As an FBI special agent and an ordained Baptist minister, Stephen Flowers serves *government and God.
Tessa Berg Photos
Around 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon in March 2002, Michael Gregory, a bank robbery suspect wanted for a Louisiana parole violation, fired a shot inside a Cincinnati apartment as FBI agents arrived to serve a warrant.
What should have been a simple arrest quickly escalated into a standoff. Gregory, armed, barricaded himself in a back room. Police evacuated the three-story building. They summoned the FBI SWAT team, composed of agents from around the bureau’s southern Ohio district, including Columbus.
Hours passed as Gregory alternately demanded to speak to a lawyer and threatened to kill himself.
Shortly after midnight, agents began to wonder whether this would end with “suicide by cop”—Gregory rushing police, gun in hand, in order to draw their fire.
But soon Gregory made a request that surprised even veteran officers: He asked to see a Baptist minister. Without hesitation, the negotiator turned and yelled to an agent inside the apartment, “Flowers, get up here!”
He was calling veteran Columbus Special Agent Stephen Flowers, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who had more than a decade of church work under his belt prior to joining the bureau.
For the first time, agents saw the possibility of a peaceful ending.
In the tense reality of that night, Gregory had made new requests by the time Flowers got to the front line. The agent-minister never had a chance to speak to the suspect, who would end up surrendering and accidentally shooting himself in the hand. But the incident still became bureau legend.
“What are the odds you’ve got an ordained Baptist minister on your SWAT team?” Flowers says.
Not very likely, according to the FBI, which is accustomed to a diversity of agent backgrounds—law enforcement, accounting, law and information technology among them. But few religious professionals have come before Flowers; they include former New York nun Joanne Pierce Misko, who joined the agency in 1970, and a minister turned FBI administrator who consulted on Flowers’ hiring 15 years ago. Today, the agency is hard-pressed to identify any other working agent also currently an ordained minister.
It’s a two-sided title Flowers takes seriously, considering his roles a dual calling to public service. As a minister, he’s given back to the less fortunate and counseled youths. As an agent who has spent his career in Columbus, Flowers has worked bank robbery to child pornography cases, spending the last decade fighting terrorism—most notably investigating a trio of local terrorists, including a plot to launch a post-Thanksgiving Day attack in 2003.
On a Saturday in June 1987, Virginia State Police rookie Stephen Flowers sat in a patrol car, riding shotgun with a veteran officer who had once owned the patrol record for writing the most traffic tickets. After one week of initial training and certification, Flowers—who had taught middle school for two years until now—was on the road for a few weeks of field work before attending the force’s formal academy.
They were patrolling along Interstate 85 near Petersburg, about 25 miles south of Richmond, when a call came in about shots fired at a local police officer. A Chesterfield officer had been checking out a report of an armed man in the woods when two shots from a high-powered rifle hit his cruiser. Authorities cordoned off the area, and Flowers and his mentor, though not directly involved in the standoff, monitored the outlying area in case the suspect ran. After several hours, they got word the shooter had killed himself.
Flowers, then in his early 20s, followed the case closely over the next couple of days, trying to figure out what had happened. It wasn’t until he read an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch the following week that Flowers learned the distressing facts: The shooter was a 17-year-old boy from New York who, apparently distraught over bad grades, had run away.
Reading the article, which he still has a quarter-century later, was a wake-up call for Flowers, who had also worked for four years as a part-time youth minister. He’d counseled kids who’d had rough times themselves. He realized his church work wasn’t over. He quit the Virginia patrol, moved back home to Seaford, Virginia, and applied to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Everyone’s saying, ‘We don’t know what happened,’ ” Flowers says. “I’d worked with kids enough to know, ‘I’m not trying to indict anybody, but somebody missed something.’ ”
The son of a Southern Baptist minister father and history teacher mother, Flowers first worked in the ministry after graduating from the College of William & Mary. He helped develop a youth program at Suffolk Baptist Church, building something from the ground up for kids, some of whom came from tough backgrounds.
Outgoing and personable (he was voted best actor in high school after playing Jud Fry in “Oklahoma!” and Harry MacAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie”), Flowers related equally well with teens in the youth group and their parents. A typical challenge was the week he led a five-day retreat at a camp in Cuckoo, Virginia, with a diverse group of kids, “some good, some wild,” recalls Billy Rountree, a police officer who taught Sunday school at the time.
“I witnessed … Steve turn those kids,” Rountree says. “All those kids left that retreat with tears in their eyes. They didn’t want to leave.”
After graduating from seminary in 1990, Flowers took a full-time job as associate pastor and youth minister at Calvary Baptist Church, about an hour up the Ohio River in Madison, Indiana, where he’d worked part-time during school. He quickly gained a reputation for going the extra step to engage youth whose first priority may not have been Sunday school.
