When FBI agent Valerie Parlave recalls the carnage of the Washington Navy Yard, the image that first comes to mind is a bullet-pierced sweater.
It was three days after the Sept. 16 shooting rampage that left 12 dead and four wounded, and she was touring the epicenter of the horror: Building 197. In the warren of hallways, offices and alcoves, Parlave could picture officers stepping over corpses and rushing around blind corners to confront the gunman. In the room where officers finally killed the shooter, she saw the sweater, neatly draped across a cubicle, a symbol of innocence punctured by random violence.
“It represents what happened,” Parlave, 49, who led the bureau’s response to the shooting, said in an interview. “There were purses, shoes, bags, clothes, all left right where the workers left them before this tragic thing happened. It is just overwhelming to me to think of the officers going into that building.”
That attention to detail, contemplative attitude and concern for line officers and agents is what propelled Parlave to her post as the bureau’s highest-ranking female agent in the field, the first to command the Washington Field Office.
Parlave oversees 800 agents and 800 other employees who handle sensitive investigations ranging from public corruption and terror cells to international spy rings and health-care fraud. The office also responds to major incidents such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2002 Washington, D.C. sniper shootings, the 2009 shooting at the National Holocaust Museum and last year’s Navy Yard shootings.
Within minutes of the first gunfire in Building 197 that September morning, Parlave was calmly drawing on relationships she had cultivated during her two-decade career in the bureau, calling in help from tactical teams, evidence technicians and extra agents to conduct interviews. Within hours, more than 500 bureau personnel descended on the facility.
Her regular contacts with local police leaders, including Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier and U.S. Park Police Chief Theresa Chambers, meant that there was none of the typical federal-local friction at the Navy Yard scene, Lanier said in an interview.
“When she first came in, she invited me over, and I went over and we talked, and she took notes,” Lanier said of their first meeting in early 2013. “She’s quiet and reserved, and very easy to work with. There is no ego with her.”
Parlave keeps her brown hair short, tends toward plain gray suits and black turtleneck sweaters. She speaks cautiously, sometimes delaying an answer to a question for three or four seconds. Those with whom she works say she often doesn’t say a word until the end of a meeting.
“She is calm, a cerebral person,” said Agent Kevin Perkins, associate deputy director of the FBI. “She has the experience that gets her respect. She will sit through an entire meeting and not say a thing. And then when she speaks, people listen.”
Parlave was more interested in golf than in FBI work when she met a former agent while caddying at a course in her small hometown of Naples, New York, then a student at Colgate University. She says she’d never seriously considered leaving western New York, where she was raised by teachers, until she listened to the former agent’s stories of intrigue and adventure. “I thought: that sounded like fun,” she said.
Parlave, who earned a law degree from Albany Law School, said she didn’t think twice about entering a field where women were the exception. When she joined the FBI in 1991, about 12 percent of agents were women, according to news reports at the time. Today, the bureau says 19.4 percent of its 13,598 agents are women, and 21.5 percent of its senior executives are women.
At 5-feet 5-inches tall and 125 pounds, Parlave was expected to chase suspects through alleys and fight like the male agents. She did, and says she didn’t confront much sexism. Parlave started in Las Vegas, as a 26-year-old assigned to investigate bank robberies and track violent fugitives.
“I learned: Never start something with your mouth that your butt can’t cash,” she said. “I got in lots of foot chases, fights. The year I worked fugitives was one of the best of my life. It was constant, non-stop action.”
The fun ended when her supervisor learned that she had a law degree, a fact she hadn’t advertised. He assigned her to oversee the drafting of complex affidavits required to get wiretaps.
“I went kicking and screaming,” Parlave said. “But then I stayed there for seven years. I loved it, too.”
As part of that assignment, Parlave worked closely with drug and gang task forces of federal agents and local police. It could take months or even years to build a case, from the first drug purchases by undercover agents until the final take-downs.
“These were really violent gangs, and those cases took a lot of work,” said Parlave, who met her future husband, a local police officer who has since retired, in Las Vegas.
In 2000, she was promoted to work on planning and policy at FBI headquarters. Three years later, she returned to the field in Miami, where she oversaw a gang squad and helped lead the investigation into a drug smuggling operation that netted a seizure of more 23 tons of cocaine. She proudly displays a photo in her spacious eighth-floor office of the container ship that had hauled the drugs from Colombia to Miami.
Besides directing the response to the Navy Yard shooting, Parlave says, her most challenging managerial duty occurred when she was special agent in charge of the bureau’s office in Little Rock, Arkansas, from 2010 through 2012, and oversaw an investigation into police corruption and drug running. Federal investigators charged 70 people in the probe, including five police officers. More than 800 federal agents and state police officers swept into the towns in the eastern part of the state to make arrests one day in December 2011.
“If you allow it, this job can be extremely complex,” said Timothy Gallagher, who works for Parlave as the special agent in charge of the Washington field office’s criminal division. “Val is able to take a step back, identify what the real issues are, and how best to work through those issues without allowing extraneous information to clutter the plan.”
Parlave has honed those skills in part, she says, while pursuing a passion: the maddening game of golf. She has played regularly since she was 16 years old and tries to hit the links once a week. She has an 18 handicap.
To contact the reporter on this story: Del Quentin Wilber in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org