‘Chasing Phil’ offers peek into organized crime


“Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World’s Most Charming Con Man” (Crown), by David Howard

In 1977, two FBI agents, Jim Wedick and Jack Brennan, slipped recording devices beneath their suits, touted themselves as swindlers in the making and shook hands with Phil Kitzer.  It marked the beginning of the FBI’s first wire-wearing undercover mission, documented in David Howard’s “Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents with the World’s Most Charming Con Man.”

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Kitzer, a career con man responsible for bamboozling innocent (and sometimes not-so-innocent) victims out of money across the globe, took to his new friends quickly, eager to share with them the tricks of his trade.  Taking Wedick and Brennan everywhere from Chicago to Tokyo, Kitzer introduced his proteges to a vast underground network of fellow crooks.  Along the way, in hotel rooms, bars, at poolsides and dance clubs, Kitzer developed a fondness for the undercover agents, which made his eventual arrest more complicated.

While much of Howard’s work surrounds Wedick and Brennan’s relationship with their target, he also unpacks the impact of this case on the FBI.  Operation Fountain Pen played a pivotal role in expanding the FBI’s focus to include white-collar crime.

Howard sticks squarely to the facts in his telling of the agents’ journey, providing more of an overview of events in lieu of textured scenes.  This lack of immersion may leave readers feeling disconnected from the thick of the conflict.  Also, the complexity of the scams Kitzer orchestrated (they even confused the FBI) combined with the quantity of deals laid out in the book makes for a few discombobulating moments.

Bright spots remain.  This pursuit began before the FBI had anything resembling the extensive training that undercover agents receive today, meaning Wedick and Brennan forged their own path in tracking down Kitzer.  The decisions they made on the fly prove an intriguing facet of the story, as does the peek into the world of organized crime.