Rough Skies

Larry Wansley--former Marine, cop and FBI agent--has his biggest task ahead of him: making American Airlines safe from terrorism

Rather than wait outside, Wansley decided to also take the test--which, he learned only after entering the auditorium, was for admission to the Compton Police Academy.

His friend flunked. Wansley passed. He reported to the academy in the summer of 1965 and soon became only the sixth black member sworn onto the Compton force.

For the next eight years he would help police some of the meanest streets in the country. The Compton homicide rate in those days was quite high; gangs terrorized the neighborhoods, the drug trade was rampant and a historic burn-and-loot riot in neighboring Watts, causing $200 million in damage, spilled into his jurisdiction. Deep-night gun battles were commonplace, visits to the coroner's office to witness autopsies routine.

The bodyguard: Larry Wansley ran security for one of pop diva Whitney Houston's tours.
The bodyguard: Larry Wansley ran security for one of pop diva Whitney Houston's tours.
Larry Wansley keeps mementos in his office to remind him of his days as head of security with the Dallas Cowboys, a position he helped pioneer in the NFL.
Mark Graham
Larry Wansley keeps mementos in his office to remind him of his days as head of security with the Dallas Cowboys, a position he helped pioneer in the NFL.

He had been on vacation on the day that a terrorist's bomb tore a gaping hole in the wall of the police station. Watching news reports of the event, Wansley saw that one of the disheveled offices exposed by the blast was his.

It was, however, not all grim and life-threatening as he steadily advanced to the rank of detective bureau commander. There was, for instance, the matter of the nickname he'd earned during his patrolman days, one that would follow him throughout his law enforcement career.

One morning, as he'd sat in the break room reading the Los Angeles Times comics before going on duty, a detective asked that he participate in a lineup along with a suspect in a series of local robberies. Having never served as a fill-in during such a procedure, Wansley wasn't sure what was involved.

"Just stand there and look mean," the veteran detective instructed.

One by one the "suspects" were told to step forward and state their names. The still-green patrol officer froze, suddenly wondering if he was to use his real name. The man standing next to him identified himself as Willie McGruder.

Next came Wansley. "Mandrake McGruder," he blurted.

There was a lengthy silence on the opposite side of the one-way mirror before the detective asked, "Are you...uh...any kin to the other McGruder?"

"Cousins," Wansley replied in a strained attempt to carry out the charade.

It was later when the detective, shaking his head in disbelief, sought him out. "Mandrake McGruder?" he chided. "Where in the hell did that come from? A million names in the world and you couldn't think of one different from the guy standing next to you? And Mandrake? The only place I've ever seen that one is in the funny papers."

The embarrassed Wansley admitted that he'd been reading the "Mandrake the Magician" comic strip just before entering the lineup room. "Hey, it was the first thing that popped into my head," he explained.

From that day forward, he was called "Mandrake." In time, its origin was forgotten and the assumption grew that it had likely been assigned to him because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. "I didn't want to tell anyone who didn't already know what the real story was," he says.

It was not the ever-present dangers of the job but, rather, politics that eventually drove him to a career change. In the spring of 1973, with homicide investigations piling up, Wansley was summoned to his captain's office and instructed to immediately assign several detectives to a routine burglary case. A television set, he was told, had been stolen from the house of a close friend of the mayor.

Reminding the captain of the overload of unsolved murders his detectives were already working, Wansley refused. The captain, eager to keep peace with city hall, pointed out that he was passing along a personal request from the mayor and that his refusal was an inexcusable act of insubordination. The detective agreed and walked from the office, leaving the case file on the captain's desk.

His next stop would be Quantico, Virginia, where he would begin training at the FBI Academy.


"Historically," Wansley says while in his office near D-FW International Airport, "our entire security system as it related to hijackings was based on the predictable experiences of the past. A hijacker always wanted one of three things: to be taken someplace by the plane he'd taken over, money or the release of someone being held prisoner. And always--always--he wanted to safely get away with what he was attempting.

"Suicidal terrorism was something that might happen in other parts of the world, but never in the United States."

That, he notes, is what Special Agent Defenbaugh had meant when he suggested that "the ball game had just changed." A new form of enemy, one not properly prepared for, had invaded.

Such were Wansley's thoughts that morning as he made a hurried drive from corporate headquarters to the airline's command center. Already, a flurry of pre-planned activity was in motion when he arrived. The FBI was setting up its own command post, reviewing the passenger manifest of Flight 11 and replaying the recording of the heroic flight attendant's warning call. In an adjacent room, the airline's Care Team was putting its own training into action, checking flight manifests and making preparations for contacting family members of those lost in the crash.

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