Six hundred miles from Cleveland, former FBI agent Phil Torsney climbs a ragged red hill, finding a path among gnarled tree roots and rocks tinted with rusty iron. At the crest, he gazes out at Lake Superior and points to Black Rocks, a dark 15-foot-tall cliff that juts into the water.
"If you come here on a nice day, there's all kinds of college kids here, jumping off that rock," he says. Torsney is earthy and agile, thin and wiry, with a splash of sandy hair and a slender, weathered face. At 58, he has jumped too.
"It's not that hard," he says. "You just let go."
Today he's wearing boots, jeans, a yellow ball cap and a fleece jacket over a blue T-shirt — retirement clothes for a guy who studied wildlife management in college, was a park ranger in Florida's Everglades and has chosen a life of tranquility in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, far from the Cleveland streets where he arrested hundreds of fugitives.
In Marquette, Torsney runs on these rocks, where others can barely hike, listening to the surf's rush. He bikes, swims, lifts weights — "to try to keep up with the young guys," he says.
The FBI's mandatory retirement age of 57, meant to maintain a vigorous workforce in a physically arduous job, came too soon for Torsney, who had to turn in his gun and badge in March 2013. "I like adventures," he says. "I'm young. I'm in decent shape. I've still got some things to do."
For 29 years, Torsney chased murderers and rapists who'd fled across town or around the world. Former colleagues call him an "FBI legend" and "one of the best fugitive hunters in the history of the FBI" — high praise considering the bureau made its reputation 80 years ago by catching fugitives such as John Dillinger, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.
Torsney's work led to the capture of James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston mob boss who had eluded authorities for 16 years. He also tracked Yazeed Essa from Lebanon to Cyprus, then brought the Cleveland-area doctor who fatally poisoned his wife home to stand trial.
U.S. 41 is a straightaway, miles long. Scraggly trees line the road, with swamp grass beyond. It's a due-west shot out of downtown Miami, and during the city's early '80s cocaine war, it became a popular place to hide evidence of a crime. Torsney, working out of a remote ranger station in his mid-20s, drove it often on dead body patrol.
On one of those trips, Torsney noticed buzzards in the grass and went to see what they'd found. Not a poached alligator or roadkill deer this time, but a man, shot to death, laying there for a couple of days.
The body was inside Everglades National Park by a few feet, so investigating the murder fell to the FBI. The bureau sent two agents from Homestead, Florida. Torsney doesn't recall the details three decades later — the victim was from the upper Midwest, he thinks, maybe the son of a law enforcement officer. But he recalls how the agents worked.
"They solved the case pretty quickly, and I was impressed," he says. "That sort of put the bug in my mind."
Violent crime spiked across the country in the '80s, and the FBI hired a generation of young agents with law-enforcement experience to fight it. Torsney joined the bureau in February 1984. He came to Cleveland in September 1986. "I went to all the bank robberies, extortions, kidnappings," he recalls.
Fugitive work — hunting down suspected murderers, rapists and armed robbers — hooked him early. With Cleveland and the whole country more deadly than it is today, Torsney went to the Cuyahoga County sheriff's office and counted the number of wanted killers at large: about 60, he thinks. So in 1990, the FBI, Cleveland police and sheriff set up a joint task force that went out to find them.
They caught crooks in car chases and foot pursuits, arrested them in their homes and met them on the street to accept surrender. They got America's Most Wanted to feature some Cleveland killers and tips from viewers helped nab them.
"This is the most fun you are ever going to have at work," Torsney told newcomers to the task force.
Torsney learned some fugitive-hunting basics from his bosses. Teamwork, for one. Loyalty to co-workers meant joining in on their arrests, even if it was a weekend and you had plans with your kids. "You don't want anything happening to your buddies," he says. "You don't want to miss out on a good arrest."
Other moves, he learned on the job. The task force liked arresting wanted men just after dawn. "If they're not working for a living, they're up till midnight running and gunning," Torsney says. "At 6 in the morning, they're wishing they could sleep, and we're not."
