FBI Milwaukee History
The exact date when an FBI office was first opened in Milwaukee is unknown, but we do know that one was operating as early as November 1917. The earliest special agent in charge on record was Richard B. Spencer in May 1918.
In November 1921, Special Agent in Charge Henry H. Stroud reported that there were four special agents and one professional support employee assigned to the office. During the early 1920s, the division investigated bankruptcies, labor law violations, motor vehicle thefts, Communist Party activities, and other matters.
In March 1925, the Milwaukee Division was closed, and its territory was assigned to the St. Paul and Chicago field offices.
On May 10, 1935, the Milwaukee Division was reopened in remodeled space in ten rooms on the 10th floor of the Bankers Building. A day later, Virgil W. Peterson was named acting special agent in charge.
In February 1939, a newspaper article indicated that the office had nine special agents.
1940s and 1950s
In the early 1940s, like much of the FBI, Milwaukee investigated activities by Nazi agents and other wartime enemies in its territory. In September 1942, for example, following an investigation by Milwaukee agents, denaturalization proceedings were begun against Hans Behnke—the Midwest secretary of the pro-Nazi group the Milwaukee Volksbund and a member of the “Friends of the New Germany.” By December 1942, the Division had arrested more than 100 enemy aliens in Wisconsin who posed a threat to national security; many were members of the Volksbund at Camp Hindenburg, Wisconsin.
Special Agent in Charge Richard B. Spencer
Agents take a break from weapons training
By 1946, the office had a total of 36 agents and 18 support employees. In March 1949, the Milwaukee special agent in charge proposed establishing a satellite office, or resident agency, in Wausau. At that time, resident agencies already existed in Green Bay, Superior, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. By 1953, resident agencies were operating in La Crosse and Appleton, and two more offices were opened in Kenosha and Madison within five years.
In early March 1952, special agents arrested three individuals for the burglary of the home of L.V. Redfield in Reno, Nevada, on February 29. The press characterized the burglary as the largest ever committed in the U.S. at that time.
1960s and 1970s
During the next two decades Milwaukee handled many significant cases; several involved the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s.
On November 28, 1964, Milwaukee special agents arrested “Top Ten” fugitive Raymond Lawrence Wyngaard. A prison escapee from Detroit, Michigan, Wyngaard had gone on a crime rampage, which included robbing a gun shop and supermarket in the Detroit area, shooting a Detroit policeman, robbing 10 occupants of an office building, stealing three cars, and abducting two motorists.
On March 19, 1967, three armed bandits robbed a grocery store owner of a coin collection valued in excess of $45,000. During the robbery the victim and his family were tied up. The coin collection, which weighed more than two tons, was transported from the premises in grocery boxes, wooden crates, and metal ammunition boxes. On March 24, 1967, after an extensive investigation, the three subjects were identified and arrested by Milwaukee special agents. Eighty percent of the coin collection was recovered.
During the 1970s, anti-war sentiment continued to run high and led to several bombings in Wisconsin. On July 26, 1970, for instance, bombs were set off at three separate locations at Camp McCoy; three soldiers linked to a group that opposed the Vietnam War were later indicted. Less than a month later, on August 24, 1970, a massive explosion rocked Sterling Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A 33-year old researcher was killed in the blast and four others were severely injured. On September 2, four men were charged in the bombing, which was a protest against the war in Vietnam (Sterling Hall housed an army mathematics research center). Three of the four men were later arrested and convicted; the fourth man—Leo Burt—remains wanted by the FBI. The following year an agent also captured a leftist fugitive wanted for making incendiary devices.
In May 1972, Arthur H. Bremer attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor and presidential candidate George Wallace in Laurel, Maryland, by firing four shots at Wallace from close range. Wallace survived the attack, but it left him paralyzed for life; several other bystanders were also wounded. The Milwaukee office entered the investigation when authorities determined that Bremer lived in the city; numerous items of evidence were found in his Milwaukee apartment. Bremer was convicted of the shooting and spent 35 years in prison.
A fugitive hunt by Milwaukee agents in February 1974 turned violent—and deadly. After Milwaukee was notified that a murder suspect named Jacob Paul Cohen was likely living in the city, the Special Agent in Charge and another agent were wounded when they attempted to arrest him. After Cohen took a teenage boy hostage, he was shot and killed by a special agent marksman.
