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Want to learn more about the Mississippi Burning case? Check out this summary of the trial to see what Sullivan accomplished.

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The Code-Breaker and the G-Man — Part 2

Joseph Aloysius Sullivan
Author Tom Clancy called Sullivan "the greatest lawman America ever produced."

Joseph Aloysius Sullivan '38, LLB'41 seems to have been on the scene at every defining event of the turbulent sixties and seventies. Whether it was the search in 1964 for three missing civil rights workers depicted in the film Mississippi Burning (Gene Hackman's character was loosely based on Sullivan in the 1988 movie); the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination in 1968; the murder of United Mine Workers reformer Jock Yablonski in 1969; the Kent State killings in May 1970; or the bombing of the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall at UW-Madison in August 1970, he was there — almost a real-life Forrest Gump.

Throughout his thirty-year FBI career, he was the man the bureau sent when there was pressure to solve a case, and solve it soon. Author Tom Clancy refers to Joseph Sullivan as "the greatest lawman America ever produced."

Sullivan was born in Montreal, Wisconsin, and raised in nearby Hurley. According to his brother Gerald Sullivan '41, to finance his UW-Madison education, Joseph worked summers in a Montreal iron ore mine. "It was there that he learned about explosives," says Gerald.

Little did Joseph know that this knowledge would play a large role some thirty years later in solving what was until then one of the most destructive acts of domestic terrorism in U.S. history — the Sterling Hall bombing. "He easily figured out how they [the bombers] blew it up — how the explosives worked — and solved the case in no time," says Gerald.

Sullivan played football for Wisconsin for a time, but quit when he decided to enter law school. After graduation, he got a job with Standard Oil in Green Bay. When a fellow alum suggested that Sullivan join the FBI, which offered a starting salary well above what he was making, he jumped at the chance.

The FBI put Sullivan to work tracking down Nazis in Venezuela. "No one was supposed to know he was an FBI agent," Gerald says. "He had to get a day job with an oil company down there and then do his spy work at night. He was sent to find the Nazis, but he found the Communists were a bigger problem."

In the early fifties, Sullivan joined the FBI's Domestic Intelligence Division, which kept an eye on the KKK and other violent organizations. After heading bureau offices in Houston and Alaska, Sullivan was promoted in 1963 to the position of major case inspector.

Scene from Mississippi Burning
The character that Gene Hackman (second from left) played in Mississippi Burning was loosely based on Sullivan.

In June 1964, he received word that the FBI had been authorized to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Sullivan flew to Meridian and made it his home for the next nine months.

In the tense social climate of the 1960s, the Johnson Administration was determined to track down the murderers. Within weeks of arriving in Mississippi, Sullivan was visited by FBI Assistant Director Al Rosen, then by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Sullivan's investigation even received full assistance from the military, which sent busloads of sailors from the Meridian Naval Station to aid in the search for bodies in the insect-infested swamps of east-central Mississippi.

According to the "Famous Trials" Web site maintained by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, when the attempt to recover the bodies failed, Sullivan concluded that he "would ultimately solve this case by an investigation rather than a search." But residents of the Mississippi town of Philadelphia were tight-lipped. "They [the Klan] owned the place. In spirit, everyone belonged to the Klan," Sullivan said. The local residents even took sport in sending the FBI agents on wild goose chases.

Eventually, the site continues, Sullivan developed informants who led him to uncover the facts. The key informants were members of a neighboring Klan, causing Sullivan to observe that if the Philadelphia Klan had "carried out the murders on their own, they would have almost certainly gotten away with it."

Sterling Hall Bombing
When Sterling Hall was bombed in 1970, the FBI sent Sullivan to investigate. It took him less than a week and a half to solve the case.

By 1970, Sullivan's reputation in the FBI could be summed up in two words: effective and incorruptible. When, at 3:40 a.m. on August 24, Madison was rocked by an explosion so powerful that it damaged twenty-six buildings, awakened residents thirty miles away, and killed thirty-three-year-old graduate student Robert Fassnacht, the FBI sent the man they knew they could count on to get the answers.

Sullivan returned to Madison, where he had started his own life's journey more than thirty years before. Less than a week and a half after the act, his investigation had pieced together what had happened. Sullivan believed the bombers had filled a Ford van with about two thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate soaked in aviation fuel. He put four people on the FBI's most wanted list.

"People in Madison knew Joseph was there to investigate the bombing," says Gerald. "When my brother walked down the street, students would yell things at him and throw things. But Joseph never reacted. He kept calm."

Although he dealt with danger for most of his career, Sullivan was most proud of his nonviolent approach to his work. "Here he was — this big man who had played football and who had worked in Wisconsin iron mines," says his brother. "He was very authoritative. He never struck anyone, he never fought with anyone, and he never pulled his gun out. No one argued with him — not even the mobsters." In fact, when asked if Joseph liked the way he was portrayed in the film Mississippi Burning, Gerald says, "He felt it was pretty accurate. But Gene Hackman's character was too violent. Joseph wasn't violent."

After retiring from the bureau in 1971, Sullivan worked in security for the airline industry and as a private security consultant. In 1995, he formed the World Training Institute in New York, a nonprofit organization that does consulting and training for the business community.

Sullivan died at age eighty-five on August 2, 2002. On August 9, the Wall Street Journal ran an obituary titled "The Gentle G-Man." It noted, "Most people who knew Joe Sullivan knew little of his heroics, however, because he never spoke of himself. The Reverend William M. Shelley of Manhattan's St. Agnes Parish, who said Sullivan's funeral Mass this week, said the homeless in his soup kitchen were astounded to learn that the gentle man who mopped their floors had been a top G-man."

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Candice Andrews is an editorial associate for On Wisconsin. A former story analyst for Paramount Pictures, she has also written television scripts for a Hollywood production company.

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