It had been one of the largest, most baffling manhunts in the 118-year history of U.S. Secret Service. Suddenly, it was now over.
Agent Dennis Foos, 37, first heard of the arrest at shortly past five o'clock on the warm Washington Wednesday afternoon of May 25, 1983. As Foos was wheeling his silver, government-issue Chevrolet Monte Carlo out of the Secret Service's ground-floor parking garage at 1800 G Street NW, the news came crackling over his two-way radio. The infamous phantom counterfeiter known to the service as the Mall Passer -- for the canny practice of passing his bogus bills in suburban malls -- at last had been apprehended near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Foos, a solidly built six-footer with blue eyes, a bushy mustache, and full head of brown hair, had been Washington case agent for the lengthy Mall Passer investigation. He had taken a personal, almost proprietary interest in the four-year, forty-four-state chase, and for a moment Dennis Foos was galled. "Damn!" he thought. "Knoxville got him instead of us!" Foos's pique soon subsided, however. "I was happy that the guy finally was in custody," he remembers.
In Knoxville, the glowering, bespectacled suspect himself absolutely refused to assist the Secret Service with its two main objectives: to identify the Mall Passer and to locate his printing operation. He wasn't answering any questions of any sort.
Agents found in his wallet a North Carolina driver's license identifying the Mall Passer as Roger Collin Blanchard of Charlotte. The license proved to be a fake. His car, a battered '71 Chrysler, bore stolen Tennessee plates, and was registered to a James R. Jones of Alexandria, Virginia. This information was radioed to Washington, where a surveillance team was dispatched to Jones's address, No. L-517 at the Oakwood Apartments on South Reynolds Street.
At midnight that Wednesday, agent Greg Mertz arrived at the service's ten-story, tan office tower two blocks west of the White House for his usual twelve-to-eight night duty shift. An ex-cop, the thick-shouldered, heavily muscled Mertz shared a cramped, windowless office with Dennis Foos. Mertz also had taken part in the Mall Passer investigation. Like Foos, he felt a special stake in its outcome. When he heard news of the Knoxville arrest, Mertz hurried upstairs to the seventh-floor duty room.
There, using the service's mammoth, computerized Master Control Index, and the WALES (Washington Law Enforcement System) data base, Mertz learned that Mr. Jones had registered his Chrysler not only in Alexandria, but also in Albany, New York. Jones appeared to be living two lives. But what was his connection to the suspect, Blanchard?
Mertz found the answer via the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV computer reported that Jones was six feet tall and weighed 158 pounds. His hair was brown, as were his eyes, and he wore spectacles. Mertz then consulted Blanchard's description as provided by the Knoxville office that afternoon. It was a perfect match: Jones was Blanchard. He reached for the telephone.
"Hey, I think Blanchard and Jones are the same guy!" he nearly shouted over the wire to Knoxville. It was two in the morning. Then Mertz called his immediate superior, 34-year-old agent Jane Vezeris, awakening Vezeris at her suburban Maryland residence. "I'm gonna call Denny Foos," he told her after sharing his discovery. "We need to start writing the search warrant affidavit."
Midmorning of the 26th brought the next surprise. As Mertz and Foos were busily typing up their affidavit, word came from the FBI's fingerprint identification unit that the Mall Passer was neither Blanchard nor Jones. He was a third individual altogether, a career criminal named James Mitchell DeBardeleben II, known as Mike. Moreover, DeBardeleben's rap sheet showed that he already was known to the Secret Service as a counterfeiter. The treasury agency had busted him once before, in 1976, for passing phony hundreds. He'd done two years of federal time for the offense.
After a brief interval of embarrassed silence, Foos retrieved DeBardeleben's file and reviewed it. His worry turned to alarm as Foos leafed through the old records, especially the inventory of what was found in DeBardeleben's house, and a report by agent Mike Stephens of his 1976 interview with DeBardeleben's estranged wife. Foos found the six-feet, four-inch tall Stephens, called "Stretch," at his desk in the Special Investigations squad area. "Hey, Stretch," said Foos as he dropped DeBardeleben's arrest photo on Stephens's desk. "Recognize this guy?"
Stephens did, instantly, and in the same moment felt something twist in his stomach. He looked up and answered slowly. "Yeah, I do."
The pieces had begun to fall into place.
In Knoxville, a search of DeBardeleben's Chrysler had turned up guns, thousands of dollars in counterfeit bills, a substantial quantity of pornography, a portable pharmacy of legal and illegal drugs of nearly every sort, eighteen license plates (most stolen) from a variety of states, nine forged driver's licenses (all bearing DeBardeleben's photograph), and a mail order police badge inside a commission book. There were, as well, dozens of paper bags filled with inexpensive merchandise, what the Secret Service calls the "proceeds" of counterfeit passing. The agents found, for example, two JCPenney sacks; one contained two pairs of socks, the other an oven mitt; a Pet Center bag with a new dog collar in it, three new Flair pens in a plain brown sack, and a Gateway Bookstore bag that contained a greeting card and a squeeze toy. What they couldn't find was any clue as to where DeBardeleben kept his press and printing supplies, his "plant," in Secret Service parlance.
