He doesn’t wear a cocked fedora or a deerstalker cap. He doesn’t have Sherlock’s mind or Hercule Poirot’s ego.
And on a recent Tuesday, John Feighery did not sit silhouetted against a window, reclining in an office lit only by the glow of a neon sign.
His home office was bright and quite ordinary with an aging desktop computer and beige metal filing cabinets.
But Feighery – pronounced like “feery” – is a retired FBI special agent and a licensed private investigator who has had a colorful career. He is also the immediate past president of the El Paso Downtown Lions Club and has been active in the club for 20 years.
This year, the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators, or TALI, awarded Feighery its Hudgins-Sallee Award, the association’s highest level of recognition.
He was honored for “his distinguished service during TALI’s darkest time.” In 2005, he discovered the organization was on the brink of bankruptcy and brought it to the attention of the board – a move that did not endear him to some members.
Feighery doesn’t like to draw attention to himself, but his colleagues say he almost single handedly saved the organization, despite the opposition.
“Not only did he get the financial ship straight, he personally went out and created a one-person membership drive,” said private investigator Randy Kildow, who was involved with TALI at the time.
“A lot of these ex-law enforcement guys, especially FBI, they think they are big and all that. He is not that type of person,” Kildow said.
Feighery, 68, grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with four siblings. His father worked in a Ford Motor Company factory.
Feighery liked work more than school. As youngsters, he and his siblings hauled recyclables to the junkyard. He got his first paper route when he was 12.
After graduating from high school, Feighery got a job as a technician with AT&T but was drafted in 1965 during the Vietnam War. He served at White Sands Missile Range and then Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Later he joined the FBI, where he worked as an agent for 25 years, mostly in Chicago, Los Angeles and El Paso. His specialty was investigating fraud.
He retired in 1996 and started his own investigations business, Ex Fed Investigative Services Inc. He did fraud investigations. Now he is partially retired and does mostly background checks.
Feighery speaks with the remnants of a city accent and in the short, clipped sentences of an old crime novel.
He has a bachelor’s degree in business from New Mexico State University and master’s degree in public administration from DePaul in Chicago.
He and his wife, Jean, have three children and six grandchildren. Their oldest daughter is a teacher, the youngest is a full-time mom, and their son is an environmental engineer who was with NASA and is now working on water quality issues in Africa.
Feighery sat down with El Paso Inc. and reminisced about his career in the FBI. He also talked about the upcoming Sun Bowl parade and the graying of service organizations in America.
Q: How did you end up joining the FBI?
I completed college at New Mexico State, and I went back to Philadelphia looking for a job. One of my friends’ fathers said, “Why don’t you go talk to the FBI? They are looking for people.” So I did. Three months later, I was in class.
Q: Not something you had always planned on doing then?
What I really thought I would do was be an air traffic controller because of my fascination with aviation. They weren’t hiring, and I needed to go to work.
Q: FBI special agents are glamorized on television and the career has a mystique. What is it actually like to be one?
It was a great career. I can’t tell you what it is like today – I have no idea – but then it was exciting. It was interesting. It was challenging. Unfortunately, you were on call 24/7, which made balancing work and life difficult. The basic workday was 10 hours.
Q: Did you have an opportunity to work on any high-profile cases? You must have some good stories.
I had one that went on “America’s Most Wanted” (television show). That was a fraud case.
It’s hard to imagine now how the fraud went down, because it was before these things were invented (pointed towards a smartphone).
I was contacted by a businessman out at the airport. He said, “I need to talk to you.”
I said, “You’ve got four minutes. What do you want?”
And he said, “The government’s cheating me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I got a call from this guy who said he works for the government and he needed these parts and I sent him the parts and he never paid me and I can’t find him now.”
That’s how it started. I found out this guy had been doing this all across the country. He was a con artist – a good con artist.
One of the things he would do is he would order parts and have them delivered to someone, hire someone to repackage them and sell them as government surplus to another dealer.
His girlfriend was a beauty queen, and they traveled the country doing this. They eventually traveled the world. Their daughter was actually born with an alias in a foreign country.
He conned this widow in Hawaii out of big bucks; this was a different scheme. He dated her. He already had a wife, but married her. He claimed to be a doctor.
We couldn’t keep up with him, so we got him on “America’s Most Wanted.” I had the case open maybe a year.
Q: How did it end?
I got a call from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who said he was there and they would go out the next day and get him. I told them to go right then or he would be gone. They went and he was gone.
He had convinced people in this little Canadian town that he was an army colonel who was sent there to do research to improve the acid rain situation.
People loved him. He took off before the Mounties got there. There was still a bottle of cold milk, or warm milk, I can’t remember, when they got there. He was caught trying to get into Alaska and was incarcerated for a while.
Q: What did you like so much about investigating fraud?
The challenge. You’re being confronted by someone with a pretty good intellect. It’s fun to get them – it really is. Some people like to play golf; I like to work fraud.
Q: Any other cases you would highlight?
We were tracking a con artist and had sent a communication with a description to surrounding bank offices.
My boss came in and told me I needed to go to a bank, I think it was called State National Bank at the time. The bank thought he was there based on the modus operandi.
He would go to a bank and open a business account with $100 cash, and he would walk away. Then he would go someplace else and open an account.
Eventually he would come back. You couldn’t get away with this today, but he would ask for a cashier’s check for much more than $100 payable to a local business, say a precious metal dealer.
Then he would go to that business and use the check to buy bullion. He would be gone before anybody noticed.
We booked him into jail and the only thing he had on him was one ID card and a key.
He did not commit a crime we could prosecute him for in El Paso, but there was a warrant out for him in Washington. So we worked up a perjury case on him.
Q: How’d you do it?
