Crime Junkie - NEW LIMITED SERIES: Dark Arenas

Episode Date: November 7, 2023

Have you ever thought about whose job it is to track international fugitives, hunt child abductors, conduct espionage, or pull human remains from concealed mass graves? Everyday thousands of good and ...decent people work in these Dark Arenas. They’ve chosen professions that grapple with the grotesque, deal with the deviant, and dodge the dangerous. In this audiochuck original series, you will hear first-hand accounts of what it's like to investigate the darkest crimes and most violent criminals in society. Host Delia D’Ambra has traveled across the United States to collect one-on-one interviews with crime scene experts, FBI agents, forensic interviewers, medical examiners, DEA agents, a former CIA Director, ATF special agents, and more. Each week she works to understand how these professionals’ jobs affect them, and most importantly, why they keep at it day after day.

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Starting point is 00:00:00 Hi, Crime Junkies. I'm your host, Ashley Flowers, and I have a little surprise for you today. For those of you who thought you'd have to wait until next year to hear Delia's voice on an audio check series again, I'm here to bring you a little present. We have a new limited series hosted by Delia Deambre that we launched today. A couple of years ago, Delia and I worked on a project that we called Dark Arena's. Now, some of you may have listened to a couple of these episodes, but I would bet that the majority of you haven't, because it was actually on Stature Premium, and the series was behind a paywall. But now, our partners over at Series XM made it possible for us to bring you this series
Starting point is 00:00:39 wide between now and the end of the year, with six brand-new, never-before-heard episodes. Darker Venus is a 15-part series, and every episode shares a different first-hand account of what it's like to investigate the darkest crimes and the most violent criminals in our society. Delia traveled across the United States to collect one-on-one interviews with FBI agents, a former CIA director, ATF special agents, and more. And each week, she works to understand how these professionals' jobs affect them, and most importantly, why they keep at it day after day. I don't want you guys to have to go very far to get hooked on this new series, so I'm
Starting point is 00:01:21 going to give you the first episode right now. Just keep listening. But we dropped three episodes today. So when you're done over here, I need you to go and follow Dark Arena's on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts, so you can get the weekly updates. And then we'll be releasing two, I repeat two episodes every Tuesday between now and Christmas. So crime junkies. this is Dark arenas. The content of Dark arenas includes topics and subject matter that may not be suitable for all audiences.
Starting point is 00:01:55 The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the individuals participating in the podcast and do not represent those of audio chuck or its employees. Information discussed by the host in Interviewees includes content related to crimes against children, abuse, acts of terrorism and violence. Driving is something many of us have been doing for years, maybe even decades. It's motor memory. Turn the key, put it in gear, check your mirrors, reverse, pull forward. It's all very autopilot at this point. But imagine for a moment that you weren't just driving around yourself or even your kids
Starting point is 00:02:53 or friends. Imagine you were chauffeuring the President of the United States, the leader of the free world. Talk about pressure. It's like the ultimate driver's skill test every day all over the world. In today's episode of Dark arenas, we're going behind the veil into the world of what it's like to work protective detail for the president of the United States, which includes driving the presidential limousine, whenever and wherever you're called. It was a hot morning in Baltimore, Maryland, as I walked the two blocks from my hotel to a federal courthouse in the heart of downtown.
