By Barry Gwinn
On November 30, 1964, at the age of 26, I reported to the Justice Department in Washington to be sworn in as an FBI Special Agent. After three months of training, we were all given our first office assignments. The protocol then was to serve for a year in your first office; then be sent to your second office for three or four years. Sometime after that, you would land permanently where the Bureau thought they needed you. Our class. New Agents Class 9, waited eagerly for our assignments. They varied in desirability from San Diego and Phoenix (which got cheers) to Milwaukee and Newark (which got moans). I got Milwaukee. On March 13, 1965, I arrived there with my wife and two infants in diapers. Snow cover didn’t disappear until May.
There was a spirited group of about five first office agents there. We hung out together in our off hours and helped each other in our cases. We partied on weekends quite a bit. We got the most unglamorous and unrewarding cases as they came in from other divisions. We suffered in silence knowing that better days would come in our next office of assignment. For the first two and a half months, nothing of note happened. And then came the Memorial Day weekend.
Some of the first office agents got together for a holiday party on the Friday night of that weekend. We would brag about our cases, complain about working conditions, and speculate as to what the future might bring. Mostly we drank beer. The wives stood it as long as they could before repairing to another room for a more sedate setting. After the ladies withdrew we were able to pick up the pace. Since the gathering was in my apartment building, I didn’t have to worry about driving home. I took full advantage of the situation. We started to bog down around midnight and the party broke up shortly thereafter. I made it back to our apartment and tumbled thankfully into bed.
About an hour later, while in a deep alcohol induced funk, the phone started ringing in the living room. As groggy and befuddled as I was, I knew I had to answer the damn thing. Only the Bureau and the Milwaukee Field Office had my number. I stumbled out to the living room and picked up the phone. Sure enough, it was the office. They wanted me and John Porter (another first office agent who lived in the same building) to drive up to West Bend and set up surveillance on a stolen car. It had been stolen in Chicago. When it crossed the Wisconsin state line, it became a federal case. A phone call of that nature tends to sober you up pretty fast – kind of.
We got up to West Bend about 4:00 in the morning and found the subject motor vehicle without too much trouble. If memory serves, it was a gold late model Buick. It was sitting at the edge of a field. We were able to set up about 100 yards away on the other side of the field. The car shimmered ominously inthe bright moonlight. The tension mounted. The excitement mounted. Then the boredom set in and we took turns snoozing. As the sun came up, we faced the possibility of someone getting in the car and driving away. What should we do then? Boredom quickly turned to apprehension. We had neither instructions nor an arrest warrant. How can you get an arrest warrant for an unknown person who has yet to appear in the case? We decided that there was nothing for it but to discuss this with the Milwaukee United States Attorney’s office. Cell phones, then being unknown, we had to go into the center of town to find a phone booth. That was the easy part. Trying to get in touch with an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) at 7 AM on a Saturday on a holiday weekend was the toughest thing either of us had done as agents. To make matters worse, we were running out of quarters. Finally we made contact with an AUSA who under the circumstances, seemed like a nice enough guy. Even better, he gave no indication of being as hung over as we were. Down to our last two quarters, plus a couple of dimes, we finally got the authorization to arrest whoever had driven the vehicle away from the field. Buoyed by our good fortune we hastened back to the surveillance site. Although we were still rookie agents, we had managed to set things up perfectly. Up to this point it had been a flawless investigation – by the book. We were still congratulating ourselves as we got back to the field. Horror and foreboding quickly replaced smug satisfaction upon finding that the Buick was gone. The unidentified thief had driven off at the very moment we were setting him up for an arrest.
Now it was time for pure unremitting panic. The Bureau did not look kindly on these kinds of shenanigans. We had enough information to know that this case was in connection with a major car theft ring out of Chicago. The only reason they didn’t send real agents out on this was because it was 2 AM on a Saturday morning. Our bloodshot eyes were bugging out of their sockets as we contemplated being sent to Butte, Montana or Jackson, Mississippi. After a short intermission of holding our heads in our hands, we did the only thing that was left for us – drive like hell all over West Bend and hope that the Buick showed up. The next hour or so was spent in a white knuckle, high speed, tires squealing search through West Bend. Desperation ruled. Finally, about to run out of gas, with nowhere else to look, we admitted defeat. We had combed all streets and alleys in the town. The Buick was nowhere to be found. It was probably up in Appleton or who knows where by that time. If either one of us had been by ourselves, we would have pulled over and bawled. However, G-men don’t do that kind of stuff. There was nothing for it but to gas up and head back to Milwaukee and face the music. We wouldbe the laughing stock of the office. The Special Agent in Charge was not likely to find it amusing.
Crestfallen, we pulled into a single island Sinclair gas station. There was one other car gassing up across the island. A man got out of the car and walked to the rear. He had a Wisconsin license plate in his hand. Come to think of it, the car was a late model gold Buick. Being well trained agents, we felt this warranted further investigation. We got out of our car and proceeded to the rear of the Buick. The man had laid the Wisconsin plate on the ground while he was removing an Illinois plate from the Buick. It was the same plate that was on the stolen car. We stared at each other in disbelief. All of a sudden, the sun burst through the storm clouds. I could almost hear a rousing Sousa march being played behind the gas station. This was the moment we had signed on for. With all the majesty and authority of the omniscient and omnipresent agents of the FBI, a shout rang out which in later years, was to be repeated many times, “FBI! You’re under arrest!” How sweet that sounded. It was better than the movies. With that simple phrase, we graduated from dumb rookies to wise, experienced agents. We would henceforth be treated with more respect. It got better.
The poor guy never knew what hit him. Somehow, even after all the precautions he had taken, he had gotten caught red handed. He could offer no plausible explanation for this. He expressed his admiration and respect that we were able to follow him. He had spent the last couple of hours making sure that he was clean. The guy was so impressed with our acumen that he blurted out that there would be several additional stolen cars to be delivered to the field that day. After being caught in the act, he thought we already knew this and wanted to earn some brownie points. If true, the case agent would get a pile of impressive statistics. We duly reported this to the Milwaukee Field office. The office was delighted at our fine work and promptly sent up some real agents to take over the case and pad their resumes. We were recalled to Milwaukee. Throughout the day, there were several arrests made as four more stolen cars arrived in South Bend. The case was a big deal and did help to break the back of a notorious stolen car ring. It got front page play in the Milwaukee Sentinel. Although my name wasn’t mentioned, I sent a clipping to my parents, assuring them that I was the one who broke the case. They never doubted this and sent the clipping to the Swarthmorean, my hometown newspaper. The paper treated me much like the agent who had shot John Dillinger. I was finally on my way.
Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is presently the Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.