Chloe Effron / iStock Collage
Chloe Effron / iStock Collage

Force of Habit: The Nun Who Became an FBI Agent

Chloe Effron / iStock Collage
Chloe Effron / iStock Collage

Just three years earlier, Joanne Pierce had been teaching history and economics to middle-school children at the Sisters of Mercy parochial school in Buffalo, New York. Now she was feeding ammunition into M16 rifles while under fire as part of an armored personnel carrier in South Dakota. She was no longer Sister Pierce. She was Special Agent Pierce of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bullets cut through the sky overhead as Pierce and her fellow agents struggled to restore order between warring Indian factions at Wounded Knee in 1973. Before it was over, tribal leader Russell Means would be charged with assaulting Pierce as he aimed his weapon toward the carrier and Pierce, who kept a cool head in the middle of the gunfight, would go on to be recognized as one of the female pioneers in the Bureau. For nearly a quarter-century, she would serve the agency, helping tear down the barricade that had kept women out of the line of duty for 44 years. The goal was the same as in her convent years: to save lives. But, now, this nun had a gun.

Pierce (in the red dress) arrives to be sworn in at FBI Headquarters in 1972. FBI

Pierce, who was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1941, stayed nearby for most of her schooling. She attended a Catholic high school and studied history at Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y. Then, after earning a master's degree in history from St. Bonaventure University, Pierce joined the Sisters of Mercy convent in 1960 and began a 10-year tour as a history and economics teacher at various Catholic schools in the area. As she neared her 30th birthday, Pierce began to contrast the demands of the convent against her desire to start and raise a family. She realized the two were incompatible and began to consider leaving.

One day, an FBI agent showed up at school for career day. Pierce listened as he described his job in law enforcement. She liked the sound of it—a “new adventure,” she’d later say. She asked if any positions were open.

Mostly clerical, the agent told Pierce. It was 1970, and Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover restricted Special Agent status to male applicants only; no women had been seen on the force since 1928. Undeterred, Pierce left the convent and headed for Washington, where she was hired as a researcher.

Her timing was fortuitous. President Richard Nixon had signed an order of nondiscrimination in 1969, which was followed by the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972. While Hoover tried to exempt the FBI from the sweeping societal changes, his death in May 1972 opened the door. Just a week after his death, Acting Director L. Patrick Gray issued a press release that invited women to apply for Special Agent status. They would be given no special exemptions and would be asked to fulfill the same physical and academic requirements as their male counterparts: a college degree, and successful navigation of the brand-new FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

Pierce was informed of the change by a supervisor. She was told the qualification would be rigorous and the job—if she got it—would be demanding. She applied.

Of the 45 hopefuls to enroll at the Academy that summer, Pierce and former Marine Susan Roley were the only two females. They trained for a grueling two-mile run, pull-ups, and firearms shooting, where Pierce learned how to handle a .38 revolver, rifle, and shotgun. The two also bunked together during the 14-week training course.

“Sometimes I felt like I was an exhibit in a museum,” she told CBS This Morning in 2012, “because everybody wanted to say which one are you, the Marine or the nun?”

Both women passed. Roley was assigned to the Omaha, Neb. branch, and though Pierce was hoping for Miami, when she saw her assignment, she had drawn St. Louis, Mo. It wasn’t ideal, but Special Agent Pierce was officially ready for action.

Pierce barely had time to get her bearings in St. Louis when she was deployed to Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. The town had been taken over by the American Indian Movement, which demanded the removal of rival Oglala tribal leader Richard Wilson and acknowledgment of American wrongdoing on native land. The demonstration would eventually grow to 71 days of tense, sometimes violent occupation, with the FBI and U.S. Marshals among the government forces sent to defuse the situation.

Pierce’s squad was ordered to a roadblock to calm a disturbance that quickly turned deadly. A sniper was firing at the roadblock, and agents—including Pierce—were in the line of fire and sought protection inside a carrier. Gunshots rang out for nearly an hour before the sniper was apprehended; one agent sustained a minor injury. It was an uncensored introduction to the life of a Federal official.

From there, Pierce moved to Pittsburgh, Penn., where she spent the majority of her career. Agents in her squad were accepting of a female in the mix; civilians were another story.

