by Joanie Eppinga
Stay focused on it, and your dream can become your reality.
That’s the lesson offered by James Earl Cheeks II ’95, supervisory special agent for the FBI.
Cheeks’ dream was very real on October 6, 2010. On that day, he and other agents arrested 133 subjects in Operation Guard Shack, the largest sting in FBI history.
Police officers throughout Puerto Rico were taking bribes. “So we set up drug-selling scenarios the police thought were authentic,” says Cheeks, “and recorded the officers providing protection to drug dealers.” The resulting arrests, which spanned the island, were all high risk. Cheeks received the Attorney General’s Award and the FBI Director’s Award for Excellence as a result of his hard work.
It was also dramatic work, the kind Cheeks had dreamed of as a kid.
But at his inner-city Rochester school, kids didn’t get much support for their dreams. “It was all up to you,” he says. “The message was basically: ‘Graduate if you can.’”
Fortunately, Cheeks could—and did. Then he planned to join the military. But his older sister, Monique Bragg ’90, told him, “The Army will always be there. Get your education first.”
Heeding her advice, Cheeks earned his degree in business administration from Nazareth. However, after receiving his diploma, he didn’t know how to pursue his true career goal. “This was before search engines, and I didn’t know any FBI agents,” he recalls. So he temporarily buried his aspiration, moving into the Army Reserves and the corporate world. Yet the vision of working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation persisted.
Then Cheeks heard the FBI was looking for military personnel with language and intelligence skills, which he had acquired while serving combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He took a polygraph, along with tests in writing, math, and physical fitness, and passed them all. Cheeks received the job offer he had longed for.
As a supervisory special agent with the FBI, Cheeks spent time on the SWAT team and on the Director’s Protective Detail. He carried out criminal investigations on violent gangs and officials on the take. The work was exciting—and hazardous.
“When you conduct dangerous arrests,” Cheeks says, “you realize you have to keep honing your skills. You have to be ready for the unexpected. For example, once a suspect had an AK-47 assault rifle hidden under the mattress of his child’s crib.”
Cheeks credits the critical-thinking skills he learned at Nazareth with helping him conduct successful criminal investigations. Those skills also help him in his current role as program manager with the Cyber Division. “We investigate computer intrusions and cybercrimes committed by foreign actors, criminal organizations, or individuals,” he says. “We also educate the private sector, because they may be reluctant to work with law enforcement or unaware of whom to report incidents to. We treat them like victims of any crime.”
Whether he’s catching perpetrators or assisting victims, Cheek’s work is always varied.
“The days are never the same,” he says. “You’re not stuck behind a desk. You have to get out there and do interviews and surveillance.”
Above all, working for the FBI requires persistence—but that’s not a problem for Cheeks. It’s what got him there in the first place.
Joanie Eppinga is a writer and editor in Spokane, Washington.