What It's Like To Be...

An FBI Special Agent

April 09, 2024 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 16
An FBI Special Agent
What It's Like To Be...
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What It's Like To Be...
An FBI Special Agent
Apr 09, 2024 Season 1 Episode 16
Dan Heath

Building cases against MS-13 gang members, flipping a suspect in an interrogation, and writing countless subpoenas for phone records with Dan Brunner, a retired FBI Special Agent. What's the significance of the "1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle"? And what does it take to get a fugitive on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list?

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  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?
Show Notes Transcript

Building cases against MS-13 gang members, flipping a suspect in an interrogation, and writing countless subpoenas for phone records with Dan Brunner, a retired FBI Special Agent. What's the significance of the "1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle"? And what does it take to get a fugitive on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list?

Follow us on Instagram!

Got a comment or suggestion for us? You can reach us via email at jobs@whatitslike.com

Want to be on the show? Leave a message on our voice mailbox at (919) 213-0456. We’ll ask you to answer two questions:

  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Dan Heath: Dan Brunner was an FBI special agent for 20 years. He retired last year. He was based out of the FBI's Newark Division, where he spent much of his career investigating gangs.

Dan Brunner: I was very comfortable in the gang world. I was very comfortable walking the streets of New Jersey in the bad neighborhoods. I was very comfortable with that. Because I was aware, I had self-awareness, I had a great team of task force officers, who are police officers assigned to the FBI, and I had great agents who I was, I could sit right next to, and I trusted my life with them.

Dan Heath: When Brunner says he trusted his life with other agents, he's not exaggerating.

Dan Brunner: There were two potential death threats against my life, and both obviously were, you know, unsuccessful.

Dan Heath: He found out about one gang's threat after the fact.

Dan Brunner: They were discussing doing a drive-by on me while I was coming in and out of one of a federal buildings. They were going to have a motorcycle drive up and take a shot at me. At the end of the day, like I said, obviously, I'm a lot safer now. My wife is a lot happier now that I'm no longer, you know, wearing the vest and going down, you know, investigating these bad guys, but at the end of the day, it's just a part of your life.

Dan Heath: I am Dan Heath and this is, "What It's Like to Be." In every episode of the show, we walk in the shoes of someone from a different profession, a criminal defense attorney, a nurse, a forensic accountant. We want to know what they do all day at work. Today, we ask Dan Brunner what it's like to be an FBI special agent. We'll talk about what it's like to catch one of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted, how he approaches interrogations, and what your favorite crime show gets wrong about FBI work. Stay with us.

When Dan Brunner applied to work at the FBI, he had an advantage that a lot of other applicants didn't.

Dan Brunner: My parents are from South America, from Chile and Argentina, and I spoke Spanish in our home, and that was one of the things that is still one of these things that the bureau is looking for, is people who can speak another language.

Dan Heath: His Spanish was useful throughout his career, but particularly when he began investigating MS-13.

Dan Brunner: So MS-13 is an El Salvadorian gang, extremely violent. They're also called Mara Salvatrucha. MS-13 is extremely prevalent around the world, really, and we were part of a group called Joint Task Force Vulcan to investigate the senior leadership of MS-13 that were operating out of El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, running the criminal operations.

Dan Heath: To understand how an FBI special agent navigates an assignment like this, first, we have to deprogram ourselves from all the movies and TV shows we've seen over the years.

Dan Brunner: There's yet to be a TV show or movie that properly represents what the life of an FBI agent is, because it's all sensationalized, it all has to be put in, you know, one hour, you know, I have to solve the crime, the murder, everything has to be done in an hour, an hour and a half, and everybody's running around in the raid jackets with an earpiece, and it's not like that. So, a lot of the work that FBI agents do is sitting behind a computer, it really is. It's sitting behind a computer and putting together a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. One of the things that I was really good at was working what's called racketeering, RICO crimes. So, racketeering, you're taking an organization, you're looking at them, that the crimes they committed was on behalf of the organization from which they are a part of, that they did a murder, a robbery to make MS-13 larger. It was originally created in the 70s to fight La Cosa Nostra, Italian organized crime, with the Department of Justice, utilizing that to go after other types of criminal organizations. So, you're looking at RICO, really, as a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

Dan Heath: Brunner says as an FBI special agent is gathering the evidence to put together the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, that evidence has to be collected correctly, and, of course, legally.

