One day during Kathleen McChesney’s senior year, an FBI recruiter came to campus. Everyone was impressed with the smart looking fellow in the three piece suit. His pitch dazzled the class. “We all wanted to apply,” says McChesney. “But then he passed out the applications. He gave one to each student until he got to me. Then he said, ‘I can’t give you one. The FBI doesn’t have women as agents.’”

It was an inauspicious beginning for the girl from Auburn who would eventually become the highest ranking woman in the agency. The next year J. Edgar Hoover died and the policy was changed. But by then McChesney had a job with the King County police that she loved, as a fingerprint examiner, a civilian position with duties including fingerprinting, photography, and evidence collection.

Kathleen McChesney
Kathleen McChesney ’71 outside the FBI’s Los Angeles field office (Photo Jon Rou)

She was good at her job, fast, focused, and efficient. Her supervisor encouraged her to apply for an opening for a policewoman. “He said, ‘This has you written all over it,’” says McChesney over coffee last spring at her home near Los Angeles. “It was really nice in the workplace to have someone recognize your abilities.”

She thanked him for the encouragement, but noted that she didn’t meet the job condition that she be 5’ 4” and at least 110 pounds. “I was neither.” Her boss was undeterred. “He said, ‘Why would you let the requirement stop you?’”

So McChesney applied, and took the civil service exam and scored very well. But the sheriff resisted hiring her. She appealed to the county’s civil service commission, which instructed the sheriff to hire her. He acquiesced, saying he could take her on, but that she couldn’t be insured because she was underweight. So the commission gave McChesney one month to gain seven pounds. “I did it,” she says. “I ate a lot of carbs and wore a lot of jewelry.”

It was the early 1970s and women were showing they could be effective police officers, valuable in ways their male counterparts weren’t. She trained at the police academy, with five other women in her class. Then, in 1972, she went on patrol. “It hadn’t exactly been my goal,” she says of the beat work. “But it was an extraordinary experience.”

Posted to the sex crimes unit, she joined the task force investigating serial killer Ted Bundy. McChesney’s particular duties included interviewing the women in his life. She was able to learn things his friends and girlfriends were less likely to share with a male detective, she says. A former girlfriend of Bundy’s told McChesney that he kept crutches, bandages, and medical plaster around, which helped the team realize he faked an injury to lure his victims. “We got tremendous information from so many people,” she says. “We picked up key pieces that led us to Bundy as a suspect.”

“Her zest for detective work was unending,” former detective Robert Keppel ’66, ’67 writes about McChesney in his book The Riverman: Ted Bundy and the Hunt for the Green River Killer. “Her ability to handle the small details and enthusiasm for a difficult investigation helped us solve the Bundy cases.”

After seven years with King County, at a time when it looked like she was headed back to patrol work, McChesney reconsidered the FBI. “When you like investigating, that’s what you want to do,” she says. As an officer she had worked with agents. “They were doing investigations all the time,” she says. “The downside is that you would have to move a lot. That’s also the upside. But I didn’t know it at the time.”

She trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, for several months before her first assignment in San Francisco, where she arrived just days after the murders of City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. From the Oakland office she ran an undercover operation involving money laundering and drugs. Her other work included monitoring wiretaps, making arrests, and catching a kidnapper. In the last incident, the suspect was hiding in a room at a hotel, and McChesney approached and knocked on the door posing as the maid. He opened the door allowing her and other agents to make a quick arrest.

In 1978 she and her colleagues helped review evidence in the case of cult leader Jim Jones after the charismatic leader and his followers had poisoned themselves in Guyana. Before moving to Jonestown, his group had been headquartered in San Francisco.

From there she went back to Quantico to work with an undercover special operations unit, becoming the first woman in that unit. She helped develop undercover operations around the country, training and placing agents as well as developing a screening program to determine which agents were suitable for the work. This was the time of ABSCAM, an FBI undercover public corruption sting that nabbed one U.S. senator and five members of the House of Representatives for taking money in return for political favors. In the aftermath, Congress held hearings to review the FBI’s undercover endeavors.

Each move brought more responsibility. McChesney’s next assignment was in Los Angeles as leader of the squad in the Redondo Beach office, another first for a woman agent. Much of her work focused on government fraud, particularly with defense procurement, but the most prominent case was the kidnapping of a one-year-old boy and his babysitter. The agents rescued the pair in the middle of the night, after the kidnapper tried picking up a ransom near the LA airport. The victims were found tied up in a truck camper.

Then McChesney headed back to Quantico to work in administration. In 1988, the agency faced a lawsuit charging that it discriminated against Hispanic agents in hiring, promotion, and discipline. McChesney’s duties included developing a promotional system for agents that was fair, equitable, and transparent. Generally, the process hasn’t changed from her design. “Having an issue to deal with and then be part of fixing the problem, identifying processes and procedures to make things better in the future, that was rewarding,” she says.

From there she went to Detroit as the second highest agent in the office. “It’s one of the major organized crime cities,” she says. Kidnapping, public corruption, and civil rights work kept her office busy. “We also dealt with counter intelligence.” There were, and still are, foreign spies looking for government and business secrets, she explains.

She then returned to LA, where as associate special agent she was, at that time, the FBI’s highest ranking female field agent, directly supervising about 500 people. Then to Phoenix, and then Portland, Oregon, where she was head of the bureau and oversaw several high-profile eco-terrorism cases. As special agent in charge of the Chicago division, she oversaw the investigation of the town president of Cicero, Betty Loren-Maltese, who in 2002 was convicted of helping steal $12 million of the city’s funds. There were also the cases of the former chief of detectives in the Chicago Police Department who ran a jewel theft ring, and Illinois Governor George Ryan, who was convicted of bribery, racketeering, and fraud.

“I was working every day in one way or another,” McChesney says of her career. “I didn’t take very many vacations.” She had also managed to finish a master’s degree in public administration at Seattle University, and a doctorate in the same field from Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

In her twenty-fourth year with the FBI, she made a final return to Quantico to serve as one of three executive assistant directors under FBI Director Robert Mueller. Her responsibilities included overseeing the training academy, engineering, internal operations, special operations critical incidence response, and the lab. She was 51 and close to the mandatory retirement age.

When members of the Catholic Church’s national review board approached her to help work through the child sex abuse crisis, McChesney accepted. Her task as director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection was to help the church respond to victims and follow up with its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

After three years, she moved over to the Walt Disney Company to be vice president of global security. With hotels, cruise ships, and ABC offices, not to mention theme parks, she oversaw issues like workplace safety, technology security, health, training, and crisis management, be it man-made or natural disaster. In 2007 she left Disney to finish a book titled Pick Up Your Own Brass, in which she and another retired FBI agent share lessons in leadership they learned at the FBI, and a collection of essays titled Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, which looks at the issue from a variety of perspectives, including those of scholars, psychologists, historians, and victims.

Today, McChesney lives in southern California and consults for nonprofits and private businesses, often traveling the country to work on projects for several months at a time. And now, she says, she manages to work in a few weeks of vacation as well.