Richard T. Bretzing : FBI’s L.A. Boss Passes Hardest Test
Richard T. Bretzing had just completed the most important and glamorous assignment of a 24-year career with the FBI.
As head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, he had supervised the largest FBI counterterrorist operation ever mounted to assure that the 1984 Olympic Games would unfold peacefully.
It was a time of hard work, glory and special memories--including a private moment during opening ceremonies when Bretzing gave FBI Olympic pins to President and Mrs. Reagan.
Two weeks after the Olympics ended, Bretzing was celebrating both his professional triumph and his 25th wedding anniversary on vacation in Hawaii when he received an urgent phone call from a top aide.
A Change of Plans
“He was very cryptic,” Bretzing recalled in a recent interview. “Something very serious had happened. He couldn’t talk about it on the phone. I should change my plans and come back immediately.”
The call shattered his blissful mood and led to a crisis that threatened his career.
Bretzing returned to discover that one of his own agents, Richard W. Miller, was suspected of being a Soviet spy. A month later, Bretzing himself arrested the first FBI agent ever charged as a spy, a moment he views as the “low point” of his career.
For Bretzing, however, the worst was still to come.
Miller, an agent on the Soviet counterintelligence squad in constant trouble with his superiors, had been an active Mormon before being excommunicated for adultery, and Bretzing, a Mormon bishop, was accused of having protected him.
‘Mormon Mafia’ Issue
The media pounced on allegations by some Los Angeles agents of a “Mormon Mafia” headed by Bretzing, and there were private predictions from agents in Los Angeles and Washington that Bretzing’s job was “on the line” as a result of the Miller case.
Bretzing, who had arrived in Los Angeles in 1982, was outraged at the references to his religion and the media speculation of his pending demise. But even he had doubts that he could survive the highly publicized crisis.
“It was a disaster of major proportions,” he recalled. “The prediction that my head would roll could be foreseen, considering the circumstances. I didn’t know if you guys in the media would get the job done or not.”
Last July, the Miller case finally ended and the convicted spy was sentenced to two life prison terms for espionage. But Bretzing has survived his predicted demise and remains the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office--with assurances from Washington that his future is bright.
Bretzing is still a controversial figure among his own agents. He is praised by some for conducting himself during the Miller case with “courage and dignity.” But others view him as distant and aloof and denounce him bitterly.
Unpopularity Is Common
“He is not a popular boss,” one supporter conceded. “But that’s not uncommon in the FBI. A lot of the agents in charge of the Los Angeles office have been unpopular with the troops.”
Bretzing, who began his career as an FBI clerk in Phoenix, has now lasted longer than any of half a dozen other Los Angeles FBI chiefs since 1972, when an even more unpopular local FBI head, Wesley G. Grapp, retired after eight years in the job.
Not only has Bretzing survived in the job, but he said that he has been considered for two high-ranking posts in New York and Washington--both jobs viewed as promotions by FBI officials.
Bretzing, however, has asked FBI Director William H. Webster to let him remain in Los Angeles. At 48, he is eligible for early retirement in two more years and would like to finish his career and settle permanently in Southern California.
“The point I’ve made is I was here handling the Olympics, then Miller for two years,” Bretzing said. “I would like to have the opportunity of managing the office under more normal circumstances.”
According to top FBI officials, Bretzing has an excellent chance of getting his wish.
“I know of no transfer plans for Bretzing at this time,” said Assistant FBI Director Bill Baker, Webster’s chief spokesman in Washington, who noted that it is FBI practice to transfer personnel frequently. “He continues to do a good job in a very productive office.
But Baker added that Bretzing will have headed the Los Angeles office for five years in June, a time when the FBI often “takes a hard look” at top managers.
“He continues to have the faith of the leadership back here,” he said. “But the FBI is very goal-oriented. That faith has to be deserved every day.”
Bretzing took a gamble in the early stages of the Miller investigation that added to the controversy surrounding his role in the case.
After Miller had failed polygraph tests on whether he had passed secret documents to the Soviet Union, Bretzing summoned the ex-Mormon agent to his office and delivered a lecture with clear religious implications.
Bretzing, reducing Miller to tears, urged the suspected spy to consider the “spiritual ramifications” of his actions and urged him to “repent” if he had violated the law.
Miller had not yet confessed to passing secret information to Soviet spies Nikolai and Svetlana Ogorodnikova, but he began to break down after the tough talk by Bretzing.
Defense lawyers later urged that all of Miller’s subsequent confessions be excluded on grounds that they were extorted under religious pressure, and the judge in the Miller case rebuked Bretzing publicly for risking the government’s case.
