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message 1: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments As a die-hard mystery fan and retired FBI agent I love to read about the FBI or its agents, but I see so many cliches and misconceptions I thought I'd clue in the readers as to some of the worst of them so they can see whether their favorite author has done his or her research.

1. FBI agents do not wear sunglasses any more than anyone else. This cliche stems from Secret Service agents who often do wear mirrored lenses when on protective duty so that the would-be assassin cannot tell whether he is being observed.

2. FBI agents do not investigate serial killings. The Behavioral Science Unit will do analyses for local agencies at their request, but they work in a dingy cinder block room in the basement of the FBI Academy (or did when I was there) and generate paper. Agents never go out in the field chasing murderers except in those rare cases where the murders take place on federal government land or the murderer becomes a fugitive and the local agency can provide evidence he has fled across state lines, or a few other cases of federal jurisdiction.

3. FBI agents almost never travel around the country on a case. They send leads to other offices if investigation is required. That's why it has offices all over.

4. FBI agents don't wear trench coats. At least I've never seen any of them do so.

I could cite a few more, but this should give you a good idea as to how plausible your favorite story is. Thumbs down on Silence of the Lambs, for example, at least as to credibility, but if you don't care about that, you can still enjoy.


message 2: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 35968 comments I've probably read more true crime stories having to do with the FBI than fiction. Of course there are the John Douglas and Mark Olshaker books. But the ones I remember primarily are ones that involved in crime in Chicago (my home) Hot Blood by Ken Englade and Unbridled Rage by Gene O'Shea. Both involved the horse scandals, Helen Voorhees Brach and the Peterson-Scheussler murders in 1955.

What surprised me, at the time, was how the FBI wanted nothing to do with the murder of three little boys but were all over the Brach-horse scandal cases. Now, I understand that the Brach cases involved multiple states whereas the murders only took place in one state and that was why the FBI handed it off to the state.


message 3: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments I know Douglas and Olshaker by reputation, but I have not read those books. Your observation about the murder/horse cases is no doubt correct. Murder in general is not a federal crime.

Having said that, my second novel does have the FBI investigating a serial murder case, but I managed to make this realistic jurisdictionally. I won't put a spoiler here as to how.


message 4: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Another myth that bugs me is how authors love to portray the local cops and FBI as being at each other's throats, usually with the FBI shown as trying to hog some "glory" case. In my experience the FBI and police got along quite well, although there was some competition and resentment at times. Usually that was due to specific personalities, not agency-wide. Most agents and detectives have more than enough to do and are happy to have someone else take some of the workload.


message 5: by Taylor (new)

Taylor Hi Russell! I know I'm late responding to this thread but I find it very interesting that you're a retired FBI Agent. I will be starting law school in the fall and I have hopes of applying to the FBI upon gaining my JD and a few years of work experience. I am in great physical shape, I have always been an athlete, and I run a couple of miles every couple of days. I was wondering if you have any advice for an aspiring special agent.


message 6: by Russell (last edited Jun 24, 2013 07:52PM) (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Taylor wrote: "Hi Russell! I know I'm late responding to this thread but I find it very interesting that you're a retired FBI Agent. I will be starting law school in the fall and I have hopes of applying to the F..."
Taylor, I approved your friend request. I'd be glad to give you advice offline. I'll send a pm.


message 7: by Marie-Jo (new)

Marie-Jo Fortis | 118 comments Taylor wrote: "Hi Russell! I know I'm late responding to this thread but I find it very interesting that you're a retired FBI Agent. I will be starting law school in the fall and I have hopes of applying to the F..."

They do that on TV, too. Theatrics. Otherwise, they wouldn't have a show. In any case, thanks for enlightening us.


message 8: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Seitz | 88 comments Russell, I greatly appreciate anyone who helps me to keep my fiction accurate. I just published the first in a series of new mysteries featuring a crime reporter. Since I used to be one (still am now and then), I do my best to keep it accurate.

I have put up a giveaway for "Secrets Can't Be Kept Forever." Just go to my page to enter.


message 9: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments I agree, Marie-Jo. Most of us do not lead exciting lives, so it is necessary to depart somewhat from reality, even stretch plausibility, to make a good story. As an author I appreciate this.


message 10: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Stephen wrote: "Russell, I greatly appreciate anyone who helps me to keep my fiction accurate. I just published the first in a series of new mysteries featuring a crime reporter. Since I used to be one (still am n..."