Starting point is 00:03:55 The government buildings towered above me like massive gray swords sticking right out of the ground. Sirens didn't stop whaling in the distance, indicating that city life problems were already bustling by 9 in the morning. There were also a lot of transient people and uniform police officers that I saw idling around the intersections, like surprisingly a lot of cops. I got the distinct feeling that downtown might not be the best place to be walking alone, even on a Monday morning. I made my journey quick and before I knew it, I'd pass through two layers of glass doors
Starting point is 00:04:31 into the lobby of the federal courthouse. Three elderly men in matching Navy sports coats met me next to metal detectors and foldable tables. All of the men weren't a day younger than 65, I'd say. Grandpa types for sure. And they seemed to take a lot of pride asking me who I was there to visit and if I had proper identification. They took my recording equipment and laptop
Starting point is 00:04:57 and guided me through the metal detectors. No threat detected. I was sent six floors up to the office of the United States Marshals. That's where Chief Deputy Sean Wolkopf, my interview, was waiting for me. Sean is a former United States Secret Service agent who protected President George W. Bush 43 and President Barack Obama from 2000 to 2010. Sean went to the Marshalls Force after he left the secret service. At the time of this episode's release, Sean is now retired from the Marshall Service
Starting point is 00:05:31 and works in the state of Maryland's judicial system. Before we get started with our interview, though, Sean walked me to his boss's office, the federally appointed Marshall himself. For 10 minutes, the group of us chatted about my work as a journalist and Sean's career. At one point, the tone changed in the room, and the Marshal mentioned that he was glad Sean was doing the interview that day, because he was tied up with the city of Baltimore. He said more than a dozen shootings
Starting point is 00:06:00 had occurred in the city just that morning, and he'd been called into an emergency meeting with Baltimore's mayor and police chief about the rash of recent gun violence. That explained a lot about the sirens I'd been hearing all morning, and the general over abundance of cops on a lot of the downtown streets. The Marshall was shocked when I told him I walked alone for two blocks to get to the interview. He assured me when I left, a deputy marshal would escort me back to my hotel. After we wrapped up with Sean's boss, he and I settled into his office, and I fired off my first of many questions,
Starting point is 00:06:37 which was how did he end up being a secret service agent to begin with? I was expecting to hear a bit more patriotic answer, but turns out Sean wasn't like all the other men and women who applied in the year 2000. I worked with a number of agents that actually had aspired to go to the Secret Service since their childhood. There were two or three guys that actually committed to going to the Secret Service when they were children and they saw the assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan. I wasn't one of those people. Sean was a Columbus Ohio police officer and a Dallas police SWAT team member before applying
Starting point is 00:07:17 to work for the Secret Service. When he decided to leave police work, he had a mentor tell him to apply to USS or the FBI if he wanted to make a decent living and still see action on the ground. So, he applied to both agencies and the Secret Service was the first to call with a job offer. After graduating from the Academy, he got right to work but he wasn't rubbing shoulders with the president quite yet.
Starting point is 00:07:43 My first assignment was in the Cincinnati field office in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sean worked mostly behind a desk investigating the secret services, real bread and butter, counterfeit money cases. Even though the notoriety of the secret service is founded in protection of presidents, the agency itself in 1865 was created for the investigation of counterfeit notes. Back in those days, money wasn't issued by the United States government, like it is today. It was actually issued by individual banks. So for example, it's a bank of America, M&T bank, they would issue their own money effectively. And counterfeit, because of that, counterfeiting was rampant.
Starting point is 00:08:28 Working the criminal cases, I anticipated that since it's financial crimes, that it would be kind of a like a white collar, bank fraud, sophisticated type of criminal. For the most part, my experience was that they had white collar crime committed by blue collar criminals. So the drug dealers and some of the street level criminals would effectively diversify and try to print counterfeit money and steal credit cards and try to get fake bank loans
Starting point is 00:09:00 and stuff like that on the side. So some of the same people that were trafficking drugs on the corner were also the same people that were trafficking drugs on the corner were also the same people that were trying to pass counterfeit notes. A lot of the time, those investigations were pretty run of the mill. People manufacturing terribly made copies of US currency, what's referred to as a Xerox job.
Starting point is 00:09:21 I've been involved in investigations that related to teenagers and an inkjet printer. Zerak's jobs are most common, but every now and then, Shawn and his colleagues would stumble on to a case that was next level, at least as far as counterfeiting goes. There are counterfeit currency rings that are perpetrated by rogue nation states and organized drug trafficking type organizations that do it on a much larger scale. There are what is referred to in the agency as the supernote. These are much more difficult counterfeit notes to detect those investigations are very high level. They impact the world economy in some regard. SuperNode, just saying the term out loud feels, I don't know, heavy hitting.
