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Newsmaker: Jack Shea / FBI agent on mission to punish terrorists

Monday, October 29, 2001

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jack Shea, special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh office, is working on the promise of a lifetime.

Shea, 55, has pledged that the still-living terrorists who helped plan the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 will be caught and punished. The jet crashed Sept. 11 in Somerset County, killing the four hijackers and 40 passengers and crew members.

"We had the opportunity at the crash site to talk to a number of the relatives," Shea said last week. "You had to be moved by the tremendous impact this had on so many families. One of the things I promised them was that anybody involved would be brought to justice."

Jack Shea

Date of birth: July 26,1946

Place of birth: Cambridge, Mass.

In the news: Shea, special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh office, says the case of United Airlines Flight 93 will not be finished until those who aided the hijackers are caught.

Quote: "There's no place these people can hide where we won't find them."

Education: Bachelor's degree in English from Boston College; certificate in accounting from Bentley College, Waltham, Mass.

Family: He and his wife, Fran, have two children, son Tom, 26, and daughter Chris, 24.


The September terrorist assaults have touched off the largest criminal investigation in FBI history. Some 5,000 agents and 3,000 support employees are working on the Pennsylvania crash and the attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

For bureau employees, the thrust of their everyday duties has shifted because of one dark day in history. Resources that used to be poured into cases on drugs, fugitives, bank robberies and white-collar crime have been redirected. Finding those who abetted the terrorists has taken priority.

"All 56 FBI field offices have been affected," Shea said. "What really has changed is a recognition on everybody's part: Terrorism is no longer something that happens only in foreign countries."

Shea took an unorthodox path to his job as a crime fighter.

He grew up in the Boston area loving books, especially the novels of William Faulkner. His first job in adulthood was teaching literature and grammar to junior high and high school students.

Shea spent six years as an English teacher, but he had a plan for a dramatic career change.

The son of a policeman who patrolled the Boston suburb of Belmont, Shea had always toyed with the idea of working in law enforcement. He could have entered a police academy, but he figured that an ability to crunch numbers would give him the credentials he would need to break into the FBI.

So while colleagues were working toward master's degrees to upgrade their teaching skills and fatten their paychecks with the school district, he enrolled in accounting school.

His instincts were on target. The bureau hired him as an agent in 1977, in part because of his expertise in accounting. Shea's first investigations involved complex, white-collar cases of theft and fraud.

Before long his interests and duties expanded.

He worked on counterterrorism matters as far back as 1983. The emphasis for him in those days was hostage rescue.

As the years rolled along, Shea moved to leadership jobs in the bureau. He was supervisory agent for the State College and Williamsport offices, which covered 17 counties in Central Pennsylvania. Then he landed an assignment as the No. 2 agent in the FBI's Albany, N.Y., office.

Shea was transferred to Pittsburgh two years ago as the special agent in charge.

By design, he has kept a low profile, calling attention to himself only because of speech still thick with a Boston accent. But the events of Sept. 11 have pushed him into the news.

Along with the Somerset County coroner, Shea and his agents were key investigators in the United crash.

An insurrection by hijacked passengers likely played a part in the plane plunging into a reclaimed strip mine before it could hit a city target. Everybody aboard died instantly.

Shea said the largest piece of wreckage measured 9 feet by 7 feet. A few papers from the aircraft, perhaps the contents of briefcases, were found seven miles from the crash site.

But, for the most part, the clues of destruction were confined to the rural patch of land where the plane went down.

Exactly what happened on the plane will always be a mystery, but Shea took the deaths of innocent passengers personally.

He said his meetings with family members of victims were wrenching.

He has just two years until mandatory retirement from the FBI at age 57, but he promised relatives that the case will be cracked.

Since the September attacks, the federal government has tightened airport security, created a new domestic bureaucracy to protect the country from terrorists and scrambled to redirect the work of its established law enforcement agencies.

Shea dismisses the criticism that the U.S. government was asleep until the carnage caused by hijacked planes.

"With the level of openness we have in our country, there is some exposure, some vulnerability, that comes with that," he said.

As with all FBI agents, he could be subject to transfer at just about any time. His hope is to finish his career in Pittsburgh. He likes the city.

Beyond that, he said, he has unfinished business and will until the case of Flight 93 ends with convictions.

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