FBI Phoenix History
Early 1900s through 1930s
The FBI appears to have first opened an office in Phoenix in 1919; Eugene B. Sisk was its first special agent in charge.
The division struggled in its early years with various personnel issues, and the office was closed between 1927 and 1935. In 1929, El Paso Special Agent Paul E. Reynolds was killed while on assignment in Phoenix. His body was found floating in a Phoenix canal with a bullet hole in his heart. Although a thorough investigation was conducted, Reynolds’ murder was never solved. The division reopened in 1935, but closed briefly between 1938 and 1939. In November 1939, the Phoenix Division reopened and has been in continuous operation ever since, showing a record of strong service and quality investigations.
1940s and 1950s
With the onset of World War II, national security matters were the division’s chief priority. Its personnel investigated security issues, Selective Service Act violations, sabotage, and a few espionage cases. By 1942, the division had 18 agents and was working 925 cases. Tens of thousands of West Coast internees of Japanese ethnicity lived in two war relocation centers in FBI Phoenix’s territory—and so division agents were tasked with watching for “Japanese activity” in these camps. The seriousness of adequately covering such matters led to Special Agent in Charge H.R. Duffey being placed on probation for failing to develop sufficient informant coverage, especially in the relocation centers.
The Cold War brought different investigations, but maintaining adequate informant coverage of suspected security threats remained important.
As organized crime emerged as a national concern in the 1950s, the Phoenix Division joined the fight against the mob. In 1958, “Top hoodlum” Joseph Bonanno, Jr. moved to Tucson. It appeared Bonanno was trying to avoid testifying in an FBI New York bankruptcy fraud case, so Phoenix Special Agent in Charge Joseph McMahon had Bonanno arrested. When the Bureau transferred McMahon later that year for other reasons, Bonanno complained to the press that McMahon’s transfer was a result of his “false arrest” and bragged that he was a “good American citizen.” It didn’t work; Bonanno was returned to New York to testify on whether he had concealed assets in a bankruptcy claim.
Special Agent Paul E. Reynolds
During this time, Phoenix agents also worked bank robberies, kidnappings, extortions, and fugitive searches. In 1952, Harden Kemper—a car theft ringleader—failed to appear the day he was to enter jail and was named to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. The following year, a state patrolman recognized Kemper from his wanted flyer and notified Phoenix agents, who arrested him in Glendale.
By 1960, the office had grown to 28 support personnel and 48 agents who were handling 1,140 cases. Investigations into gambling and interstate transportation of stolen property and vehicles had increased significantly during the decade, suggesting that organized crime investigations remained an important part of the division’s work.
Besides Bonanno, other Mafia members moved to Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s. One was Charles Joseph Battaglia, Jr. For years, Battaglia had avoided jail, often because witnesses were unwilling to testify against him. This record continued until the late 1960s, when an arduous FBI investigation sent him to court. Despite seven trial delays and other attempts by Battaglia to derail yet another prosecution, Phoenix agents had compiled a strong case, and Battaglia was ultimately convicted of threatening victims and others to prevent them from testifying against him. Division agents also arrested Bonanno again, this time for obstructing a grand jury investigation when he interfered with the jury’s examination of evidence against his sons. And in a third major Phoenix mob case, Eugene Bulgarino and 19 associates were charged with robbery, extortion, gambling, bribery, and drug and firearms offenses. Sixteen subjects pled guilty by the conclusion of the case.
Agents also located five Ten Most Wanted Fugitives during the 1960s: Merle Gall, a burglary gang leader who failed to appear for sentencing, was captured in a Scottsdale parking lot. Bank robber Donald Rainey was apprehended in Nogales. Agents arrested John Slaton in Harquahala Valley; Slaton shot at police officers pursuing him as he fled after being questioned about bad checks. On January 24, 1968, Tucson agents caught two Top Tenners—bank robber Jerry James and Donald Sparks, who was wanted for robbing three residences.
Cases that didn’t quite make the Most Wanted lists provided unique challenges for the division, too. Jimmie Workman, for instance, had robbed nine California banks and was wanted in Phoenix for his suspected commission of an October 1962 robbery. Known for disguising himself and for taking hostages during the robberies, he was to be named to the Top Ten list in November 1962. Before that happened, the Phoenix Division learned he was expecting a letter at a local post office, staked it out, and arrested him.
Three years later, Phoenix agents were summoned to a robbery and arrested Robert Camacho, another serial bank robber. The agents determined that Camacho was the actual culprit in the October 1962 robbery mentioned above. Camacho was convicted and imprisoned, but it wasn’t the last Phoenix heard of him. Another year passed, and agents were called to help search for several escaped prisoners—including Camacho. The escapees had spread the bars of one of the prison’s windows using a metal window frame that they removed from a bathroom. They then knocked a hole in a cement block wall, made their escape, and split up. For days, agents searched nearby desert, mountains, and canyons. They re-captured three escapees, including Camacho.
