So the Jacob Wetterling files are public, and the public servants are turning red (“Wetterling case gets a ‘fearless’ review,” Sept. 23). I’m afraid that many more faces will turn that color and that the ones that are red now may become even more so as more documents are made available and examined. The Monday-morning quarterbacks can be ravenous. The red-faced investigators can take some solace knowing that in every major high-profile case there will be casualties in the form of professional and personal screw-ups. It goes with the territory.
That the Stearns County sheriff is pointing his finger at the FBI is nothing new. That multiple agencies struggled to successfully run an investigation with cooperation and proper communication is an old story. Unfortunately, it’s almost tradition. Read a Nelson DeMille novel; it’s boilerplate. The FBI agents are better-educated, better-trained, a little heavier in hubris and more worldly, but they have little hands-on experience with real police work. It’s difficult to find a city police detective who hasn’t rolled around in the street trading punches with someone they were trying to arrest. It’s difficult to find an FBI agent who has. The jobs are different, but there is crossover.
Believe it or not, some law enforcement administrators, agents, officers and detectives have egos. These egos have been fed by incremental, often small, successes, whether they be promotion or the clearance of significant cases. These incremental successes feed the ego to the point where the law enforcement official starts to believe he or she may be somewhat important, maybe even indispensable.
When these indispensable investigators from different agencies get tossed into a high-profile case together, they tend to vie for the leadership role, which they must have to support their ever-expanding egos. With multiple leaders, the investigation experiences splinters — investigators going their own way without coordination, communication or cooperation between agencies. That’s when the wrong leads are followed and the right leads, like the Danny Heinrich lead in the 1989 Wetterling abduction, slip through the cracks.
I had a similar experience working a high-profile homicide that had federal implications. Two FBI agents were assigned the case. They were friendly and cooperative, but as the lead local suburban detective I was a little miffed that I had to attend meetings with the feds to coordinate our efforts. They seemed like outsiders. I think all the detectives and agents felt the same way, and as the case lingered, the meetings were sidelined and each agency just started working the leads it received independent of the other. We stopped meeting and we stopped talking. We thought we had the big lead, and they thought they had the big lead.
Not that it’s impossible for two independent agencies to solve a mysterious whodunit homicide with divergent disparate investigations and no cooperation between agencies; it’s just a stupid, inefficient waste of resources.
The arc of my career and the intersection of the ongoing investigation had some anomalous circumstances that could never have been predicted. After the 9/11 attacks, I was assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. The homicide was several years old by then, and I and one of the original assigned FBI agents were the only investigators still working the case. Now we were working in the same building. We were stuck with each other. We might run into one another in the elevator.
Between terrorism investigations, the agent I worked with — I’ll call him John, because I don’t think he wants to be named — and I started going out to investigate leads together. We met with sources, we coordinated strategy and we teamed up basically on everything. We became close friends, and my respect for him as a professional grew daily. I was meeting and working with all the agents at the Minneapolis office, and the longer I worked there, the more I respected the professionalism they displayed day to day. John was the best of the best. He was a natural leader and excelled in every aspect of the investigator’s job.
As with most successful investigations, we worked hard and had some good luck. As luck would have it, they did have the big lead. As a result of this lead, we developed a suspect, gathered evidence, presented our case to the U.S. attorney and got an indictment. After a six-year investigation, our suspect was found guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. Almost a happy ending, except that the murder victim, an excellent man, father/son/husband, remained dead.
It’s a frightening idea to a lot of city, county, state and federal law enforcement investigators to imagine being paired up with an unknown investigator from another assisting agency, but if the case is going to be multijurisdictional, it’s probably the best, albeit the most uncomfortable, strategy for a better-coordinated, cooperative effort to solve a crime. Egos and personalities aside, it’s not about the cops anyway. In the end, it doesn’t matter who gets credit for solving the crime. It’s about giving the family of the victims some closure, a small chance for some small measure of peace of mind.
Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is an author and retired police detective and teacher.