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New leader of Jacksonville FBI division a trailblazer

Posted: January 27, 2014 - 12:35am  |  Updated: January 27, 2014 - 8:46am
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Michelle Klimt carries the badge her father carried as a special agent for the FBI.    Jon Fletcher FBI
Michelle Klimt carries the badge her father carried as a special agent for the FBI. Jon Fletcher FBI

Michelle Klimt vividly remembers as a teen in the early 1970s having a dinner table conversation with her father about her dream for a career that was just opening to women at the time.

“He was saying, ‘I can’t believe women FBI agents. What’s the world coming to?’ ” Klimt said. “And I sat there and said, ‘Hey dad, I can do what you do now.’ He never complained again and was very supportive of me.”

Klimt became the first woman to lead the Jacksonville division of the FBI seven months ago, following in the footsteps of her late father, who worked in a support role and as a special agent for more than 30 years. Klimt carries his badge and uses his credential number as a reminder of the man she calls her hero.

“It’s just part of the legacy, I guess,” said Klimt, 51.

Klimt said her exposure to her father’s work in the United States and overseas gave her the bug early in her life to join the FBI. She became an agent in May 1990 after graduating from college and spending three years working in the retail industry.

“I knew there weren’t a lot of women in the FBI at the time, but I never really thought about it,” she said. “I knew I could do the job.”

She spent about 15 years in her first assignment in the FBI’s San Antonio division, working everything from drug crimes to foreign counterintelligence. She said she rarely had to deal with chauvinism among her colleagues, but experienced some moments while in the field.

“I remember going into a neighborhood one night doing a background investigation on an applicant,” she said. “I knocked on one door and he [the homeowner] said there are no women FBI agents and closed the door. I said, ‘Did that just really happen to me?’ ”

Among the many highlights during her first assignment were seizing $500,000 during a drug investigation and being the supervisor of a team that arrested several San Antonio police officers for public corruption.

“It’s sad knowing that you had law enforcement officers misusing their positions, but our job is to remain neutral on those kinds of cases,” she said.

While in San Antonio, Klimt also trained as an evidence collection specialist and became a member of that field office’s Evidence Response Team, which investigated local cases and joined other teams in larger-scale crimes. Her work included evidence collection in the Oklahoma City bombing, where her team scoured the park where Timothy McVeigh assembled his truck bomb, and in the Fresh Kills, N.Y., landfill sifting through the tons of debris left behind from the 9 /11 attacks.

Klimt called the 9 /11 assignment sobering.

“I found a woman’s purse with all her ID. I also I found a pair of pants with the belt still buckled,” she said. “I think that’s what hit home, that you weren’t going to find human remains.”

Klimt served in the Inspection Division at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., from 2005 to 2007, then returned to San Antonio as a supervisor for a white-collar crime squad. She became assistant special-agent-in-charge in Sacramento in 2008 and in 2011 a section chief in the West Virginia-based Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which provides support services to police agencies across the country.

Colleagues who worked with Klimt before she got the Jacksonville assignment called her a smart, hard-working teammate who earned the respect of those she came across.

“She didn’t back down from any type of work,” said Mario E. Villaplana, who worked with Klimt in San Antonio. “Whenever we worked cases together I learned from her. She was as good or better than anyone else.”

“She’s very down to earth and cares for the people she works with,” said John Strong, who worked with Klimt in West Virginia and is now her counterpart in Charlotte, N.C. “She’s not a micro-manager, but if you need direction and a decision to be made, she’s there to do it without hesitation.”

Klimt said she jumped at the opportunity to apply for the Jacksonville post and was happy to be selected so she could return to overseeing street investigations.

Cases that broke in her first weekend on the job included the attempted murder of federal Judge Timothy Corrigan in Jacksonville and the kidnapping and slaying of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle. Klimt’s agents did hands-on work in the Corrigan case, while they were prepared to offer assistance when Jacksonville police made an arrest in Cherish’s death.

“That’s the meat and potatoes of what we do,” Klimt said of working such cases.

Klimt said she has been making the rounds of the law enforcement agencies in the 40 counties her division covers and believes human trafficking and fraud will be among the top priorities of her agents, along with the FBI’s nationwide commitment to battling terrorism.

She said she’s looking forward to a long stay in Jacksonville and earning the respect of her colleagues as the division’s first female leader, a job held by 19 men since 1958.

“I think I bring a lot to the table and I have fun doing it,” Klimt said.

There’s no doubt her hero would be proud.

 

Jim Schoettler: (904) 359-4385

 
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