I just entered. Thanks for the comment.


message 11: by Dave (new)

Dave Goeser | 37 comments Russell, I am very late to the thread. I really appreciate your sharing your experience. I know that I will take advantage of it and try not to incorrectly color the FBI and local law enforcement.

Obviously, criminal minds fits with Silence of the Lambs. I would appreciate your comment on the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the psychological profiling and evaluation.

Thanks


message 12: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments As long as this thread has resurrected itself, here are a couple more FBI myths debunked:

1. Most FBI Agents are not martial arts experts or super fighters, although I've known a few who are. They aren't even recruited or hired based on size or physical prowess the way cops and sheriff's deputies are. Except for SWAT team members (a voluntary assignment) they virtually never have occasion to engage in a physical confrontation. They do get training at Quantico as new agents and get in decent shape there, and the least fit people (think of the lowest 1/3 of your high school gym class) don't make it in, but that's about as far as it goes.

2. Agents rarely make arrests. I probably made fewer than two dozen in my 25 years, and all but one or two were made with a large group of armed agents, so were totally without incident (and were equally arrests made by the other members). Much of FBI jurisdiction is non-criminal matters, like foreign counterintelligence and doing background investigations on federal appointees, etc. Most criminal cases, when they are prosecuted begin with an indictment, not an arrest, so the defendant has a lawyer already and arrangements are made for him/her to self-surrender to the U.S. Marshal. Of course, this doesn't make for good fiction, reinforcing what I said in my last comment.


message 13: by Feliks (last edited Jun 25, 2013 09:47AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) Russell wrote: "I thought I'd clue in the readers as to some of the worst of..."

This is awesome. The straight dope and the inside skinny! Fun thread. Thanks for offering us the opportunity to pick your brain.

I'd like to hear about the FBI's true capabilities with regard to computer forensics and retrieving information from people's computers. If possible.


message 14: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Dave wrote: "Russell, I am very late to the thread. I really appreciate your sharing your experience. I know that I will take advantage of it and try not to incorrectly color the FBI and local law enforcement...."
Dave, if you are asking about the accuracy of the way it is portrayed on TV, then I would refer you to comment 2 in my first post. It's usually totally bogus. If you're asking about how accurate the FBI profiles themselves are, I'm not really competent to judge since I've never had occasion to see an FBI profile in a real case, although I was given some examples in new agents training. I think the profiles are generally pretty accurate, but largely based on common sense, not some secret or special talent. The profiles are also not nearly as specific as shown on TV so they are not necessarily all that useful for producing leads.


message 15: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Feliks wrote: "Russell wrote: "I thought I'd clue in the readers as to some of the worst of..."

This is awesome. The straight dope and the inside skinny! Fun thread. Thanks for offering us the opportunity to pic..."


This is going to have to be the last post for a while, as I have things to do, but as to this question, the FBI computer forensics people back at HQ are awesome. They can get an amazing amount of stuff from a hard drive, even sometimes stuff that has been deleted. However, that unit is very small and generally prioritizes its efforts to only the most important cases. The average field office has people who can secure computers in a search and who can review the evidence, but most such investigation is the responsibility of the case agent, so an agent should have a reasonable familiarity with common computer navigation and applications like browsers, Microsoft Office, etc. Since all agents are college graduates, this is pretty normal stuff nowadays, but in my era I was unusual in having worked in the computer industry before I was an agent. I did quite a bit of my own computer evidence review, but I did not have the forensic tools they had at HQ to retrieve metadata, scan slack space, etc.

