My new book, Lost Son, tells the story of Billy Reilly, a young man from Michigan who works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Confidential Human Source, a freelancer of sorts, a rank amateur drawn into professional intelligence. In 2015, five years into his relationship with the Bureau, and with war raging in eastern Ukraine, Billy, intent on making his mark, sets off to Russia.
This excerpt, the book’s 26th chapter, unspools my introduction to the case. I learn of Billy’s plight via a banker, a man once considered for the post of U.S. ambassador to Russia who has deep contacts in Moscow. I then seek out Billy’s parents and sister. With their help, I learn how he differs from misguided dreamers who routinely fall prey abroad. Billy’s association with the FBI sets him apart. What had Billy Reilly done in Russia? What did the FBI know? Where was this lost son?
In 2017, each weekday around quitting time in Washington, a motorcade departed the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, west of the White House, and eased north on 17th Street NW. Vice President Mike Pence sat in the back seat of one of the convoy’s limousines on the way to his residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Policemen in sedans and on motorcycles cleared the road. Their lights flashed and their sirens arrested the senses as the cars slid past Farragut Square and joined Connecticut Avenue where it skimmed by the Mayflower Hotel.
On one darkening winter afternoon, on the eighth floor of an office building off the square, several newspaper reporters and editors, roused by these sirens, rushed to the windows to watch the motorcade pass by on the street below them. The Washington office of the Wall Street Journal had occupied the eighth floor of this building for more than thirty years.
The office had a settled-in look. The carpet was well-walked and gray. The desks and cabinets were gray. On the walls hung placards from political campaigns of the past. One poster read, “Reagan Country,” and pictured the former president beaming beneath a cowboy hat. There were posters of FDR, JFK, and RFK, and another that read, “Goldwater for President.” There was an invitation to “bring your family and see” Richard Nixon’s 1973 inaugural parade. Just inside the office’s front door was a pinball machine bearing the faces of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, opponents in the 2016 presidential election.
A series of front pages from previous Journal editions also hung on the walls. One was dated September 12, 2001. Printed across the top of the page were the words: “TERRORISTS DESTROY WORLD TRADE CENTER, HIT PENTAGON IN RAID WITH HIJACKED JETS.” Nearby this was a small square plaque of metal and wood memorializing someone who had once worked in the office. In 2002, Daniel Pearl was reporting for the Journal in Pakistan when terrorists connected to al Qaeda abducted and murdered him.
Each day, as Journal reporters and editors entered the office, they passed by these two markers, one to 9/11 and the other to Pearl, reminders of the importance and potential perils of the work that was meant to happen here.
The newsroom was open plan, with a few editors privileged with glassed-in offices. More than a hundred people worked there. After the New York office, the Washington bureau was the Journal ’s largest, signaling the consequence of its location.
From the office, it was a ten-minute walk south through Lafayette Park to the White House. In 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, this proximity mattered. Under Trump, a scandal or emergency or deviation from protocol seemed to materialize every week. The Journal ’s reporters and editors struggled to keep pace with events and compete with rival news outlets. Deadlines overlapped and there was no end to them.
Reclined in a chair in the office, I faced different pressures. I belonged to the Journal ’s national-security group. I didn’t have a beat, like colleagues of mine who covered the Pentagon, the State Department, or the CIA. I was meant to find investigations and narratives that reached deep into the news or beyond them. These weren’t easy to identify or to shepherd through the paper’s layered editing regime, though I felt privileged to do this sort of work.
It was late December 2017 with Christmas approaching, a Friday. My name hadn’t appeared in the paper in a while, and editors were grumbling about my low yield. The sirens of Pence’s motorcade were fading into the last half hour of the afternoon when my phone rang. Bob Foresman was calling.
I had met Foresman through contacts in Ukraine. I’d last seen him in Manhattan months earlier. We had shared a lunch at a ground-floor café across the road from the Rockefeller Center skating rink. Foresman had said then that he had something important to share but that the time wasn’t right. Now with the phone to my ear, I heard Foresman take a deep breath. He launched into a story, what he knew of it. He said that a young man from Michigan who had worked with the FBI in counterterrorism had disappeared in Russia. Foresman was a charismatic and candid speaker, but his presentation faltered as he tried to explain the meaning of the Reilly events.
The family was desperate, Foresman said. He said he had done as much as he could to help the Reillys but could go no further. We commiserated over their ordeal. He passed me Terry’s phone number. “Maybe you can do something for them,” he said.
