Links

Columnists



Site Search


Entire (RSS)
Comments (RSS)

Archive Calendar

November 2022
S M T W T F S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930  

Guides

How to Become a Bounty Hunter



Special Report

How the Fed’s Case Against a Suspected LA Gangster Imploded After Convicting Him on 50-Plus Counts

George Torres/la city beat photo
George Torres/la city beat photo

By Jeffrey Anderson
For ticklethewire.com

The defense lawyer for accused racketeer George Torres smelled blood. Torres, a self-made grocery store magnate and suspected drug kingpin, who was both feared and revered in the barrios of South Los Angeles, was on trial in federal court.

Prosecution witnesses were lined up waiting to testify that he was a brutal gangster, who exploited immigrants, cheated on his taxes and ordered gangland murders.

Yet at the trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in April it was Torres’ attorney, Steven Madison, a former federal prosecutor, who went on the offensive, insisting that a rogue L.A. detective had a vendetta against his client.

The detective, Greg Kading, was making promises and threats to witnesses and withholding evidence from the defense in his zeal to see Torres convicted, Madison argued.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson had made no effort to hide his disdain for the government’s case that finally came to fruition after 20 years of failed drug investigations of one of Los Angeles’ most elusive underworld figures.

Still, on April 20, the jury delivered a resounding victory for the prosecution, convicting Torres on 50-plus counts including two of the most critical ones: RICO counts (Racketeering Influenced And Corrupt Organizations Act) that involved criminal conspiracy and solicitation of murder.

In June, within two months of the verdict, the case unraveled and became a growing embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s office. The government voluntarily dismissed the two major RICO counts after serious flaws in the case were exposed.

Judge Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, where he had been held without bail since his arrest in June 2007.  And Torres decided to sell  his grocery chain to an L.A. based equity firm with a Houston partner, according to the L.A. Business Journal.

Last month, the judge delivered the final blow to the prosecution in a blistering 147-page order: “The court is disturbed by the conduct in this case,” he wrote of the government’s handling of key witnesses involving a pair of murders allegedly directed by Torres. He then ordered a new trial on remaining tax and bribery counts for Torres, whom the government was never able to catch with drugs or drug money.

“The Court finds it likely that the jury could have been improperly influenced by the subtext of the entire case, which was that George Torres was somehow involved in drug-trafficking,” Wilson wrote in his September 18 order.

Now, despite a jury verdict that once threatened to put him away for life, Torres, a fruit truck operator turned owner of the multi-million dollar Numero Uno supermarket chain and vast swaths of real estate, is a free man.

The case is perhaps another cautionary tale of how complex cases can go so wrong for a U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But the big question is: How did this one implode?

The Los Angeles media followed Madison’s lead and blamed L.A.P.D. Det. Greg Kading, the lead investigator on the case. The reality is far more complicated: a perfect storm of questionable witnesses, fallible detectives and a bold strategy advanced by Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight, who succumbed to an unusually assertive and skeptical judge.

The outcome has been a clear embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and tarnished both Kading, who was dropped from the DEA task force, and Searight, chief of his offices’ narcotics division, who was replaced on the case by a superior.

Neither Searight nor Kading would comment for this story. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says it is prepared to re-try Torres on the non-RICO counts.

Torres’ attorney Robert Eisfelder remarked: “We’re extremely grateful for the time and effort the court put into this opinion.”

For decades, law enforcers suspected Torres as a drug kingpin with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, a Mexican organization known to have tentacles in Southern California.

Unsolved murders in the graffiti-scarred area around his flagship Numero Uno supermarket in South Los Angeles, along with an eerie deference by the locals, caused L.A. homicide detectives to regard him as a dangerous man.

Torres’ tendency to use coded language over the phone when talking to associates who were major drug traffickers, his preference to meet them to talk in person, and his use of a Puerto Rican bank known for its lack of cooperation with government investigations convinced drug investigators that he was a kingpin.

A father of five with a wife and a female companion who both bear his last name, Torres also earned a reputation for hard work, good customer service and fair prices at his 11-store chain of supermarkets, which he launched in the early 1980s.Until his indictment he perhaps was best known as the real estate partner of Horacio Vignali, father of Carlos Vignali, a drug dealer set free by President Clinton in the 2000 Pardongate scandal.

Torres’ indictment in 2007 on RICO charges stemmed from wiretap investigations in 1998 and 2004 of two associates and drug dealers, Derrick “Bo-D” Smith and Raul Del Raul.

The two were serving lengthy sentences for drug trafficking when they agreed to testify against Torres, who Del Real referred to as “boss,” even though Del Real never worked at Numero Uno. Del Real, Smith and others would finger Torres during trial in three unsolved murders in South L.A.

But while the 2004 wiretap investigation aimed to prove Torres was involved with Del Real’s violent drug trafficking conspiracy, which extended from Mexico to the East Coast, a tap of Torres’ phone yielded evidence of other crimes. Still, investigators never seized drugs or drug money in the case.

In February, during a pretrial hearing, Judge Wilson remarked: “It’s been pretty clear to me that the government’s strategy is to try a drugless drug case. Why wouldn’t a jury who is not deaf and dumb figure that out?”

At trial, Searight decided not to focus in on Torres as drug kingpin. Instead, he embraced the idea of him as a racketeer, a man who ran his supermarkets as a criminal enterprise in which he extorted money from helpless immigrants, bribed public officials and hired drug dealers to intimidate and sometimes kill those who crossed him.

The theory was fraught from the start. Judge Wilson distrusted the government’s use of the criminal RICO statute, which was enacted in the 1970s to disrupt the activities of the Mafia. By the time the case went to trial in March, the judge put Searight on notice that he was going to watch the government like a hawk.

During the trial the judge ended up suppressing evidence, throwing out some counts and accusing L.A. Det. Kading of acting with “reckless disregard for the truth” by misquoting conversations from a wiretap on Torres’ phone in a search warrant affidavit.

Seizing on the judge’s disdain, defense attorney Madison hammered away at Detective Kading’s credibility. Tapes of jailhouse conversations showed Kading resorting to inducements and threats to keep in line star witnesses and convicted drug dealers Del Real, who was serving 14 years and Smith, who was serving 24-years.

One call showed Kading offering to help Del Real’s brother stay out of trouble with the police. Another made it look as if Kading was supplying the answers to questions for Smith to say yes to.

Madison also complained of evidence that had not been turned over, such as police logs of witness interviews. He accused Kading of being obsessed with destroying Torres, and with bribing witnesses to corroborate a phony story.

The jurors didn’t buy it, convicting on more than 50 felonies that included Torres ordering the murder of an L.A. gang member named Jose “Shorty” Maldonando, who had tried to extort a tax from him. They acquitted him on one of the serious RICO counts involving the murder of Torres’ former right hand man Ignacio Meza.

Then Madison really went to work, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office saw its case come apart at the seams.

After the trial, Madison asked Judge Wilson to toss the verdict on grounds that Kading had tainted the entire case with lawless tactics. Madison turned up more tapes of jailhouse conversations that the government had not previously disclosed involving Kading, drug dealers Smith and Del Real, and other informants.

The tapes showed Detective Kading reminding one witness that he could face charges for other crimes if he refused to testify against Torres. The tapes also showed that Del Real and Smith expected early release and perhaps financial gain for testifying against Torres. No such deals could be confirmed.

Madison also discovered that Los Angeles defense attorney Wayne Higgins, a lawyer for Smith, allegedly received a free navigational system from a used car salesman with Kading’s help. Higgins had no comment.

Under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, a failure to turn over such information – on the part of the prosecutor – can be grounds for a new trial or dismissal if the information is favorable to the defendant and may have prejudiced the outcome of the case.

On June 9, Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, after the U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed the RICO case against Torres.

“Torres is clearly entitled to a new trial,” Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told reporters at the time. “And after a review of the totality of the case we decided not to pursue the RICO case any further.”

Madison moved in for the kill, arguing that “inflammatory” racketeering evidence tainted the jury in weighing the remaining bribery and tax counts, and asking the judge to dismiss the entire case.

While the judge in his lengthy September order manages to deny most of the defense requests, he also manages to drive a stake through the heart of the United States v. Torres. And he reserves his harshest comment for federal prosecutor Searight:

“A prosecutor who does not appreciate the perils of using rewarded criminals as witnesses risks compromising the truth-seeking mission of our criminal justice system.”

Wilson ordered the new trial for the remaining non-RICO charges primarily on the spillover effect – essentially that the questionable RICO charges had tainted the other charges.

He also said the non-RICO guilty verdicts against Torres on tax, harboring illegal immigrants and bribery were based on a “weak” case and bolstered by witnesses who were “not credible” because they had not been prosecuted for their part in Torres’ tax crimes.

In issuing his order, the judge clearly had little regard or respect for the jury’s judgment. Many of his findings are prefaced with the words “No reasonable juror could conclude …” He questioned whether jurors were paying attention, or blinded by the lurid details and hardened witnesses from Torres’ inner circle.

“The jury was undoubtedly given the impression that George Torres was an unsavory character in light of his longtime friendship and associations with these despicable human beings,” Wilson wrote.

Of such a thorough undoing of such an overwhelming guilty verdict, veteran defense attorney Mike Stone, a lawyer for Detective Kading said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a case go like this.”

Asked why he thought the government dismissed the RICO counts without a fight Stone said, “I don’t think they’d have rolled over like that if they didn’t think they had a chance of keeping the other counts.”

Judge Wilson wondered the same, and speculated in his order: “Perhaps [the prosecution] concluded they could not proceed in good faith. If they had dismissed the RICO sooner, Torres would’ve enjoyed a trial that was free from the spillover prejudice of the RICO counts. Because of the government’s own failures, however, this information was not revealed until after the trial began.”

Defense attorney Steven Madison thinks he knows why the government caved. “My sense is that the government has concluded it cannot trust Kading,” he said in June, after the government dropped the meat of its case. “Searight relied on an unreliable guy.”

Madison’s focus on Detective Kading as the scapegoat in the case may have been unfair considering there were other investigators who failed to disclose certain conversations they had during the probe.

Veteran investigators familiar with the case are displeased with the way Kading has been dragged through the mud.

Speaking on background, a number of law enforcers said that Searight was cowed by the judge and was not aggressive in refuting the defense’s broadside attacks against Kading. Several said that Searight should have made sure that all Brady information was turned over to the defense.

Others see Judge Wilson as the wildcard. “A good defense attorney is going to sense a sympathetic judge and argue every technicality he can,” says a federal prosecutor familiar with the Torres case. “Federal judges are powerful. Maybe Wilson was stunned by the jury verdict. Judges can’t control jury deliberations but they control post-trial motions.”

The veteran prosecutor concedes, “It is virtually impossible to control every asset or agent in a case, and sometimes the cumulative effect can look bad.”

Not to mention the value of a stellar defender who appreciates when conditions are ripe for upheaval: “Madison kept pushing to see how far he could go in taking apart the case,” the veteran prosecutor says, “and he went pretty far.”

