A dramatic story about an FBI investigation involving a notorious and brilliant scam artist.
During his tenure at the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover was never big on undercover work, so the agency avoided such operations. However, in the late 1970s, an opportunity arose to take on a significant case and to break new ground by using a hidden wire. Agent Jack Brennan, whose grandfather and father both worked for the FBI, had a “sunny, freewheeling disposition.” His partner, James Wedick Jr., was “pure kinetic energy, a vivacious, speed-talking New Yorker.” Both were smart and ambitious. In 1977, at the Thunderbird Motel outside Minneapolis, they met Phil Kitzer for the first time thanks to an inside source. For 15 years, shrewd, confident Kitzer had been swindling banks, “real estate developers, entrepreneurs and everyday investors out of countless millions of dollars.” How he did it and how he was finally caught by Brennan and Wedick is the subject of journalist Howard’s (Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic, 2010) true-crime adventure. The agents had to earn Kitzer’s trust in order for the sting to work. Gradually, they did, and he took them under his wing. Little by little, over the next two years, he involved them in his numerous scams. The agents were able to create a world surrounding Kitzer’s world, and he didn’t see it. Howard follows the agents as they zigzag around the world observing Kitzer in action. Besides being constantly in fear and on edge, they also had to deal with the FBI’s burdensome bureaucracy, skeptical superiors, and battles to get the financing they needed. An elaborate caper-and-sting story like this, filled with deception, chicanery, and subterfuge, should be a page-turning thrill. Unfortunately, Howard’s prose is lackluster and sometimes tepid, resulting in a book that has Ocean’s Eleven written all over it but comes out Dragnet lite.
An uneven treatment of an intriguing subject.