In 1989, shortly after finishing high school in Orange, Virginia, I left for the Army. My mother had driven me to Fredericksburg and cried as she watched me board a Greyhound bus. Uncle Sam spares no expense for his boys. After a quick overnight at the Military Enrollment Processing Station in Richmond, my next stop was Basic Training at Fort Leonard, Missouri. Nine weeks later, I then went on to my Advanced Individual Training at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Eighteen years old, I had never been off the east coast before, and never so far from home. Arizona was a different world for me; I may as well have been walking on Mars. The desert, the vistas, the desert, the mountains, the desert . . . there was a lot of desert. Not many people go through Fort Huachuca, or the thriving metropolis outside its front gate, Sierra Vista, and ever want to come back. It’s a small, somewhat secluded town near the Mexican border. Not a whole lot goes on there. I imagine most would want to stay as far away as possible, but for me it was different. Something about Arizona resonated in me; I felt a connection with it, a kinship if you will. I was so captivated that after having to leave, for nearly the next two decades I was haunted by the words “Go west, young man, go west” and I was always on the lookout for some way to get back.
My job in the Army was intelligence, an unanticipated side effect of scoring well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Although it sounds sexy, military intelligence (MI) isn’t as cloak-and-dagger as you might think. A lot of it is book work, research, memorization, plotting, graphing, and even some statistics. As I was taught: “Information goes up—intelligence goes down.” So you’re always trying to find more, gather more, uncover more so that you can figure out more. It’s a constant state of learning. But of all the things I learned in MI, the most important was to analyze. Not “how to analyze” or “how to think analytically”—but rather, to analyze . . . to be analytical.
After MI school I saw everything differently. I learned that everything is a puzzle—and every puzzle has a solution. In short, my job was to solve puzzles. So although not the super-secret, black-bag ninja warrior who teleports in and takes out all the bad guys with a paper clip and piece of gum, I knew how to figure out who the bad guys were, where to find them, and how to get into their heads.
After the Army, I went into law enforcement. It seemed a natural fit. At first I became a sheriff’s deputy in Orange County, Virginia, where I had grown up. When I got the job as a “road dog”—a patrol cop—in Orange County, it was a very small department: the sheriff, chief deputy, one lieutenant, two investigators, two civil process servers, four or five court security personnel, and eight of us assigned to work the road in the Patrol Section.
My academy graduation was on a Saturday at noon. The following Sunday, just before midnight, I used the radio in my old Chevy Caprice patrol car to mark “10–41” (on duty). I immediately heard the others marking “10–42” (off duty). I was it—thirty-six hours after graduating from the academy, I was the only law enforcement officer for all 343 square miles. “Sink or swim” rang through my head. I’ll never forget that feeling.
You see and deal with it all when you work as a cop in a small department. There’s no CSI: Orange to call and have them come out to work the murder scene. No Bones to solve your case for you. You do it all. That, however, doesn’t stop the large departments, big-city police, and especially the feds from looking down on us “Podunk” officers.
After the sheriff had hired me and during the months I was attending the police academy, the other road guys began referring to me as “one of us.”
“How’s it feel to be one of us?”
“Glad you’re one of us.”
I felt like I had just been picked to be part of some elite cadre, a coveted position on a special squad, an appreciated member of the team. It was a good feeling. It didn’t take long after that first midnight shift to learn the true meaning of “one of us”: a dead body floating in a pond—one of us (me) had to go in and get it. The town drunk with puke all over him who had just shit himself—one of us (me) had to take him to jail. The local crazy lady in her tinfoil hat screaming that her neighbor was controlling her mind . . . you get the idea.
Truth is, I garnered more experience in those first few years than many cops or agents do in their entire careers. Being one of only eight meant that there was no room to hide. You were always held accountable. The sheriff was also held accountable by the citizens he worked for. Those were the fundamentals of law enforcement. It was in Orange, Virginia, that what it really meant to be a “cop” was instilled within me.
