Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
One of Steve Martinez’s first experiences as the head of the FBI office in Las Vegas played out at a carwash.
Killing time, he watched a woman who had just won a jackpot at the poker game inside the lobby. Next he saw her step into the ladies room. When she came out, a man lunged forward, pushed her back in and locked the door.
Martinez drew his firearm. He could hear the woman screaming. He pounded on the door. He yelled “FBI!” He yelled “Police!” He tried everything his training from years ago had taught him. “It was,” he said, “a real-world experience for me.”
Next month Martinez takes his weapon and his badge — and a wealth of experience — to Los Angeles, where he will run one of the largest and most prestigious FBI field offices in the nation. It is his next stop after three and a half years managing the Las Vegas division. The move is a major promotion for a career agent who at 51 has given nearly half his life to the bureau.
Much of that time he clocked behind a desk, working as an administrator supervising other agents. He served as the first on-site commander in Doha, Qatar, and Baghdad in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He deployed FBI personnel and managed counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts in the initial phase of the war.
In 2003 he was assigned to the Cyber Division at FBI headquarters in Washington. He was acting assistant director of that division when he was appointed head of the office in Las Vegas in March 2006.
“This has been an interesting challenge,” he said in an interview, preparing for his move. “Las Vegas brings with it some things you may not see as much as in other FBI field offices. Everybody’s bad guys end up here eventually.”
The local division includes roughly 230 agents and staff, in contrast to a Los Angeles operation of nearly 1,400. But those who have worked with Martinez said he will adapt quickly. “Steve is a bridge builder,” said Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney here. “Los Angeles is a huge position. It’s high, way up in the FBI food chain. And Steve has great vision.”
In Las Vegas, Martinez beefed up the office’s fugitive apprehension unit, and it scored big by helping the Nevada Highway Patrol arrest Warren Jeffs, a notorious Utah religious leader and polygamist. He was stopped on I-15 north of Las Vegas in a red Cadillac Escalade stuffed with cell phones, laptop computers, three wigs and more than $50,000 in cash.
“Any given week we have multiple fugitive arrests here,” Martinez said. “Those we get involve a serious felony — rapes or murder or violent crimes. So we run the whole gamut.”
He also spearheaded efforts to investigate criminals preying on Las Vegas’ failing economy, and helped set up the Southern Nevada Mortgage Fraud Task Force. Last week a man from Anaheim, Calif., was indicted in federal court here in a scheme involving straw buyers and falsified mortgage documents; the alleged operation netted nearly $180,000 from fraudulent transactions.
Martinez predicted an avalanche of new mortgage fraud and other white-collar crime cases in the next year or so. His agents now, he said, are working “hundreds of cases” involving victims who lost millions of dollars.
“Do that a number of times, and that can add up to a substantial amount,” he said.
Martinez said his successor, expected to be announced soon, will also need to train an eye on organized crime elements from Eastern Europe who have been setting up operations in the Las Vegas area. He said that while not as entrenched as the Mafia in old Vegas, new groups from former Soviet bloc countries are nonetheless spreading their influence.
“It’s really polycrime,” he said. “Anything to make a buck, from drugs to credit card fraud, any other kind of white-collar crime, strong-arm robbery, even shoplifting.”
Like the man who was trying to rob the woman at the carwash. He was a repeat offender, and when the woman burst out of the restroom, Martinez subdued and handcuffed him. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Maybe Martinez will have to make an arrest in Los Angeles too?
He smiled. “Let’s hope not,” he said.