Chasing Phil by David Howard, review by Bruce Jacobs
In 1977, two ambitious young agents in the Gary, Ind., FBI office stumbled on a potential career-making lead to bring down the swashbuckling financial swindler Phil Kitzer. Jim "J.J." Wedick and Jack Brennan had little in common except a drive to climb the Bureau ladder. Chunky ex-juco football lineman Brennan was third-generation FBI with a wife, two kids and several high-profile busts already. Tall, skinny Wedick was a single, Irish Catholic kid who liked to work meticulously with the approval of those above him. Brennan, however, had a more cowboy style. At the time, the FBI was into old-school crimes like kidnapping, extortion and interstate stick-ups. White-collar crime and undercover agents with wiretaps didn't get the big federal bucks. Chasing Phil is the story of how Wedick and Brennan broke out of the FBI administrative handcuffs to weasel into Kitzer's global circle of financial con men called "The Fraternity"--and got convictions on 50 of them.
Fast-talking Phil Kitzer convinced financially desperate small business marks that his various shell banks would provide the funds they needed--for a fee. Schooled in his father's Chicago bail bonds business, he knew all the palaver behind letters of credit, certificates of deposit, securities and bonds. By the time the shady paper he arranged was exposed as worthless, he had moved on to a new sham bank and new victims. In his opinion, "if you took a black light to most people's souls, you'd find cheating on a tax return or a spouse, the insurance check that came from imaginary hail damage to aluminum siding, the shoplifting episode." As the young agents became enamored with the vibrant Kitzer, they too began to wonder, "Maybe everyone was in the game, and Phil just knew better than anyone else how to play."
An editor with Rodale magazines and author of Lost Rights (another book about fraud and greed), Howard has combed trial archives and newspaper stories, and interviewed many of the key players. He sketches the late nights of booze, broads and high-end dinners where Kitzer worked out his scams and schemes--one of which takes almost $400,000 from Elvis Presley when his father tries to peddle the King's worn-out Lockheed Jet Star airplane. As Wedick and Brennan become more deeply enmeshed in Kitzer's world, the crimes escalate from two-bit cons to million-dollar fraudulent international bonds. The FBI takes notice and bumps the investigation to Major Case Number One. But the two agents are also more at risk: "spending time with Kitzer was like skiing a few miles per hour faster than your abilities dictated, constantly hovering on the edge of a stupendous wipeout." When the FBI finally pulls the trigger on Kitzer after eight months undercover, Wedick and Brennan are relieved--but sad to see their adventure close. A colorful bad guy is always more interesting than an office full of suits.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.