Taking Down The Outfit: An Interview With FBI Special Agent Elaine Smith

An Interview With FBI Special Agent Elaine Smith


Ladies and gentlemen, welcome once again to my favourite section on NCS, the interview section. However, before I begin I would like to give a massive NCS shout out to the crew over at Say hello to the bad guy one of the best podcasts out there and available on Anchor plus all other podcast platforms.

In 1983, following a failed attempt on his life a mob associate decided to turn government witness. He would only speak to one Agent. The Special Agent who had initially arrested him –  an event that led to the attempt on his life – FBI Special Agent Elaine Smith.

When you think of Japan and organized crime I’d not be surprised if you immediately thought of the Japanese Yakuza. However, the former law-abiding Japanese-American Ken Eto – aka ‘Tokyo Joe’, born in California 1919 –  would eventually ply newly gained skills for La Cosa Nostra, specifically ‘The Chicago Outfit.’ These skills Eto developed and honed while interred for two years in an American Detention Camp during World War II. (see figure 1)

It is with my delight and honor; I have to also admit at being totally blown away to welcome to the NCS hot seat, my next guest. None other than former FBI Special Agent Elaine Smith.

But! First, a little background.

Over the years, Eto’s relationship with the Outfit blossomed. It would not be a rare occurrence to see him sitting and chatting with his superiors. In fact, he was the “highest-ranking and only Asian-American mob associate in the country.” Something that would have been unheard of under Vito Genovese and his stewardship of the Genovese organized crime family based in Greenwich Village, New York. The FBI believed that the Japanese Eto was held in the same regard by the Outfit as Jewish Meyer Lansky was by Charlie’ Lucky Luciano’s original Luciano family – which later (1957) became the Genovese family – and the newly formed Commission.

However, in 1983, Eto’s relationship with the Outfit began to deteriorate. Outfit Boss Vincent Solano, who was worried that Eto had turned government informant following his arrest that year for his involvement in a numbers racket, ordered a hit on Eto. Eto was shot three times in the head by two gunmen, Jasper Campise and John Gattuso, a deputy sheriff, but Eto miraculously survived the hit.

According to the then chief of the Cook County sheriff’s office, Arthur Bilek, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2012

“One put the gun right against Eto’s head, pulled the trigger, and the bullet hit the skull, ricocheted under the flesh, ran all around his head. There were three shots, and with blood all over, they thought he was a goner, so they left. But he wasn’t dead. He was alive. And later, he testified on the Outfit.”

The two hitmen were subsequently found dead. They had been missing for a few days. On July 14, 1983, both were found garroted and stabbed in a way that inflicted a great deal of pain.

To find out more about this remarkable story, you must read Elaine’s book A Gun in my Gucci, which was named one of the Best True Crime Books curated by Amazon Book Review Editor, Chris Schluep.

NCS (David): Elaine, thank you so much for joining us at the National Crime Syndicate, no doubt a greeting as a former FBI Special Agent you would have never expected? Of course, the NCS is also synonymous with Chicago through former Outfit boss and mentor to Al Capone, Johnny Torrio. A term is only synonymous if the NCS was Torrio’s idea discussed and formed in Atlantic City during a meeting of the Mob’s big chiefs in May 1929.

I admitted in my introduction that I’m totally blown away by this opportunity, and I am so for several reasons. A former prisoner in the UK interviewing a former Special Agent of the FBI is a reason on its own. As I was reading your website, I saw that before becoming an Agent of the FBI in the Chicago office, you were not only a teacher, but you had begun studying for a Master of the Arts in Special Education. Part of your studies focused on the teaching of reading, which is something that I am a huge advocate of myself. I firmly believe that reading opens a pathway of discovery like no other medium. What, Elaine, was your influence behind writing the book and why, in your words, should people read, or learn to read?

Elaine: As you believe in reading, I also understood reading to be the gateway to learning and success. My first teaching position was at a Chicago Public School (CPS) on Chicago’s west side. I had 44 students in my 4th-grade class, which I taught in a mobile classroom in the school playground. Even before I could get my students to begin learning, I had to spend an extraordinary amount of time slowly reading the assignments with them. The few good readers did well, and the majority who did not read well had a difficult time keeping up. When you don’t do well in school, you become not interested and fall behind.

