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February 2010


How to Become a Bounty Hunter

For Calif. FBI Agent: When a Beer is Neither Here Nor There

A Los Angeles Times report stirred up a lot of angry reader comments about an FBI agent shooting his gun at men who were trying to steal beer. The problem was: there was no beer and the real story appeared to be far more serious than reported. Here’s a detailed account.


By Allan Lengel

The brief story posted on the Los Angeles Times web page last month said two men, who were being sentenced, had broken into a garage in Yorba Linda, Calif., looking to steal beer.  The garage happened to belong to an off-duty FBI agent, who confronted the men around 2 a.m.

One of the men struggled with the agent, who had identified himself as law enforcement. Afterward, both men fled in a car.

The agent,  identified as “James M” ,  “shot at the car as it drove away but neither man was injured,” the paper reported on its online edition on Jan. 5.

The paper also reported that the two men –Jeffrey  Michael Drach, 20, and Justin Wesley Case, 21 — were sentenced to two years in prison for residential burglary for the Nov. 18 incident.

The LA Times account was enough to trigger a barrage of negative comments online from agitated readers.

“So the FBI agent shoots at their car as they flee after trying to steal beer, and nothing happens to him? This is ridiculous,” read one of the typical reader responses.

Another reader wrote: “The FBI officer shot at their car as they drove away?! From an attempted beer-heist? Sounds like the FBI officer should be brought up on charges next.”

Perhaps the comments would have been totally justified, except for a few key facts:

For one, there was never any beer involved in the case, period, said the prosecutor and FBI. The door leading from the garage to the house was ajar. The agent’s wife and young child were inside.

Plus, after one of the men attacked and struggled with the agent, both men fled and hopped into a Ford pickup with the agent in pursuit.

“The driver of the vehicle allegedly turned his truck toward the agent,” according to the Orange County deputy district attorney Keith Bogardus. “The agent was acting in self defense.”

The article also failed to mention that the FBI has launched an internal review to determine whether the agent was justified in discharging his gun.  Had some readers known that, perhaps they may not have suggested that the matter was being swept under the rug.  (FBI policy essentially says agents can fire a gun if they fear that their life or others are in immediate danger).

The story is an example how the media in the Internet era can trigger an instant outpouring of online criticism in the community –  in this case against a federal agent — and how those quickly formed opinions often rely on a collection of facts,  which can sometimes be incomplete or not quite right.

Granted, any reporter will tell you it’s nearly impossible — particularly in this era of online immediacy — to always get things 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, and capture all the nuances. To boot, sometimes key details are not always available to a reporter.

That being said, the story caused some heartburn for the FBI, an agency hyper-sensitive about its image ever since the J. Edgar Hoover days.

“The public perception based on the coverage was that this was an out of control FBI agent rather than a victim who was home who happened to be an agent who was trying to protect his family, including his wife and baby,” said Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times reporter for the story said she would consult with her editors before commenting, but did not respond after that. And the attorney who made the comment about the beer did not return a phone call for comment.  Eimiller said she called the paper to complain about the story, but declined to get into details.

The original story, first posted at 9:02 a.m., stated that officials had said the men were looking to steal beer from the Orange County home.

About 90 minutes later, at 10:37 a.m., the paper — instead of posting a correction- simply posted an “updated” version,  which said: “A previous version of this story stated that officials said the men were stealing beer, but it was an attorney who made the comment.”

The headline for the updated version read like this:  “Two O.C. men sentenced to prison for trying to steal beer from FBI agent’s garaged (Updated).”

Meanwhile, some agitated citizens continued to post critical remarks about the FBI agent and the beer.

“So the FBI agent shoots at their car as they flee after tying to steal beer, and nothing happens to him? That is ridiculous….The agent should be sentenced to prison for endangering the community and attempted murder.”

Not all the comments were critical of the FBI.

“I have no problem with the FBI agent(’)s action,” wrote one reader. “He found strangers in his garage, he had a physical confrontation with one…..shoot away.”

In the mean time, the agent remains on active duty.

A request made to Eimiller to speak to the agent was declined. She said the matter is under internal investigation and it wouldn’t be wise for him to comment. She also asked that his name not be disclosed for his and his family’s safety.

“I can say he’s an agent with a great reputation,” she added.

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