Jim Fisher served as an FBI Agent from 1966 to1972 and was a criminal justice professor for over three decades at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania where he taught courses on forensic science, criminal law and criminal investigation. While teaching at the university, he was also a private investigator helping solve murder, pedophilia and other cold cases and finding missing bodies (to bring some closure to those loved ones desperately seeking answers). Fisher has also found another niche to channel his investigative skills – writing nonfiction books for which he has seven published (five still in print) and one coming out next year. Several of these works intriguingly describe the criminal investigations he personally worked on, such as exonerating two individuals, who as youth, were wrongfully accused of murder. Criminal Justice School Info had the honor of speaking to Jim Fisher about his successful, multi-faceted career thus far, as well as his advice for those thinking of entering the field. Here is Part 1 of the interview.
CJSI: What was your role in the FBI (1966-1972)?
JF: When you go into the FBI, there are generally two types of FBI Agents. One type is what we called back then “security”, but today would be called “anti-terrorism” or “counter-terrorism”. The other type is criminal investigation. I was a criminal investigator and investigated federal crimes. I started out, after my training in Quantico, in the St. Louis field division where I worked a variety of cases, including kidnapping, bank robbery, civil rights violations and some fugitive work. Then I went to the Dallas Division. I worked in what we call a resident agency (like a branch office) in the town San Angelo in Texas. I was there three and a half years and I was responsible for eight counties, so you work virtually everything that pops up in your jurisdiction. That included stolen federal property, bank robberies, escaped federal prisoners coming through the area – the whole gamut of what a federal criminal investigator would do. In my final year in the Bureau, I worked in the city of Dallas itself and I specialized in bank robberies.
CJSI: What did you do after the FBI?
JF: I was in the Bureau for six years. Then I got out and I did some fairly high level private investigations (I was a licensed private investigator in Pennsylvania). I mainly focused on murder cases on behalf of parents whose children had been murdered or simply disappeared and were presumed murdered. These were cases that the police had either bungled or ignored. I had a colleague and we specialized in solving those cases, finding missing bodies and so forth. At the same time I started teaching and writing. So during my career as a professor I wrote and I continued to conduct investigations. My specialty ended up being investigating difficult homicides. I write a lot about homicide cases and some of those cases turned into books.
CJSI: Forensics is clearly a major part of your expertise. When did you first begin working within the realm of forensic science?
JF: We were all trained in the FBI. In the FBI, you’re trained as an investigator, if you’re going to be a criminal investigator like I was, and trained in crime scene investigation – the interpretation, gathering and analysis of physical evidence. We spent a lot of time learning about what goes on in a crime lab and what you can learn from various pieces of information. So we studied document investigation, fingerprints, blood spatter analysis, interpretation of footwear impressions, hair follicles (you know various forms of trace evidence) bodily fluids and how to secure and preserve this kind of evidence. We did our own crime scene work in other words. When I was in the Bureau, most of us had law degrees too so we didn’t have to be instructed much on law. So the FBI agent under J. Edgar Hoover was generally a lawyer, a crime scene investigator and a criminal investigator all rolled into one. Ideally, forensic science is incorporated in the general field of criminal investigation. You cannot be a competent criminal investigator without a thorough understanding of forensic science. Today, generally as a state or city police officer, you work while in uniform and then as you gain tenure you can get out of the uniform and get into plain clothes as a detective. That’s a problem because these cops have been basically law enforcement officers 14 years and now they’re basically a rookie investigator. What makes a good uniformed cop is almost pretty much the opposite of what makes a good criminal investigator. They are two different types of functions. (I have an article about this “Criminal Investigation: The Lost Art” on my blog).
CJSI: So you got into the FBI after completing a law degree?
JF: Yes halfway through law school I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. But I wanted the law degree when I found out that it would really help me get into the FBI – which is true today. Obviously if you’re a criminal investigator, there’s a strong element of criminal law because you have to, for example, know the laws of search and seizure and the Miranda doctrine, what comprises probable cause to justify a legal arrest, what you need to do to get a search warrant – these are all legal questions. Then there is what we call substantive law, that is, what kind of behavior is criminal and what isn’t. In other words, if you don’t pay your rent, that’s a civil matter – that is not a crime. But if you break into someone’s apartment, that’s burglary. If you put a gun to someone’s head for money, that’s robbery. If you go into a store and steal something, that’s larceny or retail theft. So you have to know the difference between burglary, robbery and theft. You have to know the difference between voluntary manslaughter and first degree murder. There is a lot of bad behavior but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is criminal.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview where Jim Fisher talks about what makes a good criminal investigator, some cases he investigated and advice for those considering a career in criminal justice. In the mean time, check out Jim Fisher’s true crime blog (which he updates regularly) and his bibliography of books he’s published.