INDIANAPOLIS - You may think that your life story ends when you die, but for many Americans, it lives on in the files maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI has done countless investigations over the last 100 years, and it doesn't throw things out very often. The more well-known you are, the more likely it seems that the FBI has information on you.
We used the Freedom of Information Act to track the files on some well-known late Hoosiers, starting with Jazz Musician Hoagy Carmichael. He was born in Bloomington in 1899 and made a name for himself as one of the top jazz artists of his generation, writing songs like "Stardust", "Heart and Soul" and "Can't Get Indiana Off My Mind."
Fans were watching, and so was the FBI. Much of a report filed on him in 1944 was blacked out, but FBI agents noted that he wrote "My Christmas Song For You", and that he visited someone's home and place of business in October.
Just two years later, his name appeared again, this time in an FBI report investigating "foreign inspired agitation among American Negroes." It had to do with the a referendum in California to outlaw discrimination in hiring. Carmichael appeared at a concert promoting the measure, along with stars like Frank Sinatra, Phil Silvers, and Desi Arnaz. There is nothing in his file that indicates an active police investigation, just that agents were tracking his movements, something not uncommon for people in the entertainment industry.
But Carmichael's file is thin compared the one on Hoosier-native Steve McQueen. The actor was known as a Hollywood bad-boy, but he caught the FBI's attention for doing something completely legal -- attending the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. He took a chartered flight from California, with people like Charlton Heston, Gene Kelley and Paul Newman. Some of the biggest stars of the day were with him, and the activity was legal, but the FBI built a file anyway.
Former FBI agent Bill Ervin theorized: "My guess would be that they thought this march on Washington could turn violent. How many people do you think thought that?"
Perhaps, but the FBI took a strong interest in the civil rights movement -- particularly before the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The FBI also took an active interest in anything that had to do with itself. Agents filed another report on Steve McQueen in 1968, when he starred in the film "The Thomas Crown Affair." The film tracks the relationship between an art thief and a federal investigator. The FBI agent who compiled the report concluded that the film would show the agency in a bad light by portraying a female agent who uses her sex appeal to get information (note: the FBI didn't even employ female agents at all until 1972).
But for every Hoosier that you would not expect to have an FBI file, there is probably one that you would. One of the most famous can be found in Crown Hill Cemetery. Suspected bank robber and murderer John Dillinger became "public enemy number one," but the bureau couldn't arrest him initially, because most of his crimes, like bank robbery and murder, were state and local matters. He didn't break a federal law until he broke out of the Crown Point Jail and stole a car.
Former Agent Bill Ervin: "The stolen motor vehicle statute, we could go after him on that. By crossing state lines in a stolen car, he became the legitimate prey of the FBI".
You probably know how the story ended. FBI agents ambushed Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater on Chicago's south side. The Dillinger file is voluminous, including details of his movements and those of his associates and even things like an invoice to pay for a window shot out by agents trying to capture a member of the Dillinger gang. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover personally approved the payment. Another file details how Dillinger died.
With the FBI's reputation for thoroughness, it is hard to imagine anyone calling attention to themselves. Yet, Henryville native Harland Sanders did. You may know him as "Colonel Sanders." He sent a letter to Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1970, inviting Hoover to come to Louisville for Sander's 80th birthday party. The letter says: "I do believe that us (old) folk can show those young people what celebration's all about." Sanders did not have an FBI file before he sent that letter. The Bureau opened one after the letter came. It notes that J. Edgar Hoover never travelled to Louisville for the Colonel's party, but he did send an autographed picture.
In recent years, the FBI's role has changed. It still keeps files on people, but what some would call the paranoia of the past is no longer what motivates the agency. For example, agents spent time tracking former Hoosier Michael Jackson, who died in 2009. As for Jackson, much of the FBI involvement was to help local authorities look into alleged child abuse. The FBI can't invite itself into an investigation. It can only help when asked - like when California authorities were looking into a what may have happened at a villa that Jackson rented in Bermuda in the years before he died.
Another famous Hoosier well-known to the FBI was the late Congresswoman Julia Carson. She was never charged with a federal crime, nor did her political activities attract the Bureau's attention as they may have in an earlier time. With the congresswoman, it had to do with threats made against her. There were several over the years, the Bureau checked them out, and made suggestions to keep her safe. Presumably, the suggestions were good ones. Ms. Carson stayed safe during her years in the Indiana Legislature and the U.S. Congress.
These days the FBI spends less time doing surveillance on such a broad range of people. It's not a good use of their time. Agents are more focused on fighting terrorism and cyber-crimes. Besides, tracking someone's movements is so easy these days that practically anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can find out a lot of information about anyone else. Cloak-and-dagger surveillance is time consuming. The modern FBI chooses today's targets far more judiciously.
Anyone can see files of people who have died (although information relating to people still alive is often redacted).
Do you think the FBI has a file on you? If so, the agency has to turn it over -- but only to you. You would have to jump through a few hoops, but the agency lays out the process online. Here's a link to get you started.
The FBI only releases files of deceased individuals. This is a guide to help you make a request.
How to Request an FBI File
Dear FOIA Officer,
This is a request for records under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. I request all records concerning a deceased individual named ____________. This individual was born on date in location and died on date.
As proof of death, I have enclosed (a Wikipedia page) (death certificate) (obituary).
Please search the FBI's indices to the Central Records System for the information responsive to this request.
I am willing to pay up to [$____ ] for the processing of this request. Please inform me if the estimated fees will exceed this limit before processing my request.
I am seeking information for personal use and not for commercial use.
Please send any information you find to me at: your address
Thank you for your time.
You must provide proof of death.
Acceptable forms of proof of death include:
*Obituary *Wikipedia article *Written media *Death certificate, *Who's Who in America *Social security death index page
For a person born more than 110 years ago no formal proof is needed, just include the person's date of birth.