Former FBI agent sought justice for victims of hate crimes

LWV program chair Cindy Dunne, Cynthia Deitle and 2018-19 league co-president Linda Doucette-Ashman.

In May 1970, when Cynthia Deitle was 13, she saw a photo that changed her life. It was John Filo’s famous image of a kneeling girl screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller, shot by the Ohio National Guard during an antiwar protest at Kent State University.

Deitle, who lived near the university, was horrified to find out that innocent college students could be slaughtered by government agents. She wrote her first school paper about the incident, learning as she researched that things are not always as they seem. The screaming girl in the photograph was not a Kent student or friend of the victim, but rather a 14 year-old runaway who just happened on the scene.

At the Scarsdale Golf Club last Friday, May 10, Deitle told the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale that the Kent State incident sparked in her a sympathy for victims, especially those hurt by government officials or agents — “the worst thing ever.” She became a lawyer, then joined the FBI as a special agent and civil rights chief. She is now program and operations director for the Matthew Shephard Foundation, a group that advocates and educates on issues of tolerance. She also trains law enforcement agencies and communities across the country in recognizing and enforcing the federal hate crime laws.

Deitle was introduced by LWV director and attorney Cindy Dunne, whom she knew through her work.

After the Kent State photograph, Deitle showed a 1997 photograph of NYPD detective Richard Ford with his arm around a miserable looking black boy, about 12 years old. The boy “was among the most vulnerable — he had nothing going for him — never knew his dad,” Deitle said. Ford brought the boy with him on a trip to the FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. and sexually assaulted him in a hotel room “If he did it once, he did it again — we know how this works,” said Deitle. Other underage boys came forward and revealed to her that Ford had sexually abused them as well. Believing “someone had to do right by this boy,” Deitle pitched the case to the prosecutor and called the office of FBI director Louis Freeh when she got no response. They stalled, but eventually Detective Ford was brought to trial. He pled guilty and spent five years in jail. Sometimes you have to go to the top to get justice for a powerless client, Deitle learned.

The next photo she showed was of a black man lying in a hospital bed. Someone in the audience recognized Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was severely beaten and sodomized with a broom handle by NYC police in 1997. Deitle visited Louima every month for two years as he suffered from the aftermath of the attack, unable to work and support his wife and children and requiring ongoing medical care. As she tried to help him rebuild his life, she urged him to stand with her when she spoke publicly about police brutality, but he declined. Much as she wanted to raise public awareness and create a more humane society, she realized that “it was selfish of me to want to use him after what happened. It’s about him — not [Mayor Rudolph] Giuiliani, the police, society or anything else.” In other words, it was up to Louima to decide how to deal with the crime committed against him

Louima’s attacker, Justin Volpe, pled guilty and is serving 30 years to life.

Deitle showed a photo of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who is serving six life sentences in a federal prison for conspiring to kill Americans as part of Sept. 11 attacks. “No matter how bad you are, you have a right not to be mistreated in prison,” she said. “No matter how much we were all grieving for victims, we must treat prisoners with respect.” Government agents and officers risk being unpopular to do what is right, no matter how they feel about a person in their custody or what he did.

Zoran Teodorovic, a mentally ill homeless man, died in December 2001, 14 months after being beaten by a Westchester County jail guard named Paul Cote. Teodorovic was charged with trespass, a misdemeanor, for barbecuing a steak in someone else’s backyard.

He had no money so he was remanded to county jail where he hit a guard who had asked him to clean his cell. The guard wrestled him to the floor and Cote joined the fray, pummeling Teodorovic and stomping on his head.

Teodorovic was in a coma for more than a year before dying from his injuries. Getting justice for Teodorovic took years, Deitle said, but finally Cote was sentenced to six years in prison for the vicious attack.

Many in the audience recognized the photo of Matthew Shephard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie on the night of Oct. 6, 1998. 

Deitle went to the White House and met Matthew’s parents, Dennis and Judy. “They never wanted what happened to them to happen to someone else,” Deitle said, and the Shepards became strong advocates for gay rights. They fought for 11 years to get a law passed expanding the FBI’s jurisdiction to adjudicate crimes against the LGBT community and now travel around the world advocating tolerance.

Deitle’s efforts to make amends for FBI failures were not always appreciated by the families of victims. The FBI’s Cold Cases Initiative was formed to investigate racially motivated murders of the 1960s, including that of Wharlest Jackson, killed with a bomb in 1967 after accepting a promotion at the Armstrong Tire & Rubber plant in Natchez, Tenn., a job that usually went to white men. According to the FBI’s Cold Case website, the investigation into Jackson’s murder generated 10,000 pages of documents that pointed to suspects, but more than four decades later, his killers have eluded identification and escaped prosecution. “This family hated the FBI, Deitle said. “I said, please let me help. We failed you, we owe you more than this. It wasn’t my apology to give, but I had to try.”

As the lead agency for investigating civil rights violations, the FBI is naturally focused on investigations and enforcement. But Deitle was reminded again and again of the importance of listening to the victims, especially when interviewing people who had lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks and Boston marathon bombing. In the latter case, Deitle watched an agent asking survivors factual questions and writing down their answers without looking at the people or acknowledging their loss. Deitle interrupted and gave the family an opportunity to talk personally about the victims, which is what she sensed they needed to do. She apologized for the FBI’s inability to prevent the bombing.

“Be the change you want to see,” Deitle advised the league audience. “Every great power fails in time — are we so conceited that we think we’re not going to fail? What will do us in? We’re going to implode from within.” It can be easy for a leader to incite fear and resentment of people perceived as “the other.” She cited the example of Bosnia, where neighbors slaughtered neighbors with whom they had previously lived peacefully because a leader told them to.

“You are all advocates, eyes and ears for the good,” she concluded. “Use what you have to do what you can.”

After the talk, an audience member asked what it was like to be an FBI agent now, with all the criticism of the Department of Justice. “The system as a whole is not broken,” Deitle said. “I wish the director now was much more forceful in defending FBI.”

Sometimes, she said, it’s hard for agents to recognize threats against minorities. They may see just a piece of rope where targeted people see a noose or they may interpret a swastika as mere vandalism. “We tell chiefs all they time have to be in touch with people, Deitle said. “Fear spreads via social media. People hear about an attack on someone and think, ‘I’m next.’”

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