Since there seems to be interest, I'll check back on this thread later today, so feel free to post more questions or comments.


message 16: by Russell (last edited Oct 06, 2013 10:51AM) (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments I don't want to make it sound like the real FBI is boring. It has some really exciting moments. I hope it's not violating some goodreads policy mentioning it, but to find out what the real FBI is like when there's a big case - what we'd call a "special" - you should read my first book Held for Ransom. That's the main reason I wrote it - to show the real FBI. That's really the best answer I can give Taylor.


message 17: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Seitz | 88 comments It sounds a lot like reporting: school boards, town government meetings, somebody at the high school wins an award, and then Tropical Storm Irene strikes, and all of a sudden you're putting in 12-hour days to keep up with it all. But without the boring, you can't have the exciting.


message 18: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) "I don't want to make it sound like the real FBI is boring"

--hoot! best line I've read this month


message 19: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments I just read another book - pretty good, actually, called Rage Against the Dying where the FBI agents "took a transfer to the homicide squad" and where the FBI took jurisdiction of a case because it was a serial killing. Sorry - that's BS, i.e., Bad reSearch. That's like a Wyoming deputy sheriff "transferring to the espionage squad". Still, it was a fun read.


message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

Hey, I'm with the FBI. They sent me here undercover to get the goods on you people. Half of you will be arrested by days end.


message 21: by Mark (new)

Mark Chisnell (markchisnell) | 136 comments Great thread, and Russell, maybe you should write a book on the myths and the truths. There's a good one on violence (by Rory Miller) specifically for writers, so another on FBI MO would be a great accompaniment for thriller writers!


message 22: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Seitz | 88 comments Mark wrote: "Great thread, and Russell, maybe you should write a book on the myths and the truths. There's a good one on violence (by Rory Miller) specifically for writers, so another on FBI MO would be a great..."

I agree. We can never do enough to get the details right.


message 23: by Feliks (last edited Jul 08, 2013 06:41AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) There's a couple of reference works specifically designed for screenwriters; I'll try to get the links correct in this message but its perfectly feasible that I'm disremembering the titles. I'm thinking of a series of books on police topics which are admired for their lucidity.

The Crime Writer's Reference Guide: 1001 Tips On Writing the Perfect Murder

The Crime Writer's Guide To Police Practice And Procedure

interesting link:
http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2008/...


message 24: by R.M.F. (new)

R.M.F. Brown | 239 comments One of the great disappointments of my teenage years was learning I couldn't be an FBI agent when I was older because I was not American.

Thanks for the myth busters.


message 25: by Russell (last edited Jul 08, 2013 02:00PM) (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments R.M.F wrote: "One of the great disappointments of my teenage years was learning I couldn't be an FBI agent when I was older because I was not American.

Thanks for the myth busters."

If you become naturalized you still qualify, assuming you meet all other requirements. Many foreign-born FBI agents (US citizens) were hired for excellent language skills, especially Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, etc.


message 26: by R.M.F. (new)

R.M.F. Brown | 239 comments Russell wrote: "R.M.F wrote: "One of the great disappointments of my teenage years was learning I couldn't be an FBI agent when I was older because I was not American.

Thanks for the myth busters."
If you become..."


I can barely speak English!


message 27: by Raphael (new)

Raphael Harlan | 14 comments Hi, Russell and all. I see that you used to work for the FBI. I'm honored to meet you. As long as you'd worked for the FBI, you'd never been in a case that involved suspicious increases of sewer water costs. If the FBI were to detect factors of the water cost increases affected by, I say, a resident of a small city, that would be weird and unreal. Of all the mystery books that I've read, I would say that there's one book that involved the FBI on that similar case. Of course, I wrote this particular book myself. I imagine that the FBI would investigate state-type cases involving our utilities.


message 28: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Public corruption is an FBI violation, i.e. one it investigates. Unless the utilities are owned or operated by a government entity, e.g. a city or utility district, or there was bribery of a government regulator, there might not be federal jurisdiction. So much in the utility field involves interstate commerce, though, that there is probably some federal statute being violated, e.g. wire fraud, mail fraud, fraud against the government. The FBI handles all of those.


message 29: by Ken (new)

Ken Pelham (kenpelham) | 88 comments Apart from J. Edgar's abuses, the FBI has always done a fantastic job.


message 30: by Raphael (new)

Raphael Harlan | 14 comments Ken wrote: "Apart from J. Edgar's abuses, the FBI has always done a fantastic job."

I would agree.
Water Rate Challenge


message 31: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments For those of you interested in the real FBI, you may be interested in my review of The Billionaire's Apprentice which appears in my blog, both on this site, and my own site: OnWords.

