Lee Starks pointed out all the places in the room a hidden camera could be be installed. The exit sign, the tiny gaps between the ceiling panels, you’d never know that they were there. This isn’t imagination, it’s an expert's opinion.
On Dec. 21 Starks, a native of Morris, will retire from the Department of Homeland Security, where he has served since its inception in 2002. Before that he served in U.S. Customs Service and in the Army. His work was primarily investigative and has taken him all over the world: Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, South America. Over the course of his career he helped spy on drug lords, witnessed the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and arrested Jose Padilla, the first terrorist arrested on U.S. soil after 911.
Starks graduated from Morris Community High School in 1980 and soon after began work at Starks Excavation, a company owned by his father, Robert. After five years of work, he decided to attend Eastern Illinois University.
“I wasn’t the best student in high school. Back in the day they didn’t have ACT scores or anything like that, so I just wrote them a letter saying what a great student I was,” Starks said.
He was accepted and ran track at EIU all four years. At the end of those four years, Starks still needed a few more credits to graduate. Instead of going another semester, he decided to drop out and join the Army. He would later go back to finish a degree in chemistry at Northeastern Illinois University.
“I went back more for my mother than for myself,” Starks said with a laugh.
Starks served in the army from 1990 to 1994, stationed in Oklahoma. While there, he was selected to become a member of an investigation team for the Department of Defense and, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 he participated in covert missions to former Soviet Republics where he collected sensitive documents and materials to take back to the US.
During one such deployment to Latvia, he befriended a young Latvian man named Raimonds Arajs.
“One time [Arajs] invited me to see an abandoned Soviet military base and I said ‘sure.’ We drove a few hours outside of Riga to the middle of nowhere, just dense forrest all around us,” Starks said. “We stopped at a normal looking dirt road and traveled down it for 15 minutes and suddenly we were in this huge Russian compound with satellite dishes everywhere.”
Starks said the base was an intelligence gathering point where the Soviets used large satellite dishes to listen to the rest of Europe. Everything in the compound had been left behind as if the Soviets had just vanished overnight.
“All the pipes had frozen and burst so there was water everywhere. All the listening equipment and radios were still there and the barracks had pictures of the soldier’s families still up on the walls,” Starks said.
Starks took the opportunity to swipe a Russian newspaper he found on a bunk with President Gorbachev’s face on the cover.
He continued these missions for the remainder of his time in the Army, traveling to Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and other nations. He still can’t talk about a lot of what he did.
Starks’ time in the Army stateside wasn’t boring either. He was present at a military base in Texas one of the first times a laser was used to shoot down an aircraft. He remembers the awe he felt as the laser fired and the unmanned aircraft exploded.
“I just thought ‘Holy crap. I’m glad I’m on this team,’” Starks said.
Although the demonstration was successful, Starks said it had unforeseen consequences for a few observing generals.
“The laser was huge. They housed it in two different buildings and used fluorine gas to cool it down. When the generals from the pentagon showed up they parked their jeeps right up next to it. So when the laser fired it dumped this big cloud of gas out onto the jeeps and it permanently fogged up all their windows,” Starks said with a laugh.
After being discharged from the Army in 1994, Starks worked for Customs in the Electronics Video and Audio Enhancement Program. It was around this time that he completed his degree and after he earning his diploma, Starks said he transferred to the Office of Investigations within the Customs Department. He was made a technical enforcement officer.
His job was to combat the transportation of drugs, child pornography and kidnapped persons. A lot of his work took him to the Caribbean, where he performed "court ordered surreptitious entries into various locations."
In other words he broke into drug lord’s houses and planted wiretaps and other recording devices.
“There are days where you just know ‘I’m not coming out of this one.’ You just know for sure that things are going to go bad but then the training kicks in and you just do the job. Other times going in felt awesome, like something out of a movie,” Starks said.
Although Starks was never caught by the drug lords, others around him were.
“[My partner and I] were on our way to meet with an informant who had information on this drug lord’s compound in Puerto Rico. On the way there we got a call that they had found his body. He had been shot 44 times," Starks said.
Starks said he will never forget Sept. 11. He was on the phone talking with his partner watching the news when the second plane hit. Starks said he and his partner got suited up and drove up to their headquarters near O’Hare International Airport. Soon after the airport shut down, an unprecedented event.
Starks’ superior told him that afternoon to drive back home and collect enough supplies to be on the job for the next 72 hours. On the way back home he stopped at a gas station to fill up but found a huge line of cars.
“By then people were starting to panic and everybody wanted to get their cars full of gas,” Starks said.
When someone in line saw that Starks had on his bullet proof vest and uniform, they insisted he jump to the front of the line. Starks said as he filled up his car all the people around him got out of their cars and clapped and cheered.
Starks grew emotional remembering the moment.
“I felt so good but so humbled at the same time,” Starks said, “I was just some guy in a bullet proof vest but on that day we were all Americans and we were all supporting each other.”
In the months and years following 9/11, Starks’ career changed completely. He doesn’t believe all of the changes were good.
“People will never know what damage those planes really caused,” Starks said, “We had a perfectly good federal department and it got all mixed around and turned into a giant bureaucracy.”
In 2002 the customs department and many other agencies were taken from their former departments and made into the new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.
“In the months and years after 9/11 everyone saw a terrorist, everyone reported that they knew something,” Starks said.
However some of those tips turned out to be true.
In May of 2002 Starks and his partner arrested American citizen Jose Padilla at O’Hare Airport on suspicion of plotting a radiological bomb attack. Padilla was later convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and funding terrorism and sentenced to 21 years in prison.
Starks was a part of numerous drug raids during his time at DHS. In 2007, he joined a task force that protects large events such as sport games, parades and concerts. He helped protect the Rose Parade in Pasadena, the Super Bowl and the Indy 500.
Starks said he doesn’t know what to expect in retirement. His whole life has been part of a team, a unit and now he’s going to be on his own.
His retirement will definitely be a busy one. He plans to continue teaching investigation lessons to new agents across the country, teach people to handle firearms with his company Defense 2020, create custom guitars and amps with his company Shipwreck Customs and coach junior high track in Mahomet, Illinois.
Starks lived in Morris from 2002 to 2017 before moving to Indianapolis for work. After retirement he will live with his wife in southern Illinois, but Morris will always be his home.
“This is home. Home is where you’re never lost,” Starks said.
Looking back on his long and diverse career Starks said although much of it was hard, he is proud of his work.
“The amount of drugs I helped seize could fill several freight cars. If one tiny vial of heroin or a baggie of cocaine didn’t end up in a young person’s hands and ruin their life because we took it off the streets, it was all worth it,” Starks said. “I like to think about that.”