By Steve Novotney
One day he’ll enter the Federal Building in downtown Wheeling through one of the garages, but the next day he’ll travel a different route.
He “mixes it up,” because he knows he is a target.
October 9, 2013.
Bill Ihlenfeld, the U.S. Attorney for West Virginia’s Northern District, describes the day when retired Wheeling police officer Thomas Piccard hammered the Federal Building with at least 26 rounds from an assault rifle and a 9 mm handgun as, “horrifying.” Piccard, 55, suffered a fatal gunshot wound in the end, but not before several of Ihlenfeld’s assistant prosecutors discovered shattered shards of glass and bullet fragments scattered in their offices.
A few days later, the husband and father of three stood where Piccard did. He needed to. The 43-year-old Ihlenfeld realized then similar attempts could happen at any moment of any day.
His first four years as the federal prosecutor for 32 West Virginia counties have provided many other surprises, successes, failures, and disappointments. But Ihlenfeld still loves it. The Wheeling Park High graduate (Class of 1990) knows his daydream-come-true job is a temporary position always altered because of politics, but those facts fail to matter.
Instead, it’s about the same battles he witnessed his grandfather and father wage as each served the public in positions such as county prosecutor or as an assistant, U.S. Magistrate Judge in the Northern District, mayor of Wheeling, and juvenile referee. Ihlenfeld, in fact, began his legal career as an assistant in the Ohio County Prosecutor’s Office at the age of 23, and also has served in the same position in Brooke County.
Ihlenfeld has been fighting crime since.
When he was a child, he aspired to become a professional hockey player, and later a journalist. Ihlenfeld also admits he dreamed of being Superman because he wanted to fly even higher than he already is.
Novotney: When it came to choosing your career, was the choice yours or were you predestined to follow in your father’s and grandfather’s footsteps?
Ihlenfeld: My dad really wanted me to go to law school but when I went to Ohio University I majored in journalism. That’s what I wanted to do until I got into my senior year. That’s when I began to realize that the real world was about ready to happen and the options in journalism at the time were not that fantastic and the pay wasn’t that great.
My professors at Ohio University (Class of 1994) told me that they thought I would do well but that it would be a long road before I reached any level of success in journalism. That’s when my dad reminded that law school was an option, and I took him up on that suggestion and went to WVU (Class of 1997).
Novotney: When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up?
Ihlenfeld: I remember paying attention to what my father and what my grandfather did. I remember always noticing the public service they performed in local government or state government. I remember them both always helping people. I know I wanted to do something along those lines. I wasn’t quite sure what.
I also wanted to be a professional athlete for a while. Hockey was my favorite sports when I was growing up, and I also liked playing baseball and football. But at some point in time when I was 12 or 13 I realized the dream of being a professional athlete probably wasn’t going to happen so that’s when I started concentrating on other things.
Novotney: What peaked your interesting in becoming a journalist?
Ihlenfeld: I got involved with the radio program at Wheeling Park High School under Pat Clutter. He really drove my interest in journalism so that’s when I started my travels down that path.
But then my interest in the law took over, and today it still doesn’t feel like a job. At some point it was a job, but what I am doing right now isn’t one. I’m blessed and I know that. I get every day and I am more excited to go to work than I was the day before. There are the tough days but I enjoy going to office, getting our into the community and being the face of the office. We cover 32 counties so I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of great people, and I have been able to see parts of West Virginia that I probably would have never seen.
Novotney: Your surname is very well known in the Upper Ohio Valley community. Did that fact cause you to feel pressure during your childhood?
Ihlenfeld: I have had to explain to people that the dining room at Wilson Lodge is not my dining room. It was named after my grandparents, but I have been asked that question more than a few times.
It was tough when my father was the juvenile referee, particularly in junior high school because he would see a kid I was going to school with and I would catch some flack because of whatever sentence he gave them. My father couldn’t talk about those things, of course, so I had no idea what they were talking about.
That was challenging, and I’m sure my kids experience some of that because I do.
Novotney: Prior to accepting your current position with the federal government, you were involved with your practice and a few other business ventures. Why was the temporary U.S. Attorneys job worth surrendering everything else?
Ihlenfeld: In my opinion, it’s the best job an attorney can have. I used to talk with other attorneys and we were always looking for a chance for a job with this office. We all always wondered if one day we would get that opportunity.
It’s the greatest job an attorney can have. There’s something new every day. Truth is stranger than fiction and I see that every day.
And I know eventually this will be over and I’ll have to find something else to do.
Novotney: Many attorneys who have served in your position have gone on to further their successful legal careers. Does that allow you to feel some confidence for the future.
Ihlenfeld: It does, and I’m excited. People ask me all the time what it is I’m going to do, and I really don’t know. I feel there’s still a lot left to accomplish and this position has given me the chance to meet a lot of interesting people who I think we will see on the national stage down the road. A lot of U.S. Attorneys move in to the political field.
