Mark James: Willow’s Own Jack Ryan

Sometime during my senior year at WSHS, Principal Fred Thomas summoned me to his office for an assignment. The third-grade teacher, Mrs. Yardley, had to be absent from class, and Mr. Thomas asked me to serve as a substitute teacher for a science lesson. Without any hesitation, I agreed. 
Initially, the class seemed interested and curious about having a high school substitute teacher (I’m sure I must have seemed quite old to them), but as we got into the subject matter of the lesson—friction, and how it made things hotter—one boy clearly stood out as bright and engaging—Mark James. I wasn’t surprised, since he was the youngest brother of my classmate Doug James (WSHS, 1965), who was one of our top students.
But it’s a long way from Willow Springs to becoming a government agent investigating Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Washington D.C. Sniper case, or going undercover to infiltrate Iranian terrorists. Mark's real-life career rivals the adventures of author Tom Clancy’s fictional government agent, Jack Ryan, or TV’s Jack Bauer on “24”. 
In fact, a 2003 episode of the TV series, The Investigators, titled “Into Thin Air,” featured one of Mark’s cases. Mark even got an acting credit for playing himself in the filmography. 
And New York Times bestselling author Steve Jackson’s book, No Stone Unturned, chronicled one of Mark’s cases—the Christine Elkins case. Of this case, Mark says, “She was an informant of mine that a drug kingpin murdered, and it took us seven years to find her body and make the murder case.”
Mark graduated from WSHS in 1974, where he excelled in football and basketball. He spent the next two years at Mizzou, where he played football as a walk-on his freshman year, before transferring to Central Missouri State University (now, the University of Central Missouri) to focus on a major in criminal justice.
After graduating from Central Missouri State in 1978, with a degree in criminal justice and administration, Mark was selected for the 48th recruiting class of the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP). He graduated at the top of his class, and distinguished himself as a uniformed trooper and later as a member of the Patrol’s newly-constituted undercover unit. 
As an undercover agent, Mark investigated a multitude of criminal activities, including drug trafficking, motorcycle gangs, agricultural theft, methamphetamine labs, and terrorist groups. Regarding his experience as an undercover agent, Mark says, “I had a number of close calls, including a toe-to-toe gunfight during a drug bust; a ‘contract’ put out on me by drug dealers in the southwest corner of the state; and a situation where a guy strung out on drugs held me at gunpoint, while he played a version of Russian roulette with a loaded pistol pointed at me.” 
In the process of writing this article, I read the previous paragraph to my wife, and she asked the obvious question (which I didn’t), “How did Mark get out of the Russian roulette situation? Inquiring minds will want to know.” So, I got back in touch with him, and here’s what I learned.
Working undercover, Mark was sitting behind the steering wheel of a pickup when the guy pulled the gun on him. Mark said, “So, while the dude was holding me at gunpoint and pulling the hammer back on the revolver, then squeezing the trigger and letting the hammer come back down on the firing pin with his thumb on top of the hammer, another partner of mine (an undercover trooper) stood outside my driver’s door and could see through the window what was happening. The guy was so stoned that my partner and I were able to have a hushed conversation between us.”
His partner considered shooting the bad guy, but was concerned if he shot him, Mark would get shot, too. Mark said, “I kept talking to the guy—stuff like ‘be calm now. Hey, we’re cool here, right?’ I could see another undercover trooper creeping up outside the passenger door. I grabbed the gun from the guy, as my other partner yanked him out of the truck and face-planted him.” 
Impressed with his investigative accomplishments, the MSHP gave Mark the responsibility of creating the agency’s first Intelligence Section, which he supervised from 1985-1987. Mark says, “While investigating these crimes and criminal groups, I worked with all the federal law enforcement agencies who often relied on my undercover work to assist their investigations.” 
Ultimately, he was recruited by numerous federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, but in 1987, he chose to become a special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). As a Special Agent in the Kansas City office, he immediately went undercover to investigate Jamaican cocaine traffickers. 
As an ATF street agent, Mark investigated gangs, international drug traffickers, arson, organized crime, and murders for hire. This work was up-close and personal and often dangerous. In one case, Mark said, “An Iranian crime boss, who was accused to have murdered his two brothers-in-law, ultimately hired me in an undercover capacity to murder his wife with a remote-controlled car bomb.” 
In 1991 Mark was promoted to Resident Agent in Charge of the ATF Omaha Office, where he supervised a dozen special agents. There, on a Monday in April 1995, agents informed him that the previous week janitorial staff in their building had encountered two different strangers, one wearing cheap red wig under his cap, asking suspicious questions—the location of the ATF office, the number of agents, and how well armed they were.
As Mark listened to agents, he says, “The hair went up on the back of my neck and arm. I absolutely knew we were being targeted.” He convened all agents and began a full court press to identify the suspects. The next morning at the federal courthouse, as he briefed the U.S. Attorney, his 911 pager went off and a secretary burst into the office saying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City had been bombed. 
The ATF investigators felt certain Timothy McVeigh, who was one of the bombers ultimately convicted, sentenced to death, and executed in 2001, was one of the men reconnoitering the federal building that housed the Omaha ATF Office. The second suspect, however, was not believed to have been McVeigh’s accomplice, Terry Nichols, and remains unidentified to this date.
Mark feels certain that McVeigh at some point had the Omaha office in his sights. He wonders, “Did we spook him off or were we going to be next?” For decades after the bombing, an aerial photograph of the Murrah Building hung on his office wall, with the inscription, “There but for the Grace of God Go I.” Today, that same picture hangs on his home office wall as a reminder.
To be continued: Mark James, United States Marshal.
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