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FBI alum builds life behind the badge

Bill Matens

Bill Matens '67

Bill Matens ’67 feared the worst when he received a call from the FBI his freshman year at Illinois State. The request for him and roommate Ken Hancock ’69 to “come down and talk” could only mean one thing.

“We thought we were in trouble,” Matens said.

A bank had been robbed in their hometown of Heyworth. During his investigation, Special Agent Art Woods asked bank employee Eva Rees to recommend some recruits. It turned out the boys were wanted by the FBI—but in a good way.

Matens had some knowledge of the Bureau from watching the television show The F.B.I. starring Efrem Zimbalst Jr. But as an art major, he was not considering such a career path. After receiving his degree, Matens went to Springfield as a field engineer and later an investigator for the state attorney general. The jobs kept him close enough to FBI work that in 1969 he got another call from the Bureau.

“I told them that I was considering law school and they told me we had enough attorneys in the United States, and to go to the training Academy at Marine Base Quantico,” Matens said.

Unknown to Matens, the experience would ultimately lead him to serve as a bomb technician, SWAT team member, hostage negotiator, and court-approved terrorism/bombing matters expert in both the U.S. and Canada. He would also join the country’s expanded counterterrorism effort in the 1980s, including being part of a team that would solve the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Mementos collected by Bill Matens ’67 reflect the uniqueness of his work. One is made from the shattered Murrah Building facade, above. Pieces were laser-etched for those who investigated the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

He did know the training at Quantico would be intense. He took a six-week photography class in two days. He fired 3,600 rounds during his 14 weeks there. That amount, while standard for the FBI, is the most of any police or government agency. And it’s no picnic working with a weapon in the winter.

“When it’s 6 degrees, snow blowing, and you’re out there shooting…Wow!” Matens said.

Once credentialed as a special agent, he was sent to Natchez, Mississippi. His work primarily dealt with the Ku Klux Klan and organized crime. On Thanksgiving Day of 1970, he experienced his first raid.

The target was a gambling circuit run by the Carlos Marcello organized crime family. Matens was paired with veteran Special Agent Jerry Parker. He quickly learned that following an experienced agent is the best strategy. Once the three-day raid ended, Matens came to a realization.

“I would wake up mornings and think, ‘My god! They gave me a gun and a badge and the powers of arrest…and they’re paying me too. Life doesn’t get any better than this.’ It was a whole $10,252 a year to start, but it was like I had died and gone to heaven.”

After a year Matens went to New Mexico to work crimes committed on military bases, fugitive cases, and bank robberies. It was during this time he experienced one of his scariest moments while working a bank robbery in Albuquerque. When Matens entered the robber’s apartment, the criminal attempted to pull the trigger of his handgun, ready to fire. Fortunately he had forgotten to remove the safety. The moment was a reminder to Matens that he could never relax on the job.

“I had a new Agent ask me one time when it was you stop feeling the adrenaline you feel when you make an arrest,” Matens said. “I said, ‘I don’t know Tom, but if you ever get to that point let me know, because I won’t work with you anymore.’”

Matens spent the last six years of his career running the Denver fugitive squad. His unit’s duty was to catch the most dangerous criminals, including serial killers and kidnappers. A mix of attitudes, training, and overwhelming raid techniques made injuries a rarity. In his tenure, Matens’ squad suffered one injury—a broken finger.

“When we went into a raid situation, it wasn’t just one or two guys. If we were going after two guys, we would take eight. We would announce we were FBI. That, many times, was all you needed to convince someone not to go any further with whatever they had in mind. The mere mention of FBI was a big deal,” Matens said. “But also when they saw half a dozen guys with sawed-off shotguns and handguns drawn and a look on their face that they meant business, that they would shoot you, that’s what saved us.”

In 1983 Matens was enlisted to expand the FBI’s concentration on counterterrorism by assisting with the creation of the Denver Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Though terrorism was not front page news when Matens took over, the threats were still present. Two of his most significant investigations were the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of Puerto Rico (FALN) and the Aryan Nations. The FALN was responsible for 72 bombings, 40 incendiary attacks, eight attempted bombings, and 10 bomb threats. The group’s actions resulted in five deaths, 83 injuries, and more than $3 million in property damage during the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the dynamite from these bombings came from Denver.

A prominent member of The Order, the action arm of the white supremacist group the Aryan Nations, lived in Denver. FBI involvement peaked when they were informed The Order planned on murdering radio talk show host Alan Berg. Matens warned Berg. Because of previous death threats from the Mafia in Chicago, Berg said he would not worry about it. On June 18, 1984, Berg was shot and killed at his Denver home by members of The Order.

Such first-hand experiences convinced Matens terrorism grew because it often took attacks for threats to be taken seriously. Even though worries about national security surfaced in the 1960s, the first joint terrorism task force was not formed until April of 1980.

The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, one of the most significant pre-9/11 attacks, illustrates his point. Matens was involved in searching for the van used in the attack. He and his crew spent weeks digging through 2,500 tons of debris in a five-story crater. The search teams found more than half of the van, which was ripped apart by an estimated 2,400 pounds of explosives. Once the attack occurred, the use of electronic surveillance and photo-IDs was widely accepted by those using the building.

Such an ambivalent and delayed approach allowed terrorist groups to grow, as did religious freedoms that hampered FBI investigations. Meanwhile extremists groups actively recruited across the U.S. It took the September 11 attacks for attitudes to change, Matens said, noting that today terrorism is the Bureau’s number one priority. There are plenty of individuals interested in joining the fight, as the Bureau receives about 16,000 applications a year. Of those about 750 become special agents.

Matens retired from the work in 1997. He lives in St. Charles with his wife, Barbara. They have two sons, Ken and Kevin; and three grandchildren, Aiden, Abigail, and Aric. He is currently the vice president of facility security engineering at Quest Consultants International, where he designs security systems for commercial operations.

The firm, based in Oak Brook, consists almost entirely of former law enforcement, primarily former FBI personnel to safeguard people, property, assets, and reputations. Quest’s cases range from forensic profiling and technical surveillance counter-measures to school safety and security.

The work is just one way Matens maintains ties to his FBI days. He is also regional vice president of the North-Central region of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. It was there he was reunited with fellow Redbird Lester Davis ’65, M.S.E ’70, who is currently president.

The society is a way agents continue to support each other after leaving the job. Members align with several causes, such as the Make a Dream Come True program for terminally ill children and the National Child Identification program with the NFL. Regional and national meetings serve as reunions to keep FBI friendships alive—a camaraderie that Matens still counts as the best part of his job.

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