Read Previous stories on Torres by Jeffrey Anderson

Los Angeles City Beat (2/18/09)

Pasadena Weekly (4/2/09)

LA Weekly (6/14/07)

Read the Judge’s Ruling

The Raven Haired Actress and the Fall of the Dapper FBI Agent

Mark Rossini/vtv

Mark Rossini/vtv

By Allan Lengel and Rachel Leven
ticklethewire.com
WASHINGTON – As Mark T. Rossini sat at the defendant’s table in the D.C. federal courthouse in May awaiting his fate, you couldn’t help but wonder, if only for a moment, if he saw himself as a tragic figure in a fabled  Hollywood film:

Dapper, veteran FBI agent romances pretty actress and foolishly risks career and prestige — not to mention a $140,000-a-year job — to sneak the actress a secret FBI document.

And you couldn’t help but wonder if he remembered the words he uttered to group of Muslims at the Al Badr Mosque in Brooklyn that was captured on a YouTube video dated Oct. 20, 2008:

“We are all equal. None of us is above the law, none of us is under the law.”

In the end, Rossini got a slap on the wrist: one year of probation and a $5,000 fine for digging into confidential FBI records and then lying about it to his supervisor and federal investigators.

It didn’t much matter that he did it for his love interest –actress Linda
Linda Fiorentino

Linda Fiorentino

Fiorentino of “Men In Black” fame, who had passed the FBI document to defense attorneys to help rogue detective Anthony Pellicano, who went on trial in 2008 for illegally wiretapping the rich and famous in Hollywood.

The slap on the wrist may have been relatively painless. But his fall from grace was not. Loss of job. Loss of colleagues. Excommunication from the
FBI, an institution obsessed with public image. Rossini, who turned 48 last month, was suddenly very bad for the FBI’s public image. He was unceremoniously kicked to the curb.

“He’s still reeling from the mistakes he made,” a friend said. “He’s devastated. Mark was a hard-working agent who put the needs of the FBI and country at the forefront for years and has made many sacrifices. He’s made some mistakes.”

For a Rossini, a guy who had lived a charmed life — gallivanting about New
York and Washington with girlfriend/ actress Linda Fiorentino, eating
steak, sipping fine Cabernet, running with some of the big dogs at the FBI, it was a precipitous and ugly fall, and yes shocking to some.

“I was speechless,” recalled Michael Rolince, a former FBI counter-terrorism
honcho who is now in the private sector, when first hearing of the charges.
“The more I learned about it the more dumbfounded I was. That you would risk your career, your pension, your reputation. There’s nothing worth risking your reputation and integrity.”

The rise and fall of FBI agent Mark Rossini is a story worth telling and
perhaps, one worthy of a movie. Unquestionably, it would have been
far worse, and far more disturbing had he committed the crime for money.

But for love? Well, it seemed a little less egregious. After all, who hasn’t at one time or another been made a fool of by love?

In the end, part of Rossini’s plea agreement was that he’d give up his FBI
job and find another one. He headed south to New Orleans to work for the
Youth Rescue Initiative that was run by Jim Bernazzani, a former special agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office.  And he reportedly split up with Fiorentino, who was never charged in the case.

He also created his own risk management consulting company MTR Associates, and  formed an affiliation with The Repton Group of N.Y., a security and crisis  management firm. It’s unclear how active he’s been with these enterprises.

Rossini and his Washington attorney, Adam S. Hoffinger, a former N.Y. federal prosecutor, declined comment for this report. Attempts to reach Fiorentino were unsuccessful. She did not return calls after messages were left on a voice mail.

Rossini joined the FBI in July 1991 working for six years in a white-collar crime unit before joining the Joint Terrorism Task Force. In New York, he became  tight with John O’Neill, a bigger-than-life personality who led the division’s counter-terrorism unit.

Interestingly, as a side note, O’Neill kept warning every one of the dangers of Osama bin Laden — pre-9/11. Ironically, on Sept. 11, 2001, his dire predictions came true: He was working as the security director for the World Trade Center and died in the attack.

Back in 1999, O’Neill was concerned that the CIA was not sharing information. There was clearly tension between the FBI and CIA. So O’Neill sent Rossini to D.C. on a mission: to become the New York FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force representative to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. That way, hopefully, more information would flow between the two agencies.

But not everyone embraced Rossini with unbridled love. There were some within CIA who thought of him as “John O’Neill’s spy”, said ex-FBI agent Rolince.

Socially, Rolince said Rossini “loved being out with the crowd. He was
really a fun person to be around. Very engaging, very social, kind words for
everybody. I didn’t see him as being egotistical, and all about himself.”

“Mark was good looking, carefree and single,” Rolince said. “I think he liked the power base of Washington and the nightlife of New York.”

In Washington, he often went to Les Halles, a popular French restaurant and bar near FBI headquarters frequented by agents. On weekends, he often headed up to New York.

On April 14, 2001, during his stint in D.C., Rossini married Amelia Stewart,
a program director for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington. Before
that, Stewart had worked for the federal government during the Clinton
years, but lost her job when George W. Bush became president, divorce
papers in D.C. Superior Court show. Then beginning in 2002, “she worked
intermittently in a number of jobs.”

The marriage traveled down a bumpy path, according to divorce papers and a friend. His wife, Amelia Stewart Rossini suffered a series of health
setbacks including recurring bouts of cancer and two miscarriages, the court papers showed. It  took its toll.

“The strain placed on the marriage by this cascade of health crises is
difficult to imagine, and also difficult to overestimate,” said a court
order issued by Superior Court Judge John M. Campbell. “The defendant (wife) testified that the effect on her caused the collapse of the marriage. … This was made worse by the requirements of the plaintiff’s job, which demanded frequent travel during this time.”

In the end, in April 2008, the judge ordered Rossini , who was earning $140,000 a year, to pay $1,500 a month in alimony for 24 months from the date of sale of their marital home. The records noted he was already paying $700 per month child support for his 16-year-old son from a previous marriage.

The couple officially separated  around September 2006. By then Rossini had changed jobs; he was special assistant to the assistant director of public affairs at headquarters in Washington, where he seemed to fit in well.

“He was a smart stand up guy,” said Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. “He knew the bureau and he knew the press. He was the real deal. He had been on the front line of the war on terrorism and that gave him added credibility.”

But in the personal ledger, even before he separated and filed for divorce, the marriage appeared over.

“He was emotionally out of the marriage by the time I got there. He was
virtually separated,” said Jeff Stein, Congressional Quarterly’s national security editor. Stein met Rossini in late 2005 when he began work on an in-depth piece on the FBI’s transformation to an intelligence gathering agency.

While working on the article, Rossini was one of Stein’s key contacts in the FBI press office.

“He was really struggling,” said Stein, who writes the lively Spy Talk
blog for Congressional Quarterly. “His wife wouldn’t give him a divorce.
She had the house. It was a mess.”

In February 2006, Rossini got a big break — in his personal life that
is. According to the newspapers, he met the raven haired, smokey voiced actress Linda Fiorentino, three years his senior, at Elaine’s restaurant on 2nd Avenue on New York’s Upper East Side, a fixture that over the years had served drinks, dinners and after-theater noshes to such luminaries as Woody Allen, Michael Caine and Jackie O.

“Almost overnight, the two became inseparable, popping up together at
Elaine’s, Bruno’s and Rossini’s D.C. hangout, Les Halles,” according to a Dec.
5, 2008, New York Post article. He beamed when he was around her.

A friend said he wasn’t seeking publicity. He just enjoyed her company.

“Linda is a nice lady,” the friend said. “They got along well. That’s what he was
looking for, not the press associated with it.”

But Stein said Rossini seemed to enjoy the added cache that came with dating an actress.

“I think he was like a moth to a flame,” Stein said. ” He was totally enthralled with her. She was movie star, not only a movie star, but she did crime movies.”

Some of those movies included: “Men In Black,” “The Last Seduction,” “Vision
Quest” and “Liberty Stands Still.”

Rossini was proud of Fiorentino.
Stein said one day Rossini brought Fiorentino to his home in Georgetown.

Rossini called and said: “I’m bringing somebody by. Get dressed, really
presentable,” Stein recalled.

He said they showed up and Rossini introduced Fiorentino.

“I didn’t know her, she looked familiar,” Stein said.

Stein said they all headed out for breakfast and started walking down 30th
Street in Georgetown when Stein turned to Fiorentino and said: “You look
familiar.”

“Men in Black?” she responded with a smile.

The two made a good couple, Stein said.
“They could finish off each other’s sentences as they say,” he remarked. “She
was really nice.”

Meanwhile, according to news reports, Fiorentino had a fascination with Anthony Pellicano, even before she met Rossini in 2006. Pellicano was under investigation for illegally wiretapping Hollywood’s Who’s Who at the behest of clients including comic Chris Rock. And he was accused of illegally wiretapping such folks as Sylvester Stallone.

Pellicano was indicted in 2006 on illegal wiretap charges. He was convicted in 2008. But that was not his first brush with the law.

In 2005, he was serving 2 ½ years in prison for illegal possession of a hand
grenade and plastic explosives.

It was during that time that Vanity Fair contributor John Connolly recalled
meeting with Fiorentino, who asked him to arrange a meeting with Pellicano’s wife, Kat, according to a New York Post report. She was interested in making a movie on Pellicano, the paper reported.

The paper said Fiorentino tried giving Kat the hard sell for rights to production of her husband’s story. But Kat Pellicano declined.

The exact nature of Fiorentino and Anthony Pellicano’s relationship has
never been made clear. Government documents describe her as having “had a previous relationship” with Pellicano. Other news reports said that
Fiorentino got to know Pellicano while campaigning for a good cause — autism. Pellicano’s son is autistic.

In the end, it came down to this: Fiorentino was helping Pellicano. Rossini
was helping Fiorentino by digging through secret FBI documents.

“He did it for love,” Stein said.

Added Dan Moldea, a noted author who has been working on a book for years on the Anthony Pellicano case, and has met Rossini and Fiorentino: “I don’t know them well, but they’re nice people. But I can tell you this about the Pellicano case, I can’t think of anyone connected to this entire situation who has come out of this in one piece, not one person.”

Rossini’s walk on the criminal side began in January 2007 and continued through July. According to government documents, he made more than 40 illegal searches on the FBI’s Automated Case Support System (ACS), which contains confidential reports on previous and current cases,” according to prosecutors’ court documents.

In some cases, he “downloaded or printed FBI reports related to witnesses,
confidential sources and the progress of several criminal investigations and
ongoing prosecutions,” the documents said.

“None of the defendant’s searches were part of his assigned work,” the
government wrote.

“In some cases, the defendant also downloaded or printed FBI reports related to witnesses, confidential sources, and the progress of several criminal investigations and ongoing prosecutions.”

Most of the searches involved the Pellicano case.

The search that did him in involved an FBI confidential report about the
Pellicano case that was downloaded Jan. 26, 2007. That report was passed
on to Fiorentino (referred to in the document as “X”) who provided a copy to “an attorney for Anthony Pellicano in San Francisco, California.”

