The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI by Marc Ruskin is the definitive narrative of undercover ops―the procedures, the successes, the failures—and the changes in the culture of the new-era FBI.
Of all the tools available to law enforcement, the living, breathing undercover operative remains the gold standard. This is true in TV shows and in the real world. In the era of electronic surveillance, UC work enforces accountability; it prevents mistakes, and of all the boots on the ground, undercover agents are often the most valuable.
The FBI generally has about 100 UC agents working full-time in the field. In the 1990s and 2000s, Marc Ruskin had the most diverse, and notorious, case list of all, and the broadest experience within the bureaucracy, including overseas. He worked ops targeting public corruption, corporate fraud, Wall Street scams, narcotics trafficking, La Cosa Nostra, counterfeiting―and gritty street-level scams and schemes.
Sometimes working three or four cases simultaneously, Ruskin switched identities by the day: Each morning he had to walk out the door with the correct ID, clothes, accessories and frame of mind for that day’s mission. Meet Alex Perez, Alejandro Marconi, and Sal Morelli, just a few of Ruskin’s undercover personas.
And how is the right UC agent chosen, how is a bogus identity manufactured and “backstopped,” how is the Bureau's long-term con painstakingly assembled? No one has ever given us the inside story like Ruskin.
Quantico NAC 85-7
It was midafternoon on a Sunday when I took the exit ramp off I-95 South and steered toward Marine Corps Base Quantico. After passing through the military guard post, I drove along what seemed like a long and winding, desolate two-lane road—or was it just my anxious state of mind? I finally came to a small sign: “FBI Academy.” A right turn, another half mile, and then another guard post, this one manned by uniformed FBI police. My name was on their list, my driver’s license satisfied them, and I proceeded farther down the road. On my right was a series of firing ranges. Then, to my left, the somewhat menacing—and strikingly out of place amid the rolling Virginia woodlands—multibuilding compound that is the FBI Academy. I had arrived for New Agent Training.
My worst fears—of having unwittingly removed myself from the familiar multicultural world of New York City, only to enter a zone of rigid conformity—were soon confirmed. Seated at a table inside the lobby, along with other WASPy-looking individuals registering and greeting new arrivals, was a tall blond woman with a middle-American athletic cheerleader attractiveness and a Southern twang. She introduced herself as Susan Walton from the New York office (could it be?!) and explained that she would be one of my class’s two field counselors (as in “from the field”: real agents). Yes, I had landed on Mars and would soon be surrounded by androids bent on transforming me into a disciplined, rule-following cog in their well-oiled machine of an organization. And in order to indulge my FBI fantasy, I had resigned from a good job as an assistant DA in Brooklyn—the kind of position that can lead just about anywhere in the legal profession, as more than one Supreme Court justice has proved. My first impressions, of the people, of the culture—fueled by inaccurate preconceptions—would prove erroneous, but it would take a while.
They don’t waste time at Quantico. That very evening all of us wannabes were sitting in our classroom, dressed in professional attire, staring at Mike, who would be our primary class counselor (as opposed to field counselor; Mike was based at Quantico). A short, lean, hawk-nosed Texan in his midforties, he clearly liked his job and wore his FBI lapel pin with pride. After we were sworn in, Mike got our instruction off to a rollicking start with a lecture on the many ways that we could flunk out of training, and with assurances that some of us would do just that. We were then invited to stand, introduce ourselves, and give a recitation as to why we had joined the FBI. One of the women explained that becoming an FBI agent had been her life’s dream. So dedicated was she to achieving this goal, she had undergone eye surgery in order to correct for nearsightedness. I’ll never forget her—but I didn’t know her long. The following day, she was gone. Disappeared. No explanation provided, then or later.
Amazing at the time, but it turned out to be the way the system worked. Suddenly, someone was gone, never to return. No good-byes, no handshakes, no tears. We’d return to the floor in our dorm to change clothes for firearms training, perhaps, or gym—and there would be the naked mattress, the empty closet, the vacant air. The effect was chilling, as it was no doubt calculated to be. Failure to make the grade in any area would result in just such a vanishing, but disaster could also strike from the violation of unwritten and unknown rules as well. Here’s the cold arithmetic: Annually, six hundred of the twelve thousand qualified FBI applicants jump through all the hoops and make it to Quantico as a New Agent (exponentially more don’t meet the minimum qualifications). Of the six hundred, another 10 to 20 percent fail to reach the graduation ceremony—four long months later—and receive those coveted Credentials.
