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Rough Skies

It began as a bright, promising September morning on the sixth floor of the Dallas-based American Airlines headquarters. Staff members were sipping coffee and mingling as they anticipated the morning's operational meeting. Soon they would be discussing routine items such as flight schedules, maintenance updates and weather conditions at airports...
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It began as a bright, promising September morning on the sixth floor of the Dallas-based American Airlines headquarters. Staff members were sipping coffee and mingling as they anticipated the morning's operational meeting. Soon they would be discussing routine items such as flight schedules, maintenance updates and weather conditions at airports around the world from which more than 700 of their planes would be flying.

Larry Wansley, managing director of corporate security, had arrived early, pleased that on that day he would not be jetting off to San Francisco or London or Rome to address some new crisis. In his ninth year with the world's largest commercial airline, overseeing a staff that had grown to 75, he welcomed those rare days when he was not required to travel.

At 7:45 a.m., however, the leisurely atmosphere changed dramatically. From the airline's nearby command center came an urgent call. American Flight 11, carrying 92 passengers from Boston's Logan Airport, Wansley was told, had been hijacked. Betty Ong, a 45-year-old flight attendant on board, had managed to phone her company supervisor, reporting at least three hijackers with weapons and several passengers injured.

From the vice chairman's office, Wansley phoned Danny Defenbaugh, special agent-in-charge of the Dallas FBI office. It was the first step in the well-researched, secret hijack-response plan all commercial airlines have in place.

As he began relaying the information, Wansley heard a sudden chorus of muted screams from an adjacent conference room. Several female employees, eyes fixed on a television, had just watched a plane fly into the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center.

Phone still in hand, the security director emerged in time to see a cloud of black smoke billowing from the building. In downtown Dallas, Defenbaugh's secretary had entered his office and turned on his TV. "Did you see that?" the FBI agent asked Wansley.

Neither, however, connected the gruesome images they were watching with their own immediate concern. The initial television reports were suggesting that it had been a small, private plane that had flown into the Trade Center. What they had to focus on was how to deal with American's hijacked Boeing 767. Someone else, they agreed, would have to deal with New York's problems.

Then, in a mind-numbing moment as the two longtime friends continued discussing plans, a second plane appeared on their respective TV screens, banking sharply as it headed directly for the South Tower. "Oh, my God," Wansley said.

There was a brief, stunned silence on the other end of the line as the second plane disappeared into a mountainous fireball. Finally, Defenbaugh spoke, his usually booming voice barely a whisper. "The ball game just changed."

Even as the FBI agent made his dramatic proclamation, Wansley was learning that the first plane to collide into the Trade Center had, in fact, been the hijacked American flight.

Thus began the longest day in his life. "At the moment I saw that second plane--United Flight 175--hit the South Tower," he says, "I thought to myself, 'We're at war.'"

For a man whose adult life has played out like a made-for-television movie--filled with adventurous escapades from his detective days with the Compton (California) Police Department, a decade of undercover work as an FBI agent, player counselor and security director for the Dallas Cowboys and manager of security for pop-music diva Whitney Houston's 1988 world tour--September 11, 2001, will forever be the day burned most indelibly into his memory. It is the event that now drives him in the toughest job imaginable, one that will never be complete: to make American Airlines, and the skies through which its planes travel, safe. It's a daunting task, but one that somehow neatly fits the man who has always battled larger-than-life villains.

Even so, more than a year after 9/11, he is still occasionally wakened by a recurring nightmare. In it, he is standing alone on the familiar streets of New York, where once he posed as an underworld wiseguy, when suddenly he hears the roar of a low-flying plane. He looks up in time to see it explode into the side of the South Tower at full throttle. There are flames and smoke and distant screams as people, having jumped from windows in insane desperation, fall to their deaths. He wonders what those on board and those just settling into their offices had been thinking in that last moment before the impact.

In the dream there is never an answer.

