Jeff Jardine: Ex-Ceres cop and Saddam interrogator now leading 400 FBI agents in Miami

03/10/2014 5:17 PM

03/10/2014 7:34 PM

From the emails and voice mails:

CHANGE AGENT – Five years ago, I wrote about former Ceres police Officer George Piro, who became an FBI agent and had just appeared on “60 Minutes” to detail the seven months he’d spent picking Saddam Hussein’s brain before the deposed Iraqi dictator was executed.

Piro specialized in counterterrorism, which took him to Iraq in 2004, a year after Saddam had been plucked out of a rat-infested hole in the ground by U.S. special forces. He took along friend and fellow agent Todd Irinaga, who had recruited Piro into the bureau in 1999.

Born in Lebanon, Piro speaks fluent Arabic, which helped him get the Saddam gig. He and Irinaga worked 16-hour days, interrogating Saddam in a small room near his cell in what once had been Saddam International Airport. Piro gained Saddam’s trust, and the former dictator told them that while United Nations inspectors had destroyed some of his weapons of mass destruction and he had eliminated the rest, he would have rearmed had he stayed in power.

Fast forward to last week, when the FBI named Piro to head its 400-agent Miami office. According to The Miami Herald, his new turf is one of the busiest offices for federal crime in the nation and includes FBI agents stationed in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Piro, 46, came to the U.S. when he was 12 and joined the Ceres Police Department in 1989. He joined the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office in 1997 and spent two years there before joining the FBI.

LOCAL CONNECTION – My Sunday column began with a look back at the free speech movement on the UC Berkeley campus in the mid-1960s. One of the leaders of the movement was a Cal student named Mario Savio, who was among those arrested in a demonstration on campus in December 1964. Savio later earned his master’s in physics from San Francisco State and, in the mid-1980s, taught at Modesto Junior College. In September, an MJC student was stopped by school employees from handing out copies of the Constitution because he wasn’t in the so-called free speech area and hadn’t reserved the space. The student, Robert Van Tuinen, filed a lawsuit against the school. While supported by an organization called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Van Tuinen was the sole plaintiff. I stand corrected.

TUNE ABOUT THE TOWN – Maxwell Norton was going through his mom’s possessions and came across sheet music for a song titled: “Modesto Where Dreams Come True.” More succinctly, it was the chorus for the song. He has no idea who wrote it or who performed it, although his mom played the piano. Nor does it ring familiar to George Gardner, MoBand’s conductor since 1979. It offers no composer or lyricist, no year, only that it was from a music printer in San Francisco. The chorus goes:

“My Modesto where dreams come true

We’ll be loyal and true to you

City of Water, City of Wealth,

City of Contentment, City of Health,

Fairest and best of the great Golden West,

Modesto, the city of my dreams.”

I wonder what they’d write today? On second thought, maybe that’s not such a good idea.

CENTURY PLUS – In 1913, the same year Gustine incorporated as a city, the Gustine Pentecost Society held its first festa. Now, with 100 festas in the books, the society is unveiling its book about them. In college terms, you could call it Gustine Festas 101.

It is a written and pictorial history depicting all of the queens and side maids, bloodless bullfights, parades and officers of the organization dating back to its creation by a group of Portuguese immigrants. Many Valley towns hold their own festas, with each supporting the others.

Lloyd Vierra of the Gustine Pentecost Society said the book was printed in the Azores – where most of the Portuguese families in the Valley once lived – and covers 685 pages, split between Portuguese and English. Vierra said problems with getting the books through customs at the Port of Long Beach had members wondering if they would be able to proceed with their presentation scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at the Gustine Pentecost Hall, 500 Third Ave., in Gustine. But lo and behold, the books arrived last week. The books will be on sale for $40 each and include scores of color photos, with the cover and logo designed by Florie Nunes of Gustine. Also, club members plan to present a copy Wednesday to the Portuguese Consulate in San Francisco.

AUTHOR! AUTHOR! – Glenda Hyde has published “24 Years And 40 Days – The Story of 1Lt Daniel Hyde,” available through Amazon.com in hardcover or paperback and for Kindle. Daniel Hyde became Downey High’s only two-term student body president and a three-sport athlete who graduated with a grade-point average of higher than 4.0. The school retired his No. 13 football jersey. After graduating from Downey in 2003, he went to West Point, where he became a top cadet, and then to Iraq. Hyde was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle in March 2009 near Samarra. His mother wrote the book to help others cope with loss.

“The biggest compliment I get is that people who didn’t know Daniel, after reading, feel like they do,” Glenda Hyde said.

THE GOOD BOOK – On March 2, Esther Embree was leaving Modesto Free Methodist Church at Rose and Briggsmore avenues when she saw another church member trying to load her wheelchair into her car. Esther went to help, and set her Bible and notebook on the trunk of the car to free up both of her hands. Mission accomplished, the other woman drove off. By the time Embree realized she’d left her belongings on the woman’s car, it was too late. She and her husband caught up with the other vehicle, but the Bible and notebook had fallen off. They retraced their route and found the notebook, but not the Bible.

The Bible is extra special to Embree because it contains all of the notes and writings from the time she and husband Paul “Doc” Embree spent as Free Methodist missionaries in Africa. If you found it, or know someone who did, contact the church at (209) 522-3583.

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