I remember being told by my supervisor then: “Remember—protect and serve. Yes—you respond to calls, work wrecks, write tickets, arrest people, and we track all those stats. But the one thing we don’t know, can’t measure, and can never track is also the most important part of your job—preventing crime.” Success back then wasn’t judged on how many arrests we made, how many tickets we wrote, or who got the big case; we were successful when no one got hurt, no businesses got robbed, and no drunks were driving down the highway. When crime was down and people felt safe and were safe—that’s when we knew we had done our jobs. Over the next two decades, however, what it meant to be a cop would change. An entirely new standard would be set.
After my time in Orange, I did a brief stint at the Newport News, Virginia, police department until being offered a job at the sheriff’s office in Loudon County. The progression seemed logical to me; after five and a half years of working the street (pushing a cruiser), I grew tired of having to turn all my good cases over to some detective. So I put in for it, got promoted, and became a detective in the vice-narcotics section and street crimes unit.
I had a dual role when I worked narcotics: one as a detective with the county, the other with the federal government as part of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force. County cases were mostly low-level narcotics enforcement and street crimes—the little guys selling dope out of their houses or hanging on the corner dealing. We also dealt with vice crimes like prostitution and illegal gambling. If I thought my first day on the road was sink or swim, my first day in vice-narcotics was more akin to “learn to fly or crash and burn.”
The vice-narcotics (Narcs) office was located outside the Sheriff’s Office. Disguised as a dummy corporation, it was a clandestine office, backstopped as a small business working out of a warehouse in an industrial complex just outside Leesburg. When I arrived that first day, I was handed a wad of cash and the keys to an old, beat-up Oldsmobile and told not to come back until I had grown my hair out, pierced my ear, and bought a bag of dope. Mind you, I was twenty-seven years old, had had four years of JROTC in high school, went straight into the Army, and then worked more than five years as a uniformed patrol officer. My hair had never before touched my ears.
Unlike the other detectives working property or violent crimes, those of us in Narcs essentially had to embed ourselves in the criminal element. We got to know the players, the hustlers, the dealers, and the crooks. All of it was undercover work, many times in deep cover, backstopped and supported with complete undercover identities, fake driver’s licenses, phony vehicle registrations, and untraceable credit cards. We had secret apartments, got jobs in warehouses, on farms, or in bars, and then went about our mission and started to develop contacts.
Our first order was simple: buy drugs, as much and as often as we could. From there we tried to work every case up the ladder and back to the source of supply, to infiltrate the organization, identify the conspiracy and all its conspirators, and then put a noose around its neck and bring it all tumbling down.
The minefields in doing so, however, are many: living that life, surrounded by that element, fearing you’ll be found out, trying not to get killed, not to break the rules, not to get too deep, too close, or too drunk, all the while trying to build a good case that will withstand the scrutiny of some overpaid defense attorney.
Your goal is to get the information, get the evidence, make the case, and then get the hell out. Until then, there’s no going home. No time-outs or do-overs. You can’t risk blowing your cover. Occasionally, you’d meet other narcs in some darkened alleyway, vacant lot, or maybe a rest-stop bathroom and hand over some crucial pieces of evidence or information. You were always cautious that someone might be watching, that you would be recognized or outed. A degree of paranoia kept you alive.
My time in Narcs and on HIDTA had afforded me the opportunity to work some big cases, use all the expensive equipment, and deploy the most (for that time anyway) cutting-edge tactics on nearly every kind of criminal and criminal organization. As big cases often transcend different genres of criminality, it also allowed me to work hand in hand with just about every variant of “alphabet soup” that you can think of (DEA, FBI, ATF, INS, USSS, USMS, FPS, NCIS, DCIS, and on one case even—the BIA). What starts as a dope case may soon involve other crimes like money laundering, kidnapping, bank robbery, murder, and even terrorism.
