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Flight 93 probe caps FBI career

Evidence team chief says job was dirty, cold, hot and hard

Sunday, February 17, 2002

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There are two kinds of people in the world, says Bob Craig.

Bob Craig, retired head of the Pittsburgh FBI's evidence response team, in front of the Federal Courthouse on Grant Street. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

One sees catastrophe and runs the other way, an entirely natural response.

The other is drawn to the scene like a moth to a candle.

Craig is the moth.

He describes himself as "the small brain that could," just an average boy from Swissvale, but as the recently retired head of the Pittsburgh FBI's evidence response team, his career has intersected some of the most notorious crimes of the past decade:

Atrocities in war-ravaged Kosovo, the largest homicide investigation in FBI history.

The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, at the time the worst domestic terrorism case in the United States.

The Sept. 11 crash of hijacked Flight 93 in Somerset County, one chapter of the largest criminal act ever on American soil.

Craig, 57, has been there to dig in the dirt, to sift through the rubble, to literally pick up the pieces as a self-described "rakes-and-shovels guy."

"There's no glamour in doing this stuff," he said. "It's hot. It's nasty. It's backbreaking work. There's no glory until you come home and it's all done."

A laconic sort who looks a bit like Jack Nicholson, Craig has no pretensions, and certainly none of the arrogance for which the FBI has been criticized.

Among the snippets of in-the-field wisdom he calls "Craig's rules of life," for example, is his advice to young agents not to wear those jackets with "FBI" emblazoned on the back so as not to antagonize anyone.

"I don't want to see that stuff at a scene," he said. "It's better if we just show up, do what we do and get out of town."

After 30 years in the FBI, it was fitting that he capped his career coordinating the recovery effort of Flight 93.

He knew the drill because of his experience at the crash of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell in 1994. There, the FBI played a supporting role. Flight 93 was a crime scene, so the FBI was in charge. And Craig was one of the leaders, although that's a role he consistently downplays.

"The only authority I have in the FBI is inside that yellow tape," he said. "And the only way I get that is by having been inside that tape hundreds of times."

He can't talk about what agents found in Stoneycreek, but it's obvious from his scrapbook photos that the work was meticulous and exhausting.

As always, Craig set aside his emotions to focus on the details of mapping the site, taking photos, excavating the land and gathering human body parts in plastic bins.

"You have to come to the realization [as an agent] that we go to some horrible places and do horrible things," he said. "I'm not a block of granite. If it doesn't bother you, you should find another line of work. But on the other hand, you have to stay in control."

Never give up

Craig started that day waiting for a plumber to arrive at his house in O'Hara and watching Don Imus on TV. His wife, Tina, an FBI computer specialist, was at work.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, he called FBI headquarters and told his colleagues to turn on the TVs because "something's happening." When the second plane hit, he knew instantly terrorists were at work. He grabbed a bag and headed to the office. There, agents shared their overwhelming rage.

"I was incredibly angry," he said. "I wanted to kill someone. It got to the point where I said, 'I can't be standing here watching this on TV.' When the buildings came down, there was an audible groan in the office. But we knew we had a lot to do. You force yourself to concentrate. Once I started from the office to drive out there, I put that [emotional] baggage away in my back pocket. I turned the radio off. It was time to pay attention to the job."

During the weeks at the site, Craig never allowed himself to think of the people on that plane. He read about the technical aspects of the crash, but skipped over the names and faces of the victims whose remains investigators picked up off the ground.

"He never looks at the personal things," said Andrea Dammann, another evidence team leader in the Pittsburgh office. "That's his mechanism. Everyone has a different way of dealing with it."

Craig earned his reputation as the leading evidence specialist in Western Pennsylvania because of his refusal to cut corners. One of his "rules of life" is simply to never give up.

"If it takes 10 hours to search a car," he said, "then it takes 10 hours to search a car."

Retired agent Larry Likar, a former supervisor in the Pittsburgh office, says forensics isn't for everyone. Combing a crime scene is something like working on an archeological site. Likar said he tried that once at a dinosaur dig in Montana and got bored stiff after two hours.

