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Guest Host: John Donvan
Agents wearing wires are staples of spy movies. And FBI indictments for white collar crimes aren’t exactly rare.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
In the late 1970s, two FBI agents used basic recording devices under their suits to infiltrate a group of crooks who were defrauding American banks out of millions of dollars. It took them deep inside the world of organized crime and led to the FBI’s modern-day pursuit of white-collar criminals.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of agents Jack Brennan and Jim Wedick beginning a flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants undercover operation into the financial dealings of con man Phil Kitzer. And while their investigation changed the trajectory of the FBI, it remains a story that is still relatively unknown.
We meet the agents, and the author who tells their story in a new book.
- David Howard Author of "Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World's Most Charming Con Man"
- Jim Wedick Retired FBI agent and white-collar crime expert
- Jack Brennan Retired FBI agent and white-collar crime expert
Read An Excerpt Of "Chasing Phil" By David Howard
February 15, 1977
Jim Wedick yanked at his collar as he walked across the parking lot toward the Thunderbird Motel, a sprawling Native American–themed lodge in suburban Minneapolis. It was early evening and the sun had long ago plummeted below the tabletop horizon, leaving the temperature hovering just above zero. Still, Wedick was overheating in his blue pin-striped three-piece suit. His heart banged out a punk-rock cadence as he strode alongside Jack Brennan, both of them working hard to look nonchalant. They eyed a massive totem pole, erected for maximum visibility from Interstate 494, then entered the Thunderbird’s spacious lobby, packed with bearskin rugs, peace pipes, tepee-shaped light fixtures.
Once the warmth of the lobby hit them, the agents shrugged off their overcoats and scanned the room. Wedick was vaguely aware of the sweat soaking the armpits of his Brooks Brothers dress shirt, but his suit coat was staying on. He needed as many layers as possible to conceal the Nagra SNST audio recorder lashed to the small of his back. The device was diminutive for the era—five and a half inches long, just under four inches wide, and one inch thick—but was still larger than a pack of cigarettes, and right now it felt like a cinder block. He’d snipped a hole in his pants pocket to accommodate a remote-control unit. This allowed him to inconspicuously flip the recorder on and off, but he’d noticed outside that the setup also allowed cold air into his nether regions.
Wedick, an FBI agent who had just turned twenty-seven, was about to begin his first undercover assignment. Brennan was four years older, but he was also a first-timer in this kind of role. They both understood the stakes: They had traveled from their post in Gary, Indiana, to meet Phillip Kitzer. A high school dropout from Chicago, Kitzer had over the past fifteen years swindled banks, real estate developers, entrepreneurs, and everyday investors out of countless millions of dollars. The agents had come to see if they might crack open a window into his activities.
The odds looked steep. Their informant had told them that Kitzer possessed a preternatural ability to read people. Wedick and Brennan had already learned firsthand how slippery he could be, but they were young and ambitious and maybe a little naïve, and had lobbied hard for permission to fly to Minneapolis to take a shot. Their bosses had agreed reluctantly. Neither Brennan nor Wedick had received any training in undercover work—the FBI had only recently begun to offer such instruction. And they were using their real names. Nonetheless, they had on their own concocted an elaborate cover story about being young con men in training. Wedick had gone as far as creating a phony shell corporation.
After circling the lobby, they spotted a sign that read, “Cocktail fantasies in the intimate atmosphere of our exclusive Pow-Wow Cocktail Lounge.” That was the meeting place. They took a few tentative steps inside the Pow-Wow Lounge and scanned the room. It was mostly empty—no surprise for a Tuesday night. One couple lingered over drinks at a corner table. And there was a gentleman in a suit and tie, sitting alone at a long wooden bar that swooped gently into the shape of a question mark. Kitzer was perched atop one of the barstools, which were designed to look like tom-tom drums on tepee legs. He sat with his back to the bar, facing the door. He was obviously waiting for them. He puffed on a Pall Mall through a white plastic filter as they approached.
The FBI agents crossed the carpeted room. Wedick sucked in a breath and produced an enthusiastic grin, willing himself to feel as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to be there. He stuck out his hand. “Hi, I’m Jim.”
Kitzer’s expression was cast iron as he appraised them, first one, then the other. “Christ,” he said. “You guys look like a couple of feds.”
Excerpted from Chasing Phil. Copyright © 2017 by David Howard. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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