My experience, both in law enforcement and MI, had brought me face-to-face with terrorism many times and I had worked with the FBI before on several occasions. One of the most profound memories I have in my life was when terrorism came knocking, right on our front doors.
I can recall exactly where I was and what I was doing that September morning in 2001. Working all day at DEA and most every night with the county, being a little late had become almost the norm for me. Driving down the toll road that links Route 28 and Dulles Airport to the Beltway, I was headed to my DEA office in Annandale, Virginia.
Like most mornings, the FM radio in my task force–issued vehicle, a small, black Mercury Cougar, was set to DC 101.1 and I was listening to the antics of Elliot and Diane. This morning however, reports were starting to come in from New York that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Nobody really had a handle on what was happening yet; a piece of information from this station over here, a bit from this network over there—“fog of war” being made all the more thick by journalists and talking heads who spew out uninformed, unsubstantiated speculations in hopes they will at some point be able to say, “You heard it here first.” The Elliot in the Morning crew were reaching out to their contacts, and even friends in New York, doing their best to try to put it all together for those of us listening so far away.
Mashing the accelerator into the firewall of the Cougar, I threw my blue strobe light onto the dash and cut through the barricade leading to the restricted-use Dulles access highway, which ran between the opposing lanes of the toll road. I had to get to the office; there I could maybe find out what was going on and there is where I had to be in case we were needed.
Our small office building just off of Little River Turnpike housed two DEA groups, two FBI dope squads, one IRS money laundering group, and a few other units. It was one-stop shopping for all things relevant to the war on drugs. When I arrived, the little black Cougar popping and belching coolant, I ran inside and found everyone in the central area just outside our group supervisor’s door, huddled around a small portable television that someone had to help pass the time on those long nights of surveillance. In those days, we didn’t have cable in our office, or even TV for that matter. Few offices did. One agent was frantically manipulating the TV’s broken antenna, trying to find that perfect angle so that the picture didn’t fade out into a fuzzy mess again. On the brink of being clear, it was just good enough for us to see the unthinkable: another plane hit the second tower. “Holy shit!” is pretty much the only thing I remember hearing anyone say.
While we stared, still stunned and fixated on that little eight-inch screen, thirty-four minutes later the office, the windows—the whole building—rocked. Knowing that something big had just happened, everyone ran for a window and began scanning the skies. Flung about from the four cardinal directions of the building was “Nothing on this side” or an “All good over here.” Seemingly satisfied that Annandale was still on the map and yet still frantic for information, we all gathered back around that small, fuzzy TV. We would later learn that roughly two miles away, American Airlines flight 77 had been flown into the Pentagon at 535 miles per hour.
My supervisor had been juggling his “brick” (old-school government-issued Motorola flip phone) and his desk phone the entire time, sometimes getting a trickle of information, and sometimes regurgitating it out to someone else. Just as we had begun planning a response to assist at the Pentagon, he said, “Hang on,” slamming his landline into its cradle. “We’re ordered to go over and assist with protecting headquarters.” For some reason, still unbeknownst to me, we had just been ordered to report to DEA headquarters in Crystal City, a high-rise neighborhood almost directly across 395 from the Pentagon, and help secure the building.
Seriously? I thought, Why on earth would terrorists want to take out DEA headquarters? Was the White House not good enough of a target? The Capitol Building not make a big enough splash? Hell, even FBI headquarters, although still an outside chance, made more sense than DEA headquarters . . . nobody even knows where it is.
Before leaving, I stopped just outside my boss’s door. It was one of those moments when something pops in your mind, something that seems so simple, so completely obvious, that you second-guess yourself before voicing it because common sense mandates that surely it has either already been addressed or doesn’t need to be because you should already know the answer. Pausing to quickly rummage through the filing cabinets in my brain, searching for what it seemed clearly should be there but apparently wasn’t, I braced myself and asked the question. “Um . . . How exactly are we supposed to stop a plane from crashing into DEA headquarters?”
No answer, just a roll of the eyes and wave of the hand—off to headquarters we went.
