Special Assignment: ATF Next Generation

News 12 at 6 o'clock, May 10, 2010

BRUNSWICK, Ga.---They show up after some of America's worst disasters, from the 911 attacks to the Oklahoma City Bombing, from acts of terrorism to local investigations, you name it. They are federal agents working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Only on 12, we take you to the only place in the nation where ATF's next generation is getting ready to hit the streets.

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynn County, Georgia, just north of Brunswick on U.S.17, is home to the ATF National Academy. It's just a few hours away from Augusta, but a world away from your average career. For six months, it's home for future ATF agents. While they're here, they'll fine tune their shooting skills, get better behind the wheel, learn to investigate arsons and become experts on explosives. It's a lot to learn, and the stakes are high.

"Fuzzy" Zellers, an ATF Agent with an unusual nickname, is Deputy Chief of the ATF National Academy. News 12 wanted to know his biggest concern when it comes to our safety.

"I think violent crime is our biggest concern right now," Agent Zellers told us.

We found a group of future agents getting ready to meet that concern in communities across the country. They were starting their day at the firing range, where handling a weapon becomes second nature, and you pick your target before your target starts picking you.

The firing range is a big part of the training for these future agents, and accuracy is important. If you miss, you pay the price. But the price down the road is even stiffer. That's why you'll see these recruits doing push-ups for every "miss" on the target.

The men and women have already been through a lot just to make it this far, tested physically and mentally. They'll spend hours in the classroom, pen in one hand, highlighter in the other, taking it all in. They'll listen to experts describe the stuff criminals use to make bombs. Studying fires here is elevated to something between an art and a science, using something they call "burn cells": ten rooms set up like an apartment or a business. It's the ATF's version of rooms to go, all set up and ready to burn.

Right next to the burn cells, there's The Tattletale Tavern. It has a story to tell, but only for agents with a sharp eye. They torched it too. And by the time the students leave here, they'll be able to walk through a burned out crime scene like this one, picking up clues along the way.

They study fires here from the inside out. R.J. McCormick, Jr. is the Certified Fire Investigator walking through what's left of this mock tavern built and burned by the Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He points out a wire hanging from the ceiling.

"This is a thermal couple wire here, and this will give us temperatures," McCormick says.

Agent McCormick has walked through a lot of burned out buildings in his 22 years as an ATF agent. He was the agent in charge when the Sugar Refinery exploded in Savannah.

He pauses to talk about the evidence during our walk through the burned out tavern: "It really is a modern day whodunit. And what a lot of people would see is a lot of things that have been burned. But one of the things we train is, what they see, is the evidence is still there. It just changes form."

From the ashes of Savannah to the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, ATF Agents have seen it all. That's why they have to learn all they can about bombs and how to build them.

For Agent Zellers, it's personal. In part two of this News 12 Special Assignment, you'll meet the agent they call "Fuzzy" who came face to face with the bomb that shook the Atlanta Olympic Games.

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