080317 Books: Going undercover with Capt. Sandy
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Books: Going undercover with Capt. Sandy

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

Remember the time when you were training to be an undercover FBI agent, and the training exercise went awry?

That time when the drug dealer found out you were a Fed in the midst of a deal? Panic. When your cover was blown because the informant stopped cooperating? Fear. How the duct tape felt against your wrists, ankles and mouth? Struggling as the bad guys moved to throw you in the trunk of an old sedan? This isn’t how it was supposed to end, you knew better. The hair on the back of your neck was standing up during the initial meeting, it felt off and wrong, but going ahead seemed like the thing to do. Remember?

No? Dana Ridenour does. It may sound like a television show, but for her it was real. “That’s word for word what happened to me,” Ridenour said. “It was just such a funny story I had to fit it in there.”

Funny is relative. But after 20 years as an undercover FBI agent, she’s earned her own views of humor. Ridenour retired from the bureau last year. Finally able to make her beloved Georgetown County home, she’s moved on from investigating to writing. “Beyond the Cabin,” where the aforementioned sequence takes place, is her second novel.

The new book, like her first, “Behind the Mask,” is fiction, but there are markers of Ridenour following the author’s golden rule: write what you know. “Behind the Mask” is where readers first met Lexie Montgomery, a new field agent who worked to infiltrate a domestic terrorist organization. “I fictionalized the characters, but a lot of the things that happened to Lexie, especially the emotions, I experienced at one time or another while working undercover,” Ridenour said. “A great part of the first one is based on my experiences.”

The new novel changes gears, it’s darker than the first. Lexie is still the protagonist, but the story is more of a thriller and the setting isn’t a far off, west coast town, it takes place right here along Highway 17. “I always wanted to write a book [that happens] in South Carolina,” Ridenour said. Pawleys Island, The Hammock Shops and The PIT all make appearances. As the novel unfolds, readers meet Capt. Meade, who will seem familiar for good reason.

“Capt. Meade is based on my friend Capt. Sandy Vermont,” Ridenour said. “If you’ve been around here long enough, everybody knows Capt. Sandy and/or has at least heard of Capt. Sandy.” Ridenour met the renowned Lowcountry storyteller long before her time in the bureau. Her first, and favorite, job was working for him on his boat. “We got along so well. He became one of my very best friends and my confidante. I would call Sandy if I had any troubles in life and Sandy would help me work it out.”

Ridenour hoped he’d be around for the book launch, but Capt. Sandy died last October. She credits him for being a large influence in her life. “Beyond the Cabin” is dedicated to him. “I learned so much from him,” she said. “I fell in love with the area here probably because of Capt. Sandy.”

Ridenour grew up in Meade County, Ky., as the sheriff’s kid. Police work may be in her DNA. Sometime during her high school marching band career, Ridenour took a school trip to Washington, D.C., and one of the arranged tours was of FBI headquarters. “You know at 15-years-old I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” she said. “I told everybody I was going to be an FBI agent so all my high school year books are signed good luck in the FBI.” It didn’t happen quite like that, but she did get there.

Ridenour didn’t join the bureau until she was 29, after college and after law school. “I only went to law school because the FBI was hiring lawyers at the time,” she said. Throughout her life, North Litchfield was the family vacation spot. Year after year, Ridenour returned with her family. While in college she worked summers for Capt. Sandy. “This has always felt like home,” she said.

In the book, Lexie has a similar experience. She goes out on Capt. Meade’s boat, learns to shrimp and builds a relationship with him as her alias, Lexie Perry. It’s not autobiographical for Ridenour, but Capt. Meade has the wisdom and keen sense of Capt. Sandy.

After law school, and being bar admitted to South Carolina, Ridenour planned to go straight into the FBI, but that was around 1993. “The federal job freeze hit across the board,” she said. “There were no federal agencies hiring.” She was told it’d probably be about two months of waiting, but that turned into about two years.

So Ridenour did what any new lawyer would do. She packed up, moved to Georgetown, and went back to work for Capt. Sandy. “I never wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. But after some firm advice from her father, Ridenour spent one year with Thornton Law Firm in Georgetown. “I worked for Doug Thornton, I loved Doug Thornton, but I hated practicing law. I was miserable,” she said. So back to the boat she went.

The bureau hired her in 1995. After completing her initial training, she was instructed to list the 56 bureau offices in order of preference. South Carolina was at the top, but it didn’t happen. Her first assignment was Mobile, Ala., which turned out to be a blessing for her career. “It was the second smallest field division in the United States,” she said. “It was a retirement office, and being the new kid on the block, they let you do anything you wanted to do.”

Ridenour spent almost half her career in Mobile. She was able to get hands-on experience doing anything she wanted. As head of the Evidence Response Team, she and her team worked post-9/11 cleanup at Ground Zero. About a year after that assignment she was selected to attend undercover agent training. It’s a school where agents only get one try, and has a 50 percent fail rate.

“In order to become an undercover agent you have to go through a two-week school. Just two weeks, but it’s intense,” she said. “It’s sleep deprivation. It’s an entire two weeks, not a minute off. You go, go, go, go, go, go, go.”

Undercover agent work is divided into short and long term assignments. In “Beyond the Cabin,” Lexie infiltrates the Earth Liberation Front, a real group. Since this is Lexie’s second time working domestic terrorism, she’s considered an expert in the field. This is a deep cover assignment for her, so Lexie must live the part 24 hours per day. Nothing with her real name, no gun and no credentials. There’s only the alias.

“You don’t have anything that says who you really are,” Ridenour said. She spent a fourth of her career in deep cover. She even traveled with an FBI-issued fake passport and that was nerve racking, she said. “You’re just hoping that it’s going to work. The first time we traveled with them, we had our targets with us and all I could think was, ‘please let this work.’ Little things like that are sometimes more nerve racking than the assignment.”

Lexie’s tale was inspired by parts of Ridenour’s first deep cover assignment in Northern California with the Animal Liberation Group. “They operate in little cells,” Ridenour said. “The only people that are doing anything illegal are the need-to-know people, and that’s the ultimate goal.” To become a need-to-know person.

“Beyond the Cabin” leaves Lexie worse for wear. In the next installment Ridenhour plans to illustrate how Lexie picks up the pieces, but isn’t quite sure how that will play out. “I had a very loose outline about what I wanted to do in the second book and then the third book is the same thing,” she said. “And I have some ideas for the fourth book.”

A launch party for “Beyond the Cabin” will be held today from 6 to 9 p.m. at Inlet Affairs. (It is also available on amazon.com.) She will be available to sign books, answer questions and maybe exhibit a little of a skill she picked up while in deep cover. It was the only way she could connect with a target.

“I told the FBI, you have to pay for guitar lessons,” she said. She ended up taking lessons from the same teacher as the target. “I took lessons from him until the case was over,” she said. “I had to stop because I couldn’t use my real identity and I couldn’t use that identity anymore. I was more upset about that than the case closing.”

To learn more about the program, or to volunteer, go to scgal.org or call 800-277-0113.

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