Ex-FBI chief who wiretapped mobsters and led TWA explosion investigation eulogized at St. Patrick’s

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MANHATTAN — James Kallstrom was remembered Friday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam and later served the people of New York in the FBI and homeland security, during catastrophic events in our history.

Kallstrom was probably best known for leading a thousand FBI agents in the TWA Flight 800 investigation, which looked at the cause of the 747’s explosion 12 minutes after take-off from JFK on July 17, 1996. 

He was eulogized a day before the 25th anniversary.

The jet with 230 passengers and crew on board was bound for Paris; all of them died.

“Your heart breaks when something like that happens,” said former New York Gov. George Pataki, who spoke to PIX11 outside the Cathedral and recalled meeting Kallstrom during the TWA case.  

“You have concerns about terrorism, you have concerns about mechanical failure,” Pataki added. “But, you know, Jim headed up the investigation and he was going to get it right.”

Scores of U.S. Navy divers dove 120 feet into the ocean to retrieve the wreckage back in 1996.

“They were the real heroes of this operation,” said retired FBI agent Warren Flagg, who worked with the salvage crews. “They worked round the clock, 180 divers,” he observed, his voice filling with emotion, “until they picked every body up.”

Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was working in the Clinton administration when the 1996 explosion happened, remembered giving some assistance to Kallstrom, adding “It was a painstaking investigation. They reconstructed the plane.”

Ninety-five percent of the aircraft was pieced back together at a hangar in Calverton, Long Island.

Kallstrom died at age 78 from a rare blood cancer that was tied to Agent Orange exposure during his time in Vietnam, his widow said.

“Our battle lasted twelve years,” his wife of 50 years, Sue, told mourners, standing near the front pew of St. Patrick’s.  

She recalled meeting Kallstrom in the Baltimore FBI office, when she was working there as a secretary. They worried about their romance being frowned upon and married after a short courtship.

Sue Kallstrom also spoke of her husband’s work wiretapping prominent mobsters, quoting him saying he was “dedicated to taking these bums down. Their tentacles were everywhere.”

Rudy Giuliani, who was a young federal prosecutor in New York when he met Kallstrom, said the FBI supervisor was a key reason the U.S. government was able to convict the godfathers of several New York crime families in the mid-1980s.

“Jim was one of the people who was critical to the commission case,” Giuliani told PIX11. “He did all the organizing of the electronic surveillance.”

More than a decade later, in the TWA investigation,  Kallstrom spent 16 months working with the National Transportation Safety Board and the CIA.

Investigators ultimately concluded that gas vapors in the jet’s center fuel tank had heated up on the JFK tarmac and turned the plane into a bomb, as it ascended into the sky after takeoff.  

A documentary that was produced 17 years after the explosion tried to debunk the FBI conclusion, believing a U.S. Navy missile that was being tested on a ship nearby accidentally hit the jet. But Kallstrom and his team said the wreckage did not show evidence of the 747 being hit by a missile.

Kallstrom retired from the FBI in 1997. Several years later, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Pataki called him back to public service.

“After Sept. 11, I made him the first head of homeland security for the State of New York,” Pataki noted.  “He was just a great public servant, a patriot.”

Al Bowser has worked 40 years in the New York FBI office and wanted to pay his respects.

“Working in the bureau, he upgraded the standards of the bureau, to make it better for everybody,” Bowser said, “and today, we’re honoring a good and decent man. He made this country proud.”

In recent years, Kallstrom disagreed with the tactics of former FBI Director James Comey, who famously investigated then-President Donald Trump and his associates, before he was fired.

At heart, Kallstrom was a family man, very proud of his two daughters, Erica and Kristel, and his grandchildren.

And he would certainly want his legacy to include his work with the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation. Kallstrom was founder and president, and the organization raised millions to send thousands of children to college on scholarship.

Before a military escort walked with Kallstrom’s ashes, as they were carried from the Cathedral, Kallstrom’s widow noted, “I hope to see him in every American flag flying and every U.S. Marine.”

Related: 25 years later, looking back at the tragic TWA Flight 800 disaster

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