The Billionaire's Apprentice The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund by Anita Raghavan


Linda Abhors the New GR Design Hi all,
Jess, good to see a woman's voice on here--because that takes me to the other topic, Russ, that could probably go on forever. A friend's daughter is an agent (NRC). She and some co-workers have actually written a letter to some shows protesting the way female agents are portrayed on television--dress, makeup, pouty lips, etc.
Nope, no dedicated charter planes-regular fights, like the rest of us (though you'll wonder why some people are being pre-boarded, when they're not celebrities, and have no small children with them? Could be....)
This is a wonderful idea for a discussion thread, Russ!


message 33: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments One more FBI myth:
Agents rarely investigate cases with partners. Most investigation is done solo unless it is dangerous or requires teamwork. However, I can forgive this one since it is almost impossible to write a compelling story without dialogue. Usually for the mystery/police genre readers expect some romantic tension, too, which is most easily done with partners.


message 34: by Anna (new)

Anna Yankun | 11 comments Russell wrote: "As a die-hard mystery fan and retired FBI agent I love to read about the FBI or its agents, but I see so many cliches and misconceptions I thought I'd clue in the readers as to some of the worst of..."

Russell, I find your post very useful, thank you!
I am writing a novel and it will describe the work of police in Virginia, USA. It will describe different cases including kidnapping, chasing drug dealers, serial killers. Serial killers are the main topic actually. I was primarily going to write about the FBI but realized that those cases are investigated by the police. Probably you could give me some advice on where I can I find documentary movies, books about police day to day work? Some articles, probably. I wand to make my book as realistic as possible.
Thank you


message 35: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments My background is FBI, not police, so I don't know any books meeting that description, but I may be able to help. I wouldn't give up on the idea of using the FBI, but you just have to research jurisdiction a bit and use some imagination. In my 2nd and 3rd books, Cached Out and Fatal Dose, the FBI is investigating what appear to be serial killings. In one, it's because the killing appears to be law enforcement (hence a civil rights case) and in the other the FBI is after a white collar criminal, not realizing he is also serial killer. Another easy way is for the FBI to be chasing a fugitive, since it has jurisdiction over interstate flight cases, but the disadvantage with that is the killer must already be identified and charged with a crime before the FBI comes in, so that takes away part of the plot. Check the FBI.gov website for jurisdiction and ideas.


message 36: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Krisko (kakrisko) | 144 comments Anna, there's a thread here:
https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...
that has some suggestions on research titles. That might be a starting point.


message 37: by Anna (new)

Anna Yankun | 11 comments Russell wrote: "My background is FBI, not police, so I don't know any books meeting that description, but I may be able to help. ..."

Thank you for your quick reply.
I believe that it sounds more thrilling for public when you write about an FBI agent rather than a police detective, but it does not fit into my plot because my cases start from the very beginning. One starts with missing children in Mclean district which result in serial killing, another with a ripped body found in the river which also brings the same result. There is no way I can make it a federal crime.
Overall it is easier to make my hero a detective rather than changing the plot.

One thing I would ask. My hero worked as a policeman for several years and then wished to become an FBI agent. After graduating from the FBI academy he worked in National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in BAU-2 for three years. But he realized that sitting in the ground floor studying profiles is not for him. So he returns back to police. Does that sound realistic for you?

I am not a USA citizen so it appears a bit more difficult for me to understand the system and some details like that.


message 38: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Yes, that sounds mostly realistic. Many FBI agents are former police officers, and I know of some who quit the FBI and went back to work as police. It is highly unlikely a new agent would be assigned to the NCAVC, even if he had prior police experience, but I don't think many readers would know that. You are right that the analysts study profiles while the police are out there working the case on the streets.


message 39: by Anna (new)

Anna Yankun | 11 comments Russell, I thought of asking you a question that would probably be interesting to everyone who likes crime novels. Yesterday I came across a documental movie called "how to commit a perfect murder" (http://www.documentaryplease.com/how-...). It basically tells about modern forensic science. Among all they talk about DNA analysis and say that if a person stays in a room without even touching anything but keeps talking for 30 seconds, it is enough to collect his DNA samples from the objects. I sounded a bit exaggerated. Watching other documentaries I have never seen that experts would collect murderer's DNA from "nowhere", there was always an evidence like hair, fibers, steps, sebaceus traces (if I call it properly in English)... Still in real life murderers get away with their crime from time to time... I mean if the DNA is so easily detected from "nowhere" how could it be possible to get away?


message 40: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Krisko (kakrisko) | 144 comments Sounds exaggerated to me too. If you could collect DNA from breath-mist, then we would collect it that way instead of taking blood or other body parts when we need a sample from a living human being (or dog, etc.).


message 41: by Anna (new)

Anna Yankun | 11 comments K.A. wrote: "Sounds exaggerated to me too. If you could collect DNA from breath-mist, then we would collect it that way instead of taking blood or other body parts when we need a sample from a living human bein..."