“Initially, when you'd go out and say you were from the FBI, you'd get a look of disbelief, like you were kidding," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1996. Once, Pierce was tasked with wrangling fugitives and military deserters. One man on the run had seen Pierce before fleeing; he called the Bureau’s office and screamed that he couldn’t believe a woman was chasing him. He felt insulted that he didn’t warrant a male agent’s attention.

Another time, Pierce and a male agent entered a bank to question an employee—the secretary told the employee that “a couple” was there to see him. Pierce was also often mistaken for a traveling secretary. Some suspects took a sarcastic approach, telling Pierce she could “arrest them any time.”

As more and more women joined the force, Pierce became less of an oddity and more an example of a new normal. But something troubled her. In five attempts to be promoted to a supervisory role between 1981 and 1987, Pierce was passed over every time—including cases, she claimed, where the eventual hire was under-qualified. The only thing they had in common: all were male.

Pierce left the FBI in 1994 after 22 years of service. She had finished her tenure in Miami, seizing the boats and mansions of drug dealers, and then a bank in Boca Raton, Fla. offered her in a job in audit investigation, which she accepted. In her opinion, there wasn’t opportunity for further advancement in the Bureau.

Pierce went a step further, suing Attorney General Janet Reno in 1994 for discrimination. She asked for the difference in pay she would have earned had she been promoted and attorney’s fees; the case was settled in 1996 under undisclosed terms.

At the time of the suit, the FBI was unable to comment on her retirement or her contributions to the Bureau. But in 2012, for the 40th anniversary of her hiring, the agency profiled both her and Susan Roney. Having married a fellow agent, Michael Misko, in 1981, she now goes by Joanne Pierce Misko.

“I honestly didn’t see myself as a pioneer,” she said of her admittance into the Bureau, even though she was just one of two women sworn in that summer in 1972. Today, there are roughly 2700 female agents in the field. And, providing they have a college education and can endure 20 weeks of training, nuns are still free to apply.

Additional Sources:
“Nun Turned Agent Recalls Historic Career in FBI,” The Buffalo News, September 18, 1994; “Women Agents Erasing FBI’s Machismo,” The Chicago Sun-Times, November 9, 1986.

S-Town Podcast Is Being Turned Into a Movie

S-Town, a seven-part podcast from Serial and This American Life, has all the trappings of a binge-worthy story. It all started when a man from the tiny town of Woodstock, Alabama asked a reporter to investigate a local man from a wealthy family who allegedly boasted he had gotten away with murder.

As for what happens next, “someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man's life,” reads the 2017 podcast’s synopsis, without giving too much away.

Now, that riveting story is being turned into a movie with This American Life’s participation, IndieWire reports. Participant Media acquired the rights to the S-Town podcast, and negotiations are underway to get playwright Samuel Hunter and director Tom McCarthy on board. McCarthy is perhaps best known for directing and co-writing 2015's Oscar-winning Spotlight; he also co-wrote Up and was an executive producer and director for the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

S-Town was downloaded over 10 million times over a period of four days after its release, and it received a Peabody Award for the radio/podcast category, according to IndieWire. Just last month, HBO and Sky announced they would be releasing a documentary series about Adnan Syed, the focus of the first season of the Serial podcast, which is developed by This American Life.

In case you missed S-Town when it premiered, you can go back and listen to it here.

[h/t IndieWire]

15 Facts About The Staircase, Netflix’s New True Crime Docuseries

At 2:40 a.m. on December 9, 2001, Durham, North Carolina-based novelist Michael Peterson made a frantic call to 911 to report an accident. His wife, Kathleen, had fallen down a flight of stairs and was unconscious, but still breathing, in a massive pool of her own blood. Michael, who claimed he had been sitting out by the pool, was not sure how it had happened—he just knew that he needed help. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. But the police weren’t convinced that Kathleen had fallen, or that her death was an accident at all.

Within two weeks, Michael Peterson would be indicted for the murder of his wife, and the case—which stretched on through 2017—only got stranger from there.

There’s not a lot one can say about The Staircase without giving too much away. So if you’ve yet to watch all 13 episodes of the compelling docuseries, which is now streaming on Netflix, bookmark this page and come back once you have. For those of you who have powered through it all and are thirsting for more details on the case, read on.


If you had a sense of déjà vu while watching The Staircase, it could very well be because you’ve seen it before—at least most of it. A truncated, two-hour version of the miniseries, which is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, first premiered on Primetime Thursday in the summer of 2004. The completed docuseries made its television premiere one year later, first in England and then in America (on the Sundance Channel). In 2012, de Lestrade released a two-hour follow-up that continued the story. Netflix’s rendition includes all 10 of the original episodes, plus three brand-new ones, which follow some more recent developments in the case.