Sometime later, well into the evening, while manning my post at DEA headquarters (prepared to do what exactly I still don’t know) I got a call from my then father-in-law.
Jack was an FBI agent, just a few years short of retirement. He would joke about having worked for every director the FBI had ever had, including J. Edgar Hoover himself. An Ohio State grad and collegiate boxer, Jack had been stationed in the Washington Field Office his entire career, and at this time, he was working on a Joint Fugitive Task Force with the U.S. Marshals Service and Metropolitan Police Department. I always got along with Jack. We had our work in common, and between the two of us there was never a shortage of stories for the rest of the family during those many summer days and nights spent out on his back deck in Annapolis, Maryland, cracking blues and drinking beer.
Jack told me he was at the Pentagon and tasked to one of the many teams that the FBI had dispatched there. Heading up his team was another FBI agent who was assigned to HIDTA that I knew and had worked with. Jack said that they were short on people and asked if I could break away and help out.
After assuring my boss that it looked like we had everything pretty much “protected” and locked down there at the DEA building, I went over to help at the Pentagon. I quickly badged my way through security set up at the perimeter, but while trying to make my way through the chaos looking for Jack, I was taken aback.
Still smoking and smoldering, that odd, almost burning sensation of JP-4 jet fuel permeating the nostrils, it looked like a war zone. There were uniformed Defense Department personnel running about, orders being blared from megaphones, debris seemingly everywhere, roaring generators, light trees, a triage, medics, Red Cross vehicles and humvees . . . And right there just across the river, the night sky yielded, surpassed by the city glow of our nation’s capital and pierced by the giant obelisk of the Washington Monument. It was utterly surreal.
Fortunately, the FBI command post wasn’t hard to find. They were there in full force, as were a number of other agencies. I may bust the FBI’s chops once in a while, but on that scene, I’ll give them their due—they did a good job. Soon I found Jack, sitting together with the rest of his team on makeshift chairs and benches. Introductions having been made, I fashioned a seat of my own from the mounds of equipment and supplies that were dumped in piles nearby. Expecting at any moment to get the okay to go in, and with no one daring to wander off too far for fear of missing it—the chance to help in some way, to do something—we just waited.
Mid-morning on September 12, our okay finally came. Ours was the first investigative team to enter the Pentagon after it had been deemed safe to do so. Our mission: body recovery. It didn’t come as a surprise; we knew what we were assigned to do.
Prior to our entering the building that first time, the FBI had mandated we wear big white Tyvek suits, hooded, with thick puncture-proof rubber gloves, boots, goggles, and a full face-protective mask. I was still working undercover at the time: earring, goatee, ponytail . . . the whole nine yards. I had no chance of actually getting a good seal with the mask (so that it would actually be effective), so I tucked my ponytail away under the hood, loosened the straps on the mask so that it didn’t drive my earring into my mastoid process, and was ready to go in.
Eight figures, standing in line against the huge granite wall of the Pentagon’s outermost ring, all clad head to ankle in white Tyvek. In a last bit of preparation, every other person was handed a roll of silver duct tape and a Sharpie marker with the instructions to tape the seams of each other’s suits at the ankles and wrists and have your last name written in large letters across your back. “Don’t think for a second that since we said it was okay to go in that that means it’s safe in there. If something goes bad, we don’t need any more bodies to identify.”
I quickly ran the tape around Jack’s ankles and wrist a few times, turned him around, and wrote his last name across his back. Jack turned back facing me, grabbed the tape and Sharpie, made a few quick spins of the tape around my ankles and wrist, and then spun me around. I felt the point of the marker press hard on my upper left shoulder and then . . . a pause . . . and ten seconds later it dawned on me—my father-in-law had forgotten my last name.
“It’s Dodson, Jack. You know, your daughter’s husband . . . same last name as her?”
“Oh—shut up. I got it,” he said and I spell-checked him as he scribbled the letters across my back.