Dan Brunner: We don't want to submit evidence incorrectly so that the defense attorneys, who are outstanding out there, will find that little thing and cause a doubt.

Dan Heath: And collecting evidence correctly takes a lot more time than it does on your average crime show.

Dan Brunner: So, a lot of times, you see on these TV shows where they're in this main command post, something just happened, and some special agent says, "I need to find out about that telephone," who he's been talking to, and find out about the, you know, where he's been, and then literally in 10, 15 seconds, some analyst who's like,

Dan Heath: The hacker in the office with the blue hair, right?

Dan Brunner: Right, they have everything, like, "Okay, we see the phone records here. "They contacted this person, here's the bank records," and in 15 seconds, you have all this information, and I get it, you have 15 seconds, you don't have an hour, but the process to do that is quite time-consuming. So, if I say, for example, I was investigating this individual, and I find out he's got a phone number, okay, I've got his phone number. Well, I need to find out who that service provider is. That's simple information, I can look up. Okay, we know that Verizon is servicing that phone number.

Dan Heath: Brunner says to find out who's connected to the phone number, he's got to get a subpoena.

Dan Brunner: And 99% of the time, a criminal is never going to pay their bills normally, like every other person. Excuse me, in my world, in the gang world, typically, people have burner phones, so 99% of the time, I will get no subscriber information.

Dan Heath: If he wanted more useful information, like who the phone called one month before and one month after a particular crime, he's got to get another subpoena.

Dan Brunner: Then, you have to mail that off to Verizon. Verizon then does not turn it around right away. That could take weeks, two, three, four weeks before you get results back.

Dan Heath: And is there, like, I mean, this is a weird question, but is there, like, a branch of Verizon customer service that you have to call for federal subpoenas? Like, are you on hold like we are?

Dan Brunner: No, so it depends on the company. I think most of the companies have gone to email now, that you could email it. You cannot phone call, there is no phone calls. The only phone call there is is where you have an exigent circumstance where somebody's been kidnapped or somebody's life is in danger, at which point you're saying, "This is an exigent circumstance, "here's a piece of paper signing my name to it," saying, "This person's life is in danger. "I need this information now."

Dan Heath: It's kind of a fascinating commentary on our business environment, that someone's life literally has to be at risk before you get prompt service from a cell phone company, right?

Dan Brunner: Well, you have to understand, from their perspective also, they're servicing thousands of law enforcement agencies, so I think it's they're just backlogged, because this is the most rudimentary, basic information of, like, phone call records.

Dan Heath: If Brunner wanted to get even more potentially useful information, he might get a search warrant, either for the phone or a suspect's car or house, and that, of course, would take even more time. He'd need to go before a judge with an affidavit, showing probable cause for the search.

