Catching up with Jim Clemente on becoming an FBI agent, consulting on Criminal Minds, his new book Without Consent and a whole bunch more!
What inspired you to become a real life detective?
First of all, when I was a kid I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes books and Hardy Boy mysteries. I always liked trying to figure stuff out. I wanted to figure things out on my own. I remember asking my mother how the clock worked. How the different hands knew how fast to go around and she said ‘well, you plug it in and it works,’ and I’m like, ‘that’s not what I meant.’ So I couldn’t reach that one, the electric one, but I could reach the cuckoo clock in the living room, so I got on a chair and I got it down off the wall, I was four or five years old and I took out a screwdriver and I started taking it apart. I took out all the gears, I laid them out in a row in the way they were in the clock, and I realized there’s one gear that turns and then there’s smaller gears and even smaller gears and the smaller the gear the faster the hand goes. The second hand had a very small gear, the minute hand had a medium sized gear, and the hour hand had a very large gear. So that’s how they turned at different rates and they kept the same time every day.
My mother found me with the clock all spread out on the living room floor and I got in a lot of trouble, but I was able to put it back together. That desire to figure things out as a kid led me to read detective and mystery novels. And I always knew in the back of my mind that I would love to be a detective, but I knew I was always going to go to college, and it seemed that college and detective work, probably didn’t mix. Then I found out that the FBI were really just federal detectives and you had to have a college degree in order to be an FBI Agent. That would give me an opportunity to actually use what I learned in college, which was chemistry and philosophy, and then what I learned in law school, and as a prosecutor.
When I started out in the Bureau I was on the Violent Crimes/Sexual Exploitation of Children Task Force in New York. It was a Joint Task Force with the FBI and NYPD. We had two thousand bank robberies that year, armored car robberies, really high octane stuff, and we also did child abductions and kidnappings and fugitives and all sorts of violent crimes cases. So I was running around quite a bit for the first couple years.
Then I went undercover. It was a blind undercover. In other words I had to volunteer for it and I had no idea what role I was going to have to play, what crimes I would be investigating. They tested me in math and thinking on my feet and things like that. I had no idea what it was about until I was already committed. That’s when I found out they wanted me to become a broker on the floor of the exchange on Wall Street. So I actually went in there and became a clerk for six months, nobody that I worked with knew I was an FB agent. After six months of working and studying on my own I took the exams and I became a broker. I became the first FBI Agent ever to get a real job in a deep cover role that actually had a fiduciary duty to customers. I was actually trading on the floor of the exchange with about five thousand other brokers and clerks on the floor, and they were all professionals, they had all been there for years and years and I was an FBI agent who had just learned the profession in the last six months; it was crazy. And then the Gulf War broke out. I was selling Crude Oil Futures, which went out through the roof. Gasoline and crude oil, all the prices went super high during that war and so I had to deal with all these market fluctuations that made it really, really, really intense. I did that for three years, then I took a spin-off case, did a long-term investigation against a CEO psychopath from Israel who had ripped off banks and the government to the tune of four hundred and eighty million dollars. He abducted one of our witnesses, he had him tortured, he tried to bribe and extort other witnesses, he tried to extort me, all sorts of crazy things, but I put him behind bars for fourteen and a half years. After that I went to Little Rock to review Hilary Clinton’s commodities trading and to investigate Web Hubbell, the Associate Attorney General, who was then prosecuted and convicted. Then I did the equivocal death investigation of Vince Foster who was found dead with a gunshot wound to his head in Fort Marcy Park just outside of DC. And it turns out that he had committed suicide and I was able to prove that. Then I went to violent crime work again on the Cold Case/Major Crimes Task Force in the Washington Field Office and there I basically went back to doing homicide, rape, and major drug investigations. And then I was promoted to the Behavioral Analyses Unit; I was trained to become a profiler, had a great time working serial homicides, serial rapes, child abductions and so forth. We started with a 560-hour course with experts from around the world. Like Dr. Robert Hare taught us about psychopathy and Dr. Calum Shand taught us about neuro linguistic programming and Dr. Park Dietz taught us abnormal psychology. Dr. Shand was from Ireland, Dr. Hare was from Canada, and Dr. Dietz was from Orange County, California. We had world-renowned experts come in and teach us pretty much one on one, and then we do a two-year apprenticeship, and then we go out and do cases on our own.
