At 8:46 a.m. Eastern time on 9/11, FBI agents Chris Budke and Judith Lewis-Arnold were part of a broad Kansas City team working the case that, up until that minute, was the bureau’s No. 1 national priority:
The case of Robert Courtney.
He was the Kansas City pharmacist who would eventually get 30 years in federal prison for diluting cancer drugs in a way that FBI agents estimate directly or indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of patients.
“I think he was truly the first evil person I have ever met,” says Lewis-Arnold of Overland Park, now retired from the FBI. “We have met bad people and hateful people and people with no respect for life. He was just evil.”
On that morning, Lewis-Arnold and other Kansas City agents were waiting in an office in Washington, preparing to brief FBI director Louis J. Freeh on the Courtney investigation. It was a gorgeous day, blue and clear. It just happened to be Lewis-Arnold’s 50th birthday.
In Kansas City, Budke, then 41, was looking at which of Courtney’s victims he would approach that day. Soon, images on television drew the room. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
From that morning to today, counterterrorism guided by intelligence-gathering became the bureau’s priority. The kind of information-sharing that was so lacking among the CIA and FBI and National Security Agency before 9/11 became the post-9/11 goal. Meantime, other criminal acts would need to reach a higher threshold to merit FBI attention.
“The change has been dramatic for the FBI,” says Budke, who, like Lewis-Arnold, continued to work the Courtney case. Budke now is an agent supervising public corruption, civil rights and asset forfeiture cases.
“In the past, if an individual was the victim of fraud and lost $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, we would have worked those cases,” Budke says. “Now, we are not allowed unless there are hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars involved and there have been multiple victims.”
Such is one of 9/11’s legacies. Another:
“You look at life and people and your job and your family differently,” Lewis-Arnold says. “After having lived through a 9/11 or Courtney, even, your trust is shaken. Your faith is shaken. Certainly, your heart was broken. I don’t think you walk away from any of those events without being changed — very changed. If you can, I would wonder about you.”