This is Eyeball, do you read me?” The sound of a law-and-order voice crackles over a walkie-talkie. “A beige Cadillac Seville is heading over to you.” Crackle, crackle, bzzzzt. “This is team leader to Eyeball: Be sure you keep the subject in sight. Everybody stay tight.” Bzzzzt. It is just after dusk as the subject, a suspected cocaine trafficker, slowly motors down the main street of a quiet town in Virginia. “This is Eyeball. Subject is pulling out now.” “Team leader to roadblock. Get into position. Be prepared to move when I say so.” Bzzzzt. “Now!” barks the team leader as headlights flare and sirens scream. The Cadillac is forced to a halt. “Freeze! FBI!” booms an agent over a raspy loudspeaker. “Driver, get out of the car, put your hands above your head. You are under arrest.”
This sequence of events may have the ring of authenticity, but it’s as bogus as a Junior G-Man badge. The exercise is played out on the streets of Hogan’s Alley, a town modeled after a Hollywood set, built on a back lot at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Va. The bad guys are amateur actors; the good guys are agents-in-training. The FBI veteran presiding over the theatrics is Jim Pledger, 42, chief of the Bureau’s Practical Applications Unit, and Hogan’s gun-toting mayor.
For rookies, the simulated action offers a speed course in street smarts. “These role players don’t kid around,” says one new agent. “They treat you as a real fugitive would. I haven’t been shot yet, but I’d rather get shot here. The instructors do an excellent job of preparing you for real life. You learn from your own mistakes.”
Funds for Hogan’s Alley became available in 1986, shortly after one of the bloodiest episodes in FBI history, in which two agents were killed and five wounded in a four-minute shoot-out on a Miami sidestreet. One of the dead agents, Jerry Dove, had been a trainee under Pledger in 1982. “It was very sad,” says Pledger, who has based some of the academy’s scenarios on his own experiences in the field. “We want every agent to have the opportunity to get experience without getting hurt.””
Set on 60 acres bordering Hoover Road, Hogan’s Alley, named after a 19th-century comic strip that featured a gang of Irish hooligans, has all the amenities of a small town: barbershop, deli, drugstore, pool hall. Pledger’s office is located at the Dogwood Inn, site of countless fugitive arrests. Up the road stands the Biograph Theatre, a replica of the movie house where John Dillinger was reportedly gunned down by the FBI in 1934. A gaudy mobile home seized in a drug bust serves as quarters for visiting faculty. When the FBI is not using the facilities, DEA agents and SWAT teams-in-training stage their own shows there.
On one recent afternoon, 39 members of a new agents class assembled at the Dogwood Inn to act out a series of “armed-and-dangerous” arrests. The room bristled with anticipation as agents collected their gear—walkie-talkies, shotguns, blank ammo—before suiting up in bulletproof vests. Meanwhile across town, the bad guys were picking up their props: phony money with Pledger’s likeness printed on each bill, plastic packs of white powder, fake driver’s licenses, deactivated Derringers and other small weapons. “We spend a lot of time training role players,” says Pledger. “There is no specific script, but we make sure they know the behavior we’re looking for. We don’t want any hams.”
Crime pays $8 an hour at Hogan’s Alley, but some role players say they would do it free. “It’s so much fun to be someone else for the day,” says Pepper McGowan, who is married to a Marine stationed at Quantico. “I’m basically a housewife, but over here I get to carry drugs and wear a mink coat.” Adds off-duty fireman Mike Kerr: “It’s a healthy way to be deviant. Sometimes your adrenaline really gets pumpin’. I ‘shot’ eight agents in one day. I hope it taught them to be more careful.”
The new agents divide into six groups and fan out to make their assigned arrests. While a cop killer is being cornered at an upstairs apartment, an extortionist is getting pinned against the wall of the town warehouse and his accomplice is enduring a rough frisking in the rain. Injuries have been slight over the past three years, yet role players are encouraged to yell “Code Red” if the trainees get too physical. “You try not to cry out, because they will stop the scenario,” says Marine wife Dana Evans. “Sometimes the handcuffs really hurt, but you figure it’ll be over in two minutes. It’s not like having a baby.”
Clipboard in hand, Pledger and a pair of instructors observe each scenario, judging students on leadership, coordination and arrest techniques. Any agent who uses his gun must explain why in triplicate paperwork. “We are looking for a safe arrest more than anything,” says Pledger. “An agent has to have a very good reason to fire his weapon. The last thing we want is some mucho macho hotdog in there with a fully automatic weapon.”
Each exercise is followed by a 20-minute critique, in which the students gamely tolerate comments from their instructors. One woman nods politely when told to be more thorough in her frisking procedures; another rookie looks sheepish when a superior suggests that next time he try the doorknob before kicking a door down to enter a suspect’s room.
New agents who pass the rigorous 14-week course, which includes more than 500 hours of classroom study, fitness drills, firearms instruction and six practicals, are usually assigned to duty in smaller cities. “If you send them right away to the New Yorks and the Newarks, they learn only one thing, like organized crime,” says Pledger, “so we prefer to send them to the Little Rocks, the Knoxvilles, the Omahas, where they can work on a little of everything—kidnappings, bank robberies, searches and surveillance—before they specialize.”
Pledger himself started out in Little Rock, working nights at the local FBI field office while majoring in math at the University of Arkansas. In 1966, at 22, he was one of the youngest agents ever to join the bureau. Pledger spent 13 months in Tennessee before transferring to Washington. D.C., where he worked on kidnappings, assault cases and the Jonestown massacre investigation. He was also one of a team of agents assigned to transcribe Nixon’s Oval Office tapes during the Watergate scandal. After nine years in Washington, Pledger was transferred to Virginia, where he served as a staff counselor, among other duties, before developing the Practical Applications Unit at Hogan’s Alley.
On this particular day Pledger is pleased with what he sees. “Everybody is positive, upbeat, they want to learn,” he says. ‘They get thirsty for it.” And the academy is thirsty for recruits. With a growing number of agents who came aboard during the early ’70s heading toward mandatory retirement, the pressure is on to to fill their spots.
“We’re not looking for someone with a particular skill like leaping tall buildings in a single bound.” says Pledger. “The best agents are independent, tenacious, ingenious and good with people. You give them a problem, they run with it,” he adds. “They don’t come back and say, ‘Okay, what do I do now?’ They do what has to be done to solve the case.” In other words, Clark Kent need not apply, but others are welcome.