As a young man in the late 1970s with a wife and two children, Leo Hunter decided he needed a career, not just a job, to help support his growing family.
At the military recruitment station, Hunter had about an hour wait before he would raise his right hand, swear an oath and become a United States Marine. He asked a captain if he could use a phone and call his wife.
He told her what he was about to do.
"Well, if that’s really what you want to do, we’ll just have to live with that," Hunter recalled his wife saying.
He then asked her if he had received any mail.
Yes, she said, something that looked like it was from the government and a couple of other items. He asked her to open up the letters.
One was from the FBI, offering Hunter a chance to advance in his application to become an agent and the other was from the State Police inviting him to take an agility test as the next step in his application process.
Hunter never became a Marine.
He chose the State Police over the FBI, reasoning that the FBI might move him anywhere in the U.S., but at least as a trooper, he would always be in New York.
On Friday, friends and family will gather to celebrate Hunter's 30-year career as a trooper and criminal investigator. He retired earlier this month.
"I don't think I would have gotten the kind of training I wanted if I had joined the Marines," Hunter said. "In the Marines, they just tell you what you will do, and who knows what that would have been. I'm sure I would have been in public service, but who knows how long I would have been in the military. I always had some idea of doing something as a career."
Hunter's life as a public servant hasn't been confined, though, to just wearing a badge. He also did something right for society by raising six children, from the time they were ages 7 to 13, as a single father.
All of his children are adults now and leading good lives.
Thameena lives in Batavia and is a nurse manager at ECMC. Shabaana works at Dent Sleep Study in Buffalo. Saad (Leo Hunter Jr.) is a staff sergeant in the Army, a combat engineer with the 101st, and will be deployed to Afghanistan next month. Saad has three children.
Yasmeen is a wife and mother living in Batavia with one son and another child on the way. Hunter's twins, Sumiyya and Safiyya, both received track scholarships (North Carolina and SUNY Buffalo). Sumiyya, who was a Division I Big South champion in the 800 meter, now works for the IRS. Safiyya just returned from a two-year Peace Corps mission to Mozambique.
Hunter said he raised his children with the idea that he was there to be a parent, not a friend.
"As teenagers, we were horrible," Thameena said. "In being a cop, he had to do what was right to raise us. Then we didn't like it, but now we understand it. We appreciate it. If he hadn't done it, we probably wouldn't be here."
It's been said that it takes a village to raise a child. To hear Leo tell it, in the case of the Hunter clan, it took all of Batavia.
There were parents, friends, neighbors and family members, along with other cops, who all looked out for the five girls and one boy Leo was trying to raise on his own while working a demanding job after he and his wife divorced.
"They were the other eyes I might need," Hunter said. "They shared the same concerns and my kids knew this. They benefited from that love and caring that we found in this community."
It must have been crazy around the Hunter household on Montclair Avenue. Leo was a soccer coach and Girl Scout leader in a home of children and their friends always coming and going.
Every day Hunter made sure he knew what his children were doing and where they were, Thameena said. As the oldest child, she helped around the house, especially with the younger children, and each night, Hunter made sure the chores were done, homework completed and the whole bunch in bed by bedtime.
As teens, of course, the kids would have social lives that would take them out of the house, but Hunter kept tabs on them.
"We would go out at night and when we came back, he would ask questions," Thameena said. "We always thought he was being nosy, but he was being a dad. He always knew what was going on."
Hunter had that detective's skill and knowledge in interrogations.
Thameena remembered one time when one of the children damaged an item in the house and Hunter wanted to know which one did it. She said they laugh about it now, but Leo placed each child in a different room of the house so they couldn't talk to each other and get some story straight, just like a good detective would do with multiple suspects. He then went from room to room and questioned each one individually.
Hunter figured out who did the deed, got a confession, and there was an appropriate punishment.
"To this day, he still knows what's going on with us," Thameena said. "He can tell when something is going on (in our lives). He doesn't have to ask. He knows it. That's something amazing about him. I'm like, 'wow.' "
Leo is a proud father, he said.
"I remember going through it," Hunter said. "I always wanted them to be happy. I always wanted to be there for them and now they have grown up and they're living successful lives, I look at that, I look back and I say, 'wow.' I wish I could take all the credit, but they had wonderful teachers and a wonderful family."
A Buffalo native, Hunter grew up on Northland Avenue in Buffalo, attended McKinley Vocational School and then Canisius College.
His first assignment as a trooper was with SP Boston, then Falconer. After awhile, Hunter was offered an assignment with Troop T, patrolling the Thruway, but that wasn't a route he wanted to take, so he got himself assigned to communications in Batavia. That gave him time to study for his sergeant's exam. Over the next few years, his career included Franklinville, Olean, Wellsville, Boston, Clarence and back to Batavia as station commander.
After two more years running the Batavia station, he was offered a slot in the Criminal Bureau of Investigation. He worked as an investigator from 1994 until retirement.
"Being a backroom investigator is probably one of the bigger responsibilities as an investigator in the State Police because they're not just working on one thing," Hunter said. "They're working on a multitude of things."
At any one time, Hunter's caseload might include child sex crimes, burglaries, fraud and other financial crimes, assaults and even homicides.
The most stressful cases, however, according to Hunter, are the hostage situations, a threatened murder or suicide, where the negotiator must talk somebody out of doing something with permanent consequences.
"When someone is at that line of giving up hope and taking the life of themselves or somebody else, I still have to take a deep breath," Hunter said. "You're traveling to a situation and you just don't know how those things are going to turn out."
For the past 12 years, Andre Dunlap has been Hunter's partner in CBI, but more than that, Dunlap said, Hunter has been his mentor.
It was Hunter who pulled Trooper Dunlap aside at a crime scene once and told him he should apply for investigations.
"I told him I wasn't ready," Dunlap said. "He told me, 'no, you're ready.' "
One of the things that has made Hunter a good investigator, Dunlap said, and something he tries to emulate, is to be sensitive.
"Whether it's a child abuse case, a homicide, a stolen credit card or a rape, handle every case like it was a family member involved," Dunlap said. "Talk to not only victims like they were family members, but suspects, too. Give them respect and they will respect you."
In retirement, Hunter, 55, is staying physically active, he said. He still plays racquet ball (a game Dunlap taught him), though he said injuries have slowed down his basketball game. He's also taken up archery, with the help of a 75-year-old neighbor.
Hunter is also planning on getting married again soon. His fiancé is Dawn Rindel, a clerk in Le Roy Town Court.
As for going back to work, there's usually jobs in insurance investigations and that might be an option, but for now, Hunter wants to keep his free time open for his family, especially his grandchildren.
He looks back on his career and he doesn't talk so much about the cases he handled, but the people he met. He said those are the memories that will stay with him.
"I always felt that even with 30 years on the job, you're always learning something from them, even the new people," Hunter said. "I always felt that if you can learn something from somebody, you learn about yourself."
He pauses and adds, "An older investigator told me once, 'When you have your family and your friends, you’re a wealthy man.' I'm not as wealthy as some, but I'm a wealthy man."
Photo below: Leo Hunter's children (photo submitted by Andre Dunlap).