Steve Lewis: How many of us can say that we followed our dreams? Achieved our goals in life?
These aren’t easy boxes to check—but Kathryn Turman has come pretty close.
As head of the Victim Services Division, she is arguably the most consistently called upon FBI resource when bad things happen. Turman has presided over the victim-centered responses to every major FBI case since 9/11, including the Boston Marathon bombings, multiple mass casualty shootings, international kidnappings and murders, and scores of smaller but traumatic federal crimes.
On this episode of Inside the FBI, podcast host J.C. gives us a look back on Turman’s life and career. You’ll hear how she got her start in federal service and about her 18 years leading the FBI’s victim services program—and how her passion for helping others has left an indelible mark on people both in and outside the Bureau.
I’m Steve Lewis, and this is Inside the FBI.
J.C.: When she was a Kathryn Turman was a young teenager, she volunteered at a summer camp for children with disabilities. Years later, when she got to thinking about what she wanted to do for a living, it was experiences like that that inspired her.
Kathryn Turman: My roommate from college, we were talking the night before we graduated, and we were talking about our futures and what we wanted to do, and I told her that I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted my life to be something more than just long.
The volunteer work and the community work I did was so much more meaningful than any other aspect of work or career that I could think of.
J.C.: That desire to help others and find meaningful purpose in her work and in her life started Turman down a path of public service, starting with her role as an aide for U.S. Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania. In the senator’s office, Turman worked on a number of initiatives geared towards supporting children from low-income families.
But in 1991, Senator Heinz died in a plane crash, and Turman transitioned to the Department of Justice —a life-changing career move.
At DOJ, she served in various capacities, all of them important stops on the road to the FBI.
When she ran the Missing and Exploited Children’s Program, she met U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, who later recruited her to run the Victim-Witness Assistance Unit in his office in Washington, D.C. There, Turman also met Robert Mueller, who was the senior litigator in the office’s homicide section.
The intersection of their jobs meant that Turman, Mueller, and Holder spent a lot of time working difficult cases together.
Turman: All of us I think would say that it was one of the best jobs we ever had because it was just so compelling, and you really felt like you were almost comrades in a war zone because it was tough, it was challenging, heart-breaking cases.
But a lot of good successes and a lot of good people, not just the people that we worked with, but a lot of people in the community and a lot of the victims we worked with.
J.C.: Then, in 1998, Holder and Attorney General Janet Reno asked Turman to lead the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime, or OVC, the U.S. government’s program and policy office on victims' issues. Its roles include managing the U.S. Crime Victims Fund, promoting justice and healing for crime victims, and supporting victims throughout their cases.
Turman: So, I did that and ended up working on a lot of terrorism cases, as well as running the office, but I had a great staff there.
J.C.: During her tenure at OVC, Turman and her staff assisted victims from the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen.
But one trial—for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland—broke new ground.
The trial began in 2000. Two Libyan suspects had been held in connection with the December 1988 bombing that killed 270 people, including 190 Americans and 11 Lockerbie residents. A special Scottish court was established on a former U.S. military base in the Netherlands.
Turman: Ms. Reno’s office called one day, it was the day they [the suspects] were handed over, and said, "Can you be over here at 4:00 in the afternoon to meet with Ms. Reno and the DAG?" And so that was when they tapped OVC to handle the victim services piece for the trial.
J.C.: But it had been almost 12 years since the bombing, and so the question was, how could OVC support all the victims’ families and help them attend a trial based in the Netherlands?
Turman’s office proposed setting up remote-video feeds, which were broadcast in closed-circuit sites in D.C., New York, London, and Scotland. This was unprecedented. The U.S. Crime Victims Fund paid travel costs for hundreds of families who attended these broadcasts and the trial.
Turman: That was very intense, a lot of time spent with families and overseas.
J.C.: The support Turman and her team gave those families was a turning point in how the U.S. government assists victims of terrorism and other federal crimes, including the 9/11 attacks.
Coming up next, we’ll learn how the experience of the Lockerbie trial prepared Turman for what came next—a call from an old colleague.
J.C.: Robert Mueller, who Turman had worked with back at the U.S Attorney’s Office, began his appointment as FBI Director just a week before 9/11. He’d seen how Turman had effectively helped so many victims’ families, and he realized that the FBI’s program was not going to be adequate to meet the enormous and immediate need the 9/11 attacks presented.
Turman: Even in the weeks after 9/11, I was in and out of FBI Headquarters for meetings, and I ran into him a number of times. And he said, "I'm having trouble here." He said, "I don't know, we don't seem to have a very strong victim services program."
And I said, "You don't. It’s under asset forfeiture.”
And he was like, "Yeah," and he said, "I'm looking into that."
J.C.: It wasn’t long before Director Mueller had figured out the solution to his problem.
Turman: In mid-December, I got a call from him, and he said, "Can you come over and run this new office?"
J.C.: Turman quickly went to work building up the FBI’s program, first called the Office for Victim Assistance, or OVA.
In her role at the Justice Department, she had helped lay the groundwork for a more expansive FBI victim-witness program using proceeds from seized criminal assets that make up the Crime Victims Fund. The funding stream—still in place today—included hiring dedicated victim specialists in the FBI’s 56 field offices, along with a smaller number of specialists trained to interview children.
But there would be hurdles along the way. Building a more professional team meant establishing new benchmarks, including a requirement that all victim specialists have a bachelor’s degree in a social or behavioral science and a few years of work experience.
Turman: If you're going to be a victim specialist, you're going to work pretty much independently with traumatized members of the public, you want people who have sound professional backgrounds, who understand social and behavioral science, who have some experience actually working with victims of violent crime and trauma.
