Hardboiled Zen

One morning last week (April, 2012) I walked down to the Federal Building in Eugene, and after doing the whole security rigmarole buzzed the secure door at Suite 320, FBI.

I was buzzed by remote control into a near-bare room (two chairs, a videoscreen flashing mug shots of the 10 Most Wanted, and a metal detector standing alone in the middle), a wide bulletproof pane of glass at the far end. A woman standing behind the glass asked by intercom who I'd come to see. I said I had an appointment with Special Agent Melanie Wissel. She said, "Sit down, it will only be a moment."

I sat down in one of the uncomfortable plastic interrogation room chairs and looked at the mug shots as they flashed by. After about two minutes Agent Wissel appeared with another agent, whose name I forget, a friendly-seeming guy with salt-and-pepper hair and a nice suit. We shook hands as Agent Wissel introduced us. He had a hard, dry, confident ultra cop handshake.

The two agents then asked me to step into a windowless side room, switching on the light as we went in. My laptops, thumb drive and a few bills they'd confiscated (for proof of address, I suppose) were laid out on a table.

Agent Wissel read off the items a piece of paper. At first I didn't recognize one of the laptops -- I'd thought they were only holding one -- so I wondered aloud if I'd been sent William Cassidy's laptop by mistake. Agent Wissel seemed electrified by this idea and quickly left the room to check on it. I asked the man if I could sit down and make myself comfortable. He said sure. So I sat at the table and he sat down across from me and casually began asking me, in a friendly way of course, a series of questions about my ordeal starting with "What's this all about?" As if I knew.

I replied I didn't know what it was all about because nobody at the FBI had bothered to tell me or my lawyer what it was all about. I casually gave him my lawyer's name, also in a friendly way. He asked why I had found myself a lawyer in Washington. I told him that so far as I could tell this was probably because the search warrant delivered to my home by agents in ninja hoods and tactical gear was out of Baltimore.

He lowered his voice and in a kindly, patrician tone asked, "So, really -- what happened?" So I told him about the tense predawn raid. I could see this wasn't what he'd meant or wanted to hear so I told him about it in great detail, right down to how the agents were dressed and what type of weapons I remember them as holding. I could see his impatience so, feeling a little sadistic, I told the story slower and in even greater detail.

Finally, he cut me off. "No, I mean, why did we raid your house?"

This made me laugh a little, ending in a slight coughing fit. Here was an FBI agent asking me to tell him why the FBI had raided my house. It didn't seem to be an "entrapment" question. He sounded genuinely puzzled.

Done with my laughter-coughing fit, I said I had absolutely no clue, but that he might try asking Special Agent Jessica Nye in Baltimore, formerly of The Department of Homeland Security, and to please let me know if she happened to let drop anything substantial.

He regrouped and asked, in a slightly brusquer tone, "Do you have any idea of how it all started?"

I said, "It seems there is a whacked out religious cult that told the FBI agent in Baltimore some things about my supposed involvement with this man named William Cassidy -- who I've never met or talked to, by the way -- that turn out to be all lies. But that's all I know, because my lawyer asked for information from the DA and from the FBI all last year and nobody ever gave him anything. Nada. Nobody even returned his calls. Sorry I can't tell you more -- but I'm as clueless as you are."

He said, "You were never charged with anything. Right? So why did you get a lawyer?"

I told him got a lawyer through the Maryland federal court because the brilliant crime-busting Baltimore DA had sent me a letter on official Department of Justice letterhead threatening to put my name before a grand jury unless I "sang" to him or to the FBI about my non-existent connection to this William Cassidy character.

I said that if the DA ever did give my name to a grand jury, the grand jury declined to issue any charges. If he didn't, it's probably because he realized he couldn't get any charges against me. But nobody ever bothered to tell me what was happening either way.

"Oh," he said.

Agent Wissel now came back into the room with a handful of print-outs and said she'd followed the "evidence trail" right back to Baltimore and she was quite sure the extra laptop was from our house.

So I said, "Never mind then, you're probably right. I'll take it home and if it's not mine I'll return it ASAP." Nobody laughed. [It did turn out to be mine. I'd just forgotten I owned it. Trauma, and all that.]

Agent Wissel thoughtfully offered me a cardboard box for transporting the items, but I said no thank you and put everything in a handy cloth bag I'd brought. Agent Wissel then asked me to sign at the bottom of a form listing the items being returned to me. I looked over the document with extra care and, finding no fine print or objectionable content, signed it.

Then the male agent asked Agent Wissel to step outside the room with him for a moment, and Agent Wissel followed him out and they shut the door. I waited. After about one minute, they opened the door and trooped back in. I wondered if I was in for some "good cop, bad cop" action.

The salt-and-pepper agent did not seem as friendly as at the outset of our meet-up. Maybe he was just feeling puzzled or maybe he'd hoped for information from me that would help him to crack the case. We shook hands again, and that was that. Agent Wissel said "Thank you for coming in," and I replied, "Good day to you both." The outer door buzzed and I walked through it a free man.

That afternoon I e-mailed my lawyer to fill him in on the details. I asked him for his opinion of the subtle questioning I got from Mr. Salt-and-Pepper. He e-mailed back the following message: "Forget it; they're cops. It's the nature of cops to ask questions."

For more on this insane piece of nonsense, see "A Short Interview with Andrew Wilson"

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