Cuyahoga County

Justice Unfinished


Six hundred miles from Cleveland, former FBI agent Phil Torsney climbs a ragged red hill, finding a path among gnarled tree roots and rocks tinted with rusty iron. At the crest, he gazes out at Lake Superior and points to Black Rocks, a dark 15-foot-tall cliff that juts into the water. 

"If you come here on a nice day, there's all kinds of college kids here, jumping off that rock," he says. Torsney is earthy and agile, thin and wiry, with a splash of sandy hair and a slender, weathered face. At 58, he has jumped too. 

"It's not that hard," he says. "You just let go."

Today he's wearing boots, jeans, a yellow ball cap and a fleece jacket over a blue T-shirt — retirement clothes for a guy who studied wildlife management in college, was a park ranger in Florida's Everglades and has chosen a life of tranquility in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, far from the Cleveland streets where he arrested hundreds of fugitives. 

In Marquette, Torsney runs on these rocks, where others can barely hike, listening to the surf's rush. He bikes, swims, lifts weights — "to try to keep up with the young guys," he says.

The FBI's mandatory retirement age of 57, meant to maintain a vigorous workforce in a physically arduous job, came too soon for Torsney, who had to turn in his gun and badge in March 2013. "I like adventures," he says. "I'm young. I'm in decent shape. I've still got some things to do."

For 29 years, Torsney chased murderers and rapists who'd fled across town or around the world. Former colleagues call him an "FBI legend" and "one of the best fugitive hunters in the history of the FBI" — high praise considering the bureau made its reputation 80 years ago by catching fugitives such as John Dillinger, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. 

Torsney's work led to the capture of James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston mob boss who had eluded authorities for 16 years. He also tracked Yazeed Essa from Lebanon to Cyprus, then brought the Cleveland-area doctor who fatally poisoned his wife home to stand trial.

Now, he has come out of retirement to investigate a case he can't let go. Every month or two, Torsney drives two-lane roads through the Upper Peninsula's forests, crosses a 5-mile bridge, slips down Michigan's spine and returns to Ohio to try to solve a case he first worked on 25 years ago this fall, a case that still haunts Cleveland: the October 1989 abduction and killing of 10-year-old Amy Mihaljevic, perhaps Cleveland's most notorious murder of the last three decades.

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