Novotney: Do you believe a career in politics could be in your future?
Ihlenfeld: I don’t know. I love what I am doing now and if I had to choose what I will do next right now I’d have to say I’ll probably go back into the private sector and find a job that’s as satisfying as possible.
Novotney: What has been the biggest surprise in your four years as the Mountain State’s Northern District U.S. Attorney?
Ihlenfeld: I didn’t expect the drug problem in the Northern District of West Virginia, and throughout the entire state. It’s much different today than when I first took the position. I had no idea the drug problem would take up so much of my time. Most of the interview requests I receive concern the drug problem we have.
Nationwide, drug cases prosecuted by U.S. Attorney offices take up about 30 percent of the overall case load. In the Northern District of West Virginia, 60 percent of the cases we have prosecuted have involved the drug problem.
I’m proud of that, but on the other hand I wish that number would come down. I’d love to see us knock that number down closer to the national average.
Novotney: As the U.S. Attorney, you are actively fighting in this war on drugs and most people believe the federal government has lost that war. How do you feel about the war on drugs?
Ihlenfeld: I don’t think we have failed. I know we have taken a lot of dangerous people off the streets and saved a lot of lives by doing so. I think we stopped the pills, heroin and cocaine from spreading even further than it already has. But I do believe we need to do it differently that we have been.
I believe it has to be more of a community-based approach if we’re going to be successful and that’s why I am now working with a lot of talented people in the communities we cover to develop a formula that works.
Novotney: Wheeling police have arrested drug traffickers in areas of downtown Wheeling, including a location across 12th Street from the federal building. Does that frustrate you?
Ihlenfeld: It is frustrating for me that it’s there. What we try to do when we are investigating a case is to completely dismantle the operation, and the members of the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force do an incredible job. Without their work and dedication, it would be far worse throughout the valley.
The trafficking operations we investigate and prosecute are always bigger than what we can see on the surface, and that takes some time. But we also make sure that these types of investigations do not take too long so public safety is not at risk. There’s a balance there.
There are times when several months are needed, and that gets very frustrating.
Novotney: Some people have been critical of your office because you work with people who are addicted to drugs to be able to bring down these organization, but then the addict is not helped once the investigations are complete.
Ihlenfeld: Often our drug task force does work with people who addicted to drugs because that’s how they are able to be successful with infiltrating an organization. But I have also seen our drug task force help those people who have worked with them. They have helped with money, with getting them out of town, and getting them help with their addiction.
One of the goals with our Community Action Plan is to identify employers who are willing to hire recovering addicts. Helping those folks is a part of what we do, and I hope the public realizes that.
Novotney: You also felt it was necessary to establish a task force which investigates public corruption involving elected officials and government employees. Why?
Ihlenfeld: I wish we didn’t have to focus on public corruption but when I came into the office I realized that we were doing enough. And we continue to get referrals and we continue to get cases on a significant scale that the public will learn about in the not-too-distant future.
It is one of things I am most proud of that I have worked on in the past four years. We developed a Hotline so the public could get us the information they had, and we also started a Public Corruption Task Force with the FBI, the state police, the IRS and criminal investigators because there’s usually a lot of money involved.
It’s one of the most important things our office does because we’re the only ones who can do it. Those kinds of cases really can’t be handled on the local level because of the pressures of local politics.
Novotney: Do you fear there will be a public corruption case here in the Northen Panhandle?
Ihlenfeld: Of course I do, and I hope I don’t see it. If it gets too close to me, then we would have to recuse our office. Another district office would have to come in to prosecute because it has to be effective and it has to be fair.
I hope I don’t experience that, but I also know our office is ready for it if it does happen.
Novotney: The fracking industry also has increased your workload, has it not?
Ihlenfeld: We have had two guilty pleas from involved companies. One was in Wetzel County and another was in Marshall County.
I think the industry is doing a good job, and I believe cases like the ones we’ve prosecuted let them all know that we are paying attention and that we will file criminal charges.
One of the problems with the investigation-side of those cases is that we do not have enough agents to really into those kinds of cases. In the entire state of West Virginia, we have one EPA agent. I hope we are successful with getting another agent to serve here in the northern part of the state.
If someone from a county in our district calls, we will have someone look into it. The issue right now is the time it takes for us to look into it because we only one agent.
Novotney: October 9, 2013?
Ihlenfeld: That’s a day I will never forget. No one who was in that building will ever forget it. It changed the way we all walk in and out of the building every day.
The scariest thing I saw was the video of what took place in the atrium area of the building. The video shows bullets just missing the officers in charge of our security.
If I wasn’t already aware that something like that could happen, I am now. I know I work for the federal government and I know everybody in that building is a target. That’s means we all have to be extra cautious because there is a lot of hatred toward the federal government.
But it’s not something that is going to stop us from fighting. We’re going to keep fighting as long as I have anything to say about it.