In 2001, de Lestrade directed the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, which highlighted the case of Brenton Butler, a black teenager who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Jacksonville, Florida. De Lestrade was on the lookout for his next project, and he had a very specific idea for his follow-up: another documentary that would dissect the American criminal justice system, but this time from the perspective of a white defendant who could afford a top-notch legal team. De Lestrade told The Ringer that he and his team spent five months reviewing about 300 cases, which is how they found Michael Peterson. (That both Peterson and his lawyer, David Rudolf, were willing to offer the filmmakers unfettered access to their preparations for the trial was obviously a bonus.)

But de Lestrade had a feeling that there was something unusual about Peterson’s case that would make for a compelling story. “When [Michael] was talking about his love with Kathleen, I really could feel that sincerity,” de Lestrade said. “But, at the same time, there was a kind of mystery about this man. It was a strange feeling.” Peterson was indicted for the murder of his wife on December 21, 2001; shooting on the series began shortly thereafter.


Though de Lestrade knew that there was something different about Peterson’s case, even he couldn’t imagine the number of turns it would take over the next 15-plus years. It didn’t take long for the director to realize that his original plan to make a two-hour documentary on the case would barely even scratch the surface.

“When we started shooting in February 2002 and when David Rudolf gave us access and the judge gave us access in the court room and we started to shoot and shoot and shoot then we realized how big it could be,” de Lestrade told Metro. “Because in the beginning it was supposed to be a two-hour film. It wasn’t supposed to be an eight-hour documentary series. But after six months of shooting, I knew we couldn’t tell the story in two hours.” Fortunately, the film’s distributors were receptive to the idea of a miniseries.


Michael Peterson in 'The Staircase' (2018)

Reflecting on The Staircase and Michael Peterson’s case for The Daily Beast in 2013, de Lestrade revealed that he never intended to come back to the story once the original series was in the can. “When I finally completed The Staircase in September 2004, I felt as emotionally drained as David Rudolf did at the end of the film,” he wrote. “I told myself that I would stop making documentary films—just as David had vowed that the Peterson trial would be his last criminal-defense case. It was wrenching to watch as Michael Peterson, bound at the wrists, was swept into the car that would take him to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t bear Martha and Margaret’s endless tears. It was harrowing to try to comfort a family shattered by a tragedy that seemed so senseless.”


Though de Lestrade has worked on a handful of other projects since The Staircase’s original release, he has never stopped working on the project since he first began filming in 2002. When asked by Metro what it felt like to “return” to the project, the director was quick to make it clear that, “I never quit The Staircase. I have been obsessed by the story and by the character. It has been my obsession to go through the legal process. And to end the series when the justice system gave an answer to the case.”


In April 2018, Netflix’s three new episodes of The Staircase premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following the screening, de Lestrade held a Q&A in which he explained that determining Peterson’s innocence—or guilt—was never part of his grand plan for the film. “The purpose has never been to look for the truth,” he said. “Or to look for what happened that night. It was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case, and it took 17 years.”


Though de Lestrade wasn’t looking to uncover the truth about Peterson's guilt or innocence, he did form an opinion: He does not believe that Michael Peterson killed his wife. “We weren’t there that night so we can’t pretend we know what happened,” de Lestrade told the Tribeca Film Festival audience. “We may have an opinion or a feeling, but to me, there is no strong evidence presented that Michael Peterson killed his wife. That’s where I stand.”


The Peterson family in 'The Staircase' (2018)

Writing for The Daily Beast, de Lestrade admitted that the long road—and contradictory evidence—that has been presented throughout Peterson's seemingly endless legal battles has been difficult to reconcile at times:

“It has been immensely frustrating that the truth of this story has remained so obscure for so long. I never believed the prosecution’s murder theory. The evidence contradicted it. It’s impossible to kill someone by hitting them over the head without inflicting either skull fractures or cerebral contusions. On the other hand, the fall scenario put forth by the defense didn’t entirely satisfy me either. The lacerations on Kathleen's scalp are difficult to reconcile with an accidental fall down the stairs.”


