Monday, June 28, 2010

Embedded Law Enforcement Professionals in Iraq

Part III
Hunting Down Terrorist Bombers
Retired FBI Agent Greg Snider has a spent the last year and half hunting for one of the most dangerous predators on earth—men who use bombs to kill others. Greg, imbedded with our military units in Iraq, sifted through the debris of the latest bombing sites, searching for elusive clues. He and his teammates searched for evidence that might lead military and law enforcement to identify these bomb makers and track the manufactures who provided the parts of these deadly weapons.

In this last of a three-part interview, Greg will tell us about his experiences in this search for these killers. Key to the success of this mission—to bring terrorists into Iraqi court as criminals—is the collection and presentation of evidence. This sound simple, but in Iraq the journey through that country’s judicial system is politically and culturally challenging. Who are these terrorists and how do we stop them? Greg Snider will tell us about the last eighteen months he and others worked to find an answer.

MARK: During our last interview, Greg, you told us about arriving in Iraq and some experiences and challenges in investigating these cases. Many of our readers are mystery readers and writers, looking for unique characters that seem to bring the story alive. Those that create a special place in our minds. Tell us more about some of the interesting people you met while overseas.

GREG:  I believe that I mentioned several individuals who contributed greatly to our success in Iraq during our earlier interview.  I’ll recap a few of them as follows: 

First there is Captain, now Major, Perez-Rivera, aka; “Captain PR.”  His individual efforts and self-sacrifices went far beyond the call of duty.  As I said before, he received his higher education at the seminary.  Quite a dichotomy from being a war fighter wouldn’t you say?  He slept about four hours every other night.  He read hundreds of e-mails every day and the amazing part was his ability to sort out those that pertained to our Area of Operation (AO) and the names of those who posed the greatest threat to our unit.  He briefed our colonel daily advising him on who posed the greatest threat for that day and week.  He is the person responsible for establishing the targeting of bad Iraqis in our AO.

My job was to establish a working relationship with him in order to prove what I could bring to the fight.  Upon my arrival it was obvious that he was the busiest soldier in the army.  His time was valuable. I had my work cut out getting him to listen and accept my value to the unit.  This proved to be a daunting task and a test of my patience.  As Mark knows, I don’t like sitting around.

I found that I could pose small bits of information to PR because he had only small bits of time to listen.  I would sit and watch him, trying to determine when his brain might be in neutral so that he would hear what little bits of information I could pass on.  I got his attention after the colonel assigned me to review all the “release packets”—detainees on the list to be released. This task did not sit well with the soldiers.  I searched computer data bases to find “evidence” that could be used to dissuade the attorneys from releasing certain individuals.  This was absolutely one of the most frustrating tasks.

Almost all the detainees were gathered up with “army intelligence,” information not releasable to the Iraqis due to its sensitive nature or the techniques used to gather it.  I quickly learned that the colonel did not want anyone released.  Within the first couple days, I learned that one of the individuals was linked to a Jordan bombing.  That set the tone for getting Captain PR’s ear when the timing was right.  He had a reason to believe I could be of value.  This suspect was detained further. However, over the coming months, many detainees were released due to “lack of evidence.”  Evidence was my mission, a brand new concept to the army.

It should be noted that Captain PR was almost singlehandedly responsible for the 101st Airborne’s distinction of capturing the greatest number of bad Iraqis in this conflict—175 enemy combatants during a twelve month period.

He also holds another distinction.  Together we were the first unit in the army to acquire Iraqi Warrants for Arrest, nine in our first attempt.  We had evidence.  I was able to train a team of our soldiers to gather evidence at capture sites and attack sites.  These soldiers became enthused with their new tasking.  We formed a good team.

(L-R) Bill King, Leon Schenck, Major Kelby Brake, and Greg

Another individual I mentioned was LEP Leon Schenck.  Along with being a very funny man and a retired FBI agent, he earned distinction through his work at the detention facility in Baghdad.  It became apparent to him that releasing thousands of bad Iraqis due to lack of evidence was not a good idea.  However, due to “bleeding hearts” around the world and the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA), this became routine based upon directives from above. LEP Schenck discovered that many of the detainees did not have fingerprints, DNA or photographs on file, contrary to what the army believed.