He perfected ice-breaker stunts, such as ketchup drinking contests and dunking for Snickers bars in pots filled with Mountain Dew. Once, to illustrate a lesson on hunger and the extent to which some people have to go to survive, he placed a dog food label on a can of refried beans and ate from the can in front of the dumbfounded youth group.
The gross-out factor was high, says Ben Canida, a member of Flowers’ youth group and now a dentist in Madison. But the playful stuff also served a greater purpose. “You let your guard down, and it leads to something deeper,” Canida says.
But the law enforcement bug was still biting and at the end of seminary, even as he undertook his full-time work at Calvary, Flowers applied to the FBI. He was attracted to the federal agency’s reputation and scope of investigations.
“It was not something easy to get to,” Flowers adds. “I wanted something of a challenge.”
Bureaucratic wheels moved slowly, but after a few years his application was accepted. He left his church in January 1997, reported to the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia, and arrived in Columbus as part of the bureau’s southern Ohio district the following April.
Flowers started in white-collar crime, investigating wire fraud and pyramid schemes. He moved on to the violent-crime squad, handling bank robberies and child pornography cases, then served about two years on a squad investigating computer network-related crimes targeting any business or government agency that met the definition of a nationally critical infrastructure.
After 9/11, when counterterrorism became a top priority, Flowers joined the office’s anti-terrorism squad. Almost immediately, he began work on what turned out to be one of the country’s most high-profile domestic terror investigations.
The day after Thanksgiving in 2003, Flowers was in an interrogation room at FBI headquarters in the Brewery District, questioning Somali immigrant Nuradin Abdi—a man the FBI was certain had planned to attack a Columbus shopping mall that very day.
“He asked me about my background, about a prior investigation they had conducted with me, about my family, my travel and whether I knew of any threats against the United States,” Abdi wrote in an affidavit filed later in his case.
The path to this interrogation had started almost 10 years earlier with the arrival of Pakistan native Iyman Faris to Columbus in 1994. He’d since become a long-distance trucker and married an American woman, eventually coming to the FBI’s attention in 2003 through a related investigation. Faris was detained in Cincinnati in March of that year and agreed to be questioned by agents about allegations al-Qaida had tasked him with scoping out the Brooklyn Bridge for possible destruction.
Over the course of those interviews, which lasted for weeks in Columbus and Quantico, Faris mentioned a gathering at a Caribou Coffee at the corner of Lane Avenue and Northwest Boulevard in Upper Arlington the previous summer. One of the men at the meeting—Abdi—had allegedly threatened to shoot up a shopping mall to avenge civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
Flowers had not been involved in the initial Faris interviews, but he was tapped to lead the Abdi investigation. A bureaucratic battle ensued between federal immigration lawyers and lawyers for the FBI over how and whether to arrest Abdi, who had not yet been charged with any criminal offense. Flowers wrote a key memorandum outlining the options and, along with several of his colleagues, spent Thanksgiving Day in the office working the phones, trying to decide how to proceed.
Ultimately, FBI and immigration agents, including Flowers, took Abdi into custody on Black Friday without a warrant as he was leaving his North Side apartment for morning prayers at a nearby mosque.
Flowers and other agents interviewed Abdi—who was transferred to the Kenton County Detention Center in Kentucky, near Cincinnati—over the next several days. The suspect would later claim in court documents that he was kept in isolation, denied requests to contact his family and threatened with the deportation of his wife and children. Flowers declined to discuss those interrogations, saying the court documents spoke for themselves.
Abdi argued his warrantless arrest was unconstitutional, and his legal fight hinged on whether he could persuade a judge to throw out his statements.
Flowers was one of several agents to testify in August 2005 in defense of the government’s tactics. Columbus federal judge Algenon Marbley, who found problems with the government’s handling of the case, nevertheless sided with investigators on their interrogation.
“Although the Court does find the conditions of his confinement severe,” Marbley wrote in September 2005, “the Court credits Flowers’ testimony that Defendant received ample breaks throughout interrogation sessions and suffered no deprivation of food, water or sleep.”
Abdi pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge in 2007, served a 10-year prison term that included time already spent in jail, and earlier this fall was being prepared for deportation to Somalia. Faris pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and is serving a 20-year prison sentence. Flowers also was instrumental in the investigation of a third associate, Christopher Paul, a Worthington native charged with conspiring to attack European tourist sites and overseas U.S. military facilities. Paul took a plea deal and was sentenced in 2009 to 20 years in prison.
Flowers, known as “Preach-er” around the bureau, is often asked how he squares his faith with his day job. His response: Both tie together a form of teaching and service.
