He's the man who chased Al Qaeda for year, only to be killed in the terrorist organization's most dastardly plot.
John O’Neill was chief of security at the World Trade Center.
More than 2,700 people died in the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers. But none may have meant more to Osama bin Laden than the death of John O'Neill.
Former FBI agent Bob Walsh said there were only a handful of people who knew more about bin Laden than O’Neill. He headed the FBI's anti-terrorism office in New York City leading up to 9/11.
O’Neill had spent years investigating bin Laden, and then stepped down just days before the attacks.
His new job? Head of Security for the World Trade Center. That's where he was, on September 11, 2001.
“He actually got out of the building. He made some phone calls outside of the building and he said I'm out of the building,” Walsh said. “Then they regrouped a number of officials from the World Trade Center, from the New York Police Department, regrouped and went back in the building to really get people out and really keep people moving. They had sort of a semi command post set up. And that's when the building went down.”
Walsh worked with O'Neill in the 1990's. O’Neill had risen from a tour guide at FBI headquarters, to the supervisor of white collar cases here in Chicago.
O'Neill's cases included Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, the Silver Shovel probe of city council aldermen; he even helped on the Palatine Brown's Chicken murders.
“He was never overbearing,” former Chicago Chief of Detectives Ed Wodnicki said. “He would ask you what you got going on, and we worked well together. He was just a down to earth man, very sincere, very intelligent.”
Walsh recalls that when he needed more resources for his organized crime cases, he and O’Neill would go head to head in meetings. but O’Neill was quick to smooth things over later.
“He knew that it rubbed me wrong so he would come into my office and say, ‘Hey come on let's go I'm going to buy you a shoe shine,’” Walsh said. “So we'd go across to the Marquette building where they had a shoe shine guy and we'd sit there and get our shoes shined and he'd try to make nice to me.”
No surprise, those shined shoes. Walsh was known for his dapper appearance and hitting the nightclubs, especially in New York City, where his work focused on international terrorism.
He helped coordinate the capture of Ramzi Yousef, who had masterminded the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He helped investigate Al Qeada’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.
But most of all, he relentlessly tracked Osama bin Laden, convinced bin Laden would strike inside U.S. borders. Others in the FBI weren't as alarmed.
“I know the labor of love with him was terrorism,” Wodnicki said. “John talked about his experiences, and what had always amazed me was some of the resistance he had received. Some of his own peers, I hate to say it, in regard to what he was doing.”
And thus, the irony of John O'Neill's death. at the hands of the mastermind behind 9/11.
“The coincidence there is just unbelievable, you couldn't write about it,” Walsh said. “From the guy that identified Osama Bin Laden as the villain that he was, and then the fact that Osama Bin Laden was able to kill him. It's just amazing.”