FBI Norfolk History
A week after the U.S. entered World War II—on December 15, 1941—the Norfolk Division opened for business under the leadership of Special Agent in Charge Charles E. Hennrich.
Given the Bureau’s central role in homeland security during the war and the presence of the Hampton Roads naval facility in the Norfolk Division, the new office initially concentrated on national security issues. That included not only countering sabotage and espionage, but also addressing more mundane war-related matters like Selective Service violations, desertion, and theft of government property.
It was the significant number of these cases that convinced FBI Headquarters to keep the office open following the end of the war in August 1945. And with the onset of the Cold War, the division continued its national security work. Like other offices, though, the division also pursued serious violent and white-collar crimes. In 1949, for example, Norfolk investigators responded to the sexual assault and murder of a six-year-old. A man named Lawrence Markham was quickly identified, captured, and convicted for the crime. Throughout such investigations, whether national security or criminal in nature, the division worked closely with U.S. naval personnel and state and local law enforcement agencies within its jurisdiction.
1950s and 1960s
Although there were many important cases in the division through the 1950s and early 1960s, several fugitive matters stood out. In 1959, agents arrested John Roe Priester in Accomack after tracking him through densely wooded terrain and marsh land. A local citizen had noticed Priester’s identification order in a local post office and alerted us. Not long after that, Director Hoover commended the division for its work in the capture of a number of other fugitives wanted for robbery.
Fugitives weren’t the only crime problem facing the Norfolk Division—federal crimes committed by naval personnel also kept the office busy. In a 1960 case, for instance, the division worked with the FBI’s office in Detroit to investigate the possible bribery of a government inspector at the naval base. And in 1964, Norfolk agents arrested an enlisted naval man for the assault of his wife and the murder of her lover.
Special Agent in Charge Robert Hicks (1944-1945)
Bank robberies were an ongoing concern in the 1960s. In 1965, Norfolk agents arrested several naval enlisted personnel for bank robberies in North Carolina. In this and similar cases, the Bureau was ably assisted by U.S. Navy law enforcement personnel. Norfolk investigators made key arrests in violent bank robberies during the next two years. By 1969, the division’s work against such criminals was having an impact. In January, FBI Headquarters commended Norfolk agents for their success in substantially reducing bank robberies in the division’s territory. During 1966, the Norfolk area had experienced 18 bank robberies. The next year, there had been 10 fewer, and in 1968, there were only seven bank robberies. All seven bank robbery investigations in 1968 resulted in the identification of the responsible subjects.
The growing activity of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the area also had a major impact on the division’s work. In 1966, the Norfolk special agent in charge informed FBI Headquarters that his workload had increased from 850 to 1,102 cases over the course of a year, largely due to increased Klan activity in his jurisdiction. In one of many successful investigations, Norfolk agents arrested a local KKK member, who was later sentenced to prison for destruction of government property. The man had let the air out of a tire on a Bureau car at the scene of an FBI surveillance of a KKK meeting. Norfolk’s close monitoring of the Klan’s activities had clearly struck a nerve.
Throughout the 1970s, the investigation of espionage, organized gambling rings, and wanted fugitives remained priorities.
In March 1974, for example, Norfolk agents arrested Carl Dante Napoli— a member of the Confederate Angels, a motorcycle gang from Richmond, Virginia. Napoli, a fugitive wanted for murder, was located and arrested at a funeral home where 50 members of the gang had gathered to mourn the death of one of their own, who was killed in a shoot-out with a rival gang. That same year, Norfolk agents captured Ten Most Wanted Fugitive Melvin Walker. Walker had escaped from the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in August 1974 along with Richard McCoy. McCoy had been serving a 45-year sentence for hijacking a commercial airliner and then bailing out over Provo, Utah with a half-million dollars in ransom money. A few months later, McCoy fired on agents who were attempting to arrest him and was killed with return fire. He was thought by some to be the elusive hijacker D.B. Cooper, but subsequent investigation has shown that he was not.
Changes in FBI policy and practice—especially the cultivation of long-term undercover operations—were as important in Norfolk as they were across the Bureau. In Operation SEAWALL, division personnel and Norfolk Police Department officers targeted organized crime in the area. Undercover investigators made 175 drug buys during the case, leading to 13 federal indictments. Another 46 subjects were also indicted on local charges, and more than $16 million in stolen property was recovered, including late-model luxury automobiles, motor homes, boats, and motorcycles. Investigators also obtained confessions to two murders and a bank robbery. A 1978 white-collar sting operation was a success as well, resulting in the arrest of 19 people on procurement fraud and bribery charges.
