Michael M. Wald, 69, FBI agent in the Abscam sting

Wald
Wald
Posted: September 06, 2013

MIKE WALD was the consummate smooth operator.

How else could this undercover FBI investigator convince a bunch of shrewd Philadelphia politicians that he represented an Arab sheik willing to make payoffs to get government favors?

With a video camera peeking through a hole in the wall from an adjoining room at the Barclay Hotel, politicians, including three city councilmen, two congressmen and a lawyer, were caught accepting bundles of cash.

The scandal was called Abscam, and it unfolded in the late 1970s and early '80s as a carefully plotted FBI undercover sting that made lurid headlines for years.

Michael M. Wald, who was also involved in other high-profile Philadelphia-area FBI investigations, then moved to Florida to pursue other law-enforcement work, mostly in narcotics and money-laundering crimes, died July 14 of pancreatic cancer. He was 69 and lived in The Villages, Sumter County, Fla.

Mike Wald played his role in the Abscam sting with the skill and verve of a trained actor, which he was not. He just seemed to have a natural flair for deception.

Mike, who was 36 at the time of Abscam, carefully prepared for his role as a financial adviser to the nonexistent Sheik Yassir Habib.

He used the name Michael Cohen, and devised a cover story that he got to know the sheik after attending school with his nephew. The story was that the sheik wanted to build a hotel in Philadelphia and needed political influence.

To better sell the deception, Mike studied Middle Eastern politics, and went to friends in the banking community to learn key words that a financial adviser might drop in conversation.

He wore three-piece suits, borrowed an expensive watch from the FBI's cache of stolen property, and secured phony credit cards bearing his false name.

He even switched cigarette brands, from his usual Salems to a prestige brand of English smokes. He bought financial journals and top-shelf liquor to place around the Barclay suite. He rode in a limousine and tipped the hotel staff extravagantly.

The marks were thoroughly fooled, although there is some indication that briefcases stuffed with packs of $100 bills were all that was really needed to pull off the scam.

As one of the culprits, U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers, famously put it, "Money talks, bull---- walks."

The sting caught Myers and fellow U.S. Rep. Raymond Lederer; three councilmen, Council President George X. Schwartz, Harry Jannotti and Louis Johanson; lawyer Howard Criden, and in an earlier version of the operation, Angelo Erichetti, then the mayor of Camden. Also ensnared was U.S. Sen. Harrison A. Williams, D-N.J.

Mike made a total of $70,000 in payoffs to the politicians who arrived at the Barclay, using marked bills. Jail terms and fines supplemented the disgrace that ruined the political career of everyone involved.

"He was one of the nicest guys I ever met," said Chris Mazzella, longtime FBI spokesman in Pennsylvania and recently retired inspector general for Miami-Dade County, Fla. "He was always there to help anyone who needed him.

"He was one of the most recognized experts on money laundering and lectured at colleges all over the world."

Mike Wald spent most of his FBI career with the Philadelphia and Harrisburg offices.

Another high-profile case he worked on was the murder of Upper Merion High School English teacher Susan Reinert, whose battered and chained body was found in her car in a motel parking lot in Harrisburg on June 25, 1979. Her two children, Karen, 11, and Michael, 10, were presumed slain, but their bodies were never found.

Upper Merion principal Jay C. Smith was found guilty of all three murders and sentenced to death. However, he was freed in 1992 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which found "egregious errors" in the prosecution case.

Upper Merion teacher William S. Bradfield Jr., who the prosecution said planned the murders, was convicted, jailed, and died in prison in 1998. Smith died of heart disease at age 80.

Mike also was associated with Operation Penrose, another undercover sting in which a phony storefront was established in South Philadelphia in 1984 to catch thieves trying to sell stolen property. The joint FBI, Philadelphia police and state attorney general's office, recovered $2.2 million in stolen goods.

When Mike moved to Florida, he specialized in narcotics interdiction and money-laundering cases. He became a commander in the Coral Gables Police Department, then he was a co-founder of IMPACT, a South Florida group of 12 law-enforcement agencies formed to combat drug-money laundering. He recently retired.

Mike was born in New York. In 1965, he married the former Eileen Posselt.

"He leaves behind many friends and family who will miss his love, laughter and, most of all, his humor," his family said. His favorite saying was, "It is what it is."

Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Ginger E. Wald and Michelle E. Wald, and a granddaughter, Liliana.

Services: Were in Florida.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|