Rough Skies

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

The sheriff slowly holstered his pistol and began to laugh. "Hell, boy," he said, "I was just testing you. No harm done, OK?" The relieved Wansley survived to continue his investigation.

The last time the agent saw Tom Welch was a few weeks before Christmas in 1979 as he sat in a Gregg County courtroom, learning that the sheriff had been convicted of a laundry list of federal offenses and was headed to prison.

There would be other cases after the East Texas investigation, but Wansley began to sense a dulling of his edge. The adrenaline rush, he knew, had begun to fade. Other priorities came into clearer focus.

Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Mark Graham
Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.

In those latter days when he wandered among the thieves and conmen and contract killers, there was another dream that began to visit him regularly. Today, he smiles as he recalls it.

"When you're playing a role," he reflects, "you never sleep soundly. You wake and pace, replaying the previous day, searching for any signs that you might have slipped up. Once you've finally convinced yourself that you did OK, you immediately begin to worry about how you'll handle things the next day." It was, he says, a merry-go-round mind game that had no stopping place.

In the dream, the setting might be different, but the story line never changed. "I'd be talking with some crook, trying to make a deal," he says. "...I'd instinctively know he was suspicious and would talk faster and faster, urgently trying to gain his trust while fighting off this feeling of intimidation. I'd put my hands in my pockets to hide the fact my palms were sweating. And I'd strain to see his face but never could. It was always out of focus, always hidden in the shadows. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't see who he was.

"Looking back on it all, I think the never-ending paranoia and that damn dream was the worst part of the job."

And one of myriad reasons--along with family concerns; he had a wife and two young children--that he finally opted to end his career with the Bureau.

When Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm decided he needed someone who could not only oversee security for the club but also serve as an adviser and mentor to the players, Wansley--ex-Marine boxing champion, one-time undercover jock at Baylor and lifetime sports fan--had a new custom-made career.

"What Larry did," Schramm says, "was pioneer a new position that was eventually adopted by almost every team in the NFL. Not only did he see to long-overlooked security needs--from Valley Ranch to training camp to hotels we'd stay at on the road--but he became a trusted sounding board for the players who had no one else to go to with problems, professional and personal. Larry went out and found experts in everything from financial investment to home security and brought them in to talk with the players and their families. While the coaches prepared them for Sunday's games, Larry was helping them to get ready for life after football."

The Cowboys job wasn't without its tense moments. During the 1984 Monday Night Football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Anaheim, Wansley received an urgent call from the NFL security representative assigned to the game. A death threat against Cowboys coach Tom Landry had just been called in. Somewhere in the stadium, he was told, was a sniper with a high-powered rifle.

It was late in the second quarter as Wansley hurried to the sidelines and made Landry aware of the threat. "I've got to get you off the field," he told the stunned coach. The Cowboys coach was surrounded by security personnel and quickly escorted to a nearby tunnel.

"I explained to him about the threat--which the stadium security director was taking very seriously--and urged him to spend the second half of the game coaching from the press box," Wansley recalls. "But he wouldn't have it. He insisted that his place was with the team. Once I realized that he was determined to return to the sidelines for the second half, I borrowed a [bulletproof] vest from a L.A. police officer working security and had Tom put it on."

For the remainder of the game, Wansley stood alongside the legendary coach, in radio contact with security officials furiously searching the stadium for a possible sniper. "Fortunately," he says, "nothing happened." Although when Danny White stood too close to Landry at one point in the second half, Landry pushed him away, saying, "You might not want to stand too close to me. They might miss and shoot you instead."


Nothing, no amount of law enforcement experience and training, study and review, careful planning or corporate brainstorming, could adequately prepare one for the emotional impact of a tragedy like the one that occurred on September 11, 2001. "Everyone in the command center and every person I spoke with on the phone was in some stage of denial. Something of this magnitude, something this insanely evil, was just impossible to fully comprehend," Wansley says.

And while a stunned nation sat in front of television sets, eager for the next bit of information on the tragedy, it had no idea that much of it was being generated not in Washington or New York, but from the American Airlines command center. "One of the things I found myself doing," Wansley says, "was thinking like an FBI agent again, trying to determine what kind of information they needed and where we might help them get it."

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