Home San Diego About Us History

History

A Brief History

On December 3, 1939, the FBI’s San Diego Division officially opened for business under Special Agent in Charge Percy Wyly, II.

Special Agent in Charge Harold Nathan, 1941-1944
Special Agent in Charge
Harold Nathan,
1941-1944

The birth of the office was tied to the war in Europe, which had started just a few months before. In early 1939, the FBI had developed a plan for handling homeland security with the Army and the Office of Naval Intelligence. As the Bureau assumed significant responsibilities, it began to hire many new personnel and to open new offices in strategic locations. San Diego was a key city given its important location in southern California, its close ties to the Baja peninsula of northern Mexico, and its many national security functions in the area. Bureau officials quickly concluded that establishing an office there was necessary.

The office opened so quickly that it had little furniture or other equipment. According to the FBI’s employee magazine, Wyly had to use an apple box as a chair as he issued his first orders as Special Agent in Charge. Despite these early growing pains, the office developed quickly and played a significant role in the FBI’s efforts during World War II under Wyly’s successor, Special Agent in Charge Harold Nathan. Its agents and professional support staff worked 24 hours a day to ensure that Nazi intelligence agents didn’t infiltrate from Mexico and that Japanese agents couldn’t target U.S. Naval facilities in the area. The Division also tackled the wide range of other criminal investigative matters handled by the FBI—from political corruption to bank robbery to kidnapping.

Radio operator 1946
Radio operator 1946

The San Diego Division provided another vital service during and following the war: running a key radio station in the FBI’s growing network. The station acted as the Bureau’s Western Network Control and Relay Station, serving as a crucial hub for both the FBI’s internal communications as well as its western hemisphere intercept operations aimed at finding, tracking, and eventually controlling the radio networks used by Axis spies to communicate with their bosses in Germany and Japan.

1950s and 1960s

With the end of World War II in 1945 and the onset of the Cold War, national security concerns remained important as the San Diego office worked closely with naval intelligence to prevent Soviet espionage.

New crimes and priorities also commanded the attention of the office. Organized crime became a national concern in the 1950s, and by 1958 all FBI offices targeted the major crime bosses in their areas. For San Diego, such investigations often had international implications. In 1962, for instance, the office launched the Caliente Race Track Betting Operation. This major cross-border gambling case looked into the transportation of gambling materials from California to Caliente, Mexico. In the end, 17 individuals were arrested in connection with the operation, thanks to the work of the San Diego office and its partnerships with both Mexican and U.S. law enforcement.

The San Diego office
The San Diego office

On a lighter note, the office regularly hosted Director J. Edgar Hoover. During Hoover’s tenure, he would travel to San Diego at least once a year for his annual medical examination at a clinic in La Jolla, a beautiful beach front community of San Diego. He would vacation for approximately one month; however, he would also drop into the office from time to time to do a little work.

In 1959, the San Diego office moved from its original downtown location on Broadway to Fifth Avenue, next to Balboa Park. It would remain there until the mid-1970s.

In the 1960s the San Diego Division investigated the growing civil unrest that plagued the rest of the nation as well as the full range of other matters. Its personnel played a key role in two major kidnapping cases. In 1960, Anthony Allessio, a wealthy California businessman, was kidnapped. He was found alive in a San Diego motel, and within three weeks San Diego and other FBI agents had tracked down all the kidnappers and recovered most of the ransom money.

Marimba lodge where Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped.
Lodge where Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped.

Three years later, a trio of criminals kidnapped Frank Sinatra, Jr. The young Sinatra was finishing a concert at Harrah’s Club Lodge in Lake Tahoe when two gunmen conned their way into his room, tied him up and quickly left, and drove through a blizzard from Nevada to Los Angeles. A ransom drop was set up, made, and Sinatra was released. The kidnappers split up, and one of them traveled to San Diego where he admitted to the crime. His brother turned him in, and San Diego and Los Angeles agents quickly chased down the other two kidnappers, recovered most of the ransom, retraced the moves of the criminals, and built an air-tight case against them.

San Diego agents investigated a wide variety of other crimes during a period of intense social and political change in America. That included the 1967 attempt by Earl Theodore Cook to kill his wife by planting a bomb on a flight she took from Chicago to San Diego. Evidence uncovered by San Diego agents was key to the conviction of Cook. The office also handled one of the earliest computer-aided thefts, in which Stanley Mark Rifkin transferred $10.2 million dollars from a California bank to a Swiss account and used the proceeds to buy diamonds that he then smuggled back to the United States. Agents arrested Rifkin a decade later when he arrived at the San Diego International Airport.

