That Time I Accidentally Helped David Baldacci with Book Research

Polygraphs and Paperwork

From 2002 – 2004, I was stationed at the Washington Field Office (WFO) as a Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  I had started my career in 2000, arresting mostly counterfeiters in Richmond, VA.  Three years later I was a team leader in WFO, helping to supervise a squad that – among other things – conducted polygraph examinations.

Admittedly, this was not the most exciting task I was ever assigned.  Part of the squad conducted background investigations and the other part ran polygraph exams.  I wasn’t a trained polygraph examiner, so I pretty much left the examiners alone, other than to make sure their paperwork was correct and their travel orders were processed.  I admit that having been subjected to extensive employment/security polygraph exams in the past, part of my mind simply wanted to create some distance between me and those imposing machines that have a way of making the most innocent of individuals feel like they spent their youth on a killing spree.


Although I did not personally conduct the exams, I did have a good understanding of the methodology and, due to my position, knew when and where examinations were taking place.  Some of the exams were for criminal investigations, while many were conducted on applicants hoping to get into the Secret Service.  Regardless of the reason, or the level of innocence with the subject of the exam, the process is long and stressful.  Additionally, the information disclosed by the subject is often personal, sensitive, and should be handled with great care.  So, you never discuss the details with anybody.  Not friends.  Not family.

And never, EVER a bestselling novelist.



“Hey, aren’t you that guy?”

During my time in D.C., I’d seen the occasional celebrity come through the office.  One moment that stands out in my memory is when a few high-level supervisors were escorting a rough-looking individual through the building.  The man was unshaven, his hair was a mess, and he was wearing a beat-up denim jacket and ripped jeans.  Part of my brain told me that he was a suspect, but the fact he was not handcuffed and was being led around by high-ranking supervisors made me look twice.  It turned out the man was Sean Penn and he was touring the office because he was researching his role as a Secret Service agent in the movie The Interpreter.  He was getting a lot of cooperation from the agency and it seemed most of management knew he was on site.  However, it turned out some celebrities were a little more low-key.

At some point in 2003, a female agent I had worked with a couple of times approached me outside my office.  She was new to the office, so I didn’t think twice as she asked me a few innocuous questions about the number of polygraph exams we ran in a week, the purpose of the exams, and some other basic administrative questions.  Fortunately I wasn’t very specific, because I hadn’t seen the man who was taking notes while standing behind her.  After I had finished spouting off some information, my colleague stepped aside and said, “J.J., I’d like you to meet David Baldacci.”  How in the world had I not seen him?  I was a trained observer!  Seriously, the man was like a ninja with a notebook.


Back then, I had absolutely no idea I’d become a crime novelist and I had never written a word of fiction.  However, I certainly knew of David Baldacci and had recently finished reading one of his novels.  I shook hands with Mr. Baldacci while asking myself several questions of my own.

What information had I revealed?

Had I revealed anything sensitive?

If I had disclosed anything sensitive, should I ask Baldacci to autograph my termination papers?


The Genesis of a Future Career?

As it turns out, I hadn’t said anything more than one could read in an official Secret Service brochure or find on the Internet.  After a few pleasantries, the female agent and Mr. Baldacci went on their way and I was left wondering if anything I had said would end up in a book someday.  Since then, I’ve read several of Baldacci’s novels and I can’t recall seeing anything about polygraphs… yet.

When my first novel Resolve was up for an award at this year’s Thrillerfest in New York City, I had hoped to see the famous writer (who I was sure would not remember our 30 second conversation) and ask him if he had ever used the information.  Unfortunately, he had left the day before and I never got a chance to ask him the questions or to tell him that a quick conversation in 2003 may have played an inspirational role in my becoming a crime novelist.

If nothing else, I learned that someday I wanted to have his ninja-like research skills so that one day someone may write a blog post about the way they accidentally helped me with my research.

Have you ever met a celebrity who left a lasting impression on you?  Comment below!

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and Measure Twice. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

RESOLVE was a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization, was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine, and is one of Authors on the Air’s Best Books of the Year.
Twitter @JJHensleyauthor


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.

Measure Twice 750 x 1200 jpeg



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