Today, FBI agents need to create an arrest plan before they go find someone. "Our plan would be on the hood of a car: You go to the back, you do this, you pull up the car, make sure we're covering the outside."
Finding fugitives, Torsney learned, meant talking to people. Even wanted men can only stand so much solitude. Few have the self-discipline to disappear completely, to cut off all ties. "Catching bad guys is all about family," he says. "It's people, and getting somebody to trust you."
Mothers, fathers, wives, kids — few really want their loved one on the run, in danger. Torsney and his partners would go back to them four or five times. "You don't talk to them with eight people in the room," he recalls. "I don't know how many times I'd take somebody's mom aside and it's just me talking to them."
Empathy was important. "There's always reasons things happen," he says. "They may be bad, bad reasons, or they could be somewhat decent reasons. ... Whether you like it or not, you have to see their side of the picture in order to get cooperation."
Often, it worked. The phone would ring, and the fugitive would be with his mother or father, offering to appear on a street corner at a certain time. "I was always amazed at the number of guys we had turn themselves in."
* * * * * *
Not everyone gets caught.
Torsney's first international fugitive, Jean-Paul Ayers, raped a Fairview Park woman in 1977 and was convicted in a 1978 trial. He jumped bail when the Ohio Supreme Court upheld his sentence of five to 25 years in prison in 1980. Ten years later, a police detective asked Torsney for help finding him.
The Ayers case taught Torsney the tools to look for fugitives overseas: a federal unlawful flight warrant and a Red Notice, Interpol's version of a wanted poster. He learned how to work with the State Department and FBI legations in foreign countries.
Through phone records and contacts overseas, Torsney and the detective learned Ayers had fled to France. He'd created a new life as a chemist in a town near Paris with his wife and two children. His mother was French, so he claimed dual citizenship, which protected him from extradition.
The FBI's discovery led to a 22-year legal battle to bring Ayers to justice. In 2001, France's highest court ruled that Ayers couldn't be extradited, but could be retried for the rape in a French court. A magistrate traveled to Cleveland to reinvestigate, and in 2006, almost 30 years after the crime, the victim traveled to France, confronted Ayers in court and described how he had sneaked into her apartment and attacked her. He denied it all.
Ayers' victim died of cancer in 2010 at age 60. In 2012, a French appeals court dismissed the rape charge against Ayers, in part because the victim was deceased and 35 years had passed.
"It's a travesty of justice," Torsney says. But the fact that some fugitives escape punishment doesn't shake or deter him. "There's always another guy to look for," he says. "You just move on. There's no lack of work in this field."
* * * * * *
When Torsney is back in town, he works at a desk inside the Bay Village police station. It's in a small room, wedged between two detectives' workstations. "I'm right in the thick of the action here," he says, "which is where I want to be."
Papers spill off his desk and form a broad semicircle on the floor. Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis, reads a bound volume's title. "$200,000 Reward," shouts a flier about a Minnesota boy abducted at gunpoint five days before Amy Mihaljevic disappeared. Boxes full of accordion folders recede under the desk. One box is labeled: "DNA Projects, Good Suspects."
A 25-year-old poster from the search for Amy is tacked to the wall across the room. "Have you seen this child?" read the capital letters above the school picture of Amy wearing a side ponytail — a photograph instantly recognizable to anyone who lived in Northeast Ohio in 1989.
In Bay Village, a peaceful lakefront suburb, Amy is one of only four murder victims in the last 30 years and the only child. In Cleveland, her abduction and murder, at the peak of America's '80s surge of attention to child kidnappings, is a lasting example of evil — the worst possible crime.
Amy was last seen Oct. 27, 1989. Torsney joined the investigation the next day, one of dozens of FBI agents chasing leads and interviewing suspects. The details emerged quickly: Amy had left Bay Middle School after class and walked to a shopping plaza. She'd told her friends she was meeting a man who'd called her on the phone. He'd claimed her mother had gotten a promotion at work and offered to help her buy a surprise gift. A friend saw Amy at the plaza with a white man, likely in his 30s.
