By TIM BULLARD
MYRTLE BEACH — For Art Roehrl, a parishioner at St. Andrew’s Church and retired Federal Bureau of Investigation agent living in Horry County, a three-decade career with the agency has provided some interesting moments, from working a part of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to scouring nearly a million documents in searching for handwriting samples involving a kidnapping case.
Roehrl’s part in the investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy involved the tracking of the weapon.
The FBI department where Roehrl worked had the task to “identify the weapon that killed him (Kennedy) and that Lee Harvey Oswald was the person who purchased it.”
The weapon had been imported to a company in Chicago, and the day after the assassination had been traced to Lee Harvey Oswald.
“My first reaction was ‘Gee, what is going on for somebody to go so far as to kill the president?’ There was a lot of turmoil in the country. Remember, this is after the Bay of Pigs and the ultimatum that we had with Russia. A lot of things go through your mind.”
Another case he remembered was the Winberger kidnapping in New York City in 1955, where a man had taken a baby and abandoned it in a field on Long Island. “It was a very interesting case because the only clue we had was the handwriting on the ransom note. We went over nearly a million documents just to find his handwriting. We finally found it in the Probation Office in Brooklyn. We were closing in from all directions.”
He continued, “It was the end of a long, long road. We were working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. It was great to be able to solve a case like that. It makes you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”
Roehrl, 73, moved to the Myrtle Beach area in 1982. He is chairman of disaster operations for the American Red Cross in Horry County and is also on the board of directors.
The Minnesota native attended college at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and spent three years, from 1943 to 1946, with the 14th Armored Division in the European Theatre, serving in France and Germany.
“I came back and finished my college education, worked briefly for a company for six months and then entered the FBI,” he said. “I heard about the FBI on the radio when I was a kid, and I thought it was one of the greatest things going, but I didn’t believe that I’d be able to get in.”
Roehrl and other friends, all retired agents, met recently at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club for a luncheon with their wives.
Ham Floyd, 86, a Tabor City, N.C., native, was at the gathering. Floyd served as an FBI agent for six years in New York City and at the bureau headquarters for 21 years before retiring in 1976.
“When I graduated from law school I went to Charlotte and was interviewed. Actually at that time, in 1948, the pay was better than a job that I would have taken teaching law,” said Floyd.
He said his most interesting case “was actually a surveillance of one of the missing Communist Party leaders. Something happened during the surveillance … which I can’t spell out, in New York.”
Remembering the old days, Roerhl said, “I think they have a tougher job today then we had with all the drugs and crime that are here, and the break down in society with respect to the people. There is a lot of respect that has been lost from the elders. They don’t seem to care for each other like we used to.”
He added that, “I think the public no longer holds them (FBI) in esteem as they did us, and a lot of that is due to misinformation.”
Roehrl also talked about the fight against organized crime. “The major problem was that we didn’t have the laws that we have today to fight organized crime. They say that Hoover was light on the Mafia in the Organized Crime Section. Well, you didn’t have the laws to enforce. Basically, it was considered to be a local crime problem, and it wasn’t until Congress recognized that they needed to put more laws on the books making certain things an interstate violation, because organized crime had definitely gone interstate, they were sitting there with their hands tied.”
In addition, he said, “There were no drugs in those days. There were no laws on bootlegging because whiskey was no longer illegal. They are finally reaping the benefits today. It’s not easy to catch these guys. It’s a lot of hard work.”
Concerning his opinion of J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary chief of the FBI, Roehrl said, “I think highly of him. He really did a great job in making law enforcement something to be looked up to, rather than down to. His idea was that law enforcement should be meeting justice, and his idea also was that we, as the FBI, should be training the local officers to uphold the law in the same manner. Police officers were never intended to be punishers. They are supposed to take it to the prosecutors and let the courts make the decision of whether someone is guilty or not guilty,”
He concluded, “I think the worst thing in the world is to have a crooked police officer. I think he is the worst enemy of society because he sits under the cover of law, saying he is great, and he isn’t.”