The post-arrest investigation's focus therefore shifted back to Washington, where Dennis Foos and Greg Mertz finished with their search warrant affidavits at about midday. At approximately 4:30 on the 26th, as thunderstorms threatened from the northwest, Foos and Mertz, their boss Jane Vezeris, several other agents, and two technicians arrived at the Oakwood Apartments to conduct their search.
They found a large and relatively new rental complex of well-maintained, brown brick buildings, parking lots, and a swimming pool in the southern part of the city. Apartment L-517, a furnished studio, had been rented the previous autumn for $485 a month by DeBardeleben posing as J. R. Jones. According to a card he'd given the Oakwood manager, Mr. Jones was a "district representative" for Optikon Electronics, Inc., in Glen Burnie, Maryland.
The apartment was located at the end of a hallway. Foos opened the door using the manager's key, quickly surveyed the single room, then turned to Mertz.
"We ain't done yet," said the agent.
Instead of DeBardeleben's plant, the Secret Service team found a wholly unremarkable-looking bachelor's apartment with dirty dishes in the sink, articles of clothing lying about in casual disarray, a bed, a table or two, and a television. It might have been a traveling man's room at the Holiday Inn -- white walls, brown rug -- for all DeBardeleben's personal imprint on the place. The only truly individual features of the studio were his sizable collection of paper bags of greeting cards and men's black socks -- more "proceeds" -- plus, on a telephone stand, several pages and scraps of paper with dozens of names, addresses, and telephone numbers written on them.
"Essentially, that was it," remembers Greg Mertz. "We were both disappointed and dumbfounded. Here was this major investigation. We were looking for a whole printing operation; press, plates and negatives, and sizable quantities of counterfeit cash, too. And after working all night and day we came up empty-handed. Unbelievable."
No Secret Service counterfeiting investigation is considered complete until the forger's plant is found. With a totally uncooperative suspect, the Mall Passer team sensed their chances of finding Mike DeBardeleben's printing equipment were rapidly slipping past slim toward none.
"Everybody else had left the apartment," Mertz continues. "It was just Denny and Jane and I left. We thought, 'Well, maybe there's something the guys missed. Let's go over everything again.' So we just started tossing the whole place once more, looking for any evidence of where his stash was.
"I started going through the telephone book white pages -- which for northern Virginia is huge -- looking for any possible marks he'd made. This was page by page. I found nothing. Then I went to his Yellow pages and started through them.
"I got to the M's. Inside the section for Moving and Storage I found a little tiny piece of blank paper about the size of a business card slipped between two pages. That's when the light bulb lit. I yelled at Denny, 'Come here!"'
Acting on Mertz's strong suspicion that they'd find DeBardeleben's plant stashed somewhere in storage, Dennis Foos on Saturday, May 28, began a canvass of likely locations at Landmark Mini-Storage on Edsall Road in Alexandria, the facility nearest to DeBardeleben's apartment. "I've been expecting you guys," manager Linda E. Johnston told Foos after glancing at DeBardeleben's photo. "I've been waiting for the cops."
Johnston explained that she knew the man in the photo as J.R. Jones, resident at the nearby Oakwood Apartments, who'd rented mini-storage locker #230 at Landmark for $28 a month in November 1982. Some weeks before, Jones had left locker #230 lit and unlocked one evening. When she reached inside to turn off the unit's single electric bulb, Johnston had been shocked, and a bit scared, to see a red bubble light of the type police sometimes use, resting on the floor. Also out in plain view were a large flashlight, photographic equipment, some tools, a ski mask and what Johnston took to be a police radio. She'd called the local police with her discovery, but had been brushed off. Since then, Johnston said, she figured it would just be a matter of time before the police came to her.
At eight o'clock that Saturday night, Foos, Mertz, and Jane Vezeris, plus several other agents gathered at Landmark for the search. Foos snapped DeBardeleben's padlock with a heavy bolt cutter, pushed aside locker #230's beige door, switched on the dim electric light and saw, first of all, a set of red and blue police bubble lights and a siren, outfitted with a wire and plug so the devices could draw power from an automobile cigarette lighter. The second conscious impression registered both by Foos and Mertz was that there was nothing big enough in the locker bay to be a printing press.
"This was another disappointment," remembers Foos. "Our main goal still was the press and plant and all. But at the same time, as soon as we opened the door the things that had been in the backs of our minds -- what Mike Stephens had told us, and the information we'd received from Knoxville -- suddenly came flowing to the front. Right off the bat it was, 'Wait a minute here!'"
