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  • THIS WEEK'S NEWS

    G Men: Though not like TV, retired agents say working for the FBI was never dull

    By Jackie R. Broach
    Coastal Observer

    There’s bound to be some excitement in a job that involves investigations of bank robberies, murders, bribery and organized crime.

    Yes, life as an FBI agent under J. Edgar Hoover’s reign had its moments. But it wasn’t nearly so dangerous or exciting as most people would expect.

    “For 11 of 25 years, I was in big criminal work, and I drew my gun exactly twice,” said Jack Herington, 83, of Litchfield Country Club.

    Once was when he and two other agents went into a hotel in New York looking for a fugitive bank robber. A hotel employee had said a man who looked like the fugitive checked in earlier. As soon as the agents saw the man, who had been asleep in bed, they knew he wasn’t the fugitive, but when he made the mistake of reaching under his pillow, they all drew guns.

    There was no weapon under the pillow, Herington said, but the man might have pulled out anything.

    Herington served on the bureau’s criminal squad and ended his career as deputy assistant director of the legal counsel division in 1975.

    James “Jimmy” Dolan, 75, said he sometimes didn’t even carry a badge, and agents rarely had cause to show one. The only time in 24 years the Litchfield resident can recall being asked to show his badge, he said the person he showed it to didn’t believe him and sent him packing.

    He was in Baltimore at the time, trying to interview “an older lady” in an apartment building. She had the door chained and asked to see identification.

    When he showed his badge, he got an unexpected reaction. “She said that can’t be real; it’s too tiny,” Dolan recalled. “Ours were not like the big shields everybody else had.

    It was a tiny little thing.”

    On the drive back, Dolan was told over the radio that the woman reported him for impersonating an agent.

    Herington and Dolan are among several former agents who retired to the Waccamaw Neck. All members of the local chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, they get together regularly to talk over old times.

    Asked what being an agent is really like, the answer is a short one.

    “Do you watch TV? It’s not like that,” Herington said.

    They all get a laugh over the way FBI agents are portrayed on TV and in books and movies.

    “Did you ever have an anthropologist walking around with you all the time? A pretty one?” Herington asked his fellow retirees, referencing the TV hit Bones.

    “I didn’t,” Herington said. “If it’s on TV, it’s wrong.”

    While Herington and Dolan say there wasn’t much excitement in their jobs, Howard Burgin, 71, who lives on the South Causeway, said it’s all about perspective.

    “This was your job. It was what you did every day,” he said.

    But for Burgin, it never got old.

    “It was exciting to me,” he said.

    Burgin spent 26 years with the bureau, retiring in 1988 from the Charlotte division.

    His time with the FBI included 18 years working in a one-man office in Rockingham, N.C., where he got to handle a variety of cases from day to day.

    While other agents had specialties, working in a small office allowed Burgin to be something like the FBI’s version of a general practitioner.

    “You worked bank robberies and car theft ring cases,” he said. “I got to work several murder cases. You never knew what the day would bring.”

    One of Burgin’s most memorable cases, he said, was working on the Jeffrey MacDonald investigation. MacDonald, a doctor, was tried and convicted in 1979 for the murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters in February, 1970. The case made national headlines at the time.

    Burgin’s role in the investigation included interviewing associates of MacDonald, as well as witnesses.

    Jim McGrath, 66, of DeBordieu, wasn’t in the bureau long. He was an agent for only four years, but worked some important cases in that time, including some dealing with espionage.

    He was an agent during the 1968 race riots in Washington, D.C., which erupted with the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and affected at least 110 U.S. cities.

    McGrath was also part of the investigation when a cache of automatic weapons were stolen from an armory in Fort Mead, Md.

    He helped find the weapons before they could be distributed.


    Perhaps the most memorable thing McGrath did during his time with the FBI, however, was working on the Catonsville Nine case.

    The case involved nine Catholic activists who threw blood on and burned draft files in protest of the Vietnam War.

    The U.S. attorney in Baltimore wanted to know what kind of blood had been used and McGrath ended up having to cancel a date and “go stand around for four hours” to await the results. As it turns out it was chicken’s blood.

    Two of the nine were on bail for a previous incident in which blood had been thrown on the files.

    “There I was dragging a bunch of priests and nuns down a hallway in handcuffs to be photographed,” McGrath said.

    He recalled they giggled the whole way.

    “It was just a very strange day,” McGrath said.

    One of McGrath’s favorite stories involves a bank robbery 30 years ago. He wasn’t there, but knows folks who were.

    All the agents in his office cashed their checks at the same bank branch on pay days.