I started out learning about serial killers and serial rapists and threats and so forth and statement analyses and then focused mainly on child sex crimes, and child abductions, and child abduction homicides. That’s how I spent my last twelve years in the FBI.
On September 11th, 2001 I was teaching a course in the FBI Academy and I got a lot of pages from my sister and they were emergency pages so I eventually held the class up and said I was going to go make a phone call, I’ll be right back. I went into the video room to make the call and I noticed they had on the TV. There was a shot of the World Trade Center, one of the towers was burning and I thought it was from 1993, it was just a news story showing the tower in 1993. But then I looked at it and it looked different. And while I’m watching, then the second plane hit the other tower. On the news they were saying ‘oh, private plane just hit the south tower of the World Trade Center,’ and I was like ‘Private plane!.’ You could see the wings of that plane were almost as wide as the building. Each side of that building is two-hundred feet wide. So, I knew that it was a jumbo jet and I knew that this was a terrorist attack. What I also knew was all the FBI Bomb Squads were in the classroom next to mine because they were doing updated training. So I ran in there and I told them that both World Trade Towers had been hit by jumbo jets, they were both in flames, this is a terrorist attack. They though it was a joke at first or some kind of class exercise and they were like ‘ah. bullshit.’ And then all their pagers started going off and that’s when they realized that this was a major event. The thing is that one bomb tech stayed behind, each from their respected divisions, in case there was an emergency. And Lenny Hatton was the FBI agent who stayed behind in New York. He’s the only FBI agent who died that day because he ran in when everybody else was running out. All the other bomb techs from the New York office would have likely died that day but for that training. So, I got up there, it took me a number of hours to get up there because of the traffic. I didn’t get there until the next morning and I stayed there digging at the pile for the next five days. And that’s when my Assistant Director got in touch with me and said I needed to report to the Pentagon because my unit was actually charged with cleaning out the Pentagon because everything was classified there and they couldn’t just let normal contractors work there. So I went there and spent the next three weeks removing wreckage and bodies from the Pentagon. Three years later I was getting tired a lot and couldn’t keep up my own schedule the way I used to. I was basically flying to three cities a week, but I was not recovering from these trips well. I had gone to the doctors a number of times. All they did was prescribe a lot of antibiotics, that did nothing and I kept getting worse, turns out I had cancer.
I found out that at least sixty cops and firemen and at least eight other FBI agents all got lymphoma at around the same time. I was talking to the former chief of NYPD recently and he said they lost thirty to forty police officers and three hundred something firemen that day, but he said we had lost so many more people from cancer since then and nobody talks about it.
I’m one of the lucky ones who got through it. I had a bone marrow transplant on November 11th, 2004. I was able to make it five more years in the FBI, but then I retired at the first opportunity because my doctors said I really needed to do something less stressful and more creative, that’s when I started to write in earnest.
Jack Kerouac had this quote that it took him three weeks to write On The Road but seven years to live. Talk to me about Criminal Minds and the weaving of fact and fiction in your storytelling.
A couple months after I had my bone marrow transplant, I got a call. I was in isolation at my home. I was in and out of the hospital, I think it was two months after my transplant and I was living in a clean environment in my home and that meant no other human beings could come in because I couldn’t survive anybody else’s germs. So i got a call from a buddy of mine who said ‘hey, I’m taking this actor around and he wanted to talk to profilers but the guy said isn’t there anyone around here with any personality?’ and he said ‘Would you mind talking to this actor?’ And I said ‘You can’t come to my house but I can meet you if I wear gloves and a mask. I’m just not allowed to have contact with humans at this point, I still don’t have a good, functioning immune system. ‘And he said fine and so we met at a bagel shop and Mandy Patinkin walks up to me and he goes ‘HI, I’m Mandy Patinkin,’ and I go ‘Of course you’re Mandy Patinkin, you think I’m stupid?’
And he laughed and you know I just felt like breaking the ice because I felt like a jerk with all this stuff on, but he said ‘Tell me your worst case and your best case.’