Before that infamous day, the journey of Larry Wansley, 60, to the American Airlines corporate headquarters had been one serendipitous adrenaline rush after another. The energetic and personable man from Festus, Missouri, who once dreamed of being an engineer, shakes his head as he admits that he arrived at his life's work by accident.

"I'd just gotten out of the Marines," he says, "and was delivering mail for the Los Angeles Postal Service while taking night courses at L.A. City College. One afternoon after work I ran into an old service buddy and suggested we catch up over a couple of beers. He explained that he was on his way to the civic center where he was going to take an exam, never bothering to mention what it was for. With nothing better to do, I tagged along."

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.

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.

In short order, the situation would worsen. A second American jet, Flight 77, had departed Washington's Dulles Airport but, instead of continuing on to its Los Angeles destination, changed course and crashed into the Pentagon. In Dallas, members of the Care Team would have another 64 families to contact. Then came word that yet another hijacked United airliner, its apparent target the White House, had crashed in a rural area of Pennsylvania.

"I think everyone in the command center was wondering what kind of nightmare we were involved in," Wansley recalls, " but the way they went about their business was remarkable. We were all numb, unable to really grasp the magnitude of what was happening, but because there was so much to be done, there wasn't time to really stop and think about it."

At one point, he remembers, he was carrying on simultaneous conversations on three phones, talking with an FBI agent in Washington, a CIA investigator and a representative of the State Department.

Even before federally ordered to do so, American began grounding its entire fleet, ordering pilots to immediately find the nearest airport and land. "It was a logistical horror," Wansley says. "We had planes scattered all over the world."

In fact, the runways of major airports were turning into huge parking lots.

"We had," Wansley says, "entered uncharted territory." Never before had the fleets of all commercial airlines--as well as private planes--been grounded at the same time. Would airports be able to handle the sudden influx of arrivals? Would the airline company be able to find accommodations for stranded passengers? How long might it be before the mother of all traffic snarls would end?

Most important, why had this tragedy occurred?

For almost a decade, FBI Special Agent Wansley used so many false identities that at times he found it difficult to remember who he really was. During his career as an undercover agent he was involved in such highly publicized cases as the search for kidnapped publishing heiress Patty Hearst and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the investigation of the murder of San Antonio federal Judge John Wood. Posing at various times as an executive of a shady Hollywood-based investment firm, a militant street hustler, the president of a trucking company, a nightclub owner, a newspaper publisher, even an operator of a massage parlor, Wansley found himself in the company of high-rolling members of the New York Mafia, Southern redneck crime figures, law enforcement officials involved in illegal activity, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, stone killers and con artists of every ilk. Briefly, he even played the role of a Baylor football player in an effort to identify gamblers who were allegedly approaching team members for information.

When the FBI broke new investigative ground in the late '70s with an elaborate and highly successful reverse sting operation called Operation Tarpit, Wansley served as the point man, posing as a West Hollywood businessman in the market for stolen goods. For two years burglars and hijackers came to him with truckloads of stolen merchandise--guns, jewelry, clothing, cigarettes, liquor, automobiles, counterfeit bonds and money orders, fake IDs and credit cards--which, in time, resulted in more than 300 arrests and recovery of a record $42 million worth of stolen property.

The culmination of the operation, Wansley says, was an elaborate party to which all of his "customers" were invited. "We rented this huge hall where there would be music, food, champagne, the works, and sent out invitations telling of free cruises and gifts that would be given away." The bad guys came running. Once the guests had all arrived and the exits were manned by fellow agents and Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, the arrests began.

As is the case in all undercover work, there eventually came a time when it was feared that he had become too familiar to too many West Coast underworld figures. In addition to his successful tenure as a buyer of stolen goods, he had mingled with and made cases against kiddie-porn producers, drug dealers and counterfeiters. It was time, the Bureau advised, to move to a new territory.

By midday inside the American command center, duties were being carried out with military-like precision. "It was chaotic, but it was organized," Wansley remembers. "Everyone knew his or her job and was getting it done."