The Pellicano attorneys in turn accused the government of misconduct for
withholding exculpatory evidence that could have helped the defense.

Little did the defense know that the judge had ruled previously, ex-parte (outside the presence of the defense team), that the government did not have to share the report. Pellicano was convicted in two trials in 2008 of 78 charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison and the leaked document triggered a federal investigation.

On Oct. 27, 2008, a little more than a month before Rossini allegations surfaced in a criminal court filing, the blog Radaronline reported this:

“Is aging sex bomb Linda Fiorentino getting real life mixed up with a spy
movie? The star of ‘The Last Seduction’ and ‘Jade’ is dating an FBI agent and,
say sources, taking more than a passing interest in his work. The agent,
counterterrorism specialist Mark Rossini, recently transferred from
Washington, D.C., to New York, partly, according to one source, to be closer
to Fiorentino, with whom he’s often seen dining at Elaine’s, the uptown
restaurant favored by the literary crowd.

Here’s where it gets weird: Rossini has apparently been accepting-or
soliciting-Fiorentino’s help with criminal investigations, including the one
against jailed private investigator Anthony Pellicano. “He’s a big gossip,”
says one source. “He talks about all the help she’s been giving him on
cases.”

The government’s sentencing report said Rossini lied to his supervisors about news coverage linking him to the Pellicano case and said it was completely false.

On Feb. 25, 2008, he lied to agents from the Department of Justice Office of
Inspector General by denying that he obtained the information “without
authorization or that he provided any FBI information” to Fiorentino, according to the sentencing memorandum.

This past May 14, Rossini stood in court before U.S. Magistrate  Judge John Facciola. He had pleaded guilty to five misdemeanor counts of illegally accessing FBI computers for personal use.  He had already given up his job. He looked tense. He scanned the gallery.

The government was asking for five years’ probation and a $10,000 fine. Faciolla told Rossini how difficult it was to be sentencing a law enforcement guy. Faciolla mentioned that he had been a former federal prosecutor himself and that he, just like Rossini, hailed from from New York and that over the years he had come to admire a number of people in law enforcement.

Then Fociolla remarked that this is “not easy for me to do.”

Hoffinger told the judge that his client was remorseful and had paid the price for losing a job “he took great pride in.”

He said Rossini had been subjected to “public and private shame” but was “a  victim of his own actions.”

Then before being sentenced to a year’s probation and a $5,000 fine,  Rossini told the judge: “I am so profoundly and deeply ashamed and remorseful.”

In end, the downfall of FBI agent Mark Rossini saddened many friends including Congressional Quarterly’s Stein.

“He loved being an FBI agent, he loved it. He loved the perks of it.”

Unfortunately, sometimes love can be very costly.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNY42PfELOU

J. Edgar Hoover’s 1971 Cadillac and eBay

Hoover 1971 car

Hoover's 1971 car

Rex Tomb served in the FBI from 1968 until his retirement in 2006. For most of his career he served in the Office of Public Affairs, retiring as Chief of its Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit.

By Rex Tomb
For ticklethewire.com

I recently found out that J. Edgar Hoover’s 1971 Cadillac limousine was sold on Ebay. Quickly, I went to their site and while I cannot positively confirm that it was actually the car used by Mr. Hoover, it certainly looked like the one I remembered.

Just like me, it appeared somewhat worse for the wear, but was still recognizable. Seeing it was similar to reading a newspaper article about some famous actor that you thought was long dead, making a comeback. It feels oddly reassuring that something familiar still exists.

Coincidentally, I had only been thinking about that car this week. In one of his recent columns, Washington Post writer, David Ignatius wrote about the seeming abundance of protective, security details.

They now seem to accompany just about every high level official in Washington. Mr. Ignatius questioned whether or not this heightened security might be self defeating as it tends to draw attention.

Sirens, lights, and motorcades are hard to hide. It led me to recall the security provided for former FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.

It consisted of a bullet proof limousine and an armed driver, who although quite competent, was also quickly approaching retirement age and sported a pair of black framed, thick lens eyeglasses.

That was all the protection that Mr. Hoover had as he moved through the streets of Washington, D.C. No motorcade, no sirens, no blue lights and positively no squadron of dark suited guys wearing earphones and sunglasses. Just a Cadillac and a middle-aged driver wearing those thick lens specs.

We live in a much different time of course, and with absolutely zero expertise in the field, I would be the last person to second guess the necessity of providing heightened security for high government officials.

Whatever the case, I remember that car, alright. It was parked in a corner of the Justice Department garage in downtown Washington.

We clerks would see it on our way to and from the cafeteria. There were two Cadillac limousines, actually. One was probably a 1968, and was used as a backup. The other, parked next to it, was a brand spanking new 1971.

Both cars positively gleamed. You just never saw them dirty. When it rained or snowed outside, these guys wearing smocks would suddenly appear out of nowhere and wipe them down.

I always wondered how they even knew that the car was back in the garage. It was as if these guys had radar or something. Probably a secretary tipped them off. In any case, regardless of the weather, they always looked as if they had never left the building. In fact, they looked as if they were never used.

There is an unfortunate perception that Mr. Hoover was like the Wizard of Oz or something. That he was forbidding, remote and would never leave his desk. He certainly had a formality about him but in fact, you would see him regularly around the Justice Department Building.

His arrival at work, for instance – his big, black Cadillac would pull into the Justice Building, entering through these enormous iron gates. It always reminded me of some movie mogul arriving at his studio.

The car would silently glide by the guards and those of us fortunate enough to be standing near the entrance. We could sometimes see the Boss reading a newspaper or talking to his deputy, Mr. Tolson. Mr. Tolson, by the way, was the number two man at the Bureau and the Director’s best friend.

He lived along the route the Director took to his office, so I guess you could say they formed one of the most important carpools in the country!

The car would then proceed down a steep ramp that went under a courtyard and into the garage. There the two would be dropped off in that corner I mentioned earlier. Mr. Hoover, or the driver, would usually help Mr. Tolson (who suffered greatly in later years from ill-health) up a short flight of steps to a door that led to an elevator bank.

If you kept looking, after the Director and Mr. Tolson went through that door, you would see the driver push a small button located just above the upper left side of the door’s frame.

This, I would later learn, was the infamous “garage buzz” and it would buzz in his 5th floor office suite, signaling those there that the Director had indeed arrived and that he was on the way up.

To this day, I’m not certain whether or not Mr. Hoover even knew of this early warning system but it must have provided a lot of comfort to his personal staff.

Mr. Hoover had no private elevator and this required him to use a public elevator to go to and from his office. It was not at all uncommon to watch some awestruck mail clerk’s jaw drop as none other than J. Edgar Hoover entered the elevator.

I know this because this happened to me. One day I was taking the elevator down from the 6th floor. It stopped on the 5th and when the door opened I was utterly dumbfounded as Mr. Hoover and Mr. Tolson quickly stepped in. I was so nervous I felt like throwing up.

Immediately upon entering, he cordially greeted me. Mr. Tolson remained silent. Nervous, all I could think to say was “It certainly is hot outside.”

Without looking at me, Mr. Hoover replied, “Yes. I noticed that it was muggy outside when I came in this morning.”

Mr. Tolson then added that “One can certainly stand in good stead with the air conditioning.” They then got off the elevator in the basement and proceeded to their waiting limo. That was the extent of my first conversation with the great Mr. Hoover and Associate Director, Clyde A. Tolson. Sparkling conversation on my part, wasn’t it?

I was able to make a couple of quick observations though. First, he looked much better in person than he did in the photographs I had seen of him. Also, he had a certain presence about him.

If someone saw him and had no idea who he was, they would somehow know that he was important. Some people just have an aura. He was also very tan, immaculately tailored, of average height and surprisingly trim. He had brown eyes, refined facial features and hair made dark by copious amounts of brilliantine (think Vitalis). A pretty good description of someone you saw for about 60-seconds (max), no?

Mr. Hoover was also surprisingly accessible and he regularly set aside a few minutes during the week to meet with Agents, file clerks and assorted others who, along with their families, would traipse into his office to meet privately and be photographed with him.

He must have understood the importance of symbolism because his office was a study in it. Everywhere you saw awards and citations that he had received from kings, presidents, civic and government organizations, police departments and major news and entertainment entities. His office was trimmed with some kind of dark wood (I was once told that it was walnut).

It had a high ceiling and a large, highly polished conference table at the center under three impressive chandeliers. You had to travel a considerable distance across the room to get to his desk which was flanked by American and FBI flags. The office, while impressive, could never be described as ostentatious. Rather it conveyed a sense of substance, dignity and purpose.

Mr. Hoover obviously did some homework before these meetings took place. He would often say nice things about an employee’s work in front of their families. He would also mention something about the town or city that the family had come from.

Though these meetings would only last for only a few minutes they were a big morale booster and those who took part in them left very excited.

After hearing several of my friends talk about their experiences, I decided that I would also ask that my father and I have an opportunity to meet with the famed Director. Checking with my mother, I found out when my father was scheduled to again be in Washington. I then submitted a standard request which was promptly approved.

When I telephoned Dad to give him the good news (he was totally unaware of what I had done), he seemed, well, less than enthusiastic.

First he told me that his schedule had changed and that he would not be in Washington on the day of our appointment. Then he told me that he really had no desire whatsoever to meet Mr. Hoover under any circumstances. He chided me further by adding that I could have saved everyone a lot of time and trouble by first checking with him. I was stunned but Dad was adamant, so I had to cancel the meeting.

You won’t find this in any text book, but the history of this nation was probably changed by my father’s refusal to meet with Mr. Hoover (I’m kidding)!

I and many of the other clerks I worked with were intensely interested in Mr. Hoover. We wanted to know everything about him and I think I can understand why. We were young, ambitious and barely in our twenties.

Mr. Hoover, though old enough to be our grandfather, had several things in common with us. He was someone who came from a middle class family (many could identify with this), he was raised in a family that valued hard work and religion (many of us could identify with this), he started his Federal career as a clerk in the Library of Congress (many of us could identify with this) and he worked all day attending college at night (again, many of us could identify with this).

He became the Director of a Federal agency at 29 years of age (not a whole lot older than we were) and would become a confidant of Presidents, appear on the cover of major magazines, and have Congressmen, governors, motion picture actors, recording artists, clergymen, television stars, sports figures and corporate executives lined up at his office door almost every day.

He was also intimately involved in some of the most important events of the day. We really admired the fact that he never made any attempt to deny his modest beginnings. He transcended them, instead. As one friend put it to me, “. . . it’s not like this guy was born rich like a Rockefeller. He accomplished all of this on his own.”

We wanted to learn what made him so successful and some of my colleagues must have found out because they went on to head up national investigations, lead major FBI Field Offices and become Assistant Directors with national and international responsibilities.

After retirement, some of these same guys took on very lucrative corporate jobs. They ended up becoming national figures in their own right. Others of us, including me, never seemed to discover it and for better or for worse (mostly for better), our careers charted a more modest course.

