• Brett Johnson

Quantico: Pausing to Reflect on Living a Legal Life

I was invited to speak to the FBI CISO Academy at Quantico a couple of weeks ago.  The principle agent--John, who invited me--had seen me speak at an FBI sponsored event in Atlanta and thought it would be a good fit.  Of course, I agreed. 

I didn’t tell John how important speaking at Quantico was for me.  When I began this career as a speaker/ consultant I told my wife, Michele, I would know I had made it when I was invited to Quantico.  Nothing else was more important to me, Quantico was number one. 

Quantico was a full circle moment.  When I was arrested in 2005 the United States Secret Service had given me a job.  I’m the idiot who chose to keep breaking the law while working for them—often from inside the Columbia, South Carolina Field Office.  The Agents there were good people and I was given a chance to do the right thing and didn’t take it.  Speaking at Quantico was a way of me knowing I was setting things right.  I couldn’t make up for my past actions while, but I could make sure that all my present and future actions were good.  Quantico was my standard for knowing I was doing just that.

I made a road trip of it.  It would have been cheaper to fly, but I wanted to drive it to give me time to reflect, to think about where I’d come from, where I was, and where I was going in my life.  I drove from Birmingham, Alabama to Quantico, Virginia.  And I thought about a lot of things.

This has been a year of firsts for me.  This is the first year I’ve fully realized the line between me being back in prison and what I am doing today is pretty thin.  If not for my sister Denise, my wife Michele, and Agent Keith Mularski of the FBI, I have no doubt I would be back to prison. 

Denise got me to the point where I realized I was in prison was because of my choices.  I didn’t commit crime to help my family, or my wife, or my stripper girlfriend.  I committed crime because I chose to.  Without my sister I would have never realized and realized that.

Michele is my second wife.  My first wife left me after nine years of marriage.  Nine years of me lying to her about what I was doing to make a living.  It took her nine years to realize I wasn’t going to stop and she left.  I’m glad she did.  My understanding is she went on to have a happy, healthy life.  I met Michele after I was released from prison.  Michele is the first person with which I’ve ever had a healthy relationship.  We’ve been married a few years now.   I’m still learning what a healthy relationship looks like.  I spent so much time with unhealthy ones it sometimes feels weird.  But I’m learning.  From Michele I’ve learned that relationships aren’t valued on what you can do for your mate or what you can give them, they’re valued on who you are.  I had never had that previously in my life.

Then there is Keith Mularski.  I had never met him before I reached out to him.  I knew who he was because of his work against cybercriminals.  I assumed he knew who I was because of that same work.  When I was finally allowed to touch a computer again and when I really knew I wanted to change my life I reached out to him via Linkedin.  I sent him a note telling him how much I respected everything he did and of my respect for him.  I also told him I would like to live a legal life.  Mularski could have easily not responded.  He could have dismissed me.  He responded with kindness and support.  I really believe if Mularski had done anything else I may still have went back to crime.  His response and actions gave me the boost of confidence I needed to even try speaking and consulting.  And he was instrumental in getting me speaking positions.

Like I said, the line was very thin.

That isn’t really the end, though.  If not for people like Neal O’Farrell of the Identity Theft Resource Council taking me under his wing or Karisse Hendrick of CNP I likely may not be where I am today.  Neal started letting people know about me and got me some media appearances and a gig speaking to the folks over at IDology in Atlanta.  Karisse noticed my profile on Linkedin and reached out to me regarding speaking at the CNP Expo as a Keynote.  I’d never given a paid professional speech before.  Karisse had no idea if I was a good speaker, if I was still a criminal, nothing.  She ran references, talked to law enforcement, and grilled me over the course of several months before deciding to book me as a Keynote.  Without those two I don’t think it would have worked out for me.

All those outside forces.  Of course, I realize I ultimately had to want to change.  It had to be my choice.  But all those people gave me the structure and backing I needed to succeed, legally.  I was asked recently what I thought about felons coming out of prison and their chances.  I think most want to change, to lead legal lives.  But I also think without a good support structure and without many people helping them very few stand a chance.

My final realization I wasn’t going back to crime was, literally, an “Aha!” moment.  I was at home one night, Michele and the boys were asleep.  I was doing some work on an upcoming presentation.  And it hit me.  I knew I wasn’t going be breaking the law anymore.  That moment happened a while back, after I met Karisse.  It was this realization.  With that knowledge came an emptiness.  I had relied on criminal activity so long—what now?  How was I going to fill that hole which crime had filled?

The answer for me?  I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who stole.  I want to be remembered as the guy who was able to turn it around.