Dan Brunner: And the judge will take a look at it and say, "Have you exhausted every other means "before getting to this point?" So, the judge doesn't want somebody to saying, "Okay, here's a search warrant, right away." No, no, you have to show to the judge that you've taken all the steps before, and that's all part of the affidavit, "On such and such a date, we did this, "on such and such a date, we interviewed this person, "on such and such a date, we did X," and once the judge signs off on it, then you have the authorization, but even those have time limits. You have 10 days you have to serve that search warrant, and then you have to go back to the court and show them, "Hey, listen here, I served it, the search warrant. "These were the things that were seized," and you have to be very specific about it. So, let's say I want to do a search warrant on a house. On the house, the judge wants to see, here's a photograph of the front door, this is the number to the house. It is a brown door with the number two on the front of it, the apartment complex. They want to know very, very specific, because it's just not a blanket, "Okay, here's a search warrant," you know, "Go ahead and hit any house." It's very, very specific, and the reason why we're very, very specific is what I was referring to earlier, it's the end game. It's the U.S. attorneys, if they get to the day in court that they can say, "Listen, we seized this kilo of cocaine "behind room, apartment number two, "in apartment two, where this search warrant, "that was filled out properly, "and here it is, clearly photographed, "showing apartment number two, "were seized here inside the apartment "with such and such a person, which was documented "by the FBI agents during the search warrant," and it's becoming so overwhelming that the defense will take a plea deal. I believe the statistic, last time I heard, was 86% of FBI cases never see a day in court, because the evidence is so overwhelming and collected overwhelmingly correct by the agents that the defense team will say to the client and say, "Listen, they've got you, they really have you. "The evidence is collected perfectly, "so you should take a plea deal."

Dan Heath: So, back to the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which I love that image, tell us about a moment when, you know, because of some electronic records you subpoenaed or because of a search warrant, you found, like, a critical piece of the puzzle in making a case.

Dan Brunner: Well, a lot of the evidence that I collect from a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles is supporting the larger. So, that's the whole point about the RICO investigations, 1,000 jigsaw piece, not one single piece won't solve the crime, but all 1,000 will solve the crime, so, in other words, the, like the smoking gun. Typically, that doesn't happen, where all of a sudden, we find the smoking-gun-type of situation. I've never had that situation. I had the situation because, whereas in one case we collect all the evidence to supporting interviews, so we'll talk to MS-13 members, we'll talk to, you know, member number one and saying, "Hey listen, what was your involvement? "Who was there?" And we'll talk to number two and see if the stories are matching. So, it's talking to multiple people independently. They don't even know that each one of them are talking to each other and talking to witnesses, and then each one of these five, six, seven, eight, 20, 30, 40 interviews all come together to paint that 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Dan Heath: What did you learn over your career about how to conduct interviews? You know, how do you get information from people who I suspect are dead set against giving you information?

Dan Brunner: A lot of it has to do with the culture. You know, I'm dealing with El Salvadorian individuals who are in the gang culture, they grew up on the streets, so there's a different type of mentality. My Spanish is a very clean Spanish, it's South American, so, and every country has a different dialect, has a different way of speaking, Chile, Argentina, Columbia, Spain, everybody's different, just like El Salvadorian. Can I communicate and I speak to anybody in Spanish? Absolutely. I have to bring myself, and probably, I wouldn't say, you know, bring myself to their level, and then being able to connect with them, and for me, yes, you can go to interview 101 and interrogation and tactics on how to interview somebody, but no class can ever replace experience and actually sitting down in a room across from a cold-hearted killer, or you know, somebody who is a victim. In each interview, you go into it differently. Rarely did I ever sit down for an interview with somebody that I didn't know them intimately already, because as I was saying before, those investigations take so much time to get to the point where you're actually sitting in front of somebody saying, "Hey, I'm an FBI agent, I'm investigating you for this." That's the last straw, that's you've already got all the evidence, you've already have all the information on them. You have everything already up until that point, so that's a year and a half of researching this person, learning about their families, learning about their ways, things that made them click. So, when I sat down in front of an MS-13 member, I already knew them. I already knew what made them click. I already knew everything about them, and the point for that is to be able to figure out what is going to be the thing that makes them break, that's going to flip them and say, "Okay, you know what, you got me, "I'll tell you everything I know."

Dan Heath: Tell me about one of those interviews you remember, you know, where, because you had done your homework, it kind of unlocked the interview.

