Editor’s note: The top FBI agent in New Mexico has taken aim at criminals and terror suspects – foreign and domestic – in his more than two decades with the bureau. Terry Wade talked about his career and the agency’s mission with Senior Editor Kent Walz.
The special agent in charge of the Albuquerque FBI Office and the agency’s roughly 250 employees in New Mexico has been posted to assignments in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Baghdad in his 21 plus years with the bureau.
Along the way, he has supervised operations ranging from counterintelligence to cyber to SWAT.
Suffice it to say, it has been a far cry from the future Terry Wade had pictured for himself when he was growing up in Chatanooga, Okla., population 400 – way down in Comanche County in the southwestern part of the state.
He went to a high school that today has 78 students in a town that doesn’t even have a stoplight on the main road. The school had just two sports, basketball and baseball, and he played both. A pitcher and shortstop, baseball was his favorite. “I loved it but was average at best.”
He showed a sheep as a 4H member, then a steer when he was older and had joined FFA (Future Farmers of America.)
“Just like the other kids there, I spent time on a John Deere tractor,” he said in a recent interview.
“I would think about that sometimes when I was in meetings in a place like Los Angeles, in Baghdad and even the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington. That it was a long way from Comanche County and a John Deere tractor.”
Wade has worked plenty of big cases including domestic terrorism. And he has seen more than his share of carnage and suffering in his career as a lawman, ranging from the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing to horrific crimes in Indian Country to working with family members of victims in Shanksville, Pa., where heroic passengers rose up and forced the crash of hijacked Flight 93 as it headed for the nation’s capital on 9/11.
It was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City that cemented his desire to join the FBI.
Wade was working for the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation at the time and had begun the FBI application process – even though he wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.
But Wade was detailed to the FBI during the first week of the investigation, and “I decided I definitely wanted to come. And less than a year later, I was there.”
“Seeing the bureau’s capabilities for a big event like that … it was impressive.”
The bombing, that claimed 168 lives and injured hundreds more, also steeled his resolve to protect the public “and take bad guys off the streets.”
“For all Oklahomans, it was very personal,” Wade said. “I knew a number of people who worked in the building. We had worked with the lone DEA agent who died there.”
Wade took away another important lesson from the tragedy – one he said speaks to the American people the bureau serves.
“The response by the folks in Oklahoma was massive. I remember being there at the command post and people wanted to do something. People lined up at blood banks. There was this thing that first responders had a shortage of kneepads and gloves, and within hours there were crates of them at the command post. It was amazing.”
He also recalled that at Shanskville after 9/11 people with American flags lined the highway as family members of victims were being taken to the site.
“You take away memories of how people just wanted to be a part of the solution.”
There are topics Wade won’t discuss. Family, for security reasons, is off limits. Pending cases and politics are also on the list.
Asked whether the current controversy in Washington (which includes the Republican Intelligence Committee memo that is sharply critical of FBI and Justice Department upper echelon officials) is affecting the rank and file, Wade replies:
“The thing is, and our director has talked to us about this, regardless of what’s going on, we need to make sure we continue to focus on the mission of the FBI, and that’s to protect the American public and uphold the Constitution. And if we do that on the ground level, everything else will take care of itself.”
Small town life
After high school, Wade enrolled in Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, about 100 miles from Chatanooga with a student body of about 5,000.
Wade is a diehard Oklahoma University fan and says “there are parts of me that wish I had gone to OU.” (For the record, he predicts Sooner quarterback Baker Mayfield, this year’s Heisman winner, will be a first-round NFL pick and eventual Hall of Famer.)
But Southwestern was cheaper, and coming from such a small town, a campus of 5,000 as opposed to 25,000 in Norman was less of a culture shock.
“It’s funny to come from a little bitty town like that where you have a pretty myopic view and everything revolves around the Friday night game … it’s almost Hoosiers-like in that regard” – a reference to the iconic movie about a small town Indiana basketball team coached by Gene Hackman.
Wade earned a business degree with a psychology minor, thinking he would be a banker. But it was the mid 1980s, and “they were closing banks in Oklahoma” amid the Savings and Loan crisis.
Wade joined the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation in 1991 – after a stint as a probation/parole officer – and worked on a wide range of cases, including homicides. He was accepted into the FBI in 1996 and headed off to the bureau’s storied academy in Quantico, Va.
“It was funny. I was a native Okie from a small town, and my concern was getting sent to New York or Los Angeles. Lo and behold, I got sent to Helena, Mont.,” right out of the Academy.