 

NCS (David): Your husband, Tom, became an Agent ten years before you joined in June 1979, and you credit him with urging you to join. Were you joining a constant topic of conversation over the dinner table in the Smith household, or was it that you wanted a new challenge after 11 years as a teacher?

Elaine: After J. Edgar Hoover died in May of 1972, Tom asked me if I would be interested in being an agent. I really hadn’t thought about it, and I said no, I wasn’t interested. He said I would be a good agent. Tom and I knew each other from high school and went to college together and really knew each other. He said that he would have never asked me if he didn’t think I could do the job. There were two reasons I applied to be an agent, the first was that at my school I was told in the summer that they were going to reduce the reading program the next year. I would be part-time, and the second I was beginning to be somewhat jealous that at parties Tom would have all our friends and strangers ask him about what he was doing and plead for some exciting stories about the life of an FBI agent. I had been running and exercising and felt that I could physically compete and decided to apply.

 

NCS (David): Your early days in the FBI couldn’t exactly be described as glamorous work as you began life in the FBI’s Chicago organized crime unit as a title 3 Agent. I would describe a title 3 Agent as the one we see in documentaries, television programmes and films sitting in the back of a van or some dingy room in a nondescript building with the headphones on listening in on wiretapped telephone conversations. However, you were only the second woman in the history of the Chicago FBI to have worked organized crime in what clearly was a male-dominated environment. How difficult for you was it in the early days? I mean, it was only following Hoover’s death that women were accepted into the FBI, I believe? Also, Elaine, what can you tell us please about the life of a title 3 Agent?

Elaine: I had an advantage over most of the women who came into the FBI, as I had Tom to talk to and give advice about the work environment. However, it was hard for me to ask him most of the time as I wanted to do everything on my own, but he was a great resource for me early on and saved me a lot of aggravation at the office. Being assigned to a monitor wire is not as simple or as boring as some people think. One must be attentive and listen not just for significant information, but also we have to minimize, which means that if the subjects are talking about everyday things was have to turn off the recording, and then when a significant conversation begins again, turn it on again. Some subjects would have their wives start a call and talk for five or more minutes and then hand the phone to their husbands, and they would talk mob business. You had to have a clear mind and be ready when the call started, take notes, and always be ready to call out agents if something bad was going to happen as a home invasion, a robbery, or a payoffIt was often slow, but you always had to be ready to respond.

 

NCS (David):  I’ve always considered Valachi, in 1963 at the McClellan hearings, as more of a spokesperson for what the FBI already knew following the development of the Top Hoodlum Programme formed by Hoover in 1954 and then the events following the doomed national La Cosa Nostra meeting of 1957 at Apalachin, New York. A statement I’d not expect you to answer. However, would you say that Eto was of more importance as an informant to the FBI than Valachi ever was?

Elaine: I can’t say whether Joe was more important than Valachi; however, Eto was what I and others in the FBI contend, that he was more of the Rosetta Stone that deciphered the Chicago mob as well as the Las Vegas and Kansas City OC organizations. Eto had a photographic memory and knew the inner workings of the organizations and hierarchy of the organizations. For over two years, I and my partner Mark debriefed Joe at neutral sites about the organized crime structure, the members’ positions, and how they fit into the running of the Mob’s various sections. I would receive questions from agents, federal prosecutors, and sometimes local law enforcement about OC in their jurisdictions. What made Eto a valuable asset was not only his detailed knowledge of the workings of OC, but he never in the 20 years that I knew him did he ever give me false information or changed his story. He was, in essence, the perfect source, never a problem, and always truthful. At the end of my book, I list the number of OC members he assisted in sending to jail or getting more time to serve because of his testimony. With Joe’s debriefings, we were able to provide agents with two novel-sized editions of the workings of the Mob, which agents used in their ongoing investigations. In 1998 the FBI case agent in the Family Secrets trial in Chicago called me and said that Eto’s intelligence was an instrumental piece in getting the 14 guilty verdicts which literally decimated the Chicago mob.

 

NCS (David):  I mentioned in a previous question about you being only the second woman in the history of the Chicago FBI to have worked organized crime, but in 1987 you became the first female supervisor in the history of the Chicago FBI and only the second supervisor in America to be promoted in the field. Were all these achievements you were gaining something you were aware of at the time or something you appreciate now? Or even more now if you were aware at the time?

