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Not Your Average FBI Agent

COLUMN ONE

First a computer programmer, then a doctor, John Pi has struggled to fit in as a G-man. His story shows the obstacles the bureau faces in attracting the scientifically gifted people it needs.

December 16, 2000|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he drives through South Los Angeles on an overcast afternoon, Special Agent John Pi of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is having trouble--as usual--making up his mind.

Pi, who in sunglasses looks far younger than 36, has an organized-crime case to work. But the call over a bureau radio is clear: The SWAT team is about to enter a house where it believes kidnappers are keeping a 3-year-old taken from a San Marino family two weeks earlier. The address is only five minutes away.

Pi, after wavering, heads over. As he drives up, two agents in full SWAT gear run toward him, waving. The child is alive, but needs medical attention.

"Doc!" they yell at Pi. "We need you now!"

Pi's skills have always been in demand. He studied engineering and computer science at Columbia, where the New York Police Department recruited him. Instead he wrote code for IBM, which wanted to promote him, before he quit to attend medical school. He completed his residency at UCLA and earned a sought-after job at a Cleveland emergency room, where other doctors saw him as a future chief. Only a year later, he jetted off to enroll at the FBI Academy in Virginia.

"John Pi is kind of a phenomenon in the bureau," said supervisory Special Agent Doug Kane, who commands the SWAT team in Los Angeles. "I don't think you'll find anyone with the background he has."

The strange journey of this computer programmer-trauma surgeon-FBI agent--from a childhood in Taiwan to a spot in the Los Angeles organized-crime unit--is more than an extraordinary case of job change. It also highlights the quandary the FBI faces in attracting and recruiting the scientifically gifted agents it lacks.

The bureau needs more such agents to handle 21st century investigations into Internet fraud, biochemical terrorism or the mishandling of genetic materials. But the computer programmers and scientists and doctors the FBI must lure hardly fit naturally into the bureau's culture. They tend to be like Pi, intellectual risk-takers in an agency that values caution and long careers.

Although Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has boasted in Washington about Pi as an example of progress, in Los Angeles it is less clear that the FBI and its only surgeon-agent have made any final decisions about each other. Pi, constantly called "Doc" or "the doctor," is prone to wonder whether he will ever fit in.

He feels outside pressures too. His parents disapprove of the FBI. Married with two young daughters, he thinks more about the risks an agent must run.

He faces huge debts from his medical education, and on his government salary has been unable to buy a house. If he went back into computers or medicine, he would immediately make at least twice what he is paid by the FBI.

"But right now," he said in an interview last summer, "I'm happy to sit in my car eating doughnuts and drinking coffee on a surveillance, or go along on raids. As for the future, who knows whether I'll change my mind again?"

Family Emigrates From Taiwan to U.S.

The Pi (pronounced "pie") family never much cared for law enforcement. John's mother, a nurse from a wealthy Beijing family, and his father, a physician from a poor family of pharmacists in Jian Xi province, were forced out of mainland China by Communist police. The Pis fled to Taiwan, where they had two children, an even-tempered girl and her less-well-behaved younger brother.

Di Di, as his parents called young John, took money when his mother wasn't looking. In his elementary school, authoritarian teachers often disciplined Pi for his poor work. When he was 12, his parents decided that their independent-minded children needed a more flexible education system. They moved to the United States, settling in upstate New York.

The new country brought out John's natural intelligence, a tendency to try things out, understand them and move on. Enchanted by the heroes of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," he studied computers and supersonic flight on his own. In 1982, he went to Columbia University to study engineering.

While in college, the curious Pi took a job as a reserve officer with the New York Police Department. He enjoyed directing traffic and talking to strangers, and submitted an application for a full-time officer's post. But at graduation, he decided to try a different career.

A pattern of change was set. In his Columbia yearbook, Pi submitted a favorite quote: "Life is a one-way street: my way."

That way led him upstate to Poughkeepsie. IBM wanted him. Pi joined a group writing software for mainframes. He talked computers all day and was upset when his family couldn't understand him. (His mother took a computer class to ease conversation.) Pi liked the challenge and the disciplined atmosphere at IBM. Lunch was 42 minutes exactly--so people would remember not to be late.

Pi, as the youngest member of his group of programmers, stood out. He was a natural, earning the division quality award in his first year.

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