How do you identify a terrorist, pedophile or racketeer? Often by retracing the person’s footsteps online.
Trent Teyema moved to Arlington on a cloudy September day in 2001. Two days later, the planes hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
“I still can’t find things in my house,” says Teyema, who worked in the counterterrorism section of the FBI’s National Security Division, National Infrastructure Protection Center. “That normal time where you’d unpack? Everything was left in boxes.”
Weeks turned into months as his team pored though terabytes of e-mails and covert communications, searching for clues to the identity and motives of the hijackers. There were other cases tugging at him, too. There always are.
Twelve years later, Teyema (pronounced TIME-ah) is now assistant special agent in charge of the Cyber Branch of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. He oversees squads that deal with everything from computer hacking and cyberterrorism to intellectual property theft and child pornography.
That e-mail scam with the foreign prince who claims he’ll give you money if you just punch in your personal information? He deals with that, too.
“I investigate anything that touches the Net,” he explains.
On the day we sat down to talk about his job, Teyema was visibly tired, having spent several sleepless nights investigating the Navy Yard shooting in the District. The killer was dead, but Teye-ma and his team were still focused on uncovering forensic evidence and resurrecting a digital life.
At Starbucks, they know him by name. “They can tell how busy I am by what I’m ordering, whether it’s a Tall Blonde, a Red Eye or a Black Eye,” he says. “The days are long. But the weeks are fast.”
Cases that involve children hit especially hard. He’s learned to set the emotions aside, knowing it’s the only way to get the job done. “We see some of the most disgusting, heinous things,” he says. “You learn to compartmentalize that and track down the person who’s responsible.”
Recently, that meant rooting out a man who’d been caught online offering his own children up for abuse. It meant the capture in Nicaragua of Eric Toth, a D.C. private schoolteacher who was accused of possessing and producing child pornography and evading police, which landed him on the America’s Most Wanted list.
It also meant working with the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force and the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force to arrest members of the Underground Gangster Crips and MS-13 for abusing and prostituting girls in D.C and Northern Virginia, including Arlington. The gang members had been approaching teens on Facebook and at Metro stops. Once the girls were lured in, Teyema says, “They couldn’t get out.”
Breaking up those prostitution rings—and saving those kids—”are huge wins,” he says, ever quick to credit his squads and local law enforcement as “the most dedicated; the best of the best.”
But average citizens also play a vital role. It was a call from a parent to local police that gave them their lead about the Crips. Teyema says he often gets tips from neighbors—on everything from pop-up computer messages (the ones that warn you to pay up or else), to a suspicious man hanging around the playground.
Sometimes one small observation can prove to be a part of a larger pattern. “We’re really dependent on the public trusting the FBI so we can do our job,” he explains. “It’s the old ‘if you see something, say something,’ especially when it comes to our kids.”
Now in his 40s, Teyema has wanted to be an FBI agent for as long as he can remember. Just ask anyone back in Portland, Ore., where he grew up. He got his first real taste of law enforcement at 16, when he became part of the Boy Scouts’ Law Enforcement Explorers Program. He saw his first dead body that year on a ride-along with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. They were trying to find a pedophile who had shot himself near Blue Lake Regional Park, he recalls.
“They’d trained us on how to look for a broken twig, if it was fresh or not, that sort of thing.”
Teyema was the first to find the man’s body and waited alone with it for 30 minutes, half excited, half scared that the man wasn’t really dead. When the deputies reached him, he helped them carry the body out of the park. “I remember how heavy he was,” he says.
Teyema’s tech skills were also evident at an early age. When he was 12, he sold his Atari 2600 and used the proceeds, along with his paper route money, to buy an Apple II Plus. But he didn’t have a monitor. “I took an old black-and-white TV and dialed it in,” he says. “And I couldn’t afford a floppy drive, so I got an old cassette player.” He used it to back up his code.
Teyema did his first hacks with that computer (he qualifies that it was nothing malicious—just sharing code and making the computer do things it wasn’t supposed to do). At 16 he delved into true computer forensics through the Explorers Program, reconstructing the transactions of a drug dealer on hard drives that had been seized by the sheriff’s department.
He went on to college, majoring in Administration of Justice at Portland State. After more training, he took a job with the U.S. Marshals Service in Oregon, where he set up a computer forensics department. The FBI Training Academy came next. He was an agent in Los Angeles for five years before moving to Arlington.
Since then, his résumé has grown to include one year serving on President Obama’s National Security Staff, working on cybersecurity policy. Chris Painter, the State Department’s coordinator for cyber policy issues, recommended him for the position. They had known each other ever since Painter was a prosecutor and Teyema was an agent in L.A.
“He was a go-to person—one of the best agents I’ve ever worked with,” says Painter, who first teamed up with Teye-ma on an Internet stock fraud case, the nation’s first. “Not only is he technically proficient, but he understands the larger policy issues.”
Those policy issues continue to shift as technology evolves at a rapid pace, leaving little time for sleep—or unpacking.
“Every day is different,” Teyema says. “Especially around here. In one career, you can have 10 jobs.”
Madelyn Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Arlington.