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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From the start, Rizzo was a controversial figure at the jail. He helped develop a program called One Church–One Inmate, in which a local church would “adopt” an inmate and his family, helping ease the transition back to the outside when the inmate got released. In an otherwise complimentary 1989 Chicago Tribune article about the program, the reporter noted that Rizzo had “taken criticism for his blunt, honest talk with prisoners and parishioners alike.” Rizzo told the reporter, “Sometimes you got to hit someone with a baseball bat to wake ’em up.”

Still, in 1989 Rizzo was named a staff chaplain and granted a seat on the Cook County Correctional Chaplaincy Council, a multidenominational body of ministers that coordinates religious services in the jail and assists the state’s Department of Corrections in determining the qualifications of clergy who want access to the facility. It didn’t take long for Rizzo to run afoul of the council. According to an affidavit later given by a fellow jail chaplain in a lawsuit, the council advised corrections officials not to renew Rizzo’s credentials, saying that he had lied when he told the council that the One Church–One Inmate program was officially approved by the sheriff. The chaplain also said in his affidavit that five of the jail’s eight division superintendents “expressed concern that Mr. Rizzo had behaved arrogantly towards the correctional officers and other members of the Department staff and refused to follow the appropriate chain of command in conducting his programs.” Rizzo’s credentials were not renewed.

So Rizzo sued. Charles Hervas, a lawyer who later joined the Freedom Flyer board, represented him. The suit argued that Rizzo was in part a political victim who fell out of favor once Alderman Michael Sheahan defeated James O’Grady in the 1990 election to become sheriff. “The regime changes and they’re like, ‘Let’s get rid of this guy,’” Hervas says today.

The lawsuit dragged on for five years until a settlement was reached in 1996: Rizzo agreed to stay out of the jail as long as others in his Freedom Flyer organization were allowed in. “He was obviously unhappy,” Hervas says. “That was his life’s work.”

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Rizzo may have been persona non grata at the Cook County Jail, but he was building a name for himself on the fundamentalist Baptist church circuit. His upcoming appearances were often noted in the religion sections of local newspapers. His travels took him to churches in large cities such as Oklahoma City, Little Rock, and Norfolk, as well as those in small towns such as Hatley, Wisconsin; Mooresville, Indiana; and Perry, Ohio. Often he would lead what he called “Blue and White Sundays,” ceremonies that honored local police officers. Or he would give a seminar about gangs or preach his conservative views about crime and justice. He would often identify himself to the local press as a trainer at the FBI Academy, and in at least one instance, he claimed to be a former Cook County Jail administrator.

On his travels, Rizzo expounded his belief that the Christianity of the Founding Fathers had been erased from textbooks, that “Freudian and evolutionary philosophies” had made the criminal justice system ineffective, and that the nation needed a “return to a historical, biblical, and constitutional foundation.” He solicited contributions on the Freedom Flyer Web site for a “National Center for Biblical Jurisprudence” that would arm criminal justice authorities with biblical teachings that, for example, showed that law enforcement officials were God’s ministers of justice. He also sold tapes with titles such as “Be Sure, Your Sin Will Find You Out” and “What Does America Need? Freud or Preaching?”

Despite his growing renown, the Rizzos fell deep into debt. Freedom Flyer Ministries took in about $300,000 a year from contributions, and Mark drew an annual salary of about $30,000, according to court records and tax statements. But the couple were forced to file for bankruptcy in late 1998, owing child support payments, medical bills, and back taxes. (The Rizzos were discharged from their bankruptcy in 2000, but at Mark’s sentencing this year, the judge waived a fine and incarceration costs because the Rizzos were more than $100,000 in debt.)

Meanwhile, Rizzo seemed to spin out of control. Several times in the late nineties and early years of this decade, Rizzo was stopped for suspected drunk driving and tried to get out of tickets by claiming to be a law enforcement agent. In South Carolina he said he was an FBI agent with top-secret information in his car. In southwest suburban Bridgeview, he was carrying a 9 mm Ruger loaded with 15 rounds. In Hickory Hills he told police he was with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. He never received more than a fine and probation in any case, but in 2002, the Freedom Flyer board put Rizzo on an “accountability” program, in which he had to report regularly to a pastor. A few affiliated churches pulled out of Freedom Flyer because of Rizzo’s drinking. (His fanciful representations still didn’t stop; according to court records, in 2003, while giving a speech to 8th- and 12th-grade home schooling graduates, he claimed to be a member of the FBI’s behavioral science unit.)

The Freedom Flyer organization itself became wobbly. In 2002, the chairman of the board, William Muench, died in a small plane crash in Arkansas. He was replaced by Michael Vallone, who in the spring of 2004 was indicted on federal tax fraud charges in a case involving what the government claims are complicated, illegal tax shelters. The case, which is pending, had nothing to do with Freedom Flyers, but Vallone stepped down to focus on his own problems. He was never replaced.

