What happened when two young FBI agents posing as small-time insurance-fraud operators talk their way into a meeting with a master con artist? The agents had no training in undercover work, so there were lots of jitters—and since the episode took place in 1977, there was also the requisite fumbling with not-quite-ready-for-prime-time surveillance gear. In this excerpt from the new book Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World’s Most Charming Con Man, J.J. Wedick and Jack Brennan scramble to prepare for their fateful meeting with Phil Kitzer, an ingenious financial fraudster who had scammed hundreds of people (including Elvis Presley’s father) out of millions of dollars. Despite the stacked odds, the meeting would trigger a groundbreaking undercover operation that would change the FBI.
After two more weeks of leaving messages, Wedick spoke to Kitzer on February 14. He mentioned needing some fraudulent bank paper to prop up an insurance agency, and made sure to mention Executive Enterprises, the shell corporation he’d created to add authenticity to the roles they were playing. Slipping in a few Bronx mannerisms, Wedick indicated that he had other deals in play, some of which involved connections in Italy. Kitzer invited him to come to Minneapolis the next day, and to bring Brennan.
After months of set building, the agents suddenly had twenty-four hours to hustle onto center stage—and there were still hurdles. First he had to obtain clearance to fly to another FBI jurisdiction. Wedick called Jim Deeghan, his immediate supervisor for this case. Deeghan had to get approval from his boss, Special Agent in Charge Frank Lowie, who, in turn, needed permission from both headquarters and the Minneapolis FBI office; this sort of procedure was standard anytime agents traveled onto someone else’s turf. The bureau under J. Edgar Hoover rarely countenanced travel in an undercover role, but the legendary director had died in 1972. A new wave of more progressive thinkers was entering the bureau—and Lowie, fortuitously, was among them. A bespectacled, slender man in his mid-forties, he was a steady, calm, and reasoned thinker. His old-school predecessor wouldn’t have given Wedick and Brennan a chance.
As the FBI bureaucracy clanked to life, Wedick bought a bottle of Cutty Sark—he’d been told that Kitzer loved Scotch. He tried on the Nagra microrecorder, a device introduced out of Switzerland in 1970. The machine, made from a light metal alloy with trademark Swiss precision, was the first commercially available miniature cassette recorder, and it had been an instant hit among the likes of CIA operatives and East Germany’s Stasi. Hollywood directors strapped Nagras to stuntmen to capture sound effects.
The device fit into a pouch built into an Ace bandage–type fabric that looped around Wedick’s midsection. Two wires connected to tiny microphones, each about the size of a pencil eraser, that ran from the machine, situated on his lower back, up under his arms and around his chest to his sternum, where they were secured using surgical tape. The higher the microphones were positioned, the better they captured voices. Some agents placed them by their belt buckle to minimize the odds of discovery, but the tape sounded muddy and distant. A sharp recording was worth the risk, Wedick believed—plus, he was posing as a businessman, so he’d be wearing a suit and tie. A third wire connected to a remote-control on-off device. Wedick cut a hole in his right suit-pants pocket to thread the remote in. Each cassette could hold three hours of recordings.
Then Wedick and Brennan were on a plane in the early afternoon of February 15. It was a little surreal. Brennan sat quietly with his thoughts while Wedick fidgeted. Somewhere over the northern prairielands, Wedick looked at Brennan in alarm. A thought suddenly hit him: He’d spent so much time scrambling to get ready, he wasn’t sure they were adequately prepared for their conversation with Kitzer. They were supposedly connected with Brennan’s grandfather’s insurance company—but what did they really know about insurance? Meanwhile, Kitzer was an expert in high finance. What if he decided to test them?
Brennan told him to relax. As someone who had bought and sold commodities, he could bluff his way through whatever Kitzer threw at them. He explained a few basic terms and concepts, like stock market puts and calls.
Wedick, unconvinced, didn’t necessarily see how one field translated to the other. “World’s number one white-collar criminal, and I don’t know squat,” Wedick grumbled. “This is just great.”
Then they sat in silence. It was too late at that point; either it would work or it wouldn’t. If the investigation had been launched a decade later, the FBI would have provided a psychological screening to determine their readiness, plus in-depth training, new identities, and housing to safeguard their families, among other provisions. Brennan and Wedick weren’t just going out there cold, using their real names, knowing little about insurance—they were, personality-wise, an oddball pairing.
They needed Kitzer to believe that Brennan, the quiet, easygoing southern introvert, and Wedick, the chatty, high-energy New Yorker, were good friends and business partners.
Was this plausible? They couldn’t be certain until they tried it.
Just one meeting.
Excerpted from CHASING PHIL: THE ADVENTURES OF TWO UNDERCOVER AGENTS WITH THE WORLD’S MOST CHARMING CON MAN Copyright © 2017 by David Howard. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.