Once the fast-paced flow of information had begun, the security director turned much of his attention to the needs of FBI investigators. He was soon placing calls to intelligence sources he had developed throughout the world in an effort to help learn more about the hijackers and their mission, searching passenger lists for any clue they might provide, all while continuing to coordinate with operational department officials attempting to secure lodging and ground transportation for American's stranded customers.

It would be 72 hours before he finally heard the voice of a person he'd badly wanted to speak with since the insanity had begun. Rich Davis, the chief of United Airlines security, was on the phone.

"I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was absolutely exhausted," Wansley recalls. "We all were. But, just to talk with someone--probably the only other person in the world who understood what I was feeling at the time--was a much-needed lift.

"We talked for a few minutes, trying to offer each other a little encouragement. I remember telling him that he and I had just become unwitting members of a very exclusive club."

"Yeah," Davis had wearily replied.

"Let's just hope the membership never grows," Wansley added.

From California, Wansley returned to Texas, assigned to the Bureau office in Dallas. "I thought it would be nice to just do routine field work for a while," he recalls. It was not to be. Shortly after his arrival he was handed a thick file on a corrupt Gregg County sheriff named Tom Welch, described as a "one-man crime wave" who was turning his back on such illegal activities as gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking and fencing of stolen goods--so long as he received a cut of the profits. Wansley headed for Longview in a flashy Cadillac provided by the Bureau, this time posing as a front man for a Las Vegas crime organization interested in establishing illegal gambling operations in Texas. They planned to start, Wansley would explain, with a casino in the East Texas county watched over by Sheriff Welch.

For several weeks all went well. He flashed an impressive bankroll in nightclubs like the New Yorker, El Greco and The Night Life along the highway between Longview and Kilgore, mingling with the region's ne'er-do-wells and dropping hints that he had come looking for "new business opportunities." It wasn't long before he was invited to visit the sheriff's office.

"He didn't beat around the bush," Wansley remembers. "He made it clear that he ran the county and wanted to know what kind of 'business' I was interested in. When I explained that 'my people' were looking for a place to open a gambling joint, he even drove me out to an isolated farmhouse near the county line, suggesting it would be an ideal place."

On the way, Sheriff Welch made it clear that he expected to be involved. Wansley remembers the conversation well: "I assume you understand there are people you're going to have to cut in on the action," the sheriff told him. "Gambling's against the law, but if everything's done right, you won't have to ever worry about getting raided."

It was the lawman's next suggestion that chilled the undercover agent: "If you run into any trouble," the sheriff said, "and any bodies show up, they damn well need to be found on the other side of the county line. I don't like any trouble here in my county."

Having no real intention of actually opening up a gambling operation, Wansley stalled for time while building his case. Finally, he says, the sheriff became suspicious of his slow progress.

One evening, as he was leaving one of the Longview clubs, Wansley was greeted by a deputy who informed him the sheriff would like to speak with him. He was driven to an oil field outside of town where Welch, flashing the same good-ol'-boy smile he'd shown in previous meetings, was waiting. After a few minutes of small talk, he asked about the remodeling progress at the farmhouse.

Wansley recounts what occurred from that point in his 1989 autobiography, FBI Undercover: The True Story of Special Agent "Mandrake":

"In a matter of minutes the lights of downtown Longview were behind us and we were driving down a farm-to-market road at a speed that would have earned a ticket for anyone but the county sheriff. The conversation dissolved into an uncomfortable silence.

"Without explanation, Welch slowed and turned onto a dirt road. He drove past a row of pumps that lazily nodded like giant metallic hobbyhorses, carefully avoiding the ruts until we came to an opening near one of the derricks. Killing the engine, he turned to me and said, 'Let's take a walk.'

"There is something about the darkness that seems to amplify the sounds of night. The rhythmic grinding of pumps, the tiny shrill insect sounds and the crunch of our steps along a path leading away from the derrick provided an almost dreamlike atmosphere.

"'Peaceful out here, isn't it?' the sheriff asked. At the moment, I was feeling every emotion but peace."

