When author David Howard pitched his idea for a true crime book about two undercover FBI agents on a hilarious road trip with an international con man, he had no idea that Robert Downey Jr. would snap up the movie rights before he’d even started writing.
“Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World’s Most Charming Con Man” takes place in 1977. Two young FBI agents are targeting Phil Kitzer, a charming financial swindler who had stolen billions of dollars setting up fake banks and selling phony securities. Kitzer even conned Elvis Presley out of one of his private jets. (And Kitzer sounds like the perfect role for Robert Downey Jr.)
Howard will speak at the Public Library of Anniston Calhoun-County on Tuesday at 2 p.m. Admission is free.
“These guys were stealing more money than bank robbers with masks over their heads,” Howard told The Star in a recent interview. “The FBI didn’t do this kind of thing at the time. They didn’t do undercover work, they didn’t do white-collar crime.”
But two young FBI agents — J.J. Wedick and Jack Brennan — talked their bosses into letting them go after Kitzer.
“This is technically a true crime story, but no one gets murdered, there’s no shooting, no blood. It’s more of a road trip story and a buddy story,” Howard said.
“It’s set in 1977. These guys meet each other in February and spend the next eight or nine months on the road. The two agents are pretending to be Phil’s proteges and trainees. Phil is a habitual liar, and it seems like he’s setting them up to take the fall for him.
“It was the most unlikely circumstances you could ever imagine for people forming a lasting friendship — but these guys pulled it off.”
Wedick and Brennan were completely unprepared for the assignment. Since the FBI didn’t do undercover work, they had no training. “They were making it up as they went, thinking on their feet all the time,” Howard said. “There were a lot of near-disastrous decisions being made.”
Like the time the two were introduced to a roomful of crime bosses who nicknamed them “the junior G-men,” because they were so young and clean-cut they looked like they should be FBI agents.
“They were playing kind of fictionalized versions of themselves,” Howard said. “Because they had no training in going undercover, they went into this using their real names. They were on the road for eight months with Kitzer and some of the other guys — they’re literally just themselves.
“They laugh about it now. They’re kind of like, ‘We were too young and stupid to know better.’”
After several high-profile trials and a little prison time, Kitzer and his family settled into Gulf Shores on the Alabama coast. Kitzer passed away in 2001.
Wedick retired from the FBI in 2004.
After the Kitzer case, Brennan was assigned to the FBI office in Mobile, where he specialized in financial crimes and insurance fraud. He is a fourth-generation FBI man who grew up in Mobile, while his father worked civil rights cases throughout the South. Brennan is now retired and lives in Tennessee.
“This case really changed the bureau,” Howard said. “Undercover work increased by 800 percent afterwards, and white-collar crime became a clear priority. It was a moment of conversion for the FBI — and it’s something we should be paying attention to now.”
For more information, visit Howard's website at davidhowardauthor.com
Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or email@example.com.