1970s

In 1976, the office moved to the newly-constructed federal office building at 880 Front Street. In these new headquarters, the Division dealt with the major challenges the Bureau faced at the time—answering the criticisms of its domestic security investigations made in the press, by congressional committees, and through internal reviews. San Diego quickly adapted to the new investigative guidelines issued by Attorney General Levi and began to develop long range, complex investigations in line with Director Kelley’s reforms.

Special Agents Jared Robert Porter and Charles W. Elmore
Special Agents Jared Robert Porter and Charles W. Elmore

In 1979, tragedy struck the Division. A crazed gunman entered the El Centro Resident Agency and began shooting. The gunman took his own life but not before Special Agents Jared Robert Porter and Charles W. Elmore were killed. The loss shocked the entire Bureau.

1980s and 1990s

In the 1980s, drug crimes—especially the rising threat of methamphetamine production, distribution, and abuse—were serious concerns of the San Diego Division as it worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Agency (now the Drug Enforcement Administration) to deal with this scourge.

Computer crime, too, became a serious concern. In 1985, for instance, the San Diego Division launched a massive raid to disrupt a ring of hackers who had broken into the computers of Chase Manhattan Bank, NASA, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center, and other institutions. Simultaneously executing warrants at 21 residences around San Diego, agents learned that the vast majority of the hacker ring were actually teenagers. In April 1986, Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitive Brian Patrick Malverty was arrested in San Diego following a tip by a citizen who saw a wanted poster at a local post office.

The 1990s saw the San Diego Division build major cases on a wide variety of fraud matters, targeting large-scale conspiracies to defraud insurance agencies, the government, and even sports memorabilia collectors. Other significant investigations were also in the works.

Beginning in 1995, San Diego Division personnel worked with the California Department of Insurance Fraud Division, the San Diego Police Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau on Operation Twisted Metal, a major joint undercover operation that penetrated an organization involved in staging automobile collisions. On June 23, 1998, the members of these agencies, in conjunction with the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, executed search warrants at nine locations, seven in San Diego and two in the Los Angeles area. Fourteen individuals were arrested in the two cities. In all, more than 150 federal and state agents were involved in the searches and arrests that day.

Health care fraud was another growing concern. The San Diego Division and other FBI entities, in partnership with the National Insurance Crime Bureau and private industry, successfully identified, penetrated, indicted, and arrested a group of foreign and domestic providers and suppliers. San Diego initiated a unique covert operation—Operation SureBuck—to take a more proactive approach to health care fraud by uncovering a conspiracy of doctors, companies, and others operating across international boundaries to defraud the U.S. government and the health insurance industry. In 1997, more than two dozen individuals were indicted in this case and eventually prosecuted.

In a third major case, the San Diego Division worked closely with the Internal Revenue Service to target sports memorabilia fraud. In 1997, building on a Chicago Division investigation called Operation FoulBall, the office began Operation Bullpen to target this kind of fraud in Southern California. By 2000, the investigation had infiltrated and dismantled a major nationwide network of forgers, authenticators, wholesalers, and retailers responsible for the creation and sale of up to $100 million in forged memorabilia.

In 1998, the FBI and its partners launched an investigation that came to be known as Operation Lone Wolf, which focused on the activities of white supremacist Alexander James Curtis and several associates. Curtis and members of his cell threatened and intimidated a number of prominent figures, including a congressman and mayor. Curtis was later convicted and sentenced to several years in prison.

As computer crimes became more vital to national security, the San Diego Division built on its earlier success against the hacking ring. In 1999, the office opened the nation’s first Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (RCFL), bringing together the computer analysis expertise of multiple federal, state, and local agencies in the San Diego area. Ever since, this RCFL has helped gather and process digital evidence in support of a diverse range of cases—including child predators and hackers.

Post 9/11

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, counterterrorism became the top priority of the Bureau. The office was actively involved in the massive investigation that followed, tracking the trails of two 9/11 hijackers who settled in San Diego in 2000.

The office has also continued its criminal investigative efforts. In 2003, for example, San Diego Division personnel stopped a major fraud operation by John Franklin Harrell, who duped investors into believing that he was sitting on a fund of more than $1 trillion and defrauded hundreds of people of some $30 million.

In a major public corruption case, the Division worked with the FBI field office in Washington, D.C. to investigate sitting California Congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham. In 2005, Cunningham pled guilty to accepting $2.4 million in return for helping defense contractors secure Pentagon contracts.

The San Diego Division also cooperated closely with a number of other agencies in a major undercover auto-theft investigation that led to numerous arrests in 2007.

In keeping with the FBI’s mission, the San Diego Division has proudly helped to protect local communities and the nation for decades. For more information on San Diego and the Bureau over the years, please visit the FBI History website.