Herbert Cousins Jr., '74
On a July afternoon in 1984, the world reeled from the largest single-gunman massacre in U.S. History. The rampage of an unemployed security guard killed 21 people at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California.
Herbert Cousins Jr., was on the scene, part of an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics team, making sure the shootings were not a security threat to the upcoming Summer Olympic games in Los Angeles.
Herbert can still picture one victim, a boy about 10, shot in the back next to his bicycle. That night, the rest of the world turned off the news and went to bed. The tragedy became something to talk about at work the next day.
Herbert got home at 5 a.m. and hugged his sleeping children because he used to take them to McDonald's all the time.
Look back 10 summers. Herbert is a new graduate from Doane with a bachelor of arts degree, with majors in psychology and Spanish and certification in education. He becomes a teacher and then administrator in the Omaha Public School District. He has never fired a weapon or worn a protective vest. But he feels the pull of an old dream. As a boy growing up in Panama City, Panama, he wanted to work in law enforcement.
Herbert switches careers with ease and certainty. He passes the FBI entrance exam, waits out an FBI hiring freeze and passes training at Quantico in firearms, physical fitness and academics. The McDonald's shooting comes just two years later.
Over the next two decades, Herbert lived the things we read about in media headlines, investigating the nation's top crimes. Some days his life was in danger. He saw things he wished he hadn't. He carried the heavy knowledge that the lives of subordinates at times hung in the balance of his decisions. But the rewards always seemed bigger than the risks. "I was contributing to the security and safety of the country. That was the most important point of being an agent in my view," said Herbert, who in 2003 retired as an FBI senior executive, special agent in charge of the Springfield, Ill., Division. He credits Doane as a difference maker in his life, preparing him for whatever career he would have chosen.
From the rigor of academics to the demands of a student athlete, the undergraduate years "were very helpful in the situations I had to deal with." His parents had stressed that education would be important, as well as living by a moral compass. "My father always said: There are only two ways of doing things. The right way or the wrong. There is no in-between."
Before Herbert was an FBI agent or a student, he was an athlete. Through coaching connections, he wound up playing basketball for the Doane Tigers and his home country of Panama simultaneously. Doane coach Bob Erickson and his Panama coach Cecilio Williams, pushed him, influenced him.
He became one of Doane's top single-season rebounders of all time. He represented Panama in the World Games in the former Yugoslavia, the Pan-American games in Colombia, South America, and the Central American and Caribbean games. Panama named him one of its Top 125 athletes of all time, a list that includes such elite athletes as former world boxing champion Roberto Duran, New York Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera and Major League Baseball Hall-of-Fame member Rodney Carew.
The drive of athletics and dedication to team served Herbert well. He rose through the FBI ranks, investigating organized crime/drugs, white-collar crime, foreign counter intelligence and domestic and international terrorism. In the mid 80s, he was one of a few Spanish-speaking agents who assisted the U.S. military in investigating the kidnappings of U.S. citizens in Panama.
Crime and punishment are not as easy as current TV dramas would make it appear, Herbert says. But many of his cases were script worthy. The Discovery Channel interviewed him for a documentary on the dismantling of Miami cult leader Yahweh ben Yahweh, one of Herbert's most dangerous assignments. "I risked my life on a number of occasions to get the job done," he said.
The investigation would span years, beginning with the discovery of a decapitated young African-American male, who turned out to be a dissident member of the Florida-based Nation of Yahweh. A self-proclaimed black messiah named Hulon Mitchell Jr., led the Florida-based Nation of Yahweh, which based its religion on a hatred of whites. The cult developed thousands of followers throughout the United States and outwardly was known for its business and charity efforts, amassing a real estate empire. Inside the cult, however, members at times nearly starved and violence was staggering. Cult defectors were slain. Whites were murdered randomly as an initiation, part of a suspected 23 murders attributed to the cult.
Herbert was an important part of the arrest team that took the Yahweh leader and 15 members of his sect into custody in 1990. The carefully orchestrated operation involved 25 elite FBI arrest teams in seven states. Herbert's team arrested the cult leader in a hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter. With word of his capture, the remaining raids began
in other cities.
Yahweh and several of his followers were charged under the RICO Act (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations), whose predicates were murder, attempted murder, arson and extortion. In the end, they were convicted of conspiracy and Yahweh was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
With each promotion came high-profile work. As a supervisor in the FBI Inspection Division, he assisted the investigation of the Waco Branch Davidians after the siege that resulted in the deaths of nearly 80 followers of cult leader David Koresh. While a supervisor in the Minneapolis, Minn., division, he also supervised a major fraud investigation involving NASDAQ.
Part of his success in the FBI depended on compartmentalizing the dangers and images of work. At crime scenes, "You work toward justice. You don't let a scene overwhelm you or affect why you are there and the job you have to do," he said. He would need the training in his role as an on-scene commander at the investigation of the James Byrd Jr., murder in Jasper, Texas. White supremacists drug Byrd behind a pickup until his death, a crime that Herbert can only describe as "horrific." Two death penalty convictions and the Texas hate crimes law that followed were the only rewards. "But nothing worthwhile is easy. It's a matter of dedication and hard work," he said.
These days, his career connects him to the famous rather than infamous. When a talent agent and fellow university advisory board member asked Herbert to audition for a 24 Hour Fitness commercial with NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal, Herbert gave it a shot. He was selected as a principal actor, which led to more roles. He has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild since 2005.
You might have seen him guarding Shaquille in the 24 Hour Fitness commercial, or at least caught a glimpse of his hands as he doubles for Charles Barkley in commercials for T-Mobile. He has met many more NBA greats through consulting work, including operations enforcement and security audits for Miami Heat home games. The NBA contract is just one of many roles of the company he founded in "retirement." Herbert is president of Cousins & Associates, which provides consulting work to law enforcement organizations, private and corporate security consulting, private investigations and litigation support nationally and internationally. He's also planning to write a book about his experiences with the FBI.
For Herbert it didn't matter that his college degrees were not in criminal justice or acting. He couldn't have guessed he'd be at that McDonald's in 1984 or on the set of a T-Mobile commercial with Charles Barkley, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard. For him, the liberal arts degree was the foundation to build on. "The education I received at Doane was the core, the key to my professional development and success."