In the 1970s, the office requested additional agents to investigate organized crime and white-collar crime—land swindle cases were especially prominent in Arizona. One land fraud case involved 11 companies and losses exceeding $50 million. The investigation by Phoenix agents resulted in the indictments of 18 individuals and five corporations. The case exposed the “corporate veil” practice that enabled those involved to separate the corporation from shareholders and avoid personal liability for the firms’ financial obligations.
Arizona ’s border with Mexico has presented the division with unique cases and regular international liaison. In the Bureau’s earliest years, agents worked cases concerning “Mexican activity brought about by the revolution in Mexico” and helped other agencies monitor border crossings by foreign nationals. During the Cold War, under the Bureau’s “Border Coverage Program,” Phoenix agents developed sources for infiltrating radical and criminal groups and monitored the interaction of prominent Mexican Communist Party members and U.S. communists. The office also regularly helped fight narcotics smuggling into this country.
In 1974, Phoenix helped solve the kidnapping and murder of U.S. Vice Consul John Patterson, who had been assigned to Hermosillo, Mexico. Patterson had disappeared, leaving a letter indicating that he had been kidnapped by the “People’s Liberation Army of Mexico.” Phoenix Division agents developed a suspect and determined that an extortion demand for $500,000 had been mailed from California. In May, Bobby Jo Keesee was arrested in Colorado and charged with the kidnapping and extortion attempt; Patterson’s body was found a few weeks later in a dry creek bed near Hermosillo, based on information developed in the case. Keesee was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The U.S. State and Justice Departments and the FBI’s legal attaché in Mexico thanked Phoenix personnel for their expert investigation and sensitive liaison with Mexican authorities in the matter.
1980s and 1990s
The division continued to grow—by 1982, it had 97 agents on staff. Its priorities during this time were white-collar crime, followed by organized crime, personal and general property crimes, and general government crimes. FBI Phoenix also began providing training for Mexican law enforcement officers, including interview techniques, crime scene handling, and surveillance. This proactive liaison had long-range benefits, improving Mexican officers’ law enforcement skills as well as deepening international and interagency partnerships.
Such liaison was crucial to a wide range of cases. In a case called Desert Cross, Phoenix personnel investigated a plot involving international kidnapping, illegal adoption, and fraud. Liaison with Mexican officials was significant in such a sensitive matter. Together, FBI Phoenix and Mexican authorities determined that Deborah Tanner and others led a nationwide adoption fraud ring that collected up to $4,000 from desperate Americans hoping to adopt children. Tanner’s group promised Mexican children to the would-be parents, but frequently did not deliver. Even when they did, there were questions about whether the birth parents had willingly put their children up for adoption. Due to the strength of the evidence the division developed, Tanner and her associates pled guilty to multiple counts of wire and mail fraud.
Agents also investigated local civic and political leaders accused of corruption. In one case, the division pursued allegations against Donald Cozetti, the state’s retirement system investment chairman. Cozzetti was a highly regarded gubernatorial appointee who also managed finances for the Tucson Catholic Diocese. Within the Arizona retirement system, allegations surfaced of kickbacks, payoffs, and improprieties. State officials had investigated and cleared Cozetti, but Phoenix agents convinced church officials to conduct a financial audit that uncovered irregularities. The division’s continued inquiries revealed that Cozetti had embezzled almost $800,000 and hidden $527,000 in bearer bonds. Cozetti pled guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property and mail and wire fraud.
In the 1980s, two more Top Tenners were apprehended in Phoenix territory: Ronald Triplett, a Michigan prison escapee, and Earl Austin, who robbed six banks in four states. Austin had bragged about being on the wanted list and had even applied for an Arizona driver’s license using his true name. FBI Phoenix’s investigation was crucial to other captures outside of Arizona—Top Tenners Joseph Dougherty and Terry Lee Conner, who were sought nationwide for their hostage-taking robbery tactics.
The division also faced tragedy as it tracked violent felons. In 1985, Phoenix agents were pursuing Kenneth Don Barrett, a fugitive bank robber. Special Agent Robin L. Ahrens was part of the team deployed to arrest him. In the heat and confusion of the dangerous moment, however, Ahrens was mistaken for an armed associate of the fugitive and fatally wounded. She was the first female FBI agent to be killed in the line of duty.
Later in the 1980s, the division investigated the Dirty Dozen motorcycle gang. Its members were trying to corner the methamphetamine market in Arizona. Agents teamed with hundreds of other federal and state law enforcement officers to launch simultaneous raids—conducting 60 searches and arresting more than 50 gang members on racketeering charges. They seized voluminous gang records, 150 weapons, and $120,000 in cash. In the end, nine members of the Dirty Dozen pled guilty.
