NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Neil MacBride once sang and played piano as the Peanuts character Schroeder in a college production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." His parents keep a grainy VHS tape of the performance under lock and key.
MacBride's acting career was short-lived.
Instead, after graduating, he jumped into politics as a field organizer for Joe Biden's failed run for president in the late 1980s. His affiliation with Biden stretched nearly two decades and helped launch him into one of the most powerful law enforcement positions in the country.
As U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, MacBride has helped create a new kind of federal law enforcement, breaking legal ground in prosecuting modern-day pirates, war criminals, bank executives and Internet thieves from across the globe, all while keeping pace with a regular docket full of drug, gun and gang cases.
He's also one of the first in recent memory with Hampton Roads ties.
"What makes us unique is we're prosecuting cases with a seemingly local crime that ultimately, as we peel back the onion, we find roots outside our district and outside our country," MacBride said in a recent, lengthy interview at his downtown Norfolk branch office.
MacBride has been making the rounds with media throughout the district, and some local and federal officials and Beltway insiders say this suggests he is setting himself up for a higher position in the Obama administration.
U.S. Senior District Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. noticed something different about the lanky law clerk he hired from the University of Virginia Law School in 1992, Morgan's first year on the bench. Of dozens of clerks he has hired since, MacBride still stands out among the best, he said.
"He's the kind of guy who has the whole package," the judge said. "He's a good husband and father and a good friend. He was very intelligent and conscientious as a law clerk. He was the kind of person you wanted to keep up with."
Neil Harvey MacBride was born in Schenectady, N.Y., and raised in nearby Oneonta before heading farther west near Buffalo to attend the Christian liberal arts college Houghton, where in 1987, he graduated magna cum laude (despite his acting performance).
He jumped into politics, first working for now-Vice President Biden's 1987 presidential run. Biden, a Democrat, left the race before the end of the year after committing several verbal gaffes. MacBride then turned to Illinois Sen. Paul Simon's campaign. Simon also failed to gain the party's nomination.
MacBride entered the Charlottesville law school on a partial scholarship and worked summers at different law firms before landing the clerkship in Norfolk. He had already met his fiancé, the daughter of a Navy pilot who attended grade school in Kempsville, and they lived in an apartment on 71st Street at the Oceanfront and were married that year.
Five years out of law school, MacBride was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Washington, D.C., federal court. He tried 45 cases, most involving homicide and other violent crime and drug offenses.
He returned to politics in 2001 when then-Sen. Biden hired him as chief counsel, working on criminal legislation and tort reform. He left Biden's office in 2005 and spent time as an anti-computer-piracy lobbyist with the Business Software Alliance in Washington.
In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder tapped MacBride to be an associate deputy attorney general, handling law enforcement issues for the department. Just months after he started that job, Virginia's two senators nominated him for U.S. attorney. His nomination sailed through the Senate. (His law school roommate Timothy Heaphy was confirmed a month later to the same position for the Western District of Virginia.)
"When I became U.S. attorney, I sat down with the police chiefs across Tidewater and said, 'What's your biggest problem domestically?' And they all said gangs. So we've done a number of significant cases, both in Newport News and Norfolk," MacBride said.
He rattled off the names of the gangs that have been disrupted: Bounty Hunter Bloods, Tech 9 Gangsters, Dump Squad.
Those investigations will continue. But otherwise, there's been an overall change in strategy compared with prior U.S. attorneys, he said.
"In the last few years, we have made a shift to identifying emerging threats, whether it's human trafficking or copyright or Internet jihadis or trademark threat, and building cases where the bad guys, or the alleged bad guys, may sit outside our district or even outside our country," he said.
"It is nothing more than a reflection that with the globalization of commerce has come a globalization of crime and terrorism. Businessmen don't recognize borders anymore, and neither do criminals."
Area commonwealth's attorneys also met with MacBride and told him they count on the feds to take on cases they are ill-equipped to handle.
"If they can find a federal connection or nexus, they will take it," Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney Harvey Bryant said. "Neil has been very accessible and accommodating."
Bryant, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Norfolk in the 1990s, said he has noticed the change in strategy since then.
"We were doing a lot of crack-cocaine cases back then," he said.
Portsmouth has perhaps the closest relationship with federal prosecutors. Earle C. Mobley, the city's commonwealth's attorney, said he persuaded the feds to let him assign one of his deputies to MacBride's office full time.