For the next two days, we pulled bodies out of rubble, trying to identify each before placing them into bags. Some were easy: a wallet, name tag, dog tags, etc. . . . others, not so much. Fortunate were the times an entire body was recovered.
Somewhere in the second ring, I believe, on one of the upper floors, there was a conference room with some minor damage: a few fallen ceiling tiles, pictures knocked off walls . . . disheveled, but in no way destroyed. Seated around a large wooden conference table in the middle of the room were seven or eight people, each covered in fine particles of dust and debris, slumped over in the high-back chairs or collapsed forward on the table, but none with any trauma. No visible injuries or wounds, no burns, no blood . . . bodies perfectly intact. They were in the middle of a meeting one second—dead the next.
Closer to the impact site, almost right in the middle of all the devastation, there stood this large, perfect square, a big box with nothing left standing near it, debris all around and leaning on it, seemingly untouched by the flame and exempt from the carnage. It was obviously a room of some kind, and this being the Pentagon and all, I thought: SCIF? War room? Bunker? Vault maybe? Crawling through tons of debris, over mounds of rubble and under felled girders, we made our way to it. It was a bathroom. If that hadn’t been odd enough, the inside was immaculate—the mirrors weren’t cracked, it wasn’t dirty or dusty, nothing. Standing there, I remember thinking about the contrast: the microcosm of that pristine bathroom environment compared to the perdition of the world surrounding it.
A little over a year later, in October 2002, I again found myself in the tempest—the D.C. sniper case. Whereas anger and revenge were the predominant reactions to 9/11, this time it was fear that had gripped the Washington, D.C., area. Dragging on for nearly a month and spanning from southern Maryland to Ashland, Virginia, the investigation meant hundreds of us—cops, troopers, and agents alike—running down lead after lead, shutting down Interstate 95 and the Beltway, jumping Jersey barriers and median strips while chasing every “white van” that dared show itself to anyone with a cell phone. Sleep was rare those three weeks.
I thought about those victims a lot: coming out of a Home Depot or Michael’s craft store, pumping gas, waiting for a bus, doing one of those things that we all do on any given day. Everything normal one minute—dead the next.
After several years, similar frustrations to those I had developed while working the street began to arise: making good cases only to have to turn them over to some fed. Thinking I’d finally put an end to that pattern—I put in my application. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—more commonly known as ATF—hired me in June 2004 and assigned me to a two-man, satellite office in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I had a great boss, made some good friends, and worked some good cases over the next five years.
Meth was the dope du jour in the Harrisonburg area and we filled the dockets with large, armed drug-trafficking conspiracy cases. One of my favorite cases there, however, had nothing to do with drugs at all. It started on a Saturday morning in the summer of 2007: a local bank was robbed by a masked man armed with two stolen Glock pistols and a hoax bomb device. After brandishing the pistols at the tellers and ordering them to hand over what cash they had, he placed a device in the middle of the floor. It consisted mainly of a cell phone duct-taped to a small box and had several wires seemingly establishing a circuit between the two. “This is a bomb,” he announced. “If anyone calls the cops in the next thirty minutes—it’s going to go off.” And out the door he went.
A lot of law enforcement folks will tell you that ATF really stands for “After the Fact.” Actually, that isn’t too far from the truth. The FBI exerts jurisdiction over bomb threats that meet a threshold for federal prosecution. A real bomb (ticking or otherwise) is handled by a real bomb squad, which generally consist of state and local officers—although the squad and its members can only be certified by the FBI. A hoax device (fake bomb) is handled by a bomb squad until deemed a hoax device, which then would constitute a threat to bomb and thus fall back to the FBI. It isn’t until something goes boom that ATF can exert its authority and muscle in and try to take the lead from FBI. ATF doesn’t defuse bombs; our expertise is in working bomb scenes.
