EDITOR'S NOTE: This partial interview by Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith with retired FBI undercover agent and author Bob Hamer first aired in its entirety Jan. 21 on KNPR-FM, 88.9 "KNPR's State of Nevada." A recording of the interview is available online at knpr.org.
JOHN L. SMITH: Thanks to television cop shows and movies such as "Donnie Brasco," the public has an image of the undercover investigator that borders on caricature. Hard-drinking, wisecracking, two-fisted and ready to shoot first and then start the interrogation.
Bob Hamer shatters the stereotypes.
Hamer was a U.S. Marine and an attorney when he joined the FBI back before it was known as an agency that specialized in undercover operations. He soon found his niche and began working against some of the darkest forces in the American underbelly: the Mafia, violent street gangs, international money laundering rings and the North American Man/Boy Love Association.
Hamer has hammered them all, winning new convictions and carving out a career that is the subject of his new book, "The Last Undercover: The True Story of An FBI Agent's Dangerous Dance With Evil."
BOB HAMER: I was an attorney. I reluctantly say that. I spent four years in the Marine Corps. I went on active duty in the Marines after graduating law school, and I think I really saw myself after law school as being this high-powered trial attorney that was fighting crime and corruption at every turn.
I got into the Marine Corps, had 150 trials, everything ranging from unauthorized absence to murder, and really did not find any excitement at all in being an attorney. It didn't grab me. Probably for one I wasn't really as good as I thought I was. But every case came down to whether the confession was admissible, whether the case was legal. There were never any whodunits. (Hamer found a new home in the FBI as an undercover agent.)
SMITH: How did you get there and what did you find so fascinating about it?
HAMER: It is actually kind of a limited field even within the FBI. There are currently about 12,700 special agents in the FBI, and maybe only a couple hundred that are what they call certified FBI undercover agents, those that have been selected, have attended the school and have undergone all the psychological screening and then are dubbed undercover agents. So, you're right, it's a pretty limited field. I got into it well before they had all of the screening process. I'm not sure now if I went into it now I could even pass it. But back when I first started. I actually joined the Bureau in 1979, went through the four-month academy, and then reported to the San Diego office in 1980.
Within about six months I was already undercover. Now it requires several years of actual experience as a street agent before you can even apply to the undercover program. So I was there at a time you essentially raised your hand and said 'Yeah, I'll try this.' ... I think it just seemed like the excitement that I was looking for that I didn't find in the courtroom. And trust me after that very first undercover meeting that I had, that adrenaline rush was, I'm assuming, since I'm not a drug addict, that it's the equivalent of the heroin rush that people talk about. I mean I was chasing that adrenaline dragon the rest of my career. I loved it. I loved that rush. I loved that idea of going face to face with the bad guys, of convincing him that you are who you say you are and that you're playing this role. I really relished it. Very early in my career I got hooked on that and continued it throughout my career.
SMITH: Let's talk about one of those early stops. This is where our paths cross at some level.
I wrote a book called "The Animal in Hollywood" about a very tough guy in the L.A. mob, Anthony Fiato, and his experience both as a criminal and as a cooperating witness. You worked in the middle of his world. ... Can you talk a little bit about working La Cosa Nostra in those days in Los Angeles. L.A. is a very big place, but the mobsters weren't too hard to find, I assume, they were just hard to catch.
HAMER: The difference between L.A. and a lot of cities is we didn't have a Little Italy. L.A. had Little Tokyo, they sort of have a Little Saigon. There are a lot of different ethnic communities there, but the Italian family wasn't maybe as strong as maybe they were in other major cities. And as you well know they were sometimes dubbed as the Mickey Mouse Mafia. But they had some pretty significant key players that were involved. They reported to the Commission. They were legitimate La Cosa Nostra, Mafia guys as most of us refer to them. And Anthony Fiato was a major player in that whole organized crime scene.
I worked it both from a case agent perspective, when we were actually targeting Fiato, sat in on hours and hours of wiretaps when we were actually listening to his conversations. And then eventually, when we put together a pretty significant case, he decided to cooperate with the FBI and it was he and his brother Larry who actually introduced me into the L.A. Mafia family.
