Lenny DePaul spent decades sneaking up on fugitives, questioning lying witnesses, starving during long surveillances, running after suspects and flipping out his gun and badge as the commander of an elite unit in the U.S. Marshals Service.
Now he’s a sort of fashionista.
DePaul, 64, has launched O Dark 30, a clothing line that sprang from his experience pursuing violent criminals before his 2013 retirement as commander of the New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force, the nation’s first such unit and the Marshals’ flagship model for interagency cooperation.
“You want to be comfortable in what you’re in, in case you need to react,” the Lake Grove resident said. “I remember times when I wished I had a lighter jacket or more access to my weapons … You really don’t want bulky clothing when you’re going from zero to 100 miles an hour.”
It’s the latest incarnation of a man who is probably the most widely known marshal in modern times.
DePaul oversaw his task force’s 350 deputized marshals from 90 law enforcement agencies, a unit that he recalled nabbed an average of 100 fugitives a week. He has been key in some of the nation’s most high-profile cases, from the D.C. sniper duo that killed 10 people in 2002 to his Afghanistan trip to train the military on how to track down terrorists post-9/11.
He developed a fan base as a reality star on the A&E show that followed his team, "Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force." He parlayed that into other cable reality shows, including History Channel’s "Hunting Hitler." He’s the prison outbreak and fugitive expert called by several media outlets.
For the past two years, DePaul and O Dark 30's co-founder, his wife, Ellie, have been zeroing in on work-friendly designs, targeting not just law enforcement but construction workers, the military, hunters and others who need comfortable clothing.
He is the brand
Every step has to reflect DePaul’s DNA because his face and experience are the brand, said Ellie DePaul, 54, a vice president in a shoe design and manufacturing company. “The law enforcement community knows he knows what they need in clothing,” she said. “I think we’re going to grow very, very quickly.”
The brand-building started with the name — O Dark 30 is military for the wee hours of the morning. It’s when operatives often gather for a covert undertaking or a major initiative or when DePaul, a Navy veteran, wants his fugitive hunters to arrive at 4 a.m. to set up a takedown.
With an enviable record of three arrests from the Marshals’ evolving list of most wanted, DePaul can speak to the company slogan “when tactical meets practical.”
The pants give that point a workout. Pockets on both sides have two compartments, each just big enough for a gun magazine. A large belt loop on the waistband can hide a folding knife. A zipper, angled for easy access, will keep the badge and ID card from spilling out when tackling the bad guy or running and jumping in a roof chase.
If a T-shirt rides up with wear, the elastic, silicone waist band will arrest that movement. “When you wear a gun,” DePaul noted, “you want to wear a shirt inside your pants … so the gun is not rubbing on your side.”
DePaul touts the boots as built to last. He said they’re made with military-grade materials, such as metal latches, and manufactured to military-type specs so they don’t fall apart while pounding the concrete jungle and slogging through woods.
Spilling coffee on clothes, sweating under bullet-resistant vests, flying from Florida to winter in upstate New York — it’s all handled by water resistant, breathable and moisture wicking fabric.
The DePauls hatched the idea about two years ago, when the COVID pandemic gave them time on their hands at home. A clothing line had been in the back of their minds over the years, because it was often hard for Lenny to find the right fit and utility from off-the-shelves clothing.
An apartment attached to the DePaul’s home has become O Dark 30’s temporary headquarters and warehouse since the first shipments, mostly sweatshirts and T-shirts, arrived late last year. Prototypes of caps and boots sit on shelves. Design boards show various options for colors. Drawers hold buttons, fabric swatches, color swatches and other samples.
Ellie has been overseeing the nuts and bolts of the design and manufacturing of what she views as an evergreen label.
“It’s not a fashion brand,” she said. “It’s not like bright yellow is the color of the season and if it doesn’t sell we’ll have to mark it down.”
Handling the details has been a laborious, patience-testing process for the couple. When a prototype arrives, he doesn’t like the fit, but she reminds him the sample is just to show the color. Or when he must pick a blue swatch, he sees just navy but she sees tones and shades and wants a navy that’s “cohesive” with the rest of O Dark 30.
For two years, the former fugitive hunter joked, it’s been like, “no, I don’t like this color," or the pockets aren’t in the right place or this olive is not the same as that olive: “I get a headache thinking about it.”
Another headache has been the supply chain woes afflicting many businesses. T-shirts, hoodies and caps are available, but not boots and other merchandise made overseas.
While O Dark 30 takes tactical to an uber level, other manufacturers have lines that tout similar features.
DePaul dismissed their credentials. “They were not downrange for three decades,” he said, referring to being in the line of fire.
His authenticity cannot be denied.
He joined the Navy right after high school, spending eight years on amphibious assault vessels. Then he worked five years for the Secret Service, which assigned him to the White House in 1984, protecting President Ronald Reagan while he recovered from cancer surgery in the hospital.
When a buddy suggested looking into the U.S. Marshals Service, DePaul asked, “Are they still riding horses?”
