He worked part-time at FBI headquarters while at a community college in Virginia, then at American University, then at George Washington University, where he went for a forensic-science master's, all while working as a fingerprinting clerk and tour guide.
He joined the Bureau in the seventies, tracking governmental fraud, white-collar crime, and organized crime in Baltimore and as the field-office chief in Chicago. In 1995, he was reborn again when the Bureau brought him back to Washington as the section chief for counterterrorism. It was there that he became an expert in Islamic-fundamentalist extremism. And when he came to New York in 1997, it was the realization of plans he and James had made years earlier in Chicago. O'Neill, ever the striver, wasted no time recasting himself as a New York operator, buddying up with people like Jerry Hauer and Howard Safir, local law-enforcement leaders who weren't natural allies with the FBI until O'Neill came along.
Last year, ABC reporter John Miller, the Joey Bishop of the crime-fighting Rat Pack, was sitting alone in a Middle East cantina when he heard O'Neill's swaggery voice boom from behind him, "So is this the Elaine's of Yemen?"
Of course, not every late-night phone call was Bureau business. He had a wife in Linwood, New Jersey, Christine O'Neill, whom he'd married in 1971, though the two had been living apart since he moved to Chicago in 1991. There was the girlfriend, Valerie James, he'd lived with in Chicago and now here, and the children from both relationships who all looked to him as a father. The liaisons didn't stop there. "He was living with Valerie, he had another girlfriend in Washington, and he was dating someone else here in New York," says one close friend. "Before his death, they didn't know about each other."
Among his New York friends, some jaws dropped in astonishment that the widow at O'Neill's New Jersey funeral was not Valerie James. (Christine O'Neill would not comment for this story.) "There are people here who knew him for six years but never knew he had a wife and kids in Atlantic City," James tells me. "I was talking with my friend about it, and he said, 'Let's not forget, John was a spy.' I mean, in the FBI he reinvented himself into this other person -- which is why I think he compartmentalized his life."
James says that O'Neill kept other secrets: the overwhelming debts he'd racked up living a James Bond life on a Bureau salary; a plan, complete with legal papers, to divorce his wife. But is her John O'Neill the real one? Given what James has learned about him since his death, she isn't quite sure.
"I honestly believe the main mistress in John's life was the Bureau," says Pat D'Amuro, a longtime deputy in New York. "There are times when we talked, and he wondered if that was the right decision."
As early as 1995, long before the embassy bombings and the Cole attack made Osama bin Laden a household name, O'Neill made the case up the FBI food chain and in Congress that the nation's greatest threat came from the Islamic-fundamentalist groups that were emerging from the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. "John had this scenario that's going on now figured out eight years ago," says an old FBI colleague, John Blaha. "That this is the way it is, and this is the way it's gonna have to be resolved."
In the 20-20 hindsight of September 11, O'Neill's confidential briefings in the mid-nineties "were right on, in terms of these kinds of people and what they could potentially do to us," says Robert Blitzer, a former deputy of O'Neill's. "Just the scope of their infrastructure in the U.S. -- and inherent to that is the fact that they could go operational at any time."
Unlike his colleagues, he went public with his opinions. In 1996, he told a conference of private-security managers about new groups that had beaten the Soviets in Afghanistan and who "can assemble quickly and can quickly disperse and are extraordinarily hard to track." The following year, he called the Islamic-fundamentalist victory in Afghanistan a watershed moment: "They beat one of the largest standing armies in the world at that time, which gave them a buoyed sense of success -- that they could take on other countries like the U.S." O'Neill's deafening clarity, however, often translated better outside the office than in the FBI. He wanted to command, direct, control, and manage everything he was responsible for, and inevitably he pissed off many of the wrong people.
"There was occasionally controversy that swirled around John," says Barry Mawn, his superior in New York. "I mean, John for the most part didn't suffer fools. And either by his direct words or maybe expressions, I think he made some people feel uncomfortable, like he was challenging them."
"He had elbows -- he'd press his point very hard," says Mary Jo White. "Others might have been more diplomatic -- but less effective when it matters."
On July 4, 1998, Jerry Hauer was riding in his car up First Avenue near 20th Street, not far from O'Neill's apartment in Peter Cooper Village, when he spotted his friend walking down the street in short pants. Hauer told his driver to slow down; he thought he'd give John some grief about showing off his knees. "How's it going?" Hauer said.
O'Neill wasn't in the mood. He leaned into the car window. "My friend's causing trouble again," he said.
"OBL," O'Neill said softly. "This guy's a problem."
One month later, simultaneous bombs near the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 224 people. As soon as the bombings took place, O'Neill was on the phone with colleagues, calling bin Laden the prime suspect. "John was really the first to say that maybe Al Qaeda was responsible for that," confirms the New York field-office director at the time, Lew Schiliro. "The coordination it took to hit both embassies four minutes apart, the idea of a cell operating in Kenya, their ability to strike at relatively unprotected embassies, the nature of the explosives that they used -- pretty much at the outset he had a strong belief that they were behind it."
And when it came time for Mary Jo White to expand her World Trade Center indictments to include the embassy-bombing suspects, Schiliro says, O'Neill was there to connect the dots. "The evolution from the World Trade Center to Ramzi Yousef, who was arrested in Pakistan, and the plot in the Pacific to plant explosives in twelve U.S. airliners -- and his connecting to bin Laden. When the bombings happened, John was a student of this, and he brought a lot of information to bear on it."
Last year, when Schiliro left the New York field office to be replaced by Barry Mawn, O'Neill was furious about being passed over. In his mind, he clearly outclassed most of his counterparts in Washington. He would travel with Louis Freeh to Saudi Arabia; they'd stay home. He'd be in Yemen within hours of the Cole bombing; they'd work the phones. Inside the Bureau, his impact never registered the way it had with others.
In this wildly altered political landscape, all sides are trying to lay claim to John O'Neill's legacy; he's a Rorschach test. If you lean toward the right, like some of his New York friends, you believe O'Neill quit in a fury when the diplomats neutered him. David Cornstein, who ran Finlay jewelers and now is chairman of the New York Olympic Games commission, used to tailgate with O'Neill at Giants and Jets games. "We concurred," he says, "that the country after the Cold War had really fallen a bit asleep, and there was a liberal movement toward more and more civil rights, and the country wasn't observant enough to realize that the world had changed and our view of the way security should be should change, too."