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Xavier Magazine | April 30, 2017

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Vince Presuitt and the Barry Seal killers

When Vincent Presutti was a student at Xavier, he took a class from psychology professor Earl Kronenberger, who used to teach about intuition—or as he called it, “the little professor.” The young Presutti took the lesson to heart, and listening to his little professor helped him crack cases and stay alive in many dangerous situations as an undercover agent. One of those situations involved hunting down the killers of former drug trafficker and federal witness Barry Seal.

Presutti was in a New Orleans gym when he heard that Seal had been assassinated in Baton Rouge. Seal had been cooperating with the government as an informant against Colombian drug kingpin Jorge Ochoa. On the night of February 19, 1986, he was murdered in a hail of bullets from a .45 caliber Mac 10 machine gun while sitting in his parked Cadillac outside a Salvation Army halfway house. Ochoa, leader of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, had sent a hit team of six men to kill him.

“They were waiting for him there with machine guns,” Presutti says. “They just lit him up like a Christmas tree and split.”

Presutti, who had been an FBI agent for scarcely more than two years, thought about what he would do if he were a criminal. “I just started thinking like a killer,” he says. “If I just murdered a guy in Baton Rouge, I’m not going to take a flight out of Baton Rouge.”

So Presutti drove to the New Orleans airport and checked the flights to Florida, figuring that’s where a member of a Colombian hit team would be headed.

Soon he saw a man dressed in hospital scrubs at the desk asking if he could pay cash for a ticket to Miami. The airline employee told him the Miami flights were booked. When the man asked about Orlando, Presutti got suspicious. “I said, wait a minute, something’s funny here,” he recalls. The man couldn’t get a flight, so he started to leave the airport.

“That’s when I tilted my head,” Presutti says. “I just felt like something wasn’t right.” Without the probable cause to arrest the man, Presutti and another rookie agent stopped him in the middle of the concourse and asked him what he was doing in New Orleans. The man’s answers didn’t add up. He said he was visiting a friend, but he couldn’t give them the friend’s address or last name. A bead of sweat was rolling down his face. “That’s not right either,” Presutti said to himself.

A search of his bags yielded nothing, so Presutti and his partner had to let the man go. But Presutti asked the airport police to tail the man when he left the airport. They followed him to a nearby hotel, and watched him get into a taxi. Minutes later Presutti received a radio call with a description of the suspect that fit the man he had stopped. The chase was on.

Presutti called out a search for the man’s taxi, then went to the hotel. He arrested two other men there who had checked in at the same time as the man in scrubs. Hours later, police found that man’s taxi. It had hit a deer on the highway to Alabama. When policemen descended on it with guns drawn, the driver jumped from the vehicle and shouted, “All I did was hit a deer!” The man in scrubs was arrested, and a test revealed gunpowder residue on his hands.

Presutti didn’t sleep for the next 72 hours, when he helped track and arrest the remaining three assassins. Once all of them were captured, a crime lab ran their prints and found them on the recovered getaway car.

“I remember like yesterday,” Presutti says. “It’s so exciting. For the longest time you don’t know what you have. But when you strike gold, there’s nothing more fulfilling and exciting than knowing that you did a good job and you stopped killers for the rest of their lives—which makes retirement a drag sometimes.”

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