiences, titled “Epidemic of Choice: A DEA Story.”
“Epidemic of Choice” tells the story of DEA agent Jake Shaunessey, who was recently transferred from San Diego to Minneapolis.
Expecting a quieter job, he instead finds a state filled with drug kingpins, heroin and violent crimes on the rise. Throughout the novel, Shaunessey takes on a massive drug ring, something Nelson had a lot of experience with during his time in the DEA.
“My passion in the DEA was developing organized crime cases,” Nelson said. “I was very good at it.”
Nelson, originally from Minneapolis, was assigned to the Minneapolis DEA office right out of the DEA academy in 1973. One of his earliest cases dealt with a Colombian Drug cartel.
“It was an international investigation going from Colombia to here,” Nelson said. “I developed that case as a newbie...almost a rookie.”
That case culminated in a gunfight when Nelson and his fellow DEA agents arrived at the building that held one of the drug traffickers. The door was steel-reinforced, but through a glass window near the door, Nelson was able to see the man inside raise a gun aimed at him and also at his boss.
“The bullets were whizzing right within inches of our heads,” Nelson said, “and my boss got a big chunk of glass in his eye.”
Nelson and his boss were forced to retreat, but thanks to backup from the police department, Nelson said, the drug traffickers were arrested and tried. Nelson’s boss was fine after he got medical treatment.
That case was one of the first drug trafficking rings Nelson helped bring down.
He also brought down several other organized crime rings throughout his career, including a hashish (marijuana) drug ring in Michigan, an entire chapter of the Hells Angels in Nebraska, and a drug lord in Iowa who made plans to have Nelson killed.
Fortunately, Nelson said, the drug lord’s plans were leaked by the drug lord’s prison cellmate.
“When you’ve had your life threatened and you’ve had a contract put on you, that’s not an enjoyable thing,” Nelson said, “but at the same time, you gotta think, ‘Well, if that’s happening, I sure have done a really good job.’”
Other experiences Nelson drew on to create his book were not his own. These include the first scene of the book, in which the DEA agents find a headless corpse. Another is the experience taking a life in the line of duty.
“It’s not like the movies,” Nelson said. “It’s a big deal if you shoot somebody. It’s something that you never get over.”
Nelson himself never had to kill anyone during his time with the DEA, but he has friends who did. He said he relied on his friends’ help when he was writing about his characters’ experiences with using deadly force.
“A lot of cops who have to kill somebody get out of that line of work,” Nelson said. “And others go home after a while, and they think, ‘Yeah, I did the right thing.’”
Another real experience Nelson included in his book was neither his own nor his friends -- a phenomenon that occurred in the 70s and ’80s in Kindred, N.D., just west of Fargo, called “the Kindred lights.”
Lighted processions would appear and go through the fields of Kindred during the night.
“It was investigated quite extensively, but they never figured it out,” Nelson said. “But then, it just stopped.”
Nelson said he remembered the story and incorporated it into his novel.
Nelson retired from the DEA in 1994 and moved to River Falls in 1995.
He had been asked by friends to write a book several times before he began penning “Epidemic of Choice,” his first novel.
“Epidemic of Choice” was published for Kindle in 2012 and in print in April of 2013. Nelson is working on a sequel, but no release date has been set.
Nelson plans to hold a book signing at the River Falls Public Library in the near future, but the date is yet to be announced.