Starting point is 00:10:14 Essentially a supernote is a nearly perfect counterfeit US $100 bill that's been printed in such a way that it's identical to actual money. Business Insider magazine reported in 2017 that a supernote was found in a South Korean bank where it came from and just how many others like it were in circulation has never been determined. The United States Secret Service takes supernote cases extremely seriously for one very important reason, avoiding total economic collapse. Right now, the United States' currency circulates throughout the world. There are individual
Starting point is 00:10:55 nations that use the United States dollar as their nation's currency. The ability for consumers and nations to have confidence in our nation's currency is paramount to the economic stabilization of the world. When you're talking about super-node cases, rogue states and well organized, well-funded international drug trafficking organizations. Those types of investigations can do on for years. And if you can imagine the amount of printing that would happen and circulated globally, it takes a long time to collect every single piece of paper that was generated from those investigations.
Starting point is 00:11:41 As a matter of fact, in some cases, the prosecutions could have already taken place, yet there's still thousands of dollars of counterfeit notes that have yet to be recovered because they're sitting in a basement or a warehouse or in some kind of secure place that haven't made its way to circulation yet. To combat too many supernote cases from cropping up, the secret service relies on a variety of methods to deter counterfeiters, even the best of them. That comes down to making US currency distinct, and to do that, you need determination, and for lack of a better word, master manipulators running the federal printing press. The Bureau of Graving and Imprinting is the government agency that manufacturers are money and they do a remarkable job, frankly, in terms of adding security features, holograms, strips to help not only subject matter experts,
Starting point is 00:12:51 but regular people in identifying genuine currency from counterfeit. Anyone who's ever held a counterfeit piece of money can usually tell its fake, especially if it feels like computer paper. But for cases where counterfeiters go a step further and get much closer to the real thing, that's where Secret Service agents really get the chance to shine. One of the misnomers about Secret Service counterfeit investigations
Starting point is 00:13:19 are that agents are experts in identifying counterfeit. That's not true. What agents are experts in identifying counterfeit. That's not true. What agents are experts in is identifying legitimate currency. One of the ways agents are able to do that is by examining a bill's most important feature, its texture. The most difficult thing to be counterfeited is the paper that the notes are printed on. That paper is organically more like cloth. It's cotton, canvassum, and other materials, making it fundamentally distinguishable
Starting point is 00:13:54 from regular paper. This is why, if you put a dollar bill accidentally through the washing machine, comes out just fine. I challenge you to do the same with a sheet of paper and see what you find at the end of it. The most memorable counterfeiting case Sean worked was near the end of his time assigned to the Cincinnati Field Office. I had a drug trafficker that we worked with the DEA that was a long haul trucker. He was making runs hauling all kinds of elicit stuff to include drugs and counterfeit from California
Starting point is 00:14:28 into the greater Cincinnati, Ohio area. We became involved with the DEA on that case, and we actually got that defendant to flip and identify the source of the drugs that he was hauling, which was of interest to the DEA, and more importantly the source of the counterfeit that he had, which was important to us. Stopping this suspect was important because the bogus currency he was carrying could have financially victimized a lot of banks, retailers, and the general public.
