Saturday, March 27, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

I have led an exemplary life, legally speaking. Well, there were a few youthful indiscretions back in the seventies, but that was in California and everybody was doing it, and nobody cared much. And there was that one party I threw where the cops came, but nothing came of it. Those were the days.

But for the official record, I have always been squeaky-clean. I've never had a moving violation. I've garnered a total of two parking tickets in decades of driving, and paid them both promptly. I have never stolen anything (we won't talk about that box of paper clips, will we?) or inflicted grievous bodily harm on a fellow human being or an animal. I pay my taxes and give to charity. I am a model citizen.
So why do I wonder if the FBI has a file on me?

Because I have been associated with two multi-million-dollar thefts. And if that wasn't bad enough, in my forthcoming Museum Mystery series I'm writing about one.

The first theft occurred when I was in graduate school. A quartet of thieves broke into the museum building where my graduate classes were held, and made off with five thousand Greek coins valued then at $5,000,000. At the time it was said to be the largest known art theft (the total would be a lot higher now, no doubt). The event took place in December 1973, and, yes, I was enrolled at the time and lived only a few blocks away. And I sure could have used the money. I didn't do it.

Of course, that theft was trumped a few years later by the heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Luckily I was living in California at that time, but I had gone to school with a former director, and even lived in the same building as she did for a time, so I could have had inside information, right? I didn't do it. (Are you paying attention, FBI? Do you see me living the life of luxury with my ill-gotten gains here?)

In November 1997, I was working for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania when yet another multi-million-dollar theft was discovered, and that was the inspiration for my coming book. This was a very public event. There was much news coverage ("Live at Five!"). The FBI's Art Theft group was called in. Happily this theft was solved: a disgruntled employee who we all knew and liked had been spiriting articles out of the building for years, mainly to prove that he could. He sold what he took for pennies on the dollar, to a local collector (who, as it turned out, lived about two miles from my house), and much of it was recovered. But I was there. I didn't do it.

I have to admit that I'm curious. Nobody ever interviewed me or otherwise contacted me with regard to any of these thefts. But wouldn't you hope that my name cropping up on a list of people with clear opportunity during the investigation of two major events would send up some red flags? I'd like to think so, if the investigators are doing their job. It's kind of a big coincidence, isn't it?

The immediate question is: do I try to find out? On the surface, it would appear that the FBI would be happy to provide that information, as long as you ask nicely: send them a letter formally requesting "copies of all information maintained by your agency that pertain to myself," under the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, 5 USC 552, nicely notarized.

Checking the official FBI File Fact Sheet, one finds:–The FBI does not keep a file on every citizen of the United States (can you imagine the paperwork?)–FBI files generally contain reports of FBI investigations of a wide range of matters, including...white-collar crime." Yup, that's where I'd fit.–The Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts (aka FOIPA) "...provides responsive documents to requesters seeking 'reasonably described information.'"

So apparently, if I ask politely, they will send me whatever they have. It's a little unclear where I should direct my request. My current local office? The two local offices where the incidents occurred?

But the real question is, do I want to ask? If I make this innocent request, based solely on my lingering curiosity, will it trigger greater interest in my history? Will they take a harder look at me, particularly when my book, describing a completely fictional white-collar crime (really! I made it all up!), comes out in the fall?

What would you do?


Mare F said...

LOL. I'd seriously wonder if what they sent me was ALL that they had on me. Two years ago my SO and I applied for our pistol permits. He has had a couple of close encounters with law officials while I had one $27 speeding ticket 30 years ago. His paperwork was back from the Feds in two weeks. Mine? 4 weeks. It seems that I don't appear anywhere on the planet because I gave up my credit cards after my divorce 20 years ago. Well, I didn't appear, somewhat like you, I wonder if the FBI has a bigger file on me.

Allene said...

What's that old saying about 'sleeping dogs'? Sometimes it pays to leave them alone.

Drue Allen said...

Of course as writers, we're aware that everytime we research something untoward, we run the risk of setting off "alarms." I do alert my husband when I go on these researching binges, and I keep records proving it's RESEARCH for a NOVEL. I'd love to see my file, but no - - - I'm not going to ask for it. I probably have one simply based on the shenanigans of my father and grandfather. <>

Great post!