Dan Brunner: So, one really good interview I remember, so it was a crime in New Jersey, it was a homicide, and one of the individuals, it was a group of MS-13 members that conducted the homicide, and one of the individuals had been deported before he would been arrested, so he'd already been deported before evidence had been collected, because like I said, it takes years to collect evidence. Once we found out about the evidence, we knew that he was a part of the crime. So, I had put an alert into the system, so that if he ever were encountered again, that I would be contacted immediately. One day, he was caught coming across, back into the United States, illegally trying to enter the United States, and I knew that, I was like, "I think I have him, "I think I can get him, I think I can get him to talk," and I flew down to the border and sat down with him and interviewed him on the U.S. side of the border, and I once started talking to him, and I knew at previous interviews he given law enforcement, he'd deny, deny, deny, but at this point, I had learned about him and his family, and he had family members here in the United States, and I explained it to him, I said, "Listen, this is for them," and never, ever do I threaten anybody. So, let me make that clear, never do I threaten a family member saying, "Hey, listen, if you don't talk to me, "I'm going to do X, Y, and Z." That's not how you get somebody to cooperate with you. You get them to cooperate because you want to say, "Listen, this is the right thing to do," and I would mention a family member, I would mention so and so, and it was just a matter of, you know, over the 30 minutes, 45 minutes, getting them to the point where you just, "Oh," you know, "I know about your mother, "I know about your sister," I would talk to him, and at which point he's just like, you know, okay, it's getting into the mentality, getting into the heart of the person and figuring out what is going to make them go, "Yeah." You know, doing that to a 17, 18, 19-year-old, it's very difficult, because at this point, they've been brainwashed so much by MS-13, they think they're invincible, but when you're talking to somebody who's a little bit older, 25, 30, 35 years old, they sometimes have a wife, have children, have sisters who have, you know, children, family members, it's getting to those people who are a little bit more mature and have a little bit more to lose, and then they're saying, "Okay, you know what, you're right." So, I talked to him for a good two hours, and he admitted to everything.

Dan Heath: Mm.

Dan Brunner: We charged him as part of the crime, arrested him, brought him back to New Jersey, and he ended up pleading guilty because of that interview. If not, he probably would've gone to trial.

Dan Heath: What was it that appealed to you about investigating gangs?

Dan Brunner: As I stated before, 90% of the time you're behind a screen, but that other 10%, you're not, and that's what I loved. I loved, you know, sometimes you're on the streets, you're interviewing people, you're hitting houses, you're doing search warrants, you got your vest on, you're dealing with the worst of the worst, you know, the gang members with the guns and everything like that. I wouldn't say it's your thrill, but it's the excitement, it's the 10%, it's the, "Okay, you're dealing "with the worst of the community," and that 10% is what I loved.

Dan Heath: Hey folks, we're still casting for our upcoming series of summer jobs. We want to talk to lifeguards, camp counselors, theme park workers, and any other jobs that scream summer. So, shoot us a note, point us in the right direction, tell us about people you know. You can email us at jobs@whatitslike.com. Thanks. In 2013, Dan was investigating MS-13 gang members in Plainfield, New Jersey.

Dan Brunner: One of the individuals was Walter Yovany Gomez. He was charged in homicide, for, you know, murder in the end of racketeering, for murdering one of his supposed friends at the time. He was murdered because they thought he had been hanging out with an opposition gang. Well, Walter ended up murdering him with another individual from MS-13 in the room, but Walter was the one who did the really, really bloody stuff, you know, stabbing him in the back, hitting him in the head with a baseball bat.

Dan Heath: Murder cases are typically handled by local jurisdictions, but when local police tried to arrest Gomez, he fled out of state, so it fell to Brunner and the FBI to find him.

