Friday, February 26, 2010

taking action

At this month's meeting of the FBI Knoxville Citizens Academy Alumni Association, we voted to contact area middle schools and encourage the guidance counselors to instruct their students about the FBI-SOS Internet Challenge program. SOS stands for Safe Online Surfing.

In the program, kids learn how to be careful on the Internet by doing what they love, going online to find answers to scavenger hunt questions. Best of all the whole thing is free. Teachers and principals get started by following the instructions online. The site does not save the students' names, only the school administrators can match the child with their unique user name.

Each month, the school with the highest score in the country earns a trophy presented by the Special Agent in Charge of their local field office. Here's my question for you: Do you know any middle school employees or parents who would be willing to look at the FBI-SOS website and recommend it to their principal?

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

obliging and dutiful

Richard Lambert, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Knoxville field office, was previously assigned to head up the investigation into the anthrax attacks of 2001. The case was closed this past week, just three days after I had recorded a half hour interview with Mr. Lambert. We only briefly mentioned the case. I was more interested in asking about the window of opportunity to thwart the next terrorist attack on the United States. About halfway into the show, I segued into the topic of Internet crimes.

If you're interested in law enforcement, feel free to right click here and download the podcast of my interview with Rick Lambert or hit the play button below. If you're interested in a job with the FBI, skip ahead to 22 minutes into the program to hear about the Bureau's hiring spree.

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Friday, January 29, 2010


The best piece of art I saw on my last trip to St. Louis was not in one of the city's famous museums but in a restaurant. To be fair, I didn't get to any museums this time but that shouldn't take anything away from the interesting wall hanging at the trendy pizza place π. They have a map of the 48 contiguous states made from pieces of license plates. Each state is represented by a plate from that state. Rhode Island is only the size of the letter R from its plate.

The map got me thinking about the seven states I haven't visited yet. I had tentatively planned to go to Mount Rushmore this year, however some news from the FBI Knoxville Citizens Academy Alumni Association has changed my mind. The group has rescheduled its annual field trip to Washington and Quantico. The new dates are in August, when I am allowed to take vacation.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

alert and aware

FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard Lambert warned of potential terrorist attacks at tonight's Infragard meeting. It was my first time attending a meeting since being invited to join the group upon graduation from the FBI Citizens Academy.

Lambert's presentation included a rundown of increased Al Qaeda activity in the past 12 months, including the attempted Christmas Day attack by the so-called "underwear bomber." The authorities are especially concerned about a terror network based in Yemen and their stronghold on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The underwear bomber tried to use ingredients from antifreeze and a water filtration system to start a chemical fire in his pants. The fire was supposed to ignite explosives known as TATP and PETN. The flames were doused by concerned citizens on the plane, which was the point of the presentation. Average Americans like you and me have a window of opportunity to help identify the terrorists' research and planning before their next attack.

Special Agent Lambert told us about a terrorist plot in England that was thwarted by employees of a storage depot who grew suspicious of some customers storing a large quantity of fertilizer. Any of us can easily report suspicious activity via a phone call or online. He said all we need to remember is that we can do a Google search for the words "Tennessee suspicious activity," which will bring us to a form on the website. Tips can also be phoned in to (877) 250-2333.

Before the serious stuff, we shared a laugh over a video clip from a cable show called "Conspiracy Theory." The host, Jesse Ventura, claimed that Infragard is an organization that spies on regular Americans like him. I immediately recognized the over-the-top voiceover narration by KTTV weatherman Mark Thompson, who is a close friend of my friend Bean.

The "Conspiracy Theory" allegations miss the mark. Infragard is not Big Brother. Instead it is a way to disseminate unclassified information to citizens who take an active interest in crime prevention. In addition to the anti-terrorism talk, we also got a brief update on a local child predator case and "Operation Aurora," the attempted hacking of Google in China.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

skull and bones

Groucho Marx once said that he would never want to belong to a club that would accept him as a member. Unlike Groucho, I am thrilled to have joined a group that made me feel welcome. On Monday, I attended my first meeting of the FBI Knoxville Citizens Academy Alumni Association.

The alumni group and the class that preceded it offer great opportunities for networking. I recognized a fellow parishioner at All Saints who had taken the class in 2008. I also made arrangements to interview Special Agent in Charge Rick Lambert and Public Affairs Specialist Stacie Bohanan on the half-hour interview show that I take turns hosting.