Regardless, we all know from the movies that the FBI is still the lead agency on a bank robbery. That’s true for the most part: the FBI has jurisdiction over the robbery of an FDIC-insured financial institution (bank). However, if the bank robber uses a firearm then it becomes a federal crime of violence—ATF shares jurisdiction equally with the FBI.
More important, the most vital causative factor leading to my involvement in this case—the robbery happened on a Saturday morning. Ever try getting an FBI agent to come out after 5 P.M. Monday through Friday, or on a weekend or a holiday?
The local detective called the FBI and was referred to the duty agent, who advised him that he couldn’t make it out there that day. Graciously, however, he said he would come to the PD on Monday and pick up copies of the reports and the evidence if they could have it all boxed up and ready to go for him by then.
I had no desire to work a bank robbery case, but one of the detectives there that day was assigned to the local drug task force that I worked with regularly. He called my cell phone, told me what he had, and I headed that way. Having been a real cop, I knew his frustration. I had been pleasantly surprised after meeting my ATF boss for the first time back in 2004. He was a true “agent’s boss” who took care of his people and knew how to do the job. He had explained to me that my mission in Harrisonburg was to assist local law enforcement; if federal prosecutions came from that, then great, but if they just needed an extra body to stand a post on something or direct traffic—my ass better be there. He understood the importance of relationships, and how taking the time and effort to establish and maintain those would yield true results.
After I got to the bank and got brought up to speed, I told the PD guys there was no sense in them booking all the evidence into their vault on Saturday, which required a hell of a lot of paperwork, only to have the FBI agent come over on Monday and pick it all up from them. So I took the evidence back to my office and secured it for the FBI agent.
By Monday there was no escaping it. Having briefed him about the Saturday callout, my boss assigned me to work with the FBI agent on the bank robbery case. Over the next four weeks, it became a serial bank robbery case. Same suspect, five different banks, all but the very last one robbed on a Saturday. My summer was ruined: every weekend spent at crime scenes and every week spent bringing the FBI up to speed on what they had missed over the weekend.
That Monday after the first robbery, I met the FBI agent working the case with me for the very first time. I gave him copies of everything and turned all the recovered evidence over to him. “First thing,” I told him, “send that cell phone from the hoax device to your lab and get it analyzed.” I knew they could easily fingerprint it and perhaps trace it back to the purchaser.
A few weeks in we got our first break: the FBI had a composite sketch drawn up and soon a suspect was identified. A local guy, early twenties, worked as a groundskeeper at a shop in Harrisonburg. It was a Friday afternoon, and if he was to keep to his schedule, we’d have another robbery the next day. The order came down from the FBI brass that their field agents could not hit the suspect’s house due to the “risk involved.” They wanted a full-time tactical team to do it. The FBI’s team, however, was unavailable. Quickly I offered up that we, the ATF, would do it.
I and the other agents assigned to my field office, which was in Roanoke, maintained our own area tactical team and trained regularly.
I called my boss and said, “Send up the fellas: we’re landing on this guy—tonight.”
Surprisingly, he was hesitant. Citing the “risk involved,” he wanted to use ATF’s full-time Special Response Team (SRT) from D.C. Although I understood his concerns, it made no sense to me.
“Everyone we deal with is armed and dangerous . . . violent felons, armed drug traffickers,” I said. “We’re the ‘violent crimes police,’ remember? That’s what we do. When the local cops need help or can’t handle it because the guy is such a badass, they call us. Our job is to go after these guys who are too dangerous for everybody else.”
He tried to talk me down: “John, I understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t work that way. If we can wait on getting SRT, then we should let them do it.”
“But that is the way it works. You tell us we can hit the door, we hit it, the bad guy goes to jail . . . it’s over with,” I said.
“No, not this time,” he responded.
Hindsight being what it is, I’m thankful that he shut me down that day. It turned out that the FBI had identified the wrong guy. Without missing a beat, however, the FBI quickly created a “serial bank robber task force,” and I found myself immediately assigned to it.