Dan Brunner: I had no leads, no phone number, no other information, so I said, "Okay, how can we do this?" Typically, when I run my investigations, I was very, very methodical about being quiet. I would gather the information about the individual quietly without letting anybody know, even avoiding local law enforcement, unless they were us people, you know, officers assigned to the task force, just to keep quietly being there, collecting evidence on the individual. Well, Walter had nothing in there, so I had no leads, no nothing to point me in direction. So, I decided to go on the offense. I said, "Okay, let's make this public. "Let's make this public information. "Let's see if A, we can flush him out, "or B, get somebody to provide information on him." So, I put him on a red poster, which is, you know, saying, "Hey, he's wanted by the FBI's, not 10 Most Wanted, "but he's just wanted by the FBI," and that gets typically a $10,000 reward based on the local division. So, we put him on there, and at which point nothing came of it. I mean, we had no leads, no phone, nobody phoning it in, anything. This point, over the course of a year, I was able to await for a spot on the 10 Most Wanted. Once the spot opened up, you apply the individual to the 10 Most Wanted list, and then he is then looked at by FBI headquarters for, you know, putting him on the famous 10 Most Wanted.

Dan Heath: This is fascinating. I never thought that there would be an application process for the Top 10 Most,

Dan Brunner: Yeah, yeah, there's an application process, because the FBI knows that this is going to be on the media, everyone's going to scrutinize this, so they want to make sure everything is correct. You know, there has to be a little bit of a, I wouldn't say a wow factor is not the right word, but a factor of saying, "Listen, wow, "I'm really interested in this," and there has to be also other factors of like, "Could this generate leads?" There's lots of different factors that the criminal division will look at and say, "Okay, this is a good candidate "for the 10 Most Wanted."

Dan Heath: Gomez was added to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list in the spring of 2017.

FBI ad: The FBI is seeking tips on the whereabouts of a violent gang member wanted for murder.

Dan Heath: The reward for his capture jumped from $10,000 to up to $100,000 dollars. His face popped up on billboards in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, which is where he was suspected to be.

FBI ad: Gomez, also known as Cholo, is a native of Honduras. If you have information on this case, contact your local FBI office or the nearest American Embassy or consulate.

Dan Heath: Brunner got a flurry of leads at first.

Dan Brunner: But they kind of dried up a little bit after a little while, and May came, June came, I would get a lead or two here and there. Then, in August of 2017, I get a phone call from the FBI office in Washington, that said they received a phone call, that someone playing soccer recognized Walter while they were playing the soccer. So, I go down there with the team and I hook up with the Washington field office, at which point we go sit on a house, and surveillance, just basic surveillance, trying to determine, "Okay, the individual, "they said that he lives at this house." We sit there, we wait, and at which point, we see a vehicle leave, but we saw a female get into the car. The team leader says, "Let's follow the car," so we travel with his car, follow it to a strip mall, and at which point the team, which is a small surveillance team, it's not a full arrest team, it's just a surveillance team, because we didn't expect anything else, they see Walter coming out from getting a haircut. He was at the strip mall.

Dan Heath: Oh, my.

Dan Brunner: He was just getting a haircut, and that's it, and at which point the team leader said, "Do we go, do we no-go, this is not an arrest team," at which point we said, "We have to go, we can't miss this. "We can't," so we jumped on him and it turned out to be him. It turned out to be...

Dan Heath: Unbelievable.

Dan Brunner: A Top-10-Most-wanted fugitive.

Dan Heath: Coming out from a haircut.

Dan Brunner: Coming out from a haircut.

Dan Heath: Amazing.

Dan Brunner: Exactly, yeah.

Dan Heath: One of the most violent men in the world, and he's still going in for a nice trim.

Dan Brunner: Exactly, and right there is a good example of if I had sat in front of him weeks after the homicide, I can almost guarantee you he would've been non-cooperative in an interview, because his mindset was still in the violent, "I'm violent, I'm a gang member," but in the years from 2013 to 2017, he had assimilated to a community. He had a girlfriend, he had a life, he had left the gang life behind him, but that doesn't mean you're not going to face justice. So, he had, quote, unquote, you know, I would say better word, "softened," a little bit. He had, wasn't as hard, so when we sat in front of him, and he was presented all the evidence by the U.S. Attorney's Office, he pled guilty, because we had such overwhelming evidence of the crime.

