With an FBI badge comes a certain prestige, an image of glamour as one imagines an agent who works on the biggest criminal cases in the United States.
Former FBI Agent Wade Shirley had a different experience: that of an agent stationed in rural Idaho, having to rely on scrappy resourcefulness while working an area hundreds of miles from his fellow agents.
Shirley worked in eastern Idaho from 1990 to 1999, serving with one other agent in an office based in Idaho Falls that has since been shut down. (The bureau opened a facility in Pocatello in 1998.)
Shirley describes these rural offices with one or two agents as “Hoover’s Nightmare,” the title of his fictional novel based on his experiences.
“When I was in training, they told us (Former FBI Director J. Edgar) Hoover moved his agents all over to keep them from ‘going native,’ as he called it,” Shirley said. That meant moving agents around to avoid them identifying with a region or seeing themselves as part of local law enforcement.
According to Shirley, FBI agents in the late ’60 and early ’70s were taught to think of themselves as “a cut above” local and state law enforcement officers.
“Early on in my career, I realized anything that happens out here no one’s going to know unless I write about it,” Shirley said. “So I kept notes.”
Shirley changed the names and some details in the book to give himself leeway to tell a story and to avoid conflict with the real individuals he met in his career. Shirley said he made his main character, Agent McWade, “a little more of a hero,” but otherwise he stands in for Shirley himself.
Shirley added he was motivated to write the book not only for history but so his children would know what he did for 30 years.
“I wanted to make sure that history that I had literally lived, there was a book for them,” Shirley said.
FBI regulations require agents to notify the bureau if they are writing a book about their experiences. Shirley had to submit a draft of his book to the agency, which took a year to review it.
Shirley joined the agency in 1969, giving up his job as a teacher at Linden Park Elementary School in Idaho Falls.
“I assumed it could not be any more dangerous than my side job of teaching driver’s education, so I applied and was hired,” Shirley said in an email.
Shirley worked for the FBI in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for 20 years before moving back to Idaho Falls. Though there was a second agent working with him in Idaho, Shirley said that second agent worked primarily as a SWAT team officer who was frequently absent.
Shirley said working alone was “a mixed bag.” While in Nebraska, the closest FBI agent was more than 100 miles away, meaning he frequently worked with local law enforcement.
“That requires you to start getting along really well,” Shirley said. “By necessity, your best friends become the local law enforcement and local detectives.”
Those connections meant Shirley often saw local police as his colleagues, more so than the fellow FBI agents he rarely interacted with.
“(Hoover) didn’t want agents to become like I became,” Shirley said. “Those people became my best friends.”
Relations with local law enforcement were not always friendly. He said a chief deputy in one Idaho county was hostile to the presence of federal law enforcement. Shirley said he learned the deputy had friends who were buying stolen cars, and believed the deputy knew about it. The incident inspired a chapter in his book.
Shirley investigated other crimes, both high-profile and not-so-high profile. In one case in Rexburg, he found himself investigating a case of two women who had their kids sneak popcorn into a movie theater. They were arrested, leading to a civil rights investigation by Shirley after the women said officers used excessive force. Shirley handled the investigation, and the U.S Department of Justice found the officer had not used excessive force based on Shirley’s investigation.
One of the most high-profile cases Shirley worked on was the disappearance of Stephanie Crane 27 years ago.
Crane’s mother reported her missing at 8:15 p.m. on Oct. 11, 1993. To this day, no one has determined what happened to her or even if her disappearance was the work of an individual.
“It’s a great big blank, what happened to that girl,” Shirley said. “I just don’t know.”
As an FBI agent in a small office, Shirley was a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He had to be ready for any situation in eastern Idaho, but that meant he did not specialize in any particular investigative techniques. He often thinks about how his office’s limited resources may have affected the case’s outcome.
“I often wondered, had this been an area where we had hundreds of experts come in, could it have had a different ending? I don’t know,” Shirley said.