And I said ‘I’m not gonna tell you my worst case because it’s not for entertainment purposes and I don’t want to burden anybody else with it, it’s horrible. I hate that I have to know it myself, but I’ll tell you my best case.’ And I tell him the story of Davry Chen, who was a six-year-old boy that was abducted. And very late in the game they called me and I was able to figure it out right away and I was able to direct them to where the guy was and they didn’t believe me and I had to fight with the police and the DA to get them to kick in the door and when they finally did, they found him, he was barely alive, but we saved his life. I showed Mandy a picture that I keep in my wallet ever since then, of that boy because most of the cases don’t turn out like that, most of the cases have horrible endings and all we can hope for is to put the bad guy away so he can’t do it again. So this was the case that motivated me. When I told Mandy that, he called up Mark Gordon of Mark Gordon Productions and told him,‘I will do the show.’ And that show was Criminal Minds. A couple months later he brought me out to meet the show runner and the writers and I started telling them stories and those stories all ended up as episodes and I became the technical advisor. I would make sure all the profiling was correct and what I did was I made sure it was authentic. Writing stories, ripping them from the headlines, they would use my stories but blend them together. So we don’t just use one case, we’d take aspects of one and another and maybe another and we’d blend them together. So we’re not exploiting or reminding the victims or their family of what happened to them. But we can use the lessons we learned from those cases to help teach people how to be safe. And I’ll tell you that twice now, since I did this, since I started with Criminal Minds, and it’s been ten seasons now, I just wrote the finale for Criminal Minds this season, it’s airing May 6th by the way, and twice now I’ve had people call me and say ‘you’ve saved my daughter’s life’ or ‘you’ve saved my niece’s life because she learned something that she saw on Criminal Minds and she used that to help get out of a situation where her life was in danger.’ That, in and of itself, is enough. It’s better than I could have wildly expected, but I was hoping to teach people through Criminal Minds. Because network television reaches millions of people, tens of millions of people in the United States, like maybe a hundred million people worldwide. That is an amazing thing. It’s an opportunity to teach people while they are being entertained.
So that’s how I got into TV writing, but writing my book was a totally different thing. I actually wrote it out not intending to publish it at all. I wrote out my story as a therapeutic exercise. I was told that taking it from the theoretical side of your brain, to the practical side of your brain by actually writing it down by hand, is therapeutic in one sense. Then I also found that when I got done writing the story, no matter how bad it was, it was finite and it was somehow more manageable. It wasn’t as horrible as it used to be. But after that, I put it on the shelf. It took me maybe a few months to write it down; it took me thirty years to publish it because it was such an important and difficult story to tell.
Tell us about your first novel Without Consent.
As I said, I originally wrote my story down sort of as a therapeutic exercise. But I realized, having planned to keep it to myself, I realized I could help people by telling my story because it’s a story of redemption, it’s a story of not being overcome by circumstances, it’s a story of moving forward and having a great and wonderful life with amazing experiences. I contemplated doing it as an autobiographical work but I thought, a) that’s kind of egotistical and b) that’s very limiting in terms of who the story will reach and so I decided to write my story as a work of fiction. That way I could tell the important points of my story, but I could change names and blend characters. I put it in a different context. I didn’t have to just tell a one-faceted, one-perspective story, but I could tell a story that engulfs a number of different situations that I’ve witnessed over my career. So I was able to apply all the things I’ve learned after all these years of being a prosecutor and an FBI agent and an FBI profiler and so I’ve sort of infused that “back in time” into this story.
Tell me about the character of Tony Dante. I see him as a kind of hero creating this new stepping-stone of discussion for the future novels in this series.
