Longest serving OSI Special Agent retires after 43-years

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

Last month, after dedicating over 43 unparalleled years to the Office of Special Investigations, Special Agent John T. Purcell, OSI's longest-tenured agent, bid farewell to the agency, closing the book on 47-years of total service. 

But let’s rewind to 1976; Purcell’s story doesn’t start on a military base or an OSI office – instead, it’s in New York City. But the Big Apple was more than just an iconic skyline to Purcell, it was the place his English grandparents arrived in 1920s, and where he dreamt of patrolling as an NYPD officer. 

However, despite acing every entry test, NYC's financial turmoil forced him to change course.

“I was in my first year at the New York Institute of Technology when I took the NYPD exams,” Purcell said, “Back then, New York City hit a fiscal crisis and began laying off thousands of cops. During my interview, they said, 'You've done great, but we're broke and we have to prioritize rehiring the laid-off officers,’ which made sense to me, but I still wanted to be a cop.”

Determined to serve, Purcell looked to the armed forces. While the Army, the branch his father served as a paratrooper, had height restrictions for Military Police and the Navy's 'Master-at-Arms' role did not align with his aspirations, the Air Force, however, spotted his potential. 

The early years 

After several years in Security Forces, known then as Security Police, Purcell gravitated toward OSI, where his career reached new heights. As a Special Agent, he would delve deep into complex counterintelligence missions and led critical OSI detachments. 

But all this started with a phone call.

"I'd worked with OSI on joint cases, and they suggested I come in for an interview,” he said. “At the time, my plan was to return to New York after my Air Force contract. I wanted to join the NYPD or maybe become a state trooper.”

But destiny had a twist awaiting him. “They asked if I could start the course in January, which was just three weeks away,” he said. “Being single with no dependents, I told them I could be anywhere in the world in three weeks.”

That 'anywhere' led him to Bolling Air Force Base, in Washington, D.C., where he soon kicked off his journey at the OSI Academy, then located in D.C. In early 1980, just a few weeks later, Purcell graduated with distinction from the Special Investigator’s Course, marking the start of his rapid progression within OSI.

In those early years, Purcell leaned into emerging technology of the time, like using CCTV surveillance to crack a significant case at the David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, California. However, he attributes those early triumphs not only to technology, but to the invaluable guidance of mentors, he said. 

Mentorship matters

Reflecting on his first assignment, Purcell said, "I remember the early days at Travis [AFB], right after graduating from the OSI Academy. Among my peers, I was by far the least experienced," he said, "But, without the dedicated mentors who invested time in guiding me, I might not have found the path to success."

According to Purcell, it wasn't just technology that defined those early days, he said, it was the relationships with seasoned agents and the invaluable mentorship they provided. 

“I was fortunate to have seasoned senior [noncommissioned officers] take me under their wing,” he said. “They assured me, saying, 'Relax, kid, you'll get the hang of this.' With their guidance, they showed me the ropes and in time, I learned to stand on my own. Their willingness to guide me, though we didn't use the term 'mentor' back then, was pivotal to my success.” 

Thanks to this support, each investigation Purcell took on added to his growing list of accomplishments.

His range of investigations was vast, from uncovering fraud and exposing significant drug networks to halting major fraud conspiracies. The 1980s and '90s saw him diving deep into a myriad of cases, from high-stakes undercover operations to a complex abduction and homicide investigation at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.

With each case, Purcell's reputation grew more formidable. The numerous awards and commendations he received, such as the Meritorious Service Medal and later, the Exemplary Civilian Service Medal, were clear indicators of his dedication and exceptional skill set.

Civilian transition

After retiring in 2003 as a chief master sergeant, the 27-year Air Force veteran transitioned into to a civilian role within the OSI, continuing service with the agency he loved. He began this next chapter as the Investigations and Operations Program Manager for the 5th Field Investigations Region at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, a position he held from Sept. 2003 to June 2006.

"I began my role as a Research Technology Protection specialist, focusing on safeguarding technology in Europe,” he said. “It was an exciting period because OSI was just venturing into this domain. I had the flexibility to go TDY wherever necessary, so I attended numerous air shows, observing the technology showcased to the public and other nations.”

Europe has a deep-rooted significance for Purcell. It's not only the homeland of his grandparents, but also where his wife was born and where he served many years as an OSI civilian. From June 2008 to October 2013, he served in London, taking charge as the Special Agent in Charge of the 5th Field Investigations Region at Det. 541. 

“At the American Embassy in London, I got to watch American foreign policy being implemented and formulated daily," he said. "It was fascinating. During that time, and I won't give specifics about what country or specific dates, but I had the opportunity to work with the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency, chasing bad guys, spies and terrorists.”

Later, between Oct. 2013 and Nov. 2018, Purcell shifted roles to become the Branch Chief for Criminal & Fraud Investigations at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, as well as the Economic Crimes Flight in the 13th Field Investigations Squadron.

Back in the States

Since 2018, Purcell has been back in America, at Robins Air Force Base at OSI’s 5th Field Investigations Region’s Det. 51, where the weather is a welcome change for his wife compared to England, he joked. 

“Special Agent John T. Purcell's remarkable 43-year journey with the [OSI] is a testament to unwavering dedication, unyielding perseverance and the profound impact of mentorship,” said Special Agent Derrell Freeman, Special Agent in Charge, Procurement Fraud Det. 5. “From the streets of New York City – where dreams of becoming an NYPD officer took root – to the halls of OSI, where he emerged as a paragon of excellence, Purcell's legacy is etched in the annals of law enforcement history.” 

On July 28, Purcell retired at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins. The museum seemed fitting, given its history and contributions to the Department of the Air Force on display, it served as the perfect backdrop to honor Purcell's extensive and impactful service with the OSI.

“As we bid farewell to our longest-serving civilian leader, we salute Special Agent John T. Purcell for a career that symbolizes integrity, resilience, and the power of mentorship,” Freeman said. “His story will continue to inspire generations of law enforcement professionals to answer the call with purpose and unwavering resolve."

Overseeing the retirement was Special Agent Pearl Mundt, OSI’s executive director and top civilian leader, who was honored to bid farewell to the agency’s longest-serving civilian agent.

“While Special Agent Purcell’s years of service are unparalleled, his true legacy is the lasting impact he has made to OSI and the individuals within it,” Mundt said. 

And if you ask Purcell, it’s the individuals who matter most. 

"When I joined OSI, I quickly realized that its strength lies not in its technology or tools, but in its people,” he said. “Beyond all the gadgets and tricks, it's the people who truly drive the organization."