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The Dallas Division: A Brief History

Read about the Special Agents in Charge and various facilities in Dallas over the years

The Early Years

Agents have been assigned to Dallas since the earliest days of the Bureau. Special Agent Howard P. Wright was one of the first. In August 1914, he was sent to the Dallas- Fort Worth area to conduct an investigation into rising food prices. World War I had just broken out in Europe, and although America was neutral, concerns about possible price gouging and anti-trust violations were growing stronger. Wright remained in Dallas and was listed in a local directory as the Bureau’s representative the following year. He left the city in July 1916 to head up the Seattle Division.

Interior of an early Dallas Division office

Special Agent F.M. Spencer succeeded Wright, moving to Dallas permanently in December 1916. He had previously been assigned to our office in San Antonio. Spencer’s priorities in Dallas included investigating violations of the Mann Act, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act. With U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, the office’s national security duties greatly increased. Working with city detectives, Spencer executed a plan to round up draft dodgers. He was also responsible for investigating subversion but appears to have been as willing to exonerate those accused through slander and rumor as to pursue those who may have been real threats to American security. In cooperation with the local Secret Service agent, for example, Spencer issued a public denial of interest in a man accused by rumor of being a German agent. Spencer and his counterpart at the Secret Service said, “We will not undertake to repeat the numerous slanders which we have heard upon the streets, but will say that all of them in toto, are without any foundation in fact.”

Following the end of the war the Bureau’s field office organization was overhauled, but Spencer remained in Dallas. In October 1921, Charles E. Breniman replaced him as Special Agent in Charge when Spencer left to practice law.

The Reform Years: 1920s and 1930s

In 1923, Attorney General Harry Daugherty was criticized for failing to sufficiently investigate the many political scandals involving President Warren Harding’s administration. Daugherty was forced to resign in March 1924, and President Calvin Coolidge replaced him with Harlan Fiske Stone. At this time, Dallas Special Agent in Charge Breniman was summoned to testify before the Senate committee investigating the Teapot Dome scandal.

In 1924, Bureau Director William Burns was also dismissed and replaced with J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover initiated a series of reforms to remove politics from the Bureau’s investigative and personnel decisions. Although most of Hoover’s reforms had a clear and strong impact on the Bureau and the Dallas Division, one reform did not succeed. On January 1, 1927, the Bureau attempted to reorganize its agents with accounting backgrounds to better tackle white-collar crime. In addition to managing the Dallas Division, Special Agent in Charge J. E. Gevan was put in charge of a separate regional organization of Bureau accountants. Within a few years, it became clear that this reform was not working, and the agent accountants were reassigned to specific field offices.

At this point, the nation’s economy had descended into depression, and a new group of violent gangsters began terrorizing the West and Midwest with their brazen kidnappings, bank robberies, and various other crimes. The Dallas Division played a key role in the investigation of the kidnapping of oil magnate Charles Urschel by Machine Gun Kelly and his gang.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
Bonnie Parker and
Clyde Barrow

Dallas agents also led the federal pursuit of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a pair of vicious criminals who have achieved posthumous fame. While helping several partners escape from jail in 1932, Clyde Barrow stole an automobile and crossed state lines; in May 1933 a federal complaint was file against Barrow and others. Dallas, because of the location of the initial theft, became the primary office in the case and worked to coordinate the federal chase for Bonnie and Clyde across the Southwest. On May 23, 1934, the criminals were killed in a shootout in northwest Louisiana by local law enforcement. Although not involved in this final confrontation, agents of the Dallas Division had conducted important work in helping to tighten the net around the Barrow gang.

World War II and the Early Cold War: 1940s

As the gangster threat diminished, national security concerns became the Bureau’s top priority. Although the Dallas office was not involved in the late 1930s espionage investigations that concentrated on West Coast Japanese agents and New York Nazi spies, it did begin to increase its national security role as war broke out in Europe in 1939 and intensified its role after the U.S. entered the conflict in December 1941.

