The Hunch Bunch

The Valley is home to one of the largest populations of retired FBI agents. And while they still can't spill all the beans, their stories would beat the pants off a CSI script.


Published by: Scottsdale Times, 3/8/2008

For five tense months back in 1983, residents and police in West Hartford, Connecticut were stumped by a series of arsons that had been terrorizing the large Jewish community in that affluent suburb. In August, two synagogues and a rabbi’s home were set on fire in what the police believed to be related incidents. In the following month, a fourth fire was set at the home of a prominent state legislator, who also happened to be an active member at one of the torched synagogues.

Law enforcement officials and religious leaders had pegged the attacks as anti-Semitic hate crimes, judging from the blatant and hostile judeophobia exhibited in the suspect’s M.O. The representative’s home had been set ablaze in the early morning hours of Yom Kippur, the most sacred of Jewish holy days. And in the burning of the second synagogue, the fire had apparently started with the suspect setting flame to three of the synagogue’s sacred Torah scrolls, enshrined in the sanctuary’s Holy Ark, the focal point of all prayer. By then, even Time magazine had run a national story citing the acts as disturbing examples of “new attacks against Jews.”

But Blaine “Mac” McIlwaine, then a fresh graduate of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Services Unit in Quantico, Virginia, had a hunch that flew in the face of popular theory. McIlwaine, assigned to the case by criminal profiling pioneer John Douglas, then head of the behavioral unit, had noticed that the Torah scrolls, judging by how far each had been burnt, seemed to have been lit from right to left.

“That was interesting to me,” says McIlwaine, 64, who now runs a private practice in Flagstaff specializing in polygraph testing, “because the way a trained Hebrew reads the scriptures is right to left. I believed the person who set those fires probably belonged to one of those synagogues.” He also pegged the arsonist as young, judging from the amateurish way the fires were set: The suspect had the signature habit of starting the fires by igniting two-liter soda bottles filled with gasoline.

McIlwaine’s profile was spot-on. The arsonist turned out to be a 17-year-old orthodox Jew who belonged to the first synagogue targeted in the spree and professed to be an avid reader of Hebrew literature. Further befitting McIlwaine’s contrary profile, the suspect, who was undergoing psychiatric treatment at the time of the arsons, proclaimed he had actually started the fires to increase public awareness of anti-Semitism.

“Well, he was also a little angry with his rabbi,” McIlwaine adds.

It’s the tiny “telling detail” like that Torah burning pattern that often breaks a case – and that can make the career of an FBI profiler. Profiling has been compared to psychiatry in reverse: Whereas the trained psychiatrist begins by analyzing a person and then predicting future behavior, the profiler starts by studying the actions indicated at a crime scene and works his way back to the personality type behind them.

“We call it the psychopathology of the crime scene,” says McIlwaine, who spent 30 years with the FBI before retiring in 1999. “We look at what happened, try to figure out why it happened, and then once we’ve got the ‘what’ and ‘why,’ we try to come up with the ‘who’ – a personality composite of the person involved.”

If the crime scene leaves behind a body, the profiler will also add in a “victimology” of the murdered party, to analyze the lifestyle choices which may have led to such a brutal end. If the death doesn’t fit the life, that gives the profiler other clues about the perpetrator.

McIlwaine recalls a particularly gruesome murder in California of a married pregnant woman in her early twenties who had been found horribly butchered in her apartment.

“Turned out she was a church-going gal, with no evidence of any activities that would make her fall prey to a violent crime,” McIlwaine says. Yet her body was found nude, legs spread apart, with 50 knife wounds to the torso, in a manner that appeared staged – usually a sign the offender was organized, controlling and deliberate in his choice of victim.

McIlwaine had a hunch the murderer was someone who knew the woman closely – and likely resented her for her squeaky-clean ways. He advised the police to concentrate on funeral attendees who showed some evidence of sexual deviation in their past. They discovered the victim’s husband was bi-sexual, and identified a pallbearer at his wife’s funeral with whom he had been carrying on an affair.

“His male lover was the one who killed her, to get her out of the way,” McIlwaine says. “Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.”

No Country Club for Old Men

Today, McIlwaine, like many former FBI men, is working on his memoirs of such memorable cases. Books like those by his mentor, John Douglas – who became legendary as novelist Thomas Harris’ model for Agent Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs – have been million-book sellers, and primetime crime procedural dramas like CSI, Cold Case, NCIS, Criminal Minds and The First 48 have transformed many former special agents into script consultants.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given how retirees from every field flock to Arizona for its mild weather and affordable cost of living, the state now boasts one of the largest populations of retired FBI agents in the country.

Nine times a year, on the second Monday of each month (except during the summer), between 30 to 50 members of the Phoenix chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation meet for lunch at downtown’s Hilton Garden Inn.

Sometimes they talk about the books they’re working on. Don Smith, a former agent retired to the same sleepy north Phoenix suburb since 1985, recently gave a talk on the book he had published last November entitled Not Released Unharmed, which details his first-hand studies of the infamous Lindbergh case and other memorable kidnappings solved by the FBI.

Other times, the agents talk shop. Many of the retirees, including Doug Hopkins, who heads up the Phoenix chapter of the national fraternity, now run their own private investigation firms – companies heavily advertised as run by former FBI guys.