I agreed. Maybe I could. I had lived in Moscow. It had been five intense years. I had later lived in Kiev. I had been working as a reporter in the two countries for fifteen years, making numerous trips into and out of them. I had traveled for work and pleasure in the former Soviet Union and developed friendships and reporting sources in that part of the world. I told Foresman I doubted that I could find answers for the Reillys, but I conceded that I probably had more at hand than they did.
I also had the support of the newspaper. The Journal ’s reputation could encourage people to share information about Billy Reilly. Then again, the paper’s support came with conditions. I could tell from the little that Foresman had shared of the Reilly case that I would have to commit considerable time and effort if I were to make an article out of it. This was an open-ended project, the sort of thing that Journal editors did not favor. Their concern was news, its daily variety, and they expected reporters to produce regular bylines. I told Foresman I would look into Billy’s story but could make no promises.
“They couldn’t understand what had happened in Russia. Billy had an inoffensive nature, they said, and no experience with weapons or war.”
I laid down the cellphone with one hand and dialed on my desk phone with the other hand. Terry Reilly answered.
I identified myself, and she gasped. The panic in her voice was unmistakable. She must have thought I had called with dire news of Billy, just as she had once expected the worst from FBI agent Tim Reintjes. I told her that I had only just learned of her son’s disappearance and wanted to know more. Relieved, she transferred the call to speakerphone. Bill said hello, his voice faint in the background. Our call was brief, and by the end of it both Terry and Bill sounded optimistic. They appeared pleased that someone from the press was taking an interest in Billy. This could possibly inject energy into their flagging search.
Their hope, after two and a half years without word from their son, sounded to me strong and real. I imagined their ceaseless emotional strain.
Face to Face
It was important to me to meet them in person. Early in 2018, I arrived in Detroit. I rented a car at the airport and drove north. I had gone to college in Michigan and was now again charmed by its climate. The ground was packed with snow and ice, and it was also raining. Clouds locked in the sky as if there’d never been a sun. I nearly failed to notice Oxford appearing up ahead like a frontier town in the storm of the year. I diverted to the west, and the land opened to the lakeside.
Terry and Bill welcomed me into their home, and I could tell that this was difficult for them to do. They were anxious. The hope I’d heard on the phone must have been impossible to sustain, even when there was no one to impress. Faith probably came and went. Every day for them was a new day without Billy. They were unsure if he was alive but certain there was something important they were failing to do. Their search had exhausted and confused them, and their fire had all but gone out. Now here was one more person, come to comb through the embers.
The front door opened to a hallway that was about six feet across and boxed in by a low ceiling. A powder room was on the left side of the hall, followed by a compact kitchen and a rim of countertop. This gave way to the living room and its sofa and chairs and TV, and the rolltop where Billy had worked on the PC. Through the back window was the lake where he liked to fish. The rain had turned to sleet and was pockmarking the lake’s slushy surface. It felt good to be indoors.
Scant winter light penetrated the home. As Tim Reintjes had once done, I sat on the couch. Bill and Terry took two chairs, and we looked at the floor a while, searching for a way to begin. Terry fondled the silver cross that hung on a chain around her neck. Their dog sat in her lap and eyed me. When Terry and Bill spoke, sorrow and fatigue frequently swallowed their words.
We talked about Billy’s childhood, and their thoughts began to gather. They described his troubles in school, his solitude, and the communion he’d found on social media. Terry explained how Billy had learned languages through diligence and private study and how global affairs had grown to fascinate him. “He was kind of a nerd, really,” she laughed, betraying her maternal pride. I noted her usage of the past tense. It was nearly three years since Billy had left for Russia.
Terry and Bill were gratified that their son was different and that he had achieved something in his idiosyncratic way. Their love for him was strong and uncomplicated. They couldn’t understand what had happened in Russia. Billy had an inoffensive nature, they said, and no experience with weapons or war.
“He just disappeared off the face of the Earth,” Terry said.
“There’s not one sign of anything.” She said that their lives had “just stopped.”
“Immediately slam on the brakes, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Bill said. “This is our whole focus.”
They had searched online for emotional support. There they’d met a couple whose son, like Billy, had been attending college in Chicago. “And he said, ‘They’re opening up this new rain-forest somewhere in the Caribbean somewhere,’” Bill said. “And he says, ‘I’m dying to go.’ And he just walked down the path. That was the end of it. It was like seven years ago.” Terry and Bill understood they had joined a club whose members are miserable for belonging to it. “The thing with this thing, Billy didn’t just walk down a path,” Bill added.
He said his son had not been aimless and that the FBI must have played its part in his travels to a country that had made a mystery of his life. “I just always think about that crazy saying I think Churchill said, where Russia’s a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. I just hate thinking that.”