Like other offices, Dallas was busy during World War II. Plant security inspections, sabotage cases, and many other war-related matters became regular activities. In 1943 and 1944, agents of the Dallas office assisted in a widespread probe into a Japanese intelligence network centered in Brazil. In the so-called “Rule Case,” the office again played a key role, investigating the activities of German agent Ludwig Bishchoff, a Dallas resident.

Special Agent Richard Blackstone Brown, killed in a car accident in 1943
Richard Blackstone

During the war, the Dallas Division experienced a tragedy. On July 14, 1943, 27-year-old Special Agent Richard Blackstone Brown was killed and another agent seriously injured in an automobile accident. The pair had been involved in an intensive manhunt for wanted fugitive Albert Earl Walker, and they were following up on a reported sighting of Walker when the accident occurred.

Following the war, America found itself confronting the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and the Dallas Division responded even as it continued its criminal investigations. In one 1946 case, for example, the office worked closely with the FBI Legal Attaché in Brazil to apprehend a fugitive named Irving Goodspeed wanted for murder by Dallas police.

Civil Rights and Assassinations: 1950s and 1960s

Throughout the 1950s, the Dallas Division handled a wide range of issues. In 1963, though, it tackled the most significant investigation in its history and one of the most important cases ever for the Bureau.

Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald

On November 22, Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy during a parade through the streets of Dallas. At the time there was no federal statute against assassination, but President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate, and Dallas agents, not surprisingly, played the central role in much of the case. Despite subsequent controversy and the mishandling of a piece of evidence, Dallas did a fine job in recreating Oswald’s activities in Dallas and tracking down available clues related to the assassination.

The 1960s saw the rise of the civil rights movement and the strengthening of laws protecting civil liberties. The Bureau was deeply involved in investigating civil rights cases, and Dallas was no exception. In July 1971, for instance, its agents pursued a white supremacist group that was violently opposed to desegregation and had dynamited several school buses in Longview, Texas. Two people were convicted on civil rights and conspiracy charges.

Watergate and Beyond: 1970s through the 1990s

After Watergate and Bureau counterintelligence abuses came to light, the domestic security work of the FBI as a whole was radically reformed. Despite more stringent guidelines, the Dallas Division played a key role in several 1970s and 1980s counterterrorism cases. In 1976, for instance, Dallas personnel investigated a series of letter bombs mailed from towns in Texas. And in 1984, the office headed up security preparations for the Republican National Convention held in Dallas.

Counterespionage also remained a priority for the Bureau. In May 1988, Dallas agents arrested Ronald Craig Wolf, a former Air Force pilot, for selling classified information to an FBI undercover officer posing as a Soviet agent. Wolf later pled guilty in federal court and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s also led to extensive investigative work by the Dallas Division. It opened so many cases into failed Texas banks that three resident agencies received additional agents to help conduct the investigations. In another white-collar crime matter, Dallas personnel teamed up with investigators from the Defense Criminal Services and NASA in 1994 to target NASA contractors suspected of violating laws and regulations governing procurement integrity. Nine individuals and one corporation were eventually charged with federal kickback and bribery offenses.

Domestic terrorism also remained a key concern, and in April 1997, Dallas agents arrested four members of the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for conspiracy to commit robbery and to blow up a natural gas processing plant.

Post 9/11

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Dallas Division—like the rest of the Bureau—made preventing terrorist attacks its top priority. The office ramped up its counterterrorism efforts by expanding its Joint Terrorism Task Force and re-engineering its intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination.

In November 2002, the Dallas Division moved into a new, state-of-the-art facility. Named after J. Gordon Shanklin, the longest serving Dallas Special Agent in Charge, the new building was designed to meet the rigorous security standards needed in a post 9/11 world.

The office continues to tackle a wide variety of crimes—from health care fraud to violent prison gangs…from child pornography pedaled over the Internet to corruption in the halls of government. As the FBI enters its second century, the Dallas Division is ready to tackle new security threats with fidelity, bravery, and integrity.