The work taking out some of Portsmouth's most violent gang members "has made a tremendous difference," Mobley said. In the past two years, crime has dropped from 124 incidents per 1,000 in population to 113, according to State Police statistics.
The Gold Shop murder "is a perfect example," Mobley said, of the feds stepping in to help.
City police had a difficult time getting witnesses to talk after Robert V. Nelson was shot and killed during an attempted robbery of the Portsmouth Boulevard store in 2010.
"We were basically dead in the water. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to go on," Mobley said.
Two young men, members of the Big Money Boys gang, were convicted in federal court and sentenced to life in prison for the crimes. Two accomplices also received lengthy prison terms. Another cold case, a murder in Cradock, was solved with federal help, Mobley noted.
He also cited the corruption cases involving a Portsmouth magistrate and bondsman that probably would not have been prosecuted without federal help.
"They're a very important partner," he said.
Several local defense attorneys, as well as members of the Federal Public Defender's office, declined to comment for this article, citing the naturally adversarial (though cordial and professional, they say) relationship between the two sides.
The Eastern District of Virginia, based in Alexandria, stretches south to Richmond and east to Hampton Roads and the entire Eastern Shore. MacBride's staff of 200 lawyers and administrators covers some 4.7 million residents.
MacBride, 47, lives in Arlington with his wife and three children but travels to the Norfolk and Richmond offices at least once a month.
While the number of criminal cases has varied little through recent years — in fact, the number of felony cases brought in Norfolk this year will roughly equal that of MacBride's days as a young clerk in the early 1990s — the types of cases now stretch the borders.
Somali pirates are perhaps the most notable example.
Authorities within law enforcement say that when Somali pirates shot at the Navy's Norfolk-based frigate Nicholas in April 2010, a tug-of-war ensued over where to bring the suspects for prosecution. (The debate was still going on about two weeks later when another pirate group fired on the dock landing ship Ashland.)
The Southern District of New York argued that it was already conducting the nation's first pirate prosecution in about 150 years and should take on the new cases. But that case, against the sole Somali survivor on the attack of the Maersk container ship Alabama, had been dragging on.
MacBride argued that the Eastern District's well-known "rocket docket" would get the pirates tried and convicted in a hurry. He won the debate and his prediction rang partly true. One group of pirates was tried and convicted in less than a year, and each is serving a life prison term. The other group appealed certain court rulings and are awaiting trial.
The long arm of the Eastern District stretched to New Zealand for a different kind of piracy case. The Megaupload case charges the company leader, known as Kim Dotcom, with pirating movies, music, television shows, e-books and software over the Internet, generating $175 million in profits and causing a half-billion dollars in damages to the owners of the copyrighted materials. That's being handled in the Alexandria office simply because the information traversed servers in Northern Virginia.
"I'm convinced that most emails in the world at some point transit through servers that sit somewhere in the Eastern District of Virginia, so that gives us venue," MacBride said.
White-collar cases like this, MacBride said, "in many instances, may start with what seems like a local connection, but ultimately we're chasing the bad guys across state borders or even national borders."
Even strictly local white-collar cases have gotten MacBride broad attention.
The indictment against former top executives of Bank of the Commonwealth, including its president and CEO, Edward J. Woodard Jr., made national news, not for the case itself but for its being one of the few criminal prosecutions of bank executives to stem from the financial meltdown.
The Wall Street Journal called it "a rare federal criminal case against bank chiefs arising from the recent financial crisis."
The Journal went on to report: "The Justice Department has come under criticism in recent years for failing to bring cases against top executives of the nation's large financial institutions whose troubles with bad loans brought the financial world to the brink of disaster in 2008."
Indeed, the Bank of the Commonwealth case is one of the largest criminal indictments in terms of fraud — more than $71 million — and loss to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. — $270 million — to come from the crisis.
Two California bank executives are charged in connection with the failure of their bank, which cost the FDIC $2.5 billion. Two executives of a failed Atlanta bank face charges in an alleged bank fraud about the same size as Bank of the Commonwealth.
But no executives from the big Wall Street banks have faced criminal charges, and some media outlets are reporting that none will. (Civil penalties have been common.)
MacBride wouldn't comment on that, but he touted the financial and securities fraud task force he created that helped pull the Bank of the Commonwealth case together.
As for what Hampton Roads can expect next year, MacBride said, "We will continue to really focus on the biggest threats, whether it's human trafficking or financial fraud or economic espionage or crimes against businesses that we are, perhaps, uniquely situated to combat.
"I think that is a reflection of a strategic shift."
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com