That first night in Quantico, Mike made the significance of the Bureau’s mission, and our role in furthering it, maximally clear. This was 1985, eight years before the first WTC bombing, ten years before the Oklahoma City bombing, sixteen years before 9/11. Yet the threats from international terrorism were already on the radar. The seventies had seen the rise of the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as numerous domestic organizations, such as the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. Combined with myriad other threats—organized crime, outlaw biker gangs, cocaine cartels, huge financial swindlers—the responsibility was enormous. The FBI was the last line of defense. We were the last line of defense. The public, that is, everybody else, was depending on us: ten thousand FBI agents to protect three hundred million men, women, and children. Mike was deadly serious, and I, for one, appreciated it.
Mike’s point was driven home a few months later. A few weeks before graduation, each New Agent class takes a field trip to FBI Headquarters for a guided tour and a meeting with the Director. We were seated in the back rows of the special amphitheater used for the firearms demonstration. Tourists decked out in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts, overweight and underweight mom and dads with their gaggles of children, occupied the rest of the seats. The dapper agent who served as emcee fired off some rounds from his submachine gun, and the ooos and ahhhs arose collectively from the audience. Then he made an announcement: “Today we have special visitors. In the back rows, a class of new FBI agents about to graduate.” Immediately, spontaneously, these tourists in their T-shirts turned as one, located our professionally attired group, stood, and clapped. And clapped. Enthusiastically. For several minutes. Those waves of emotion washed over all of us in the back rows, and any cynicism we might have harbored was washed away with it. These fellow citizens believed in us and our mission. Their pride and their reception left an indelible impression.
Our class was officially designated “NAC 85-7” (that is, the seventh new agent class in 1985) and lodged in Jefferson Dorm, our home away from home for four months—assuming we made it that far. I was in room 1313 (lucky number?), and had the good fortune of having Jesse Ramirez as my roommate–Ramirez … Ruskin: the rooms were assigned alphabetically. Jesse was also a former assistant DA—Kansas City, in his case. He was a short and muscular Pancho Villa look-alike, and we were instant friends.
Then the first major exciting event of our training: receiving functioning firearms. For a few weeks, we had been allowed only “red handles.” These were revolvers with the firing pin removed, featuring red grips, which readily identified them as inoperable and therefore “safe.” Working with the red handles, we learned all there is to know about handling and using a revolver, other than actually shooting a bullet. When the big day finally came, Mike escorted us down a long hallway deep inside one of the academy buildings until we reached the heavy doors of the gun vault, with an exit across the street from the firearms ranges. One by one, we were handed our future duty weapons: Smith & Wesson Model 13 revolvers, “blued” (which means black), with 3-inch barrels, capable of firing a .357 Magnum round. In the future, on the way to the range, we would sign the gun out from the vault, then return it before going anywhere else. No firearms other than red handles are allowed inside the academy buildings.
The FBI takes firearms training very seriously, and with good reason. Guns are serious business, exceedingly dangerous when in the hands of the poorly trained or ill intentioned. I guess we Americans understand that, if nothing else. Sykes Houston, an agent in Dallas (and direct descendant of Sam Houston), told me years later that the average FBI agent is a markedly better shot than most Texas Rangers. The FBI “Revolver Qualification Course” involved the firing of 50 high-power “+P+” .38-caliber hollow-point rounds within strict time limits, starting with 18 shots at the 50-yard line, 6 prone, 6 kneeling, and 6 standing. That’s 50 yards, 150 feet, with a 3-inch barrel, which is essentially a snub-nosed gun. Years later, my friend Will Godoy quipped during weapons qualification in Puerto Rico that he didn’t care how good he was at 50 yards. It wouldn’t matter. “At that distance,” he said, “I’ll have enough of a running start, they’ll never hit me.”