Agents also investigated the criminal activity of extremist groups such as the Arizona Patriots. The subjects in the case built bombs and weapons and plotted a kidnapping, an armored car robbery, and a synagogue bombing. In Operation THERMCON, agents investigated the crimes of environmental terrorists who sabotaged ski resort chairlift cables, pulled power cables together to short out power to nuclear generating stations, and torched pylons carrying power to mines near the Grand Canyon. These actions put hundreds of lives at risk and cost millions of dollars in damages. The Evan Mecham Eco Terrorist International Conspiracy, or EMETIC, claimed responsibility in letters to the media. Division agents exhaustively investigated these attacks and got a break when several individuals were caught sabotaging power lines critical to the energy grid of the southwest United States. These terrorists were later indicted for destruction of an energy facility, government property, and property affecting interstate commerce, and their actions were linked to other attacks as well.
Over the course of the 1980s, agents worked an increasing number of illegal drug cases. In one investigation, a cooperating witness helped agents set up a sting focused on the Medellin Cartel. Two planes—laden with 2,033 kilos of cocaine—were flown into Phoenix. Last minute plane breakdowns and plan rearrangements almost thwarted the sting, but in the end, FBI Phoenix arrested six Colombians— including two kingpins—seized the cocaine, and recovered $1.1 million cash in what was termed one of the “largest controlled deliveries ever made by any law enforcement agency.” Cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs was crucial to this and much other division anti-drug work.
FBI Phoenix has also frequently investigated crimes on Indian reservations within its territory. Working with federal and tribal law enforcement, division personnel have assisted in a large number of investigations in Indian country over the years—from violent crime to major fraud to fugitive matters.
Special Agent Robin L. Ahrens
Following the passage of new legislation in the early 1990s, child sexual abuse on Indian reservations gained nationwide attention from the media and Congress. Phoenix agents investigated these crimes, including those committed by classic pedophiles as well as familial molesters. Although the nationwide conviction rate average for this type of crime was only about 20 percent, the Phoenix Division’s investigations led to a near-100 percent success rate.
Major financial crimes were a concern, too. Together with the Los Angeles Division, FBI Phoenix investigated Charles H. Keating, Jr. in the early 1990s. Keating owned a Phoenix holding company that had acquired Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. When the savings and loan industry was deregulated in the early 1980s, Keating switched Lincoln’s traditional thrift practices to riskier land investments and junk bonds ventures, resulting in losses of $2.7 billion. He also sold Lincoln customers $250 million in fake, uninsured subordinate debentures. Keating’s political donations—some of which were legally questionable—also became part of the investigation, as the Bureau examined his influence on five senators who came to be known as the “Keating Five.” Keating and several business associates ultimately pled guilty to racketeering, conspiracy, bank and securities fraud, and interstate transportation of stolen funds. Three of the senators involved were reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee, and two others were criticized for poor judgment. The Department of Justice characterized it as “one of the most complex financial investigations ever conducted by the FBI.”
Following the events of 9/11, preventing terrorist attacks became the top priority of the FBI. The Phoenix Division responded to this mandate, working through its Joint Terrorist Task Force (JTTF), its newly created Field Intelligence Group, and other resources.
In 2003, British authorities investigated a man who was raising money online for Al Qaeda. They relayed intelligence to the FBI about a Phoenix resident—a U.S.-born convert to Islam who had expressed sympathy for Usama bin Laden. The Phoenix JTTF joined other divisions and Bureau intelligence partners in investigating this man. The suspect was a U.S. Navy signalman named Hassan Abu-Jihaad. The investigation revealed that Abu-Jihaad had divulged classified military intelligence—including the locations and vulnerabilities of American naval ships—to Al Qaeda. His actions jeopardized the lives of his own shipmates and countless other naval personnel. Abu-Jihaad was convicted of supporting terrorism and revealing classified information about defense security.
A cyber investigation conducted by FBI Phoenix disclosed that Hazim Gaber, a Canadian citizen, was selling counterfeit sodium dichloroacetate, or DCA, online to at least 65 victims in the U.S. and other countries. DCA is an experimental cancer drug not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Gaber was arrested abroad in 2009 and extradited to the U.S., where he admitted sending victims a powder of starch and dextrose with faked certificates of analysis. He pled guilty to wire fraud in May 2010.
Phoenix, like most FBI field offices, has also investigated many cases of mortgage fraud—including a scheme by Arizonans Jeffrey Crandell and Jake Whitman. The two men obtained the rights to various properties, hid their interests, recruited acquaintances to buy the properties at greatly inflated prices, and paid them kickbacks. They also falsified loan applications. Federally insured banks lost more than $6 million on the bad loans, plus another million when the properties went into foreclosure. Crandell, Whitman, and others who supported the conspiracy were sentenced in March 2010.
In recent years, the division has continued to tackle national security concerns and many different serious crimes, including extortion, fugitive matters, white-collar fraud, child pornography and child predator cases, and crimes on Indian reservations. In a proactive effort, FBI Phoenix recently announced funding for the Arizona Department of Public Safety Crime Lab to examine crime scene evidence submitted by Phoenix and tribal law enforcement authorities. This will accelerate evidence examinations and results and help improve public safety.
Looking forward, the Phoenix Division is dedicated to protecting communities and Indian reservations in its territory from a range of national security and criminal threats.