“It is an advantage,” says Hopkins, who worked 28 years for the Bureau, starting in Houston and ending up in Phoenix. “They don’t let just anybody in. You had to pass muster before you ever got admitted, and if you weren’t worthy, you were dropped pretty quickly. So the fact that you were able to spend most of your professional life working for the FBI says a lot. The reputation comes with you.”

John Waugh agrees. Waugh is a 30-year veteran of the Bureau who says he worked alongside John Douglas on the famous Unabomber case and now manages a team of retired agents working from their homes, collectively doing Web business as AzExFeds.com.

“I’m able to charge a higher rate than a regular investigator because I can offer clients all the benefits of that training,” he says. “I have the FBI experience, access to a network [many retirees subscribe to an international directory of fellow former agents called the Trap Line], plus I still follow all the same procedures. I write my reports exactly the way I wrote them when I was an FBI agent, because the FBI burns all that stuff into your brain.”

For its part, the FBI is okay with retired agents marketing their P.I. firms using the FBI brand – as long as they don’t divulge too many tricks of the trade to their clients.

“When an agent retires, they are required to sign a non-disclosure statement,” says Manuel Johnson, media liaison for the FBI’s Phoenix field office. “They can’t talk about sensitive or classified information. They can talk in generalities about their experience as former agents, but they can’t disclose investigative techniques.”

Not that any of them really have to. The FBI – particularly in the area of profiling the criminals the cops can’t catch – has such an impressive track record, most potential clients of ex-agent-run P.I. firms almost expect to be mystified by their work.

Of course, there are critics who claim that the actual wording in FBI profiles is often so contradictory and ambiguous, it truly is a magic trick when the interpretation gels with the capture. “If you make a great number of predictions,” wrote social sciences scribe Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker essay on the subject, “the ones that were wrong will soon be forgotten, and the ones that turn out to be true will make you famous.”

“We do try to make the profiles as specific as we can,” says McIlwaine. “But it is an inexact science. Always has been.”

“A chess game”

Curiously, the one topic that seldom comes up at the Society of Former Special Agents meetings is the current crime scene. Given the members’ combined centuries of experience in intelligence gathering, behavioral analysis and criminal investigation, it seems a waste that the group’s monthly meetings aren’t focused on nabbing that latest serial rapist or burglar confounding the local police. Shouldn’t these luncheons be more like a gathering of the Justice League?

“It’s not like a bunch of spies getting together,” laughs Waugh. “It’s more like, ‘Remember when this guy fell in the mud on that investigation?’ It’s about the camaraderie, the friendship.”

In fact, few former agents profess to keep up on the major FBI cases after retirement. Neither McIlwaine, Hopkins nor Waugh seem clear on how involved the current FBI was in apprehending the Chandler rapist, one of the biggest local crime stories in recent years. And on this, the morning after a dramatic armored car robbery in front of a Chase Bank branch in west Phoenix that led all the evening newscasts, Waugh claims not to have heard a thing of that event saying, “I don’t really follow bank robberies anymore.”

“It does take its toll on you,” explains McIlwaine. “It’s just so intense, and you’re looking at these horrible scenes all the time, that eventually you find yourself getting into hobbies that get you away from that sort of thing.”

McIlwaine adds that the crimes today are also harder to make sense of than the ones he tackled during his years with the Bureau. “The drugs and the road rage, the school shootings and weird copy-cat crimes – I’m just glad I’m retired,” he says, with a slight chuckle. “I may read about crimes in the news, but I don’t go crazy trying to figure out who-done-it.”

Don Smith, too, sounds tired of the game. Speaking in a Southern accent etched by his Florida upbringing and years spent in various FBI field offices around Oklahoma and Kentucky, the 76-year-old comes off sounding like a dead-ringer for Tommy Lee Jones’ world-weary sheriff in No Country for Old Men.

“There is no logic to most of it,” Smith says of the crimes he hears about on the 6 o’clock news. “There’s never any such thing as a good reason for shooting someone. But now it seems like there’s often no reason at all.”

All that CSI and NCIS has also made the criminals savvier about covering up their crimes, agents say. Investigating a recent grisly murder in England, police found stacks of CSI DVDs in the suspects’ home, leading prosecutors to believe they had used their newly acquired forensic knowledge to obliterate telltale fibers and other evidence from the scene.

“With those shows, and the Internet, so much more is known about the process, on both sides,” says McIlwaine. “It’s a chess game today.”

That’s not to say these former special agents don’t occasionally slip into their FBI mindsets. Discussing a red-light runner who whizzed by him in this morning’s traffic, Waugh can’t help whipping up a quick profile of the unseen motorist behind the wheel.

“Probably male, and probably young,” Waugh says. “Physiologically, males reach a point in their late forties where they ‘age out’ of criminal behavior. They haven’t been rehabilitated; their testosterone has just dropped enough that they just stop. With one exception: sex offenders.”

Waugh shakes off the shoptalk and gets back to his coffee and pastry. “Being in the FBI is a young man’s game,” he says. “Fortunately, career criminals kind of have a retirement age, too.”


Photos by Hector Acuna; art by Eric Hendrix

Valley retired FBI men (clockwide from top left) John Waugh, Don Smith and Doug Hopkins: “It’s not like a bunch of spies getting together,” says Waugh.

Nine months a year, between 30 to 50 members of the Phoenix chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation meet for lunch at downtown’s Hilton Garden Inn. Usually they're not talking about the latest arson case in the news.