Indiana farm kid now state FBI office's top agent
Sep. 05, 2018
RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) — Growing up on a small farm between Hagerstown and Economy, Grant Mendenhall dreamed of working for the FBI, but he never imagined he would lead the agency's operations in his home state.
After nearly 30 years on the job, he's now managed to do both.
Mendenhall, 54, is the agency's highest-ranking official in Indiana as the state's Special Agent in Charge, a position to which he was promoted earlier this year, having risen through the ranks as a counter-terrorism expert for the bureau since joining in 1990.
The Hagerstown High School graduate, from his office in Indianapolis, oversees more than 250 federal agents and support staff.
He's also a graduate of Ball State University, having earned his political science degree in 1986.
"We never thought we'd make it back; it took almost 32 years," Mendenhall said. "I think so much time had gone by ... we just kind of discounted the possibility the longer we were away."
In his early years with the Bureau, he worked on a violent crime and gang task force, but after 9/11, things changed and his career path was turned upside down.
Mendenhall, at the time stationed in Salt Lake City, was tasked with coordinating security and anti-terrorism efforts during the region's hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Since then, he's worked anti-terror assignments almost exclusively; he's worked in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and as an attache in Baghdad, too.
Now he's back home, leading the agency's statewide efforts and overseeing more than 130 special agents and a support staff of an additional 120 analysts, staff operations specialists and other professionals.
Mendenhall was named leader of the Indianapolis FBI office back in February, and has since made his way around the state with a focus on outreach and goodwill visits to local law enforcement agencies and other public and private institutions with whom the agency partners.
He said his job is a bit different from what it used to be — "I talk to more good guys these days," he said — but added he considers it a unique opportunity to take the helm in his home state.
"You really have a greater appreciation for the work you're doing if you're able to do it from home, to see the impact it has on where you're from," he said. "I think that's a big part of what makes this return so incredible for me."
Mendenhall was a three-sport athlete (football, wrestling and baseball) at Hagerstown before graduating in 1982, though he admittedly was a "mediocre, middle-of-the-pack athlete" he said.
But what he learned from competing, and his time in band and choir, helped shape him into the person he has since become.
"I was very fortunate to have exceptional teachers and coaches in my time at Hagerstown," Mendenhall said. "I think the work ethic I learned from them, playing sports and being so involved, had a lot to do with me being able to successfully start my career. It had a huge impact on me."
He said growing up on a farm helped him learn how to work hard, as well, though Mendenhall's father never demanded much from him in regard to helping out.
The idea of joining federal law enforcement sprouted during Mendenall's time in junior high, he said — around the same time the ABC television series "The FBI" was in its prime. The show was a drama series looking at actual bureau cases, through the eyes of fictitious characters; it ran nine seasons from 1965 to 1974, with re-airings in the years after.
The show also spawned a spin-off several years later, called "Today's FBI," which Mendenhall said he was enthralled by during its one season on the air.
"I think it was the combination of that TV show with knowing that a couple of my dad's old buddies were federal agents," he said. "It kind of got the wheels turning that some farm kid from Indiana can go do something really cool like that."
Back when he was a kid, Mendenhall would visit Richmond every once in a while, but it wasn't a part of his everyday life. A trip here or there to Kessler's sports store, or a stroll along the promenade to spend some time with family or friends.
"Richmond was where we went to go to town," he said. "When I was growing up, Keds had a pair of red Cincinnati Reds shoes; I used to wear those when I was in elementary school and we would get those at Neff & Nusbaum, right downtown.
"That was the big trip when I was growing up," Mendenhall said. "But those are probably some of my fondest memories of spending time in Richmond."
Following his departure from Ball State, Mendenhall enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he served "at the tip of the spear during peace time," he said.
For four years, he was a Marine — "still am, in my heart," he said.
His experience in the Corps, and the skills he learned, translated well when he applied three years later.
"I never did anything for real, in terms of combat," he said. "But I gained a lot of skills in my time in the military and it really put me in a good position to get into the bureau."
Mendenhall said his application process took about 18 months and included extensive background checks, interviews and assessments. Through it all, his friends and family didn't seem surprised that he maintained his interest in federal law enforcement. said his friends and family weren't all that surprised when he joined FBI — used to yap about it all the time, he said.
"I used to yap about it all the time," he said. "If anything, they may have just been surprised I was selected."
By the time he got to Salt Lake City, a lot had changed for the bureau and how it used technology, intelligence and other skillsets to conduct investigations. He had been on various task forces and focused on a variety of case types, including organized crime and gang activity.
"I was working those kind of sexy, violent crimes that the FBI is really known for," he said.
But following 9/11, he made a definitive jump to national security work — along with a large portion of the agency nationwide.
"I got thrown into that world while preparing for the Olympics," he said. "The eyes of the world were on Salt Lake City, preparing for the biggest special event in the aftermath of 9/11."
He said he learned most of his job on-the-fly, and that it was a much faster transition than what he probably would have encountered had he not been stationed in Salt Lake City at the time.
"Everyone was going through the transition, but mine, I think, happened a whole lot faster because of the Olympics," he said. "And the primary focus is to make sure nothing happens during that."
Mendenhall said federal agencies with whom he'd never worked practically showed up out of nowhere, even as talks were ongoing about the possibility of canceling the games out of security concerns.
Navigating the alphabet soup of federal law enforcement was itself a challenge, he said, given he had previously only had experience working with agencies from around the areas in which he'd been assigned.
"I'd been accustomed to working with our area partners — local, state police, and such," Mendenhall said. "But all the three-letter agencies kind of fell out of the sky there ahead of the Games."