During a conversation as the meeting at Calhoun's was breaking up, I realized that I need to connect the dots between my two back-to-back Mondays at Volunteer Landing. The week before, I cruised on the Volunteer Princess with Dr. Bill Bass and the Bone Zones team. I must figure out a way to get the support of the FBIKCAA behind the fundraising efforts for the William M. Bass III Forensic Anthropology Building.

The FBIKCAA is involved in several activities throughout the year. The next meeting will be held at the Federal Office Building and will focus on Internet safety and security. This week, they are supporting an event at Richard Yoakley School. Although I can't do the 2010 trip, I hope that I will be able to take part in their annual trip to Washington in the future.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

I'm on a boat

One of the first things Dr. Bill Bass asked during his lecture aboard the Volunteer Princess was whether anyone in the audience had seen "The Blind Side." He hasn't but knew the movie has a scene that mentions dead bodies in Neyland Stadium. In the film Kathy Bates' character frightens Michael Oher by misrepresenting the UT forensic anthropology program. She tells him that there are body parts buried under Shields-Watkins Field. In reality, the bones of 7,000 individuals are stored in cardboard boxes in the anthropology department offices in the recesses of the stadium's structure. The body donors were reduced to skeletons across the river at the Body Farm before taking up residence in the stadium. Other than that one scene, the movie is amazingly fantastic.

The purpose of the book signing cruise was to help raise funds for the Dr. William M. Bass Building Fund. I attended as a guest of the Bone Zones team that organizes Jefferson Bass events.

The tag line for the presentation was "when your days end, our day begins." Dr. Bass told us about the history of the Body Farm, the life cycle of the blow-fly and the four stages of decomposition: fresh, bloat, decay and dry. A familiar face popped up on screen during the slide show. I saw pictures of the same man decomposing when I took the FBI Citizens Academy class on forensics. I whispered to the lady next to me to keep an eye on the screen during the bloat stage. At that point the dead man looked a lot like John Goodman.

I have interviewed Dr. Bass several times and heard many of his forensic anecdotes. A new one on me was the story of a victim in Morgan County. On the way back to Knoxville with the body in the back of the vehicle, Dr. Bass and his team stopped off at a Cracker Barrel for lunch. When they returned to the parking lot, their car was surrounded by a cloud of flies.

Dr. Bass' good friend, Dr. Al Hazari of the chemistry department, is mentioned on page two-hundred-and-something of "Death's Acre." The Bone Zones crew had the great idea to get him to autograph that page. As he signed a stack of books, he talked about the Forensic Chemistry Summer Camp for Middle Schoolers that he runs every June. So many of the parents were interested that he added a spring class for Adults on Thursday nights in April.

Speaking of the Bone Zones crew, I was amused by their use of artificial joints that had been recovered from corpses. The artificial hips were paperweights and the top part of an artificial knee made for a great business card holder.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

end of his soap

The 2009 class of Knoxville's FBI Citizens Academy held its graduation ceremony on Thursday night. I found the 9 sessions to be an amazing experience. Next month I will attend my first meeting of the FBIKCAAA. Use your detective skills to figure out what the initials mean.

The agents made good use of PowerPoint and video during their presentations each week. On the final night, the video was startling to me. Many times we saw actual news footage of a crime to be discussed. On Thursday, Russell Biven's face filled the screen but he used a different name for the dramatization of a terrorist attack. Former WBIR reporter Robin Murdoch also used a fake name while pretending to cover the story. Our class assimilated information from the video and from imaginary agents in the field. We had to decide on a course of action for them to follow.

Some other videos were memorable too. I've already mentioned the Roy Lynn Oakley arrest tape we saw during our third meeting. Just over a week ago, we saw some incredible surveillance footage of Billy Long. The former Hamilton County sheriff was busted with the help of an outrageous personality named C. Eugene Overstreet. The preacher and funeral director convinced Long that they were hiding money and drugs in cremation urns and a child's casket. On one memorable day, Overstreet met with Long while wearing a suit jacket with a slit in the back. We assumed it was intended for a future client.

Next year, I think they should show the class this video I found on YouTube. It's "The Ballad of Billy Long."

