Code-Breaker and the G-Man Part 2
Author Tom Clancy called Sullivan "the greatest
lawman America ever produced."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
character that Gene Hackman (second from left) played
in Mississippi Burning was loosely based
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.
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.
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.
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 was bombed in 1970, the FBI sent Sullivan
to investigate. It took him less than a week and
a half to solve the case.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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
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