Saturday, July 16, 2016

Special Agents and the FBI: Info for Writers with Dana Ridenour

ThrillWriting welcomes special agent, retired, Dana Ridenour.

Fiona - 
Would you tell us about how you found yourself in the role of special agent for the FBI?

Dana - 
It all started on a band trip when I was a sophomore in high school. Our band went to Washington, DC for a competition and part of our trip included a tour of the FBI Headquarters. I left the tour and told everyone that I was going to be an FBI agent. I was 15 years old. 

As far as my background, I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from Meade County High School in 1984, I attended the University of Kentucky. After two years at the University of Kentucky, I changed my major to Police Administration and transferred to Eastern Kentucky University where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1989. I wanted to become an FBI agent more than anything, but at the time the FBI was primarily only hiring lawyers and accountants. So, after college, I attended Chase College of Law and earned my Juris Doctor in 1992. 

The federal job hiring freeze hit in 1992 and lasted until 1995. I took and passed the SC Bar Exam and practiced law at a small law firm in Georgetown, SC. I was hired as a special agent for the FBI in November of 1995.

Fiona - 
Can you tell us the basic qualifications for serving as a special agent?

Dana - 
To be considered for an FBI Special Agent position, a candidate must have a four year college degree, be between the ages of 23-37, and have some work experience. 

The average age of the agents in the FBI Academy is about 29, so the Bureau rarely hires people right out of college. 

A candidate must fall into one of the five FBI Special Agent Entry Programs to be eligible for employment: 
  • Language 
  • Law
  • Accounting
  • Computer Science/Information Technology
  • Diversified.

Fiona -
Have you read books or watched movies and thought - "No that isn't right at all!"? What are the biggest mistakes you've seen and how should we fix them?

Dana - 

The FBI is hardly ever portrayed factually in novels, television, or movies. I think the biggest mistake is making the FBI look like it has all of this outstanding technology. 

The FBI is always behind on technology. I remember when I arrived at my first office from the FBI Academy and took one look at the antiquated Dell computer sitting on my desk, I thought to myself, Is this a joke? This can't really be my computer. 

The other HUGE mistake that the movies and television make is having the FBI swoop in take over their local cases. That simply does not happen. The FBI stays busy with federal cases, so the Bureau does not take over homicide cases like portrayed on TV. If a case is found to fall into federal jurisdiction, then the FBI does take over the case as in cases of terrorism both domestic and international. Police departments will sometime ask for FBI assistance with cases, but the FBI does not take their case when that happens. The FBI assists with whatever the local or state department needs, then allows that department to prosecute the case however they chose.

As far as fixing the problem, they should hire me as a consultant!

Fiona - 
Yes they should! 

ThrillWriting is a big proponent of hands-on experience to write it right, but sometimes that's just impossible.

Dana -
In all seriousness, they should hire more retired agents as consultants to give the shows more authenticity. I think most people would get bored watching FBI agents sitting at a desk doing paperwork which is reality.

And talking to an expert is the best way around this.

Fiona - 
Dana, how much of the time were you in the field and when you were in the field can you talk about your clothing choices? Did you ever try to run down a bad guy in strappy heels and a Greek-draped dress?

Dana - LOL

I consider myself extremely lucky because I spent my entire twenty years working on the criminal side of the house. During my twenty years on the job I was assigned to four different FBI Field Divisions and had the opportunity to work a wide variety of cases to include multi faceted narcotics investigations, domestic sex trafficking of minors, and violent crime. 

Working primarily on drug and violent crime squads, I almost always dressed in jeans and baggy shirts that I could conceal my weapon under. I had to be ready to run at a moments notice, so I avoided stilettos. On the rare occasions that I did dress up for court appearances and such, I had a change of clothes in my Bureau car. I never went anywhere without a change of clothes. 

My first office was Mobile, Alabama, so you never knew when you might be chasing someone through the swamps and get all wet and dirty. One of the first things that I did when I retired was get rid of all my oversized shirts. I had Columbia shirts in every color and I was happy to donate every one of them to Goodwill.

Fiona -
What equipment was part of your EDC (every day carry)? Which piece of EDC did you use the most/find most helpful?

Dana - 
I never walked out the door without my FBI credentials, badge, gun, and handcuffs. 

There is a joke in the Bureau that when you leave the house you do the law enforcement pat down on yourself. You check your pockets and waist for your badge, gun, creds, and Bureau car keys. 

Although I never had to shoot anyone, working mostly drug matters, the gun was my most helpful piece of equipment. I probably used a small flashlight more than any other piece of equipment that I owned. A pocket-sized flashlight is a great piece of equipment. 

I spent about half of my career as an undercover agent which is a whole different ballgame. When I was working undercover, I didn't carry my gun, badge or credentials. In fact, I didn't carry any kind of identification that had my real name on it. I dressed for whatever my role deemed necessary. During the days when I worked undercover infiltrating the animal rights extremists, I was vegan which meant that I didn't wear any leather products. I wore a lot of hemp and canvas in those days.

