Building a Better FBI Agent

John Mallul (O’Hara Class, 1983) was born and raised in Detroit. His father worked at the local Cadillac car plant as a machine repairman on the factory floor for 44 years. As much as his father never was in jeopardy of being laid off or let go, Mallul and his family felt the devastating effect the troubles in the car industry had on the city of Detroit.

“Everybody felt the pain,” declared Mallul. “Not only did everyone’s parent feel it, but so did their children, their aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews – everybody was laid off. You couldn’t even go to your family for help because they were in the throes of their own crisis.

“That was it. I didn’t want to ever be dependent upon anyone. Or dependent on the economy – good, bad or indifferent. Or dependent on a business. I wanted to be self-sufficient and responsible for myself, which meant it needed to be a professional career. In my mind, at the time, right or wrong, there were only two true professions; law or medicine.”

That mindset, and Mallul’s independent nature, paved the road ahead.

“I knew that I needed to first go to college, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I came to realize that it was the legal profession that would give me the ability to really be independent. I never even entertained the idea of working for a firm. I only considered a career as a sole practitioner. That was my main motivation to go to law school.”

After graduating from Michigan State University in the spring of 1978, Mallul started law school the following January in WMU-Cooley’s evening program. Mallul’s father, despite modest means, paid for his son’s tuition for both undergrad and law school, and Mallul worked to pay his living expenses.

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All was going as planned – until the bottom fell out.

“Halfway through law school I got the call that my mom passed away suddenly from a heart attack,” remembered Mallul. “She was only 56. I could’ve handled it more maturely. I remember being angry, incredibly angry. And my grades reflected it. I took a term off and came home to help my father with the adjustment. At the time I wanted to drop out, but my father talked me into sticking with it. I am very thankful he did.”

Despite the time away from law school, Mallul’s graduation was only delayed slightly. He graduated in 1982, and had hoped he could continue working as a clerk with a local law firm.

“Interestingly enough,” said Mallul, “the man I worked for during law school came up to me the day after I graduated, and said, ‘Well, I’m not going to need you anymore.’ I was stunned. After catching my breath, I asked him, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He said, simply, ‘Well, you’re going to take the bar exam and you’re going be a lawyer. I can’t afford you at that point. Nonetheless I’m going to pay you, regardless.’ He took out his checkbook and wrote me three months worth of pay and told me to put it in the bank and go home and study for the bar exam. As much as it shocked me, it also impressed me.

“It wasn’t much after I passed the bar exam that I approached a woman attorney right down the block from the law school about sharing space at her firm. It was appealing to me, plus the office arrangement was good. We had two secretaries and a clerk. The arrangement worked out ideally because she gave me nearly all of her criminal work, and I handed over cases that were more up her alley. I had so much criminal case work at that point that I found myself in court probably four or five times a week. Although I never considered myself a public speaker, I fell in love with presenting a case to a jury. I really did. I was thoroughly engrossed with trial work and I did that for the next three years.”


So what was it that turned Mallul’s head from a successful solo practice attorney to a career as an FBI agent? Serendipity and great timing it would seem.

“Back in law school I had an Ethics professor who, by coincidence, was also a former FBI agent. He also happened to live across the street from me. One day I was returning from a run when he saw me and flagged me down. We ended up that day sitting on his porch and talking for hours about his career as an FBI agent.

“I started thinking about how I might like a career as an FBI agent – but I also knew there was a lot to consider, especially since I was newly married and everything, including work was going so well. The only negative was that my mother and fatherin-law despised attorneys. I remember my mother-in-law saying to me, ‘Why don’t you do something worthwhile and useful in your life, like joining the FBI? I understand they like to hire attorneys.’


“I don’t believe I changed careers for my in-laws, but I was thinking to myself that I had spent my entire life in the state of Michigan, and, if I was being honest with myself, the idea of traveling as an FBI agent intrigued me. But I was so conflicted because I had just spent three years building my own practice from the bottom up. I was now financially self-sufficient. I even had a brand new car. For once in my life, my bills were paid and everything was fine.”

What struck a chord for Mallul, though, was that the FBI was hiring. The more Mallul thought about it, the more he knew he needed to try. It was an opportunity he would never have again. And he knew if things didn’t work out, he still had a career as an attorney in private practice.

Mallul applied that year to the FBI, indicating that he was an attorney. The timing was fortuitous because in 1986 the FBI’s attorney pool was at a bare minimum.

They not only accepted Mallul, they put him on the FBI fast track.

“The fastest you could progress through the FBI’s application process at that time was approximately a year, from start to finish, which is what I was able to do,” explained Mallul. “Once you apply, you need to take their exam, pass their preliminary, then their full background check, then you go through the entire selection process. As a new agent, it was no nonsense. You were bought and paid for by them. Every minute of every day was their time. They told you what to do and what not to do.

“I spent four months at Quantico. I remember thinking to myself, ‘John, what did you do to yourself? You just checked yourself into the county lock up for the next four months, and this was your idea.’ I had to laugh! Yet I was impressed by their training.”

Mallul not only felt his legal background was incredibly helpful during his training, but in advancing his career with the bureau.

“As much as the bureau training attempted to do a brief legal explanation, things like what it takes to do a search warrant, interview techniques, and other very basic concepts, it didn’t compare to what I knew as an attorney,” stated Mallul. “In private practice I spent a lot of time in criminal work. I knew what was what, and how to do it. No other career prepares you as well.”


Mallul knew he wanted to work in a big city, and requested an assignment to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. In June of 1986, he was assigned to the Windy City.


“My pay was $20,000 a year, and my wife and I lived in a modest apartment in downtown Chicago. My rent was a paycheck and a half for me, so financially it was actually a backward step.”