On February 16, 1979, John D. Glover was appointed Special Agent in Charge in Milwaukee, making him the first African-American in FBI history to head a field office. Glover served until April 1980, when he became special agent in charge in Atlanta. He later became executive assistant director at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
1980s and 1990s
During the last two decades of the 20th century, Milwaukee joined the rest of the Bureau in investigating an increasing number of white-collar, drug, and violent crimes.
In October 1980, the Paine Art Center in Oshkosh was burglarized of art works and jewelry valued at more than $3 million. Among the stolen items were Fabergé eggs that had been crafted for the Czar of Russia in the 17th century. As a result of an investigation, the art objects were recovered and two subjects were arrested and convicted.
Aftermath of the bombing of the University of Wisconsin
In September 1985, the largest robbery in the history of Wisconsin took place when two armed men took a bank vice president and his family hostage in their home in Allis, then took them to the bank the following morning, secured all bank employees, and made off with more than $574,000. The two men, identified as Terry Lee Conner and Joseph Dougherty, were placed on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted fugitives list. Information obtained by the Milwaukee Division led to the November 1986 arrests of Conner in Chicago and Dougherty in San Francisco.
Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer
In January 1986, five men—including Frank Balistrieri, the leader of the La Cosa Nostra operations in Milwaukee—were convicted of skimming over two million dollars from Las Vegas casinos that were secretly owned by the Mafia. This was the direct result of the FBI’s Strawman investigation, a long-term racketeering probe conducted across several states with federal, state, and local cooperation. More than 19 mob leaders were convicted in the course of these investigations, virtually eliminating the hierarchy of organized crime in Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Chicago.
On July 22, 1991, in a case that made international news, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested after one of his victims escaped. Dahmer subsequently confessed to killing and dismembering 17 men and boys. The remains of 11 of his victims were found in his Milwaukee apartment. The Milwaukee Field Office assisted in the investigation, as did the FBI Laboratory Division. Dahmer was sentenced to life in prison in 1992 and was murdered by another inmate in 1994.
Also in 1996, following a Milwaukee-based investigation, seven men were charged with the largest-ever heist of combat equipment from a U.S. military base. The mastermind—a military surplus dealer named Leo Anthony Piatz, Jr., from Hudson, Wisconsin—was convicted in March 1997 for stealing more than 150 military vehicles which he then stripped, scrapped, traded, or sold to collectors and buyers.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 led to major changes within the FBI, including the Milwaukee Division, as preventing future strikes became the Bureau’s overriding priority.
Cooperation between the various Wisconsin law enforcement agencies began immediately following the attacks, and our Wisconsin Joint Terrorism Task Force was officially established in January 2002 to formalize and enhance this cooperation.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the Milwaukee Division has played a significant role in terrorism-related investigations. For example, the Division was instrumental in the May 2002 arrest of Luke Helder, who had placed pipe bombs in mailboxes throughout the Midwest, Colorado, and Texas. A search conducted at Helder’s apartment in Menominee, Wisconsin yielded valuable evidence and identified Helder as the bomber. Helder was tracked through real-time cell phone information to his location on a Nevada highway. Once his location and direction of travel were determined, FBI agents in the Reno Resident Agency were notified. They then coordinated Helder’s arrest with local and state law enforcement officers.
Milwaukee agents identified another “lone-wolf” terrorist whose actions nearly escalated to the use of chemical weapons. From 1998 through 2002, Joseph Daniel Konopka, also known as "Dr. Chaos," wreaked havoc in 13 counties by setting fires, disrupting radio and television broadcasts, disabling an air traffic control system, selling counterfeit software, and damaging the computer system of an Internet service provider. Konopka was arrested in March 2002 after being caught with cyanide, a potentially deadly chemical, near the Chicago subway system. On May 7, 2002, he was indicted in Milwaukee on 13 counts covering 53 crimes. He was later sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Division has continued investigating traditional crimes. For example, in 2003 it took part in a multi-agency case that dismantled a coupon redemption fraud and money-laundering ring across 15 states that resulted in losses exceeding $4 million. In 2005, the office also helped shut down a beauty salon that was selling fake IDs of all kinds.
Like the FBI itself, the Milwaukee Division has proudly helped protect local communities and the nation for a century.