Joe Doorley was one of the good guys

Joe Doorley was one of the good guys

And you don’t meet many real good guys in this too-brief existence, particularly when they’re investigating you for suspicion of being a serial bomber. But that’s exactly what happened in this very strange scenario. My long-time readers and listeners already know that, due to a variety of inexplicable coincidences, I was the main suspect in the Unabom investigation for the better part of 16 years. That story recently came to light in the third installment of Pineapple Street Studios’ superb eight-part podcast, “Project Unabom.”

We can all recite the events that forged us, some counting more towards the sum of our parts than others, but it’s a rare privilege to have your central forging story released to a global audience – often in your own words! But that overdue vindication has been somewhat offset by the June 3rd third death of Joe Doorley, the FBI agent who took over the case in 1989. Joe was the first agent to finally recognize that my friends and I couldn’t have possibly played a role in those bombings.

I’m not a very visual person, but I can still recall the bright yellow touchtone phone ringing in the small alcove between some cabinets in the small hallway between the dining room and kitchen in my one-bedroom Farwell Avenue Rogers Park apartment. When Joe explained who he was, my heart sank. “Here we go again,” I thought, convinced the call portended another round of the FBI coming at us with all guns blazing. Despite what you might think, the fourth iteration of that investigative cycle wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounded. After more than a decade of massive disruption, my initial instinct was to hang up and walk away.

But this call was different. There was none of the FBI arrogance, there were no baseless accusations, and Joe displayed an uncharacteristic willingness to listen to what I had to say. He explained that he knew we had nothing to do with it and he just wanted to clear me. Despite my hard-earned trepidation, I offered to meet with he and fellow agent John Larsen to go over the entire case one more time. We must’ve talked at that small Farwell dining room table for four hours as I debunked the insane mythology that had grown around our purported involvement in the bombings, which raged on unabated.

That would turn out to be the first of many such conversations between Joe and I as we tried to unravel any potential connection between my group of friends and the Unabomber. Ted Kaczynski had already murdered a Sacramento computer store owner and if there really was some sort of link, we wanted to help stop him. But then a strange thing happened. Throughout those frequent discussions, Joe and I became friends, and after more than a decade of looking over my shoulder, I finally began to relax a little bit.

I asked Joe to accompany me to a psychic a friend had recommend, and much to my surprise, he did. Though we would laugh for years about her vast inaccuracies, it was the first time I got to see Joe’s formidable investigator side. He fired a series of logical questions at that poor woman, each one building upon the next, in an effort to glean any useable information.

Joe and I had a mutual ATF nemesis, too. Not only would this agent run roughshod over any other agency involved in the investigation, but she would later fabricate arson evidence to railroad an Indiana father who’s family had perished in a trailer fire. This agent was convinced that convicting me would be her career-defining moment. But you know me. As soon as I discovered I could get under her skin, I proceeded to do it at every turn.

It was shortly after one of the 1993 bombs went off that Joe called my Streamwood house barely able to contain himself as he rapidly repeated “You got the ATF agent Kicked off the case. You got the ATF agent kicked off the case.” Having goaded her once again, when Joe and John were assigned to “visit me” as part of the FBI’s requisite post-bombing interviews, she went off in a multi-agency meeting demanding she be the one to question me this time. When word of her temper tantrum got back to her bosses she was unceremoniously removed from the investigation.

Apparently, I was quite the hero with the FBI and Postal investigators for a couple of weeks, and Joe’s abundantly humorous reaction to my turning-the-tables effort was worth its weight in gold. We would relive that hilarious moment for years to come. Who knew that an FBI agent could have that kind of sense of humor?

As the investigation incessantly dragged on and new agents were assigned to the case, they’d inevitably start at the beginning and refocus on me. But thankfully, Joe would warn me that the next batch of agents would be calling and I’d make short work of them by explaining I’d only discuss the case with him and John.

But my favorite Joe Doorley story involved his series of prized Labrador retrievers. Joe LOVED those dogs to the point where, in the event of a housefire, I’m not sure if he would’ve rescue his wife Nanette or the dog first. Joe enjoyed their canine company so much that he’d take them along on stakeouts.

So, as you might imagine, Joe was more than a bit bereft when Cody died. And when he called to commiserate, he told me that he couldn’t find the original breeder, but his team of crack agents was working on it. I asked for the details and told him I’d get back to him in ten minutes. Despite the 90’s Internet not nearly being what it is today, I managed to find the breeder, and let’s just say I wasn’t the least bit humble about beating the FBI to the punch. The running joke became  me giving Joe a ring to ask if I could help with any of his ongoing investigations. He’d try not to laugh, but I always managed to crack him up.

When I was the opening speaker at John Larsen’s retirement party and I thought I did well, unbeknownst to me, Joe proceeded to administer a once-in-a-lifetime Jeff Ward roast that brought the house down. I still have the Unabomber t-shirt and mug he personally presented to me in front of that federal crowd. We should’ve gone on road together.

Joe retired from the agency in 2006 to become the Chicago representative for the NFL, a job where he dealt with all manner of security, player, and other tough issues. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed being privy to all manner of fascinating Chicago Bears stories during his ten-year tenure. Don’t ask me because I’ll never repeat them.

But my favorite memories of Joe will always be our eternal postmortem analyses of Ted Kaczynski and the Unabom investigation. Despite the futility of trying to make sense of what was ultimately nonsensical, we’d reexamine the smallest details and argue like brothers about whether my friends and I should’ve been part of the investigation. We’d marvel at the coincidences that pointed to us and we agreed, in Joe’s own words, that “All Ted really wanted was the love of a good woman.”

We were convinced that, had he found that, none of this would’ve happened.

Though I’ve done my best to paint a picture of Joe Doorley’s vast humility, humanity, and sense of humor, he was no slouch. He captured more than his share of top-ten fugitives and his friends would say that “he was the heart and soul of the FBI’s Violent Crime Program” in Chicago. Even Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot attended his funeral.

Joe had family in Batavia and we were always going to meet “to have that beer with John.” But as is so often the case in this distraction we call life, it never happened. In the end, I have no regrets because Joe and I spoke so frequently. In light of the Unabom podcast process, we went right back to debating whether the FBI should’ve considered us suspects.

As I write this paragraph, I can clearly hear Joe’s unmistakable voice insisting, “C’mon, Jeff! There was enough evidence to consider you guys, and you’re crazy if you think otherwise.” My traditional rebuttal was, “No way! What you call ‘evidence’ was just a series of coincidences that never should’ve amounted to an investigation.” Neither one of us would give an inch, but  in spite of that mutual determination, we always would up laughing over our shared intractability. I can’t tell you how much I’m going miss those conversations. This isn’t the way I wanted to win that debate.

Despite what some agents might tell you, we steadfastly agreed that David Kaczynski was the only reason that Ted was eventually apprehended. Joe didn’t have the kind of ego that would allow him to take credit for something he hadn’t done.

Joe Doorley was the kind of good guy you’ll be lucky to run into once in a lifetime. He wielded that rare capacity to improve the lives of everyone he touched. He certainly made mine better. Given a Mulligan, I’m not so sure I’d want to endure the Unabom experience again, but if omitting that event meant never meeting Joe Doorley, I’d probably give it another shot.

So, please grab that glass of whatever your drinking and join me in hoisting it to the sky to celebrate the life of a remarkable man and one of my favorite friends. Here’s to a live well lived! It certainly won’t be the same without you, Joe.

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