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Setting Off FBI Alarms

May 15, 1988|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

WASHINGTON — The telephone rang in my hotel room.

"Report to FBI headquarters--the E Street entrance--at 2:15 p.m.," a low voice said. "They have your name."

I did as I was told, without a moment to spare. Behind the glass doors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation a guard took my purse, which was smaller than a suitcase, and began riffling through its contents: lipsticks that could be microfilm cameras, notes that could be in code, a deck of marked cards I'd just bought at a magic shop, my tape recorder.

The guard shook his head and seemed grateful to pull out his hand.

Setting Off Alarms

I gave my name to his cohort, who matched it to a computer printout. Then I walked through security gates. An alarm screamed.

"Take off your bracelet," the guard said, pointing to my wide ivory bangle.

"It's plastic," I reassured him.

"Plastic can be treacherous," he said. "Now walk through." The alarm screamed again.

I stepped back to the desk and removed my rings, my watch, the ceramic and gold stick pin from the American Craft Museum in New York and finally, my shoes, with their small metal buckles.

The alarm was as loud as ever.

"Are you wearing a belt?" an agent asked.

"No," I said confidently, and opened my suit jacket. "I mean 'yes.' I forgot. I just added it at the last minute. It doesn't go with this outfit."

Nervous Laughter

I heard a nervous laugh, which turned out to be my own. Having stripped off my belt with its phony gold buckle, I walked through security in peace.

Feeling pink-cheeked and foolish, I grabbed my accessories and fled to catch up with my tour.

Free tours of FBI headquarters are offered daily, Monday through Friday; lines form at 9 a.m. My schedule was tight, so I had phoned a friend in a congressman's office to arrange a "by appointment" tour.

Twenty of us trailed a guide who was straight of posture and straight of talk. He would never have made the merry ranks at Disneyland. The only hint of a smile came as we faced the mug shots of the current Most Wanted List.

"How does the FBI pick the top 10?" a woman asked.

"There is, I believe, a committee," our guide replied.

Since the Most Wanted List was established, more than 350 of its 416 criminals have been captured. And not just by FBI investigations.

"Ordinary citizens have figured in more than 100 of the arrests," the guide said. "In fact, two captures were the direct results of tips from people on this tour. People like you, who say, 'Hey, I know that guy.' "

No Familiar Faces

We all stepped closer to study the lineup, but no face was familiar.

As we filed through the corridors of this modern fortress our guide talked of international spies and dope rings and the use of computers in solving crimes. He showed us forged checks, threatening letters and recovered works of art. (The FBI will get involved if the value of a stolen painting is more than $2,000.)

In the serology lab, technicians in white coats were testing fluids and carrying beakers to a refrigerator that was splattered with the taped-on finger paintings of children. "Just like home," murmured a woman who had a youngster in tow.

Among the vast firearms collection, which is a reference library for identifying weapons used in crimes, was a machine gun tagged in white, one of the Tommy guns from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929.

At the end of the tour an agent opened a curtain onto the firing range and demonstrated three weapons, including an Ingram Model 10 submachine gun that fired 13 rounds a second into a cardboard target.

The agent, a lean and charming fellow wearing a tailored blue suit, came around to our side of the bullet-proof glass and called for questions.

"Can you shoot better in leisure clothes?" a youngster asked.

Not in This Suit

"No," said the 14-year veteran. "It would be the same. But I am a sniper, and in SWAT work I prefer the prone position. And there is no way that I'm going to go down on the ground in this fine new suit."

He strutted and grinned as we clapped.

As I walked into the sunshine of Pennsylvania Avenue I had to confess that my favorite display had been the photographs of the kings of the gangster era: Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and the dapper kidnaper, Machine Gun Kelly.

Kelly, who died a natural death in Alcatraz, was just plain George until my father, Merle Blakely, an ace crime reporter in Oklahoma City, decided to give him a nickname. I grew up thrilling to such front-page tales, which is the real reason I turned myself in to the FBI in Washington.

Sorry about the alarms, dad. You'd have been smoother.

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