SMITH: How did you work African-American gangs when you're not from that neighborhood?
HAMER: Every FBI agent is a college graduate. Most FBI agents have advanced degrees. Many are lawyers and accountants. Our African-American agents are well-educated. They're not necessarily people who were brought up in the streets. They were brought up in middle or upper-middle income families. So it was almost as difficult for them to work undercover at a street level as it was for a white guy.
We have a couple agents that we tried to fit in and it just didn't click. We had an informant that was willing to introduce an undercover agent and things didn't click the way we would have liked, and one Friday night the informant was actually complaining about the undercover agent. And he said I could take you in and sell you. ... I said, "OK, let's do it." He actually took me in, made one introduction and that's all it took. I never worked with that informant again in that investigation. ... We took down one guy, actually the head of the Back Street Crips, which if you're familiar with Los Angeles, we were literally in the shadows of the Watts Towers. ... When we finally did arrest him ... I said, "You had to suspect a white guy, coming down here to sell drugs." And he sort of lowered his head and shook his head and said, "I figure the police would be too stupid to send a white guy down here." So by being so unconventional we were able to succeed in that particular investigation.
SMITH: The supernotes case, for those who aren't familiar with that term, supernotes are highly developed counterfeit notes, generally as I'm aware $100 bills, created, depending on your source, as far away as North Korea and trafficked out of North Korea. ... This is a case with international flavor. Can you talk about the case, how it got started, and how the notes got all the way to Las Vegas with a guy named Wilson Liu shoving them into slot machines at different casinos?
HAMER: The supernotes case is actually a fascinating investigation because again we originally were targeting counterfeit cigarettes and rumors of these supernotes were floating around. ... We knew, based upon intelligence, that the money was coming out of North Korea, being manufactured in North Korea. ... I came up with a story as why I needed counterfeit money.
At that time I was dealing with five separate kinds of groups in this whole umbrella of Chinese syndicate. So I put out the word with these five individuals that I was dealing with that I was looking for counterfeit hundred-dollar bills. ... I ended up getting six or seven different samples of $100 bills. Some of them were pretty good, but it wasn't the supernotes.
Every time they'd bring me a counterfeit hundred-dollar bill we took it to Secret Service ... and Secret Service would say, "Yeah, this is counterfeit, but this is actually made out of Colombia, or this is made somewhere else, but this isn't the supernote." ... Lo and behold, the supernotes, they did arrive. I had two different people bring me supernotes. When we got them, Secret Service was ecstatic that we finally had hit upon the supernotes.
The first note we got we brought it to one of the top analysts in L.A., and she said that it was real. And I kind of laughed, and I told my case agent, "Hey, we're paying 30 cents on the dollar. If this is real, I'm glad to hear it because I'm going to mortgage my house and I'm going to buy as much as they're willing to sell because this is a pretty good return on my investment." Then they sent the bills back to Secret Service headquarters back in Washington, D.C., and they came back and said, "No, this is the supernote."
SMITH: (W)hen people talk in broad terms ... about international terrorism and propping up foreign governments that are basically gangster governments like, in my opinion, North Korea is, we talk in abstract terms, but you're right there. The bottom line is that's how some of these regimes stay in power and actually generate funds inside their own government by creating criminal activity and exporting it to the U.S.
HAMER: John, I give you credit. You were one of the few people to even report on this investigation. It amazed me ... the trial took place in federal court at the same time that the O.J. Simpson trial was occurring. Each day I would walk past the state courthouse where the O.J. trial was, and you had Camp O.J. there and all these national news media covering the O.J. trial. Two blocks down, you're literally dealing with a trial involving an act of war. It is an act of war to counterfeit another nation's currency.
Eventually, President Bush announced North Korea was counterfeiting our $100 bill. As a result of this investigation the U.S. government came out and acknowledged that North Korea was doing that. This is an act of war. John L. Smith covered it and talked about it in his column and virtually no one else did. Ollie North wrote an article in his weekly column, but you didn't see anyone else talking about this. We were more concerned with some washed up football player trying to get his memorabilia back.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.