I know of course, that the mere mention of J. Edgar Hoover in some circles elicits nothing but scorn. Some of the criticism of him is doubtless justified, but a lot of it is either baseless or the critic fails to put the alleged wrongdoing in the context of the time in which it occurred.

What’s that old saying about it being wrong for a person of one generation to judge the actions of a person from another generation?

Others of us, and I unashamedly put myself in this category, admit that Mr. Hoover had his faults but we believe he also brought to the table innovation, hard work, discipline, persistence and a keen intellect. He was not ostentatious.

That big office and the awards on the walls were there to inspire confidence and demonstrate substance rather than to impress. That’s an important distinction, which I think can also be said of that 1971, Cadillac Fleetwood I recently saw on Ebay.

Gosh, after all of these years could that really be the car he used? If so, the new owner should be told that when that car was a little bit younger, had smoother skin and a more lustrous shine, it had more than a few secret admirers. It was also used by several of Mr. Hoover’s successors, including, L. Patrick Gray and Clarence M. Kelley.

I would have tried to buy it myself, but my wife, when told of my plan asked if it was big. “Yes,” I told her, “it is, why?” “Because,” she said, “if you buy it you’ll be living in it . . . alone.”

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

The classic black 1971 Fleetwood Cadillac would have been a sweet acquisition regardless. But what made it all the more appealing was the online ad on eBay with the notation “1971 CADILLAC LIMOUSINE – (J. EDGAR HOOVER) FBI” and a photo of a dashboard adorned with switches marked “siren” and “phone”.

After a week of bidding – the first bid started at $765 — the winning bid for a piece of Americana was $6,677.77 on Aug. 7 at 9:47 p.m. The winner was Harvey Pincus, a collector of cars who runs Model Garage Inc. on 39th Street in Brooklyn, N.Y.

How could he be sure it was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s car?

Pincus, who didn’t want to say much until he picked up the car, said by telephone that he saw the letter of authenticity on eBay.

“There was a letter posted and I have some knowledge” of other things to verify it, he said. He declined to elaborate, and for that matter, say much more until he picks up the car.

He bought the car with about 50,000 miles from Bill McDaniels of Petersburg, N.J., a man described by a friend as semi-retired, a car collector and a jack of all trades. McDaniels did not return several calls made to his cell phone.

But his friend Brad Sturgess, 35, who sold the car for McDaniels, did.

Sturgess said he helped sell the car on eBay because McDaniels is ” not real good with the computer and I do eBay and Craigslist and all that stuff.”

Sturgess said McDaniels bought the car in recent years for $9,000 from the second person to own it since Hoover. Sturgess said McDaniels decided to sell it because he was accumulating too many cars and “It was time to liquidate.”

Sturgess said the car had some unique features: separate air conditioning unit for the back seat, switches for the now-disconnected siren and phone and a “huge” generator and alternator. He said it also appeared that there was once flashing police lights in the front grille of the car.

“It’s neat,” he said. “It’s older than me.”

Hoover, who unquestionably is one of the most legendary of America’s law enforcement figures, had five FBI cars; two in Washington, two in New York and one in Los Angeles, according to a July 1977 Associated Press report.

After Hoover’s death on May 2, 1972, the cars were sent to the General Services Administration, which turned over four to the Secret Service and put the fifth one up for auction. Denny Tiche of Boyers, Pa. bought it in 1976 for more than the $2,900 book value, the AP report said.

The following year, Tiche planned to sell the car, but wanted to wait until he got a letter of authenticity. In a letter dated June 21, 1977, the FBI wrote:

“The automobile in question was assigned to the late Director Hoover and, on April 22, 1976 was taken to the GSA sales center for disposal.”

Tiche did not return a phone call for comment.

This month, 33 years after Tiche bought the car, 26 people posted bids on eBay.

“I had a bunch of people outside of the country wanted to ship it,” Sturgess said. ” I didn’t want to get involved. They were paying the same amount. Had a guy from France. Had a guy from Spain.

In the end, Sturgess said he was surprised the car didn’t fetch more money. In fact, after the sale, he said someone said that the car was worth far more.

But in the eBay world, he said, “”that just so happens how it works.”

Big Name Criminal Defendants Are Popping Up on Facebook and Twitter

fbook_defenders1

By Rachel Leven
ticklethewire.com

On June 4, indicted ex- New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik did two very public things. He went to court and he tweeted.

“In DC Federal Court today. Indicted for a third time on the same charge. Unprecedented, selective, and overreaching prosecution? You tell me,” the frustrated Kerik tweeted on Twitter.

While Kerik declined comment, his supporters remarks on “Support A True Hero,” a pro-Kerik group on Facebook, show that he was not alone in thinking the prosecution went too far.

“You deserve an apology for any alligations {sic} made towards you,” wrote one member. ” You will always be a hero.”

Back in the day, criminal defendants and their supporters relied solely on the mainstream media to publicly vent and put their spin on a case.

No more. With the advent of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, defendants — but far more often supporters — are spouting off whenever they want, and in some instances, whatever they want, hoping in some way to sway public opinion or provide moral support for the indicted person.

And the mainstream media is listening. Shortly after Kerik posted his concise, but obviously frustrated three-line tweet on June 4, the Associated Press picked up on it.

Facebook groups supporting or criticizing  criminal defendants such as Kerik, baseball star Barry Bonds, ex-Congressman William Jefferson, and convicted felons such as Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff, have been spreading like a California forest fire in the dead of summer, often connecting anywhere from about 20 to 6,000 fans.

And in most instances,  you’d be hard pressed not to find at least one  favorable fan page for any high profile criminal defendant on Facebook, a social network which was once the exclusive domain of the young. Now it’s attracting folks of all ages as it becomes increasingly more mainstream, much to the chagrin of some younger folks, particularly those who find their parents asking to “friend them”.

“I feel that Facebook and Twitter are both places where you can express your opinions freely regarding celebrities,” said Clemson University student Alexis Tuten, creator of a Barry Bonds Facebook group. “Facebook was also my first choice as an outlet because a lot of kids my age are on it, and they can express themselves as well.”

People like Jeff Smith seem to be passionate about defending a public figure, which in his  case, is Bernie Kerik,  who faces multiple federal charges including conspiracy and tax fraud, and was once  considered to head the Dept. of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush but withdrew after admitting that he hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny.

“I was at his fundraiser and if everyone could have heard the great stories that people were telling about how much of an impact Bernie has made on [their] lives, you would see why he is a ‘True American Hero’,” Smith said in a posting on a pro-Kerik Facebook group.

When it comes to high-profile criminal defendants, it’s pretty typical to have  multiple pro and con Facebook groups. One example  is Ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who faces trial on host of charges including allegations that he tried to sell Barak Obama’s vacant Senate seat.

On the “Free Rod Blagojevich” Facebook page, which has 395 members, Geoff Wright of Chicago wrote last month: “Hey I know someone thats more crooked and has done worse than Rod, And he’s now the President.Rod is innocent and am looking forward to his talk show on WLS 890 am…think about it…The Rod and Roe show….battle of the egos. I digress….Rod is wrongly accused….and should not spend one minute in jail.”

In contrast, on the Impeach Rod Blagojevich page, which has become less active since his Impeachment, Kevin Wood of Chicago wrote last Dec. 12: “what a disgrace blagoyabitch is and I hope he def. goes to jail.”

Regardless of how many Facebook or Twitter fans a defendants has, it’s not likely to positively impact the outcome of their case, says Steven Levin, a former Maryland federal prosecutor who is now with the firm Levin & Gallagher Law Firm.

“I don’t know any defendant… who has won because he has a following outside of the court room,” Levin said.

But he says, these social networks can hurt defendants in court if they go too far. The government, he said, has full access to those statements and can use them against the defendant.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor and chairman of Criminology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, echoes similar sentiments, and warns that defendants should be careful about publishing private or sensitive information.

“It’s better to leave it to the attorneys to do the talking,” he said.

Regardless of those concerns, some supporters consider the technology useful to promote opinions not widely publicized by the media.

“I do not have the money to pay [the media] to run my opinion as advertising [so] I… must either… watch them sling mud on a good man or go to a forum where I can say and publish what I want without others making me pay for it,” said Tsvi Mark, a member of a Facebook group supporting convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Interestingly, even a vilified figure like Bernie Madoff has some supporters on Facebook.  On the  Facebook group “Bernie Madoff is my Hero!”,  George Shao wrote: “Bernie Madoff is such a hero of these phony times. And why the hell are Ponzi Schemes illegal? Such Hypocracy! The entire economy is a Ponzi Scheme, just lots of ppl don’t want to tell the truth about it. Here’s a man who had the guts to give the ppl what they really wanted.”

Still, there are some instances in which there’s a lot of Facebook pages dedicated to a particular criminal defendant, but none positive.

Enter the divisive figure Monica Conyers, the wife of Rep. John Conyers, who recently pleaded guilty in federal court in Detroit to taking bribes while sitting on the Detroit City council.

Some of the Facebook groups dedicated to her include: Save Detroit from Monica Conyers! (5,934 members); Monica Conyers has got to go!!! (431 members); Monica Conyers: A Disgrace to Detroit (47 members).

In “Save Detroit from Monica Conyers,” Brian Poelman wrote, ” I’m so sick of corrupt politicians. Monica epitomizes everything wrong with the politician mentality that has become so common across BOTH parties.”

On the page “Monica Conyers: A Disgrace to Detroit”, Cyn Angel of Detroit wrote in March, before the city council woman was charged and pleaded guilty: “She is a disgrace to the human population!”

Retired FBI Man Says Hollywood Short Changed History With John Dillinger Film

Rex Tomb served in the FBI from 1968 until his retirement in 2006. For most of his career he served in the Office of Public Affairs, retiring as Chief of its Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit.

public-enemies

By Rex Tomb
For ticklethewire.com

It’s 1970. President Nixon was in the White House, the Viet Nam War was raging, J. Edgar Hoover was running the FBI and I was working for him as a tour guide.

Back then, guided tours of the FBI were a pretty hot item. Yearly, over a half a million people showed up for them. They were conducted in the Department of Justice Building, in Washington, by young male (women weren’t allowed to give them in 1970) clerical employees, carefully attired in a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie.

The lucky ones who were actually able to get a tour (there were always very long lines) saw the FBI Laboratory, a firearms demonstration and a wide variety of exhibits depicting, among other things, the Rosenberg atomic bomb case, the Rudolph Abel spy case, the Wilcoxson/Nussbaum bank robbery case (they mounted an anti tank gun in the rear of a car to use on pursuing police and on bank vaults) and an exhibit showing the famous gangsters of the 1930’s. The “gangster exhibit,” as we called it, was clearly one of the most popular exhibits on display.

Several notorious gangsters were depicted including John Dillinger who was by far the best known of all of them.