‘A Dangerous Thing’
“It was a dangerous thing to do, at the very least,” said U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon. “It should not have been done.”
But Kenyon permitted the prosecution to use the confessions on the ground that Miller had confessed for reasons other than the speech by Bretzing, and the potential problem for the prosecution was averted.
The silver-haired Bretzing, an imposing figure at 6 feet, 4 inches and 220 pounds, was grim with anger at times as he defended himself and the speech on the witness stand during the Miller trials. But in a recent series of interviews, his mood was more relaxed.
However, he still visibly tensed at questions about past charges made against him. He carefully guarded his personal and family life, and declined to discuss some aspects of his professional life--including his popularity in the Los Angeles office.
But he controlled his anger at criticisms made by some of his own agents, and he even laughed at times as he spoke about the past, answering the charges of Mormon influence inside the FBI with an occasional joke about the bureau’s many Roman Catholics.
Admits Taking Gamble
Finally able to speak casually of his controversial speech to Miller, Bretzing admitted that he had taken an unwitting gamble that he would not repeat.
“Obviously, having seen the big play the defense made out of it, I would not provide them with that technique again,” he said. “I’ll just make sure the next time the person I’m talking to is a Catholic.”
At the same time, Bretzing defended his motives in delivering the speech to Miller.
“It’s been described in the media as a spiritual lecture. I take exception to that,” Bretzing said. “It was an appeal to his moral and religious leanings. I was trying to remind him of his sense of right and wrong.
“He had made some admissions--walked up to a certain point and then stopped,” Bretzing added. “There were a number of operations going on that I believed he had gone out of his way to know about. That was my reason for the talk.”
Bretzing said the Miller case initially had a “terrible impact” on the Los Angeles office, traditionally the most productive field office in the FBI.
“Everybody talked about it for days. Then the work began to grind on again,” he said. “In my case, the impact lasted longer. As the trials proceeded, we witnessed a shift of focus to me and my religion.
But the “Mormon Mafia” issue fizzled during the trials, as prosecutors pointed out that Bretzing had taken more punitive measures against Miller and had come closer to firing him than had any previous FBI official.
“The Mormon Mafia stuff was totally overblown. There’s never been one in my office,” Bretzing said. “There’s never been any association by religion in the FBI except perhaps the Notre Dame alumni (composed of Roman Catholic agents).
“I was dismayed that the media would do this,” he added. “To live with that for months, those were some tough days.”
Some Early Complaints
While the charges of Mormon favoritism in the FBI’s Los Angeles office did not surface publicly until the Miller case, one agent hostile to Bretzing said there were some complaints within the office beginning shortly after his arrival in July, 1982.
When Bretzing took over the Los Angeles office, the FBI assigned a Roman Catholic Latino agent, Bernardo (Matt) Perez, to be the administrative special agent in charge directly under him.
There was a personality clash between Bretzing and Perez that built steadily until July, 1983, when Bretzing rated him “minimally acceptable” in two categories in his annual performance rating. Three months later, Perez filed the first of a series of personnel complaints accusing Bretzing of discrimination.
Perez, whose performance had slipped to “unsatisfactory” in Bretzing’s view by December, 1983, complained both to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, charging that Bretzing was biased against Latinos.
When the Mormon issue surfaced in the Miller case, Perez--who would not agree to be interviewed for this article--amended his complaints to include charges of anti-Catholic bias.
The bitter fight between the two top leaders of the Los Angeles office--with agents lining up on both sides--continued through the early months of 1984, when Perez was transferred to El Paso. An EEOC official later ruled that the charges were unfounded, but Perez’s lawyers say he is still pursuing the case and plans a federal discrimination suit against Bretzing.
The Bretzing-Perez feud was just beginning when FBI Inspector Patrick Mullany, who is now retired, audited the Los Angeles office on orders from FBI headquarters in January, 1983. Mullany later spent two years as administrative assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles office in the job once held by Perez.
“That entire fight was an inevitable situation,” Mullany said. “You had a task-oriented special agent in charge, where Perez was more of a people person. There couldn’t have been more opposite people.
“Unfortunately, Matt Perez was over his head in running that office,” Mullany added. “He came up too quickly through the ranks. When he didn’t produce the way Bretzing wanted, the battle started.”
Mullany said that early in 1983, when he inspected the Los Angeles office, Bretzing had not yet reached the decision that Perez had to be transferred.
“From the very start, he made it clear that Perez wasn’t his choice for the job,” Mullany said. “His attitude when I came out on inspection was to (help Perez develop), at the same time feeling it was unfair of Washington to have stuck him with an inexperienced ASAC (assistant special agent in charge).