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

ert day

Two guests at the Homewood Suites thought there might have been a hazmat spill when they saw the members of the FBI Citizens Academy walk past their hotel room. We were all wearing white Tyvek coveralls for an exercise in evidence recovery. In my best Batman voice, I said "remain calm, citizens" and explained that we were in a class.

Our FBI instructors divided us into four groups and gave us a scenario. They directed each group to a different hotel room where they had placed various pieces of evidence for us to identify and collect. Hana Kim was in my group. Her Tyvek suit highlighted her choice of non-sensible shoes.

Before heading to our fake crime scenes, a special agent from the Evidence Response Team gave us some background on the unit. He showed us a few crime scene photos from a local kidnapping case that I remembered seeing on the news five years ago.

The evening that ended with a practical exercise began with a graphic slide show. Dr. Murray Marks, a forensic anthropology professor from the University of Tennessee, spoke to us about his field of expertise. He mentioned that many bodies are found this time of year by hunters and hikers taking advantage of the cooler weather.

Dr. Marks discussed the links between pathology, anthropology and dentistry. The three fields work together in an effort to determine a victim's identity, perimortem trauma and the time since death. We saw quite a few pictures of teeth on bodies in various states of decay. The teeth will long outlast the flesh and bone of a body.

Dr. Marks doesn't like the term "Body Farm." He prefers to call it "the Facility." The slides he showed us of donated corpses focused mainly on forensic entomology and the life cycle of flies and maggots. I recognized one of the actual crime scene photos from an exhibit that was at the Frank H. McClung Museum in early 2008.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

deadly force

The smell of gunpowder was still in my nose hours after returning home from the firing range at the Phil E. Keith Training Center. The facility, which belongs to the Knoxville Police Department, was the scene for today's meeting of the FBI Citizens Academy.

After a safety lesson from the firearms training agent, I started my day on the range by shooting four different guns. We could visit the four stations in any order. I chose a roughly chronological order, starting with a 1928 model Thompson submachine gun followed by a 38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. In the years since an infamous Miami shootout, the Bureau switched to the next two guns I tried. I shot a 40 caliber Glock pistol and a Colt M4 Carbine assault rifle. I went back for a second round on the old revolver and showed significant improvement from my first attempt.

While I was with the group shooting real guns, the other half of the class was inside working with a computer simulation of various scenarios. Once we switched places, the first few people in my group were given simulations of domestic disputes. When it was my turn, the scenario was a school shooting. I saw two bloodied students on my right and two uniformed police officers on my left. The students were gesturing behind them to the right. Suddenly there was a spray of blood and all four of them dropped to the ground. I saw gunfire coming from behind a dumpster on the left so I started shooting toward it. Then a second shooter emerged from the woods in the distance but my fake gun stopped working. Apparently the CO2 cartridge in it had emptied. The screen went black, which I assume meant that the second shooter had taken me out. When they played back my scenario, we saw that I killed the first shooter with my second shot.

After lunch, we learned about the Special Weapons and Tactics force. We saw examples of the weapons they use and then went outside to see the Oshkosh Humvee used by local FBI SWAT agents. Prior to this, I thought the only thing Oshkosh made was children's clothes. We each had a chance to climb inside and pose for photos. Hana Kim from WATE-TV asked me to pose with her. She was delayed in getting to the range because she had to anchor the weekend newscast this morning. We've had a chance to chat during breaks from class. I found out that Hana grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from McLean High School and the University of Maryland.

The day finished with a lecture on explosives and a demonstration out on the range. First the special agent bomb tech blew up a blasting cap in a coffee can. He then blew up a blasting cap in a coffee can filled with shaving cream to show us how the cream absorbed some of the impact. Next he showed the effect of explosions on soft tissue by blowing up a blasting cap inside a chicken from Food City. I don't know why he made a point of telling us that. Maybe he wanted to make sure the bird hadn't been pumped full of sodium.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

we have clearance, Clarence

The third meeting of the FBI Citizens Academy involved pizza and a field trip. We went to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory tonight for presentations on super computing, espionage and counter-intelligence. Our FBI instructors knew that no trip to Oak Ridge is complete without Big Ed's Pizza. Either someone at Big Ed's has a security badge that let's them make deliveries past the guard shack or someone at the FBI picked up the food and brought it to the meeting.

The lecture on super computing included high-resolution images shown on a power wall. Imagine 27 rear projection screens seamlessly blended to show 35 million pixels. They told us about the Jaguar, a computer that performs 1.3 quadrillion operations per second. I learned that floating point operations per second are called "flops." They are dealing in kiloflops, megaflops, gigaflops, and teraflops.

