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Orange County

Former O.C. probation officer uses career as a backdrop in her mystery novels

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Former Orange County probation officer Jeanette A. Fratto is the author of three mystery novels. She relies on her career experience to accurately describe her former field, which is often confused with parole.
(Photo courtesy of Jeanette A. Fratto)

What do you get when a retired law enforcement official puts pen to paper? In Jeanette A. Fratto’s case, a burgeoning second profession as an author.

In her previous 26-year career with the Orange County Probation Department, Fratto worked a variety of positions, starting as a deputy probation officer before eventually being promoted to division director.

Her career was notable for a few “firsts.” She was the first female in the department to carry a male caseload, and the first female director of the now-closed Los Pinos camp for juvenile offenders in the Cleveland National Forest.

Writing is an essential skill for probation officers, who often have to compose lengthy reports. But Fratto enjoyed the process. By the time she retired in 1998, Fratto knew she wanted to write stories of her own.

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Spurred by creative writing classes, Fratto had multiple essays, opinions, and articles published in the Los Angeles Times, Orange Coast magazine, Writer’s Digest and anthologies, before she began crafting suspenseful stories that unfolded around the oft-misunderstood field she had worked in: probation. She has written three novels so far, the Orange County-set mysteries “No Stone Unturned,” “No Good Deed” and, most recently, “No Deadlier Destiny,” published in September 2018.

We chatted at her Laguna Niguel home to hear more about her latest book and how her probation career influences her work.

TimesOC: Your character Linda Davenport appears in all three of your novels, and in some ways her career mirrors your own: like you, she moved from Michigan to Southern California, and became a probation officer in Orange County. What prompted you to work in probation?

Jeanette A. Fratto: I was working on my master’s degree [in social science], and had no intention of becoming a probation officer … I was planning to go into either clinical psychology or some type of counseling work. I saw a flier one day in the psychology department advertising a class of probation officers that was going to be opening, and this was in 1972. I read it, and looked at what probation officers did. They counsel, they go to court — a variety of things that sounded very interesting — and it sounded like what I wanted to do. Then I saw the pay scale, and the pay was the same for men and women. You’ve probably heard the whole thing through the years: women don’t make the same as men of the same field, and way back in the ’70s it was even more so. And so when I saw that I thought, I think I’m going to try for that.

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TimesOC: What do most people not know or understand about the probation department?

Fratto: They don’t know the many things we do besides supervising people. Probation is a cross between social work and law enforcement. You try to rehabilitate rather than just incarcerate, but we had all the options of things to do. The probation department also does records sealing, and they work with adults and juveniles.

I realized when I worked that very few people outside the field really did know how much we do. When I was reading all the mysteries that I love to read — I’m a big mystery reader — [I noticed that] mystery writers never really wrote about probation.

TimesOC: And what little was written about probation wasn’t accurate, right?

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“No Stone Unturned” is one of three mystery novels penned by former Orange County probation officer Jeanette A. Fratto.

Fratto: … [Some writers] would get it wrong, or mix it up with parole, for example. I remember one book in particular where the character is calling the probation department and asking to speak to the parole agent. Well, that’s like calling the fire department and wanting to speak to a policeman! So I thought, if I ever write a book, which was my challenge to do after I retired, I’m going to shine some light on probation so readers will learn more about it. I’ll do a mystery that’s set here in Orange County and I’ll have it unfold through probation because I know the system. The story will be fictional, but what I write about probation will be accurate.

TimesOC: Mission accomplished. Tell me about your third and most recent book, “No Deadlier Destiny.”

Fratto: Once again I have the same protagonist, Linda Davenport, a female probation officer. She has done the sentencing report for a convicted felon who is on his way to prison, and then he escapes. And now he’s got revenge on his mind, and everyone involved in this case is in his sights, and Linda is one of them.

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TimesOC: Are there real-life incidents from your experience that made it into the books?

Fratto: Some things in the books actually happened to me. In “No Good Deed” Linda goes to interview a victim. Well, I had [to interview] a victim one time … who worked in a bookstore, and he [said], ‘It’s really quiet in the mornings. You can come in here, and there shouldn’t be anybody around.’ I [had] to have confidentiality, and he said it would be alright. So he gave me the name of the bookstore, and I should have figured it out before I drove over there: it was an adult bookstore.

And it was too late because I’m already there for the interview. So I go in, and, oh my God, there’s cases full of adult toys. It was funny. I had brought my supervisor with me, not knowing I was going to be in this kind of a situation; supervisors don’t get the chance to get out in the field very much. So I got teased about that for the rest of my career. They even [made] a plaque commemorating how I held interviews. It was really funny. So I brought that into “No Good Deed.” There are just so many crazy things that happen when you work in probation.

Fratto’s books are available in paperback or electronically on Amazon.

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Aliese Muhonen is a contributor to TimesOC.

For more news and features about Orange County, visit TimesOC.com or follow us on Twitter @timesocofficial.


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