We figured the key was for a hotel, so all the guys on the squad split up and we called every hotel we could think of and described the key. We had no luck.
It was quitting time and we left the garage and started heading out of Downtown. I saw a hotel out of the corner of my eye – it’s where the Artisan Hotel used to be.
We go in and the desk clerk identified the key. We told him to call our office right away if he had any contact with the guy.
We’re driving up Mesa Street when a radio call comes in to call the clerk at the hotel. We called him from a pay phone and the desk clerk told us the con artist had called him collect. The con artist had told him he was in an accident and in the hospital and would he secure his belongings.
The desk clerk was going to put all his stuff in storage. We asked him to wait until we got there. So we sat in the hotel and watched as the clerk took everything out of the room. It was enough to get a search warrant.
We came up with IDs in, I think, 21 different names and probably that many checkbooks. He lied to the judge during his identity hearing about using the false identities. He did not know we had done the search.
It was a slam-dunk. I don’t know how many counts of perjury there were from that hearing alone, and he pleaded guilty to everything. That was a fun, fun, fun, fun case.
Q: How did you come to El Paso?
The FBI had a system that if I got enough seniority, I would get one transfer to anywhere I wanted to go. I took a grade cut to come out here. That was 1981.
At first I had hated it when I came out to the desert, but eventually I fell in love with it and we decided we wanted to live here.
Q: Why did you become a private investigator and start your own business, Ex Fed Investigative Services Inc?
One of the few things I could do was investigations. I tried golf, and can’t do that. I even took lessons.
I retired from the FBI on a Friday and started my first insurance fraud case on a Monday.
Q: All I know about being a private investigator is what I have seen on television. What kind of work do they do?
Everybody is different. You have Sam Streep, for example, who works criminal cases in El Paso. I’ve never worked a criminal defense case. I felt that being on the other side for 25 years I couldn’t do justice.
Q: What kinds of cases then?
I did government contract work, like background investigations, and fraud work. Insurance fraud – a lot of workers comp cases.
Q: Making sure people who say they are injured on the job are really injured and such?
Q: How has the profession changed since you started your career as a private investigator?
A couple of years before I retired from the FBI, I bought my first computer. My son put it together and showed me how to use it. Poor kid.
The way you think doesn’t change, doing interviews, reading body language. I used to call (my wife) Jean while doing surveillance and have her look up license plate numbers on the computer, but now you can do all that stuff from your cellphone in the car. So the technology is much more sophisticated.
Q: How do you read people and persuade them to trust you and give you information they don’t have to, especially without the FBI credentials?
You don’t have the credentials, but what you do is the same. People don’t talk to you, they don’t talk to you. I’ve been turned down.
Usually, to this day, in interviews, I’ll release some personal information about myself, some scrap of personal information. Maybe it turns out the person is a teacher. “Ah, my daughter’s a teacher.”
Q: What is required to become a private investigator? Does it only require printing business cards?
Yes and no. The agency has to be licensed by the state and so does the manager of the agency. To do that, I had to have three years of investigative experience and take a written test.
But, as a manager, I can hire anybody to be my investigator. They have to submit fingerprints and can’t have an arrest record, but otherwise I could hire anybody.
Q: What are some ways businesses can protect themselves from fraud?
Trust but verify. In my experience, the companies at risk are those who won’t spend money on security and don’t do appropriate background investigations.
A disproportionate number of cases involved local managers for out-of-town companies (pulls a stack of timecards off the shelf). This was a payroll manager who worked here in El Paso for an out-of-town company. These timecards were what the employees were paid off of.
The person would fax them to the home company that would issue checks and mail them to this person in El Paso to distribute to the employees. Well, what this person did is take cards of former employees, white them out, and collect the extra paychecks.
Another local manger would create scrap. He would have an employee go to the warehouse, get X number of feet of wire and sell it to a recycle yard.
Q: What does the Lions Club do in El Paso?
We have about a dozen Lions Clubs in El Paso. Our motto is “We Serve.” We do a lot of things to support people with vision problems – leader dogs, cataract surgery.
We just had a visit from a little boy from Juárez whose father is blind. His father’s disease wasn’t treated so he had eventually gone blind. The son had the same problem.
The wife took off, so the blind father was left with the kid who was going to be blind, but the disease is correctable if the procedure is done early enough.
A doctor in El Paso donated her time and the Lions Club paid for the cost of the operation, and the little kid was running around seeing at one of our meetings.
The Downtown Lions Club does a couple big things every year. We do a parade float in the annual Sun Bowl parade, and our members serve as volunteers. We started the parade about 80 years ago. It’s now run by the Sun Bowl Association.
Q: Last year, the club built the “Jurassic Park” movie themed float. What is the club building for this year’s parade?
The parade theme is “Gaming Mania: Video, Board Games and Arcade.” Our float is going to be Dungeons and Dragons themed.
Q: What is the Downtown Lions Club’s membership?
We have 54 members. There were recently three El Paso clubs that merged into the El Paso Lions United Club.
Q: Service clubs have struggled to recruit younger members. Is the Lions Club graying?
I’ll invite you. Would you like to go Friday? I can only speak for our club. We have declined year over year by about five members a year for at least 10 years.
Q: How do you reach millennials?
We’re failing at it, that’s what we are doing. We tell them what we do and try to get them interested but it is tough for them to commit the time.
There is a new club that’s doing very well. That’s the El Paso Executive Women. It’s about a year old. There’s another brand new one, but I don’t know many details about it.
Q: What reasons do younger people generally give you for not joining?
They don’t have time, and I can understand that. When we moved to El Paso when we were younger, we didn’t have any weekends. With three kids it was band practice, volleyball games – just busy.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.