For months, police and agents went through boxes of leads. They questioned people of interest in the case, including prior sex offenders, about where they'd been Oct. 27. Volunteers gathered and distributed fliers with Amy's picture and vague sketches of the abductor, a man with a round face and round glasses.
On Feb. 8, 1990, Amy's body was found on a remote road in Ashland County, 50 miles from Bay Village. That day, Torsney collected roadside litter in case it proved to be evidence and interviewed people who lived nearby. There was "a lot of grief, and then certainly pain" among the investigators, he recalls. "Everybody was hoping she was OK, and she was going to come back, and it didn't happen."
For the next two years, Torsney was assigned to the investigation. He spent about 80 percent of his time on it the first year, half his time the next year, adding to the long trail of leads and interviews.
In October 1999, on the 10th anniversary of Amy's disappearance, the FBI and police released new information to Cleveland Magazine, including details about items Amy had with her when she was abducted that weren't found with her body: black leather ankle boots, a black leather folder with a brass clasp and turquoise earrings in the shape of a horse's head.
In the mid-2000s, improved forensic technology detected DNA among the evidence found with Amy's body. But it's not nuclear DNA, the kind you can enter into a national database. It's mitochondrial DNA, shorter strands that can only be compared directly to another person's sample. Investigators began collecting DNA from suspects, hoping for a match, but so far, none has been found.
Around the same time, Torsney, the last working FBI agent in Cleveland who'd been with the investigation from the start, took it over as the lead case agent. He kept at it, even as he took on the biggest fugitive cases of his career.
* * * * * *
Rosemarie Essa, a 38-year-old mother of two, called a friend one day in February 2005 and said she wasn't feeling well. She thought the calcium supplement her husband had given her might be making her sick.
Soon after, Rosemarie crashed her SUV into another vehicle. She didn't seem to have serious injuries, yet at Hillcrest Hospital, she slipped into a coma and died just a few hours later. A detective interviewed her 36-year-old husband, Dr. Yazeed Essa, and asked him to hand over her calcium pills. He complied. But by the time a test of the pills found cyanide, Essa had disappeared.
"Once I heard the circumstances," Torsney says, "I knew the only people who were going to get him back were the FBI."
Traveling under his own name, leaving an electronic trail behind, Essa headed to Detroit, then Toronto, then Cyprus, and finally Lebanon — which had no extradition treaty with the United States. Instead of hiding, Essa lived brazenly in Beirut, drank in pubs and bars, hired prostitutes. He found a Lebanese girlfriend who didn't think it odd that his email address was email@example.com.
The FBI kept track of Essa in hopes he would travel again, interviewing people around the world and keeping in touch with different agencies, Torsney says.
"It's tough to stay put," he explains. "Especially with young guys — Essa was fairly young — it's all about women and party and traveling."
Torsney counted on Essa's restlessness. "He liked different women. That always helps us." More social contacts means more people an investigator can talk to. "It's all a numbers game," he adds.
In October 2006, Essa stepped off a plane in Cyprus wearing a disguise and presenting a fake passport and was promptly arrested by the Cypriot police. They identified him through fingerprints, using the Interpol Red Notice that Torsney had created.
Torsney says he can't talk about this, but Matthew Meyer, the assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor who tried Essa, says Torsney knew Essa would be on the plane and alerted Cypriot authorities.
"Phil was able to use his networks and connections," says Meyer. "That's what delivered Essa to us."
While Essa fought extradition from a Cypriot jail, Torsney and Meyer enjoyed another break in the case. Jamal Khalife, an associate of Essa's from Beirut, was willing to talk. Khalife, too, was a fugitive from American justice; he'd fled the U.S. rather than face dozens of federal charges, including a weapons violation.
When Torsney, Meyer and a Highland Heights detective sat down with Khalife at the U.S. embassy in Athens, Greece, they didn't know if he'd be a valuable witness or a crackpot. Khalife said he'd harbored Essa in Beirut, given him fake identification and heard him confess to his wife's murder. He even said he and Essa had traveled to Syria, been arrested and bribed a Syrian jailer to get out.
Torsney questioned Khalife, testing his story. "He's dealt with a lot of crooks over the years and has a pretty good nose for liars," Meyer says. "He was able to assist us in evaluating Khalife and determining that the guy really had something to offer."
When Essa stopped fighting extradition, Torsney flew to Cyprus with a detective and a sheriff's deputy to bring him back. At trial, Khalife became the prosecution's most dramatic witness, testifying about Essa's confession. (Days later, Khalife received probation for the separate charges against him.) After a six-week trial, Essa was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Torsney thought it was the biggest case he'd ever solve. "It had everything," he says.
* * * * * *
Last year, Torsney called Meyer about the Essa case and found himself talking about retirement and life in Marquette. He couldn't fake contentment. His steady runs along the cliffs couldn't soothe his drive to work another case, make another arrest. Torsney asked Meyer if there was any news in the Amy Mihaljevic case. As if sensing his restlessness, Meyer asked Torsney to work on it for the prosecutor's office. He said yes.
"I probably was a little bored," Torsney says. "I like a challenge."
As Torsney walks through the park in Marquette, on a gentle, gravelly trail that follows the edge of a bay, he's talking about the new push to solve the murder. He stops and sits at a picnic table to concentrate.
Since Amy's disappearance, police and the FBI have conducted at least 20,000 interviews — good, thorough work, Torsney says, yet it hasn't identified the killer. "I gotta use different tactics," he says.
The abductor's phone call, which gained Amy's trust and lured her to the shopping plaza, is unusual in child abduction cases. "This individual had a plan," Torsney says. "He was smart. He had decision points." That's one reason the case has defied solving. Yet that phone call could also lead to a breakthrough if Torsney can find a similar case that shows the man tried the same method another time.
Torsney's phone rings. It's a tipster from Cleveland calling about the case. He has a suspect in mind. It's not his first call. "I know you want feedback," Torsney says. "If he's the guy, I'll thank the hell out of you. ... The guy could have an alibi. ... If he's the guy, I'll call you."
Tips come every day. They've picked up since Torsney joined the case and attracted new publicity. Recently, he got 25 voice mail tips in two weeks.
"A lot of people think they know who did this," he says. "But I know the big picture." He sifts the calls, looking for the fresh insight not contained in those 20,000 interviews, the one that causes an avalanche of discoveries and solves the crime.
* * * * * *
In June 2011, Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, a former FBI informant and one-time Alcatraz inmate suspected in 19 murders, was sitting in the Princess Eugenia apartments in Santa Monica, California. He was watching TV with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, when a news report came on, with their faces on the screen. The FBI was offering a $2 million reward for his capture. But now, 16 years after they'd disappeared, the bureau was focused on her, offering $100,000 for news of her whereabouts.
"This is it," Bulger said. He warned Greig they shouldn't go outside for a while.
The FBI wanted Bulger badly. He had become one of the bureau's worst embarrassments. In the '70s and '80s, Bulger had fed FBI agents information about Boston's Italian Mafia while benefiting from the bureau's protection. In 1995, after his former FBI contact warned him he was about to be indicted on extortion and racketeering charges, Bulger disappeared with Greig.
By 2009, the couple had spent 14 years in hiding. Stymied, the FBI put some of its top fugitive hunters on the case, betting on their fresh ideas and lack of ties to Boston and the case's compromised past. The bureau sent Torsney to Boston on temporary detail.
Along with Tom MacDonald, an agent from New York, Torsney knocked on doors in South Boston, Bulger's old neighborhood. Many didn't want to talk. They knew Bulger's history with the FBI and thought the bureau didn't really want him caught. Torsney's gentle nature proved to be an advantage, says MacDonald. "People see how bad he wants to resolve a case."
One Sunday night in November 2009, Torsney and MacDonald visited Kevin Weeks, a former Bulger protege turned government witness, at his apartment in a Boston suburb. They found Weeks on his couch, watching a New England Patriots game, and talked with him for two hours. Since he'd once had to pull Bulger away from choking Greig, Weeks said he feared for her life.
Over breakfast the next day, Torsney and MacDonald talked about that. What if Bulger had killed Greig? Torsney asked. Then he recalled a detail other agents had mentioned: Greig had breast implants. Aren't there serial numbers on implants? Torsney asked. What if she's a Jane Doe in a morgue and those serial numbers are on a coroner's report?
So Torsney and MacDonald set out to learn where Greig had gone for her plastic surgery. After more door-knocking, they found an acquaintance of hers who told them.
"You're not gonna get that from the computer," Torsney says. "It's not gonna happen in the first conversation, or your second or your third. It's going to happen as you develop relationships with people."
A subpoena to the hospital turned up the name of Greig's doctor. Then — "on a half-court shot, kind of a hustle move," says MacDonald — a subpoena to the doctor's office turned up Greig's medical records in an office basement. They not only included the serial numbers of Greig's implants, but something more valuable: clear and precise photos of Greig, good material for a wanted poster.
* * * * * *
When MacDonald got the photos, Torsney was already back in Cleveland due to a personnel shortage. Funding and manpower for the local fugitive task force was growing scarce. U.S. marshals were hunting more fugitives, the FBI fewer.
At 54, Torsney was the old-timer in the office, still dictating his reports instead of typing them while his colleagues were on their computers, fighting cybercrime. He felt antsy.
Torsney wanted the FBI fugitive hunters' equivalent of an Academy Award: He wanted to nab a suspect on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, and Bulger was his chance. "I always wanted to catch a Top Ten," he says. So Torsney played a card that an FBI agent can only use once. He requested a transfer. He returned to Boston to work on the Bulger task force full time.
Months later, the task force launched its publicity campaign. The CNN report about it was seen around the world and caught the attention of a former actress in Iceland who called the FBI's tip line. She'd recognized Greig and Bulger as Carol and Charlie Gasko, her former neighbors in Santa Monica, California: the nice white-haired lady who fed a striped cat named Tiger and the mean old guy who lived with her.
FBI agents headed to Bulger and Greig's apartment that day. Torsney, in Boston, stayed at work late, waiting for news.
A text flashed on Torsney's Blackberry: Whitey in custody.
Three short words, the end of a 16-year search. Torsney showed the text to the agent next to him.
"What does that say?"
"In custody." Then it felt real. They'd captured Bulger and Greig.
A day later, Torsney was flying in a government plane from Los Angeles back to Boston, sitting across from Bulger. The 81-year-old gangster was chatty, finally free to talk about how he stayed hidden.
Bulger said he'd never flown in a plane or used credit cards and never had to show identification to police. He'd abandoned his car in Chicago, traveled by train and settled in Santa Monica because it was full of older men, transient people and laid-back Californians unlikely to ask nosy questions. He'd paid for everything in cash; $835,000 was found in his apartment's walls. To get rid of his bills from the '90s, he'd drive to Las Vegas and gamble.
Torsney wanted to find out who'd harbored Bulger, but the cagey mobster dodged the question. He gave up one guy, someone he knew from Alcatraz who gave him a fake ID early in his flight. "The only reason I told you that is because he's dead," Bulger said. He'd bought a driver's license from an ailing alcoholic in Santa Monica who resembled him. As he talked about the deceased man, whom he'd tried to help quit drinking, Bulger's eyes teared up.
"I don't think he had many friends," Torsney says.
Bulger came off as sincere, even friendly, Torsney says, until the plane flew over the Grand Canyon and Torsney's gaze wandered out the window. Then a darker look crossed Bulger's face. He stared Torsney down, thoughtful and stern, as if angry that Torsney dared to look out the window instead of paying attention to him.