Starting point is 00:15:06 It was over hundreds of thousands. So whether you're actually making bad money or just hauling it cross-country, the United States Secret Service isn't far behind you. At least that's what Sean says. It is a very difficult crime to do. It's a very difficult crime to do well. And that is simply because of the obstacles that have been placed in the path of would-be counterfeiters by the US government. After a few years of taking down tricky counterfeiters, Sean moved on from criminal investigations to a much more stressful role, protective detail. Any time that the president or vice president travels, either nationally or internationally,
Starting point is 00:15:50 there is a large footprint of manpower that goes to implement the security plans that are constructed around each of the visits. Sean explained that that footprint can be broken down into three rings of protection. First, there's the outer ring, which is made up of mostly federal local and state law enforcement partners. Now these people ensure the presidential motorcade
Starting point is 00:16:21 route is clear. The outer ring also sets up checkpoints, patrols the streets, and things like that. Second, there's the mid-layer ring. Now that's made up of secret service agents and military personnel who check things like the integrity of a building. If access points are vulnerable, if emergency alarm systems can be tampered with,
Starting point is 00:16:42 or if new construction is going to be a problem, etc. etc. The third ring, which is the inner ring, are the men and women who personally escort the president and the vice president. The inter-parameters made up of the presidential, vice presidential, a shift agents. They are the ones that you see on the stage. They are the ones that you see on the stage. They are the ones that you see working the rope line right next to the president around him.
Starting point is 00:17:10 They are the ones that drive the vehicles that are in the motorcade, and they are the ones that are constantly with the protecties at all times. This inner ring of secret service agents is on high alert at all times. This inner ring of Secret Service agents is on high alert at all times, especially if the president or vice president are on the move and out in public. The basic requirement of this assignment goes something like this, life or death. My Protect D or me end of story.
Starting point is 00:17:42 The president, the vice president, that represents a very significant target. That represents a very significant goal for members of rogue states, terrorist organizations, criminal enterprises, at taking a run at that type of figure. That is certainly the most important and prolific job function that the Secret Service does. And as such, because it gets so much scrutiny, world press wherever they go. And the office of the President is that, in my opinion, anyway, the highest
Starting point is 00:18:21 threat target in the world. That inherently brings a level of danger, seen or unseen because of that level of threat. Sean says the level of threat against the president or vice president at any given point in time is assessed to a fairly good extent. You just have to put the work in ahead of time to make sure that all bases are covered. For every site that the president or vice president goes, you have one person, one agent from
Starting point is 00:18:56 the shift that's assigned as that responsibility of that site, overall site. The most important part of protection is the advance word. Hands down. I know that that's not the things that movies are made about. That's not the exciting part of it. That's the more mundane checklist responsibilities that are had, but hands down, that's where protection is done in the advance stage. There's an old saying that we'd like to basically put the president in a ballistic glass case and wheel him around. Well, that's not possible. It doesn't make him relatable and it's not reasonable.
Starting point is 00:19:30 So we have to be able to make accommodations for the administration officials. The only way so much manpower can work like a well oil machine every time the president makes a move is through teamwork. every time the president makes a move is through teamwork. Teamwork for protecting the president's sake and ensuring your colleagues go home to their families each day. We depended on the guy next to you to do their job and in turn you did yours. And when you were doing in advance, essentially what you were doing
Starting point is 00:20:01 is you were not only protecting the president of the United States but you were protecting your partner, your friend. What I found really interesting is that Sean says protective detail is completely politically neutral. Now, it's kind of a wild notion. Considering politics is one of the most divisive subjects in America. But Sean honestly says when it comes down to protecting the President or Vice President, whether or not agents personally like, who won an election, doesn't even factor into the equation as to whether they'll fulfill their duty or not. He remembers specifically
Starting point is 00:20:38 during President Barack Obama's run for office, an eventual win in in 2008 that America was so divided politically and racially at that time. The Secret Service provided the Obama's with more security. They knew that protecting them was paramount. It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, changes come to America. A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A I know that a year before he became the nominee, we stood up a protective detail on him before that, and that was something that had not been previously done. There's not a margin of failure that you can have in that particular business,
