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Wayne Manis: A life of investigating

by Keith Cousins
| August 3, 2014 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - Throughout his childhood, stories of FBI agents in radio and newspapers captured Wayne Manis' attention.

On the silver screen, Manis was excited by images of John Wayne playing a Marine Corps officer.

"When people would ask me what I wanted to do I would say I want to be a Marine and I want to be an FBI agent," Manis said. "I did them both."

Just two weeks out of college, Manis entered the Training and Test Regiment of the Marine Corps, a boot camp for potential officers. When he started the program, there were 51 other cadets with him and the first officer he ever saw told them that more than half would wash out.

Manis was one of the final 26.

"It was a very gratifying accomplishment but in the course of that time I wondered why I made it and others didn't. I don't have an answer for that," Manis said. "I tried to always excel and it was just one of those things that I honestly think was the luck of the draw but I was thankful."

Prior to leaving the Marine Corps, Manis applied for positions with the FBI and CIA. After a road trip from California to meet his new wife's family in 1965, he made a stop to see his grandparents in Arkansas.

"When I arrived at their house I got a phone call. It was the FBI and they said 'Look we have completed your investigation and we are offering you a job as an FBI Special Agent commencing Jan. 31, can you be there?'" Manis said.

He gave a one-word response, "absolutely," and began a career in the FBI investigating mobsters, white supremacist groups and extremist organizations throughout the country.

In 1995, Manis retired from the FBI after a 28-year career. He then started Manis Investigations in Coeur d'Alene, a company focused on corporate security. On July 1, Manis founded another company, OnBelay Security Solutions, which has "specific targets."

"We're going to target the oil and gas companies and we already have an office in Houston," Manis said. "We're also going to be targeting Title IX issues because I think that is a very ripe field right now."

Manis' first book, "The Street Agent," is scheduled to be released on Sept. 16 and details his storied history as an FBI agent.

Was the FBI training just as intensive as your training in the Marine Corps?

It was not nearly as physical. I don't know that there's any training as physical as the Marine Corps, except the Navy SEALS. They certainly surpass the Marine Corps training, but not by much.

I would imagine then that it challenged you more intellectually?

Definitely. When I went through the FBI Training School, of course you'd have your daily physical and tactical training - your hand-to-hand combat sort of thing and your firearms training.

But you had tests every week. You had to pass these tests and the minimum passing score was 80, so everyone had to do rather well. You'd study at night and about half of us in the class were lawyers and half were not. Those of us that were not had to put a little more work in on Constitutional Law and federal procedure.

There were so many things that we had to learn over the next three months that we were just very busy people.

You were a special agent for the FBI. I would think that a lot of people have preconceived notions based on movies of what a special agent actually is. Is that what you were doing, that super-secret undercover type stuff?

Nobody goes undercover unless they volunteer and then they have to be selected. You might not even be selected because you might not be mentally adaptable or a good enough actor to be able to do it.

But it all starts with you saying you'd like to be considered for an undercover assignment. I did that and I spent over three and a half years in undercover capacities. I was undercover with the Mafia, with New-Left terrorists, with mobsters and gangsters from what we call the 'Dixie Mafia' down south. Those were very satisfying times and we did some very good work.

Was that hard for you, to 24/7 be putting on an act?

It's hard for everybody that does it. But you have to be pretty dedicated and adjust yourself to that because your days and your nights blend together and you are somebody else.

I was Tony Magliano. I was Frankie Marconi. I was a Sicilian mobster. That's the way my days started and ended. You sleep lightly and never take anything for granted because the people you are dealing with are dangerous people.

More close to home, you investigated the Aryan Nations and The Order?

I started that case when I came here. That was my intent when I came here - to commence an investigation on a group of supposed terrorists that had developed within the Aryan Nations.

This group of people that were suspected of being terrorists were from various parts of the United States but they were under the umbrella of the Aryan Nations. When I commenced the investigation on the Aryan Nations it was a very difficult thing because in our country you have a constitutional protection against having your organization investigated unless you're involved in criminal activity.

