Former Ceres Police Officer turned FBI agent George Piro was on the most important assignment of his career in 2004 when he asked his mother in Turlock, Francia Piro, to send a care package with home-baked Assyrian cookies. His mother complied, sending them by FedEx with the belief that her son assigned to Baghdad, Iraq, would be the one eating them.
Little did she know that those cookies baked in Turlock would help crack secrets from Saddam Hussein, the captured and deposed brutal leader of Iraq, said to be responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people during his 34-year reign.
The story of the cookies was part of a speech given by Piro - the celebrated interviewer of Hussein - at Saturday's $50-per-plate Ceres Public Safety Black Tie Charity Ball to raise funds for the police and fire department explorer programs. The event, hosted by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce, also featured brief talks from two other former Ceres public safety employees: State Senator Anthony Cannella, who was a volunteer firefighter in Ceres from 1987 to 1992; and Ceres police officer turned Sheriff Adam Christiansen.
Ceres High School graduate and former Ceres police officer Adam McGill, who became police chief of Truckee in 2012, served as emcee.
The Ceres Community Center event included a meal, silent auction and music and dancing to the Ernie Bucio Little Big Band. Guests arrived at the Ceres Community Center under a high level of protection from hired security officers and some police officers wearing Secret Service like earpieces. The department didn't want to take any chances as Piro has been the subject of death threats from the Middle East.
Piro flew to the event from Florida where he is the FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Miami office. He spoke of his early days in Ceres and how that impacted his career.
"I had less than five years in the FBI when I was selected to carry out this assignment and I still truly believe that it was the time I spent here in Ceres and in Detectives ... being exposed to some tremendous folks like Commander John Chapman, Mike Borges, Brian Weber, Fred Perez ... that helped me prepare for such a huge responsibility," said Piro. He added that he learned much about interrogation techniques from Pat Sullivan and Sam Ryno, who were detectives at the time Piro started at CPD.
"I spent a month and a half just building rapport with Saddam Hussein," said Piro, who spoke to the dictator him five to seven hours every day for "seven months straight without a single day off."
His mom's cookies were part of Piro's team's overall strategy to gain the confidence of Hussein in order to spill his guts about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), his country's ties to Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden and his own crimes against humanity. Piro told Saturday's audience that ultimately it was links to their mothers that allowed Piro to connect to Hussein, considered by many to be one of the most ruthless dictators in recent world history.
Piro spent some time detailing how he was chosen to interview the deposed leader of Iraq. Some of the information was explained during a 2008 "60 Minutes" program on CBS.
Because Hussein only spoke Arabic, the FBI had to select agents from among their 12,000-agent pool who could speak the language. Only 12 native speakers could be found and because Piro was familiar with the history of Iraq and the Ba'ath Party and Arab and Iraqi cultures, he became the top candidate.
The FBI was selected as the lead agency because the CIA does not testify in criminal trials and the interrogator may have been needed in a trial.
Born in Lebanon of Assyrian heritage, George was just 12 when his parents, Lazar and Francia Piro, fled their homeland during a civil war and landed in Turlock. Piro served in the Air Force and was hired by Ceres Police in 1989. He worked at night to earn his college degree and left to join the Stanislaus County District Attorney's office as a criminal investigator. In 1999 joined the FBI's Phoenix field office.
Hussein only confided in Piro because "he thought he could get me to see what a great guy he was ... and then come back to the United States to advocate him and promote me."
The opposite occurred. Even Piro's mother later found out that Hussein enjoyed her baked skills on his birthday and gave George a teasing thump on the head. His country was more appreciative of her gesture, which led to the gathering of more evidence used in his trial - he was charged with crimes against humanity - that ultimately led to Hussein's execution on Dec. 30, 2006. Piro commented that while the execution by hanging was "fair, just and appropriate," he did not enjoy Saddam's fate.
"Saddam was absolutely one of the most brutal dictators of our modern time," said Piro, "the first dictator in history to ever use chemical weapons against his own population. Saddam was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent lives so you can imagine the challenge and responsibility that fell on FBI to carry out such a critical investigation."
Piro used a Power Point presentation detailing how Hussein became a terrifying world leader. Born in a mud hut without running water, Hussein had an "incredibly tough childhood" and was raised by his mother and an extremely abusive stepfather. "That childhood really shaped the man who Saddam Hussein became," said Piro. Hussein trusted nobody but his mother, and came to depend on his own instincts and fostered a drive to conquer and overachieve as a way to claim his spot in history.
Hussein joined the Ba'ath Party and in 1959 tried to assassinate the Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim. Because the plot failed, Hussein fled to Egypt. He returned to Iraq in 1963 and rose through the ranks of the Ba'ath Party by "identifying and eliminating anyone that was going to be a problem."
In 1979 he kicked the president of Iraq out of office and took over for the next 34 years.
Hussein's atrocities included using mustard gas on Kurdish people in his country during the Anfal Campaign from 1987 to 1988. A minimum of 150,000 Kurds were wiped out.
