Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C. — Distinctive writing pinpointed by former FBI profiler James R. Fitzgerald led to a federal investigation of two top deputies of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten in New Orleans for posting anonymous online attacks on targets their office was investigating.
In response to the scandal, Deputy Attorney General James Cole flew to New Orleans last week and asked for the resignation of Letten, who was appointed by President Bush in 2001. Known for prosecuting public officials, he was the longest serving U.S. attorney in office.
The two prosecutors, former first assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann and former assistant U.S. Attorney Salvadore Perricone, have acknowledged using aliases to post derogatory comments on Nola.com, the website of the Times-Picayune, according to a press conference held by Letten and court filings by his office. The 550 postings attacked Fred Heebe, co-owner of the local River Birch landfill, who was being investigated by Letten’s office.
Former FBI agent Fitzgerald, who specializes in forensic linguistic analysis, tells Newsmax the key to uncovering the culprits was authorial attribution, the comparison of stylistic and other language features of anonymous writings with known writings of suspects to determine the identity of the anonymous authors.
“Those features include uncommon, idiosyncratic, or non-standard language, which may be misspellings, malapropism, mistakes, and unusual punctuation choices,” Fitzgerald says. “That alone can sometimes be a determining factor in common authorships in two sets of communications.”
As noted in my story, "FBI Profiler Had It Right in the Anthrax Case
," Fitzgerald played key roles in both the anthrax case that killed five people and the Unabomber investigation that led to the FBI’s arrest of Ted Kaczynski.
Fitzgerald also worked other high-profile cases like those of Danny Pearl, JonBenet Ramsey, and the D.C. sniper. In that October 2002 case, Fitzgerald was the first to suggest to the task force working the 10 murders that at least one suspect was an African-American.
Through the prestigious Washington law firm Williams & Connolly, Heebe hired the Academy Group in Manassas, Va., which consists of former FBI profilers, to try to determine who had been posting the anonymous attacks on him.
After being assigned to the case, Fitzgerald examined a nine-page legal document filed by Perricone and others in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and noticed distinctive similarities to the online postings under the pseudonym Henry L. Mencken1951. Based on Fitzgerald’s findings, Heebe, who was once a candidate for Letten’s position, filed a defamation lawsuit last March against Perricone.
According to Fitzgerald’s report filed with Heebe’s lawsuit, the author of both the court document and the postings has excellent writing skills. However, he uses “somewhat arcane and less common lexical choices” in his writings that are not necessary to make his point.
For example, the legal document filed in court says, “. . . Fazzio’s fate will be decided upon the altar of company loyalty . . .” One of the postings dated Jan. 9, 2012 says, “He has paid homage at the altar of political corruption to achieve . . .”
The legal document says, “Their representations would be fraught with dubiety . . .” A posting on Jan. 29, 2012 says, “I will suspend my dubiety for one year.”
The legal document says, “. . . River Birch and others enjoy the safe redoubt of the corporate resolution.” A posting on Sept. 9, 2011 says, “. . . or go sit under the redoubt of a nice shade tree.”
The court document says, “River Birch has coiled Fazzio.” A posting on Aug. 28, 2011 says, “. . . and exemptions from the daily coils which wrap the common man.”
Fitzgerald searched 15,103 Louisiana federal district court cases and found that “has coiled” or “coils” was never used in that context in court documents. The word redoubt was used only 20 times, and dubiety appeared 40 times. The phrase “altar of” appeared only 24 times. No document used all the words or phrases that appeared in both the legal document and the online postings.
Fitzgerald found other similarities in style and punctuation and a number of positive references to the U.S. attorney’s office and specifically to Jan Mann, who was described in one posting as “the brains of that operation.”
Based on Fitzgerald’s report and allegations in the defamation suit, a federal probe was launched. According to Letten, Perricone admitted sending the postings and using an online alias that combined the name of the Baltimore Sun muckraker H.L. Mencken with 1951, the year the former prosecutor was born.
While Perricone resigned, Mann refused to resign, according to the Times Picayune, but she was demoted. She had been in charge of the office’s criminal division.
The investigation is continuing.
While it did not occur in the Perricone case, those who want to conceal their identity may purposely misspell a word, Fitzgerald says. For example, in letters sent in the anthrax case, the word “penicillin” was spelled “penacilin.” Fitzgerald concluded the word was purposely misspelled, since anyone who has access to anthrax would know how to spell the name of the antibiotic used to treat exposure to it.
In that case, Fitzgerald told the bureau that it probably had pinpointed the wrong man as the culprit for the 2001 anthrax mailings, but those in charge of the investigation ignored him. Fitzgerald offered a profile that generally excluded initial suspect Steven Hatfill but fit Bruce E. Ivins, the man the FBI ultimately decided was responsible for the mailings.
Fitzgerald suggested that the FBI look for someone else who had altered his work schedule for a month or so before and after the anthrax attacks. If the FBI had examined Ivins’ work schedule early on, it would have found that Ivins — not Hatfill — had been working inordinate hours at his lab on the nights and weekends just before the mailings. He rarely had worked nights or weekends before that. The anthrax spores and production equipment were stored in his lab.
“The inspector in charge decided they had no reason to look in any other direction,” Fitzgerald tells me. “They had their man.”
The FBI’s new Amerithrax task force eventually recognized that Hatfill was the wrong target and had been maligned unfairly. After Hatfill filed a lawsuit, the Justice Department paid out $5.8 million to settle the case. As the FBI closed in on its new suspect, Ivins committed suicide on July 29, 2008.
Fitzgerald knew nothing about profiling or linguistics when he joined the FBI in 1987. But while assigned to the field office in New York City, he worked cases involving stalking or threatening letters sent to Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, Don Imus, Donald Trump, and Rush Limbaugh.
“I found it fascinating to look at the language itself,” he says. “I would attempt to figure out, do we have an older person, a younger person, is it a male, is it a female, is it a native English speaker or not? Are they educated or not educated? Are they trying to disguise their style of writing? And I said, there must be people that study this stuff. I’d love to get into that someday.”
In 1995, Fitzgerald became a profiler at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va. Since I wrote the first national story about FBI criminal profiling in 1984 in The Washington Post, the word profiling has taken on a pejorative meaning, suggesting it is about singling out people based on race or ethnicity. That is neither good profiling nor good law enforcement.
Rather, as outlined in my book “The Secrets of the FBI,” profiling is about helping to solve cases by comparing behavioral characteristics found at a crime scene with behavioral characteristics of other known crimes and their perpetrators, then drawing conclusions based on the previous cases.
As part of Fitzgerald’s profiler training, he learned about analyzing communications. He later obtained a master’s degree in linguistics from Georgetown University. As he has at the Academy Group, Fitzgerald created a database of threatening or suspicious letters, similar to one the Secret Service maintains.
Former prosecutor Perricone, who was involved in the investigation of Heebe, has admitted to making similar anonymous attacks on lawyers, defendants, police officials, and judges. A separate lawsuit filed by Heebe accuses Mann of posting attacks against him, sometimes coordinating her comments with Perricone.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is the New York Times bestselling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.
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