Burdena “Birdie” Pasenelli, a former special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the FBI and a female pioneer in the bureau, has died.
Burdena Pasenelli, a former Seattle police officer who rose to an unprecedented rank for a woman in the FBI, including appointments as the bureau’s first female assistant director and first woman special agent in charge of a bureau office, died Tuesday in Arizona after a brief illness.
Mrs. Pasenelli, 71, suffered a stroke Sunday while at home with her husband of 42 years, according to family and an email circulated by Gary Pilawski, president of the Washington chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
Mrs. Pasenelli, called “Birdie,” by her friends, was recalled by former colleagues as a no-nonsense and practical pioneer in law enforcement, a dead shot and a loyal friend. She stepped down as the FBI’s assistant director for finance to return to Seattle, where she ended her career as the special agent in charge of the Seattle division.
She retired from the FBI in 1999 after a 26-year career.
“She really was exceptional, both as a leader and as a person,” said Kate Pflaumer, the former U.S. Attorney in Western Washington and a longtime friend and colleague of Mrs. Pasenelli.
Charlie Mandigo was her assistant in Seattle and went on to succeed her as the Seattle division’s agent in charge. He credits her for recommending him for the job and his success in the office.
“I knew that all I had to do to succeed was not screw up all the things she had done. If I managed that, I knew I’d be OK,” Mandigo said Wednesday.
Mrs. Pasenelli is a legend in the bureau, and FBI historians have repeatedly interviewed her about her experiences as a female agent in the early years when the bureau had only a handful of women. She said her ceiling-shattering rise through the FBI’s ranks had more to do with her ambition and drive than it did a desire to be a pioneer.
Indeed, she says she went into police work because she realized that women police officers made the same as their male counterparts. That wasn’t true in teaching, which is another career she had considered.
“I was raised on a farm,” she said in a 2012 FBI video interview. “I could work as hard as any man could, so I figured I was worth as much as any guy.”
She attended Washington State University, where she graduated with a degree in police science and administration.
She was recruited by the bureau in 1973, just six months after the FBI had hired its first female special agent.
Mrs. Pasenelli worked as a special agent in Sacramento, Calif., where she said she had to meet the wife of her male partner to relieve any concerns about male agents working with women in the field.
She worked a variety of assignments, including violent crime, bank robberies and white-collar cases, before being named the bureau’s first female assistant special agent in charge (ASAC), working out of Houston, and placed in charge of the FBI’s investigations into bank and savings-and-loan failures.
“Even though I didn’t set out to do that,” she would say later. “I was successful as an ASAC, so that fear of women being ASACs was gone.” In 1992, then-FBI Director Louis Freeh appointed her the special agent in charge of the Alaska office, the first woman to run one of the bureau’s 56 field offices.
“Everybody has to prove themselves,” Mrs. Pasenelli said in an FBI interview. “Every time you get a case, you have to get results. … I got cases. I made cases. I went on arrests.”
In 1993, Freeh called her back to Washington, D.C., and appointed her assistant director in charge of the bureau’s finance office, another first for a woman.
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She returned to Seattle in 1996 and served three years as the special agent in charge, during which her office investigated emerging threats from white supremacists and patriot groups, such as the Phinneas Priesthood, and endured a period when Seattle led the nation in bank robberies.
Ron Bone, a retired Seattle FBI special agent and friend, said he never met a fellow agent “who did not respect Birdie as the boss and were proud to have her be the public face of the office.”
“You knew she was in charge, but she was always open to hearing input when critical decisions needed to be made,” Bone said. It was not unusual for her to stop by an agent’s desk to talk about cases, “because she knew that was the work of the FBI, not necessarily all the meetings she had to attend.”
Her husband, George, said she had been recovering from knee surgery and collapsed at home after attending church.
The couple, who have no children, had moved to Arizona to play golf, ride bikes and enjoy the outdoors, George Pasenelli said.
A memorial service is planned June 4 at the Desert Hills Presbyterian Church in Carefree, Ariz., he said, to be followed by a celebration of her life at the Tonto Verde Golf Club.