Several years ago, I finally persuaded FBI agent Paul McCabe to meet me for a beer. Another reporter and I arrived at Runyon's in Minneapolis first. A few minutes later, McCabe showed up and shook our hands. Then he stood uncomfortably for a couple of minutes until we asked him to sit down.
"Uh, can I sit where you are sitting?" he asked.
It took me a moment to realize why: McCabe never sits with his back to the door.
It's a logical instinct for someone who has gone undercover to catch dangerous criminals, chased serial sex offenders, supervised investigations into terrorism and responded to school massacres. McCabe has learned there are a lot of bad guys out there, plenty of whom don't like him much, and he wants to see them first.
Since McCabe arrived in Minneapolis in 1990, he has led or supervised some of the state's biggest criminal investigations, and his several-year stint as the media contact made him the face of an agency that previously preferred to be faceless and often worked in the shadows.
Yet McCabe has declined reporters' attempts to profile him, always saying he doesn't feel it's fair to be the focus of an article when he's surrounded by agents just as diligent as he is. McCabe is leaving for a special assignment after 21 years in Minnesota, and while he again declined to sit down with me, he agreed to let me tell the story he told me off the record many years ago. I also found more than a few fans.
What many don't know is that McCabe almost never came to be an FBI agent in Minnesota, even though his family is from Alexandria. While he was working out of the St. Louis bureau on some dangerous undercover assignments, McCabe's first wife was killed in a car accident.
Three weeks later, his FBI partner and best friend was killed in a shootout.
"After these events, Paul said, 'I just can't [do this anymore],'" said Brad Brekke, a longtime friend who attended school with McCabe at Quantico. "Paul resigned, but a very wise agent did not process his request."
McCabe grieved for a period, then realized there was nothing he'd rather be than an FBI agent. He was moved to Minnesota as a "hardship case," where he made his mark in several disparate areas.
During his time here, McCabe has shifted positions with the agility of an alley cat. A wise one. Early in his career, he obtained a stock broker's license and uncovered one of the country's largest stock manipulations, spending years with another agent in a basement office going through thousands of documents to find fraud. One of the crooks taunted that McCabe "wasn't smart enough to catch me." A couple of years later, the man was in federal prison.
At the time, I asked McCabe what motivated him to keep after the swindlers so long. He talked about his dad, working long hours running a photo shop, earning his money and never even owning a credit card. These guys, he said, were stealing from people just like his dad.
A former FBI snitch once told me he never lied to McCabe because he knew he'd get caught, and he said McCabe had never lied to him.
While "Smiley-faced bomber" Luke Helder was fleeing authorities after a bombing spree, McCabe got him on his cellphone and talked him into surrendering. In the wake of 9/11, McCabe was called to New York to assist the investigation. He was a supervisor in the investigations of the plane crash that killed U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and the Red Lake school shootings.
When Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and killed in 2003, "Paul spent days counseling [her family]," said Brekke. McCabe's level of attention and sympathy "was not ordinary," he said. (McCabe once told me it was among his most difficult assignments, emotionally, because the family was so special and the crime so heinous.)
But perhaps McCabe's biggest fans are members of other branches of law enforcement and leaders of community groups who say he constantly fostered cooperation and trust between agencies and community groups. Many of them were at a going-away party last week to express their thanks.
"All along, he's been connected to our community, coming to meetings and talking to elders," said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. McCabe has worked with Somali leaders to "keep our kids from getting radicalized. He is a guy I trust, and Somali kids know the FBI can be your friend."
"I've been in the business 23 years, and I've never heard a person say one bad thing about Paul McCabe," said Tom Smith, St. Paul police chief. "It's tough to lose Paul, not because he's a great agent but because he's a great man."
McCabe started several outreach programs, including a Citizens' Academy to teach people how the FBI operates. Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, participated and was initially skeptical because of the history of terrible relations between Indians and the FBI. But McCabe gained her trust.
Koepplinger remembers when McCabe's daughter brought books to the center and read to the kids. During a couple of tragedies at Red Lake, "I knew he put his heart into it, and that people who cared were working on it," she said.
Others at his party described McCabe as "quiet," "poker-faced" and "a man of mystery."
It appears the latter will continue to fit. He wouldn't tell me what his assignment was, only that it was "overseas." He's taking his second wife and family.
Wherever McCabe goes, there will likely be more accolades. But he'll still keep his back to the wall.
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