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Loved your story. I have wondered for years if some law enforcement agency has a file (and worse, possible photos)on me. When I was in my 20's and pretty clueless, I worked with a guy who liked to walk around the Chicago Loop at lunch time. He often asked me to accompany him. He always seemed to run into some friend or other and step away with him for a moment (I said I was clueless) He was later picked up as part of a huge cocaine bust at a large financial institution in the Loop.


Kathryn Lilley said...

I believe they must have a file on all of us, through Homeland security. When I had my wallet stolen last fall, I had to try to get onto a plane without any ID, and it was an eye-opener. I thought I wouldn't be able to do it, but I just showed up at the gate (with a printout of my police report of the theft). The TSA guy made one quick phone call, and seconds later, I had to answer a battery of questions about my personal life. I had to answer correctly in order to get on the plane. Questions like, if I walked out my front door at home, what were the cross streets to the left and to the right? What states had I lived in? Where did I go to college? What were my last four home addresses, before the current one? I was amazed they could pull up all that information. In fact, I was sweating it out about being able to recall my previous home addresses.
You betcha, they've got a file on us all.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...


That is spooky!


Caroline Clemmons said...

Clever post that makes one think. I don't think I want to know. Like you, I haven't done anything. Yet, I know people who have. One of my former childhood friends is in Leavenworth for printing an "almost perfect" twenty dollar bill. He may be out by now, but knowing him, he's probably back in for something else. Anyway, I agree with Allene and the "let sleeping dogs lie" theory. :)

Vinny O'Neil said...

If it ain't broke, don't ask about it!

I was laser-fingerprinted for a banking job a few years ago, and innocently remarked that the last time I was fingerprinted it had been with ink. You should have seen the reaction from the security personnel, until I told them it was because I was in the army.

Ruth McCarty said...

I remember the day a Federal Marshall came into my office and flashed a badge. It seems he was investigating a tenant of mine who works on government computer lines in embassies. I'd only known the tenant briefly, and had met his wife only a few times. The marshall asked me where the wife worked and I answered with the wrong company. You should have seen his face. I had to pull out a pen she'd invented to give him the correct answer. Maybe it's better not to know.

Julia Buckley said...

Sheila, my fear, if I considered doing something like that, is that they would somehow read my interest in myself as narcissism, which is of course a key component of all the famous criminals--that inability to resist an interaction with law enforcement. I would imagine that after the FBI processes enough suspicious characters, "normal" people are harder to detect, and therefore everyone comes under suspicion.

Sheila Connolly said...

Thus far I've stuck to the "sleeping dogs" policy. And Drue, I also wonder every time I log onto an unusual web site, if someone is keeping track. This research stuff sure does lead us into some odd corners!

And I'd forgotten that I had my passport stolen in London many years ago. Add one more black mark. Plus I was fingerprinted (ink, Vinny) when I got a stockbroker's license a few years later. This file is growing by the day.

Caroline Clemmons said...

As Sheila said, a friend and I have wondered if clicking on unusual websites gets attention. My friend writes romantic asventuere/suspense and is always researching bombs, guns, etc for her series. I reserch poisons and guns. We are not Thelma and Louise, but we laugh about the attention we may have attracted.

signlady217 said...

Because of working in the public school system in Florida and a private school in MS, I have been fingerprinted, so I'm in the system. Unfortunately, I have relatives that have been incarcerated, and at least one that was being investigated by the FBI back in the late '70s. Scary stuff. And my husband was in the Navy, so he's in the system, too. The bright side of that is we can be identified if anything ever happens! Otherwise, I don't think I want to know what they know!

Avery Aames said...

Sheila, too funny and yet sort of scary. I think I'd leave it alone for now. Have you ever noticed that people look at you weirdly if you start talking about murder? I warned someone recently not to say they wanted to "kill" someone because ultimately someone would remember and pin a murder on them...that is, if the person ended up dead. Ah, such a power we have with words!!! LOL
Mystery Lovers' Kitchen

Betty Hechtman said...

In the 60's my mother got a call from the FBI asking about my brother. It seems he'd been tutoring Daniel Ellsberg's wife (not sure of the spelling or what exactly he did, but he was some kind of radical) and they found a check made out to my brother.

Even if you didn't end up with a FBI file from those thefts, it's kind of a creepy coincidence that you had connections to all of them.

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, Sheila, I love your trusting innocence! *Of course* they'll respond promptly. *Of course* they'll send you copies of *everything* they have that might relate to you. They live to serve you. Of course they do.

My recommendation: If they've left you alone so far, you should leave them alone in the future.

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