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On the Case: Iron County Impact

FBI investigator Joseph Aloysius Sullivan ’38 helped solve major crimes across the country and inspired writers like Tom Clancy.

August 07, 2017
Joseph Aloysius Sullivan ’38

Leaders of the search for three missing civil rights workers go over map of area near Philadelphia, Mississippi on June 25, 1964. They are, left to right, Gwin Cole, chief investigator in charge for Mississippi highway patrol; Joe Sullivan, FBI, Washington, and Lt. Cmdr. John Wassell, in command of the Navy people. (AP Photo)

He was “almost a real-life Forrest Gump” a 2002 story published in On Wisconsin said of UW–Madison graduate Joseph Aloysius Sullivan ’38. Despite his tall, solid build, the former Badger football player called upon his brains rather than his brawn to solve some of the country’s most well-known crimes.

The Iron County, Wisconsin, native — born in 1917 in Montreal and raised in Hurley — took a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) when he learned that it paid more than he was earning after law school. Eventually named a major-case investigator, Sullivan played key roles in the agency’s inquiries following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the murder of labor leader Joseph Yablonski, and — during the Vietnam years — the Sterling Hall bombing at the University of Wisconsin and the Kent State shootings.

Sullivan never gave up, allowing him to solve some of America’s most famous crimes.

Sullivan’s relentless pursuit of the truth served him well during the months when he investigated — and ultimately solved — the Mississippi Burning case, the FBI’s probe into the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. His painstaking work unlocked the secrets of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter. A confidential informant, never identified by Sullivan, passed along information from a citizen about where the bodies of three civil rights workers (including UW alumnus Andrew Goodman) were buried.

Although Sullivan never sought public acclaim, it surrounded his life nevertheless. Actor Gene Hackman played him in the 1988 Academy Award-nominated movie Mississippi Burning. He was the model for the lead in the TV series “The FBI.” And novelist Tom Clancy called him “the greatest lawman America ever produced.”

Sullivan died of cancer in Manhattan in 2002. A Wall Street Journal obituary noted that the homeless who visited the soup kitchen where Sullivan volunteered “were astounded to learn that the gentle man who mopped their floors had been a top G-man.”

Thank you, Iron County, for the relentless Joseph Sullivan, who solved some of America’s most famous crimes.

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