By
August 12, 1996 12:00 PM

PEOPLE HAVE LOOKED TO JAMES Kallstrom for leadership since he was 9 years old. Bicycling along on his paper route, “he would have this tribe of kids following him around,” recalls his sister Lynn Cangelosi. Later, in high school, “he was always the head of the group,” she says. “He seemed to call the shots.” And a decade after that, in FBI training school, “it was obvious he was a leader,” says agent Pat Colgan, a fellow student 26 years ago. “People gravitate toward him. You can’t study it, you can’t learn it. It’s just there.”

Today the entire nation is seeking reassurance—and answers—from Kallstrom, the 53-year-old chief of the FBI’s New York City division, who is heading the massive bureau team investigating the fiery explosion that ended TWA Flight 800 and the lives of all 230 people aboard. A blunt-spoken man who can curse like a lumberjack and has an aversion to ties, Kallstrom assembled an army of 300 agents in the days after the crash to examine every facet of the disaster. Fueled largely by diet sodas and catching catnaps on his office sofa, he spends up to 20 hours a day in briefings in New York City and at a Long Island hotel command post, and in meetings with recovery teams near the crash site off East Moriches. He has total faith in his ultimate success. “If this is a terrorist attack, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will know who did this and where they are,” he told reporters recently. “The only question is, can we take them around the neck?”

If the gruff Kallstrom has seemed emotionally involved in this case—his eyes have been swollen with tears before TV cameras—that’s because he is. He lost a dear friend on Flight 800. On the night of the crash, July 17, after a banquet in Manhattan, Kallstrom phoned Sue, his wife of 25 years, from his car to let her know he would arrive home in Connecticut early. As they spoke, call-waiting signals beeped on both their phones. “I had a man on the other line crying his eyes out,” says Sue. “I said, ‘Who is this?’ And he said, ‘Sue, it’s Charlie. Janet’s plane has gone down. It’s crashed. I need Jim. We’ve got to look for her.’ ”

At the same moment, Kallstrom was learning that the Paris-bound jetliner had gone down shortly after takeoff. It took Sue, 46, another 20 minutes to break through on her husband’s busy car phone, catching him as he headed back to his New York City office. But he hadn’t yet heard his wife’s news—that Janet Christopher, a flight attendant and the wife of a close friend, FBI agent Charles Christopher, was among the missing. “He told me later he almost drove off the road when he heard that,” says Sue.

Kallstrom’s sense of loss goes beyond the death of a friend, of course. “You can see behind his stare he feels so bad about [the loss of lives],” says Jules Bonavolonta, a retired FBI agent and longtime pal. “He’s a close family man. He relates what’s happened to his own family.” Adds friend James McMahon, superintendent of the New York State police: “At the press conferences, when his voice cracks, you don’t put that on. This isn’t just a job for him.”

Kallstrom, a native of Millbury, Mass., 50 miles southwest of Boston, is the second of three children of Todd Kallstrom, a jazz trumpeter, and his wife, Edna, a nurse. Kallstrom earned a degree in business in 1966 from the University of Massachusetts, then enlisted in the Marines, where he spent four years. During a 13-month stint in combat in Vietnam, he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel. After his discharge, he signed up with the FBI and in 1970 was stationed in the agency’s Baltimore office, where he met Susan Auer, a secretary. FBI policy discouraged intra-office dating, but the attraction outweighed policy. “I thought he’d never ask me out. Finally he did,” Sue recalls. “It was a magical night.” They were married the next year and have two daughters, Erika, 16, and Kristel, 11. “He’s very strict about coming in on time and stuff,” says Erika. “But he’s very patient. He always wants us to do the best we can.”

He was transferred in 1971 to the FBI’s New York City office and rose through the ranks to take charge 18 months ago. Among his more celebrated triumphs was helping convict John Gotti by bugging the mobster’s couch.

Kallstrom spends his spare time renovating the family’s four-bedroom Cape Cod-style home and, more important, helping his girls with their homework and attending their dance recitals. He hasn’t been home since the night Flight 800 went down, but even now he stops work twice daily to phone his daughters. “He’ll call and say he just wants to hear the kids’ voices—just to hear them say, ‘Daddy, I love you,’ ” says Sue.

For Kallstrom, the public investigation he heads up will forever leave a private scar. During a July 27 eulogy for Janet Christopher, Kallstrom presented her husband, Charlie, and the couple’s only son, Charles, 12, with a small flag recovered from the submerged wreckage of Flight 800. “It’s dirty. It has the sand of the sea on it,” said Kallstrom. “But I think it’s something you always will cherish.”

ROB HOWE

MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City

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