One Monday last month, roughly 15 members of the FBI, along with two local police jurisdictions in their raid jackets, flashing badges, and carrying guns — thinking that I was aiding and abetting an armed and dangerous fugitive wanted for murder — surrounded, and searched our house.
The most surreal experience of my life. Bar none.
I was in our driveway, about to start the car, and — with my two young daughters in tow — drive my mother-in-law to the airport. It was at this moment that the FBI quickly converged on our house. And more to the point — on me.
They knocked on the trunk of the car in a way that carried purposeful focus. This was also the way in which they asked me my name, asked if I had any idea what this was about, told me they needed to talk to me.
There are few things more disturbing to even an innocent man than an FBI task-force lead saying to his cohorts — via radio mike, after hearing your answer to his question of your name — "This is the guy. We've got him right here."
And it puts a whole new spin on my daughter E-O and I saying to each other, a la Good Will Hunting, "You're suspect."
The two guys in charge were silver-haired ex-military, and were in no mood to be messed with. They asked me if I knew a guy named Citizen X (not his real name).
I don't know Citizen X — but Citizen is a popular name, and I happen to know several guys named Citizen. Still, none with his surname, nor described neck tattoo, nor his alleged penchant for attempting to kill people — and whatever else he did (I couldn't tell you what the tipping point is for FBI involvement in a local case, but it would seem to be more than attempted murder).
They had "a ping" on suspect Citizen X's cellphone within a few houses of ours, and Citizen X apparently had a friend on Facebook who shares my full name. And so . . . the FBI (as we have asked them to do, since 9/11), connected the dots . . . and came to what in this case was the logical, yet entirely wrong conclusion.
It's unclear to me whether the suspect's Facebook friend and I share the exact spelling of our names, nor how much due diligence — in the way of, say, comparing my driver's license photo to that of the suspect's friend's Facebook photo — occurred before the FBI staked out my house all day, with cars at the top and bottom of our street (a detail we learned later from our mail carrier — whom they twice quizzed about me, my house, and whatever she might be able to share).
And so, the FBI and I talked. They were justifiably amped up, as everything in their world pointed to the possibly difficult arrest of an armed and dangerous idiot who had no desire to be arrested. They wore their bulletproof vests and blue raid windbreakers.
Someday, someone will have to explain to me why the FBI thinks it will be breezy, with a chance of showers each time they move in for a bust. But I digress.
The team had clearly done some amount of planning and had discussions about this moment (they had two officers in our backyard [despite 6-foot fencing] and one on the roof of our neighbor's garage). Now it was "go" time, and yet the guy they expected to turn over their suspect, was a mild-mannered father of three, who had all day done nothing but drive his girls to elementary school, and go to work in a suburban office park for a software company.
Beyond my confused denials of any knowledge about Citizen X or his whereabouts, their first inkling that I wasn't the guy they thought I might be came just before they asked me how old I was. And by the time I answered "43," I think I detected eye rolling. Still, there was some puzzlement on their end, and they asked did I have a son. Yes. He's asleep upstairs. In his crib. No, they meant a grown son. Was Citizen X my grown son? No. Not that either.
Look, they said, we're sorry, but all of our intel points to this guy being in your house right now.
And there it was. Because, basically, once the FBI tells you that their intel points to an armed and dangerous suspect being in your house, and despite the fact that you have just eaten dinner in said house, with your wife and kids and your mother-in-law, and did not see an armed and dangerous stranger with a neck tattoo, due diligence must be done. And so we allowed them entry to the house. Said by all means, have a walk through. In fact, we're not really dying to go in there till you guys give it the green light.
Because, certainly, more bizarre things have happened. Like the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force showing up at our house looking for me, with at least two additional jurisdictions in tow. Oh, and did I neglect to mention that they brought along the K-9 unit in one of the six SUVs double-parked in front of our place?
Obviously, they found nothing in the house. This was a broad search, since what they were looking for was a person. So no rifling through drawers and that sort of thing. Rather, looking in each room, peeking under the beds, checking the basement, the attic, etc. They managed to not wake up our sleeping son, and we even got my mother-in-law to the airport in time for her plane.
Still, it's very difficult to not get paranoid after something like this. And I did, in a hardcore way. I was thrown off my game, and left with emotions I haven't felt since 9/11. So that nothing would make me sit up in bed at three in the morning, I, too, checked our house top to bottom, because the feds probably missed the kneewall in our attic. I checked Citizen X's Facebook page too, by the way, but found no friend of his with my name — which, of course, made me more paranoid.
I did these things and felt these things because when something happens so far out of the norm, and the everyday reality of our lives suddenly starts playing out like a movie we are not directing, it seems possible for anything to happen next. And that's a scary feeling, regardless — and in fact, because — of how humdrum things normally are.
And humdrum they are. If the FBI spent a few seconds of their time inside our house planting a bug or two (and it occurred to me later that this was entirely possible — especially with the added paranoia of discovering no Facebook friend of Citizen X who shared my name), they would be bored stiff by the inanities of our everyday lives.
"You're a butt."
"No, you're a butt!"
"Mom, E-O called me a butt!"
You get the idea.
In the end, there were two strokes of very good luck. One, my mother-in-law was there — and so was able to run interference, and keep the girls away from the questioning. And two, we were already outside of the house, with plenty of witnesses (neighbors on their stoops, clearly thinking "Oh no, here we go again..."), and not in a confined space. Because — not to posture or seem like some kind of hardass, post-facto — while being questioned outside my house produced bewilderment, having my door knocked on by the same task force while, say, I might have been the only one home with my three young kids, well, that would have made me very uncomfortable and produced a far more stressful situation for all parties involved. And those stressful situations sometimes end badly for even the innocent.
Things wound up OK, no one got hurt, and the experience — thankfully and somewhat amazingly to us — is not really something that has stuck with our daughters as a scary or emotional touchstone. And for that, we are grateful.
That said, the FBI could certainly have apologized more than their perfunctory "Sorry"s (and still can, if you're reading, gentlemen!) with flowers, good microbrew, and a VIP trip for the girls to the local offices.
We're not holding our breath though. And maybe we're still a little careful what we say around the house.
P.S. The men and women in blue did, ultimately, get their man. Citizen X was arrested seven or eight hours later that night by the local cops from yet another jurisdiction, after a domestic disturbance call — a detail I discovered two days later, after once again Googling Citizen X's name. Since X had been busted, I figured it was then fair to pull out the business card the task force leader had given me, and call the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division for some answers. The officer I spoke with was reasonable and helpful, and the facts I gleaned from the conversation are included above.
But it probably didn't help, the night of the raid — my wife wearily noted, when she came downstairs after putting the girls to bed, "That you were wearing that shirt." OK, point taken. But really, it was (it has since been retired) my trashiest t-shirt, and what else is one meant to wear to a house raid?