The Marshals hired him in 1989, and for years he served as the acting head of the warrants unit for the Eastern District, which covers Long Island.
In 2002, he played a key role in starting up the congressionally mandated, regional fugitive task force. The agency had local fugitive units at the time, but federal officials recognized that drug dealers and killers got away by crossing state and country boundaries while local marshals faced jurisdictional challenges in their pursuit.
For DePaul, one memorable case is when he and team members helped solve the Beltway snipers’ random shootings, which terrorized the nation’s capital region in October 2002.
When the killer teased police during a call about a Montgomery homicide the month before, most investigators thought he was talking about Montgomery County, Md., but DePaul said he and his crew decided to call Montgomery, Ala. Police confirmed a woman was fatally shot and a magazine dropped by the killer had a fingerprint — it was from teenager Lee Malvo. This clue, and others coming fast at that point from several sources, helped identify his accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, and led to the duo’s arrests as they slept in their vehicle.
Beyond instincts, part of DePaul’s success was his charm and ability to tune into how people think, those who know him said.
He could convince fugitives’ hostile family members that he was “helping” the suspect avoid further harm, and he knew how to speak the way they spoke, said Craig Caine, a Massapequa retiree who was DePaul’s partner for more than two decades.
“He would actually make them feel at ease … to the point where they would say 'Can we get you coffee?'” Caine said. “He had street smarts, more than anyone can ever imagine."
David Turk, the U.S. Marshals Service historian, said DePaul arrived at the agency during a time of turmoil, as it searched for an identity, and he played a key part in energizing the force. He “burnished” the marshals’ fugitive-hunting reputation as the leader of a regional task force and boosted recruitment efforts by embracing the "Manhunters" reality show, he said.
“Without him, I doubt we would be as well known,” Turk said. "He found new trails for us that we did not have before and in some cases we were tentative to do, especially in the media market. It made us a better agency.”
In one sense, DePaul still serves. He and his wife have decided to donate some company profits to law enforcement-related nonprofits and use the business to raise funds for fallen members’ families.
When Cornelius Douglas, an NYPD sergeant on the regional task force, died just before his retirement party, the DePauls sold O Dark 30 clothing at an event that raised $30,000 for scholarships for Monroe College, where Douglas taught part time on criminal justice, said his widow, Karen Douglas of West Nyack.
“It’s not just about profits for him,” the widow said of DePaul and also his family. “You can’t say that about every clothing line.”
So far, the DePauls have spent their savings establishing O Dark 30, but they’re talking to investors. They hope this business can be an asset one day to pass on to their two children.
DePaul knows he could be hitting golf balls instead of poring over swatches.
But the former fugitive hunter said he was used to working at 100 mph in the task force. Then his life braked after he left: “I would stare at my phone, hoping it would ring.”
He’s keeping his hand in the crime field, and when he’s commenting on the news about a high-profile prison break, DePaul said, it all still gets him “so pumped up."
“It’s like I never left the job," he said. "When you hunt people for a living, it gets in your blood.”
But gradually, O Dark 30 is getting into DePaul's DNA. He’s excited about seeing the final version of the boots. He meets with potential investors. He’s tweeted a clothing discount at #fathersdaygifts, adding “C’mon!!”
DePaul’s still hunting — for the right color, a warehouse, the bottleneck in his latest clothing shipment.
With a bit of realization in his voice, the former fugitive hunter said O Dark 30 has been working out well: "Every day is an adventure."
Museum dedicated to U.S. Marshals
The U.S. Marshals Service was the first federal agency, formed by the Judiciary Act of 1789, the U.S. Senate’s first bill, yet the agency is barely known.
But next spring, a museum dedicated to its history and mission is scheduled to open in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after 15 years of planning and about $45 million raised so far, almost entirely from private donations.
The Wild West days of marshal Wyatt Earp, the era when anyone could be deputized, the agency’s 9/11 role and hunting fugitives around the globe will all be highlighted at the United States Marshals Museum, said David Kennedy, the curator of collections and exhibits.
The marshals have often operated in the shadows of the FBI, the DEA and other law enforcement, but the agency has been key in the nation’s security. It was the marshals who protected the first black students attending white schools during the tumultuous days of desegregation and civil rights. After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, marshals were deployed around the nation to protect airports.
As part of their core mission, the agency’s 5,400 employees handle the witness protection program, protect judges, manage and sell assets seized from criminals, bring fugitives to justice and transport federal prisoners.
While the building isn’t open to the public yet, the “museum without walls” has held in-person and virtual events and offers Kennedy’s online montage of some artifacts. These include a pocket watch from Bass Reeves, who escaped slavery to become the first Black marshal, and graphics explaining the 1992 fatal siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, when marshals tried to bring Randy Weaver to court on a warrant for firearms charges.
Lenny DePaul of Lake Grove, who retired as commander of the New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force, is on the museum’s board. Last year, his O Dark 30 clothing company, aimed at law enforcement, helped designed a T-shirt for a special event commemorating the marshals' Sept. 11 response. — Ellen Yan
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