Dan Heath: So, Dan, we always end our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions. Let me fire away here. What's a tool specific to your profession that you really like using?

Dan Brunner: Well, you know what, there's a tool that I liked using as, it's kind of hard to explain this, but, so there's a squad in the FBI, every division has one, it's called the tech squad, and these guys are agents who leave the squad world to become, what they're called, tech agents, and so these tech agents help you with wiring up an informant and things like that and getting the recordings and getting all that physical evidence that you would use at the end game for the U.S. Attorney's office to show them, "Hey, here's an audio recording." Well, that audio recording couldn't happen without the tech guys. "Oh, here's a video of them dealing drugs." Oh, that video couldn't happen without the tech guys. "Oh, we have a phone number for the kidnapped victim, "and the kidnapped victim just got put in a car, "and they're driving down the road." Okay, who's going to do the tracking? The tech guys. So, that tech squad in each division, they're some of the best agents I've known, and again, part of the whole bureau family, a lot of my investigations really revolved around the tech squad.

Dan Heath: What phrase or sentence strikes fear in the heart of an FBI special agent?

Dan Brunner: I would say, "Declination to prosecute." So, there are some times when the U.S. Attorney's Office feels that there isn't enough or they will decline. The relationship between the Department of Justice and the FBI is, so the FBI is a part of the Department of Justice, so ATF is a member of the Department of Justice, so there's lots of different, but the Department of Justice is attorneys, those are the lawyers, that's who we work with and have a great relationship with them, but there's times when the Department of Justice makes a decision based upon whatever decision, you know, the reasoning they have to not prosecute, and I would say that's, you know, striking fear is, I find that it's very difficult for me to bring something up off the top of my mind of striking fear. So, I think that's just, I guess frustration is a better word.

Dan Heath: And final question, who is the most famous special agent, whether real or fictional? You certainly got a lot of candidates here.

Dan Brunner: Well, you've got, you know, from the movies, you've got, you know, Donnie Brasco from the movie, and who's a real individual. It was an undercover FBI agent, but you can really say that a lot of, and this is not to be like, you know, trying to be special or anything, but when an FBI agent does their job right, they don't seek this for fame. They don't seek it to get their name in the media, they don't seek to get known. The majority of FBI agents that are quote, unquote, "famous," and known, are known that because of something that's negative that's happened. So, a lot of agents do their job just for the sake of doing their job, and then, "Hey," you know, "We got it done," but it's the negatives, the bad investigations, the unfortunate situations, which those get the media coverage. It's the 99% other investigations and arrests that the bureau has where the agents make the arrest, they get the, you know, they work with the U.S. Attorney's Office, and then they go off into the sunset.

Dan Heath: Dan Brunner was an FBI special agent for 20 years. He retired last year. What lingered in my mind from the conversation with Dan was that great image of the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I mean, I don't think any of us were probably surprised that the FBI shows we see on TV are not, in fact, authentic realism, but it really is a different thing to solve a crime in 60 minutes than methodically, one piece at a time over multiple years. Think about the huge chasm in the demands and emotions of this job. So, 90% of it, as Dan said, is basically like a desk job, and the other 10% of it is guns and chases and doors knocked down. It's sort of like if Patrick Mahomes played NFL football every Sunday, and then the rest of the week he was a sports archivist in the Smithsonian or something. It reminds me a little bit of the past episode where we interviewed a TV meteorologist named Lacey Swope. A part of Lacey's job is hardcore science, quietly analyzing the weather data and tweaking the forecast, and then another part of her job is to go on live TV and perform to thousands of homes and charm them with your personality to the point where they want to listen to you every day. There are some jobs out there that require this kind of true, spectrum-spanning expertise, and for Dan, that means painstakingly compiling most of a 1,000-piece puzzle, and then rushing into the field in an adrenaline frenzy to chase the bad guys and snap in those final few pieces, and folks, that's what it's like to be an FBI special agent. I'm Dan Heath, this episode was produced by Matt Purdy. Take care.