Though it has been over 35 years, I can still remember parts of my spiel. “The John Dillinger Gang robbed banks throughout the Midwest. They killed 10 people, wounded 7 and escaped jail 3 times. Dillinger was ultimately betrayed by Anna Sage (the infamous lady in red) and was shot at five times, outside the Biograph Theater, by 3 different Agents. Three of the 5 bullets fired hit Dillinger killing him.”

In a glass-covered display case to the right of John Dillinger’s photograph were a series of Dillinger mementos including the hat he was wearing at the time he was killed (the brim on one side was crushed where he had fallen), the cigar he was carrying that night in his shirt pocket, the eye glasses he used to disguise himself, (wire framed and badly mangled) and the piece de resistance: the Dillinger death mask (he looked peaceful).

You could almost always count on two questions from visitors: was a certain part of Dillinger’s anatomy at the Smithsonian Institution? No, and were we certain that it was really Dillinger who was shot outside of the Biograph? Yes. He was identified by his fingerprints.

For many years, public interest in the gangsters of the 1920’s thru the 1940’s has continued and Hollywood, understandably, has cashed in.

Remember “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Untouchables” and “Bugsy?” These were big budget films with all-star casts that did well. I noticed the phenomena in the 1970’s and it has persisted to this day. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perceived elegance associated with the era that seems to extend to criminals, too.

I actually think there is something to it. Compare any street photograph taken in the1930’s to one taken now. No tattoos, no muffin top, midriffs showing; no booty shorts. Take this one step further. Compare Gershwin to say, Eminem. Note too, that the “F” word does not appear one time in any of Cole Porter’s many compositions.

While the standard of living was lower back then, the social crassness, so prevalent today, seems to have been lower, too. Probably this is a misperception but a sense that modern culture is in decline might be giving the movie-going public both a curiosity and a hunger for all things past.

“Public Enemies” skillfully captures the cultural essence of that era. The music, the clothes, the street scenes: all have been carefully crafted to evoke the way we were, or at least the way we think we were. No detail seems to have been missed. The cars, the clothes, the furnishings, the music, the movie has all of this stuff down cold.

In my opinion, the film also shows how law enforcement: federal, state and local, lacked the training, the resources and the equipment to combat the evolving, fast moving and highly mobile criminal element of that era.

It is interesting to note that it wasn’t until the passage of the May-June crime bill in 1934, that Bureau Agents could even carry firearms let alone arrest someone. Standardized training for law enforcement officers? Forget about it.

Where the film left me cold, however, was not in the 1930’s ambiance it so effectively recreated. Rather, it was how several obvious fictional details in it were presented as fact.

I was startled, for instance, to see how a female witness was treated in an interrogation scene. A Bureau Agent was portrayed shamefully beating information out of her, while numerous colleagues passively looked on. The violent methods shown in this scene would never have been tolerated by the Bureau either then or now.

Why then put it in? Literary license? If so, how would viewers of this film, unfamiliar with the facts be able to discern that this did not happen?

There was a scene in which J. Edgar Hoover was accused, in so many words, during a Senate appearance, of being an armchair detective. Mr. Hoover was indeed so criticized (unfairly in my opinion) by a member of the Senate, but not until several years after John Dillinger had died. What indeed, did this episode have to do with the story if not to subtly raise questions about Director Hoover?

In another scene, and contrary to every historical record that I have ever read, the film portrays Dillinger as having been gunned down by what can only be described as an inexperienced, rogue Agent.

Records actually show that after emerging from the theater, Dillinger sensed his impending arrest and reached for his gun. Given Dillinger’s propensity for violence, Bureau Agents understandably (and thankfully) used all available force to stop him. Who knows how many other passersby would have been killed had they done otherwise?

But the scene as depicted in the movie almost made it appear that Dillinger was the victim. How would the average viewer know this?

Hollywood has a special responsibility when portraying actual events to keep their portrayals as accurate as possible.

A major release will be seen in theaters across the United States and around the world. It will be on television, appear on DVD and will be mentioned in newspapers, magazines, on the web and sometimes in books. Movies are translated into countless foreign languages, too and those watching are being more than entertained: they are being subtly educated as well.

Let’s face it, if a production gets it wrong so do potentially hundreds of millions of people, here and abroad, now and in the future.

Nearly 6 Years Later –Fed Prosecutor Jonathan Luna: Murder Victim or Suicide?

Jonathan Luna
Jonathan Luna/fbi photo

By Jeffrey Anderson
For ticklethewire.com

WASHINGTON — For nearly six years now the death of congenial and free-smiling Baltimore federal prosecutor Jonathan Luna has remained a mystery. Theories still range from suicide, to accident, to murder by an informant, and yes, even by a federal agent, as an author of a book on Luna suggests.

One constant has been the refusal of federal authorities to comment much beyond the pat response, insisting that Luna, who was found face down on Dec. 4, 2003, in a shallow creek in Lancaster County, Pa., with 36 shallow stabs and pricks, is still the subject of an “open investigation.”

A recent letter from the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office has breathed new life into that assertion. Yet it also has added tantalizing detail beyond what the feds will confirm, and raises questions about what is really going on with the so-called Luna investigation.

The letter, written by Lancaster County Assistant District Attorney Susan E. Moyer on May 6, is addressed to William Keisling, author of the conspiracy-minded tome “The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna,” and explains why the office can’t provide Keisling with the Luna autopsy results.

“Conversations with the Chief of the Violent Crimes Unit for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania have revealed that the Luna investigation is an open and ongoing federal criminal investigation in which the leads are continuously being developed and additionally that the Luna case is part of an open federal grand jury investigation.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Webb, the Philadelphia-based chief of the violent crimes unit whom Moyer is referring to, says his office’s policy is to not comment on such matters. And the existence of a federal grand jury investigation is supposed to be secret.

The questions are: Is the Lancaster County D.A.’s office interpreting the conversation with the feds correctly when it says “leads are continuously being developed” in a federal grand jury investigation? And was the U.S. Attorney’s Office really being forthright? Some skeptics wonder.

The Luna case continues to be one of federal law enforcement’s more painful and confounding mysteries. Investigators hate to see cases go unsolved. They doubly hate it when it involves one of their own.

But to add to the confusion, the D.A.’s statement flies in the face of a different reality acknowledged by Luna’s former colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore: Despite a ruling by the Lancaster County Coroner that Luna’s death was a homicide, for years now they say there has been no active federal investigation; and classifying it as “open” amounts to a legal fiction that simply preserves sensitive aspects of the case and respects the memory of Luna and the feelings of his family, particularly the father, Paul Luna, who insists that his son was murdered. He’s not buying the theory the FBI in Baltimore has long subscribed to that Jonathan Luna committed suicide.

“That’s not true,” Luna’s father told the now-defunct Baltimore Examiner eight months ago. “He was killed.”

Furthermore, although there is no consensus – and the evidence defies a conclusive theory – there is a grudging acceptance among those who knew Luna that he most likely killed himself – either intentionally or unintentionally.

“It’s tragic, and sad, and we may never know what really happened, but the reality is there are no credible leads to suggest he was murdered,” says a veteran high-ranking prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, who says there is no indication that leads are being developed “continuously” or otherwise. “But closing the case would be a slap in the face to his family and to those who feel strongly to the contrary. So the decision, as I understand it, is to leave the case open and do nothing.”

“Like everyone else we all thought it had to be murder at first, but now it appears more likely he committed suicide,” says another top prosecutor in the office, pointing to Luna’s troubled personal and professional life. “He was suspected of theft, he had run up credit card bills, there was some other shady stuff, and eventually even his friends reluctantly concluded it was suicide. Some resist that conclusion, others resist talking openly out of respect for his family, but the reality is the case has been open but inactive for a long time.”

A former federal prosecutor and colleague of Luna who now practices criminal defense law in Baltimore, agrees.

“I’m not sure closure was ever reached, as the investigation was removed from the Baltimore office and transferred to Philadelphia [to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania]. Our understanding was that the investigation stopped short of an official announcement. They can legitimately say it’s open so if new information arises they can look at it. But if it’s true that his death was self-inflicted, then they did not want any more public pronouncements. It’s a law enforcement respect issue at this point.”

The 38-year-old prosecutor, a bootstrap kid from the Bronx, disappeared on the night of December 3, 2003. He had been at the office late in downtown Baltimore, working out a plea agreement in a major heroin trafficking case and was expected to return shortly before midnight to his two-story townhouse on a cul-de-sac in Howard County, outside of Baltimore, where he lived with his wife Angela, a physician, and their two young children.

Instead, authorities believe he drove north on Interstate 95; crossed into Delaware; made a cash withdrawal south of Philadelphia; stopped for gas in King of Prussia, northwest of Philly; continued west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and exited south of Reading about 3:30 a.m., according to a toll ticket. In the morning, an employee of a well-drilling company in Brecknock Township, in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country, about 100 miles north of Luna’s office, spotted Luna’s 1999 silver Honda Accord in a ditch with the lights on and the engine running.

Luna's car/fbi photo
Luna’s car/fbi photo

The car was smeared with blood and Luna, still in a suit, overcoat and tie, with his electronic security pass around his neck, lay face down in the shallow creek, stabbed and pricked 36 times with a knife.

A murder investigation ensued, yet the evidence failed to lead investigators to a likely suspect in Luna’s late night, three-state odyssey, despite the Lancaster County Coroner’s ruling, which concluded that it was a homicide by multiple traumatic wounds and drowning.

Disparate pieces of a vexing puzzle began to surface, and the investigation bogged down with distractions and red herrings. Incompetence and overzealousness may have played a role. Luna’s reputation was tarnished.

Jayne Miller, chief investigative reporter for WBAL in Baltimore, recalls an early theory was that someone in Luna’s drug case had something to do with his death.

“Those guys aren’t going to go to Amish country,” Miller says. “That theory didn’t go anywhere.”

Meantime, it became apparent that Luna, known as a doting father, whose looks were likened to Tiger Woods, had hit a bumpy patch in his life. His boss, U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio, who Luna disliked and privately criticized, was moving to fire him. (DiBiagio did not return a call and an email seeking comment.)

Luna also was having financial trouble, and may have been a suspect in the disappearance of $36,000 that was evidence in a bank robbery case he had handled. A colleague had taken a polygraph and Luna was scheduled to take one in a few days, but instead he was found dead.

News reports stated that Luna had credit card debt and multiple credit cards, some of which his wife did not know about. He had withdrawn a loan application shortly after the bank robbery money went missing.

Other reports portrayed him as living a secret life, in search of sexual encounters. Luna’s widow Dr. Angela Hopkins-Luna, an obstetrician and gynecologist in suburban Baltimore, declined to comment for this article.

Luna’s zig-zag path up to the final destination in Pennsylvania suggests he did not end up there against his will, says Miller. In other words, if he were being held against his will, the abductor or abductors would have likely taken a more direct route.

“He took a bizarre route,” Miller says of his meandering trip, northeast to Philadelphia, then west to Lancaster County.

In time, when it seemed as if investigators were stumped, the suicide theory seemed to surface.