Fiona - 
Tell me about being a woman in the bureau - did you get to do interesting assignments that your colleagues didn't because of your gender? Twenty years to now - what do you see as changing (if anything) for women in the field?

Dana - 
I get asked the female question a lot. I can honestly say that I was never treated any differently because I was a woman. I was lucky to land on squads with fantastic people. Most of the time I was the only female on my squad. I'm not easily offended which made me able be blend with my squad-mates and be "one of the guys". 

I think some women have trouble with this concept, but for me it was easy. I didn't want special treatment because I was a female. I think my male squad-mates appreciated the fact that I tried hard to fit in and not be judgmental. 

My first undercover role came about because I was a woman. I was the only female on a drug squad and DEA needed a female undercover. They didn't have a female in their office, so they asked to borrow one from FBI. I had never done any kind of undercover work, but the case was fairly short term and only required a few meets. The case targeted a medical doctor who was trading prescriptions for sex. The case was a success and I became addicted to undercover work. That was the case that made me want to apply for the FBI undercover program. 

The number of women in the FBI is growing steadily. I was fortunate to be able to return to the FBI Academy at the end of my career and take two different classes through the training program acting as their class counselor. The counselor position required me to live in the dorm with my class and be with them from the first day of class to their graduation day, a five month program. I did this two different times in the last year of my career and it was so rewarding. I had a chance to get to know the future of the FBI both men and women. I can testify that we are in good hands. 

The future of the FBI is bright. The young men and women who make up the new Bureau are bright, talented, and dedicated. I think we will see more women in FBI management in the future. I'm looking forward to the day when we have a female FBI director. I wonder if it will be one of the talented women who I mentored in the Academy.

Fiona - 
Here on ThrillWriting, we always ask about the story behind your favorite scar; would you indulge us?

Dana - 
Of course...

This might sound a little strange but my favorite scar comes from an eyebrow piercing that I had done when I was working undercover. I was preparing for my first long term, deep cover case and my alias was actually ten years younger than my true age. 

Most of the people in the group that I was trying to infiltrate were young and covered with tattoos and piercings. When I finished the investigation I had my right eyebrow pierced, my bellybutton pierced each ear pierced three times. Toward the end of the investigation an asshole SAC (I’m retired so I no longer play nice) saw my eyebrow piercing at a mandatory all agents conference. Even though he knew that I was a full time undercover agent, he insisted that I remove the eyebrow jewelry that basically left a hole in my forehead for a couple of weeks. I can cover the scar with make-up but my right eyebrow droops just a little because of having the piercing. I was probably too old to have my eyebrow pierced to in the first place. 

On my second long term, deep cover case I ended up getting a couple tattoos to better blend in with my targets. I wouldn’t classify them as scars, but they are pretty permanent. All in the name of undercover work.

I wouldn't trade any of the scars because working undercover was the highlight of my twenty year career.

Fiona - 
Getting tattooed for the job is pretty strong method acting! It shows an incredible dedication to your job.

Earlier, we talked about writing FBI characters/plotting correctly. To that end, I wanted to bring up your new book.

Amazon Link

Can you talk a bit about your novel?

Dana - 
You build relationships to betray relationships. That is the motto for the FBI’s undercover program, and special agent Lexie Montgomery is just beginning to understand what that means. 

Lexie’s first assignment is infiltrating a radical cell of the Animal Liberation Front. Underground and operating in splinter groups throughout Los Angeles, the only way in is through Savannah Riley, a new recruit. Savannah left the safety of her small southern town for the bright lights of the city. Pulled into the animal rights movement by her college roommate and a gorgeous anarchist, she sinks deeper and deeper into the dark, paranoid world of ALF extremists. As the actions of her cell escalate beyond simple demonstrations and graffiti, Savannah turns to Lexie to keep her grounded. But as the two women grow closer and the FBI’s case builds, Lexie is forced to decide what betrayal really means.

Fiona - 
Does this come from the animal rights undercover you spoke of earlier?

Dana - 
I didn’t want to write a run of the mill FBI novel. I wanted to use my personal experiences as an undercover agent to capture the psychological toll that underwork has on an agent. When an agent works long term, deep cover investigations, he or she is changed at the end of the case. You lose a little piece of yourself with every long term case.

I spent most of my career as an FBI agent working undercover. I spent several years infiltrating domestic terrorism cells, many like the ones portrayed in the novel. The novel is based loosely on real cases and real people. My mother encouraged me to keep a journal when I became an FBI Agent. I started keeping a journal when I began working undercover. I kept the journal hidden in the ceiling panels of my undercover apartment. As I worked, I documented feelings and experiences along the way. These journals were a big part of formulating my Lexie character.

Fiona - 
So this novel would be excellent background research if you're writing FBI characters.

Writers - if you have brief questions about the FBI, Dana says you can contact her. She likes to support her fellow writers.  Here are some ways you can stay in touch with her:

Thank you so much Dana!
As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you 
helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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