LDS Agent: 30 years in the FBI, 15 of those as a bishop

2009-12-19T01:00:00Z LDS Agent: 30 years in the FBI, 15 of those as a bishopCody Clark - Daily Herald Daily Herald
December 19, 2009 1:00 am  • 

Bishops of wards, or congregations, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are expected to solve a variety of problems, but how many of them have ever had to break up a robbery during Sunday worship services? That's what happened to Mike McPheters once, livening up an otherwise unremarkable LDS sacrament meeting.

"Somebody yelled out that a guy was stealing tools from the truck of the ward mission leader," McPheters said. Jumping up from his seat at the front of the chapel, McPheters ran out of the building, chased down the malefactor and recovered the stolen tools.

Other bishops might have reacted differently to the disruption, but you could say that McPheters was only doing his job. His other job, that is. Because LDS bishops, who have essentially the same function as a pastor, are unpaid volunteers, they are typically working professionals whose secular occupation supports their families. For McPheters, his "real" job was being a field agent for the FBI.

That's bad news for Sabbath-breaking tool thieves, and good news for Springville-based Cedar Fort, which published McPheters's action-packed memoir "Agent Bishop" earlier this year.

Cedar Fort acquisitions editor Jennifer Fielding said that the unique contrast between McPheters's religious responsibilities and his professional responsibilities was just too good to pass up.

"One day he performed a marriage, and the next day he broke one up," Fielding said. "He kind of showed us those ironic parallels." (On that particular occasion, McPheters said, he showed up at a wedding to arrest the groom.)

McPheters, 66, served in the FBI for 30 years. For 15 of those years, he was also a bishop. "I was a bishop four times," he said. "I am a slow learner."

While raising five children with his wife, Judy -- there are now 21 grandchildren, with a 22nd on the way -- McPheters was an agent and bishop in Miami; West Linn, Ore.; Pendleton, Ore.; and Vernal, Utah.

His assignments varied over the years. In Miami, he investigated a car theft ring that had been set up to move stolen vehicles from the northeastern United States down to Florida. In Utah, he established a two-man field office and assisted the Bureau of Indian Affairs in investigating crimes on Utah's vast Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, the second largest reservation in the United States.

In Oregon, he investigated drug dealers, including helping to stage one of the largest meth busts in U.S. history. Reading about that experience was particularly surreal for Fielding, who recognized the name of the town, Elgin, where the bust occurred, but couldn't, at first, think why. Then she realized that she'd visited her husband's relatives there "dozens of times."

"I could completely picture the surroundings," she said.

Starting out

Though he now lives in Moses Lake, Wash., McPheters grew up in Ketchum, Idaho. He met his future spouse while pumping gas at a service station, but it wasn't until they reconnected at church that she really caught his eye. The boys were playing basketball, Judy McPheters said, when she walked into the gym at the ward building. McPheters tossed her the ball and told her to take a shot, which she nailed.

"He decided to check things out," she said.

The two remained in touch while McPheters served an LDS proselytizing mission to Uruguay and Paraguay and were married about four months after he returned home. By that point, McPheters, who'd learned about career opportunities in the FBI from friends in the mission field, knew what he wanted to do after graduating from Brigham Young University.

Following a gamut of background checks -- which included reviewing the residences he'd lived in on his mission -- McPheters completed his agent training in Quantico, Va., and Washington, D.C. His first FBI assignment, at age 25, was to San Diego, where he pursued and arrested U.S. Army deserters.

His first experience in LDS Church leadership came along at age 27 when he was called to serve as a counselor in the bishopric of his ward. (LDS bishops have two counselors, a position analogous to that of associate pastors, who directly assist them; collectively, the bishop and his counselors are known as a bishopric.) At age 30, by that time living in Miami, he was called to be a bishop for the first time.

The previous bishop, who was also a fellow FBI agent and one of McPheters's mission companions, had been reassigned by the FBI to Puerto Rico. He broke the news to McPheters by leaving a copy of the LDS Church's Church Handbook of Instructions on McPheters's desk at work.

It was the beginning of a long road for Judy McPheters, now 65. Her husband already had a demanding job, now he'd been given perhaps the most demanding local leadership position in the LDS Church. "I'm not sure, looking back on it, how we were able to do what we did," she said. "Being a bishop, I guess, really is a blessing to the family."

And perhaps occasionally a source of frustration. The third time that her husband was asked to become a bishop, Judy McPheters said, the church leader who issued the calling asked her what she thought about it.

"I said, 'Well, this is the third time. I hope he gets it right this time.' "

Notorious cases

McPheters credits his wife with helping him to manage the competing demands on his time. "She should be canonized," he said.

He also dealt with stress by resorting to exercise: "I've been a runner and weight lifter all my life."

And though McPheters said that his wife helped him immensely by frequently parenting their children almost by herself, Judy McPheters said that her husband always had time for his family.

"He made us a priority," she said. "We didn't ever feel left out. He really worked at it, making us feel like we were a part of things, and special."

In most instances, McPheters's work for the FBI stayed separate from his work for the LDS Church. One occasion that wove them together was the FBI investigation of the killing, in 1989, of two LDS proselytizing missionaries in Bolivia. The missionaries were killed by Bolivian Leftists belonging to the Zarate Willka paramilitary group.

McPheters was on a team of five agents who assisted the investigation.

"My assignment was to work the streets with a Bolivian counterpart," he said.

It's not the only time in his career that McPheters was part of a notable investigation. He also participated in the FBI's investigation of the murder of American labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose body has never been found. At one point, McPheters interviewed the owner of a New Jersey junkyard, thinking that Hoffa's body might have been disposed of there.

Another famously unresolved investigation attempted to track plane hijacker D.B. Cooper, a folk hero in the minds of some on account of his having absconded with a large sum of cash. After a boy found some of the stolen money in the Oregon countryside, McPheters was part of a team of agents that recovered additional fragments of bills from Cooper's ill-gotten booty.

Despite having faced danger multiple times, including frequently working with SWAT teams, McPheters said that he rarely worried about dying in the line of duty. The most dangerous situations, he said, were often the most exciting ones.

"The excitement eclipsed the fear," he said.

He does remember one time when he knew that he'd be leading a group into the home of a drug dealer. He had been assigned to go in first and tackle the dealer, immobilizing him.

"I knew that I couldn't hold a gun in my hand and go through the door at the same time," he said. The night before, he wrote a letter to his wife to express how much he loved her. It's the only time he can remember having been that worried.

Judy McPheters almost never found out about the letter. "He left it in with the things he knew I would have to pull out if he were to die," she said. "I didn't even see it until much later."


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