- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

A federal judge has planned the perfect crime: robbing the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
While masterminding the largest cash theft in American history about $100 million in currency that would not be missed U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel used his own stature as a member of the federal bench to ask for and receive a tour of Chicago's Fed.
The daring robbery scheme isn't likely to land him behind bars, however: Judge Zagel plotted the robbery in the pages of "Money to Burn," a new novel published this month.
"I had been on every side of the law but one. I've never been on the wrong side. I've never committed a crime," said Judge Zagel, 61, the former chief of the Illinois State Police who was appointed to the bench by President Reagan in 1985.
The protagonist of "Money to Burn," is U.S. District Judge Paulie Devine, a truly cerebral crook who recruits a cast of accomplices much more likeable than the government people who run the Fed. The fictional Judge Devine hatches a scheme to steal millions in worn-out currency from the Chicago office of the federal bank.
"I think it could be done," Judge Zagel said in an interview, insisting he never would be tempted for a minute to try pulling it off.
While researching for the book, he discovered that few people were suspicious of a federal judge. A Federal Reserve publicist asked him why he wanted to examine security areas where old currency returned by banks in exchange for new bills is stored until it is destroyed.
"I'm trying to figure out how to rob the place," he told her, never mentioning his novel, "and she never asked me why I was trying to work it out."
He said that everyone he meets who has read the book asks if he is the crooked judge of "Money to Burn."
"I'm anything but Judge Devine," he said. "I did everything I could to make Devine different from me."
He says he doesn't believe he has damaged the reputation of the judiciary by portraying a federal judge who fills in slow moments in court by planning a crime.
"I am sure that, as in every group of people in the world, there will be some judges who think any work of fiction or fact that portrays a judge as less than perfect is somehow damaging to all judges. It's not true; it's just simply not true," he said.
"The only way I thought I could explore what it was like was to write about it and think about it the way a criminal would think about it," said Judge Zagel, who sees his plan as so realistic someone might hijack it and try to break the bank.
In an afterword in the novel, he warns any bad guys out there that he falsified a few details because he didn't want to tell exactly "how one could rob the Fed if one were willing to do so."
But he conceded in an interview that the misleading information had to do not so much with the interior geography of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago but with the cost of staging such a job.
"I didn't want anybody even to try robbing it. That imposes a certain amount of cost and risk on someone. I just wanted to tell people, 'Don't try this. It won't work,'" the judge said.
"The trick [in the novel] was to have a high-ranking security person on the team. Any institution is vulnerable," said Judge Zagel. "The risk [for the bank] escalates massively if you've got a high-ranking guard willing to go along with you."
He spent five years of his career as a prosecutor working to sustain the conviction of mass murderer Richard Speck, who killed eight nurses in one day in 1966. He argued four cases for Illinois before the U.S. Supreme Court and won three.

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