The locker's interior was a jumble of vinyl briefcases, plastic envelopes, bulging paper bags, portfolios and other containers, including two large footlockers. Foos opened one, and Mertz the other. The agents' notes indicate that the second item they inspected that evening was a bag containing an empty gun case, ammunition, handcuffs, and twine. Then a dark blue ski mask and an Icoflex large-format camera, ideal for counterfeit work.
Photographing everything as they handled it, the search team inspected a red plastic pouch containing counterfeit money and a police badge. Another bag from the footlockers were filled with handwritten notes, phone numbers, and women's names and addresses. There were drugs, too, plus a coke kit (mirror and razor blades) and a kit for testing drug purity, complete with a gram scale.
Over the next three hours, the agents identified and seized a single aluminum printing plate and $52,760 worth of counterfeit money in various stages of completion, much of it sorted into stacks and graded A, A-, B+ and so on according to color-coded wrappers around each stack. They found a camera tripod, eyebolts, a man's hat with a bloodstained visor, a device for punching out auto ignitions (a car thief's standard tool), various fake identifications, a pair of women's underpants with a severely distended elastic band, whips, a dildo, and another bag containing what Greg Mertz took to be, in his words, a "death kit": shoelaces, a choker chain, K-Y jelly, and handcuffs.
There were wads of clay for taking key imprints and several metal key blanks. The agents found an abundance of newspaper clips, most reporting on crimes of various sorts, an ample collection of self-help texts' works of pop psychology as well as scholarly and extensively underlined psychiatric texts, and a wide sampling of raunch books, magazines, tapes and photos-hundreds of photos.
Everyone recognized early on in the search that it would be impossible, at the site, to sort through the enormous volume of material; evidence connecting DeBardeleben with counterfeiting, as well as documents that might point the investigation toward its Grail, his press and plates, were hopelessly intermixed with the rest of his papers and gear, both innocuous items such as clothing and the seriously troubling police equipment and handcuffs and brutally explicit pictures of females, some hardly pubescent and many looking either drugged or battered or frightened for their lives.
At eleven o'clock that night, the Secret Service team transported the bulk of the locker's contents to a make-shift evidence room at the Washington Field Office (WFO), where Greg Mertz began sifting through it. For several hours that night it was more of the same. Then, at about four in the morning, Mertz shoved one of DeBardeleben's audiocassette tapes into his Dictaphone. What he heard has burned in his memory ever since. Stunned by the experience, Mertz drove home alone through the capital's empty streets that Sunday morning, lost in a fog of bewilderment.
The horror had only just begun.
In the months ahead, Mertz together with Denny Foos and Stretch Stephens would confront a species of evil totally beyond their experience, or their imagination, DeBardeleben's sheer criminal catholicity was startling in itself. Car thief, con artist, bank robber, forger, kidnapper, rapist, and suspected serial murderer of monumentally perverse appetites, he appeared to have committed practically every known felony. Some authorities consulted by the agents believe DeBardeleben's criminal history is unmatched anywhere for its sadism, its scope and his success at eluding detection. Not only the Secret Service, but federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials all over the United States-together with judges, prosecutors, jurors, and jailors alike-would come to regard the name Mike DeBardeleben as synonymous with ineffably evil criminal intellect. Many investigators would tell agents Foos, Mertz, and Stephens that DeBardeleben was the most dangerous felon ever at large in America.
Inevitably, DeBardeleben's been compared to other degenerate offenders of his order: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Gacy, and the rest. Where these comparisons falter, however, is in the breadth of DeBardeleben's depredations, and in his painstakingly patient and methodical approach to murder, which allowed him to remain at large far longer than his putative peers. Ted Bundy, for example, bumbled as a thief and failed outright as a fugitive. What is more, he may have roved free, killing, for fewer than five years in all. Bundy ultimately admitted to thirty slayings. DeBardeleben, by contrast, is believed to have committed his first killing in 1965 or earlier, at least eighteen years before he finally was caught. The arithmetic is chilling.
Even in custody, DeBardeleben has remained an enigma. In the end, he'd be indicted eleven times in nine states (twice for murder), tried and convicted in six cases and sentenced to a total of 375 years. No one, however, thinks that these known offenses comprise any more than a tiny fraction of Mike DeBardeleben's full history of offenses.
As horrifying -- and heartbreaking -- as his story may be, it is still not fully revealed. And may never be. Once again unlike other aberrant offenders in his category, DeBardeleben did not acquiesce in his imprisonment, or acknowledge his guilt or seize the occasions of his several sensational trials to reach for the black celebrity that America accords its truly weird and outrageous criminals. Paradoxically, he would become the most infamous largely anonymous felon in American criminal history.
But not before agents Foos, Mertz, and Stephens completed an odyssey that all three would prefer never to have begun. Wretched as the unnerving experience would be, however, the story of their investigation and the mind-boggling breaks that allowed the three agents to make their major cases against DeBardeleben is also a tale of justice served -- at least in part -- with an improbable note of redemption at its surprise conclusion. What unfolded was one of the scariest, most incredible true crimes sagas -- ever.