1980s and 1990s
Major drug enterprises, organized crime, espionage, and white-collar and violent crimes were a major focus of the Norfolk Division in the next two decades.
In 1980, for instance, the division participated in a joint federal/state task force that targeted narcotics trafficking in southeastern Virginia. The investigation eventually involved more than a dozen federal, state, and local agencies and produced dozens of convictions.
Another major case for the division during this time was UNIRAC—short for union racketeering. This organized crime investigation rooted out corruption along East Coast waterfronts. Norfolk agents pursued corruption at Hampton Roads, one of the largest seaports in the United States. In the end, the UNIRAC cases yielded more than 100 convictions from New York to Miami.
Espionage remained a key concern as well. In 1985, Norfolk agents identified and arrested an intelligence specialist named John Walker who sought to enter into a clandestine relationship with the Soviet Union. The Norfolk Division soon found itself deeply involved in the investigation of one of the most damaging spy rings in U.S. history. Walker had revealed U.S. naval cryptographic secrets for decades before his former wife’s anger at his attempt to recruit his daughter prompted her to contact the FBI.
White-collar and violent crime continued to provide significant cases for the division. An investigation with the Naval Investigative Service and the Internal Revenue Service into allegations of fraud by officials working on a contract to install non-tactical computer systems aboard U.S. Navy ships led to the December 1989 conviction of three men. The potential value of the contract was estimated at $1 billion. In a major property theft case, the Norfolk Division recovered 11 stolen government-owned jet engines and hundreds of other parts valued at over $6 million. The division also assisted local police on a number of murder and fugitive cases in the 1980s.
In 1990, Norfolk agents participated in an investigation that resulted in a major organized crime takedown in the Hampton Roads area. The case led to the seizure of a number of pizza parlors, an Italian restaurant, and beverage company. Mobsters like Pietro Cottone, Baptista Pirrone, and Salvatore Cottone were convicted.
Less than a decade later, the division followed up with other noteworthy criminal enterprise cases. One investigation conducted by the Norfolk Division’s Safe Streets Task Force—which was created in the early 1990s and includes detectives from the Portsmouth Police Department and other law enforcement and prosecutorial officials—involved Richard Thomas Stitt and his gang. Stitt and 12 co-defendants, known as “the Miami Boys,” were charged in 1998 with various narcotics, criminal enterprise, murder, and firearms violations. They used violence and execution-style murders to gain control of rival drug territories and silence other gang members accused of cooperating with law enforcement. Stitt was the first federal defendant from Virginia sentenced to death in more than seven decades on account of the severity of his crimes. In 1999, the division probed another organized criminal enterprise—the Renegade Outlaw Motorcycle Club—resulting in dozens of arrests and seizures of weapons, explosives, and drugs.
On the morning of 9/11, Special Agent in Charge Michael E. Varnum held his first all-hands meeting, one day after he had taken charge. The gathered agents and professional support staff knew their responsibilities had immediately changed—that preventing terrorist attacks was now the overriding priority for them and for the entire Bureau.
In response, the Norfolk Division stood up the Tidewater Joint Terrorism Task Force in December 2001 and its Field Intelligence Group (FIG) in September 2003. The task force brought together area law enforcement and intelligence partners from federal, state, local, and military agencies to investigate terrorism leads, share information, support special events, and proactively identify threats that might impact the Norfolk area and the nation. The FIG supports both this national security work and the office’s criminal responsibilities, analyzing and sharing intelligence and making sure that the division remains aware of and responsive to national information collection and analysis needs.
Even with the focus on terrorism, the Norfolk Division continues to investigate a wide variety of criminal threats. In 2003, for example, the division broke up a “phishing” operation that attempted to trick Internet users into revealing personal information. One of the intended victims, however, was a Norfolk agent who specialized in cyber crime. The division quickly identified the perpetrators and arrested them.
As the FBI enters its second century, the Norfolk Division continues to build on a history of innovation and dedication as it works to protect southeastern Virginia and the nation as a whole.