about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

20 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Post, March 4, 2002.

Experience at Work in FBI Anthrax Case

'Meticulous' Chief of Washington Field Office Looks to Crack the Deadly Scare

By Allan Lengel, Washington Post Staff Writer

In the late 1950s, at age 12, Van Harp caddied at the Sunningdale Golf Course in Toledo and occasionally carried clubs for a dapper dresser with a penchant for gambling. Harp would pocket $20 a day and sometimes double that if the golfer bet and won.

Some 40 years later, Harp, who had become an FBI agent, arrested the man, noted mobster Sal Vitello, in a 1998 drug sting at an Interstate truck stop in south Toledo.

"Small world," a bemused Harp said during a recent interview at his office near Judiciary Square.

Harp's 32-year career with the FBI brought him to the nation's capital in July to head the bureau's Washington field office. He arrived from Cleveland, expecting to focus on public corruption -- an area in which he has expertise. But Sept. 11 changed all that, and now much of his attention centers on anti-terrorism probes in a city regarded as a prime target. He also is overseeing the bureau's anthrax investigation.

"I feel pretty fortunate to be here," he said. "I look back, I've learned something from everything I've done and everyone I've worked with. Hopefully, I can use some of that to help the team that is working on this."

Harp, a fit 56-year-old who jogs a few times a week, was vacationing Sept. 11 in Hilton Head, S.C., with his wife, four children and six grandchildren. His secretary paged him, and he flipped on the television to see the second plane slam into the World Trade Center.

All planes were grounded, so the the FBI arranged for state troopers in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia to drive him back to Washington. But an FBI plane received a waiver, and Harp was able to fly home.

Since then, the anti-terrorism and anthrax probes have consumed much of his time.

At work by 6:30 a.m., Harp puts in at least 13-hour days, including a 3 p.m. meeting every weekday with the FBI's anthrax squad.

"I may have the equivalent of an undergraduate microbiology degree by the time it's done," he said, only half-kidding. "We have a very broad but focused, deliberate and aggressive investigative effort."

With the help of investigators, scientists and a $2.5 million reward, Harp said, "I firmly believe we're going to solve" the anthrax case and find out who sent contaminated letters through the mail. He said some key tests expected to be completed in 30 to 90 days "could narrow the field" of suspects.

"We're focused that it may be an individual, possibly with an accomplice, but we're not excluding a group, either domestically or internationally," he said.

FBI agents in Washington also are involved in other anti-terrorism efforts, including finding out whether al Qaeda has a presence in the region. So far, they're not sure.

"We don't know, but we are working very actively -- not only the FBI, but virtually all the local and federal agencies," Harp said. "We're utilizing every technique we can, [including,] if the situation warrants it, court-authorized wiretaps."

Colleagues describe Harp as a quick study who offers helpful tips to agents. In Ohio, where he oversaw FBI operations in the northern part of the state from 1996 until last year, one agent called him "very meticulous. He paid a lot of attention to detail. He asked questions."

Some agents, at first, thought he was too much of a micromanager.

"But that disappeared as time went on and they realized his positive attributes" and contributions he could make to a case, the agent said.

"He really can contribute to an investigation," added Joseph Persichini, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Cleveland. "It's not dictatorial, it's a team concept."

Harp sees himself as low-key. In conversation, he mentions a television interview he recently saw of Yankee great Yogi Berra.

"He was one of my idols," Harp said. "He was kind of quiet, effective behind the scenes. And that's pretty much the way I've always done it. I'm not self-promoting."

Harp grew up in Toledo, the son of a builder. He earned an athletic scholarship to play football and baseball at the University of Toledo, where he majored in business. He met his future wife, Patricia Meck, in college, and they married in 1967.

He graduated that year, taking a marketing job with a tire company in Findley, Ohio. But his father died, so he returned home to work in a carburetor factory and run a home construction business.

One night, he went out for beers with his fraternity brothers and "someone mentioned" the FBI.

"It sounded interesting." He applied and got the nod to come aboard, he said, then "almost didn't go" because he wasn't sure "if I really wanted to do this."

Harp started in 1970 in the Little Rock office, where he got investigative experience -- and a taste of hostility. A suspect in rural southwestern Arkansas threatened him during an investigation of the beating of a black man.

The man "was getting belligerent" during an interview, Harp said, and told him, "You know, a person out here alone wandering around these necks of the woods could get hurt."

"I said, 'Look, is that a threat by any chance?' He said, 'No, I'm not threatening you. Just want to make sure you be careful.' "

In 1971, Harp was transferred to Detroit. He went to Lansing, Mich., the next year.

"He had a good reputation," said former Detroit FBI agent John Anthony. "He was obviously slated for management advancement. He could manage cases, manage agents."

Harp worked a variety of cases in Michigan -- from organized crime to bank robberies. And after former Teamster boss James Hoffa disappeared in 1975, Harp followed up leads on Hoffa's whereabouts, once helping oversee excavation of a freeway ramp under construction.

In the early 1990s, as the No. 2 agent in the Buffalo office, he oversaw the investigation of one-time Rochester police chief Gordon Urlacher, who was convicted of embezzling police funds.

In Cleveland, he assigned extra agents to Youngstown, Ohio, to clean up corruption. The result: the indictment of about 70 organized crime figures and politicians, including Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), who is on trial on bribery and racketeering charges.

Harp will turn 57 in May, the FBI's mandatory retirement age, but he has been given a year's extension.

He hopes to crack the anthrax case before he retires.

The probe is "very, very technical and sophisticated" and probably one of the most difficult and challenging investigations of his career, he said, leaning back in his chair.

"Since I have the experience that I do," he added, "I might as well be in the middle of it."