October 12, 2012

North to Alaska

Part 1: Smallest FBI Office Takes on Big Job

In many cases, getting to remote Alaskan villages and towns requires a plane or a boat.

In many cases, getting to remote Alaskan villages and towns requires a plane or a boat.

The FBI recently investigated a white powder letter incident in Alaska with the help of a partner law enforcement agency. “It took our partners two days to get to the place where the white powder letter was,” said Mary Frances Rook, special agent in charge of our Anchorage Field Office, “because they had to take a ferry and a plane and an all-terrain vehicle to get to the school where the letter had been sent.”

Welcome to the Anchorage Division—the FBI’s smallest field office—whose agents are responsible for covering the most territory of any office in the Bureau. That’s an area of more than 600,000 square miles, twice the size of Texas and packed with natural beauty and hard-to-reach places.

Although the Anchorage Division investigates the same types of violent crime, public corruption, and national security matters as FBI offices in the Lower 48, “there is so much that is different here,” said Rook—and she’s not just referring to the bears and moose occasionally spotted on downtown Anchorage streets.

“If you’re in Anchorage, there are roads to Fairbanks and to the Kenai Peninsula, but other than that there are no roads,” Rook said. Getting to remote villages and towns requires a plane or a boat. Combine the geographical difficulties with extreme weather and one begins to understand how the 49th state can pose considerable challenges for the agents and support staff in Anchorage and our satellite locations in Fairbanks and Juneau.

An Opportunity for New Agents

AnchorageOf the FBI’s 56 field offices, Anchorage has the fewest personnel—but that turns out to be an opportunity for new agents assigned there fresh out of the FBI Academy.

“It’s a huge benefit for a first-office agent to come to a place like Anchorage because you get to do so many things,” said Special Agent in Charge Mary Frances Rook. “You aren’t pigeonholed here. Some of our biggest cases have been made by first-office agents. That’s not an experience you are going to find in a larger office because those cases usually go to the more senior agents,” she explained. “Here everybody has the opportunity to develop a case and run with it and be successful.”

Rick Sutherland, a former North Carolina police officer, joined the FBI in 2009 and his first office was Fairbanks, in our three-man resident agency. Shortly after his arrival, he was assigned a domestic terrorism case that recently ended with the subject’s lengthy trial and conviction. “Getting this case and this kind of experience so early in my FBI career was a great opportunity,” Sutherland said, “and it might not have happened had I been sent to a large office.”

Few FBI offices require snowmobiles to respond to crime scenes, but Anchorage keeps two on hand. The harsh Alaskan winters, where temperatures can plummet to more than 50 degrees below zero and the sun rises above the horizon for only a few hours each day, can make being outdoors seem almost otherworldly.

“It can be a challenging place to work,” Rook acknowledged. “But the flip side is that everybody knows it. So everybody works together. We work great with each other and with our local and federal law enforcement partners. Everybody’s got each other’s back, because you just can’t survive up here alone.”

Not surprisingly, it takes a certain kind of person to work for the FBI in Alaska. “The most successful Bureau people here are the ones who come with an idea that this is going to be a great adventure,” said Rook, whose assignment in Anchorage began in January 2011.

Special Agent Catherine Ruiz, who transferred to Anchorage with her husband last year from Chicago, agreed. “Every few days you will be driving home and you look up at the snowcapped mountains and say, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful place.’ ”

Bureau personnel who come to Alaska tend to be multi-talented as well. “We don’t have a lot of resources,” Rook said, “so everyone has to do a little bit of everything.” One of the office’s three pilots, for example, is also the polygraph examiner and a full-time counterintelligence agent. “That’s not unusual,” Rook noted.

“I originally thought I would come to Alaska for a few years,” said Special Agent Eric Gonzalez. That was 15 years ago. Gonzalez liked the place and the people—and so did his family. He added, “Most of the Bureau folks I know who worked here and left wished they would have stayed.”

Next: Investigating a Fairbanks explosion in 58-below zero weather.