For the past few years, the link between these two worlds has been volunteer work Flowers has done in his capacity as an agent with Columbus Global Academy, a city school for new immigrants. The South Hamilton Road school for grades six to 12 has about 585 students from 50 countries who speak 38 different languages, with the majority from Somalia and Spanish-speaking countries including Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Flowers sits on the school’s advisory council, has volunteered at the school’s Saturday academy tutoring children in English and brought along his sons to teach children how to play volleyball. The local FBI has helped fund the school’s indoor soccer team and also runs an FBI Teen Academy.
He’s a role model for immigrant children whose experience with law enforcement in their home countries might not have been positive, says Global Academy principal Kimberly Normand.
At a Washington, D.C., ceremony in March, FBI Director Robert Mueller presented the academy with the 2011 FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award. The bureau noted local agents had worked “with students in an effort to mentor at-risk youth who may be more vulnerable to radicalization, gang membership, or other unlawful activity.”
Flowers likens these efforts to the seed-planting he did as a youth minister, teaching positive behavior that might take years to manifest itself. He still adheres to a system for effective youth ministry, carried over from his days at Suffolk Baptist Church: Carefully divide time between youth, parents and volunteers, and follow 13 personal rules for success, including such concepts as spiritual discipline and engagement with those less fortunate.
How does that philosophy translate to his career in law enforcement?
After a reflective pause, he answers, “I went from one to work with young people, in one sense, and I still want to work with the public in another. Public service in the broad sense. It doesn’t seem that odd to me.”
Sitting beside Flowers, Todd Lindgren, an FBI spokesman who works closely with Flowers on community outreach projects, adds, “Seeking justice is a very biblical principle.”
It’s a September Sunday morning and Flowers greets parishioners leaving the early service where he preached the first of two sermons that day. He’s enthusiastic, smiling and shaking hands warmly, despite the small crowd—the later service will be bigger, with more families. The 49-year-old Flowers, who is married with three sons, remains a licensed minister and is active in his church, where he occasionally guest preaches.
Though he is a lifelong Southern Baptist, he’s quick to point out he doesn’t agree with everything the denomination puts forth. Indeed, both the Southern Baptist church and Flowers’ school, the country’s oldest Southern Baptist-affiliated seminary, have become more conservative since he was ordained.
Flowers belies any stereotypes involving fire and brimstone. His most recent sermon alluded to the role-playing game “Dungeons and Dragons,” cake pops and the 1960s rock group The Byrds. He’s a “Star Trek” fan who is not averse to dropping a reference to the show mid-conversation. Flowers was not immune to pranks in his college days—filling a friend’s lawn with plastic cutlery is hesitantly acknowledged—and at Global Academy, he bonds with the students through laughter and jokes.
“They’re all forms of public service,” Flowers says. “That’s why it’s not as huge a leap for me as much as it is in the minds of other folks.”
Yet Flowers is also careful about keeping his professional and personal lives separate, happy to explain his dual lives to the curious—whether fellow FBI agents or people he meets in his community outreach work—but cautious about any overlap when it comes to his day job.
“It’s been frustrating at times, because there’s a part of me sometimes that wants to stop being an FBI agent and become a youth minister,” Flowers says. “Not to proselytize them, but … to do that social service aspect. What can we do to minister to this person so they’re not putting themselves in this situation? What can I do to grow the relationship? That’s been hard early on.”
The FBI’s mandatory retirement age is 57, and Flowers is accustomed to questions about whether he’d consider a return to full-time ministry. He reads widely in theology and still loves preaching and teaching anything related to biblical studies. “I am open to that, but there’s a lot between here and there,” he says.
Recently, Flowers stepped down as a terrorism squad supervisor to return to terrorism work as a street-level agent, which he prefers.
On Oct. 29, 1998—Beggars Night in Columbus—Flowers, other FBI agents and Columbus police closed in on a member of the Suburban Punk gang, so named for the suspects’ addresses in Dublin, Worthington and elsewhere.
On the North Side, 20-year-old suspect Michael Kadunc fled in his car, speeding through residential neighborhoods. Flowers, in close pursuit, didn’t flinch as a panicked Kadunc spun around and headed straight for officers. The agent and suspect crashed head-on at Norma and Karl roads.
Though he was bleeding from a serious head injury, Flowers got out of his car, his shotgun leveled down on Kadunc, and ordered him to surrender.
Special Agent Kevin Horan, who was there that night, remembers both Flowers’ tenacity and the restraint he showed in dealing with a suspect who had just assaulted him with a car. And who, even as Flowers stood armed before him, was trying to put his car in reverse and flee.
Some who were there that night believe Flowers would have been justified in firing his weapon, Horan says. Flowers would later be awarded an FBI Star, the bureau’s equivalent of the Purple Heart, for his actions.
“Here’s a guy that just got hit head-on and he’s bleeding and he put himself in front of this guy, and he didn’t shoot,” Horan recalls. “Grace under fire. That’s Steve for you.”
Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a legal affairs reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus.