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Retired FBI agent separates fact from fiction (with video)

Retired FBI agent John Egelhof spoke about the FBI’s presence in Beltrami County during an Adventures in Lifelong Learning talk at Beltrami Electric Cooperative in Bemidji on Tuesday. CRYSTAL DEY | BEMIDJI PIONEER2 / 2

It’s not all guts and glamour.

A recent influx of investigative television series has spread a misconceived notion across the nation as to what Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents actually do on a daily basis.

Retired FBI agent John Egelhof addressed a full house on Tuesday at Beltrami Electric Cooperative in Bemidji to set the record straight.

“I’ve been through sequestration before,” Engelhof said. “FBI are essential employees.


The FBI has had a permanent presence in Beltrami County since the 1970s, primarily because of the Red Lake Reservation.

“It’s not that Red Lake is a bad place,” Egelhof said. “It’s a federal place.”

Red Lake is one of two reservations in Minnesota to retain federal administration. A law enacted in 1953 mandated a transfer of federal law enforcement authority within certain tribal nations to state governments. Red Lake and Nett Lake stayed federal.

“Violent crime went through the roof,” Egelhof said. He attributes the rise in crack usage and gang activity to a “generational shift.”

Prior to the 1970s Red Lake was served by road agents. Now, there are two permanent FBI agents and two support staff serving the area. The legal term for the Red Lake Reservation is “Indian Country.” Egelhof said it is not meant to be derogatory, that’s just the name.

There are 6,000 people in Red Lake, Egelhof said, most of them are good people trying to raise families.

Since the FBI’s presence on the reservation, the drug spike has ebbed. Egelhof said nationwide drug crimes are trickling down.

In Beltrami County, the FBI handles federal crimes that occur on the reservation: murders, rapes, robberies, arson and assaults. Egelhof likened a crime committed on a reservation to that committed on a military base or in a government building.

Along with 12 officers on the Headwaters Safe Trails Task Force and federally deputized U.S. Marshalls, the FBI administers law enforcement on the reservation. Local officers, including state patrol, don’t have jurisdiction on reservation land.

The most important positions in the FBI, Egelhof said, are the investigators and analysts. A successful drug investigation involves informants and literal and electronic surveillance. It takes time, longer than a one-hour episode.


You need a law enforcement background or four-year degree to be in the FBI.

Egelhof has a fine arts degree. He studied law for two years. Engelhof’s first job for the FBI was as a finger-printer — a practice now practically obsolete since the use of DNA evidence. His fine arts degree came into play when he investigated art thefts in Boston.

There is a lot of agency rivalry.

The phrase “make a federal case out of it” was not intended to mean the FBI comes into local precincts to “steal” cases. The FBI has actually learned a lot from the CIA since 9/11.

All informants are criminals.

Egelhof said informants come from all spectrums of society. They can be prostitutes, bank presidents or parents. He’ll trust the prostitute’s word first.

“You’ve got to take all your perceptions, your biases and throw them away,” he said.

FBI cases are violent.

“The thrill to kick down doors fades quickly,” Egelhof said. “We use violence as little as necessary.”

Every case is successful.

An estimated 50 percent of FBI cases result in prosecution.

Crime scenes are pristine hotel rooms with evidence in the corner and a blood spot on the rug.

Much of the FBI’s evidence comes from digging through garbage bags. Egelhof has had to dig through glass, mattresses, clothes, cans and used condoms to find evidence.


Egelhof moved to Bemidji in 1997. He retired from the FBI in 2008 — after having a heart attack in 2006.

“It’s a stressful job,” Egelhof admitted.

Although retired, Egelhof is now a private detective who does background checks on people in our region for security clearances. Egelhof’s talk was part of the Adventures in Lifelong Learning (ALL) program.

“We hadn’t anticipated this large of a crowd,” said Adventures in Lifelong Learning Chairman Ernie Rall.

ALL is a member supported program, previously funded by the Minnesota Humanities Commission. 

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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