Actually yes, though it seems reliable there is still a question. Another article: http://www.theguardian.com/science/20...
Thank you for the link by the way! I got several books to read now.


message 42: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments I am no expert on forensics, but generally the science itself is reliable. The problems arise in interpreting the results. In the article about the "female serial killer" the DNA analysis was sound, for example. The DNA was all from one female. That female wasn't the killer, though; it was the lab analyst. Similarly with fingerprints, which are even more subjective. Just because someone's prints are present doesn't mean he is the criminal. That's one reason confessions are still the best evidence in most cases, or finding the loot on the suspect.


message 43: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Krisko (kakrisko) | 144 comments Anna, I don't see where in that article it supports using breath mist as a source of DNA - am I missing something?


message 44: by Anna (new)

Anna Yankun | 11 comments K.A. wrote: "Anna, I don't see where in that article it supports using breath mist as a source of DNA - am I missing something?"

Not in the article, it is here:
http://www.documentaryplease.com/how-...
Minute 38 - expert talking.


message 45: by [deleted user] (new)

Hi Russell,

As a retired city-copper I agree with you 100%. We had a fantastic relationship with the local FBI office and after I retired and moved to corporate investigations my dealings with the FBI countrywide is that they are the best of the best. I have never experienced the myth of them not playing well with others, in fact it's quite the opposite they give and don't expect much in return.


message 46: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments Jim, thanks for the comment. That is my experience, too.


message 47: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Krisko (kakrisko) | 144 comments I wonder where that particular trope came from? Someone must have inserted it to create some tension between characters, but I wonder where the first instance was of the "FBI as arrogant feds who want to take over your crime scene" idea?


message 48: by Ducklings (new)

Ducklings Hi Russell,

Thanks so much for your time in replying to all of these :) My dream is to save lives, would you say that the FBI is a valid means of doing that? It seems like it must be, since the FBI works against things like terrorism, human trafficking, kidnapping, child abduction, civil rights violations, etc. But at the same time, it's hard to imagine that they're really saving lives if it's so heavily paperwork oriented! I'd be really interested in doing it, but only if I'd be saving lives and helping people. So what do you think?

Happy holidays and thank you very much for your time,
Alice.


message 49: by Russell (new)

Russell Atkinson | 98 comments I helped save at least one life, I know that, in a kidnap case. I consider all the work I did as helping people, but it's more in the sense of putting criminals in jail. You don't see an individual who is helped by that. It's more of a "society is better off" kind of thing. That criminal will not be defrauding people or robbing banks while in jail, and, hopefully, later when he gets out, but you don't see some victim getting better because of it. The people you help are people who are NOT victimized because of what you do, but would have been if you hadn't caught the person.


message 50: by Ducklings (new)

Ducklings Russell wrote: "I helped save at least one life, I know that, in a kidnap case. I consider all the work I did as helping people, but it's more in the sense of putting criminals in jail. You don't see an individual..."

Thank you so much! I actually have another question, if you don't mind. Sorry to bombard you, it's just that this is my last day to decide what I'm going to study at university, so I need to make a decision about the FBI :) Now that I have a better idea of how much desk work is involved, I'm having trouble conceptualising the process. Before I would have imagined that your unit/division/etc is assigned a case, it starts off as a load of paperwork and then eventually as you start to catch up with the responsible party it gets a bit more fast-paced, maybe with some fieldwork and (hopefully!) eventually leads to an indictment/arrest. But now it seems like that whole image might be a bit too action packed. But it's not slow, monotonous, day-in day-out work, is it? I mean, if you're trying to catch up to say, terrorists or human traffickers or child abductors, you're not going to be working at a leisurely pace? And there is some fieldwork? And if all goes well at the end of the case, the human traffickers go to jail and all the people they were holding get to go home and it's rewarding to know that you were a part of it?

Thank you so much.


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