Stephen E. “Steve” Murphy is an American retired federal agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who was one of the lead investigators in the manhunt of Colombian drug lord and leader of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar. He is an author, keynote speaker, and Co-Host of the Game of Crimes Podcast. Steve is also the co-owner of DEA Narcos and the co-founder of GoC Media LLC.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I was born in Memphis, TN, but grew up in Murfreesboro (just the sound of Nashville) until I was 13. Then my family moved to Princeton, WV. My parents were from WV and wanted to be closer to their parents. In TN, my dad was a minister, and my mom was a bookkeeper. My parents were strict and we spent a lot of time at church. I wasn’t allowed to go to a movie until I was 15 years old, my sister couldn’t wear pants, she had to wear dresses below her knees. It was different from most of our friends, but we knew what was expected of us, and what would happen if we didn’t live up to expectations. Honestly, it wasn’t such a big deal to us, and we both turned out with strong work ethics.
I wasn’t the model kid though. I was a little mischievous and got into trouble with my parents regularly. When I was about 10 years old, my buddies and I camped out all night in our backyard. After midnight, we would ride our bikes around the neighborhood. Not sure why, I guess we liked the freedom. Anyway, we wanted to buy sodas from a vending machine but didn’t have any money. One of the guys with us offered to get money from his home but he didn’t have a key. So being the smart kids we were, we decided to break into his house. Apparently, someone heard us and called the police. When the police arrived, we were too scared to run. Two cops questioned us very sternly and then gave us an option. They said we could go to jail for several years, or they could take us home to our parents. We all opted to go to jail!!! The officers had a great laugh and then took us home to our parents. Needless to say, I didn’t camp out anymore that summer, and I had a hard sitting on my bottom for a day or so from the spanking I got. But you know what, I never did anything like that again.
After that experience, I decided at a very young age I wanted to be a police officer. And I never lost that desire.
I don’t really have “heroes” that I look up to and follow, other than my dad. I consider how he grew up in a poor family in the West Virginia mountains, the sacrifices he made as a young man in World War II in Europe, as well as for his family, what he went through to become a minister, and after retiring from the ministry, became a successful businessman. He was a bear of a man, 6’ 4” tall, almost 300 pounds, and the physically strongest person I’ve ever known, but he was always kind to everyone, children truly loved him, and he was one of the most intelligent and well-read people I’ve known. He set a standard for everyone to strive for. I’m still working on that.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
In a nutshell, the importance of family, being there for them, and not being so strict on my children. I was a little tough on my four kids as they were growing up. They endured time-outs, having privileges taken away, and they occasionally received spankings. Now that they’re grown and have children of their own, I realize I was probably too tough on them. Maybe it’s because I’m older now and have mellowed out some, but some of the reasons they got into trouble just don’t seem that important now.
Also, as a DEA Agent, I usually put my job first, when I should have put my family first, with the job a close second. I missed a lot of my kid’s activities because of work. I was there as much as I could be, but I missed more than I should have. I’m trying to not make that mistake with my grandkids.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
The absolute worst recommendation I’ve ever heard is what’s going on now in the U.S., defund the police. The world is full of evil and evil people who are waiting to take advantage of the hard-working, law-abiding citizens, not just in the U.S. but in every country. There are various movements and factions with nefarious intentions who are trying to take advantage of the unfortunate actions of a few police officers here. Were the officer’s actions justified? That’s for our courts to decide. But let me say right now,
no one hates a bad cop more than a good cop. We all take an oath and are sworn to protect the public, we’re public servants. That means we should be serving the public. But just like every, and I mean every occupation in the world, there are a few bad employees that make every other employee look bad. I stand fully behind the idea that police officers are accountable for their actions, good and bad, but to remove the people who are our protectors against evil because of the actions of a few, that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to me. Some cities in the U.S. did slash their police budgets which resulted in fewer officers on the streets. But just as quickly, we’ve seen violent crimes increase. People who live in those higher crime areas are pleading for help and to get more officers back out there. Slowly, the areas that made the bad decisions to defund their police departments are realizing their mistake and some are trying to correct this.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I’m a very blessed person. My life isn’t full of roses or free from obstacles and challenges, but for the most part, I’ve had a great life, family, and career. The one dark period was going through a divorce from my first wife. We were too young to get married, we came from very different backgrounds, and we didn’t share the same values and goals in life. The divorce was ugly, and it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. That happened a lifetime ago, but I’ve never forgotten how life-changing and negative it was at the time.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I married the right person the second time. My wife Connie and I have been happily married for 37 years. Without a doubt, she’s the best thing that happened to me. I could not have accomplished any successes in life without her by my side. She is very supportive of everything I do, she is excellent at listening to my ideas and providing great feedback (much better than what I come up with), she keeps the home running smoothly and stays in touch with all our kids and grandkids, and she keeps me grounded and helps me to remember who I really am and where I came from. Believe it or not, sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around;-) I get busy working and forget that my first priority is the family. Connie is very good at bringing me back to reality and reminding me what I should be focused on.