    “There were four or five lines of 40 FBI agents in the bank and two Puerto Ricans from the Bronx came in and yelled, ‘this is a hold up!’ Everybody in every line turned around and held a gun up,” McGrath said. “This is a true story. Talk about bad timing.”

    Mak Kelliher, 55, of Heritage Plantation, recalled a bank robbery he responded to where the robber took a check to cash with him to the counter before passing the note informing the teller he was robbing the place.

    He left the check with his name on it at the counter and was soon in custody.

    Burgin recalled a similar incident in which two high school students robbed a bank and left their text books at the counter, making them easy to track down.

    “It’s like that TV program, Naked City,” Burgin said. “We’ve all got eight million stories.”

    Since most of the agents have autographed photos of Hoover, they get asked about him from time to time. The former agents who worked for him remember he kept a close eye on his agents.

    “He made you keep track of everything you did,” Dolan, said.

    “He was a disciplinarian,” added Burgin. “There was no fooling around.”

    Hoover was quick to censure agents when they made a mistake, but he also didn’t hesitate to offer praise when something was done right, they said.

    Asked about some of the rumors that have been circulated about Hoover, the local agents who worked for him are dismissive.

    “A lot of it’s crap,” McGrath said.

    “Nobody said anything bad about him until he died and most of those saying it can be put into one group: people who don’t like the FBI,” Herington said.

    Of the local agents, Herington worked most closely with Hoover.

    Acting as legal representation for him at meetings around the country, Herington said he was in and out of Hoover’s office for three years.


    While not what’s portrayed on TV, Dolan said his job was never boring. An accountant before he joined the bureau, he specialized in accounting and fraud cases, including bank embezzlements.

    “Every day, you didn’t know what you were going to run into,” he said. “It was just a wonderful life.”

    Most agents had backgrounds in finance or law, Herington said. He joined the bureau right out of law school and it was as much a surprise to him as to anyone else, he said.

    During his last year in law school at the University of Illinois, the special agent in charge of the local FBI office visited to look for new recruits.

    One of Herington’s friends decided he was going to apply and Herington offered to drive over with him.

    He had no intentions of applying himself, but when they got there, Herington wound up filling out an application, while his friend didn’t.

    When he joined the bureau, he was making $5,000 a year.

    “We thought that was big money in 1950,” Herington said. But it was the training that lured him to sign on.

    “I thought it would be a good background to practice law,” he said. “I only intended to stay for three or four years.”

    McGrath also joined up right after law school.

    “There were three of us from [the University of Iowa], all single, and we had a choice between that and the military. The FBI certainly looked more interesting,” he said.

    When McGrath left the bureau, he signed on as a prosecutor with the Justice Department for four years, then decided he wanted out of government work. He interviewed with private firms, but ran into a road block when most of those he talked with just wanted to ask questions about his FBI days.

    “Most of them were bored by what they did and fascinated by what I had done,” McGrath said.

    He wound up working for the worldwide security office at American Express.

    The fraud and white collar crime cases he had worked for the bureau made him an excellent candidate for the job.

    Burgin was a junior high school math teacher before becoming a special agent.

    “I became disillusioned with it and wrote a letter to J. Edgar Hoover and told him I was interested in being an agent,” he said. “I got a call from the Cleveland office and four months later I was sworn in as an agent.”

    Like Dolan, Kelliher’s background is in accounting. He was a CPA until he joined the bureau in 1981, following in his father’s footsteps.

    His father retired that same year and Kelliher was issued the same badge his father used for 30 years.

    Until recently, agents had to turn their badges in when they retired. That rule changed just before Kelliher retired in 2007 from the Bureau office in Myrtle Beach and he was able to take his father’s badge with him. It’s one of his most prized possessions.

    While accountants and lawyers are still targeted by the bureau, Kelliher said the bureau is recruiting from new fields these days. They’re looking for people with skills in science, computers and language.


    One thing that hasn’t changed, he said, is the intense competition for jobs with the bureau.

    “I remember interviewing and there were a lot of people going after one position,” Kelliher said.

    “You’d see 100 people in a room and five or six would make it to be a special agent.”

    Herington said Kelliher is the only one of the local group of former agents who would really know what goes on in the FBI today.

    “This is not our FBI,” Herington said. “We would all be lost if we walked in now.”

    The bureau has taken on more of an international role than it had in Herington’s day, he said.

    FBI agents today are required to retire at age 55. The age for retirement used to be 57.

    Most don’t have trouble finding other work when their days with the bureau are done.

    “It makes you very marketable in whatever you want to do, because of the training,” McGrath said.

    Still, Herington said, “I don’t think you’re ever not an FBI agent. It stays with you.”

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