Russ Carstensen didn’t plan a career as a police officer.
It just kind of happened.
But there seemed to be little doubt in his mind that he wanted to be a public servant.
Det. Sgt. Russell Carstensen, who led the Lake Geneva Police Department’s detective bureau retired on Sept. 1 after 25 years as a police officer and 30 years in a law enforcement uniform.
Even before stepping into law enforcement, he served as a volunteer Lake Geneva firefighter and was an EMT with Medix, a private ambulance firm, Carstensen said in a recent interview.
Brent Connelly, now the Lake Geneva fire chief, was one of his mentors, he said.
Carstensen became a full-time Lake Geneva police officer in 1988. Carstensen said he wanted to take his work to the next level, not just responding to calls, but actually working and solving cases.
Part of that desire may have come when he participated in the investigation of a murder that occurred just before Christmas 1994.
A 20-year-old man broke into a home in the Geneva Manor subdivision and murdered the 65-year-old woman living there.
It was a grisly, seemingly pointless murder that shocked the community. But patient police work slowly pulled the clues together, Carstensen said.
In the end, good detective and police work led to the arrest and conviction of Steven J. Crusan.
“We ended up catching the guy using a foot print cast from a print found in the sand,” Carstensen said.
This wasn’t a case that was easy on the emotions, Carstensen said.
Carstensen had gone to school with the victim’s son. He said he had to interview the woman’s son in connection with the case, he said, just to remove him from the list of suspects.
That interview was one of the hardest things he had to do, Carstensen said.
Still, when an opening for the detective bureau came up in 1995, he applied. Carstensen said he started out in the bureau working with new detective Michael Rasmussen, now the Lake Geneva police chief.
It’s not easy being a detective in your hometown, Carstensen conceded.
Carstensen said as a detective he got to see the “gritty side” of his hometown, investigating domestics, batteries, and suicides.
When someone dies under suspicious circumstances, “we go to the autopsies,” he said.
Carstensen said that when hanging out with old friends, he has to insist that everyone be on their best behavior.
“I told my friends, ‘Don’t put my job in jeopardy,’” he said. “It was tough. You find out who your real, true, friends are.”
Although he says that his career as an officer was unplanned, public service seems to be in his blood.
The Carstensen family was used to the sound of sirens and alarm bells.
Carstensen said he grew up in a house right next door to the fire department’s main station on Marshall Street.
His father, a contractor, helped build the station in the 1970s, he said.
Russ and his twin brother, Ron, are 1977 graduates of Badger High School.
Russ said brother Ron joined the fire department shortly after graduation, and he convinced Russ to sign up as well. Russ said he was a volunteer firefighter for 15 years.
Ron is also into public service, although as city streets superintendent.
Although there are those who insist they can tell the two apart, Russ said he’s used to people asking him about why their streets weren’t plowed.
And brother Ron is equally used to being asked about police calls and traffic tickets, he added.
Russ said he and his brother are also good friends.
“We’re close. We do everything together,” said Russ. “Our wives think we should have married each other.”
But that would be just weird, and probably illegal.
Carstensen also has connections with the local newspaper. He did ad setups for the Lake Geneva Regional News and delivered copies of the newspaper to downtown businesses.
But his heart was in public service.
When an opening for a security officer at the former Lakeland Hospital opened up in the early 1980s, Carstensen said, he jumped at the chance.
The hours of the hospital job were fewer than the 80 a week he was working at Medix, he said.
In the mid 1980s, Lakeland was operated by the county, and hospital security officers were deputized, Carstensen said.
Even though hospital security officers did not carry sidearms, the county sent Carstensen to the police training program at Fox Valley Technical College.
After being certified as a police officer, Carstensen said, he became interested in police work.
He got his foot in the door as a part-time officer in the town of Geneva.
When he was offered a full-time position on the Geneva department, Russ left hospital security and strapped on a sidearm.
Meanwhile, Carstensen, also took a position as a part-time police officer in Lake Geneva.
One night, while on patrol, Carstensen said he got a call from Lake Geneva dispatch, requesting that he meet with then Police Chief Richard Newberry.
Carstensen said he was nervous as he drove to the Lake Geneva police station to meet with the chief.
“I thought, ‘What did I do? What did I screw up?’” he recalled.
He said he anxiously walked into the chief’s office, expecting the worst.
He said Newberry didn’t seem to be in any hurry to explain his call, ratcheting Carstensen’s anxiety level just a bit more.
And then Newberry looked up and asked: “When do want to start working fulltime for me?”
Carstensen started as a Lake Geneva patrol officer in 1988.
He became a part of the countywide drug unit in 1993.
In 2005, Carstensen was promoted to detective sergeant and put in charge of the bureau.
He was also part of the city’s first SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team. And he learned the art of hostage negotiations, a skill he said he never had to use on the job.
He admits he’s tried his negotiating techniques on his wife, Tammie Carstensen, manager of Harbor Shores, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, although he is no longer officially employed, Carstensen said he’s got enough to keep him busy.
He does small engine repair.
“I’ve got enough to keep me busy for a while,” he said. And he and Tammie have a 2014 Harley-Davidson motorcycle they want to break in.
Plans for next June include a motorcycle tour of Route 66, 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., he said.