“As time went on, he was convinced he couldn’t rely on Perez for anything connected to the Olympics,” Mullany added. “Meanwhile, the feud got worse and other agents got involved. Unfortunately, Perez had some strong friends in the office who believed the whole thing was because Matt was a Mexican.”
Mullany said it was during the relatively early stages of the Bretzing-Perez dispute in 1983 that another move was made contributing to office talk of Mormon favoritism--the promotion of a Mormon agent to the office’s No. 3 job.
The agent was P. Bryce Christensen, who had been Miller’s immediate superior on the Soviet counterintelligence squad. He was named to the post of assistant special agent in charge of all white-collar crime and counterespionage operations.
“One of the earliest things of the Mormon issue was the elevation of Bryce,” Mullany said. “That was the sense of the inspection of 1983, that there was some resentment about it.”
Mullany, whose duties included all personnel matters, said the FBI’s Los Angeles office has “always been a heavy recruiter of Mormons” and estimated that there are about 50 Mormons among the 450 agents in the Los Angeles office, but stressed that no religion count was ever taken during the Miller case.
“Mormonism was always something behind the scenes in L.A.,” he said. “Back in the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI had a feeling that Catholic colleges taught more discipline to people, so you had heavy recruitment from the Northeast and a predominance of Irish Catholics.
“The Mormons came mainly in the 1960s, more of them on the West Coast than in the East because of Salt Lake City,” he added. “They also fell into that category. Good family, loyalty to country. Plus, because of their missionary work, a lot of them spoke foreign languages. They were good people.”
Mullany, a Catholic, said his guess is that 10% of the agents in the Los Angeles office are “firm believers” that Mormon favoritism exists and another 50% probably are “mild believers in the possibility that it exists.” Mullany, however, said he never sensed religious prejudice in Bretzing.
“You’re going to get two views of Richard Bretzing,” Mullany said. “There are the street agents, and then there are the ASACs who get to know him. The soldier in the ranks is not going to know him. He’s always been regarded by them as aloof, but you can’t get close to him without recognizing his genuineness.
‘Good Human Being’
“I got to know him extremely well because of some personal problems in our families,” Mullany said. “It wasn’t that I agree with him at all times. My style was far more open, more friendly. But I came away thinking he’s one of the finest people I’ve had to work with. He’s an extremely good human being, and he’ll go out of his way to help someone.”
Mullany said he saw “enormous growth” in Bretzing as the Miller case unfolded.
“Personally it was a tremendous crisis for him and his family,” Mullany said. “Bretzing and the FBI were as much on trial--maybe even more so--than Miller. The publication of the stories about him terribly wounded him. The leaks coming out of his own office terribly hurt him, because he felt a few agents had really placed the FBI second in trying to hurt him.
“There was no doubt there were times he was white with heat, but I admire the way he handled himself,” Mullany said. “He’s probably been through the worst he’s ever going to go through, and he’s survived with dignity. You just can’t go to school to learn how to do that.”
A year-old boy and his 56-year-old baby-sitter had been kidnaped at knifepoint near the child’s home in Palos Verdes Estates.
Three nights later--at an FBI command post set up near Los Angeles International Airport --Bretzing had to make a potential life-or-death decision.
The kidnaper had threatened to kill both his hostages if he did not receive $100,000 ransom, and he was about to pick up the money at a drop site in the congested airport area.
Two shopping bags containing the ransom had been left near a trash dumpster at Century and Aviation boulevards, and dozens of agents were in the area to close in on the kidnaper once he had picked up the money.
Question of Timing
The question for Bretzing was whether to arrest the kidnaper at the money drop or to follow him from the scene, hoping that the kidnap victims were still alive and that the kidnaper would lead the FBI to them.
Bretzing’s second-in-command, James Nelson, was with Bretzing that night and remembers the decision he made.
“You have to realize that in the FBI the agent-in-charge is responsible for even a lot of on-the-scene responsibility in a major case,” Nelson said.
“There was heavy traffic around the airport and Bretzing was afraid we might lose the kidnaper,” Nelson added. “He made the decision to take him at the drop site.”
For the next six hours, the best FBI interrogators in Los Angeles, working in teams of two, took turns trying to find out if the kidnap victims were still alive and where they were.
Says He Killed Them
The Iranian immigrant arrested when he picked up the ransom, Farhad Rahimi Kashani, told agents at one point that he had killed the victims, and the FBI relayed that grim news to the parents of the boy.
But the confession was false. After an Iranian interpreter was found, the kidnap suspect, who later pleaded guilty in court, finally gave the location of a Toyota van a few blocks away where both the child and his baby-sitter were found unharmed.