The whole world believed Hussein had WMDs but Piro didn't need torture and waterboarding to use to get to the truth. He used a rapport-based approach after a thorough psychological assessment.
He described Hussein as "very defiant and did not respond well to ultimatums." Nor did he respond well to criticism. He thought of himself as "almost God-like and thought he was the greatest thing that ever lived." To tear down his "self-inflated image" and make him as depressed as possible, Piro and team placed Hussein on an emotional roller coaster. Ultimately they showed him videos of his statue being torn from its pedestal and the Iraqis celebrating his run from American forces.
"In the Arab culture, the most important woman in an Arab man's life is his mother," said Piro. "So I talked to him about my mom. My parents still live in Turlock. I talked about what a wonderful mother that she is, all the things that she taught me, how to be a strong man, the value of our culture, history and tradition, things like that and he could see that it was very real and very genuine and he really connected with me on that. As you do interrogations you have to find that connection and Saddam and I's connection was our moms."
At one point, Saddam asked for a photo of his mother.
Piro tried to not harden Hussein and cause a rise in his resistance. "We tried to control his perception, his thoughts, his moods." While he complimented Hussein for obtaining a 100 percent of the vote, which no American president had done, they would also show him videos of his downfall.
When he did speak to the FBI about WMDs, Hussein wanted to fool Iran - which he ruinously warred against for eight years - and the world as a way of fending off Iran.
"As a result of the inspections and the sanctions, he had lost a lot of those weapons that he had amassed and as a result he didn't want his biggest enemy to know that he had become weak and vulnerable because his fear was they would re-invade Iraq. So he had to bluff them and he did that effectively. He misled his enemy and at the same really misled the entire world."
Hussein also had a relationship with Al-Qaeda but it was an "arm's length relationship."
Saturday's event served as a reunion for the earlier class of officers. McGill publicly recognized former Director of Public Safety Gail W. "Pete" Peterson, who is ailing from cancer but unable to be at the event because of a prior engagement. Peterson's hires included McGill, Piro and Christiansen.
Christiansen started his career at Ceres Police Department before moving to the Sheriff's Department in 1996 and then being elected sheriff in 2006, 2010 and 2014. He explained how former Chief Peterson and former Lt. Mike Borges were mentors in his early career. Saying "everything happens for a reason," the sheriff explained that he left Ceres for the Modesto Police but failed to make probation. Christiansen was told by Chief Peterson that he would not re-hire him over a matter of disloyalty but called then Sheriff Les Weidman to get Christiansen hired there in 1996.
"It's probably one of those unheard of stories and rising that fast through the ranks but again it's about good role models and mentors, it's about opportunities and it's about working hard," said Christiansen. "That's really why we're here tonight. It's to raise money for young people so that we can all help them become good public servants, police officers, deputy sheriffs, firefighters."
He said the more time spent with young people would hopefully "reduce the number of people I have in custody."
The Sheriff's Department has its own internship program for its explorers. At age 18 scouts are hired, trained, paid and sent to the Academy and allowed to spend a year in adult detention and go through the Field Training program. Those successfully coming out at age 21 are given a full-time job with salary and benefits and a two-year degree. Five will hit the academy in April "because we're again hiring and restoring levels of service and staffing we were forced to cut because of the economy."
Senator Cannella told the crowd that when he was elected to the City Council in 2003 that his first focus was building the community in terms of roads and buildings and parks. The 2005 fatal shooting of Sgt. Howard Stevenson and wounding of Sam Ryno changed his focus to that of public safety.
"That night really changed it for me and really made me realize that if we have the best parks anywhere in the country and the greatest restaurants anywhere in the country, if you don't feel safe going to those then what good are they?" said Cannella.
Cannella said the shooting prompted him to work to get a half-cent sales tax measure passed so that Ceres could weather the revenue shortfalls that befell other cities.
Cannella also stated that the dinner shows why he loves Ceres as the community often rallies toward good causes.
Recently appointed Ceres Police Chief Brent Smith spoke briefly about the explorer program for 14- to 21-year-olds, saying it teaches a lot about leadership and responsibility. Proceeds from the dinner help send students to an academy and buy uniforms and equipment.
"Even though some of them may not grow up to be police officers, they still grow up to be responsible people and that's really what it's all about," said Smith.
Smith used the dinner to announce the promotion of Lt. Rick Collins, a former scout, to that of captain. Chris Perry, who started out as a Ceres explorer scout, was promoted to lieutenant from sergeant. Scouts were also recognized, including Captain Jesse Hidahl, Captain Viviana Ramirez, Lt. Michael Ghimenti, Sgt. Maria Rubio and scouts Christian Linarez and Lupe Linarez.
Acting Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes introduced Carlos Hampton, a Ceres firefighter who took on the fire explorer program. He said it's a challenge to "make a difference in the community" by rebuilding the program.