I must take this opportunity to point out that the army has attorneys and—as all law enforcement comes to know—attorneys are not always on our side.  To clarify, the overwhelming majority of army lawyers are fresh out of law school and owes their time to the army to pay for their education.  That being said, here is LEP Schenck’s story:

 LEP Schenk, being a forward thinker, contacted the FBI and requested supplies to fingerprint some 30,000 Iraqi detainees.  He learned the FBI not only offered to provide these materials, but the bureau sent some 20 agents to help collect this data.  Supplies arrived shortly and about six weeks later agents come to take fingerprints, DNA and photographs.

I need to digress a bit to make what happens next make sense.  When LEP Schenck first arrived at his new assignment at the Baghdad Detention Facility, he continued to refer to those incarcerated individuals as “prisoners.”  He was corrected by the JAG Officers on many occasions and directed to call these prisoners “detainees.”  A “prisoner” is a person captured during war, and since this conflict is not a “war” they are “detainees”.  LEP Schenck questioned this because he pointed out that many “detainees” had been in custody of the army for over five years.  He subsequently learned to refer to those in custody as “detainees.”

Returning to my story about fingerprinting the “detainees”, about a day and a half into the project of FBI agents taking fingerprints, photographs and DNA, a JAG officer showed up and said the FBI could not continue taking photographs of the “detainees” because the Geneva Convention precluded pictures taken of “prisoners.”  The FBI insisted that “we are the FBI and we’ll do what we want.”  LEP Schenck walks into the dispute and tries to reason that those in custody were “detainees”, not “prisoners,” as JAG officers repeatedly make clear on numerous occasions.  As such, these “detainees” are not subject to the Geneva Convention.

The FBI halted their efforts when they were not able to resolve this issue. It was referred to the Pentagon.  A week and a half later, the FBI agents got the green light to continue with their photo recognition pictures.  (More on this practice later as it pertains to soldiers’ morale.)

Two other individuals I briefly spoke about earlier were Officer in Charge Major Kelby Brake and our interpreter, Sammy Wassim.  I believe I detailed their contribution and my appreciation for their friendship, knowledge and professionalism in my previous interview.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Richard L. Mabry, M.D.

Author Interview: Richard L. Mabry

Writer Richard L. Mabry’s debut novel, Code Blue, opens with an accident. His main character
Dr. Cathy Sewell—swerves to avoid an oncoming car and finds her world turned upside down. This accident is followed by other accidents as life batters Cathy until the last pages of this well-written novel It is a story of a woman struggling with the past while trying to find her place in a small rural town in Texas. It is a story of survival.

Richard Mabry, M.D., has taken a lifetime of experiences in the medical field—physician and medical school professor—to create this medical thriller that seems timely given our nation’s current battle over health care. Code Blue is just what the doctor ordered. Readers can learn more about Richard from his web site and his blog, Random Jottings.

Aspiring authors might want to pay heed to Richard as he shares with us his experiences and journey to be published in this article.

MARK: Thanks for joining us today, Richard. Tell us what kind of story readers will encounter when they pick up a copy of Code Blue?

RICHARD: My tagline is “medical suspense with heart,” and Code Blue hews to that line. There’s a medical setting, because that’s my background. There’s suspense, but not the kind that makes you sleep with the light on. And, just as in much of life, there’s a bit of romance.

MARK: In Code Blue, your main character, Dr. Cathy Sewell, returns to her hometown after a stint in the big city. What is Sewell’s motivation and what kind of obstacles does she face in this small town?

RICHARD: Cathy is devastated when her fiancĂ© breaks their engagement. This isn’t the first relationship that’s gone wrong for her. She can’t face the memories associated with the city where she trained and fell in love, so she flees. Cathy hopes to start over, establishing her practice in her hometown, where her late father was a respected surgeon. However, she soon finds that not everyone in town is on her side. As a matter of fact, it appears that someone doesn’t just want her gone, they want her dead. To further complicate matters, although her heart is still broken from her experiences, two men compete for her affection.

