Ned Timmons graduated from Hillsdale College in 1970. He served for nine years on an FBI SWAT team in Detroit, infiltrated motorcycle gangs, helped bring down infamous Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and posed as a mercenary gunboatman in one of the largest drug busts in U.S. History. He currently runs L.S.S. consulting, a corporate security company.
How did you get from Hillsdale to the FBI?
I’d always been interested in getting to the FBI, but there’s not a proven path to getting there. When I was at Hillsdale the Vietnam War was still going on. There was a lottery system and I was already past the lottery number. So I knew the second I graduated I was going into the military.
Just about everybody in my training group went to Vietnam, but they took 12 of us and sent us to South Korea, assigned to the criminal investigating detachment of the army. When I got out of the army, I went to work for the Highland Park Police in northern Detroit. I did nine years of SWAT, patrol, and regular police work and then finished my masters at MSU. I was actually working on a Ph.D. when I got accepted into the FBI.
In the FBI I started working on fugitives and bank robberies and developed some high end sources that I captured as fugitives. That led us into motorcycle gang investigations. The bureau became very interested in motorcycle gang investigations because they began to realize in the early ’80s that the bikers were doing all the dirty work for traditional, organized crime.
What were some of the more intense investigations you were involved with?
We found a group closely aligned with Manuel Noriega, dictator of Panama. The problem was that Noriega was the CIA’s source into Castro, and the Castro was aligned with the Russians. So the CIA did not want its source to go down, because he was the main source of information on what Russia was trying to do in Cuba and what was going on in Russia.
The CIA was very unhappy with our project. I guess I’ll just leave it at that. You can imagine that the two big agencies butt heads. The potential for the CIA to want to sabotage the whole operation was a concern every minute. Not only did you have to worry about the bad guys, but you had to worry about the CIA too.
Were you undercover?
I was never undercover in Panama, but I was undercover in the Cayman Islands. We cooperated in Cayman for over a year, and the whole investigation took five years. I became a confidant of one of the main guys, and would move money and oversee daily functions and security concerns. There was so much money that we burned through six money counting machines. The motors wouldn’t withstand the volume of cash we were moving through them. We went to a system of weighing the money. We would weigh 50 pounds of hundreds.
What was your undercover identity?
They believed I came out Saudi Arabia and that I trained people on how to use high-powered gunboats, for the Arabs. I had a mercenary-type background, and they liked that a lot.
What was it like to become one of the bad guys?
I’d been operating two to three years with motorcycle gangs, and I think you have to become an actor and watch for people within the organization that might resent you coming in.
Was there temptation?
We had some green berets that were corrupt, gone to the dark side, and former military that had gone with the smugglers. If you wanted to go to the dark side, you could obviously become a very wealthy individual. But [in my mind] that was never an option.
Did you face any situations that were life or death?
There was a time when the main power group in Cayman came to me and said, “There’s an agent on the island and he looks just like you.” Then, I was at the hotel and all the sudden I saw an agent out of Detroit who was on his honeymoon. He showed up with his wife. The risk was that he’d come and say something. It could have been a disaster. We couldn’t call the police, because we didn’t trust the police. But I was able to give him a signal. Luckily his wife was gorgeous, and they were paying more attention to the wife in the bikini then to him. I was able to catch his eye and give him a signal to keep his mouth shut. We dodged a bullet there. Anytime you’re out with a bunch of drug smugglers who are making millions, and you’re out all night, and you’re out on boats and airplanes, there’s a pretty high risk of a problem arising.
What got you through those situations?
I think that when you’re in police work, and you do SWAT, and you have a military background, you always believe that you’re bullet proof. You always believe that nothing is going to happen to you, and that you can get yourself out of any situation. I think in those situations you always have to have in the back of your mind a plan of what you would do and how you would overcome a situation and evade it.
How do you infiltrate a motorcycle gang?
As an FBI agent you would never become a “made member” of an organization. You have to pick something that they need, and you have to remain on the outer fringes. We provided transportation — airplanes and trucks to move the motorcycle gang’s drugs. We made them believe we could provide various chemicals for the production of methamphetamines. They needed to come to you. You don’t want to go to them. I would always remain aloof from the drugs by just saying, ‘I’m a businessman; I don’t partake in that; but thank you very much.’
Is there one group of people you never want to see again?
The smallest person can pull a trigger and end your life real quick. The Colombians are very dangerous. Obviously the motorcycle gangs are dangerous. So are smugglers. There is a danger level from anybody. Anytime you’re chasing a bank robber or murder fugitive, you’ve got to assess the situation, have a plan, and count on your team.
Is it difficult to go back and forth between your career and your family life?
My wife claims that she had to retrain me. She claims to have done so successfully. Reprogram me or whatever her words are. Things are pretty calm now.
Are we safer now than we were 30 years ago?
Every era has its crisis. You go back to the Cuban missile crisis. That could have been the beginning of the end of the world. Today Iran and these rogue countries are like motorcycle gangs. They’re uncontrollable. You don’t know what they’re going to do. They’ve got massive weapons. North Korea and Iran are a concern every minute. There is always going to be trauma and turmoil and problems out there that are concerning to all of us.