The theory surfaced in the media after Pennsylvania State Police and the Lancaster County Coroner cleared the crime scene, and the FBI claimed to have found evidence not previously discovered: a penknife that matched Luna’s stab wounds.

That discovery, leaked to the media, tended to fuel speculation that Luna’s wounds may have been self-inflicted, and that either he intended to kill himself and make it look like a homicide, or that he intended to stage a non-fatal attack and inadvertently severed a major artery and bled to death by the side of the road. Missing were any defensive wounds on his arms or hands.

Either way, one theory was that Luna created this bizarre attack to put off the scheduled polygraph test involving the missing $36,000 from the bank robbery case – perhaps with the thought the impending exam would be delayed and perhaps, eventually forgotten.

The theory that Luna’s wounds were self-inflicted had the effect of placing the young prosecutor under the microscope.

At one point, the FBI in Baltimore, which remains the lead investigative agency, suspected Luna of having an affair with one of its agents. No evidence surfaced to suggest there was anything to that. But that hunch resulted in a diversion that created a whole mess unto itself.

The FBI searched the agent’s computer without her consent, violating her privacy and civil rights, and causing a storm. The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that the FBI acted inappropriately. U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter, leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sought records in the matter and were rebuffed by the Justice Department. Luna’s death remained a mystery.

Says another veteran federal prosecutor in the Baltimore office: “The FBI screwed up. The Lancaster County Coroner screwed up by missing the penknife. Those factors changed the whole tenor of the investigation. Now the FBI won’t close the case because they don’t want to deal with [public records] requests. It’s an embarrassment to the bureau.”

To get a sense of just how no one really wants to deal with this case, all you have to do is call the Justice Department and the FBI.

“We’re not commenting on the Luna case any longer,” says Richard Wolf, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore. “That’s coming from above.”

He directed questions to the Department of Justice. Ian McCaleb, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s criminal division responded by saying: “I don’t know why you are being directed here,” before referring a call to FBI headquarters in Washington.

At headquarters, FBI spokesman Bill Carter said: “I’d have to defer to the Baltimore field office.”

Interestingly, author William Keisling, the person responsible for the most bizarre theory of Luna’s death is also responsible for the recent assertion that there is a federal grand jury and that leads are being “continuously developed.”

In 2005, Keisling authored “The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna.” The book, based largely on court documents from the drug case Luna was handling, points to a convoluted conspiracy in which an FBI informant was out of control, money from a bank robbery case was missing and Luna posed a threat to someone at the bureau who might have had a motive to kill him.

Keisling doesn’t identify a would-be perpetrator, but he hasn’t given up the ghost, either.

This past April 22, Keisling filed a request with the Lancaster County District Attorney under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. He sought copies of all autopsies and forensic records related to Luna’s death. Assistant District Attorney Susan Moyer denied the request in writing on May 6, citing an ongoing federal grand jury investigation.

Asked to confirm the source of that information, Moyer says she spoke with the chief of the violent crimes unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, who instructed her not to use his name and to refer to him by his title.

“He didn’t say ‘Use these words,’ but he told me what I could disclose in the letter [to Keisling],” Moyer says. “If it’s in that letter, then it came from that source. I understand that the letter could be interpreted in different ways. Perhaps I could’ve used the word ‘continually,’ as opposed to ‘continuously.’ But it’s a synopsis of my conversation with that source.”

Moyer declined to identify the prosecutor by name; Assistant U.S. Attorney David Webb confirms that he is the chief of the violent crimes unit, but declined to discuss or acknowledge any conversation with Moyer.

Richard Manieri, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Michael L. Levy in Philadelphia offers this much: “It’s still very much an open investigation. If information comes in, it is pursued and followed up.”

Like several people interviewed for this article, TV reporter Jayne Miller says she would not be shocked if it were to be proven that Luna committed suicide – or that he was murdered. Certainly the autopsy would be a key component of any conclusive theory, she says.

And, Miller notes, since the controversy began, Lancaster County has a new coroner. She interviewed him in 2007.

“He told me he saw no reason to reverse the call of the previous coroner,” Miller says. “I asked if it was a homicide or a suicide and he wouldn’t answer the question. But he said the autopsy contains surprises. I came away from that with a different impression of the case,” she says, stopping short of offering her own theory.

An intriguing detail, she adds, is a piece of the puzzle that the FBI aired publicly on March 12, 2004, when the bureau offered a $100,000 reward for information to help solve Luna’s death: Investigators said at the time they had evidence that Luna may have had contact with another person between midnight and the time his body was found. “That’s an interesting loose end,” Miller says.

For now, any hope of seeing the autopsy report has been dashed. On June 29, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records made a Final Determination, in effect denying Keisling’s appeal of the Lancaster County D.A.’s Office’s decision to withhold information.

From all this, one thing is clear: Luna’s former colleagues are not holding their breath waiting for answers. To many of them, a federal grand jury or the assertion that leads are being “continuously developed” are purely abstract notions.

“I didn’t see too many people calling for more investigation,” says the former federal prosecutor in Baltimore now in private practice. “It seemed that red herrings kept popping up. And all of it contributed to some people’s unhappiness. It was tough to see Jonathan dragged through the mud any further.”

As for Luna’s final stop in life, which happened to be rural Pennsylvania, the attorney says:
“There’s a good chance that he wanted to make it ambiguous.”

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft Issues Statement on Dec. 4, 2003 About Luna

A Timeline of Luna’s Final Hours

FBI-Arab American Relations, Detroit Public Corruption and More

FBI SAC Andy Arena/photo by ticklethewire.com
FBI SAC Andy Arena/photo by ticklethewire.com

DETROIT — In this tough, economically depressed area, home to one of the largest and most politically active Arab American communities in the country, Andrew G. Arena, head of the Detroit FBI, recently sat down to talk with Allan Lengel, editor of ticklethewire.com.

Sitting in his 26th floor office in downtown Detroit, with the Detroit River and Canada clearly visible from his window, the 21-year FBI veteran discussed a host of subjects including the FBI’s relationship with the Arab American Community, public corruption in Detroit and the mortgage fraud problem, which is one of the worst in the country.

Arena, who became special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit Division in March 2007, said sometimes his encounters with members of the Arab American community inevitably turn to sensitive subjects.

“When I meet with certain groups, the discussion many times turns to Hezbollah,” Arena said. He said people often say: “You know they’re really not a terrorist organization.”

“That’s not my call guys, I’m not a policy maker,” he tells them. “They’re a designated terrorist organization. I’ve got a job to do.”

The following is a condensed interview. The questions were edited for clarity.

There’s a lot of people travelling back and forth between here and the Middle East including Lebanon and there’s always talk of fundraising going on. What’s your sense about fundraising here?
Obviously, the area is certainly primed for fundraising activities. We’ve looked at some organizations; obviously you look at some of the fundraising cases we’ve been looking at recently. A lot of people in the community, they’ll say if I give money to ABC charitable organization and you come and shut them down, am I going to be held accountable? Am I going to jail? We tell them, it’s all in your heart and your mind. What do you think you did? We’re not going to prosecute and investigate somebody who honestly thinks they’re giving money to a charitable organization and they just got scammed. But we’re not going to give you this dispensation if we can prove that you knowingly gave money so al Qaeda can buy equipment to blow up, to attack U.S. troops or you knowingly gave money to Hezbollah so they could buy rockets to lob into Israel.

Do you get a lot of questions about Hezbollah in the Arab American community?
You’re talking about some folks who come over from Lebanon who still have relatives there and travel back and forth. And obviously their view of Hezbollah is different than ours. Sandra (an FBI agent) and I were at this function a few weeks ago and she called me over and she said I don’t know how to answer this one. There were these young men there and what they wanted to know was: Is it illegal if we listen to Hezbollah songs? And I said to them ‘no, there’s freedom of speech, you can listen to whatever you want’. And they were like, ‘well what if we go on like a pro-Hezbollah website site and look at stuff, is that illegal?’

‘No you can look at whatever you want as long as there’s not child pornography on that website’. I said ‘now I’m going to answer the next question. When you hit the button and send money, you push the button with your credit card information to send money over, you’ve crossed the line.’ There’s a line between support and material support. When I meet with certain groups, the discussion many times turns to Hezbollah and ‘you know they’re really not a terrorist organization’. ‘That’s not my call guys, I’m not a policy maker. They’re a designated terrorist organization. I’ve got a job to do.’

Are they understanding?
I think they understand my role, they understand not just me but of the FBI. This is our job, this is our responsibility, it is what it is.

How diverse is the Arab population here?
I’m always discussing with our folks in Washington, it’s such a diverse population. There isn’t one leader. There’s 43 different groups here. And obviously many folks in this area, have relatives back in Lebanon, they have relatives back in Yemen, Jordan, wherever they’re from.

It seems after 2001 the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office here made a big push to improve relations with the Arab American community. But it seems in the last year there’s been a strain with incidents around the country like Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Have you felt the strain here in this community?
I think there’s always going to be a certain level of distrust. And I think that even prior to 9/11 we had recognized we needed community outreach to many groups, the Arab Americans being one. One of the things I learned there is an inherent mistrust of the federal government, of the FBI and other federal agencies by this community. I was having a discussion with some folks a few weeks ago from Iraq and they said you know you’ve got to understand some of it’s cultural. In Iraq the equivalent of FBI was Sadam’s secret police. When they came to your house, somebody left and you never saw them again. There are people who play on those fears.

We had an individual last summer who was running around Dearborn telling people he was an informant for the FBI. And that the FBI was looking at them as a member of Hezbollah. And for $15,000 he could go back to his FBI handlers and get this taken care of. To this day we don’t actually know how many people paid that money. But somebody called the office… ended up we wired that person up, went out and made the payment and arrested this guy for extortion. But my point is he played on the fears of the community.

Was he of Arabic descent?
Oh yeah, he was playing on his own community. I was out after my speech and this elderly Iraqi lady came to me, she told me the story: Two weeks ago I was stopped at a red light, a man came up, knocked on the window and showed me identification and said ‘FBI’ and he said you have drugs in the car, let me in the car, you have to go with me. She said ‘I’m a Muslim woman, I can’t go alone, maybe we can call the Dearborn police department’, and he said ‘I don’t have a phone’. You’ve been around the FBI to know we all carry these (shows his phone). She said , ‘Well let me get my friend, I’ll come back.’ She went down the street, she came back, the guy was gone. I spent 20 minutes with this woman trying to convince her that that was not the FBI; it was someone trying to rob you. And I don’t know if I ever convinced this woman that that was not an FBI agent. My point is this, …people praying on fears of that community. There are people in that community that say we’re in every mosque, that we have informants everywhere.

You do have informants.
That’s what I tell them. We develop them in public corruption (cases), we develop them in mortgage fraud, we develop them in street gangs, that’s an accepted practice and tool of law enforcement. But we don’t target buildings. We don’t target mosques because they’re a mosque.

