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Most Wanted Agent on Toughest Cases Leaves FBI After 25 Years

Times Staff Writer

Joe Chefalo is part of the old breed in the FBI, a man who has spent most of the last 25 years chasing down bank robbers, kidnapers, hijackers and fugitives.

Those were the FBI’s top priorities when Chefalo became an agent, but the emphasis has long since switched to more complex white-collar crime and foreign counterintelligence work.

“The FBI is better. We’ve improved,” Chefalo said. “But for a guy like me . . . we’re kind of the forgotten people. An old criminal dinosaur, they call me.”

There’s a touch of bitterness in Chefalo’s words. After spending half his life with the FBI, Chefalo is taking early retirement at the age of 50 and leaving later this month to become a private detective with one of his old partners.

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He’ll Be Missed

In the view of many of Chefalo’s colleagues, his departure from the FBI’s 475-agent Los Angeles office will leave a massive gap. For two decades, Chefalo has been the man most often assigned to the toughest jobs.

One of the original members of the FBI’s first SWAT team in the 1970s, Chefalo later headed the FBI response team that would have handled any terrorist incident in the 1984 Olympics.

He was also the man who put the handcuffs on FBI Agent Richard W. Miller in 1984 when Miller was arrested for selling FBI documents to the Soviet Union. He was along for Miller’s arrest in case of possible resistance.

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“He’s Mr. Reliable, always the guy called on when a mission of importance is at hand,” said FBI spokesman Fred Reagan. “Chefalo can take them down hard or easy. He has a real good feel for it.”

Now the head of the “major case” squad in the Los Angeles office, Chefalo joined the FBI in 1963, was transferred to Los Angeles three years later and has been an office mainstay ever since.

His first assignments with the FBI were observing civil rights demonstrations in the South, and after moving to Los Angeles he was placed on the bureau’s “security squad,” assigned to monitor the activities of local Communist Party members.

But Chefalo, who had unsuccessfully tried out as a defensive back for the Baltimore Colts before joining the FBI, was interested in more action than the aging members of the Communist Party were providing in the mid-1960s.

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Moving to the bank robbery squad, then to the FBI’s fugitive unit, Chefalo, 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds, quickly built a reputation as one of the toughest of the tough guys in the Los Angeles FBI office.

In 1973, Chefalo and his partner, Dick Fox, broke open a kidnaping case involving the heiress of the Stater Bros. grocery chain.

There was a ransom demand of $110,000 and Chefalo and Fox were the first two agents at the drop site in North Hollywood. After spotting one of the kidnapers, who had a gun in his hand, they quickly subdued him.

With a shotgun at his throat, the kidnaper responded to some admittedly gruff questioning by providing the location where Ellen Ann Stater was later found unharmed. He later appealed on grounds that Chefalo and Fox had not advised him of his legal rights, but California courts waived the Miranda rule because of the emergency nature of the case.

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In later years, Chefalo was usually the head of any major investigation involving a fast-breaking federal crime. Last year, he headed the FBI investigation into the crash of a PSA jetliner near Paso Robles in which 43 passengers and crew members died when the plane went down after a revenge shooting on board.

Like many FBI agents, one case Chefalo would prefer to forget was the Miller spy affair. Shortly after midnight on Oct. 2, 1984, Miller was arrested at his country home in northern San Diego County.

He was officially arrested by Richard T. Bretzing, then the agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office. Then Chefalo stepped forward to handcuff the man later convicted as the first FBI agent caught spying for the Soviets.

Long Ride for Miller

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“I never had a feeling like that in my life,” Chefalo said. “I’d never arrested an agent. R. W. (Miller) said, ‘Joe, you don’t have to do this.’ I told him I did.

“We normally cuff behind,” Chefalo added. “I cuffed him in front, tried to make it comfortable for him. I didn’t do it because he was an agent. It was because we had a long ride to San Diego that night.”

Looking back at his career, Chefalo says he thinks the timing is right for his departure. In his view, clearly, the FBI’s best days have passed.

“I’ve always loved going to work in the FBI. The atmosphere has always been good and there’s not a day that’s gone by when I haven’t been happy to hit the office,” Chefalo said.

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“But I’m a J. Edgar Hoover man. I liked him,” he added. “He was tough and decisive. But what I liked best about him was he stood up for the FBI. I would like to see a little more of that today.”

He feels a little sorry for younger agents in the FBI, Chefalo said.

“I don’t think it would be as much fun starting out now as I had,” he said. “The thrills are fewer and farther apart. I’m going to miss it, but I’m ready to go.”


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