CBS allowed me to write a number of episodes, which basically tell my story but put it in the context of the character, Derek Morgan. So I was able to adapt my story to the Criminal Minds template. It’s in three related episodes Profiler Profiled, Foundation and Restoration. So that’s sort of a version of what I wrote my book about. But what I did in Without Consent is I created this character Tony Dante, who is based on me, closely based on me, but he’s a new fictional character that I plan to develop. I’ve already started working on subsequent novels where I take this character and his story and bring it forward. But he’s a new kind of character. He’s a hero that has a troubled past and he’s gonna be going through a lot more. He’s not done with the troubles in his life, but he’s able to face insurmountable odds in a number of situations because of his history. So it’s how he uses his experiences to move forward and to get through other experiences that make him a true hero and I think there’s gonna be a whole bunch of people out there who have never met a hero like this. I mean yeah, other writers have created some flawed heroes but the flaws have always been drug addiction or alcohol, or something like that but nothing as real as what Tony Dante has been through, and has to go through in the course of his life experiences and career… What he sees and survives would blow most people away.
Can you go a little deeper into Tony’s troubled past?
Yeah, he’s got a troubled past, no fault of his own. Tony like myself was sort of a sheltered and happy kid and he didn’t really try to offend anybody. You know he was sort of naively going through life and when he ran in to the wrong guy, it was basically a life-changing event. What happened was he was groomed and he was sexually victimized by the director of his camp, who was also his basketball coach. It was a terrible experience for him, partly because he felt he was the only one. He didn’t know this happened to boys and he didn’t know what to do about it. He felt ashamed and damaged and he withdrew. But on the other side, he knew that he didn’t want to see other kids suffer like this. He used what happened to him to help others. He becomes a prosecutor because he wants to help kid’s who’ve gone through this and he wants to stop people who are committing these crimes. But it’s very, very important to him that nobody realizes why he’s doing it. That is basically what kicks off the real action in this novel.
Without Consent kicks off the Tony Dante novel series and I am in the midst of writing subsequent novels which will be action-packed crime thriller novels. The next one may be the next step in time, but I might skip time and move up to the time when his character becomes an FBI Profiler like I did. That novel is entitled, Profiler Profiled and it will be an in-depth look at the mind of an FBI profiler; the kind of cases he works, the kind of struggles he goes through, the fact that he’s actually pitting his brain against the brains of the most brilliant offenders across the country. At the same time he’s struggling with his own self, who he is as a person, his life, his relationships and the struggle between darkness and light. I think that’s probably going to be the next one I write and then maybe we can go back and fill in prequels as time goes on.
Well, I am very excited to read these upcoming novels. Tell me about your current projects. What was it like meeting Anthony Hopkins and coming face to face with the Hannibal Lector.
I can vividly remember picking up the book The Silence of the Lambs, I was in my second year in the FBI, I started reading that book and I couldn’t put it down. What I was amazed at was that Thomas Wolfe was able to write a character as brilliant as Hannibal Lector. I just thought, wow it must be very difficult to write a character who is literally brilliant. When I found out the movie was coming out I was pretty certain that they wouldn’t be able to match what Wolfe had written. I mean who could play a guy like Hannibal Lector? A true genius offender. And then Anthony Hopkins get’s the role and of course we all know he did an amazing job. An iconic job. He is the benchmark for an incredibly intelligent serial killer. Everybody knows him; he’s made his mark on history with that role. So being able to meet him, and shake his hand, and talk to him, and spend time with him was beyond incredible. When I first met him, I mean he’s very gracious; he’s a very kind man. He’s incredibly articulate and very nuanced; he’s a brilliant man and his eyes are just so deep. Just talking to him as a normal person was an amazing opportunity, but then he realized I was an FBI profiler; he hadn’t realized I was the one who actually gave him notes on the script because he plays this pretty serious CEO psychopath in the movie and so I gave him notes that kind of help him understand what the motivation’s were and what really was going on, under the surface for his character. And he loved the notes and that’s actually why I was hired on as the tech advisor on the shoot, because he wanted to talk to me in preparation for playing this role. So we were able to actually spend a great deal of time talking about the character and about life and human behavior in general. It was amazing, his insights were so sharp and his desire to understand the duality that lives within people was so intense. For instance, the Hannibal Lector character, he was a brilliant guy and he only really went after bad people, like there was this side of him that had some kind of moral code, even though he was probably the poster child of psychopaths. But he really felt like he had his own sense of justice and Hopkins told me ‘My wife asked me how I could play that role,” and he said, “I don’t know, it just sort of comes out of me.’ And we talked about how our brains are capable of doing things that are far beyond what we understand and how many levels our brains operate on. There’s the conscious level that we know about and we understand, but we don’t know what’s going on subconsciously, I mean, subconsciously our brain’s are running our entire bodies; they’re running all of our systems, our kidney’s and our lungs and our hearts, keeping everything going, keeping everything functioning together, all the little tiny nuances, there’s billions of things going on in our bodies at once, and our brain is doing it effortlessly. And I said it does all kind of things, those kind of mental gymnastics, as well in intellectual areas emotional areas, in areas of interest. Subconsciously it’s doing all kinds of calculations for us. And it gives us hints; it doesn’t tell us directly, for most of us there’re no voices talking in our heads but we do get feelings about things and if we listen to these feelings and those instincts that we have in our bodies, we can actually out-perform other people by allowing ourselves go into this flow-state. Professional athletes talk about this state and so do profilers when they just go with it and trust their guts and their instincts and what you’re actually trusting is your subconscious to do all the calculations for you. It was a great conversation. It was a fascinating time and I can’t wait for this movie to come out. It’s gonna be brilliant!