By 4 the next morning, the child, Clayton Anthony, had been returned to his parents, Philip and Kimberly Anthony.
“Bretzing came personally to our house with our son,” Philip Anthony recalled. “He was tremendously helpful throughout the situation. I didn’t expect it from a man in his position.”
Bretzing’s memory of that long night last August was that it ended in “a very rewarding morning.”
Recalls the Night
Nelson, who is being transferred to an executive post in Washington, spoke in stronger terms as he recalled the night and the four years he spent in Los Angeles under Bretzing.
“We had been up together for three nights and two days,” he said. “I never had a happier moment than when we found that boy and the baby-sitter alive.
“That’s what I’ll remember when I leave here,” Nelson added. “It’s not the stuff about the Mormon Mafia or whether office morale is up or down.
“When I look back on Richard Bretzing it will be as a friend,” Nelson said. “I think he has tremendous personal courage and strength. He’s the man in charge of this office, and he was in charge that night.”
Nelson said he is still angry at the charges of Mormon favoritism leveled against Bretzing during the Miller case.
“I’m not a religious man at all,” he said. “But I believe people were very insensitive because Mormons don’t have lobbyists. The media wouldn’t have talked about a religious issue at all if Bretzing had been Jewish or Catholic or a Baptist.”
Dominating a wall in Bretzing’s office on the top floor of the Federal Building in Westwood is the emblem of the FBI. Less prominent is a small plaque on his desk--a Mormon homily by David O. McKay, the former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
“No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
Bretzing, who has seven children ranging in age from 25 to 7, says he has adopted the statement as his personal creed.
He did not start out to be a special agent in the FBI, Bretzing said. For that matter, there were times in his life when it seemed highly unlikely that he would also wind up as a Mormon bishop.
Bretzing, was appointed bishop of the 550-member Newbury Park Third Ward of the Mormon Church in Ventura County shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles in 1982.
In his church role, Bretzing presides over Sunday church services called sacrament meetings and conducts “priesthood” meetings of all male members of the church. He also counsels church members on personal problems, presides over funerals and occasionally performs marriages for new church members not eligible to be married in the Mormon Temple.
“I’ve only married four or five couples,” he said. “The Mormon ideal is to be married in the temple. I marry newcomers and those not yet prepared to go to temple.”
Bretzing wears a business suit, not church robes, at the weekly sacrament meetings. His function is to introduce prayers, songs and speakers and to announce church business. Occasionally, he delivers the Sunday sermon.
He never considered resigning his church position during the public controversy over his twin roles as a Mormon religious leader and FBI official, Bretzing said.
‘Don’t Step Down’
“Active Mormons don’t step down from anything,” he explained.
Bretzing said he spends about 20 to 30 hours a week on church business, and denied charges that he has sometimes done church work during FBI business hours.
“Sometimes I’ll have to take leave from work, but I don’t do church work on business time,” he said. “Work takes precedent over my duties to the church.”
Bretzing cited the Aug. 31 Cerritos air crash as an example of how he places his FBI duties above his obligations to the church.
“It was a Sunday and the priesthood meeting was just starting when my beeper went off,” he said. “I left the meeting immediately to supervise the FBI investigation of the crash.”
Parents Were Mormons
Bretzing was born in Salt Lake City to Mormon parents, but his family moved to Phoenix when he was 10 and he drifted away from the Mormon church during his teen-age years.
“I was what we call inactive in the Mormon faith, what others call a ‘jack Mormon,’ ” Bretzing said. “I drank. I smoked a pack of Pall Malls a day. I swore now and then. And I went into the Army instead of going on a Mormon mission.”
“I had just fallen into some activities of teen-age-hood that were not conducive to the Mormon faith,” Bretzing recalled. “That period ended relatively quickly. I regret I did not go on a mission. But a consolation for me is that one of my children is now on a mission in Spain and another is going on a mission to Spokane, Wash.”
Bretzing enlisted as an Army paratrooper at 17 and was stationed in Germany with the 11th Airborne Division. He made 30 parachute jumps and has a bad knee as a reminder of his military service.
His father, a German immigrant who worked as office manager for a Phoenix cattle company, died while Bretzing was in the Army. He returned to help his mother raise her six children and credits her with guiding him back to the Mormon church.
Takes Police Job
Enrolling first in business and then political science at Arizona State University, Bretzing initially hoped to be a college professor. To pay his way through school, however, he took a job as an officer with the Phoenix Police Department.
After a few months as a policeman, Bretzing, already married to his wife, Diane, heard about an opening in the Phoenix FBI office and was hired as a clerk in 1960. He spent most of his college days working nights for the FBI, then was accepted as an agent in May, 1964.