That drive to Quantico was heavy with thoughts.  They weren’t new thoughts, but the drive allowed me time for them to crystallize.

This has been a year of firsts for me.  This is the first year I’ve had a credit card—in my name.  It’s also the first year I’ve purchased an automobile with legal funds.  I’m learning how to budget.  I’m accepting that one person can’t do it all and it’s ok to rely on others. 

The most important firsts this year?

I was already aware of the harm I caused my victims.  The position I’m in now—able to talk with victims and now trying to assist them—I see the full impact of my actions.  I never really understood that until recently.

I come from a criminal family.  Not my father, but my mother and her side of the family.  (Not saying they are the cause of my actions as an adult.  Breaking the law was my choice.)  Not only was my mom a fraudster, she was an abusive, negligent parent.  My sister hasn’t spoken to her in a decade.  I talk to my mom, but the relationship is tenuous.  Until this year I’ve never understood why.  Certainly, I blame her for the abuse.  And I hold a grudge against her for choosing to break the law instead of working (she was a licensed nurse).  But that never seemed like a good answer to why I have such a strained relationship with my mother.  I finally realized what it was this year after confronting her about the abuse and criminal lifestyle.  I just wanted her to answer why.  After talking to her I realized I would never know why.  She didn’t know herself.  From there I realized my Mom was a victim of abuse herself and just handed it down to her children.  The cycle repeating.  I accepted that and have a better relationship with my mom.  Can’t say it’s a great relationship, but it is a healthier one.

My Dad?  For a long time I considered Dad an enabler.  I told myself he let the abuse happen.  We talked about it recently and I realized something—Dad was a victim just as me and Denise were.  Yes, he was an adult.  But he was abused and he handled it the best he could. I came to terms with that this year. 

Most important?  When I was released from prison the advice given was find a job and find something you care about.  Do that and the chances of recidivism decrease dramatically. 

Find something I care about.  For the first time in my life I really know what that means.  I have a great family, great friends, a great career.  I’ve gotten so many people out there who helped me without ever expecting me to be able to return the favor.  Those same people sticking their necks on the line to give Brett Johnson a chance to do good instead of ill.  I’ve got law enforcement who has been nothing but supportive.  I’ve got a lot to care about and a lot to be thankful for.  I understand the power of that advice given when I walked out of prison, “Find something you care about.”  There is a lot of power in that idea.  I’d hate to lose my family and friends.  And I’d hate to disappoint those who have went to the mat to help me.  There is a lot to care about these days.

I told Agent John at Quantico about the importance of me speaking there that day.  I actually choked up telling him.  Hell, I’m choking up now writing it thinking of where I’d come from and where I was then.

I spoke at the CISO Academy.  John told me the day before the FBI Director had spoken to the same group in the same room.  After my presentation, John was kind enough to give me a tour.  I got to see Hogan’s Alley, some of the Cadets training hand to hand combat, where the hostage rescue team trains for airplane encounters, and more.  I also got to see the area where Agents who have died in duty are remembered.  John talked about how the FBI gets the best and brightest to become agents, about how the cadets give up potentially very lucrative careers to become law enforcement.  All that and more sank in that day in Quantico and I realized a lot.

The first is that the FBI is there more than anything, to help.  They are an outstanding organization.  The training the Agents receive is second to none.  The way the FBI works with state and local law enforcement is amazing.  The way some movies like to paint the FBI as coming in and interfering with local investigations?  That could not be further from the truth.

I also realized that there are simply people around who want to do good.  Seeing all those cadets there, the best and brightest of their hometowns choosing a path of doing the right thing over wealth was very humbling.

The Agents themselves?  Well beyond competent.  Scary good is what I would say.  Starting with who the agent is as a person, the training they receive, and the overall network available means an FBI Agent is a force to be reckoned with.  Add in a motivation, not of money but of ideology (wanting to do the right thing), and I’d be damn scared if I were still a criminal.

One of the things I’ve realized since turning my life around is law enforcement turns out to be really good people when one stops breaking the law.  I’ve had nothing but support and kind words from all the law enforcement officials I’ve met.  They really want to see me do good and succeed.

John took me to some of the classrooms right before I left Quantico.  I stood there looking at the classroom and thinking over all we had talked about and all he had shown me that day.  I told him how humbling it all was and I told him seeing all this the only thing I kept thinking was how much I had wasted of my life when I could have been doing something beneficial like the people there were.  John told me I was doing it now.  I guess I am.  It doesn’t make me feel any better about all the time I wasted

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