"That's how he manipulated people — good people that were probably good FBI [agents] and local cops — to do things that were not right," he recalls.
In 2013, Bulger was found guilty of 11 murders and sentenced to life in prison. In an FBI increasingly focused on tracing suspects' digital communication trails, his capture was a triumph for Torsney's low-tech, personal investigative approach.
"It did come down to live interaction," says MacDonald, "and not the magic phone number."
* * * * * *
Even while hunting Bulger, Torsney thought about the search for Amy's killer. He and MacDonald, who had also worked on a missing child investigation, often talked about the two cases over dinner, pondering memorable statements from certain suspects.
Torsney, like other great agents, has "the ability to care about a case so much you take it home with you," MacDonald says. "You read it over the weekend, think about it most of the day."
Now the Amy Mihaljevic investigation is Torsney's only case. He's pursuing four projects: reinterviews of witnesses, a search for similar cases, new forensics tests and new tips from the public. Torsney's interviews have led him to eliminate some former suspects. Though computer-phobic, he's searching national law-enforcement databases for similar cases that involve a girl, phone calls or an enticement to a shopping center.
"The fact that it hasn't been solved in 25 years," he says, "[despite] all the hard work that's gone into it, tells me you'd better expand your field."
Torsney is collecting more DNA samples from suspects, hoping for a match. He and police have resubmitted evidence for testing, hoping new technology detects nuclear DNA for a nationwide database search. The investigators also hope forensics can answer the key question of where Amy was murdered.
"Somewhere there's a crime scene. It's a vehicle, a house — I don't know the answer to that, I'm not even going to guess — but somewhere," Torsney says. "There's some places we're looking at, relooking at, with forensics, [so] that maybe we could identify that scene." More advanced tests might turn up results that old tests didn't. "Some of these things are in Ashland County," he says.
Though Amy was abducted in Bay Village, Torsney suspects the killer took her out of town right away. "Not much happens in Bay Village that people don't know about," he says. It's too dense, too close-knit, to be a likely place to commit murder. "Something happened between Bay Village and Ashland County, or in Ashland County, that maybe somebody down there can help us with."
Torsney thinks the killer knew the area where Amy's body was found. "We always look at that connection between Bay Village and Ashland County and how her body ended up down there," he says. "We still pursue that connection."
If technology doesn't solve Amy's murder, Torsney hopes the public can.
Amy was not the only girl the killer targeted, he says. In fall 1989, several girls in Cleveland's western suburbs — including at least one in North Olmsted and one in Lakewood — received phone calls like the one Amy described to a friend: "Somebody trying to convince a young girl," Torsney says, "[that she] should be willing to do whatever's being asked, because it's OK with her parents." He says any woman who grew up in the western suburbs, is in her mid-30s and got a similar call in 1989 might be able to add important details and establish a pattern that explains the killer's connection to Amy.
All the girls who received similar calls, including Amy, had visited the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Bay Village. In 1989, kids who visited the center signed a log book with their names and addresses. That could be a key to the case — or just a coincidence, since the nature center was a popular place for school field trips.
The man Amy was last seen with would likely be in his 50s or 60s now. Torsney hopes to hear from a tipster about a man that age who had a connection to Bay Village, Ashland County or both, and who fits the FBI's behavioral profile of child predators.
The killer likely had trouble with normal social relationships and came off to people as strange, yet was capable of forming superficial relationships and manipulating them. He was probably not married or attached to a long-term girlfriend, though he may have lived with family. Most likely, he was an underachiever with minimal education, with mental health or substance abuse issues or a criminal background. He likely experienced some stress in his life in fall 1989 — perhaps a relationship problem or a lost job.
Torsney knows that no criminal, not even a loner, can isolate himself completely.
"Somebody knows about it," Torsney says. "Nobody keeps everything to themselves."