Stranger and stranger
It was evident that Billy and Terry were made of three parts. They were devastated to be without their son. They were fearful for what had happened to him. And they had given over to the sleuth that lies within us all.
Their moods and recollections prompted the Reillys to jump forward and back along the timeline of their story. They seemed to want to share everything at once. They glossed over moments that sounded important. I encouraged them to share details in a linear fashion so that I could understand the timeline. Terry apologized. “Sometimes we move ahead because we’ve gone through so many different things,” she said.
I asked why Billy had chosen to work with the FBI. “He really liked fighting the bad guys and kind of getting to know them and then, ‘Kapow, you’re done,’” Terry said. “He was gung ho, you know. He was going to do something about the ISIS.”
“I saw that their inability to solve the riddle compounded their anguish.”
We discussed the Boston Marathon investigation, Aws Naser, and conversations Billy had pursued with international terror suspects on social media. It was clear that he had shared many details with his parents while keeping others in reserve. “He’d tell us what he wanted to tell us,” Terry said.
“He’d almost whispered around here,” Bill put in.
The Reillys shared many anecdotes of intrigue and doubt. Terry described the dinner that Billy said he had attended at an Embassy Suites hotel near the FBI office in Troy. Reintjes had been there, Terry said, along with the Russian man Billy later referred to as “the professor” and “the biologist.” The Reillys described the fourth man who had been at the dinner. “Billy said the guy had been in Iraq or something, and his whole face was burned and his hands, and he said he was really kind of scared,” Terry recalled. “He said he doesn’t know whether he was a CIA guy or who he was with.”
“Real tough guy,” Bill added.
“I think Billy was thinking about working for the CIA,” Terry said. “He was kind of talking about it.”
Later, Terry caught herself. “I mean, I know you’re not even going to believe some of the stuff I say.”
They showed me a grainy picture Billy had sent from Rostov-on-Don. His head was shaven, and a man beside him had an arm across Billy’s shoulder. They were grinning into the lens. Terry and Bill hadn’t discovered the identity of the other man in the picture, and they remained puzzled by the cryptic nature of Billy’s communications. “When I think about it now, what the hell was he telling us?” Terry asked. I saw that their inability to solve the riddle compounded their anguish.
“He said he was coming back,” Bill said. “I thought he was going there, doing whatever, that humanitarian thing, and then come back and he was going to school in Chicago.” Bill said he had bought a fishing cabin in Standish, 100 miles north of Oxford, off Saginaw Bay where Billy could fish for walleye. “We vinyl-sided it, the whole thing,” Bill said.
As I listened to the Reillys and followed their digressions, I weighed the prospects of my own deeper involvement. Was this an article for the newspaper? The more Terry and Bill said, the more the story unspooled. I told them I could contact the FBI, the State Department, people on Capitol Hill, and others whom I knew or might access in Washington and Moscow and Kiev. I speculated about the persuasive effect the Journal ’s interest could have on people who hadn’t been forthcoming with the Reillys. “You seem just heaven-sent,” Terry said. I told her that the only promise I could make was to work my hardest. “If you can’t help us, I don’t know where else we’ll turn,” she said.
It was time to confirm basic facts. Terry showed me emails she had exchanged with Reintjes so that I could see they had been in contact with one another. She handed me his business card. The number on it matched the number listed for “Tim” on the phone Billy had left behind. This confirmed for me that, on that phone, Billy had indeed been trading text messages about his Russia trip with his FBI handler. I saw nothing to suggest that the Reillys were feeding me a fabrication.
“I come up with so many different versions,” Terry said. “It depends on my mood. I think something really horrible happened to him because I don’t know what else it could possibly be. And other times I say, ‘Hey, you know, maybe it’s the CIA thing.’ Things point to that, too. I just don’t know.”
“Terry and Bill had blamed the FBI for Billy’s disappearance, yet Catie hinted that her brother had gone his own way to Russia.”
The Reillys suggested that their son had offered his counterterrorism services to the FSB and been accepted into its ranks. I conceded that anything was possible, but this theory revealed how desperate their belief had become. I didn’t think that Billy possessed the level of expertise required to overcome his American origin, a decided obstacle to joining an organization as professional and cautious as the FSB. I knew that Billy’s case could benefit from dispassionate observation. And I knew that Billy was an adult, responsible for his decisions. He might well have gone to Russia on his own. He might have crossed the border into Donbas and taken up arms for Russian aims.
It would be easy to fall into the profusion of information the Reillys shared. If I was going to pursue this story, I would have to learn why Billy had gone to Russia and what had happened to him there. These would be the two hardest questions to answer, yet they were the foundation of the case. Instinct told me that solving one mystery could unlock the other.