Frustrated and unable to wait for the FBI lab any longer, I decided to track down the phone company from which the cell phone on the initial hoax device had been purchased. It was a typical burner—a temporary pay-as-you-go phone favored by a lot of criminals because there were no long-term phone records and, more than likely, no real way to track down the purchaser. I called up the company; the phone manufacturer could only tell me where and when it had been purchased—a local Wal-Mart a week or so before the first robbery.
So I rolled up to the Wal-Mart and found the manager. I asked him for the surveillance footage from the date of purchase and the transaction records. The video wasn’t available but the manager said he could try to pull the register receipts. Within minutes, the manager walked out of his office and handed me the receipt.
The Wal-Mart receipt had no name or anything on it but, surprisingly, it did have a credit card number. Leaving a record like this is a rare mistake, usually avoided by criminals at all costs. I went straight over to the Bank of America across the street and had the manager put me in touch with their corporate security office. Due to the severity of the situation, within minutes I had a name and an address.
There wasn’t a shred of doubt as to where I was headed next. On my way to the suspect’s house, I called my partner at the office with the FBI agents and informed them. Driving along, I saw several marked cruisers go screaming past me, sirens blazing.
“He just hit the Patriot Bank,” my partner told me. “The calls are coming in now.”
“I’m almost at the house,” I said. “Get someone headed this way.”
I pulled onto the street and rolled by the address. Nothing. When I got to the end of the block, I turned around and was about to park on the street, where I could keep an eye on the residence, when I saw the suspect pull up. I watched him as he parked. Still wearing his gloves from the bank robbery he had just committed only moments before, he reached into the backseat, grabbed a backpack, and went inside.
A few short moments later, backup having not yet arrived, I saw him come out of the house carrying the backpack and walk toward his car. My choice was either get in trouble for acting alone and without backup or watch him get away. Without hesitating, I chose trouble.
I got out of my car and started walking toward him. As soon as I got close enough, I wrapped one arm around his neck, threw him on the ground, and pressed the barrel of my pistol to the side of his head.
“Police!” I told him, “If you so much as clinch a muscle, I will splatter your brain all over this sidewalk.”
The cavalry came in a few short minutes later. Cop cars and FBI vehicles, sirens screaming and lights flashing, skidded into the neighborhood and slid to a stop. All told, we recovered seventy-two thousand dollars in cash and the two stolen Glock pistols. We transported the robber back to our office and the FBI case agent and I interviewed him.
The interview room was small, with concrete block walls from the tile floor up to the white drop ceiling and one door leading only to a secure hallway on the other side. It had one tinted window, behind which other agents could observe the interview from an adjacent location. Furnished only with a small, rectangular table and three chairs positioned around it, it was stark to say the least. I sat the suspect down in one of the chairs at the middle of the table and then walked around to the other side and sat on the back of one of the others. With my feet in the seat of the chair, leaning forward with my elbows resting on my knees, I looked at him. He was in his early twenties, seemed healthy and fit, with short brown hair and dressed just like any other kid I had seen around town. Since I first introduced myself to him there on the sidewalk in front of his house, he had been compliant and respectful, polite and well-spoken. He just seemed normal.
I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened. What event had caused his life to spiral down such a path as it had? These questions were nothing new to me; I posed them to myself many times in many similar situations. Each time, I was able to draw but one solitary conclusion: there but for the grace of God go I.
Mere moments passed until the FBI case agent walked in and sat down. He introduced himself to the kid, showed him his FBI credentials, and then spread open a large folder in front of him. Following all the procedures, the FBI agent produced the appropriate bureau interview and consent forms, read each aloud, made sure they were all clearly understood, and then obtained all the required initials and signatures on each one.
Finally, I thought to myself, we can start the interview.
While neatly putting the pages back into his folder, he fired off his first question.
“So?” he asked, “Why did you rob those banks?”
Uncontrollably, my head snapped toward him.
Quickly, my mouth began to move as I began my attempt to utter something to spare my FBI cohort from the folly of his question.
