How the F.B.I. might proceed in the alleged Brad Pitt plane incident https://t.co/Di95i1cE7S pic.twitter.com/y6nqQvOtng— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) September 25, 2016
Last week, the F.B.I. was informed of an alleged “child welfare” incident that reportedly took place aboard a private jet transporting Brad Pitt, his wife of two years Angelina Jolie, and their children from France to the United States. Although details of the alleged argument—which may have incited Pitt and Jolie’s divorce—remain hazy, the FBI confirmed on Thursday that it would indeed gather facts about the purported argument. While the involvement of a federal agency in a family dispute might seem extreme, the in-flight timing of the supposed altercation put it under the F.B.I.’s special aircraft jurisdiction. Once the agency has enough information, it said, it will then “evaluate whether an investigation at the federal level will be pursued.” But how, exactly, will such an inquiry proceed?
To get answers, Vanity Fair got in touch with retired F.B.I. Special Agent Bobby Chacon, who explained the FBI’s likely approach towards such an incident.
Vanity Fair: How unusual is it for a family argument to escalate to the F.B.I. level?
Chacon: Well, everything that happens aboard an aircraft is F.B.I. jurisdiction. Even if it’s a crime that, if it occurred on land, would be considered a very small crime. The minute it happens on an airplane, it’s ours in the same way it would be if it was aboard a cruise ship or at sea. It didn’t surprise me though . . . as soon as the allegation came in that the [argument reportedly] happened on the plane, I figured that we would be the ones to look at it.
So the F.B.I. has handled family altercations aboard a plane before.
We have a civil aviation unit at F.B.I. headquarters. I am not saying the F.B.I. routinely handles family matters on private aircrafts—but it is our jurisdiction.
On Thursday, the F.B.I. said that it would be gathering facts about the purported incident to see whether it is worth an investigation. What do you think this fact-gathering process will entail?
It is called a preliminary inquiry. It is not a full-blown investigation yet, and there are criteria that have to be met for an investigation to be approved. In a situation like this, it becomes even a little more complicated because there are federal laws that govern the interrogation of a minor . . . they may have to have a parent or a legal representative there when they are interviewed. You probably want to have an investigator that is trained in how to extract accurate information from children.
During this preliminary inquiry, would the F.B.I. interview everyone who witnessed the incident?
Yes, you would try. Anybody that was a witness and was willing to talk to you. You can’t compel someone to speak, but you would want flight crew, the pilots, flight attendants, a nanny who saw—or even heard—something. Obviously the principals—the wife, the husband, any children involved in [the alleged altercation]—and then the more delicate part of it would be talking to the children.
Is there a minimum age a child has to be to questioned by the F.B.I.?
You have to defer to the experts in that field like the child psychologists—certainly the F.B.I. would consult with them first and maybe even have them administer the interview, with the agent taking the back seat. Like I said, you’d want a skilled and experienced child investigator, and sometimes they’re just not that available.
Would the agents go to the family for the interrogation?
That varies—if the family could come into an office, they do. But where you interview the adults, at least, is less important than actually talking to them. The children, again, that is something I would defer to a child psychologist—it might be best to interview them in their home setting where they are comfortable. Or else it might be best to interview them away from the home, where the parents might still have some kind of influence, even if they are not physically present for the interview. That would all be in the purview of an expert, though.
Certain tabloids have reported that there is video of the alleged incident. Could that be subpoenaed if it exists?
You would hope that they would turn it over without needing a subpoena, but if they refuse to turn it over you go and get a subpoena for it.
How long does it typically take the F.B.I. to complete this fact-gathering stage?
There is no real norm. I think in a case like this, it shouldn’t take that long because everybody is in the same place, and these are all family members. Even the flight crew could be interviewed fairly quickly. The thing that would take some time is the sensitivity of interviewing the children and getting the experts I alluded to earlier on board to help and maybe administer some of the interviews.
But being in a city like Los Angeles, I would be surprised if it took over a week or two to get this done.
What evidence would the F.B.I. have to find to qualify the alleged incident for a full F.B.I. investigation?
Once you have an allegation by someone, and then you develop one, two, or three witnesses or victims that verify the initial allegation, you immediately turn it into an investigation. The F.B.I. has a manual of operating guidelines that say, “Okay this is what the [case] needs to meet for it to be converted from an inquiry to an investigation.” And that is not a high threshold in most cases.
Now the F.B.I.’s investigation would be conducted very closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who are looking at the actual statutory requirements of what you would need to meet to satisfy the crime. Every crime has a statute, and each statute lays out one, two, three, or four different elements that comprise the crime. Sometimes you have to meet three of the four or four of the four depending on what crime you are talking about. The U.S. Attorney’s Office would have a prosecutor assigned to work with the agents in following the evidence. You look at the interviews, you say, “OK what crime might have been committed here?,” then you see if you have enough elements. Then you sometimes go back and do a second interview because you don’t have enough elements to establish it [as a crime] or whatever.
So if a family member was purportedly physically or verbally abusing his or her child, would the F.B.I. consider either to be a crime?
It’s not a crime that I ever prosecuted or investigated in my time with the F.B.I., and this [issue of disciplining children] is a very touchy subject with a lot of people . . . You have to balance the technical elements of a crime with practical elements. . . was this simply a parent-child interaction? That is tough because sometimes you can meet the elements of a crime, but ultimately the prosecutor’s office is going to determine whether or not they still want to treat this as a crime.
Just because the prosecutor’s office is handling, though, does not mean that an investigation like this would go to trial?
The F.B.I. tends to work much more closely with the prosecutor’s office during the course of an investigation than even during the course of a trial if it goes to that. From the beginning of a case like this one where you have the Juvenile Justice Act—the federal law that governs how you have to interview and interact with a juvenile—you want to work with your prosecutors right away and get them onboard. They are ultimately the ones who are going to present a case to a grand jury and seek an indictment or not way, way down the line.
If the F.B.I. determines that the alleged incident in-flight was more fit for child services to handle, would the F.B.I. pass it on to them?
Yeah, and they are probably working with them already. Again, it is the FBI with the U.S. Attorney’s office who would be determining whether this is or is not worth pursuing.
What would be the worst-case scenario in this purported incident, in terms of a crime being declared and punishment?
You’d have to look at the U.S. code for crimes aboard an aircraft to see what the penalties are but there are two different things happening here. There is the technical legal punishment that the statute set out and then there is the practical thing where a judge might never administer that punishment in certain cases. There is a certain level of common sense that has been built into the decision making process.
Some people have been saying that this seems like a waste of F.B.I. resources. As a former agent, do you feel the same?
[Laughs] Look, the F.B.I. has very wide-ranging jurisdictions, and if something falls within our jurisdiction, I never see it as a waste of time. Also the office here [in Los Angeles] is the third largest field office in the F.B.I. behind New York and Washington, D.C. So there are plenty of agents here who are assigned to these kinds of crimes. They are plenty busy. Now this is kind of a rare case because crimes aboard an aircraft don’t occur everyday so the agents who do cover that [issue] work a lot of generalized miscellaneous investigations, but they are probably pretty experienced in doing that because that’s what they’ve done.