MARK: Where is this novel located? Can you tell us a little about the town and people?

RICHARD:  Dainger, Texas, is a purely fictional composite of several cities in North Texas with which I’m familiar. It has the characteristics of a small town, yet is large enough to have a modern medical community. The doctors in town have all the virtues and failings of any group of physicians, and the people in Dainger display a full spectrum of emotions and character traits, good and bad, just as in any town or city in the country.

MARK: Your story is ripe with opportunities for accidents in the practice of medicine. In this novel, there are several ‘mistakes’ in the prescription and handling of medicine. You make it very believable. How prevalent are these kinds of incidents? How easy would it be for someone to tamper with medications?

RICHARD: Obviously, the incidents to which you refer are contrived, but in medicine—as in all walks of life—mistakes can happen. Because the consequences of such a mistake can be disastrous, the medical and ancillary professions have a number of fail-safe measures in place, many of which the public doesn’t realize. Again, because Dainger is my own creation, I could set up scenarios that one wouldn’t expect to encounter in real life.

MARK: As a nation, we’ve just endured intense debate over the cost of national health care. Without renewing those arguments, what kind of financial difficulties do doctors struggle over as they try to start up a new practice like Dr. Sewell in Code Blue?

RICHARD:  A physician’s income comes from services provided to patients. Cathy encounters a whispering campaign and opposition from a few local doctors, making it difficult for her to build a practice. No patients, no income. Big problem.

Then comes the difficulty of getting paid for services. Cathy’s constant struggle with third party payers—delays in payment, requirements for resubmission of claims, etc.—is a real one for physicians. As the solo practitioner vanishes from the scene, doctors are often unaware of this, because the billing operations manager of their group practice fights these battles, but they’re all too real.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Embedded Law Enforcement Professionals in Iraq

Part II

Hunting Down Terrorist Bombers

Retired FBI Agent Greg Snider has a spent the last year and half hunting for one of the most dangerous predators on earth—men who use bombs to kill others. Greg, embedded with our military units in Iraq, sifted through the debris of the latest bombing sites, searching for elusive clues. He and his teammates searched for evidence that might lead military and law enforcement to identify these bomb makers and track the manufactures that provided the parts for these deadly weapons.

In this second of three articles, Greg will tell us about his experiences searching for these killers.

MARK:  What was your first assignment, Greg?

GREG:  My first assignment was with the 101st Airborne north of Baghdad.  This is where I worked with Captain PR.  Thanks to PR’s exceptional work this unit holds the distinction of capturing over 175 targeted individuals in a 12 month period, the most of any unit ever in Iraq.  I arrived at this unit about half way through their tour.  Once I could get a few minutes each day with PR, he began to understand what I brought to the fight.  Together we obtained the first nine U.S. Army generated Iraqi warrants.  By the way, PR only slept about 4 hours every other night.  He is one dedicated man.

Greg, left, with now-Major "Captain PR" Perez-Rivera

MARK: How closely did you work with the military? Where were you housed? Where did you work?

GREG:  I worked directly with military command staff.  The army is a 24/7 operation.  At first I worked seven days a week about 14 hours a day.  I was the only LEP (Law Enforcement Professional) assigned to my unit.  I was assigned to the commander and served at his discretion.  My job was to advise him relative to the rule of law and gain his confidence in the use of physical evidence and its importance in targeting.

All of my time in Iraq was spent in the vicinity of Baghdad.  When I was assigned to a maneuver unit I worked south and north of Baghdad proper. I was housed with soldiers on a small base or a forward operating post.

