Agent Zero

A streetwise kid who later became a Baptist prison minister, Mark Rizzo made a name for himself as a former FBI agent who could lecture authoritatively on crime. That is, until his recent arrest uncovered a web of deception.

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As an instructor at the FBI Academy, an adjunct professor in criminal justice and behavioral science at four universities, the holder of a law degree on top of a master’s in criminal justice, and a former deputy sheriff in both Philadelphia and Chicago, Mark Rizzo became a popular speaker at the annual conference of the National Gang Crimes Research Center.

His expertise was wide-ranging; at last year’s conference, held in August at the Westin hotel on Michigan Avenue, Rizzo was scheduled to teach eight sessions over three days, on topics ranging from “Hostage Negotiations and Profiling Hostage Takers” to “Investigating International Human Rights Violations: Monitoring and Combating Trafficking in Persons.” Rizzo was also the man to see about arranging ride-alongs with Chicago police officers. And as founder and chief executive officer of the Freedom Flyer prison ministry, Rizzo could be found schmoozing at a reception held for Christian gang specialists. Among the hundreds of law enforcement personnel drawn to the annual conference from all over the world, Rizzo’s presence was unmistakable.

So it wasn’t unusual that two local FBI agents, working out of the bureau’s south suburban office, asked a mutual acquaintance for an introduction to Rizzo. On the day before the conference started, the two agents met him at the Westin for a casual conversation. Rizzo joked that one of the agents, Timothy Eley, who was wearing a dark business suit with a white shirt and red tie, dressed even more like an FBI man than he did. The talk turned to Rizzo’s time at the FBI National Academy. He said he would never forget June 1990, when he took part in the 160th session of the academy.

On the last day of the conference, the two agents returned as Rizzo stood before a conference room preparing to teach “Islam/Terrorism and Its Integration into Organized Crime Groups.” They placed Rizzo under arrest and led him away.

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The strange saga of Mark Rizzo is also a slippery one, as hard to pin down as the man himself. Scam artist? Man of God? Genius? All three? As it turned out, Rizzo, 49, never taught at the FBI Academy, as claimed in his conference biography. Never even attended it, the 160th session or any other. He was not an adjunct professor at even one university; he didn’t hold a degree in law or criminal justice. Just about the only thing true about Rizzo’s claimed background is that he was indeed the founder and chief executive officer of Freedom Flyer Ministries in Hickory Hills.

Now he can (truthfully) add “felon” to his résumé. In March, a federal judge sentenced Rizzo to two months in prison for impersonating an FBI agent; the two agents who had approached him before the conference were on an undercover assignment, acting on a tip. What’s more, Rizzo, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher espousing a fire-and-brimstone view of justice, had been impersonating law enforcement officers for years. The first question is: Why? But it’s succeeded immediately by another: How did so many people get duped?

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One of the keys to Rizzo’s success as an impostor was simply that he was good at it. Somewhere along the line-it’s not clear where, and Rizzo won’t comment-he gained enough law enforcement expertise to be a persuasive, educational speaker, good enough to fool some of the people who are supposed to be experts in spotting the face of crime. Even after learning Rizzo was a fraud, some of the duped still stand by his expertise. On the day of Rizzo’s sentencing, his lawyer, Steven Saltzman, pointed out to Judge Mark Filip that some of the 23 letters written to the court on Rizzo’s behalf came from law enforcement officials. “They know what he has done and they still think he has been extremely helpful to them,” Saltzman said.

“He was a huge help to our students preparing to minister in prisons,” says Les Ollila, the chancellor of Northland Baptist Bible College in Wisconsin, where Rizzo taught until Ollila dismissed him because of a DUI incident. “He was a compelling speaker, but also strong in content-philosophies about what is destroying families, homes, and children.”

One friend of Rizzo’s, Charles E. Hervas, a lawyer who represented him in a previous case, said that upon meeting Rizzo, he “sensed he was very genuine.” Hervas thinks he knows where Rizzo got his knowledge of criminal justice: “A lot of street experience and ministry experience.”

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Over the years, in various forums, Rizzo has described overcoming a lonely and abusive childhood. “Retribution is what my father taught me at a tender age,” Rizzo wrote on the Freedom Flyer Web site. “When I disobeyed, he caused enough pain to make ‘Little Mark’ not want to repeat the offense.” Rizzo was the product of a troubled marriage between two Southern teenagers, Daniel Carlton and Martha Jo Miller, who moved to the North Side of Chicago, where Mark was born in 1955. They had a second son, but the marriage didn’t last; when Mark’s mother eventually remarried, her new husband adopted Mark and his younger brother, Randall.

In a 1997 interview given to the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship’s magazine, FrontLine, Rizzo said he joined a Chicago gang as a teenager for love and acceptance. He told FrontLine that he became leader of his gang-unnamed in the story-and that he had served a prison term for racketeering and jury tampering. “My entire association was around gangs and violence and organized crime,” Rizzo told the magazine. “I was addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and gambling.” On the day he was released from prison, Rizzo claimed, his gang associates picked him up in a brand-new Cadillac and gave him the keys.

(Neither Chicago nor federal authorities were able to find any record of racketeering and jury tampering charges, or a prison stay from that time. Rizzo’s record does include a 1976 conviction in Cook County for impersonating a police officer, for which he was fined $30. It was also about this time that the man born Mark Carlton began using the last name of Rizzo, his father’s mother’s last name. It’s not clear, however, that Rizzo legally changed his name, despite using it on all sorts of official records ever since.)

In 1976, Rizzo married his first wife, according to his son, Chris, who was born a year later. Chris Rizzo, a Chicago lawyer, says his father left Chicago for the East Coast a few years later and met his current wife, Linda, there. By his own account, Rizzo hit rock bottom one night in 1985 when he came home after a night of partying drunk and high on cocaine. He opened his front door and collapsed with chest pains. In desperation, he sang out loud the old Sunday school hymn “Jesus Loves Me (this I know).” God answered his call for help, Rizzo told the magazine, dampening his cravings and inspiring him to change his life.

The next year he returned to Chicago and latched onto ministerial and staff work at the Pacific Garden Mission in the South Loop. Within a couple of years, he and Linda had started Freedom Flyer Ministries, a nonprofit Baptist prison ministry on a mission to convert inmates and law enforcement authorities to Rizzo’s fundamentalist brand of “biblical jurisprudence.” That philosophy called for what it characterized as a Christian-based criminal justice system that included retribution (swift punishment) and restitution (repaying victims)-but not rehabilitation, which Rizzo said didn’t work.

It wasn’t long before Rizzo started helping at the Cook County Jail as a volunteer with staff chaplains. Apparently, his application for jail access credentials wasn’t carefully vetted. On at least one form, he claimed to have attended DePaul University. The school has no record that he was ever registered there.

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