Although Mallul had paid attention to the national criminal scene while in Michigan, he recognized that he never had been truly exposed to it. But that was what he wanted to do.

“I wanted to work in either public corruption or organized crime,” conveyed Mallul of his aspirations with the bureau. “I realized I was in the right place at the right time. It was the week that the Spilotro brothers went missing. The infamous Outfit murder of the two of them. I ultimately spent my entire career on organized crime.

“My first organized crime squad was in March of 1988. The case agent was a real mentor to me. He was one of the best. He knew I was new, and that I didn’t have other case work, so he took me under his wing. I worked for him, with him, and at his direction for many years. We spoke to countless witnesses and obtained a number of grand jury indictments. I learned how to cover cases on every level. It was thrilling.

“Then in February of 1990, we indicted an entire ‘street crew’ – 20 individuals, from the top down, for racketeering.

“We had the principal bookmaker who participated in the murder of two other rival bookmakers. He had set them both up. He even brought them to the scene. He thought he in turn was going to be murdered, so he rolled. He gave it up to the bureau. He gave the entire case. He was on the stand for six weeks.

“For a year and a half in pre-trial prep, I traveled every week to talk to previous grand jury witnesses. They had been everywhere; every corner of the United States. Some were in witness protection and some had just fled. We tracked each of them down, found them, talked to them, and brought them in for trial. There were three murders, multiple counts of beatings, extortions, and other violent acts.”

For over three decades Mallul worked in high profile criminal case work.

Mallul was also instrumentally involved in the bureau’s work to help clean up organized crime affiliations in national and local union leadership roles. He spent years traveling to the East Coast bringing administrative actions and DOJ criminal referrals against union members.

“We fortunately had a number of cooperating individuals to make it all work. I eventually became squad supervisor in Chicago. Ultimately we brought what’s called the ‘Family Secrets’ case against three different ‘crews’ of the Chicago Outfit crime organization. We indicted 11 individuals for racketeering, to include 18 prior gangland murders, which was a big event. Five defendants went to trial, which lasted over three months. They were mostly bosses, to the tune of criminals like Frank Calabrese Sr., Joey Lombardo, and James ‘Little Jimmy’ Marcello, all having been involved in various racketeering murders.

“I spent a great deal of time with our cooperating witness, Nick Calabrese. He told us of his involvement, where he was the one to bring the person to the scene, or the one who had helped dispose of the body, or having actually committed the murder himself. We got him to take the stand for the trial. The jury convicted everyone.

“I think the bureau and the entire squad did a phenomenal job. It is one of the landmark cases in Chicago. It was on the news every night.”


Outside of what one might see on television, a great FBI agent needs certain skills and attributes.

According to Mallul, the best qualities depend on the type of work one does for the bureau. But for the type of work he did – case work – he felt the agent’s personality is incredibly important. You need to be uniquely qualified to do interviews, develop cases, author court-ordered intercepts, do body recordings, forensic work, and research.

“It’s good if an agent can get someone to cooperate, but what you really need is someone who is willing to take the stand,” pointed out Mallul. “Although we’ve brought cases without testimony, like wiretap material into court without a source establishing the basis, it makes the job much harder, and sometimes impossible.

“You need to be able to develop sources, almost befriend them, because you need to be able to establish some affinity between you and the individual. That’s always the key factor, because you need someone who can talk to people at their level. If you don’t do that, it’s a long road.


“I felt I was good at that. I operated a number of different sources. This is gonna sound bad, but I like going to Las Vegas. I have played blackjack and have thrown dice and everything else. I’ve won and I’ve lost. I know what it’s like to lose. When you’re talking to an informant who gambles, you can empathize. You can appreciate what they’re going through.

“Unfortunately, I also have smoked cigarettes and I’ve had a drink or two. But it makes it easier for me to relate to some individuals. I don’t talk down to them. I empathize with their human nature. This is not to say that you need to smoke cigarettes, drink and gamble to be an agent, but my point is that you need to be credible with people if you are going to be able to develop sources.

“I also have tried to impart this to newer agents. If you’re going to hold yourself up by some ethical, moral or religiously superior standard, that’s a big mistake. You won’t get far. You’re not going to develop any meaningful human interaction. If that’s how you want to conduct yourself, you should go into forensic work with the evidence recovery team, or stick to paper, or go to headquarters, where you just talk to other agents.”


“Throughout my career, I’ve been asked by friends, neighbors, and just people I’ve met during my everyday life, if I might talk to their son or daughter, or even a nephew. I always encourage every young person to attend law school first. I truly do, because a legal education provides you such clarity of thinking. You learn to appreciate the dynamics surrounding you for the rest of your life. You’d like to think that individuals would have that ability before, but honestly, it’s only in law school where you can get that kind of training.”


When Mallul started with the FBI, the mandatory retirement age was 55, which was subsequently extended to 57. The latest someone could apply was 35, and subsequently to 37. “The bureau actually extended my retirement age by a year because I had a case coming up on a scheduled trial date and they allowed me to finish it. I ultimately retired at 58, after the trial was wrapped up.

“It was an absolute privilege being with the bureau. I never once found myself on Sunday evening wishing I didn’t have to go to work the next day. I was excited to work on Monday morning. For me it was like entertainment. I just loved the job. I enjoyed every moment of it.

“Now I work as a licensed private investigator. It’s very, very simple. I still work on criminal cases, right now on a murder case. I have worked on both the plaintiff and defense sides of clergy abuse cases. Most of my work is through attorneys who need some sort of investigative or background work performed before a settlement or trial. I’ve done work for major corporations, administrate agency litigation, and insurance fraud cases. I still love getting up to work every day.”

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This article was originally published in the December 2017 edition of Benchmark Magazine.