Elaine: Tom would tell me of some of the things I was accomplishing, but I was like, so what. It was always in my mind to keep going forward doing your work, which became even more intense when you were supervising a squad of 35 agents and support personnel. It’s almost as if you are in a sporting event, and the game is going on, and you know you can’t sit back and admire a particularly great play because you’re still playing the game. Somehow, I may think I’m still playing that game, and it’s not quite over.

The highest compliment I ever received was from Federal Judge Posner in the Southern District of New York. He said, “If I were ever to go to trial with an FBI agent, you would be the one I would choose.” I had been in his Court for more than three months, trying six mob stockbrokers.

What he said was an amazing professional achievement.

NCS (David):  You gained many more notable achievements over your time before retiring from the FBI in 2002. In 2000, you were named ‘Leader of the Year’ by the Federal Reserve Bank after becoming an expert in money laundering and white-collar crime. Then the events of September 11, 2001, saw you in charge of the investigation into the financial backgrounds of the 19 terrorists involved in the sad and tragic events of that fateful day in the United States of America. What for you, Elaine, would you say is your biggest achievement? In your personal life as well as professional.

Elaine: In my personal life, my finest achievement was that even if I didn’t do well or felt I wasn’t making my best effort, I kept going. In my first semester at Illinois, I was dropped for not having a high enough grade average. I had taken a course at a junior college before entering the U of I and dropped it without officially canceling the course, the JC sent a failing grade, and with other not so good grades I was dropped. I petitioned back in and picked myself up academically, graduating in 3 ½ years. After graduating, the only job I could get in January was at the inner-city school on Chicago’s west side. I took it, and it was tough every day, mentally and physically, but I did it. Tom was even somewhat timid to go to my school as it was in a very tough and violent neighborhood. So, in my personal life, just not giving up and wanting to succeed.

In my professional life, I still wonder if it was me or just a little luck that I was able to finagle myself to the OC squad, get an old dog case (Eto), have a source call the office, turn the source and end up arresting Joe. Then the Mob attempts to kill Joe and fails. He asks for me, and I became a star. There was a good deal of investigative work done, but I always think, what if I don’t get assigned the Eto case, the source doesn’t contact me, and Joe doesn’t survive the hit? Tom says that the Eto case was an Old Dog for almost 30 years, I turned the source, made the case, Joe survived the hit and I and did a hell of a lot of work to make it happen. I believe Tom.

 

NCS (David): So, what’s next for former FBI Special Agent Elaine Smith, any more books in the pipeline?

Elaine: Although I have a hard time, someone close to me wants me to do a book of short stories on my other work in the FBI. He already has a number of them, to which he was a personal witness. I’m thinking about it.

 

NCS (David):  Elaine, it has been an absolute pleasure interviewing you today. If I may, I would like to bring our interview to a close with a few either/or questions. Autumn/Spring/Winter or Summer?

Elaine: Spring, the cold is leaving, the days are getting longer and the flowers, always the flowers.

NCS (David): Tea or Coffee?

Elaine: Coffee, a Nespresso latte with 2 Truvias. When I’m in the UK (Especially Kent), I drink English breakfast tea in the afternoon with raspberry scones and heavy cream, of course.

 

NCS (David): Bit of a cheeky one, FBI or CIA?

Elaine: FBI. The CIA can be a little abstract, and they don’t have a giant book of legal statutes to guide them. The FBI has all kinds of violations, so if you may not like what you are doing, you can move to another squad and do different work.

 

NCS (David): Books, hard copy, or electronic copy?

Elaine: Electronic. I can change the font size, read in bed with the lights off, flip the pages with a finger, and keep a hundred books on a little iPad.

 

NCS (David):  Last two, slightly different, who is your favorite author? And what is your favorite book?

Elaine: Favorite author is Paul Theroux, and my favorite book is his, Mosquito Coast.

NCS (David): Thank you again, Elaine, and I look forward to seeing what happens next in the already incredible life you have lived.


Image sources

Fig. 1 https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=3099&mtch=73&tf=F&q=Eto&bc=&sort=30012%20desc&rpp=10&pg=3&rid=5628&rlst=5640,5638,5600,5651,5647,5637,5658,5598,5628,5657. Accessed 12/08/20.

References

https://www.aguninmygucci.com/. Accessed 11/08/20.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2012-07-15-ct-met-kass-0715-20120715-story.html. Accessed 12/08/20.

 

David Breakspear