During the next 18 years, working his way up the FBI’s promotional ladder, Bretzing moved his growing family to a dozen cities.
Early in his career, he spent a year at the FBI language school in Monterey, learning to speak Italian and Sicilian. Developing into a specialist on the Mafia, he later handled investigations of major organized crime in Tucson, Phoenix, Detroit, Buffalo and New York City.
In 1973, while assigned to FBI headquarters in Washington, Bretzing led the bribery investigation that resulted in the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Two years later, in Detroit, he was assigned to head the FBI’s probe into the disappearance of former Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa.
‘Never Found Him’
“He disappeared the day after I arrived in Detroit,” Bretzing recalled. “We’ve never found him. He was kidnaped and murdered by the Cosa Nostra because he was presenting a threat of control to the Teamsters Union.”
For Bretzing, one of the toughest times of his FBI career came two years before his move to Los Angeles, when he was transferred from Buffalo to New York City in 1980 as assistant agent in charge of the criminal division in the FBI’s largest field office--a force of more than 1,000 agents.
Bretzing was unable to sell his house in Buffalo, so his wife and children stayed there while he lived in Manhattan in an apartment near the United Nations that served as an FBI lookout. The apartment was infested by mice and cockroaches.
“The work was exciting, but living was difficult,” Bretzing said. “We were right on the brink of financial disaster. It was very lonely. I didn’t get home very often. My memory of New York is being alone there on Thursday nights watching ‘Hill Street Blues’ by myself.”
‘The Polyester Prince’
Besides Bretzing’s economic problems, he reportedly had other troubles in New York. One FBI boss who did not like him nicknamed him “The Polyester Prince,” because of the polyester suits he frequently wore.
During the EEOC hearings on the Perez discrimination complaint in Los Angeles, Bretzing was accused of using an FBI car without authorization for trips to Buffalo during his stay in New York, but Bretzing said that charge, along with all others, has been rejected by the FBI as unfounded.
Bretzing now earns $68,700 a year as head of one of the FBI’s most important field offices. According to one FBI source, he earned a substantial bonus for his handling of the Olympics and recently told agents of another $2,000 bonus for having organized a strong local FBI recruitment program.
Bretzing would not discuss the size of the reported bonuses, saying only: “From time to time the FBI awards moderate bonuses to agents, and I am glad that I have received my share.”
Since taking over the Los Angeles office, Bretzing has reorganized the division, streamlined the satellite system of FBI offices that surround Los Angeles from Ventura to Palm Springs and successfully lobbied Washington for an additional assistant agent-in-charge to prepare for an increased crackdown on white-collar crime.
Office Ranks Third
Throughout the Miller case, the Los Angeles office remained the most productive FBI office in the nation--topping New York and Philadelphia in both 1984 and 1985 in the number of felony convictions obtained by agents, with more than 600 a year. In fiscal 1986, Los Angeles was third in total convictions, behind Philadelphia and New York.
“There was some talk during the Miller case that the Los Angeles office is held in low esteem, but that’s never been the case,” Bretzing said. “We have always been one of the most productive offices in the nation, and we are the West Coast flagship for the FBI.”
His own proudest moments in Los Angeles are linked to the Olympics, and the massive show of force that helped prevent a major incident of terrorism.
“We had more serious firepower than any FBI office has had up to that time,” Bretzing said. “We have learned subsequently that we did deter terrorist activity because of the well publicized references to the available force. There were plans for terrorist action, and we were aware of them at the time.”
But despite his successes in Los Angeles, he remains known to the public primarily because of his role in the Miller case. He has not yet outlived the allegations of Mormon favoritism, and the reviews of his performance are mixed.
Morale Is ‘the Pits’
“The Mormons like him, but probably 70% of the other agents would like to see him go,” said one of Bretzing’s critics. “Morale problems are the pits here. When they do have a going-away party for Bretzing, it will be held in a phone booth.”
Countering that view, Christensen--who received a transfer to Washington last week, reportedly unrelated to his own controversial role in the Miller case--said he hopes that Bretzing’s performance has won the respect of at least a few former critics.
“I think he’s been able to gain the respect of the bulk of this office, if not everyone in it, by the way he has weathered this storm,” Christensen said. “He’s been able to maintain a tremendous degree of integrity in everything he’s done. He has never slipped into venom or poison.
“He was also able to maintain his sense of humor,” Christensen added. “He now introduces me as the other half of the Mormon Mafia.”
Bretzing’s own assessment of himself is that he is not an easy boss.
“Prior to coming here, I was probably regarded as tough,” he said. “I consider myself as a fair boss, but one who is firm and expects the job to be done right the first time.”