Starting point is 00:21:33 and it wasn't lost on us that the historical significance of having the first African-American president, and the level of scrutiny that was upon us at that point to not just protect him and his family's lives, but also part of our responsibilities to protect, protecting from embarrassment. The Secret Service are sworn guardians for whomever the American people select
Starting point is 00:21:58 as president or vice president, period. We shoulder this responsibility regardless of politics, regardless of anything else. We cared not for the political affiliation of our protectee. We did not, that didn't factor into anything whatsoever. We saw this as almost like a calling, that the protection that we're going to provide is a sacred duty, and we were going to provide is a sacred duty and
Starting point is 00:22:25 We were going to accomplish it at all costs And there's no position where the stakes and the costs are greater than behind the wheel of the vehicle That's transporting possibly the most precious cargo in the world You're out in public and frankly when a protect ease is in a motorcade and moving, they're the most form. One of the things that I did for 16, 18 months with the Secret Service is that I did the motorcade advances and that has a lot of moving parts because you'll roll through intersections and different jurisdictions and all of those external partners need to be brought in. So if you roll through the city into the county into another city, you know, into the state,
Starting point is 00:23:15 you have to have all these players at the table and you're going to need resources from all of them. During the time that Sean worked in the Secret Services Transportation Division, he said he had a blast, a blast with a lot of pressure on him, but a blast nonetheless. He drove the armored limo for President Bush 43 and First Lady Laura Bush. The Transportation Division folks are not just your average drivers either.
Starting point is 00:23:41 These men and women fly all over the world, never lose sight of the motorcade vehicles, and have to know every turn they're going to make in foreign countries well ahead of time. When you're talking about motorcade routes, particularly in cities that you've and countries that you've never been to before, with streets that may not have signs on them, it was our responsibility to develop six motorcade routes from every site that the president was scheduled to visit. And you had to have intimate familiarity with that. The hard cars, the armored
Starting point is 00:24:15 limousines themselves, that is something that we travel all over the world with those cars. When we would travel with them, we would also have to take with us a master mechanic, because those cars are hand built, and you can't just take them to a regular GM dealership to have the kind of work. So we would have to actually travel with this guy and his significant robust set of tools
Starting point is 00:24:41 for encountering any of the catastrophic events that you would have mechanically in order for the president to stay on scale. When those vehicles arrive they have to be stored in a secure location. You can't just leave them parked out in front of the hotel. They have to be posted. You have to have somebody with those cars 24-7. They have to be out of the sunlight, out of public view. So there's a heavy footprint that comes with that position. Driving the limousines requires advanced experience as a driver. You have to be able to maneuver something that's meant to literally stop bullets and bombs. Particularly with those armored limousines, they do not drive like regular Hyundai Sedans.
Starting point is 00:25:27 The glass is sometimes difficult to see out of. The A-pillar was about, I don't know, two feet thick, so trying to see around turns and stuff like that was difficult. In addition to driving, you're also being watched by everyone, literally in the world. And if you slip up, the bad optics don't just reflect on you. They reflect directly on the office of the president and the American nation. Each of the agents took a lot of pride in driving the presidential limousine. The world's watching.
Starting point is 00:26:01 If you stop the car in the wrong place and embarrass the president, because you miss the red carpet and, you know, the press picks up on it, we take a lot of pride and not doing that. Aside from embarrassment, the greater concern, of course, for Secret Service agents is the motorcade being ambushed. And worst case scenario, your protectee is kidnapped or killed. That's DefCon 5, nuclear outcome, total failure, whatever you want to call it, it's bad.
Starting point is 00:26:31 Sean found himself facing that potential scenario on foreign soil in 2007. I was doing a motorcade advance for First Lady Laura Bush. 2007, Molly West Africa. We're conducting a visit there. The nation also had a concurrent visit from Momar Kedafi. His motorcade and his protective detail was taking up a lot of the limited resources
Starting point is 00:26:58 that the government there had to offer. They were, I guess, distracted with Colonel Kadoffi. Sean thought that's not the worst thing in the world. Dignitaries visit countries simultaneously all the time. It wasn't awesome that resources in Mollie were slim, but for the most part, he felt the secret service could do their job to protect first lady Laura Bush efficiently.