A counter-intelligence agent showed us Internet chat transcripts between an ORNL engineer and an alleged woman in China. She, if she was really a she, tried to get him to come to China for a visit. He finally got around to reporting his relationship with a foreign national months later than he should have and ended up losing his job when he tried to rekindle the online romance after being warned by his bosses.

The highlight of the evening for me was the hidden camera footage from operation "Barrier Reef." An FBI agent took us through the case study of Roy Lynn Oakley, a laborer for Bechtel Jacobs, hired to help dismantle the K-25 uranium enrichment plant. He smuggled out pieces of sensitive equipment in his work gloves and tried to sell them to France. His first plan was to contact the French government while traveling to Canada but he couldn't shake his wife and her relatives. Then he bought a Tracfone and tried calling the French consulate using the fake name "Paul Collins." The FBI assigned an undercover agent to run a "false flag operation." Oakley made a dead drop of a CD with photos of the stolen barrier tubes. The photos inadvertently showed part of a mailing label with Oakley's real name and address. The agent met Oakley at McGhee Tyson Airport and videotaped him as he showed the stolen tubes and took $200,000 in cash. They arrested him and got the money back. He pleaded guilty this past January.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

protect and defend

Instead of watching fake FBI agents on "Bones" and "Fringe," I will be spending my Thursday nights through November 12th enrolled in the FBI Citizens Academy. Each of the Bureau's 56 field offices offer the class. I was nominated by Public Affairs Specialist Stacie Bohanan of the Knoxville Division. I must have passed the background check because they let me attend tonight's meeting, which was led by Special Agent in Charge Richard Lambert. Agent Lambert began his presentation by showing a video clip from his favorite TV show.

The first session focused on the history and mission of the FBI. We also tried to learn the names of our 29 classmates. I already knew Hana Kim of WATE-TV and was re-introduced to Capt. D.J. Corcoran, spokesman for the Knoxville Fire Department. D.J. came to my house several years ago when he was working as a cameraman on the DIY show "Ed the Plumber."

In future weeks we will learn about criminal law and polygraphy, international and domestic terrorism, identity theft and Internet crimes, civil rights violations and white collar crimes. One night we will take a field trip to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Another night we will meet at a hotel to study staged crime scenes and to see a slide show from Dr. Murray Marks of the world famous Body Farm. One Saturday in October we will learn about deadly force scenarios and go to the firing range to take target practice. The final session of the class deals with crisis management and disaster scenarios. Before then I need to figure out what they mean by a "command post hot wash."

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

tick tock tober

In a way, I'm glad I got the flu when I did. It was a shame to miss several events over the weekend but it would have been worse if I had gotten sick a week or a month later. My October will be exceptionally busy.

The excitement starts later this week when I start an eight-week class at the FBI Citizens Academy. On one October weekend, we will take a field trip to the firing range. My uncle served in the FBI for many years. He and I will have a lot to talk about when I travel to Norfolk for a family wedding on another October weekend.

I was happy that my work schedule will allow me to emcee a great event in Virginia on October 10th. My friend Maureen is organizing the Ride for the Cure at her horse farm in Middleburg. Three celebrities I know have donated items to the silent auction. Thanks go to Jimmy Kimmel, Susan Olsen and Richard Cheese. By the way, Susan tells me that she already mailed off an autographed book to the auction before her son's cat used her last four books (including my copy) as a litter box.

I've already written about my plans to attend the screening of "Fish Bait" at Flat Hollow Marina & Resort on October 24. We are also going to attempt to participate in "Thrill the World," the worldwide "Thriller" dance. Director Jeff Joslin emailed me today to say that he is working on lining up a venue for a screening and party in Knoxville on Friday the 23rd.

With all this activity, there has to be something I will miss. Because of my commitment to the FBI Citizens Academy and because my wife will be singing at a wedding, we cannot attend her college reunion weekend at James Madison University. One of our favorite bands from our college days is reuniting for the event. The Skip Castro Band is playing a gig called "Boogie at Midlife."

But wait, there's more. I'm still undecided about whether or not I will attend the Knoxville Snuggie Pub Crawl on October 17th. What do you think? Obviously, I have the uniform of the day.

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