The sheriff, Wansley remembers, reminded him of their previous conversations, then expressed concern that perhaps the gambling operation was already up and running without his knowledge.

"As he talked," Wansley writes, "he had slowed his walk slightly and was a step behind me. The next thing I was aware of was the cold steel of a gun barrel pressing behind one ear.

"'Dammit,' the sheriff said, 'much as I hate to say it, I just don't feel like I can trust you.' I heard the hammer cock as he pressed the gun harder against my head. 'Someone screws me around,' he said, 'he only does it once.'"

As he spoke, they reached the edge of a large hole in the ground that, Wansley recalls, looked to him very much like a freshly dug grave.

"When you're working undercover," he says, "a lot of what you do is unscripted; you just fly by the seat of your pants. All I could think was that I didn't want my life to end at the bottom of a hole in that godforsaken place." Thus he immediately went on the offensive, cursing the sheriff for his stupidity. "You're about to let the sweetest deal you've ever had go out the window. My people know ways of making money you've never even thought of. And you're standing here, wanting to blow my head off."

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.

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."

In a sense, the security director reverted to the role of investigator. In the process, he violated one of his own rules.

"We'd learned over the years," he says, "that in time of a major crisis people want to do everything they possibly can to help. At some point, though, fatigue inevitably sets in and efficiency suffers. So, we had devised a plan whereby members of the staff would work in shifts, relieved for a time in order to get some rest."

Yet for three days Wansley never left the command center, didn't sleep and rarely put down a phone. Only when it was announced that commercial air service could begin and the tangled web of flight plans were organized did he finally walk into the sunlight.

It was as he drove toward home that a sudden, gripping wave of depression swept over him. "I found myself feeling that I'd let everyone down. I was the person--the man in the mirror--whose job it was to see that our planes, our crews, our passengers were safe, and yet this terrible thing had somehow happened on my watch. And I was feeling that it was my fault."

In retrospect, he now realizes that it was only his fatigue playing games. He knows that, in truth, there was nothing he or his staff could have done.

It would be almost two months before he finally visited New York's Ground Zero to see the devastation of that infamous day firsthand. There just had not been time; too many meetings to devise stepped-up measures of airline security; too many new plans to be put in place in hopes of avoiding such an event in the future--or, God forbid, should it ever happen again, an improved routine of response; too much work necessary to assure the public that the skies were again safe to fly.

By the time he made the trip, he learned that he, like so many others throughout the country, had lost someone in the terrorist attack. John O'Neill, his longtime friend and former FBI agent, had been the director of security for the World Trade Center at the time and was now listed among the dead.

Walking with a New York police officer into the cavern where the World Trade Center towers had crumbled, he silently watched as search and rescue crews went about their grim assignments, clearing away debris, looking for bodies. "It was an indescribable experience," he recalls.

Larry Wansley thought he'd seen it all: horrific homicide scenes as a cop, man's repeated inhumanity to man as an FBI agent, the death and destruction that resulted when an American jetliner had crashed into a Colombian mountainside in '95. But never anything like this.

"As we made our way through the rubble," he recalls, "the cop I was with pointed toward a man isolated from the others, digging with only a shovel and his hands. 'He's a retired fireman,' the policeman told me. 'He's been here every day, dawn till dark. He's looking for his son.'

"For several minutes I stood watching him, dusty and dirty and in an almost trancelike state. You could literally see the pain on his face. I tried to imagine what was going through his mind. And if anyone had tried to talk with him.

"'No,' I was told, 'he doesn't want to be interrupted. He's got a job to do.'"

That night, as he sat alone in his hotel room, a safe distance from the ugly landscape he'd visited, Wansley found himself thinking of the bereaved and tireless father. And wondering what manner of dark dreams must now haunt his sleep.

(Dallas Observer staff writer Carlton Stowers co-authored Larry Wansley's FBI Undercover: The True Story of Special Agent "Mandrake," published in 1988 by Pocket Books.)

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