I use this example, I’m a Roman Catholic. If a Catholic priest is on the pulpit saying ‘Give money to the Irish Republic Army and go train’, hell yeah we’re going to care. If your imam is preaching the Koran and preaching peace, I have no right under the U.S. Constitution, it’s illegal. Someone’s going to go to jail and it’s going to be an FBI agent and I’m going to lose my job. We don’t do that . I was talking to somebody the other day and he said we know who the informants are. Well how would you know they’re informants? Well they told us. If they’re telling you they’re an informant, they’re not an informant.

Do they believe you or is there skepticism?
It’s hard to say. We just keep pushing along. I go to all the meetings. I looked the other day in the last six months; I’ve been to 41 community outreach events that focused primarily on the Arab American community.

Are people receptive?
Most of the feedback I get is very positive. They’ll say ‘hey look there are these issues but at least you come’. Osama Sablani, who’s the editor of the Arab American news,  he always says, ‘Andy is at everything. The FBI is at every event. You show up and you never dodge the questions.’ Recently the issues with CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations)came up and the allegations we were sending informants into mosques. I was honest with them, ‘yeah we have informants. Yeah we develop them all the time. We’re not sending them willy nilly into every mosque. If we sent an informant into a location, there’s a reason. We have to have predication. We don’t send them on fishing expeditions.

Has the information been helpful? Has there been any intelligence that has resulted in uncovering of any plots?
A lot of this is going to be classified. I tell everyone this, the American people will never know since 9/11, everything we’ve stopped. I’m proud of what we do here. Our intelligence capabilities are so much better across all the programs.

Has information here been able to be used in Iraq, Afghanistan?
I can’t get specific, but there’s intelligence coming out of Detroit everyday that’s beneficial to somebody and it may not be in the United States but overseas.

Besides Hezbollah, which seems to be the most popular by virtue of the makeup of the community, do you feel presence of Hamas and al Qaeda?
I think we have everything. When I look at al Qaeda, I look at more radical Sunni extremist groups. After the U.S. went into Afghanistan and took care of camps there, a lot of these groups were kind of on their own. One of the things we’re seeing right now throughout the world is the use of the Internet, these radical Jihadi websites to basically recruit, to brainwash, basically to bring people back into the fold, many of them non Arab, maybe converts, white, Hispanic, African American, it doesn’t matter. But you can basically become radicalized on the Internet now. And they can basically warp your mind, and learn how to make a bomb, you can learn anything on the Internet now. That certainly is a concern here.
Is there some sense in the community that the leaders who meet with you don’t really represent the masses? That they’re in bed with the FBI?
If you talk to those leaders, they’ll tell you that. They get accused of being in bed with the FBI, of being informants, all kinds of things. And there are people who will be critical of U.S. government officials, the U.S. Attorney, ICE, for meeting with these people, that ‘we’re pandering to terrorist’. Sometimes I am concerned: Is the message getting out unfiltered to the people?

In terms of the relationship in the last year, has it taken a step backward?
I don’t want to say we’ve taken a step backwards or we’ve lost any ground. I think its basically thrown up some roadblocks that we’ve had to move past. When these issues come, my position here is to meet them head on to go out and discuss them, to do interviews. If someone makes an allegation that this office tried to recruit someone to go into a mosque illegally, I’m not going to sit there and not say anything. Because then it becomes the truth and that’s one side of the story. And if we didn’t do it, I’m going to stand up and adamantly deny that and I’m going to give them the reason why. There’s been some issues in the last year we’ve had to stop and address.

Do you feel you still have a good relationship there?
Yeah, there’s not a day goes by, I don’t get a call, an email from one of the community leaders. They need an issue to discuss. They still come to me as much as they did a year ago.

Does the Arab-American community feel any different with this new administration?
Oh I think so. I think they’re more comfortable with the federal government. I don’t know what their expectations are. To me, we’re operating the same as we were operating (before), legally and we’re going to continue to do the same thing.

How many Arab speaking agents to you have?
I don’t know. We’ve got a few. There’s different levels obviously there’s conversational. We’ve got some agents here who maybe wouldn’t pass the test because it’s very formalized. But they can converse. I think the key to what we do, our language specialist program has grown dramatically. When I was here as an ASAC (assistant special agent in charge), we had 2 language specialists in Detroit. We have 33 today, predominantly Arabic, Urdu, Pashto.

Has that helped? Are there times an agent will go on an interview and take one of them?
Oh yeah. We take them all the time to interviews, to meet with sources, to make sure we’re not missing something.

Have you refined the way you follow up on tips about potential terrorist threats? It seems in the beginning some people would call up and say “I think my boyfriend is a terrorist” or “my neighbor was taking pictures of something”.

Yeah, I think obviously after 9/11 leads were coming in by the minute. Obviously that’s slowed down quite a bit. We still get a lot of what we call the “poison pen” , trying to get their neighbor in trouble. ‘My neighbor’s a member of Hezbollah.’ I think our analytic capabilities have helped us a great deal to make sure we don’t waste resources (with) people basically filing a false police report. If we catch someone doing that we’re going to prosecute them. Hopefully that deters a few people. Obviously prior to 9/11 the thought of anyone taking an airplane full of people and flying into a building as a weapon was unthinkable. Now some of these outlandish schemes, you’ve got to think like them , you’ve got to take it seriously.


Is there also a distrust in the Arab community: Don’t join the FBI, you’re selling out?

I’m sure there’s some of that. We’re at all the festivals and fairs, we have our recruiting booths set up. And like the dinner last night, we’ll get two or three people come up and say hey we’re interested.

Do you still go to the Dearborn Arab Festival and get suspicious people who ask what are you doing here?
Before I got here, there was a situation at an Arab American festival in Dearborn, it got kind of ugly. I think they’ve gotten used to us there. Some people come up and joke around, ‘Hey, you spying on us?’ But I think it’s more jovial. I think if they really feel that way, they stay away. Now the thing is if we don’t show up, they say ‘What are we under investigation?’

In the area of public corruption, there seems to be a lot of things percolating here in Detroit. How serious of a problem is it?
I think it’s a very serious problem. There’s been rumors for years and I just think, there’s mistrust in the local government right now, anything they do they just don’t trust and that’s a shame. That really is. I think it adds to the divide with the suburbs.

How do you see the FBI’s role in correcting that?
We all have a point of reference in our life and I use my time in Youngstown, Ohio in the late 90s, 2001. We had 72 public corruption convictions in a 2 ½ year period and it ended with U.S. Congressman Traficant. We had a very unique opportunity to basically to kind of get rid of an area that’s been long plagued by systemic corruption. Once you get something rolling, you get one person falling and they fall like dominos. That’s obviously our goal here.

Do you expect indictments coming out of Detroit?
We’ve been working very hard between us and the U.S. Attorney’s office and we expect to certainly charge these folks.

Can you say anything in terms of a time frame?
I can’t because you know these things change, You just never know. We certainly have some thoughts. Someone cooperates or somebody else gets in the mix, it can speed it up or slow it down.

In terms of the former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, is there anything you can say about him?
He’s no longer the mayor of the city so I really can’t say anything about him.

Obviously his name has surfaced in the investigation.
Our goal is to bring anybody to justice whether they’re a current city official or a past. If they were involved in public corruption, that’s something we’d be interested in.
Do you expect he’ll be indicted?
I really can’t say about Mr. Kilpatrick. I better not touch that.


Have you had to reassess again 8 years later after Sept. 11, 2001, in terms of the resources that are going to counter-terrorism? And has it hurt the investigations of mortgage fraud, public corruption?
I think what we do is we make sure, obviously counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence, those resources are set. But then I have my criminal resources and I’ve got to prioritize. What are my priorities here? That’s where our intelligence capabilities are so much better now, it helps me to be a little more predictive and decide where I need to put my resources. Obviously the priorities here may be different than the priorities in Jackson, Miss. You can’t follow one national set of priorities. And that’s one thing I’m very proud of here, even before the mortgage fraud crisis, I think we had identified it here in the state of Michigan as being an issue. We had basically dedicated an entire squad here to tackle the mortgage fraud. I guess to answer your question, if you look at the white collar program we have to prioritize, what is the major threat here in the state of Michigan? We identified it three years ago as being mortgage fraud. So we’ve been focused on it before the rest of the country came to that realization.

If there’s so much of it, are the small fishes getting away with it?
I don’t think so. Number one, we formed a task force with some state and local entities, with the banks, with the financial institutions. They’re all working with us. But also with the local prosecutors.

Do you have CIA representative here?
We have a group here. We have a very good relationship with them.

Are they actually in the office here?
I can’t say. They have a location, but we work very closely.

In terms of all offices you’ve been in, how does Detroit rate?
I’m biased because it’s home. This is my 9th assignment in 21 years. I’ve been from L.A. to New York, Syracuse, Cleveland, and Youngstown. I’ve been all over. And they all have something to offer, it’s what you make out of it. I’m just biased because it’s home to me. Listen, we all take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and I take that very seriously. But does it mean a little more here because it is home? I can’t lie. When we’re down working a gang in southwest Detroit, that’s personal because I grew up down there. I grew in the city. I grew up in the area. You feel like you’re doing something for the community, giving something back.

The State of the White Supremacists

art by Sean McCabe
art by Sean McCabe

On the 8th floor of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, not far from the nation’s Capitol, Tom O’Connor, a veteran FBI agent on the domestic terrorism squad, recently sat down in a little office with ticklethewire.com editor Allan Lengel.

O’Connor, a former Northampton, Mass., police officer, who has been with the FBI since 1997, talked about the state of the white supremacist movement, the success some members have had running racist recording companies, the lack of leadership nationwide, the infighting and the impact of the Obama factor and the ailing economy.

“As the economy goes longer in a downturn, I think you’re going to see the recruitment being more successful just because people are angry at the government or angry at themselves more than anything else, but they blame everybody else,” O’Connor says.

“Guys who get involved in this stuff pretty much have pretty crappy lives. But they don’t take any responsibility for that crappy life that they have. They blame everybody else.”

The following is a condensed interview. The questions were edited for clarity. (O’Connor requested that his photo not be taken because he’s still working active cases).

After Sept. 11, the FBI shifted its focus to international terrorism. What has happened since then in terms of domestic terrorism and white supremacist groups?
The squads that had the primary investigative goal to work domestic groups, we’re still working those domestic groups. I’ve been on a domestic terrorism squad since 1997. And that hasn’t changed. Our thought is you don’t take your eye off the ball just because you have another ball on the court.

The White Power recording industry, how prominent is that in the whole movement?
They have their own style of music, white power music and there’s several white power recording labels that sell stuff, that normal everyday recording companies won’t do. Real hate music. If you listen to it, every other word is an n word. The mainstream won’t publish that stuff. And these people stepped in, and now it’s pretty easy to do a recording. It’s not like in the old days where you had to actually do vinyl. This is somebody with a cd player that pretty much burns thousands of discs and sells them, gives them away to kids at schools and that kind of stuff to try and get recruitments.

