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The FBI Lost Our Son


The FBI Lost Our Son

William and Theresa Reilly were biking on a leafy trail north of Detroit when their son, Billy, sent a text from his trip to Russia. The 28-year-old man had never lived away from home, and the Reillys fretted over his safe return.

Billy Reilly

had yet to find a career, but his foreign-language and computer skills led to part-time work in counterterrorism for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Detroit. He was one of the bureau’s army of confidential sources, and the Reillys didn’t know if his trip was somehow connected.

Over the years, Billy had delved into the Boston Marathon bombers, cultivated alleged Islamic State recruiters, analyzed Syria’s civil war and conversed with Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. He used online aliases to penetrate terror groups over computers from the family home in Oxford, Mich.

Billy planned to return soon, and his parents were relieved to hear from him. He had told them a vague story about joining a humanitarian mission into eastern Ukraine. Once abroad, Billy leaked alarming bits and pieces, mentions of fighting, drinking and bloody encounters with volunteer soldiers.

“Big news,” Billy texted. His plans were changing. He wasn’t leaving Russia just yet. Mrs. Reilly was so absorbed she didn’t notice a dog approaching her on the trail. It bit her ankle, she recalled, drawing blood.

Billy sent the text on June 24, 2015. Mr. and Mrs. Reilly called and wrote him texts back over the following hours and the next day. They lost sleep, tethered to their phones, but heard nothing.

A day or two later, a government sedan pulled up to the Reilly home. FBI special agent

Tim Reintjes

introduced himself. The Reillys had never met him, but they knew from Billy that he was their son’s FBI handler.

“Something happened to Billy,” Mrs. Reilly recalled thinking. “They know about it, and he’s here to tell us.”

Instead, the agent asked if Billy was home. When the Reillys said he was in Russia, Agent Reintjes seemed surprised. He began asking questions, probing for details.

Over the next months, Agent Reintjes returned a half-dozen times. He asked for the laptop and phone the FBI had given Billy. He also wanted to retrieve Billy’s phone bill as soon as it arrived.

Agent Reintjes brought colleagues who assured the couple that the world’s leading investigative agency was on the case. “They’ll find him,” Mrs. Reilly recalled thinking. “We don’t have to worry.”

Then the Reillys found another phone Billy had used. It contained text messages between Billy and a contact named “Tim.” The number matched the one on Agent Reintjes’s emails to Mrs. Reilly.

The parents scrolled through the texts and found a series of perplexing exchanges suggesting the FBI agents knew all along about their son’s trip.

As Billy prepared to leave for Russia, Tim had sent a text in early May 2015.

“Do you have your trip itinerary yet.”

“I’m still waiting on visa,” Billy replied.

Two days before Billy flew to Moscow, Tim arranged a face-to-face meeting and wrote, “Bring your travel info.”

The Reillys couldn’t understand why Agent Reintjes hadn’t told them.

Theresa and William Reilly outside their home in Oxford, Mich.


Erin Kirkland for The Wall Street Journal

Theresa and William Reilly outside their home in Oxford, Mich.


Erin Kirkland for The Wall Street Journal

After 9/11, Congress mandated the transformation of the FBI from a domestic law-enforcement agency into a global policing and intelligence body. The number of FBI confidential sources subsequently ballooned, a former senior bureau official said.

The FBI’s counterterrorism work grew to preventing attacks. To help, the agency recruited workers like Billy Reilly, part-timers with the right skills to infiltrate terror or criminal networks, either in person or through online chat rooms and social media.

These sources work in a dangerous world, with little training and fewer of the institutional protections afforded full-time FBI agents. They draw no government benefits beyond an occasional paycheck and a pat on the back. Yet they are critical to the FBI’s work to see plots in the fog of international jihad.

As an FBI source, Billy was required to report foreign travel, even vacations. The bureau has the authority to dispatch sources on foreign missions. It is one of the U.S. agencies responsible for disrupting terror cells abroad.

But over the course of four years, the Reillys would learn that no one in government wanted to take responsibility for their son’s work or for his safety, and that the families of confidential sources have little recourse when the FBI severs ties with their loved ones.

Over time, Agent Reintjes turned curt on the phone and eventually stopped returning calls.

Growing up, the Reilly’s only son wasn’t like other kids. He rarely went to parties and preferred the company of his parents. They now began to fear they might never see him again. They weren’t sure what to do.

Alarmed that Agent Reintjes was hiding information about their son’s disappearance, Mr. Reilly, a retired Teamsters driver for Coca-Cola, and Mrs. Reilly, for years a stay-at-home mom, began a quest to find Billy themselves.

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