My final assignment, after being outside the wire, was to the forensic laboratory where our evidence was processed.  My job was to be the liaison between our LEPs in the field and the laboratory where the analysis was conducted.  I worked for another extremely capable soldier, Maj. Kelby Brake.  She is 'smart as a whip' and quickly learned about the labs forensic capabilities, analysis and procedures.  She had no other knowledge of forensics prior to this assignment.  This in-theatre evidence analysis laboratory was eventually named the Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facility (JEFF), or “CSI Baghdad” as we were fondly referred to by others.  Our capabilities were fingerprint, ballistics and tool marks analysis, and DNA. 

This concept of using evidence in war time is unprecedented and will continue from here on out.  A lot of my job there was to triage the evidence, usually by phone before it arrived at our facility or when it came in the door.  What can we do with a particular item that might give us the identity of the perpetrator?  Ballistic analysis of a bullet was problematic in that if an Iraqi police officer or an Iraqi Army person was killed, Iraqi belief is that the body could not be defiled by extracting the bullet and the body was buried within 24 hours.  I spent a lot of time convincing the U.S. Army soldiers, Iraqi police, and Iraqi army personnel to collect the bullet casings from the crime scene.  Casings can be directly linked to one particular firearm, in many cases easier than analyzing the fragments of a bullet.

My assignment with JEFF was on Victory Base just across from Saddam’s Al Faw Palace where he spent much of his time while in power. 

MARK:  How were you alerted to each call? Were you on call? On patrol? Were you armed?

GREG:  As mentioned above I was armed at all times.  On base we had a horn or siren to alert us to incoming rockets or physical attack.  On a daily basis we operated by targeting a particular individual and going out looking for that person.  If there was a specific purpose I would go outside the wire with the soldiers to advise on the collection of evidence.  A routine patrol with no known objective was a 'no go for me.'  They would take me if I want, but I chose to limit my risk taking.

MARK: When you responded to a bombing, how did that work? Did you create a crime scene? Tag and bag evidence? How did this all work?

GREG:  The military DOD units (bomb experts) would usually beat me to the blast site.  They would make sure that all the explosives were made safe (they loved to blow them up).  Another major concern was a secondary blast designed to takeout the first responders.  My job was to make sure that all items that contained physical evidence be photographed, collected, tagged and bagged and sent to the lab for analysis.  I helped train many U.S. soldiers to secure the crime scene and collect evidence.  Later, while working at the lab, I conducted informative tours of the laboratory explaining and demonstrating examples of positive results when evidence was collected properly and protected from contamination. 

MARK: What were you looking for?

GREG:  Anything that might contain physical evidence like fingerprints or DNA.  If it was a small arms attack or a sniper shooting we collected bullets and casings when possible.  If we were capturing someone in a residence we would conduct a search of the entire house.  We would collect documents, computers, propaganda, electronic media, cameras, film, pictures, just about anything that we would in the states.  Anything that might give us a lead as to whom this individual associated with and that might lead us to the next bad guy.  In many cases we found illegal weaponry or bomb-making components.

MARK:  Did you encounter any resistance on these calls? What happened?

2 P.M. sandstorm causing red sky

GREG:  My unit was lucky on the missions I went out on.  We did not encounter any hostile acts other than small arms fire on two occasions.  In both of these instances we were not able to determine who was firing at us.  My guess is that they fired a few rounds at our vehicles and then ran.  There is no way they could take head on the might of our soldiers.

MARK: How closely did you work with civilian personnel, Iraqi military and local law enforcement?

GREG:  While at the JEFF, one of my duties was to conduct tours.  One day a request came in to do a tour for an Iraqi judge.  The major, another LEP, and I conducted that tour. The judge brought an interpreter.  This went over so well that he came back with other judges.  That led to Iraqi generals and Iraqi commanders.  This led to Iraqi police.  Once this got started there were six months where three out of five tours were for Iraqis.  I did not work directly with Iraqi civilians other than the Iraqi interpreters hired by our army. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

J. Mark Bertrand

Author Interview: J. Mark Bertrand
Crime genre novelist J. Mark Bertrand’s main character has one foot out the door. Back on Murder, scheduled to be released next month, opens with homicide detective Roland March knowing his career is in the toilet unless he can pull off the impossible.

