By a Biometrica Correspondent
In February 2020, almost exactly one year to the day she was killed in the line of duty, FBI Special Agent Laura Schwartzenberger was doing what she loved — talking to middle-schoolers at Rockway Middle School in Miami, part of their 6th grade legal studies and forensic science class, about practicing online safety. She was fiercely dedicated to her mission and told the students she was there because they mattered. She would always say, “I feel that coming here and talking about the hard stuff means that I won’t see you guys on my end,” the school said in a statement on their Facebook page.
Special Agent Schwartzenberger, 43, was killed along with her colleague and friend, Special Agent Daniel Alfin, on Tuesday, Feb. 2, while doing what was considered everyday work for the agents of Squad-18, part of the FBI Miami’s Violent Crimes Against Children section — executing a federal court-ordered search warrant in a crimes against children investigation in Sunrise, Florida, a community just northwest of Fort Lauderdale. Special Agent Alfin was 36.
As FBI Director Christopher Wray said at both their memorial services over this weekend, “When new special agents walk across the graduation stage at the FBI Academy in Quantico, they swear an oath confirming who they want to be and the kind of life they want to lead” — they make a promise to put service over self, to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.
Special Agents Schwartzenberger and Alfin, both of whom were parents of young children, had committed their careers to something so much harder and more heartbreaking than protecting people at large: Their focus was on protecting the most vulnerable among us, our children, from the vilest of predators, a job that typically is high stress, takes a huge emotional toll, and has a high burnout rate. But they both strode on.
Athletic, Dedicated, Empathetic & Joyful
Special Agent Schwartzenberger joined the Bureau in 2005 and was stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico for her first assignment. In 2007, she applied and became the first ever—and still the only ever—female FBI SWAT team member in Albuquerque. According to Director Wray, “to qualify, among other things, all potential SWAT team members must do two pull-ups while wearing a 25-pound weighted vest. Laura did five.”
“She was an athlete in body and mind,” he said. “Obstacle course races, CrossFit sessions — Laura was always moving. But she was an athlete in spirit, too. She had a sharp mental focus, stamina, and sense of teamwork and camaraderie that allowed her to keep moving forward, case after case and victim after victim. He said her athleticism and grit were only part of the reason she was picked. “The SWAT team also had to consider her personality. Was this someone they could spent hours, days, or even weeks with, in extremely close contact, during a crisis? Could they count on her in the most dangerous situations with their lives? The answer was a resounding yes.”
Three years on, and now a new parent, Agent Schwartzenberger transferred to Miami and the Violent Crimes Against Children Squad. It was here, the FBI said, that she found her true calling — keeping children safe.
Brilliant, Funny, Persistent & Dedicated
Special Agent Alfin took a slightly different path to Miami. He entered on duty as an agent in 2009 in the bitter cold of Albany, New York. Agents there remember him as an energetic, incredibly motivated new agent who quickly found his focus — technology and tracking the quickly exploding world of online crime. In 2014, he moved to Linthicum, Maryland, where the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Unit is headquartered, and where he was part of the Violent Crimes Against Children International Task Force, training the FBI’s global partners and coordinating on global cases in a virtual world without borders.
Shortly after getting there, in August 2014, the team he was on took down Steven Chase, a Florida man who created and built Playpen, what was believed to be the world’s largest child pornography website, with more than 150,000 users around the world at the time of its takedown. Playpen operated on the Tor network, and allowed members to upload and view tens of thousands of postings of young victims, indexed by age, sex, and the type of sexual activity involved. It was the Bureau’s most successful effort against users of Tor’s hidden service sites.
Following Chase and other administrators arrests, the FBI launched Operation Pacifier, on which Special Agent was the primary agent. It is the FBI’s most successful operation conducted on the dark web against online child sex offenders — ever. With the help of international partners, it resulted in 548 international arrests, with 296 sexually abused children identified or rescued internationally, 350 U.S.-based arrests, 25 producers of child pornography prosecuted, 51 hands-on abusers prosecuted, and the rescue or identification of 55 American children.
In 2017, Chase was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Special Agent Alfin’s team won a Director’s Award — the Bureau’s highest possible honor — for Operation Pacifier. He was brilliant and committed, but given his background, this was perhaps not unexpected. David Alfin, Daniel Alfin’s father, told the Washington Post his son was a graduate of Florida State University who came from a “family dedicated to public service.” Special Agent Alfin’s older brother works in law enforcement in South Florida, while his younger brother is a teacher at the U.S. Military Academy.
According to Director Wray, Special Agents Schwartzenberger and Alfin were not just colleagues, they were also “best friends,” who were also on the Miami dive team together, which involved searching for evidence with zero visibility in South Florida’s murkiest swamps and canals. Speaking of their deaths, Director Wray also had this to say: “We lost not one of our own, but two. Two warriors who took on one of the hardest jobs in the FBI, crimes against children. Two best friends who shared the same passion, the same determination, and—in spite of all they had witnessed in their extraordinary careers—the same sense of optimism and hope that comes from work that matters. Two of the very best the FBI had to offer.”
Their lives mattered. What they did mattered. Why did they do it? We’ll leave you with Special Agent Alfin’s own words from 2017. “It’s the same with any criminal violation: As they get smarter, we adapt, we find them. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, except it’s not a game. Kids are being abused, and it’s our job to stop that.”