Dale Lovin – January 12, 2017

The Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America kicked off the new year with featured speaker Dale Lovin*, a retired FBI agent and author of two mysteries based on his time with the agency. A 25-year Bureau veteran, Lovin worked in several field offices before being tagged to help expand the Air Marshal service after 9/11.

Lovin began by asking why we read, why do we write? To him, it’s because we enjoy a good story…reading them, and writing them. Reflecting on his career, he kept recalling three cases he was involved in, cases that left lasting impressions and led to his first novel, The Mirror in the River. In each case, Lovin says he was especially struck by the looks on the faces of persons involved—two of them victims, and one a companion of one of the criminals.

Working as the bank robbery and fugitive coordinator of the Alexandria, Virginia field office, Lovin was alerted by Georgia authorities that a suspected fugitive rapist and murderer had been identified and was living in a trailer in the area. After staking out the trailer for two days, the agents saw a car associated with the suspect arrive. They let him go inside the trailer, covered the exits, and knocked on the door. The suspect answered and surrendered without incident.

The next day, back in the Washington area, Lovin was on his way to pick up the suspect and bring him back for trial when he got a message that the murder victim’s mother was in the area and wanted to talk to him. He nearly put her off until later, but decided to drop by on his way out of town. There, he encountered a woman sitting quietly on the bed in the room. After looking at him silently for a few seconds, the woman rose and asked if he was the person who had arrested the man who murdered her daughter. He said he was, and the woman embraced him and thanked him. Then she returned to sit on the bed and continued to look at him. Hers was the first of the three faces that etched themselves into his memory.

Several years later, Lovin was called to work the kidnapping of a wealthy Midwestern businessman’s wife. The man had access to huge financial resources, but lived modestly in a home without a staff or elaborate security systems. His wife was kidnapped carrying her own groceries in from a detached garage. While setting up operations with other agents in the home, Lovin noticed a look of desperation on the husband’s face. It struck him that a man with so much money and power felt helpless to protect the one person who mattered to him most.

They traced the ransom calls to a phone booth and Lovin, himself a pilot, flew overhead and spotted the kidnappers’ van. The kidnappers were apprehended and the wife returned safely, but the husband’s look of despair remains as the second of “the three faces.”

Assigned as supervisor of the Violent Crimes Task Force in the Denver office, Lovin was awakened by a 2 am phone call alerting him that a rape-murder suspect was in the Denver area. The apartment complex was staked out; neighbors were stopped as they left for work and identified the man. The officers again knocked on the door and arrested the suspect without incident. When the woman living with him was returned to the apartment, Lovin and the others explained to her who he was. Expecting a reaction of relief or gratitude, they were shocked when the woman, who had two small girls living with them, hurled epithets at them and ran to comfort the killer, proclaiming her love and loyalty to him. Hers is face number three.

Lovin concluded by saying he considered himself the luckiest man in world. He had a rewarding career full of exciting, fun, sad, and funny experiences, plus a great wife and family, but these three faces stick with him today. He said he offered the stories as insights into his motivation for writing, his FBI field work, and as a foundation for questions. There were plenty.

Asked about FBI interaction with local law enforcement, he said the Unlawful Flight law enables the feds to step in when assistance is requested. Beyond that, the proliferation of interstate drug, financial, and gang crimes, along with the threat of terrorism, has led to formation of interagency task forces at every FBI field office. The locals are deputized as federal agents and work as a team to gather intelligence and apprehend criminals in the area, both for federal and local crimes.

Lovin said that the agency has changed greatly since 9/11. Prior to then, they did mostly police-style work; now the emphasis is on intelligence. The agents—who Lovin says were never restricted to only lawyers and accountants despite stories to the contrary—are recruited today for their skills in technical areas, including language skills, as the mission emphasis has changed. Recruits are mostly in their late twenties with college degrees and professional experience in their field of expertise. Lovin added that he and most of his contemporaries probably wouldn’t be hired today. The “gumshoes” have been replaced by a new breed of agent—more specialized and sophisticated, but maybe lacking some of the old detective’s instincts and talents.

Asked about air marshals, Lovin said the service was expanded rapidly after 9/11 with experienced agents from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Their mission is primarily prevention, but marshals are trained to act as well. Agents are assigned to flights serving large events that may attract terrorists as well as at random. While local authorities have jurisdiction when planes are on the ground, once the doors are closed, it becomes a federal concern. The crews know who the marshals are and where they’re seated. The marshals travel in pairs and are well disguised. Their primary mission is to defend the flight deck, and they won’t interfere in minor disturbances unless those disturbances become threatening to the safety of the passengers and crew. Minor offenses such as drunk and disorderly are hard to prosecute since the witnesses are likely scattered across the world within hours.

An audience member who is an airline pilot pointed out that after 9/11 there was a push to create Federal Flight Deck Officers, crew members who were armed and trained for airborne incidents. While only a small percentage of flights have air marshals aboard, he says that as many as 30% of flight crews are now armed—including himself.

Since retiring, Lovin has written two suspense novels that draw on his experiences and the characters he met in his time with the FBI. The first, The Mirror in the River, delves into the world of human trafficking and exploitation. His second novel, Strangers, Lovers and the Winds of Time, deals with the dark world of white-supremacist hate groups. Lovin’s stories are set in Colorado and New Mexico.

In conclusion, he was asked what are the best sources for details on the inside life of an FBI agent. His answer was simple—get to know an agent and buy them a cup of coffee.

—Mike McClanahan