"A lot of guys can't do work like this," he said. "It's too tedious. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in chemistry, but what it takes is attention to detail. Evidence response is filthy, it's often hot or cold, and it's often disgusting. Whenever something bad happened, the first guy I thought about was Craig."

The FBI's expertise in gathering evidence has become increasingly refined over the years.

After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, investigators used sifting devices to extract clues from debris in the parking garage that led to the terrorists. Agents probing the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, built much of the case from a tiny piece of circuit board found among the wreckage.

At Oklahoma City in 1995, the FBI dug through three tons of evidence to find the microscopic bit of residue that linked Timothy McVeigh to the rental truck he drove to transport the explosive materials.

Craig was part of that effort; among his scrapbook pictures is one of him standing in front of a huge pile of debris from the site.

"I was just a laborer there," he said. "That was the most physically demanding job."

The most challenging case undoubtedly was Kosovo in 1999. His Pittsburgh team of six agents and two photographers joined a massive effort to examine massacre sites in the former Yugoslavia in preparation for prosecuting Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes.

With gunfire crackling in the hills around them, the team sifted through homes where roving bands of Serbs had gunned down helpless civilians with AK-47s. In one house, 21 people had been herded together and shot. The youngest documented victim was 5.

One of Craig's photos from that house shows him in fatigues, on hands and knees, carefully picking up pieces of remains and placing them on a plate next to him. He remembers finding a woman's dentures and her earrings, the personal items of a life lived and snuffed out with a burst of gunfire. But he didn't think of it that way at the time.

"You accept it for what it is," he said. "It's people gone mad. This was cold-blooded, just thousands of people across the country lined up and killed. They came through these places in waves and killed everyone they saw."

Milosevic went on trial last week.

"I'm going to pay attention to that," Craig said. "They say the trial could last two years."

Learning the ropes

Like many federal agents in Pittsburgh, Craig put in time elsewhere but returned to his roots. After graduating from Duquesne University in 1967, he served in the Air Force on a missile base in Arkansas. But he was bored. In 1970, Congress passed legislation to tackle the Mafia and authorized the hiring of 1,000 FBI agents. Craig became one of those in 1971.

He spent a year in Greenwood, S.C., where he got the bug for gathering evidence chasing after a burglary ring. From there, he moved to Bridgeport, Conn., before coming back to Pittsburgh in 1978. He spent the next dozen years working organized crime and drug cases, all the while building up an expertise in physical evidence.

When Louis Freeh became FBI director in 1993, he wanted every field office to have its own evidence response team. The Pittsburgh unit was created in 1994 with Craig at the helm and got an immediate baptism when USAir Flight 427 went down.

The Pittsburgh office now has three evidence teams of eight members each, including a unit operating out of the resident office in Charleston, W.Va.

Despite the bureau's reputation for whiz-bang gadgetry, much evidence is still found through old-fashioned doggedness.

Craig's team earned its stripes investigating a string of murders in the mid-1990s. One that stands out is the killing of 7-year-old Jessica Newell, the case Craig says "got us to Kosovo."

In 1997, Jessica's body was found on a mountainside near Martinsburg, W.Va. Suspicion centered on Michael Newell, Jessica's uncle.

An old logging trail led up the mountain. Craig figured that whoever killed Jessica had to have driven up that road and might have discarded something after leaving the scene. He sent two agents to scour the road and the woods.

A mile and a half from the body, they found a plastic bag in the woods containing a child's shoe, a sock, an empty pack of cigarettes, a sheet from a bed and some baseball cards.

Newell's fingerprints were on the pack of cigarettes. Fibers from the shoe and sock matched those from the carpet of his car.

He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Craig has worked so many scenes of violent death that he can seem detached from the human element of these crimes. But he's a family man, a husband and the father of grown children, and there were times when the hurt wormed its way in and took hold.

"You try not to let it in," he said. "But, eventually, it's going to get in."

After Eric J. Lyons kidnapped and raped an 8-year-old girl in Erie last year, Craig traveled to Erie three times to help collect evidence. Left for dead near a trucking company parking lot, the child was saved only after a driver making a delivery heard her cries.

Craig was driving home after one of those trips, hauling the FBI evidence trailer, when it all suddenly hit him.

For 30 minutes on Interstate 79, he cried for that little girl.

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