Is it more a propaganda tool or a money making tool?
Well, a money making tool and a propaganda tool.


Is it highly profitable?

There’s a lot of money being made by a small number of record labels. That’s where they run into problems where the person who is making money, a lot of times they end up destroying their company from within because they’re taking money and not doing things for the cause.
Have you been able to link the money being made from those records to any kind of illegal activities?
(Declines to comment).

How many major recording companies are there?
Three or four. You go on the Internet and just put in “white power music” and you’ll get all three of them.

Are they located in certain states?
Pretty much right across the country.

We keep hearing how the election of President Obama has impacted recruiting. Has it?
It’s the first African American president. And that, common sense wise , would say it may incense these guys who are actually already involved. In some of their recruitment fliers they’ll mention having a black president. I don’t think it has been as big a thing as I’ve heard people talk about it. It’s an issue, that’s for sure. If it were a Jewish president it would be an issue. It goes against their belief system. It’s definitely something that has fired them up a little bit. I don’t see it as being huge.You’ve got to take a look at it with a whole bunch of different factors ( like) the economy.

Have you got any sense that recruiting has picked up?
I think their attempts have picked up. Whether they have actually recruited people, it’s really too early to tell.

How has the economy played into this?
Things like being out of work, having more time on your hands, less money on your hands, your hatred toward the government — those type of things tend to increase  (hatred) as the economy goes up and down. If you have money coming in and you’re happy about everything going on, then you’re probably less likely to be a hater. If you’re sitting back and you have no job, the economy and loss of work will translate into family issues. It’s a bunch of issues that come together.

Obviously this is a terrible economy. Have you seen the impact here or it just hard to gage?
It’s still early on in this thing. You’re seeing an increase in recruitment efforts, whether those are successful or not…as the economy goes longer in a downturn, I think you’re going to see the recruitment being more successful just because people are angry at the government or angry at themselves more than anything else, but they blame everybody else. Guys who get involved in this stuff pretty much have pretty crappy lives. But they don’t take any responsibility for that crappy life that they have. They blame everybody else.

Have you seen them doing anything new in the last couple years?
A lot of the old time leaders in the past five years have passed away so that left a void in the old time leadership. Richard Butler, who organized the Aryan nations out in Coueur d’ Alene, Idaho, he’s gone. There was a lawsuit that was done against him by the Southern Poverty Law Center and they lost their compound in that lawsuit. That decimated that group. It was taken over by people who didn’t have the skills or the ability to run any type of an organization and it has pretty much fallen apart. You see the National Alliance back (in 2002) when you were doing the protest up here with Billy Roeper (a ranking member). The National Alliance was the largest neo-Nazi organization in the United States. It’s pitiful in size and numbers. Those old guys had old school thoughts. Those guys are gone and these new guys have not stepped up to the plate, which is a good thing for us.
So it sounds like the whole white supremacist movement, it hasn’t disappeared, but…
No it definitely hasn’t disappeared. The organizations may be in a weaker state. They still have the same number of people. They just don’t have the central figure to kind of bring them all together. It’s good in one way, it’s bad in other ways. . Now you have probably the same amount of people, but they’re much more fractured. Almost leaderless.

In terms of this area, West Virginia had a big white supremacist movement going. I was out at the Israeli embassy during the 2002 white supremacist march  and I was talking to Billy Roper of the National Alliance. Is he still involved?
There’s still groups those guys are leading. Different groups around the country will always have people who want to be the leader. And he’s one of the guys who wants to be a leader of a group. As the old time leaders die, William Pierce passed away, Richard Butler passed away, new people try to come in and take over the leadership of these large groups. Usually their gene pool is a little bit shallower than the person before them. And the group may have problems because financially they can’t raise the money to keep it going, or they have infighting, that type of stuff.

Are they more militant or less militant than their predecessors?
I think some of the older guys had old school visions, more political in nature. And some of the newer guys who may have been part of skinhead groups are more violent fringe groups, they try to push their extremism. And a lot of times, the majority of people who are involved in these things may dislike a lot of things, (but) they’re not willing to take it to a point of actual violence. The new leadership may be more violent leaders but don’t always get the number of people behind them. What we really worry about in this type of environment is — not the guys who want to stand on the courthouse steps and use their First Amendment rights to say things that you and I may not agree with– but the fringe of the fringe, the lone wolf or the person who has a couple people. That is much more difficult to track. They don’t have websites. They don’t have all these different things. That’s the person who’s going to commit criminal acts that we’re interested in. The other people, they have their right to hate.

How does the FBI deal with that?
A lot of times the people in their own community will see that someone has gone off the beaten path to a more extreme thing. And they may call in to the FBI or notify local police. They don’t want to see it happen. There’s people in the movement because they can make money doing it… record companies and all that stuff, it’s just a money making venture for a lot of them. If it goes beyond that, I don’t think they want to see it happen . It’s only going to hurt their movement or their cause if somebody does something.

The question is, should we be afraid of these groups?
We should always be vigilant. Timothy McVeigh, as an example, was a guy who was not completely linked up to any great organizations when he committed the bombing in Oklahoma City. Should a person like that be on our radar screen? Yeah.

Was there somewhat of a peeling back by these groups after Sept. 11?
After Sept. 11, on the Internet, there were a lot of writings that people involved in these groups put on supporting the Sept. 11 attacks. They’re anti-government and it was an attack on the United States. Some of the extremists within the extreme, felt almost a victory that an attack was played out. It’s clear on the Internet by some of their writings that they felt an attack on New York was an attack on the United States and the Jewish population. They liked that.

What about their Anti-Arab mentality?
It’s not just anti-Arab, it’s anti-anything but them.

Did that attack help in their recruiting or did it hurt their recruiting?
I think after 9/11 people of all types in the United States came together and that included even some of the people that were on the fringe of the extremist. But as everything changes, things change back.

How long did it take for there to be a shift again, where they said ‘ok we can hate the government again’?
Probably as long it took you and I to stop waiving at each other at the gas station and saying hello. As that goes , so does the extremist. Everybody after 9/11 was stopping and saying hello to people at the gas station, people were nodding and now it’s back to ‘I’m getting my gas and putting it in my car, I’m not going to say hello to anybody’.

How porous are these organizations? Is it easy to infiltrate? Is it easy to get informants?
That’s our job.Whether it be organized crime or terrorist organizations or domestic terrorist organizations here, international overseas, that’s our jobs to find the weaknesses, that’s what we do.

How about the Internet, how are seeing that being used for recruiting?
The Internet is the number one way that anybody does anything for a small business, whether it be for good or for bad. It’s the same thing for these guys. You can be the general for the ex-militia and it appears that you have dozens of, it not hundreds of members, but really you’re in your mother’s basement on your computer. It’s a way that they’re able to appear that there’s more of them than there actually are.

Where’s the limit on the Internet? Have some of them crossed the limit?
Sure. It’s a First Amendment limit. You can go pretty far with it. But they’ll definitely cross the line with threats against people. Small numbers will do that.

Are you able to take legal action once they cross that line?
If we’re made aware of the threat. Who ever receives the threat will notify the police or FBI. And then , as long as the attorneys, whether it be state attorneys or U.S. Attorneys, see the prosecution as viable, it will go forward.

Have you had any cases in this division here in the white supremacist community?
Yeah, we have.

Are you able to cite a particular case?
No.

Because they haven’t been adjudicated?
Right.

What are the general activities that you see these days? Are there monthly meetings? Regular marches?
You remember when we were having all those marches? That was because they had a leadership that pushed that type of stuff. That’s gone. The National Socialist Movement came in March, they had 40 to 50 people show up here. Not any huge numbers. We haven’t seen the large demonstrations. I think the lack of leadership has a lot to do with it. Some of these guys, who become leaders of these groups are pretty good talkers, that’s how they get people to join up. And if you have somebody who can’t sit down and inspire people to join a hate group, then you have less ability to have large numbers to show up at rallies.

Do you still have groups that have monthly meetings?
That’s generally how these groups operate. We’re not interested in the monthly meeting, the rally on the courthouse steps, that’s First Amendment and really we’re not interested in it. We’re interested in the guy who stops going to the monthly meetings because all they’re doing is talking. And he wants to go out and do more. That’s the guy that comes up on our radar.

Are there guys that you’re aware of on the fringe that are raising red flags?
I’m not getting into any.. we wouldn’t have a job if there weren’t people on the fringe that we are concerned about. Their numbers are much smaller than the persons who are much more involved in the movement itself.

What about women? Is it more open to women these days?
These guys don’t want women in their organization, but they’ve got organizations for women. Like auxiliary membership. It’s always been that way. The majority of these guys, they’re not the brightest individuals in the world, so they’re probably much more chauvinistic. These guys are not very open minded obviously, so women are not treated as equals. I don’t know any who are in leadership roles. Women in the white power movement pretty much have a second seat, it hasn’t changed really.

In terms of odds alliances. It really struck me as particularly odd in 2002 when the white supremacists were protesting in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington and I remember one of the chants “Freedom for Palestine, a Rope for Every Finklestein”. And I just found it very odd. And I know the Palestinians found it very odd.

The baseline is anything anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, is the main theme of the majority of these organizations. If Israel comes into play or the Jewish community comes into play, these guys are going to be against it. And if there’s somebody who’s against the Israeli state, they’re going to be supportive of them in some manner because ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ to the point where we’ll make these chants. The lesser of the two evils in their mind is the Palestinians, so they’ll use that, plus they know it angers the Israelis at the Israeli embassy that these guys are outside, a bunch of skinheads sitting there screaming pro-Palestinian stuff.

Is there any form of alliance or communication with the white supremacist groups?
I think the Internet is the form of communication. All these groups have websites. If you want to contact them they can be contacted. If you’re a kid in some location and you don’t have a group there, you can go on line and contact that group.

Are there any new groups in the last few years that have popped up?
There’s always new groups. They splinter.

Does that happen a lot?
It happens constantly. They constantly are having infighting which causes new groups to spring up.


Is a lot of it a conflict over who should be in power or theory over who we should hate or how much we should hate?

I think in the old days, with the guys like George Lincoln Rockwell and William Pierce there may have been a lot more discussion and falling out over theory. With these knuckleheads now of days it’s a lot more about money issues, who’s sleeping with whose wife; all the things that come along with just ignorant leadership. That’s why they split up and start new groups. You don’t have to get a charter to start a new group. I can just go and call myself “Big Bald White Guy Group” and if anybody wants to join, there you go.


As far as groups, we know they hate the blacks, the Jews,  the Asians. Is it basically the oldies but goodies?

It really comes down to anybody who’s not them. Gays are a target of these guys. Blacks are a target. Asians are a target. And I say a target, in that they’re the ones they don’t like. Anybody who’s not a white guy. In all honesty, a percentage of these guys, and they’ll do it themselves, within the groups, where they track back, and they go back a very short distance back and find out these (members) may not be all that white either. And that starts infighting between them that someone in the group may have other blood in them.

To Read More About Hate Groups Go to the Southern Poverty Law Center website