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Remembering Neil Welch: Best FBI Director Who Never Was

Image: Remembering Neil Welch: Best FBI Director Who Never Was
Neil Welch in 1980. (AP)

By John Gizzi
Saturday, 15 Jul 2017 10:35 PM Current | Bio | Archive

It was with rather poignant timing that Neil Welch, onetime FBI "superstar" agent, died on June 29 — barely three weeks after Christopher Wray was the surprise choice to succeed fired FBI Director James Comey.

Welch (who was 90) had earned a reputation as an agent who got things done his way and was unafraid to fight with superiors such as longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. When the directorship was open in 1977, Welch — who had supervised FBI field offices in Buffalo, Detroit and Philadelphia — was on just about everyone's shortlist for the top job.

Like Melvin Purvis, the Chicago agent who captured more criminals than any FBI agent in history, Welch was a maverick lawman whose independent tactics irked Hoover and the bureau's "top brass." He refused to participate in the COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) targeting anti-Vietnam War opponents in the 1960s and instead focused the energy of his offices on corrupt public officials.

Welch once famously said the best way to reform the FBI was "to sandbag bureau headquarters and rip out the phones."

In the search for an FBI director, then-President Jimmy Carter appointed a search committee to come up with the best selection. The dozen-member committee included F.A.O Schwarz, Jr., Charles Morgan (former Southern Field Director of the ACLU), Attorney General Griffin Bell and retiring FBI Director Clarence Kelley.

From 235 resumes, five finalists emerged. The unanimous choice of the search committee was Neil Welch.

But Carter interviewed the finalists himself. To the surprise of just about everyone, he instead picked U.S. Appellate Judge William H. Webster, who was director until President Ronald Reagan tapped him to run the CIA in 1987.

Webster, in turn, named Welch head of the New York field office — the largest in the nation, with 800 employees. His passion for rooting out corruption in office was undiminished. In 1980, that passion bore fruit with the ABSCAM affair. With agents posing as Arab sheiks, Members of Congress were covertly filmed accepting bribe money in return for favors from the lawmakers.

Along with then-Sen. Harrison J. Williams (D-N.J.), seven U.S. Representatives were convicted of corruption in ABSCAM.

The son of a railroad foreman and a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, Welch attended Omaha University (now the University of Nebraska) on the G.I. Bill. After graduating Creighton University (Neb.) School of Law in 1951, Welch joined the FBI and served there until his retirement nearly 30 years later.

Welch's most famous case was his capture of Winston Moseley, who had stabbed 28-year-old Kitty Genovese outside her Queens apartment. The Genovese murder became a celebrated case after the New York Times reported that 38 neighbors had ignored her cries for help (although the Times later admitted that number was exaggerated). In 1968, four years after he was convicted of Genovese’s murder, Moseley escaped from a Buffalo hospital, took five hostages and raped one.

The FBI tracked down Moseley to an apartment in Buffalo. Special Agent Welch was quickly on the job and walked in the apartment to talk the armed fugitive out. With Moseley’s gun pointed in his stomach, Welch eventually convinced him to walk out with him and surrender to authorities. (Moseley died last year at 81 and after more than a half-century behind bars).

On June 8, I ran into the man who beat out Welch for the directorship. Now 93, William Webster discussed the process for choosing a successor to recently-fired Comey. Welch's name came up, and Webster beamed: "I knew Neil well. I liked him. He was a great agent. And he would have made a great director."

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John-Gizzi
It was with rather poignant timing that Neil Welch, onetime FBI "superstar" agent, died on June 29 — barely three weeks after Christopher Wray was the surprise choice to succeed fired FBI Director James Comey.
Neil Welch, FBI agent, died
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2017-35-15
 

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