By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: January 31, 2009
He helped put away an HIV-infected Ecuadorian who videotaped himself raping 200 children, eluded Bahamian police during an undercover human smuggling operation and brought down hundreds of suspected South Florida gang members.
But you would never know it by looking at Richard S. Bendel today.
Bendel, 41, lives in the snow-covered city of Keene with his wife, Beth, and their two kids, ages 5 and 11.
Bendel owns and manages Monadnock Aviation, a company that provides services to pilots and their aircraft at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey. He is far removed from the crowds and crime in the Sunshine State, from the intensity and violence that defined him in another life.
Bendel sat down earlier this week at his airport office to discuss his life, past and present. The occasional plane taxied across the runway outside, viewed through a large plate glass window, as he spoke between the rings of his cellular and office phones.
Bendel is busy now, yes, but it’s a relaxing kind of busy, not the kind of busy that involves sliding down a rope dangling from a helicopter hovering above the roof of some drug kingpin’s lair or smashing down the door of a gang hideout.
These days Bendel’s wife, a former U.S. postal inspector with an intriguing past of her own, doesn’t have to worry when he leaves for work. She used to have trouble sleeping, but not anymore. Now they are insulated by the snow and the mountains and the Monadnock Region’s low crime rate.
“It’s beautiful here,” she said, “and we’re happy.”
For 11 adrenaline-fueled years, Bendel, the son of a real estate investor mother and locksmith father, worked as a federal immigration agent. He was hired as an agent in the mid-‘90s following an eight-year stint with the Marines after college.
“The more I did it, the more I liked it,” Bendel said of his work as an agent. “I liked the versatility of it. I think the only crime I’ve never investigated is arson. We could work gun crimes, homicides, robberies, you name it. It was amazing how many crimes we could get involved in, and I wanted them all.”
Bendel’s first assignment was targeting undocumented workers in Miami-Dade County — one job he had a hard time getting excited about.
“A crime is a crime and it’s got to be dealt with,” he said, “but if you understand why these people are doing what they’re doing, well then it can be difficult.”
But Bendel worked hard at it, and was soon sent to fraud investigations and later asked to join a team of agents infiltrating and dismantling human smuggling operations. On a mission in the Bahamas he was nearly arrested while working undercover as a smuggler.
“The Bahamian authorities tried to arrest us because they thought we were smugglers. So we basically grabbed these aliens and took them through a canal in a boat. We just ran with them,” he said. “If we got caught, we couldn’t blow our cover. We’d be sitting in a Bahamian jail.”
Bahamian government officials were not made aware of the mission because federal agents suspected they were corrupt and would tip off the head of the smuggling operation, who turned out to be a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Bendel and his crew escaped the police. They were in a faster boat, he said, one that had been confiscated from drug traffickers. The daring escape earned Bendel’s crew credibility with the head of the smuggling operation, who was eventually arrested.
Bendel and his wife worked together on the biggest case of their careers between 2001 and 2002. They were often partners on cases that involved mail crimes and illegal immigrants.
“She’d identified over 200 child victims that had been raped and molested by this Ecuadorian named Angel Mariscal. He videotaped these acts and was selling the tapes on the Internet,” Bendel said. “We identified a few hundred of his customers. There was a teacher. A firefighter. We had some people you would never expect.”
A few of the customers committed suicide after they were found out, Bendel said.
The investigation resulted in 100 years imprisonment for Mariscal, who was living in Miami and traveling to Cuba and Ecuador to rape impoverished children. Only 10 of Mariscal’s victims have been located. None tested positive for HIV.
“There are images of these children I’ll never get out of my head. So much pain,” Bendel said. “It’s quite relieving to know that he’ll never make it out of prison.”
Bendel’s wife received an award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and was named Officer of the Year for her work in the Mariscal case.
Mariscal has sent her hate mail from prison.
After a few years in illegal immigration and smuggling, Bendel requested a transfer to the violent gang task force in the Fort Lauderdale area of Broward County, located just north of Miami.
“I could not get enough of it. There was nothing like chasing gang members. They were involved in everything: guns, drugs, kidnappings, murders,” Bendel said. “But we mainly did lots of narcotics work and surveillance.”
An informant once helped Bendel and other agents lure a group of heavily armed gang members who were planning a home invasion to a warehouse that was bugged with audio and video surveillance. The warehouse also had a false wall that lifted like a garage door to reveal a SWAT team.
“During a similar operation, a guy we were going after reached for a gun and he was stitched up by a SWAT member with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office,” Bendel said. “He went for the gun as the SWAT team came out and he was killed.”
The good guys aren’t always quicker on the draw. Bendel attended 13 funerals for friends killed in the line of duty during his 11 years as an agent.
He remembers running alongside Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Fatta in 2004 as they chased a drug dealer one night — they were laughing, full of adrenaline, doing what they loved, Bendel said.
“I looked over at him and he was smiling,” he said. “I can still see him smiling.”
A child pornography suspect fired a bullet into Fatta’s heart two weeks later when he attempted to execute a search warrant at the man’s house.
“Todd was a guy who could make it through anything, and he got killed,” Bendel said. “I think my invincibility was starting to come into question after that.”
Screams came from Bendel’s radio one night as he pulled into his driveway. Just a few miles away, Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Seguin had been killed instantly when an unlicensed driver’s car plowed into him during a traffic stop. His partner was screaming for help and Bendel pealed out of his driveway to find her.
Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Reyka was ambushed in 2007 while checking the license plate on a suspicious vehicle behind a Walgreens store. He was shot seven times execution-style with an assault rifle, Bendel said. The murder remains unsolved.
“Of all of the deaths, that one disturbed me the most because you can’t put a face on that killer. I just wanted to be the guy that caught him. To a certain extent, I felt guilty for leaving,” Bendel said. “But I felt that I had to make that decision. The job was consuming me and it was changing the way I viewed the world. I didn’t want to bring it into my family.”
The Bendels decided to pile into a RV and take a road trip up the East Coast, stopping in towns and cities that interested them along the way.
When they drove into Keene and saw the city’s buildings and houses situated in the valley beneath Mount Monadnock like a porcelain Christmas village, they knew it was going to be their new home.
Five months ago, the Bendels, both pilots, opened their business at the airport, merging their longtime hobbies of aviation with their livelihood.
They spend more time together and have more time for their children, who were being raised by strangers in day cares.
Bendel admits he sometimes misses what he left behind, but not enough to go back. He leads a quieter life now, and a good one at that.
“What a deal,” Bendel said. “It’s damn near a dream come true.”