I also got to meet and work with Josh Duhamel and I literally had not seen his movies before but he seemed like a nice guy and then I sat down and talked to him and wow what a wonderful person. He’s married to Fergie, they have a great son, he’s a great father, he’s really interested in what he’s doing, he plays an FBI agent on TV and he really, really cares about the art that he’s creating.
Then to top it all off I got to work with Al Pacino too. I mean Hopkins and Pacino in the same movie… Actually it was historic because it was actually the first time they had ever worked together on a movie and so I was actually present for their first scene that they ever shot together. It was really great. And so this was a scene where they go head to head against each other and I explained to Pacino and Hopkins what the subtext was, what was really going on beneath the surface and they really had fun with the scene after that. They’re both brilliant actors but they couldn’t be more different personality-wise. Both are very gracious people, but whereas Hopkins sort of has this laid back but very interactive persona when he walks into a room, he personally wants to get to know everybody in the room. He feels more comfortable getting to know everyone in the room. On the other hand you have Pacino who is a consummate method actor who will get into his role and he doesn’t want any real-world issues interfering with that. He wants to come in, he’ll do his rehearsals in character. He’ll never leave that character. He does the scene straight through every time and he loves to riff. He does his lines but he also likes to kind of go off, sort of see where the mood takes him and just interact with the actors in the room and see what they can come up with that’s off-script. Its really amazing how many gold nuggets come out of that process. It was fascinating watching these two amazingly iconic actors working together on the same scene and also analyzing their behavior and their methodology of acting. It was a fascinating experience for me as a behavioral analyst.
Still lots to cover and little time! Can you give us some quick insight into a few other cases and show’s you’re known for…
Amanda Knox. She was completely innocent and finally in the Italian system, justice prevailed. There is actually justice in Perugia now but the fact is that Knox was tortured for 7 years by the media over there, by an out of control prosecutor, Mignini, and by the justice system. I am so happy for her. I hope she goes on to lead a happy, healthy life.
Serial the webcast, I’ve been asked by Rabia, the attorney that bought the case to the producers that did Serial, to actually profile that case. I’m in the middle of my analysis of it. There’s a lot of information out there. It’s really complicated, but if you actually listen to Adnan’s words and study his behavior when he’s on the phone and so forth and when you look at what Jay’s statements are, those are the two major players in this case, there’s a lot of behavioral information there that I can’t wait to write about and tell the world about.
In terms of the Jinx, Robert Durst, I actually had some insider information about that particular case. An eyewitness who was involved tangentially in that case actually called me up after the Jinx aired and I got that person connected with the FBI. I’ve known about Durst for some time because one of my buddies was the prosecutor in New York who dealt with him early on. He was the big fish that got away. We definitely believe he was a really bad guy and I believe finally that he will be brought to justice because of his own sort of quirkiness, his own Tourette’s-like condition, speaking to himself in public and private, that was caught on tape, that might just be the last straw that broke the camel’s back in this case, but I believe that Robert Durst is a serial killer.
Without Consent is Jim Clemente’s first novel and features the debut of the Tony Dante character.