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Serving Justice

Jason Wick

When strangers ask Jason Wick what he does for a living, the special agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives sometimes offers this response: “I’ll say, ‘I spend eight years trying to get the truth, and then I go home,’” Wick said.

And while Wick does encounter his fair share of liars among the arsonists and bombers he has interviewed over his twenty-two-year career, more often than not, the 1988 IUP graduate is able to elicit the truth from people even at their own expense.

“He’s a very skillful interviewer of not only witnesses but defendants,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney, who has worked with Wick on prosecuting many cases over the years. “He has a knack for getting witnesses to cooperate and a knack for getting defendants to confess.”

When Wick, a 1984 graduate of Derry Area High School, decided to major in Political Science at IUP, he did so with the plan of attending law school after college. But after graduation, Wick decided that rather than practice law, he would enforce the law. He applied for a job at several law enforcement agencies, from the FBI and Secret Service to the ATF and the Pennsylvania State Police.

The ATF was the first agency to call. After a test and a series of three interviews, he was hired at age twenty-two. “Normally they want people with a police background,” Wick said. “I was fortunate they took a chance.”

“He has a knack for getting witnesses to cooperate and a knack for getting defendants to confess.”

Wick started his career in the Pittsburgh field office working on gun cases that are typically given to rookie agents. He was, he said, “as green as they come. I came in not knowing much at all. It required a lot of on-the-job training.”

Two years into his career, Wick moved to a position where he handled more complex bomb and arson cases. ATF agents are typically called in to investigate arson cases at the request of local police agencies. Sometimes, after a number of arsons over a short period of time, local police decide they need the ATF’s expertise. “Before long, they look at it and say, ‘We’ve had twenty unsolved arsons here. We need help,’” Wick said. He handled recent serial arson cases in Coatesville and New Castle.

In other instances—those in which a single fire does so much monetary damage or causes loss of life—local police or insurance companies call the ATF shortly after arson is determined as the cause. While ATF agents won’t investigate every arson case, they are called in every time a bomb explodes.

That was the case in 2003, when Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man, robbed an Erie area bank with a bomb locked around his neck. While Wells was surrounded by police, the bomb went off, killing Wells and launching a bizarre investigation that moved Wick from the Pittsburgh office to the Erie office of the ATF, where he still works today. “I’ll never see anything like that again,” Wick said of the case, which is still working its way through the court system. “The way it worked out was just through interviewing.”

Wick said it took numerous interviews of witnesses and suspects on the streets and in police department interview rooms to get to the truth of the case. Identification of those responsible came down to the details.

In the end, two people, Kenneth Barnes and Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, were indicted in the case. Barnes pled guilty and is serving a forty-five-year sentence. Diehl-Armstrong is awaiting trial. The robbery plot was allegedly part of a plan to supply Diehl-Armstrong with money she would then use to hire a hit man to kill her father.

FBI Special Agent Jerry Clark, who worked with Wick on the case, said Wick is one of the best interviewers he has worked with in twenty years in law enforcement. “He sets a goal, and he works very, very hard to get to where he’s going,” Clark said. “He is just really persistent in finding out the truth.”

Sweeney said Wick is honest and never tries to sugarcoat a situation. It’s that straightforward nature that Wick thinks helps him in the interview room. He said he never goes into an interview trying to bully someone. Rather, he shows respect instead of anger or disdain. “You have to be able to extract information from witnesses who are unwilling … right down to the suspect himself,” Wick said. “If you come out and act tough and are unapproachable and not understanding, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Most arsonists have a reason for their crime—whether it is for thrill, for profit, or for revenge. “If you can find that reason and kind of sympathize with them, you can make that connection,” Wick said. “You’re selling jail time is what you’re doing. If you can do this, you can sell anything.”

While Wick typically organizes cases or conducts interviews, he has also been part of on-scene fire and bombing investigations. One of the biggest cases in which he helped gather evidence was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He still marvels at how the North Tower’s structure held up to the blast from the truck bomb that had been parked in the underground garage. Eight years later, after the Twin Towers were felled by terrorists who flew airliners into them, Wick would find himself at another scene of the September 11, 2001, attacks: gathering evidence at the Flight 93 crash site in Somerset County.

Through it all, Wick, who played football at IUP, said he often thinks back to a mantra of one of his coaches. Frank Condino, now IUP’s athletics director, made his players say, “It’s a great day to be alive,” Wick said.

He thinks of that when a case is tough and when he has to face yet another criminal in the interview room. “Every time the road might be hard, the case might be hard,” he said, “you have the opportunity to make things right, to make a difference in someone’s life, to serve justice.”

 

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