By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The new head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's criminal division in New York, one of the nation's highest-profile law enforcement posts, is used to answering questions about her colorful 22-year career as an FBI special agent.
April Brooks, 45, the first woman to run New York's FBI criminal division, worked gang cases in Los Angeles near the height of that city's crack epidemic.
She was tracking sex offenders and supervising child kidnapping probes in the bureau's Crimes Against Children squad in 2002 when Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart disappeared. She led the thorny investigation into the still-puzzling 2003 disappearance of a Baltimore federal prosecutor.
But it was her work dismantling drug gangs in Baltimore -- at a time when the city's brutal drug trade was drawing national attention from its portrayal in HBO's crime drama "The Wire" -- that still generates the most questions.
"You always, always got that. ‘Was it like ‘The Wire?'" Brooks said last week, laughing, in her first interview since being appointed last month to the new post by FBI Director Robert Mueller. "And it was. It was pretty close."
"This is just my characterization, but gangs in L.A. are about profit, about dope, about entrepreneurial endeavors. They acquire assets -- cars and houses. The violence in Baltimore, much like it is to some extent in New York, is all about turf and territory and supremacy versus money-making."
In her new job, Brooks oversees white-collar crime and public corruption investigations, as well as criminal enterprises ranging from healthcare fraud to gang investigations and kidnappings.
"It's a tremendously powerful position, but it's one with tremendous responsibility," said Joseph King, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"Between all the politicians, the most powerful U.S. attorneys in the country, and of course, the New York Police Department, you've got to balance a wide spectrum of clients and competing interests," King said. "You've got to keep everybody happy."
The FBI's New York criminal division has been one of the bureau's busiest in recent years, leading investigations into Wall Street insider trading that have resulted in convictions of Galleon Group founder Raj Rajaratnam in 2011 and former Goldman Sachs board member Rajat Gupta this year.
Brooks, an Oklahoma native, joined the bureau in 1990 at age 22. Assigned to the Los Angeles field office, she began her career chasing white-collar crime tips. Then came the 1992 Los Angeles riots -- six days of violence, looting and arson following the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers charged with the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, following a high-speed chase.
Brooks was transferred into the Los Angeles field office's gang investigations unit, which at the time was consumed with crack-war violence in places such as Compton and South Central Los Angeles. Beginning in 1993, she spent 2-1/2 years building a case against a violent Jamaican drug gang, which resulted in more than 100 convictions in three cities.
"I was young and was just happy to be out on the streets, running sources and gathering evidence," she said.
In Brooks' final case with the Crimes Against Children squad, she prosecuted an American father who fled with his daughter to Italy and was charged with killing his ex-girlfriend when she followed him to Rome. He died of a heart attack on the witness stand during particularly dramatic testimony at his own murder trial.
In 2003, she was transferred to the Baltimore field office, where she supervised gang investigations and where in 2004 she took on the most controversial case of her career -- leading the FBI investigation into the puzzling death of Baltimore federal prosecutor Jonathan Luna.
Luna disappeared in December 2003 and was later found dead in a shallow creek bed near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with 36 stab wounds. The official cause of death was drowning. Local investigators ruled the death a homicide, and multiple probes were launched.
The FBI has since closed the case, without determination, Brooks said, though a Pennsylvania State Police investigation remains open, according to a spokeswoman. No arrests have ever been made.
"There's no evidence to show that he met his death at the hands of any other individual," Brooks said. "Or that he had seen or been with any other individual that night. You have naysayers and you have a divergence of (law enforcement) opinion," she said. "But again, we turned over every rock. We are confident that there is nothing hanging out there to find."
In 2008, Brooks took over the Baltimore intelligence division, and in 2010 she moved to FBI headquarters in Washington, where she worked in the Inspections Division, which audits bureau investigations and does administrative inspections of field offices.
Last month, she was named head of the New York field office's criminal division.
A football fanatic with a bright red University of Oklahoma Sooners football helmet perched beside professional awards in her new downtown Manhattan office, Brooks is also a rabid country music fan, partially due to her childhood friendship in Yukon, Oklahoma, with a classmate who also made a name for himself - country superstar Garth Brooks.
"No relation," Brooks said, smiling. "Same name, no relation."
(Editing by Eric Beech)