It's the street agent's responsibility to identify that and show enough probable cause that this organization is up to no good. Until you've reached that point your investigation has to be conducted in such a way that you're not infringing on the constitutional rights of these people. I had to, through various other sources and means, show that they were in fact involved as a criminal entity.

Through that initial investigation in the Aryan Nations you discovered The Order?

They were just getting formed around the same time as I started my investigation. They had already assassinated Alan Berg in Colorado and had committed several armed robberies. So I was coming from behind and had to catch up. And it was me; I was here by myself.

About this period of time, a fellow that was in another resident agency in Montana transferred in here to join me as my partner. His name was Joe Venkus. So Joe and I formed up shoulder-to-shoulder and started working.

Then they sent in a young first office agent named Norm Brown and it was the three of us. It was me, Joe and Norm and we fell into harm's way on one particular occasion.

Once we discovered the existence of this one organized group called The Order, they had already done close to $4 million in armed robberies. We got a lead on a place where they had used as a residence in purchasing a weapon over in Montana. Me, Joe and Norm just storm out there and we hit it two at the front door and one at the back door. They had just left and there had been about a dozen of them there. Would have been a real bloody affair. It looks like God was taking care of us.

Eventually it went from the three of us to at one point of time in Idaho, we had a little over 42 agents on this case. We were developing 700 leads a week.

After The Order investigation was concluded, did your career wind down after that?

Well after The Order, the next big case I had was the Shoshone County case. That was a lot of criticism and evaluation about whether what we were doing was justified. But it was; we had 60 illegal gambling houses that were paying off the sheriff and prostitution houses that were paying off the sheriff. Corruption was the point of it.

We had 62 warrants to serve at one approximate moment. So I brought in 140 agents and we struck it at all at one time. Everything had to be done precisely and it was a major case.

That was the winding up of my career. These were the last cases and I realized that my time in the FBI had been great to say the least and was coming to an end.

When you worked up here, did you fall in love with it and is that why you ended up moving here?

I was already in love with it up here. When I left the Marine Corps to go into the FBI I had heard so much about Idaho and Montana that I just wanted to see it. We came up the coast from California and right up into Coeur d'Alene. We took 95 down past Lewiston and cut into Montana. That day, that trip, stuck with me and I said 'Idaho is the place for me.'

But I was a young agent and you don't get to go where you want to go. It took me many years to get the opportunity. I was working in Alabama and I loved it down there.

There was an opportunity up here and they needed one agent. More than 50 people applied for the position and I didn't really expect to get it. It was OK if I didn't because I was having a really exciting career down south.

I got a call from the special agent in charge of Montana and Idaho and he said he thought I would be really valuable and would like for me to take a look at Bozeman. I told him, 'You know, I put in for Coeur d'Alene and it's the only place I want to be.' Next thing I knew he came back and said 'You're my man for Coeur d'Alene.'

That was in February of 1984 and I retired from the FBI in 1995.

What inspired you to write your first-book, "The Street Agent?"

When I retired from the FBI we had a party. A lot of people came to the party from different places and I had several people, one in particular that I had mentored in the FBI, who said 'You got to write a book.'

I went back to Alabama on a case and ran across a young agent I had mentored here named Dave. When I retired Dave had, through another agent in Los Angeles, met Jimmy Stewart. He told him there's a guy in North Idaho who's retiring and his career is like a duplicate of the person you portrayed in an 'FBI Story.' So Jimmy Stewart got a placard of the movie and signed it and sent it to me and that was the inspiration to write the book.

What do you hope people get out of the book?

An insight into what an FBI agent's life is like - a street agent FBI guy not the guys that sit at a desk - and get to see who that guy is. They never are acknowledged for these great accomplishments that they make in their lifetime. I want the public to see who they are through my eyes and get an appreciation for this great organization.