For the past 16 months, when a notable person dies, Parker Higgins sends a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Each letter is the same, except for the name, and makes the same request: Hand over the FBI file for the deceased.
Higgins then posts the file online, in its entirety, with a link to the obit. He calls it “FOIA the Dead: a morbid transparency project.” Its icon is a little pixilated skull.
FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act, and under that law, FBI files become public after someone dies.
Since Higgins started his project in 2015, he has posted 29 files for people whose common traits are 1) they merited a New York Times obituary; 2) the FBI had a file on them and was willing to turn it over.
Through FOIA the Dead, Higgins discovered a fundamentalist Christian cartoonist’s failed effort to entice J. Edgar Hoover to enlist his drawings in the fight against the coming revolution. (Jack T. Chick, died Oct. 23, 2016).
Higgins also acquired a six-page dossier from the FBI’s Minneapolis office about John Trudell, a longtime American Indian activist, poet and songwriter who died in December 2015.
The document, dated March 18, 1975, said that Trudell’s activities with the American Indian Movement could put him in violation of federal laws against insurrection.
It noted that Trudell lived at 996 North Grotto in St. Paul with two women also associated with the AIM. “Source advised that he has good rhetorical delivery and is considered to be an agitator.”
Much of Trudell’s agitation, in fact, was speaking out against harassment of Indians by the FBI.
FOIA the Dead also features the files of such disparate figures as Fred Thompson, the GOP presidential candidate; impresario Robert Stigwood; U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; and Luther “Ticky” Burden, an NBA player turned bank robber.
Higgins is a 29-year-old policy wonk from San Francisco who has worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, and is currently between jobs.
He’s proud to have earned a spot on the FBI’s list of highest-volume filers of FOIA requests (sometimes known as the “vexsome filers” list, though the FBI doesn’t like to use that language anymore).
He also wonders whether his automated request letters prompted the FBI’s decision in February to stop allowing FOIA requests by e-mail. That change put a temporary stop to Higgins’ grave-digging letters, but he said he’ll soon figure out a way to automate requests through the FBI’s online portal.
No one at the FBI has ever complained to him directly about his letters. “I hope they’re happy to see these files their agency created get more public attention,” he said.
The FBI recognizes the deep interest in its files, so the agency has its own online necrology. “The Vault” included such Minnesota notables as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and Vice President Hubert Humphrey as well as the notorious Barker/Karpis Gang.
The efforts don’t always yield results. Higgins requested the FBI file for the late Bruce Dayton, a founder of Target and father of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
What he got was the file of a different Bruce Dayton, a supporting character in the circle of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for treason.
Higgins is getting ready to post a new file, a prominent businessman who the FBI learned was once solicited in a murder-for-hire scheme.
Who is it? He’s not saying till it shows up on FOIA the Dead.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.