J.C.: Of course, this didn't sit well with everyone. Some employees felt forced out of positions they had grown into and loved. But others rose to the challenge and pursued and finished degrees.
Turman: It was a little bit controversial. It was painful for some people. So, we were as fair as we could be in that process, and I think the results have sort of spoken for themselves because we have a pretty highly professional workforce of victim service providers.
J.C.: Michele Stewart, a victim specialist in our Salt Lake City Field Office, whose responsibilities include large parts of rural Montana, was one of the Bureau’s original victim specialists. She has seen the full sweep of changes since Turman’s arrival in 2002 and her influence at the highest levels of government.
Michele Stewart: I think Director Mueller brought her in because he, too, had some vision post-9/11, when we were ill-equipped to deal with anything, that we needed a professional workforce inside the FBI.
That was Kathryn’s charge, when she came to the FBI, was to build a highly capable, professional workforce that was educated and trained and capable of delivering the kind of victim services that we were responsible to providing victims. And more than just a letter. I mean really having an ability to do more, not less, and not the bare minimum.
J.C.: And there was another hurdle—the cultural one. At the time, some FBI agents openly worried that adding victim specialists to their offices would mean they’d lose resources for their cases. Or they didn't think this was something the FBI should do at all.
Turman recalls one special agent in charge of a field office telling her:
Turman: "We are not a social work agency. We're law enforcement. We lock people up. We don't hug people. This is just BS. We don't need this. Why do we need to follow these rules?"
J.C.: For Robert Anderson, a police-officer-turned special agent who retired in 2015 as head of the Bureau’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, developing and nurturing a program supporting crime victims was a no-brainer. He had personal experience with a similar program through the Delaware State Police and was supportive of Turman and the program.
Anderson remembers just how hard Turman had to fight, and he credits her with ultimately raising the profile of victim services in a Bureau steeped in law enforcement tradition.
Robert Anderson: I can tell you I've been in some of those meetings with her when some of the older school guys, you know, just didn't look at it that way. And it wasn't that it was right or wrong. It was just, that’s not how they grew up in the FBI.
And I think as we came out of 9/11, and we moved into the next century and we tried to modernize the FBI into a new intelligence organization and law enforcement organization, that victims' assistance and advocacy side of the house was able to go with that. And I really think the champion of that, honestly, was Kathryn.
J.C.: Meanwhile, Michael Mason, a former Marine who was a special agent for nearly two decades before rising to executive assistant director of the Bureau’s Criminal Investigations, counted himself among the early skeptics.
Michael Mason: I think that my first thought was, is this really a core function of the FBI?
J.C.: Changing this outlook across the agency took time—three to four years—but Turman was determined. She would explain that victims can be deeply affected by law enforcement interviews and death notifications, and she’d present evidence that good victim-oriented programs lead to stronger cases and outcomes.
Mason: After meeting Kathryn and talking with her and understanding what she was doing, I really came to a whole different understanding of the program and its objectives and, really, how our work was not just done, you know, doing an investigation, and how we treated victims was very, very important. And so, she just made a true believer out of me.
J.C.: And, at the end of the day, the work of the victim specialists spoke for itself.
Turman: They went in and built relationships with the agents. They proved their worth. They proved that, you know, what they brought to the table was going to help support the agents' work. It was going to help support their case and a better outcome.
J.C.: These days, more than 170 victim specialists work out of our field offices, while teams at FBI Headquarters manage programs for the families of terrorism and child sex-abuse victims, as well as the national Victim Notification Service that provides ongoing and timely updates on cases. And in 2015, Turman added two crisis-response canines, Wally and Gio, to the ranks.
A few years ago, OVA evolved into our Victim Services Division, or VSD. The program has managed 30 mass casualty responses and served almost two million victims since 2005.
As part of those responses, VSD has a rapid-deployment team made up of victim specialists, analysts, and agents who can fly anywhere in the U.S., at any time, to manage on-scene services and support. The 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas required an unprecedented response because of the large number of victims—58 killed and nearly 900 injured.
Every element of the program is aimed at providing timely and targeted resources, whether it’s a large active-shooter response or a single victim of elder fraud.
Turman: You know, that immediate aftermath has very unique sort of tasks and issues that come with it. If you do it well, it helps people on the road to coping and to kind of adjusting to life after one of these things. If you do it badly, it’s just another set of chains that people have to drag behind them—bad memories of how they were treated or they didn't get what they needed.
J.C.: In looking back over Turman’s 18-year career at the FBI, Director Mueller called her an “empathetic pioneer,” and Director Wray said her legacy will remain long after she departs the Bureau.
Turman acknowledges that she’s been able to hold fast to her goal of making a difference, and she stresses that the contributions of the people around her have been a big part of that.
Turman: I think building the team that I have—and I haven’t done it alone—but just building, professionalizing, and then hiring good people and letting them do their work and letting them develop the program in ways that I couldn't think of on my own or couldn't do on my own. And good things come out of that. You get good outcomes with victims, even if the case doesn't necessarily end up the way they want it, the criminal case.
But if you've done the right thing for them, and you've done it well, and you've been caring and compassionate, then that’s what they're going to remember.
I'm very proud of just where VSD has come and the people that are a part of it, whether they’re the victim specialists out in the field or the people in VSD past and present who've been there. I hope if I do anything well, I hire well and try to help people just stay focused on, is this the right thing to do for the victims in this case.
It’s been the greatest honor of my life to lead this program. It’s just been amazing.
J.C.: Thanks for joining me on this look back at Kathryn Turman’s role at the FBI.
To read our story chronicling her career, visit fbi.gov/turman.
And to learn more about the Victim Services Division, visit fbi.gov/vsd.
This has been another production of Inside the FBI. I’m J.C. from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks again for tuning in.