In his 26-year career with the FBI, James Kallstrom has captured mobsters, tailed cheese trucks and disarmed Rottweilers with tainted meatballs. Now he must find out if a terrorist planted a bomb on TWA Flight 800.
Kallstrom is a curious mix of the FBI's old and new. He swears like a longshoreman. He talks like someone from The Untouchables: "If it was a terrorist event," he growled at a news conference last week, "then we have the challenge to find out who these perpetrators were, who the cowards were who did this."
His tie is often askew, his collar unbuttoned. But he is a techno-wizard who understands the FBI's most complicated bugs and surveillance gear. He preaches the power of the Internet. He is a G-man with an e-mail address.
He "may sound like Eliot Ness, but he's not a gumshoe," said Brian Duffy, co-author of The Good Guys: How We Turned the FBI 'Round and Finally Broke the Mob. "He's going to use every trick in the book _ all legal _ to find out who did it and bring them to justice."
The son of a car salesman and a nurse from Worcester, Mass., Kallstrom joined the Marines and survived the bloody battle of Khe Sanh.
When he joined the FBI in the early 1970s, he spent hours trailing mozzarella trucks on his own time. He suspected the Gambino family was using deliveries to pizzerias as a front for a drug ring.
But the cheese pursuit took weeks and kept him away from his other cases, Duffy and former FBI colleague Jules Bonavolonta write in The Good Guys. Kallstrom's bosses disapproved and pulled him back into "the numbers game," focusing on lower-profile cases that could yield more arrests. Kallstrom disliked the bureau's emphasis on numbers and often compared it to the Vietnam War.
"We don't need to be doing up here what we did in Vietnam _ win a thousand battles and lose the f------ war," he told Bonavolonta when they worked together at the agency.
Kallstrom, neatly-barbered and built like a fullback, became one of the bureau's specialists in wiretapping, an agent who realized the power of a well-placed bug. Duffy calls him the FBI's "reigning expert on electronic surveillance."
Even after he was promoted into management, he still embraced unorthodox methods.
When two angry Rottweilers blocked entrance to a restaurant he wanted to bug, Kallstrom led a team that fed the dogs meatballs spiked with laxatives and sedatives. After the dogs passed out, the agents sauntered in and planted the microphones.
He wanted to bug the Palma Boy Social Club, the hangout of crime boss "Fat" Tony Salerno, but his agents would need to drill into the bricks. To cover the noise, Kallstrom borrowed six trash trucks from the New York City sanitation department. His agents pretended to be trash collectors, banging cans together in the middle of the night.
In a government that is notorious for being behind the times, Kallstrom has embraced the future. On Friday, he offered an e-mail address (newyorkfbi.gov) for anyone with tips about the crash.
Now the head of the FBI's New York office, Kallstrom has been a strong advocate for new laws to allow the FBI to adapt its wiretapping technique to new phones and phone company switches. When a reporter asked Saturday night what help he needed for the crash investigation, he lapsed into a plug for the government's wiretapping bill. "As we move into new digital communications, are we going to create a sanctuary for criminals, terrorists, drug dealers, child pornographers and kidnappers? Or are we going to have a methodology to continue the status quo _ court-ordered wiretapping?"
He is accustomed to the limelight, having worked on the World Trade Center bombing and the investigation of Gambino family boss John Gotti. But Kallstrom is no shill for the feds.
Asked at a news conference if the FBI was told to cover up the cause of the crash until after the Olympics, Kallstrom snapped back: "That's absolute nonsense. If it was made, we wouldn't comply with it."
He has criticized the news frenzy about a bomb but has fueled the speculation himself by comparing the TWA crash to two other bombings. He now says the probe is focusing on three possibilities _ bomb, missile or a catastrophic mechanical problem.
He acknowledges that this will be his hardest case.
"This makes the Gotti case look like child's play."
For the first few days after the crash, he appeared as steady as a rock. "We will get to the bottom of this, regardless of what the bottom is," he said.
By late Saturday, he began to look and sound weary. He said a member of the plane's flight crew was a close friend. He met with families of the victims and heard their complaints about how they were treated by TWA and the slow pace of the investigation.
"I took some time off today to examine the human side of this," he said with a heavy sigh. "It's not a pretty sight."