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FBI agent was diligent, humble

Frank Spencer had reason to brag, but that wasn't his style at all.

Published June 9, 2006

BEACH PARK - Frank Spencer was a quiet and unassuming man who didn't talk much about his accomplishments. But he was instrumental in putting one of the country's most notorious murderers behind bars.

Mr. Spencer spent 14 years as a special agent and supervisor with the FBI in Tampa. He died of lung cancer June 2 at age 87. One of his first assignments, in 1963, was the investigation of a racially motivated bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., in which four girls died.

One of the accused, a Klansman named Tommy Blanton, avoided trail until 2001 and, by then, many of the witnesses, principals and investigators in the case had passed away. Mr. Spencer, who had interviewed Blanton extensively in 1963, traveled to Birmingham for the trial.

"He was most definitely instrumental in getting the conviction,'' said Bill Fleming, the FBI agent who was in charge of the investigation in 2001. "Doug Jones, the prosecutor, would have been very reluctant to go to trial without Frank's testimony. Frank was a godsend."

Mr. Spencer was 82 and suffering from heart problems when he testified. His son, John, had been killed by a drunken driver in a stolen car a year before, and his wife, Genevieve, had died three years earlier.

Fleming said he was hesitant to even ask Mr. Spencer to testify.

"I called and talked to (his daughter) and asked, 'Is your father in good enough health to do this?'" Fleming said. "She just about jumped for joy. She said he had been very depressed and this was just what he needed."

Mary de la Torre, Mr. Spencer's daughter, drove him from their home in Beach Park to Birmingham for the trial. During the trip, she noticed that her father was taking nitroglycerin.

"He wasn't a complainer," she said. "He said, 'I'm having chest pains. Let me just pop some pills.' ''

But she pulled into a rest area and called an ambulance. Her father was taken to a hospital in Montgomery, Ala., where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

The doctor agreed to let him testify but insisted on coming to the trial in case complications arose.

Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Mr. Spencer was born and raised in Brewer, Maine. He joined the Navy during World War II.

Upon returning home, his father had died, and he worked in a brickyard to support his mother and three sisters.

He joined the FBI in 1950, working as a special agent in Detroit. In 1963, he was assigned to Tampa, where he lived with his wife and four children in South Tampa. He retired from the FBI in 1977.

He was matter-of-fact about his work, even though he had dealt with some of the most famous criminal investigations of the era. His family often learned about his cases by reading newspaper stories he left in a scrapbook.

"They don't make men like him anymore," said his granddaughter, Catherine de la Torre. "He was a man's man."

Mr. Spencer is survived by three children, Mary de la Torre, Joan Spencer and Frank Spencer-Molloy, one sister and five grandchildren.

[Last modified June 7, 2006, 12:46:30]

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