When we lived in Miami and Colombia, Connie understood the importance of my work, the dangers involved, and the need for her to always be by my side for support. She was very patient when I didn’t come home for days or weeks at a time, especially when we were pursuing Pablo Escobar. Even though she spoke very limited Spanish, and her going out in public posed a risk to her safety, Connie never hesitated to get things done. She is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, and she is truly dedicated to our family.
What is your morning routine?
When I’m home, I like to wake up early, around 5:00 am. Most days, I go to the gym at 5:45 for a good workout, then head to coffee with some of my gym buddies at 7:45. Back home by 8:30 and start answering emails. Now that we have our podcast, we typically do recordings in the mornings so there’s plenty of time for editing. Each interview requires a lot of research and reading which I try to get done before lunch. And my afternoon nap 😉
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I’m a firm believer in God and that his only son was Jesus Christ. I try to study my Bible and live by its teachings, but I’ve still got a long way to go. I’ve found that when I trust in God, ask for His help, and depend on Him, He is faithful and just, and helps me with life’s challenges. I’m far, very far from being perfect, and I’m still learning about God’s ways. I’ve been criticized around the world for expressing my beliefs in Him while on stage and during interviews, but I’m fine with that. I’m not judging others. At least I haven’t been crucified on a cross…
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Being organized and setting priorities are the best strategies for me to be productive. When I was a DEA agent, I rarely said no to anyone who requested assistance on a case, especially when I worked in a smaller office. I wanted to help others, but those efforts took all my free time and really stressed me out. I had no time for family and the quality of the cases I worked on dropped off. After much contemplation and self-analysis, I realized that I needed to cut back, set priorities, and then follow through with that plan. I still worked very long hours, but it gave me a little more time with my family and my stress level was reduced to a manageable level.
Organizational skills are mandatory for everyone who wants to be successful. My performance is highest when I’m busy, almost to the point of being overwhelmed. This requires that I stay very well organized so I can find what I need, delegate activities to others with the necessary expertise, establish milestones, ensure everyone has what they need to accomplish the task, monitor progress, and achieve success. And equally important is publicly recognizing others for their work, accomplishments, and dedication to the project.
These traits have carried over into my work after retiring from DEA. For the four years prior to the covid pandemic, my partner, Javier Pena, and I traveled the world telling the true story of Pablo Escobar. We averaged 75 appearances per year, plus we wrote our book, Manhunters – How We Took Down Pablo Escobar, we continue to work on several potential TV projects, we started a weekly true crime podcast, Game of Crimes, and we’re producing a soon-to-be-announced limited series podcast. Because of the success of the Netflix series Narcos, and since our book was published, we receive numerous requests to answer questions, review potential TV/movie scripts, read/advise on potential book manuscripts, and give interviews on podcasts and other media, all while still working on our speaking business and the other projects. I currently have three small businesses which greatly adds to the paperwork burden. Again, I have to prioritize all requests, which means saying no to some items, and the organizational skills keep me on track, so I know when/where I’m scheduled to be, and when projects are due. My wife and kids think I’m a little crazy, which I probably am, but this is how I get things done, and I love it!!!
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
As a Christian, the Bible has had the most influence on my life, and it still does today. I don’t believe in luck or coincidence, I believe everything happens for a reason, and it’s all part of God’s plan for each of us. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, I don’t have that kind of wisdom, but I do believe my God has his hand on everything.
I also read books on leadership by people I admire. Some of my favorites are books by University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) basketball coach John Wooden (multiple books on leadership), by National Football League (NFL) coach Tony Dungy (multiple books on leadership, and by U.S. Army Lieutenant General (Ret.) William “Jerry” Boykin (Never Surrender). All three of these individuals knew how to lead and motivate people to become the best they could be, to achieve levels of professionalism and athleticism that others dreamed about, who led by example and did so without being rude, loud-mouthed, obnoxious, overbearing jerks. I’m proud to say that Jerry Boykin is a personal friend who I worked with during my time in Colombia.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Although I’m not always successful at this, I try to live by the Golden Rule, “treat others as you would have them treat you.” A person’s wealth, title, occupation, family background, and so forth don’t make them more important than anyone else. They just have different responsibilities in life and at work. So why not treat others in a kind and respectful manner, the same way I hope they treat me?
Another favorite saying is “be a leader, not a follower.” but it doesn’t mean everyone has to be in charge. It applies to any situation and assignment. When approaching a tasking, think it through and develop a plan. Share the plan with others, then implement the plan.
And one final quote I always find to be true is “common sense is not common.” Self-explanatory!!!