The Staircase puts forth a number of possible theories about what could have caused Kathleen Peterson’s death, the most bizarre one being that she was attacked by an owl. More specifically: that an owl got tangled in her hair and, in an attempt to extricate itself, ending up causing her death. It may sound strange, but the autopsy report did note that Kathleen had pine needles stuck to one of her hands, clumps of her own hair in both hands, and a few small feathers entangled in one of those clumps.

“When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons,” Mary Jude Darrow, Peterson’s attorney, told Audubon in 2016. “But I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument.” Several animal experts agreed in the theory's plausibility, as did the film’s director … eventually.

“At face value, this theory seemed absurd, so I treated it with a great deal of caution,” de Lestrade wrote. “Yet, today, I have to admit that numerous facts favor this owl theory. Two years ago, I met with a well-known neurological surgeon. After a careful look—over several days—at Kathleen’s injuries, he told me, ‘These injuries are not consistent with any form of blunt instrument used as a weapon. These injuries could not be produced with a pipe, hammer, knife, tire iron, or even a hand claw such as would be used in the garden. These wounds, however, are most consistent with lacerations caused by a large raptor or bird of prey. Four punctures wounds converging to a point via jagged lacerations, without associated scalp contusions, must be considered to have been inflicted by a raptor talon until proven otherwise. Furthermore, these specific lacerations are of the dimensions of a barred owl’s talons.’”

The idea, according to that same surgeon, is that the owl attack happened outside the house, which led to Kathleen fainting, “most likely on the staircase, leading to a fall either down the stairs or at the foot of the stairs, suffering a fractured thyroid cartilage as she fell. This is followed by a period of unconsciousness, during which she either hemorrhages to death or asphyxiates to death.”


Given that the newest installments of The Staircase involve Peterson entering an Alford plea (a plea deal in which the defendant maintains his or her innocence, but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them) to the charge of voluntary manslaughter, and walking free, it’s doubtful we’ll see new episodes of the series. But Peterson told Dateline’s Dennis Murphy that entering that plea was “the most difficult decision I ever made in my life … And I’m talking, you know, joining the Marines, anything I did in my life, this was the most difficult decision I made. And I did it because the second most difficult thing I ever did in my life was to live through that trial and listen to all of those lies and perjuries, the nonsense.”


Though the documentary is full shocking moments and revelations, one of the most surprising events happened off-screen: During the course of production, The Staircase editor Sophie Brunet and Michael Peterson fell in love. “This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years,” de Lestrade told L’Express. “Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”


Michael Peterson and David Rudolf in 'The Staircase (2018)

Thomas B. Metzloff, a law professor at Duke University who was one of Michael and Kathleen’s neighbors at the time of her death, told The News & Observer that The Staircase is required viewing for his students—though he disagrees with the documentary’s suggestion that Peterson did not get a fair trial.

“I don't think the average person who followed the trial closely in real time comes away with a reaction of 'Oh, my gosh, here's an innocent man who is being victimized,'” he said. “Having been to the trial, it was a fair trial. It was a good jury. The evidence was presented and David Rudolf was able to point out the weaknesses. For example, his cross-examination of [SBI blood expert] Duane Deaver, which I attended, was very powerful. So there was evidence to support the verdict. Whether there should have been reasonable doubt is for people to judge based on the evidence.”


The Staircase has a coincidental link to Netflix’s first big true crime docuseries hit: Rudolf was the UNC clinical law professor of Jerry Buting who, along with Dean Strang, defended Steven Avery in Making a Murderer.


Michael Peterson no longer lives in the Durham home he shared with his late wife Kathleen; it has passed through two owners since first being sold for $640,000 in 2004. The second, and current, owner is a psychic named Biond Fury, who said he had no knowledge of Peterson’s trial or the home’s history. According to WRAL, “he was attracted to the house because of its architecture and layout.”


Anyone who has watched NBC’s Trial & Error, starring John Lithgow, has likely noticed the many nods to The Staircase in the mockumentary sitcom (there was even a reference to the owl theory).

“The genesis of this was around five years ago in the writers’ rooms across Warner Bros … a documentary called The Staircase was going around,” Trial & Error co-creator Jeff Astrof said at the 2017 Television Critics Association. “And I remember I watched it with my wife—and at the time I wish I had said John Lithgow for this story to work—[but instead] I said, ‘If this guy was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.’ And my wife gave me as much encouragement as any time she ever has, and she said, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”


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