His gaze still squarely fixed on me but speaking directly to the FBI agent, the suspect answered: “The same reason anybody would rob a bank . . .”
I cringed, knowing that the obvious punch line to the joke that my FBI counterpart had inadvertently made himself the victim of was about to be delivered.
“For the money!”
The next morning, I walked into the office and, after getting my morning cup of coffee, sat down at the small table in the break room. My partner slid the local newspaper across the table to me. Front page: “FBI Arrest Serial Bank Robber—Minutes After Robbery.” Seconds later, a local TV news reported the same. “Breaking news”—they had an exclusive interview from one of the serial bank robber’s last victims, of less than twenty-four hours ago—a teller from the Patriot Bank.
After her short narrative describing the robbery itself, the teller concluded with “and then I pushed the emergency ‘holdup’ button and then, just seconds later, the bank and the parking lot were filled with FBI agents. They told me that they had the guy under arrest already. Just like that. And I just want to say, thank God for the FBI!”
In 2007, while I was still based out of Harrisonburg, there was the horrific shooting that left thirty-one dead and shocked the campus of Virginia Tech. Others will argue that the death count was thirty-two; I don’t count the shooter. Our Roanoke office is less than two hours from Blacksburg, Virginia. When my partner in Harrisonburg and I first heard about it we knew that our Roanoke guys were already on their way down there, and we knew that we wouldn’t be far behind.
When we got to the campus, FBI, ATF, and state police were already there en masse. They had already locked down everything and were wrapping up searches of the other buildings. It was one of those scenes where you don’t really know where to begin. There was so much carnage—and no real playbook for something like that.
The scene in Norris Hall, the epicenter of the violence, still haunts me. To this day, every time a cell phone rings, I am immediately taken straight back to that place and time. The ringing wouldn’t stop. Emanating from everywhere, the ringing of cell phones as they sat in motionless pockets, or buried down in a backpack, or lying somewhere on the cold, tiled floor. Worst were those still clutched in the death grip of their owner’s hand—ringing . . . and ringing. You knew that on the other end was someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend or mother or father or sibling. Some loved one trying frantically to reach someone they loved. They had seen the news and only wanted reassurance that the person they cared about was okay.
The scene was horrific: some victims were still seated at their desks; others lay where they had huddled together in the corner of a classroom. It was saddening to see that so many of them had just given up, had watched as their killer came through and methodically executed classmate after classmate. Some just sat there and awaited their turn to die; others held their hands and arms up over their faces as if to try to shield themselves from the bullets somehow. In class one minute—dead the next.
And then there were others: those who did something, got up, ran, jumped through windows, anything to get out of there. Although still very much victims, they had at least survived.
Shortly after the scene had been secured, we began identifying the survivors and witnesses, tracking them down and interviewing them. We had to make sure there weren’t multiple shooters or other accomplices who had managed to flee by disappearing into the crowd of others.
When you go through experiences like those, one after another after another—terrorists, lunatics, mass murderers—you begin to think that there isn’t much to life that you can’t handle. Life, however, seems ever determined to prove to you otherwise. I was blindsided and caught completely off guard when my wife abruptly ended our marriage. The next year and a half was consumed by a hellacious divorce that affected every facet of my life: my children, my finances, my work, my own self-esteem and confidence. Working deep undercover, recovering bodies, or witnessing things that would make your skin crawl all paled next to the toll that the divorce took on me. At the end of it, though, I was able to keep a hold of the most important things in my life—I had primary custody of my children, I had parents and family who loved and supported me, and I still had a great job that I loved. In what seemed my darkest hours, I still had things to be grateful for.
Like so many times in life, one thing leads to another—one door opens as another one closes. While I was still recovering from the trauma of divorce, ATF offered me an opportunity and a transfer. I was more than ready. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Since I had to start all over again anyway, why not do so in a brand-new place? “Go west, young man—go west.”