On a different plane
The following afternoon, I drove to Dearborn. I parked outside a stucco-and-glass fast-food restaurant, Panera Bread, a soulless convenience of the type Billy had plotted to escape. I entered the café and found a woman, thirty or so, wearing a headscarf and sitting at a table alone. It was Catie Cherri.
We talked about her brother. “Billy would meet the FBI men in this place,” Catie said. She was expressionless, her voice flat. She seemed cautious. I tried to disarm her, but it wasn’t easy. She said that a public revelation of Billy’s FBI affiliation could cause her trouble, even now, nearly three years after her brother’s disappearance.
I sought her insight into Billy’s character through things he had done, people he’d known, but there wasn’t much to grip. “After college, he drifted,” Catie said. “He had no social connections.”
She explained Billy’s conversion to Islam and her parents’ struggles to understand the choices their children had made. She hinted at conflict and a motive for Billy’s efforts to reach out into the world. “He wanted to get out of here,” she said.
Despite the family differences, Catie sounded similar to her parents when she discussed her brother. Respect and fascination surfaced in her voice. I saw that she shared many of the views that Billy had developed. She spoke against U.S. policy in the Middle East and did not hide her revulsion at the twilight of the American compact. She said it was nearly impossible for people her age in Michigan to find jobs that were worth anything. Her long hours at a health clinic barely kept her family going, she said. To Catie, Billy had lived a life in protest of the status quo, and she regarded him in philosophical terms. “He was on a different plane than everybody else,” she said.
Catie theorized about Billy’s fate. She told me about the email printout she’d seen on the parlor coffee table at the house in Oxford. “Billy said it was from the Russian government and they wanted to work with him,” she said. “He was pretty excited about it.” I assumed the communication had been from Mikhail Polynkov or one of his associates but couldn’t be sure. “Billy didn’t want to waste time on things that weren’t important. He really wanted to have a big adventure. He knew there’d be a risk, and he was OK with that.”
Discussing Oxford, Catie said that no major interstate highways passed by it, emphasizing the town’s remoteness and insularity. She sounded glad to be living elsewhere, and I detected envy of her brother’s ability to make an interesting life, even though he had come to crisis. Catie appeared to be resigned to Billy’s disappearance, speaking of it as though it had been preordained, even something he had sought. “Billy always wanted something bigger than our lives,” she said.
I left the meeting with a fuller view. Terry and Bill had blamed the FBI for Billy’s disappearance, yet Catie hinted that her brother had gone his own way to Russia. I wondered if there was a middle road, if both versions could be true?
In Oxford two days later, I slipped back into conversation with Terry and Bill. They explained that Billy had wanted a salaried position with the FBI.
They said that “the men” had encouraged him, but that he had lost faith in their promises. “Several times he said, ‘They’re just really, you know, taking me for a chump,’” Terry said. “‘I’m doing all this stuff for them and what am I getting out of it?’”
I theorized inwardly that Billy had felt an urge to prove himself, to impress his FBI handlers in order to gain their support for employment. Terry offered a similar assessment. “My opinion,” she said, “which, I don’t know, is that I think, you know, he volunteered to do something in Russia.”
I told the Reillys that I would return to Washington and research the material to make my sense of it. They handed me a raft of documents. They shared screenshots of Terry’s text conversation with Billy during his travels in Russia and the messages he had traded with Reintjes, his handler, in the ten months preceding the trip. The Reillys allowed me to copy the family PC’s hard drive and the drive of a laptop Billy had used.
They provided all of this without caveat. They expressed no worry about how I might portray them or Billy in an article. They wanted their son back, and they needed help. I saw how the Reillys’ trusting manner had made them vulnerable to the FBI.
Terry spoke about the first visit that agent Tim Reintjes had made to Oxford, when he had declared ignorance of Billy’s presence in Russia. “How did they know he was missing?” Terry asked. “What made them think enough to come to the house?” I recognized this as the central question, uniting Billy’s intent and fate. The FBI had discussed the Russia trip with him before he had gone there and had evidently later learned contemporaneously that something had befallen him. Given the matter at hand and its stakes, coincidence didn’t provide an acceptable explanation for Reintjes’s visit.
Daylight faded along with our theories. I had asked enough of Bill and Terry for now, and they had given me plenty to study. At the door, we said our goodbyes, and I stepped out into the cold and slanting rain. A hand gripped my arm. I turned to see Terry. She said, “We just know you’re going to find Billy.”
Excerpted from the book LOST SON by Brett Forrest. Copyright © 2023 by Brett Forrest. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.
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