July 8, 2013

After high-profile career with FBI, Mainer retires

Peter Bickmore, who led the domestic terrorism unit, kept ties to his home state.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Peter Bickmore started his law enforcement career as a reserve officer in Scarborough, writing parking tickets at Higgins Beach and Pine Point.

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click image to enlarge

Former Cumberland resident Peter Bickmore, second from right, spends time with friends during a gathering in Yarmouth. From left are Sgt. Michael Edes of the Maine State Police; David Goodman, with the Tampa (Fla.) police; John Kyle, owner of Pat’s Pizza in Yarmouth; and Lt. Milt Calder of the town of Cumberland police.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

It ended the other day when he retired from the FBI as head of the bureau's domestic terrorism unit, charged with keeping tabs on neo-Nazis, anti-government militias, anarchists and eco-terrorists.

In between, he helped investigate the Mafia in Providence, R.I., the first World Trade Center bombing, major kidnapping and ransom cases, and the Boston Marathon bombings, all the while maintaining close ties with his native Maine and the law enforcement community here.

Now he's headed for a new assignment – head of security for the NFL's Cleveland Browns.

"Pete amazes me every day with what he accomplishes," said Maine State Police Sgt. Michael Edes, who grew up four houses down from Bickmore in Cumberland. They graduated from high school together, and worked for the Scarborough police at the same time. Bickmore was best man at Edes' wedding.

"What you see is what you get with Pete," Edes said. "He's soft-spoken, but he really has a sense of love for community, other officers, the public he serves. He really feels deeply about them."

Officers from state, county and local police, along with other well-wishers, held a reception last week for Harold "Pete" Bickmore at Pat's Pizza in Yarmouth. The owner, John Kyle, lived on the same street in Cumberland where Bickmore and Edes grew up, and has two sons, one of whom is a state trooper.

"I call him my third son," Kyle said of Bickmore. "I love him like a son and he considers me a father figure to him."

Kyle was one of a large network of supportive community members who helped raise Bickmore after his father drowned in a lobster boat accident when Bickmore was 8 years old. His mother was left to raise four daughters and a son.

"The way the community rallied around Pete and Pete's family – the director of public works in Cumberland, the fire chief, assistant fire chief – all took Pete under their wing, did everything in the world to ensure he grew up a good man," Edes said.

When Bickmore was in high school, he volunteered with the Cumberland Fire Department and planned to make a career of the fire service, even studying fire science at the University of Maryland, Kyle said. But after working as a reserve officer in Scarborough, Bickmore knew police work was his calling.

He speaks gently, and at least in casual conversation gives no sign of the responsibility he carried with the FBI.

His strength, he says, is in building bridges with other law enforcement agencies. It's a philosophy that he says he can trace to his first chief in Scarborough, the late John T. Flaherty Sr.

"My first chief said, 'You always work with everybody and you always do the right thing,'" Bickmore recalled.

Robert Schwartz, former police chief in South Portland and now executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said Bickmore developed a knack for undercover investigations while working with the state police drug enforcement unit, predecessor to what is now the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. After six years in the Scarborough department, Bickmore joined the FBI in 1987, attended the academy in Quantico, Va., and was assigned to the office in Newark, N.J.

"I was in total culture shock," Bickmore said. "I was walking the streets of downtown Newark and three months earlier I had been driving a cruiser in Scarborough, Maine."

Over the next several years, Bickmore participated in several high-profile investigations, including New England Mafia bosses, the kidnapping and killing of an Exxon executive, and the 1999 crash of Egypt Air Flight 990 off Nantucket Island, ultimately blamed on a suicidal co-pilot.

As large as the FBI is, it often has fewer agents on the ground in a given city than the local police department. But overnight that can change, as it did when bombs erupted at the Boston Marathon in April.

Bickmore was working when he saw news coverage of the attack almost immediately after the blasts.

Within minutes, the FBI set up a command post in Washington, D.C., to support the work of agents in Boston. It's a methodical, systematic process -- not frenetic and filled with emotion, he said -– but is followed with a diligence that leads to 24-hour work days and weeks with no breaks.

"Pete's even-keeled, doesn't get emotional about stuff," Edes said. "He's very analytical" in dealing with high-stress situations.

Most of Bickmore's federal work involved violent organized crime, including drug distribution networks.

"We try to look at large-scale organizations that are hurting particular communities," Bickmore said. "We try to disrupt and dismantle them. We try to choke them off at the neck, not just put them in jail, but seize their assets."

At various times, Bickmore was stationed in Providence and Boston and was the assistant special agent in charge in Ohio. He was rotated through FBI headquarters twice.

For five months in 2008-09, he was stationed in Iraq, working with special forces to conduct criminal investigations on foreign fighters and their superiors. Some were already in custody. For others who were hiding out in Iran or Syria, arrest warrants were issued. If the targets ever slip up and are identified, they can be arrested and tried, he said.

There's a lot Bickmore can't talk about publicly.

On the use of NSA data mining to thwart terrorism: "That's all a real fine line. Our job as FBI agents is to protect people's civil rights, but you're damned if you do, damned if you don't," he said, referring to the conflict between protection of privacy and providing safety.

Bickmore earned the bureau's third-highest medal, for Meritorious Achievement, but it wasn't for police work. He was off-duty one day in 2007 when he resuscitated a teenage car crash victim in the middle of a four-lane highway outside Boston.

Bickmore credits his success to the strong support of his family, including his two daughters, who grew up in Maine.

Throughout his travels, Bickmore always maintained ties to his home state. And despite his FBI experience, he always kept in touch with his friends in Maine law enforcement, said Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams.

Now he'll take over security for the Cleveland Browns football team.

"This job he's going into is extremely high-profile," Edes said. "There is a lot riding on the line for any NFL organization. This is not a retirement job. He'll be putting in 60 to 80 hours a week."

And it will make use of Bickmore's strengths, Edes said.

"Any time you're traveling, you have to be able to network," he said. "He can come into Foxborough, when the Browns are playing the Patriots, and he has to be able to network and communicate with state police and Foxborough police, all the involved departments."

Bickmore also likes watching football occasionally, but he's not a fanatic. He won't be starstruck or intimidated by NFL stars, his friends said.

But when referencing his new job to his law enforcement colleagues the other night, he did describe them as "the Superbowl-bound Cleveland Browns."

The Browns haven't won a playoff game since 1994.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@mainetoday.com

 

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