He said following the Olympics, most all his career moves were dictated by national security work and counter-terrorism efforts. He bounced from Salt Lake City, to Guantanamo Bay, back stateside, and to Guantanamo Bay again, where he was heavily involved in the criminal prosecutions of numerous detainees at the facility.
"I've been what feels like everywhere," he said.
In 2009, Mendenhall was assigned as a unit chief in the International Terrorism Operations division and later worked for a year in Iraq as a deputy legal attaché; he then served as an assistant section chief in another International Terrorism Operations division and then worked as the deputy director for law enforcement at the Joint Interagency Task Force's Capitol division.
From 2014 to early 2018, Mendenhall held numerous positions in the Washington, D.C., area; among them were Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the intelligence division for the Washington Field Office, then he was named to section chief for the International Terrorism Operations section one, then deputy assistant director in the counter-terrorism division of another unit. Before taking the job in Indiana, he was named the assistant director of that counter-terrorism division.
"It's a lifestyle more than it is a job. It's a family team to be part of the FBI," he said. "To go through some hardships and some separations is tough, but having that family support is critical."
Mendenhall said his family — which included Jean and their daughters Chelsea and Katie — took a team approach to any decision related to a potential move to a new city.
"It wasn't something where I would decide and that would be that," he said. "It really was a family matter so we all really discussed the options and made sure everyone was on board."
Mendenhall oversees more than 250 people across Indiana in his role as the state's bureau head. He said his job most days boils down to gaining, and keeping, the public's trust and establishing and nurturing partnerships with other agencies around the state.
This includes a focus on what he called "strategic issues," like ensuring the agency is focused on the right priorities and that it has adequate staffing and distribution around Indiana. He said relationships with private and public sector partners is also part of his daily routine.
Mendenhall's day-to-day involvement in cases is limited he said, but he's often required to authorize certain crucial elements of operations.
The FBI has nine resident offices around the state, including a location in Muncie that serves Richmond and many of the state's easternmost central counties; Mendenhall said the Muncie office covers area as far south as Lawrenceburg.
The Muncie field office recently added an additional special agent, and Mendenhall said he plans to add another in the coming few months.
Most of the boots-on-the-ground leadership rests with his three assistant special agents in charge, each of whom leads a section of the state (north, central or south), or with the squad supervisors.
Even so, Mendenhall said he has retained the skills he used throughout the earlier parts of his career, and even picked up a few new skills. He's also been exposed to a wider gamut of work done by the agency, which he got away from in the wake of his move to counter-terror.
"I sort of feel like a new agent again, because I'm sort of being reintroduced to everything else the FBI does other than counterterrorism," he said. "I've found myself having to relearn some things I haven't really had to pay attention to, and learning some things I've never really had much involvement in in the first place."
He said cybercrime is an area in which he's never been involved as an agent, and that he continues to be impressed by the skillsets possessed by more tech-savvy and younger agents around the state.
"Coming back out here to the real world, it's been a fun and invigorating transition," he said.
One of the biggest focuses for the agency since Mendenhall took over has been the continued effort in Delphi, as local, state and federal authorities continue seeking answers in the disappearance and murder of two pre-teen girls in February 2017.
"We're still very focused on finding the answers there and ensuring justice is served, so that's been a huge focus," he said.
Mendenhall said efforts to reduce violent crime in Marion County have also continued to be a focus of the agency, and that he and agents continue working with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and Indiana State Police to combat the issue.
He said he also has a renewed focus on the image of the FBI around the state, particularly about how its viewed in light of recent high-profile incidents related to law enforcement in general and what he considers the politicization of the bureau by multiple parties.
He said he views the modern era as among the most challenging times for law enforcement — regardless of agency — in the history of the United States.
"Having the public's trust is of huge importance," he said. "And people want to know what we're doing here (in Indiana); what our partnerships look like, how our investigations are impacting communities."
He said one of the biggest factors in maintaining public trust is in being transparent; offering good news about the agency where it can and "owning the bad," Mendenhall said.
"It all goes to transparency, and transparency builds trust," he said. "I think the public needs to know, now more than ever, as much as we can tell them about what we do."
He said that while he could not comment directly on any open investigations, he believes a majority people around the state view the work of the agency as important and worthwhile — particularly when it comes to public corruption.
"Obviously if we show up some place, people are going to know it's serious, or it could be serious; that's why we're there," he said. "If there are instances where public officials are misusing their positions for personal gain and violating the public trust, my expectation is that's where the public wants us to be. That's where we're going to be when those types of things come up."
Mendenhall said that he's not entirely sure what will happen after he retires in three years — agents are required to step down at age 57 — but said he is hoping to figure that out soon. The couple lives near Butler University in Indianapolis now, and he said they are content in that spot.
"We have an Indianapolis address," he said. "We love being able to be truly invested in the community we're calling home."
Their daughters still live in Virginia; the younger, Katie, is a senior at University of Virginia, and Chelsea, who has a daughter of her own, is a kindergarten teacher in the northern part of the state.
Most of the rest of both of their families, however live in or near Indiana; Jean's family is from Oldenburg, near Batesville, while many of his friends and family remains in the Hagerstown and Wayne County area.
"The biggest shock was that we made it back home after all these years," Mendenhall said. "I think our families are still trying to process that. They were certainly happy that we made it back here and so were we."
He said for years, he and his family tried to make due with wherever they were living, to act as if it was their new home and that they would be there for years to come. In some cases, it worked to an extent — but not for long.
"After being back in Indiana for two weeks, we realized you can really only be from one place," Mendenhall said. "And we're from here. It's good to be home."
Information from: Palladium-Item, http://www.pal-item.com