It was there that he cut his teeth on domestic terrorism cases – with one of his first assignments working the follow-up to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who had been arrested out of the Helena office.
“The bureau’s real focus after Oklahoma City was domestic terrorism – government separatists, white supremacists and so on. Montana and northern Idaho was really a hotbed, so it was a great opportunity to learn, and I was the case agent on a pretty good sized domestic terrorism case.”
“The bureau, I think overall did a pretty good job of investigating and infiltrating some of those groups, whether it was the Aryan Nation or others.”
The assignment also brought home a difficult balance we strike in American society.
“The hard part for the bureau is separating the people who are racist and who want to espouse hate speech from those who are actually going to carry out criminal activity.
“There are a lot of people in those wide open spaces like that, and some here in New Mexico, too, who just want to be left alone. Of course, the bureau always has to respect the right to free speech, and just because something is abhorrent or offensive doesn’t make it illegal.
“Sometimes in domestic terrorism cases, you feel like you are chasing ghosts … because there is a lot of rhetoric. But there are people who are dangerous, who, given the right circumstances will, blow things up. They will kill people.
“Ferreting those out is our job.”
A case like that of Aztec (N.M.) High School shooter William Atchison, whose internet rants prompted an FBI interview in March 2016, is the kind that haunts agents.
Despite his internet postings, Atchison had no weapons at the time, made no specific threat and gave no indication he planned to carry out a crime. Just another screwed up 20-something trolling the internet.
The bureau closed its file, and 18 months later, Atchison walked into Aztec High School and killed two randomly chosen students, then himself with a gun he had purchased legally long after the FBI interview.
“As frustrating as it is,” Wade said at the time, “it’s important to note that absent suspicion of a crime or necessary legal requirements, the FBI cannot initiate or maintain an investigation.”
FBI in New Mexico
A sharp dresser and an articulate man who laughs easily, Wade’s early hesitation about big cities “evolved” over the years as he raised his hand for promotions and assignments that included working as a supervisor in the Criminal Investigative Division in Washington, then spending 18 months in Los Angeles as head of the Criminal Division – his last assignment before coming here two years ago.
“I’ve joked that cases that would have Albuquerque spun into the ceiling for a week or two would be a Tuesday afternoon in LA,” he said. “The operations tempo, size and scope of the cases are just that much bigger.”
The Albuquerque bureau is an unusual one, given that we are a Southwestern border state with Mexican drug cartels next door, a large swath of Indian Country (the statutory definition) and two important national laboratories. The FBI mission here includes important roles in all of those areas with offices in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Roswell, Farmington and Gallup.
The bureau works closely with other federal agencies, including those dealing with drugs and firearms, as well as local law enforcement. The FBI often, in Wade’s words, is a “force multiplier.”
The office has special agents assigned to each of the labs, where they work with counterparts.
“Protecting our nation’s most valuable secrets is a critical job for the FBI,” he said.
The FBI here has dealt with two especially tragic cases on the Navajo Nation during Wade’s tenure as SAC here – the rape and beating death of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike at the hands of a man who gave the girl and her brother a ride, and the shooting death of Navajo Police Officer Houston Largo.
The Department of Justice has decided to seek the death penalty against the alleged shooter in that case.
Some of the crime on the reservation is horrific, and Wade has high praise for Native American law officers and for his agents “who are willing to step up and do that.”
“In the end, there’s a lot of good people out there who depend on us to try to make sure there is justice for victims … and we do have good partners.”
FBI in Baghdad
Wade also served a stint as deputy on-scene commander in Baghdad, based in the Green Zone but mostly working out of the airport.
“There were different missions – government fraud unit, a hostage working group and counterterrorism. The FBI would be paired with the military and almost everyone captured off the battlefield was interviewed by an FBI agent. That information was fed back to the military as needed and used in ongoing investigations by the FBI. Some of these obviously were foreign fighters.”
The investigation into Saddam’s circle was still in progress.
Returning to the challenges the FBI faces today, Wade says that “one of the things we all know, for whatever the agency … is that we have to depend on the trust of the people we are serving. If they don’t trust us, we become ineffective.
“So we need to make sure everything we are doing out there in our interactions strengthens that trust. … That’s why it’s so important that we stay focused on the mission and doing the job right.”
How does Wade describe the FBI’s unique role and his nearly 22 years with the bureau?
“They give you a gun and a badge and tell you to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution,” he said. “Any way you look at it, that’s a pretty good gig.”