The FBI doesn’t feel that way (nor did my friend, really). The FBI believes that if you’re good at 50 yards, you’ll be even better at the shorter distances you’re more likely to encounter in real life, and I agree. Combat training and shooting at Quantico involved (and still involves) the use of cars, pop-up targets, and makeshift cabins. Kick in the door of the cabin, identify any targets, and react accordingly. There might be three (cardboard) motorcycle gang members pointing guns directly at you. There might be an attractive (cardboard) woman with a revolver in her outstretched hand. Or there might be the same woman grasping an ice-cream cone. The training was good—excellent—but not, of course, infallible. Special Agent Robin Ahearn, whose class at Quantico had been two weeks ahead of mine, was assigned to perimeter security during her first fugitive arrest in Phoenix. This was less than six months after graduation. Near the entrance of the motel complex where the felon was hiding out, hearing shots, the rookie agent ran toward the sound. Two equally inexperienced agents, startled by the approaching armed woman emerging from the dark, informed that the fugitive was known to be holed up with his girlfriend, opened fire. Struck numerous times, Robin Ahearn died where she fell. Such a tragedy would shake any organization to its foundations.
And it was due to the firearms training that I came within a hair’s breadth of flunking out and, I guess, slinking back to NYC, tail between my legs, unemployed. Training is divided into three areas: Academic, Defensive Tactics, and Firearms. There are tests in each, and any failing score results in dismissal. I was set to be our class valedictorian for Academics, and was doing well if not the best in both others. On a Friday afternoon, halfway through our four-month course, we fired the required two qualification courses. On the first one, I shot the first 18 rounds from the 50-yard line well under the 1-minute-50-seconds allowed. Too far under the time limit, because in my haste to beat the buzzer I hadn’t taken the time to properly aim. I missed the qualifying score by one round. Shaken, on the second course I missed by two rounds. Three or four of us had failed to qualify. On Monday, we would have one more opportunity. Those who failed to fire two qualifying courses would be on their way home by sunset. Reapplying for my old job in the DA’s office in Brooklyn would require some creativity, but Quantico’s near-total cloak of mystery would actually be an advantage in this case … of course, I had to resign … I was unwilling to compromise my principles … blah blah blah. Maybe it would have worked. But I had no intention of finding out.
That weekend found me on the firing range, red handle in hand, dry-firing through the qualification course, as my man Jesse Ramirez stood behind me, stopwatch in hand. (Jesse had passed without a problem.) For each of the 50 rounds, I would need to integrate into my brain exactly how many seconds I had in order to take aim, to breathe, and to squeeze (not pull!) the trigger. Over and over again, we went through the course as I fired the phantom bullets. And on Monday, I sailed through the “qual” with scores in the mid-eighties, a B+, as it were. All of us made it over the hurdle—a cause for celebration by the entire class, believe me. By this point, a tangible esprit de corps had developed. That was the whole idea. The seeds of the camaraderie that binds all FBI agents were already well sown.
And it was camaraderie between a very culturally diverse group numbering just twenty-four. (Budget constraints dictated the low number. Classes generally numbered forty-plus.) For most of us, who were in our late twenties to early thirties, this was a second career. One woman had been an assistant curator at an art museum. One fellow, who was from the backwoods of Arkansas, named his gun as soon as it was issued (apparently his revolver was female). There were four attorneys (one having specialized in criminal defense); a few accountants; a high school vice principal; a flight attendant; a half dozen former police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and state troopers; and about the same number of military personnel. Four Jews: an MIT-educated mechanical engineer, a Navy pilot, and two attorneys, one of whom was yours truly. (The other one was Ben Berry. He and I were the fastest runners, alternating for first place in the timed two-mile test.) Initially, seven females, five Hispanics, and only three blacks. That last number dropped to two just two weeks into our training, when the woman, some kind of civil rights lawyer, vanished overnight. She had been overweight from the beginning and was then unable to pass the initial physical fitness trials. Mike offered her the opportunity to be “recycled” and start with another class a few months later. She declined. Her heart had never been really set on becoming an FBI agent—she had not concealed her ambivalence from her fellow classmates. (She might have been more enthusiastic had she seen the as yet to be made film, Mississippi Burning, with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, based on MIBURN, the mid-sixties FBI investigation into the murder of three civil-rights workers.)