J. Mark Bertrand’s publishing career, however, is starting off with a bang. His first two novels will hit the book shelves this year. In July, Bethany House is set to release J. Mark Bertrand’s novel, Back On Murder, a gritty crime story unfolding on the big-city streets of Houston. Last February, Mark and coauthor Deeane Gist saw their novel, Beguiled— a romance suspense novelquickly rise on CBA and ECPA listings just weeks after its release.

It looks like this will be a great year for this new author.

YOUNG: Give us the down and dirty on Back On Murder. What is the story about?

BERTRAND: It’s about two seemingly unrelated cases—the shooting death of a La Tercera Crips gang lord and a house full of his minions; and the disappearance of a beautiful suburban teen, which is getting all the media attention. Houston homicide detective Roland March bounces from one detail to the next, convincing himself along the way that the two cases are connected.

YOUNG: Give us some insight into your main character, Roland March. The story begins with everyone knowing March’s career is almost over. Tells us a little about why he keeps fighting to stay in the game. What drives him?

BERTRAND: When we meet March, things have gotten so bad for him in homicide that his bosses are loaning him out on pointless details. He shows up at a crime scene and is pretty much superfluous. Everybody ignores him. And yet he used to be good at the job. He made some famous cases back in the day. When he gets a break in the gang killing, he sees his chance to get “back on murder.” His wife would rather see him get out of law enforcement. Even March can’t explain exactly why he’s staying. But that break galvanizes him. He gets a taste of what it used to be like and wants it all back.

YOUNG: Your protagonist bucks a traditional concept in the Christian publishing industry—main character strengthens his faith in God or resolves his spiritual conflict after facing adversity. Here, March is a non-believing skeptic with a jaundiced view of the church. An outsider. Will March ever resolve spiritual quandaries or will those issues be left for other characters to resolve.

BERTRAND: March doesn’t fit the stereotype, that’s for sure. And I’d argue as a novelist that’s a good thing. There’s something to be said for defamiliarization, for looking at the world through a fresh set of eyes.

One of the questions people ask, given the publisher, is whether Back on Murder is Christian fiction. All I can say is, it’s crime fiction, written by an author who’s a Christian, narrated by a protagonist who isn’t. Complicated enough for you? If your definition of the genre is how well it fits that “faces adversity then solves spiritual conflict” trope, then this doesn’t qualify … but neither would The Moviegoer or Wise Blood. (And no, I didn’t just compare myself to Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. Or if I did, it was knowing full well I’m not worth to tie their shoelaces!) The French film director Claude Chabrol once pointed out to Roger Ebert that not every Communist movie has to be about the wheat harvest. The same thing goes for any artist with a strong point of view.

As far as March’s issues go, let’s just say this. Things are going to get worse for the detective before they get better.

YOUNG: Intriguing. Can’t wait to see if March will survive. This story takes place in Houston, Texas. Is this city a special place for you or are there other reasons for placing the story in this location?

BERTRAND: I lived in Houston a long time, went to grad school there, and have a love/hate relationship with the city to this day. In crime fiction now, a sense of place is very important. Surprisingly, despite being the fourth largest city in the United States, Houston is underrepresented in the genre. I chose it for that, and because in so many ways—oil, suburban sprawl, mass market religion, and so much more—it’s the perfect metaphor for the world we live in now. If you’re writing about Houston, you’re writing about America, too.

YOUNG: Mark, I read in one of your articles that crime fighting intrigued you at an early age. Anything happen to shake your enthusiasm? How did you go from the junior sleuth of earlier years to the crime novelist of today?

BERTRAND: I’m not a detective today for the same reason I’m not a general: they don’t let you start at the top! Growing up watching Magnum P. I. and Remington Steele, I was so going to be a private detective. I even did a couple of correspondence courses and talked my way into a kind of apprenticeship with a local private eye. The dream persisted until I reached college, where my love of literature kicked in. For someone so committed to the gritty, surreal reality of the job, it’s ironic to think how romanticized my view was.