Starting point is 00:27:22 That is, until he got some disturbing news. The day of the visit, the lead advance comes to me. He looks very worried, which gave me a little bit of concern. And he expressed to me that they had received adverse intelligence and they were fairly confident that the legitimacy of the intelligence and they had received an unconventional manner. It couldn't specifically be shared with me but what he was able to provide is that it seemed like there was a significant threat and a threat was at the airport and we have a problem. If you have an adverse threat, there's no trip.
Starting point is 00:28:11 Why would you come? Well, I was told that the trip was happening anyway and it was up to me to figure out how to be able to implement security for this event. The next few hours of Sean's life got very complicated and chaotic. He had to figure out how to protect the first lady with little to no resources in the face of information telling him her life could be in serious danger. Thankfully, Sean thought quick and wrangled
Starting point is 00:28:42 some American special forces squadrons, who he learned were just randomly stationed in Mali that week. We had a couple of units of Green Berets that were able to supplement our security plan. In addition, I believe that I was successful at lobbying the Malaysian government to pull some of the resources away from Kadafi and provide us additional protection along our motorcade routes at our airport and a different security concerns along the way. At the end of the day we had a very successful visit. Our police and military partners did a remarkable job at securing our route.
Starting point is 00:29:21 All's well that ends well. Kind of. Remember the intelligence about a real threat? Turned out that was definitely real. After wheels up when the first lady was going on to the next leg of her trip there actually was an assassination attempt on the president of the Ivory Coast which is located right next door to Molly and it occurred at the airport. With a story like that, there's no doubt working for the Secret Service comes with intensity and excitement. You travel all over the world and get to do and see some amazing things. But Sean realized that the job has a shelf life. It has to. He says
Starting point is 00:30:07 there's no way a person can fire on all cylinders like that for decades and decades. So he decided to retire in 2010 after 10 years of service and one of the most prolific decades of America's war on terror in world history. My wife didn't sign up for any of it. I neither did my two sons. It's too impactful and difficult of a job, too stressful to do that for an extended period of time. I spent six years doing protection for the president. I spent five years with George W. Bush and one year with President Obama.
Starting point is 00:30:46 And I can tell you that that position goes with the office. And oftentimes that the needs of the White House are to travel the world. That can be quite taxing on a family. So that was actually one of the considerations that why I decided to leave the agency. I knew when I took that position that there was going to be travel involved. I knew that. There are trade-offs that come with the job,
Starting point is 00:31:21 Sean decided for him had to come to an end. I grew up in a single parent household. I didn't want my sons to continue to grow up in a single parent household. My older son's birthday coincided with the United Nations every year and I never was at his birthday. And you know I spent many a Christmas and New Year's at the President's Ranch in Waco. Again it wasn't something that my family had signed up for, and I made the difficult decision to pick a life over a career. A life over a career. It's funny Sean put it that way, because in my mind, he's lived more of a life than probably most people. And not only that, he's likely saved a lot of lives during his time with the Secret Service.
Starting point is 00:32:09 I couldn't stop thinking about that as we rode the elevator down to the Federal Port House lobby. Sean gave me a firm handshake when I left, and made sure I got that protective escort back to my hotel. Sean followed through. He assessed a real threat that I could be in danger walking alone. And just like he'd done so many times before with presidents and first ladies, he made sure I had a protective detail, maybe with just a bit less fanfare. This episode of Dark arenas was written and produced by Delia DeAmbra, with writing assistance from executive producer Ashley Flowers. You can find pictures and source material for this episode on our website
Starting point is 00:32:58 Dark Arena's is an audio chuck original show. So what do you think chuck? Do you approve? Oh! Make sure to follow Dark arenas on Apple Podcasts Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts to listen to another two episodes right now. And then you get two more episodes every Tuesday between now and Christmas.
Starting point is 00:33:18 episodes every Tuesday between now and Christmas.

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