Two of us from NAC 85-7 had dreams of becoming undercover agents. At the beginning of their careers, SAs (special agents) don’t choose specialties, certainly not undercover. But it was already on my mind—and also on Danilo Perez’s mind. A veteran of the Colombian navy, and fellow native Spanish speaker, who later took U.S. citizenship, Danilo was assigned to a nearby dorm room. Tall and skinny, with scruffy black hair, a mustache, and a heavy accent, he did not fit anyone’s stereotype of an FBI agent. Of course, neither did I. (Years later, Danilo and I would meet up at undercover schools, both as instructors, both with many years of experience working behind enemy lines.) This was the Miami Vice era. It was a huge hit on television. Danilo would lie on his bed, with Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” playing over and over again on his Walkman cassette player. We both saw ourselves as Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, driving that high-end sports car on Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard, in our Gucci suits, en route to a meeting that would enable us to take down a Colombian cartel boss. In order to further that goal, I showed some initiative and submitted a memo requesting an assignment to Miami as my first office. Being a native Spanish speaker, with an Argentine mother, and years of experience in Latin America, I thought I would be ideally suited for conducting investigations in Miami’s Latino community. And so I suggested. I didn’t realize that my memo actually had another destination stamped all over it, only in invisible ink.
There is a tradition endured by all graduating agents a couple of weeks prior to the big day. We sat in our regular classroom chairs, Mike at the front desk, a pile of envelopes before him. After he read the name on the envelope, the agent was to come to the front of the classroom, pick up the envelope, and turn to the class. He was then to name three places: where he was from, where he hoped to be assigned, and where he expected to be assigned. Then open the envelope, take out the orders, and read aloud a fourth place, the actual Office of Assignment. Followed by lots of laughing and clapping and cheers. When it came my turn, I held the envelope and said, “New York … Miami … San Juan.” I opened the envelope and smiled. San Juan.
Spanish speakers in the classes just ahead of ours had all received orders to San Juan, not Miami. I had seen it coming. It would be an adventure nonetheless.
Mom and Dad and my little brother and sister drove down to Quantico for graduation. It’s safe to say that the FBI wasn’t what Francine and Asa Ruskin had imagined for their oldest son’s legal career, much less for his liberal arts degree from Vassar. They were liberal, secular Jews. My father couldn’t forget COINTELPRO, but those notorious domestic spying and dirty tricks activities dated to the late fifties and sixties, and died with J. Edgar Hoover in 1972. Nor could Dad get around the association between Hoover’s FBI and McCarthyism and blacklisting. In fact, the McCarthy committee investigators intimidating Americans on national TV were not FBI agents. They were staffers for the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the collective memory, aided by the media, had melded the two groups. However, it was FBI special agents who risked their lives south of the Mason-Dixon Line, investigating the racists who were tormenting civil-rights activists. (Mississippi Burning is one of the few movies that got it right.)
I discussed all this with my parents. Nevertheless, sitting in the third row at the graduation ceremony in Quantico, they were still not thrilled at my change of employment. They were gratified to learn that my fellow graduates could boast all kinds of advanced academic degrees and other achievements. During the reception afterward, Dad gravitated toward Ben Berry’s father, both commiserating. Two young and promising Jewish lawyer sons—where had they gone wrong?
In my own mind, the transition to the FBI wasn’t all that radical. In Brooklyn, I was the hard-nosed aggressive prosecutor, passionate about helping the victims of violent crime, almost all of them residents of the same ghettos and living in the same dire straits as the accused. I loved the work but realized after a few years that I didn’t want to spend my entire career and life in Brooklyn. Nor did I want to follow my fellow prosecutors into the big law firms across the East River, only to end up lamenting the loss of our exciting careers as ADAs. I wanted to move in the opposite direction: more, not fewer, encounters with the juiciest field the law has to offer—the law of the wild. You can’t prosecute the criminals unless you catch them first. And I had seen many potentially good cases fail due to errors by investigators. I intended to put together cases that would be slam-dunks for prosecutors. And I did. Let the record—including this book—show that I never failed to infiltrate my targets and be accepted, and thanks to my legal background, to construct my cases with never a glimmer of entrapment. And then there’s this: I had been a good lawyer, maybe an excellent one, but I really wanted to be one of the best at something. Literally. The best. Maybe this was it.
A month later, my flight touched down at Luis Muñoz Marín airport, in Isla Verde, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Copyright © 2017 Marc Ruskin.
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Marc Ruskin spent 20 years as an FBI Special Agent for which he was awarded five commendations. A graduate of Vassar College and Cardozo Law School, Ruskin also served on the staff of U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan and as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn. Following his retirement from the FBI in 2012, he has divided his time between a law practice in New York and Liaoning Province, China, where he writes and studies Mandarin.