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While his ministry was spiraling downward, Rizzo still found success in one venue: the annual conferences put on by the National Gang Crimes Research Center. The Peotone-based center is essentially a one-man operation, founded by George Knox, a Chicago State University criminal justice professor. Knox has produced reports such as Gang Threat Analysis: The Black Disciples, an ongoing survey of imprisoned gang members, and for seven years has held an annual conference in Chicago for gang crimes investigators, social workers, probation officers, and others connected with the justice system. Rizzo’s association with the center goes back at least to 2002, when he taught six sessions at the gang conference. That year, he was identified primarily as the founder of Freedom Flyer, but his bio also claimed he was an FBI Academy trainer.

Meanwhile, his credentials continued to expand. With Knox, he coauthored a report about the Chaldean Mafia, an Iraqi crime syndicate said to be operating in the United States. The report appeared in Knox’s Journal of Gang Research. At the 2003 conference, Rizzo taught eight sessions. Again, his bio claimed he taught at the FBI Academy.

But last year, a Newark, New Jersey–area police detective planning to attend the conference became suspicious about the “Jurist Doctorate” listed among Rizzo’s credentials. The correct language for a law degree is “juris doctor.” The officer called a Newark FBI agent, who ran Rizzo’s name through a bureau computer and found that the agency had opened a file on Rizzo after his Bridgeview arrest. That set the sting in motion. Once confronted, Rizzo confessed in an interview, the authorities say.

George Knox, the head of the gang crimes center, refused to comment for this article, saying only that the case had been “a smear upon our organization.” But after Rizzo’s arrest, Knox posted a statement on the center’s Web site-since removed-stating that the center wasn’t responsible for the behavior of its volunteer speakers; that the “behavioral sciences unit,” which seems to have consisted only of Rizzo, had been abolished; and that Rizzo’s association with the center had been terminated.

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Wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, Mark Rizzo entered the courtroom for his sentencing in March with his wife, Linda, at his side. At about six feet, 270 pounds, Rizzo is an imposing presence. His hair was slicked back, his glasses on, his jaw jutting out. He sat calmly at the defendant’s table as prosecutor Diane MacArthur asked Judge Filip to send Rizzo to prison. “He has now had a number of chances,” MacArthur said. “He is at the end of his good credit rope.” MacArthur ran through Rizzo’s criminal history, arguing that he had put others in danger. “He has trained law enforcement people falsely, who then have to go out and carry forth in their functions,” she said. “He has put people at risk by the way he has represented himself to be an FBI official.”

Rizzo’s court-appointed lawyer, Steven Saltzman, asked that his client be spared prison, and instead be sentenced to two years’ probation, alcohol treatment, and 250 hours of community service. “Mark Rizzo stands before you as a man humbled by his own misdeeds,” Saltzman said. “In trying to do good, Mr. Rizzo let his ego, his self-importance, and a drinking problem get the better of him.”

Then Rizzo read a statement. “Six years ago I crawled back in a bottle that God saved me from 20 years ago,” he said. “I turned my back on the Lord, I turned my back on my wife, I turned my back on my ministry. I turned my back on law enforcement officers and people who serve this nation, and I threw the trust on the ground. I drank all over it. . . . In the beginning I was on fire. And I taught them [God’s law]. But in the end I’m disgraced.”

Rizzo faced a maximum of three years in prison, though advisory sentencing guidelines called for zero to six months. Filip gave him 60 days, mandatory alcohol treatment, and one year of supervision after release. “I was inclined to give you more time,” the judge said. “[B]ut I was moved by the letters of reference that were submitted on your behalf from all over the country . . . and by the acts that you have committed throughout your life.”

Still, Filip was perplexed. “[I]t would be easier to understand if somebody were making misrepresentations in order to gain money,” he said. “It seems as though the misrepresentations are part of an effort to gain acceptance that, who knows, maybe goes back all the way to the challenges and hardships you faced as a child.”

Rizzo was scheduled to report to the federal minimum-security facility in Oxford, Wisconsin, on May 2nd. Should another case of misrepresentation take place, Filip warned, Rizzo would face serious prison time.

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“The moral of the story,” says Charles Hervas, “is that there was a lot of tragedy that led to all this. [It] was likely his desire to want to feel important and impress people. There might be a ‘wannabe’ attitude about the whole thing. Mark just revered the FBI, and would have loved to be a part of it. And he had been so close to law enforcement that slipping into that identification probably just seemed like an easy thing to do.”

For a man who once offered so many answers and insights about crime, Rizzo struck a vastly different note at his sentencing. “[S]omeone would ask me . . . , ‘Well, why did you do it? Are you crazy?’ Who else would throw away salvation, a ministry, open doors, trust, relationships, and the honor to stand up and teach people constitutional law from the Bible?”

He never offered the court an answer.

Research assistance by Drew Adamek and Kate Prouty